From The Archives

Last Refuge of a Rock Critic: Greil Marcus’s Bicentennial Search for Patriotism

In 1976, the culture critic asked, ‘What is it that Americans share?’

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There was so much happening in New York City during the Bicentennial all those years ago that the Village Voice spread its coverage over two issues, spanning June 28 to July 12, 1976. The Big Apple was ready to party: King Kong had just left town and the Democrats were rolling in, preparing for their quadrennial convention two years after a Republican president — a liar, cheat, and bully who attempted to use his office to punish political and personal enemies — had resigned in disgrace. There was some sort of cosmic justice in Richard Nixon flaming out after winning re-election in a landslide but before he could preside over the Bicentennial, that nationwide celebration of American democracy’s survival after one civil war, two world conflicts, and countless cultural battles.

It was in the Spirit of ’76 that Greil Marcus, author of the previous year’s Mystery Train — a monumental collection of essays delving into the heart of rock ’n’ roll to reveal a luminous chunk of America’s soul — undertook a wide-ranging disquisition on the meaning of patriotism in the pages of the Village Voice. (Mark Alan Stamaty’s boisterous, labyrinthine cartoons added to the wild and woolly mood.) As they do in Mystery Train, Marcus’s references, digressions, and footnotes shoot off like fireworks. Radiant as a rocket’s red glare — think of Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” aurally transmuting Francis Scott Key’s “bombs bursting in air” into bombs dropping on screaming Vietnam civilians — Marcus’s Voice article asks us to look at America’s full history, both glorious and savage. He finds beauty in “an essential harmony, a recognition of uniquely American things shared,” but also quotes Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, delivered shortly before the Civil War reached its bloody end. The president, who would be assassinated just 42 days later, was acknowledging that the carnage was penance for allowing slavery to have been a part of the nation’s founding. “Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bond-men’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’ ”

Marcus also quotes W.E.B. DuBois from 1897, when America’s freed slaves were still waiting for the forty acres and a mule that had been promised to help them start new lives more than three decades earlier. “One ever feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

And in typical Marcus fashion, we get a bonus line of dialogue from Claude Rains, in his role as Captain Renault in 1942’s Casablanca: “Well, Rick, you’re not only a sentimentalist, but you’ve become a patriot.” Marcus was in some ways less concerned with whether patriotism is truly “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” as Dr. Johnson so famously put it, than with the divisions that were fracturing the nation into the broken mirror we gaze further into today. “America may be breaking up into separate ‘patrimonies.’ The rise of ethnicity and cultural nationalism on all fronts suggests this; so does the widening split between cities and suburbs, between classes, sexes, races, religions, nationalities.”

In November 1972, shortly after he’d won re-election, Nixon — whose somber Quaker facade in public was belied by the profane conniver heard on the Watergate tapes — discussed cabinet changes with an adviser, noting that he might keep one lawyer on to be the “house Jew” and to “handle the Bicentennial and all that nonsense.” Such nasty cynicism has long permeated the political right — consider Coolidge’s desiccated view, “the business of America is business” — because it cannot reconcile lust for unfettered profit with government’s role of legislating for the common good. Marcus worked on Mystery Train as the Watergate scandal was unfolding. In his author’s note, he points out, “To do one’s most personal work in a time of public crisis is an honest, legitimate, paradoxically democratic act of common faith.” Although this book about the music that bound America together across generational, racial, class, and political divides was not published until 1975, Marcus signed his note with a precise date: “August 9, 1974.”

Certainly not coincidentally, that was the day Nixon resigned the presidency.

So, sometime this week, between helpings of apple pie and baseball games, take a few moments to revisit the 200th birthday of a great, if forever flawed, nation as seen through the typewriter of an ever-thoughtful writer grappling with the meaning of patriotism in these United States. Note how he praises conservative members of the House Judiciary Committee who voted for the impeachment of a conservative president whose lies, capriciousness, self-aggrandizement, and intimidation tactics they could no longer stomach: “They made distinct efforts to trace a line between their particular responsibilities and the founding of the country.”

My, how times have changed.

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