Greil Marcus on failure, Nixon, and coming home

I’ll admit right off the bat that I haven’t read any of Greil Marcus’ work. But upon hearing him speak on the annual theme “Fail Better” for Pomona College Humanities Studio’s inaugural Speaker Series, I couldn’t help but feel entranced.

Marcus, a music journalist and cultural critic, spoke with candidness about verity in art on Sept. 13. He shared stories of the rise and fall of stars — failures irrevocable and redeemable — and of their expressions in music and theatre.

On a little laptop speaker in the Rose Hills theatre, Marcus played us a song by Charlie Rich.

“I was raised to dislike Nixon,” Marcus said as he told us about a time when Nixon had been drowning in the Watergate scandal.

Closing out a show, Charlie Rich sang, “I tried and I failed / … and I feel like going home.”

There, in an expression of failure and loneliness, in a song he dedicated to the president, Rich touched a string of empathy that stretched out its arms almost universally. Behind all the controversy and the idea of becoming a national joke was a president who had tried, failed, and now, was going home.

Implied was the simple truth echoed in Marcus’ book, “Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music”: “[Rich’s words] cut through everything I believe to uncover a compassion I never, never wanted to feel.”

Like late Pomona’s English Professor Arden Reed said in his Phi Beta Kappa speech in fall 2017: “Through failure, you join the larger human community.”

Failure, Reed seemed to be saying, makes us more human, more relatable, more able to empathize with the struggles of others.

Listening to the song in its entirety, I couldn’t help but squeeze my notebook, tighten my grip around my pen, and close my eyes because it had hit a string in me, too. I was struck by something my mother said to me after I’d come home this summer: “I had all the high goals. I want to cry.”

And finally, I think I knew what she meant.

To a certain extent, failure teaches us what we want and who we are. After a series of disastrous, experimental album releases, Neil Young had been sued by his record album for “not being who he was supposed to be,” Marcus said.

In an interview many years later, Marcus asked Young what had happened.

“How can I miss you,” Young responded, “if you don’t go away? How can you find yourself if you don’t lose yourself?”

Failure teaches us important lessons. In many ways, it matures us. But it strikes me that there are certain times when failure has higher stakes and is more irreversible.

“Is there an optimal time to fail?” I asked Marcus.

In his own roundabout way, I think he answered it in part. He told a story about a critic he’d criticized, then met, and continued to keep correspondence with. For that critic, failure at the end of his life hit harder than it would’ve earlier. There had been more wounds, more emptiness.

“The earlier the better,” I suspect Marcus was arriving at, but the question hung in the air.

At this point, I’ve had Charlie Rich’s “Feel Like Going Home” on repeat for a couple hours. Its melancholy comforts me, as if by hearing failure expressed in such a naked way, soaking in Rich’s feelings as I work through my own, the melancholy becomes a warming hug, or a kind of happiness. Little has changed, but I feel less burdened.

Failure as an artist, Marcus told us, is linked with dishonesty. Failure is writing a bad book while knowing it’s bad and having people praise you for it anyway, them not noticing, as you well know, that “there’s a hole.”

Being an artist means being honest, always starting over as if you are nothing and nobody, nowhere and empty. And sometimes, it means failing and coming home.

Blake Plante is an English major at Pomona College. He is most commonly spotted scribbling into an all-weather notebook at all events.

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