I’ve never had a book come anywhere near the top-10 of a best-seller list (at least not a real one, as opposed to the fun-but-ultimately inconsequential amazon specialty categories). But for one brief, shining and magical moment in early 2002, my first book “Off The Record” landed in the best top-10 list there is in my world: the “real life” one compiled by the legendary rock scribe Greil Marcus in his long-running “Real Life Rock Top Ten” column, which has been anthologized in the new book “Real Life Rock: The Complete Top Ten Columns, 1986-2014” (Yale University Press).
It’s hard to explain just how massive this was to me at the time. It wasn’t just that it remains my pinnacle experience as a reviewee. It very possibly stands as the single most validating moment of my life because Marcus was a writer I’d been reading and idolizing since my youth.
Going back to the very beginning, his very first book is still something like my personal Gutenberg Bible. That was the 1975 masterwork “Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music,” which was one of the books that made me want to become a rock critic myself way back when. And “Mystery Train” also had a lot to do with shaping my thinking about a number of artists, especially Sly & the Family Stone — whose 1971 album There’s a Riot Goin’ On will always be my go-to choice of the ultimate Desert Island Disc (which is yet another Marcus book).
Marcus’ influence was all over “Off The Record,” too. I probably would not have selected the Sex Pistols song “Holidays in the Sun” as that book’s heart of darkness had I not obsessively read and reread his Sex Pistols chapter in “The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll” enough times to memorize every word. The protagonist band’s cover of “Holidays in the Sun” serves as a pivot point in a couple of places throughout “Off The Record,” never moreso than the scene toward the end in which the band’s savant-like frontman comes unhinged for the last time and uses it to incite a stadium-full of people to riot:
It was an utterly bizarre way to open a supposedly triumphant breakthrough tour — the bleakest song from the bleakest band in rock history, a song about hurling oneself into a wall for no reason other than to tear down the false security it represented…
Well, I hope Marcus was flattered when he read that, or at least got a chuckle out of it. Whether it’s on the page or the stage, we all start out aping our idols.
When I published “Off The Record” in the fall of 2000, I cadged Marcus’ address from a mutual friend, sent him a copy and basically forgot all about it. I wasn’t expecting any sort of response, let alone review, given that I was just another guy with a self-published novel and he was, you know, GREIL MARCUS. But darned if a year or so later, Marcus’ “Real Life Rock Top 10” column of Jan. 7, 2002 didn’t have “Off The Record” at No. 6 — just ahead of Lesley Gore, no less. And now it’s on page 286 of the “Real Life Rock” book.
For the geeky likes of me, appearing between covers in a book by Greil Marcus is bucket-list material for sure.