Guest Post: Greil Marcus
On music and politics, the musicality of writing, and a Village Voice column from 1969.
A few weeks ago, for a column of questions and responses, I was asked if music could have any effect, even cast some light, on the depredation taking place in Ukraine. I instantly thought of something Bob wrote in 1969, in The Village Voice, titled “Rock ‘n’ Revolution”: “In the worst of times, music is a promise that times were meant to be better.”
I’ve spoken those words to myself many times over the years. It’s a fixed memory, in the way I had an apprehension of truth when I first read the sentence, and not a memory at all, but a continuing touchstone, part of the frame of reference anyone receives and constructs.
The sentence is solemn; the column is not. It’s opening is basically a knock-knock joke. As so often, it was writing as play, as fun, a piece of many things at once. It was among other things a polemic about criticism and audience, about what people wanted from one writer tabbed as this, what they would expect—serious thinking about politics as seen through music?—from someone else. But I know that what has kept those few words in my my mind as long as “Gimmie Shelter,” from the same year, is the cadence.
It has perfect, lyrical balance, and the grace note is in the way the second phrase brings down the first, letting it hang in the air, maybe leading you to stop and think: Is that true? What does it mean? And yet there’s an undeniable musicality in the two sides of the sentence, the way they play with and against each other. That perhaps disguises the moralism, or the religious undercurrent, in the lines: not the neutral and meaningless and even dismissive “should be better,” but “meant to be.” It speaks for a moral order that has never quite come into being but can be glimpsed. It suggests, I think, that this is a question of musicians’ commitment to their music: some music might aspire to reveal the promise that music tells us that times were meant to be better, and even keep it. Of course we know that a kitty-cutter manufactured piece of trash can effect anyone as profoundly as the music of the spheres. But so what? There’s an idea here. It’s a line from a song? Don’t you want to hear the song that sentence is a line from?