Marcus was born in San Francisco. He earned an undergraduate degree in American Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, where he also did graduate work in political science. He has been a rock critic and columnist for Rolling Stone magazine (where he was the first reviews editor, at $30 a week) and other publications, including Creem, the Village Voice and Artforum.
His 1975 book, Mystery Train, re-defined the parameters of rock music criticism. The book places rock 'n'roll within the context of American cultural archetypes, from Moby-Dick to Jay Gatsby to Stagger Lee. Marcus's "recognition of the unities in the American imagination that already exist" inspired countless rock scribes
His next book, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century (1989, developed from an earlier essay), stretched his trademark riffing across a century of Western civilization. Positing punk rock as a transhistorical cultural phenomenon, Marcus examined philosophical connections between entities as diverse as the Sex Pistols, the Dadaists, and medieval heretics. From 1983 to 1989, Marcus was on the Board of Directors for the National Book Critics Circle.
In 1991, Marcus published Dead Elvis, a collection of writings about Elvis Presley, and in 1993 published Ranters and Crowd Pleasers, an examination of post-punk political pop. In 1997, using old Dylan bootlegs as a starting point, Marcus dissected the American subconscious with Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes.
He currently writes the "Elephant Dancing" column for Interview, and occasionally teaches graduate courses in American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. His latest book, The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy in the American Voice, was recently published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.