Greil Marcus will turn 70 next year, but the American journalist-writer remains a tremendously relevant and riveting commentator on popular music. He won’t give you astute insights about hip-hop, a genre that wearies him; nor is his curiosity piqued by electronic music and its offshoots. But when it comes to rock and roll and the genres that preceded it (blues, country) or sprang up alongside it (soul, rhythm and blues), Marcus is a name to be reckoned with. He’s the author of what is probably still the finest book written about rock, “Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll Music” (originally published in 1975). And his observations about artists such as Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Van Morrison and Randy Newman have always been deep and surprising.
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Now he’s published “The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs” (Yale University Press). If you’re not familiar with Marcus’ work, you might be disappointed by the disparity between the book’s title and its content. It’s not exactly a history; there aren’t really 10 songs; still less are they the canonical songs that shaped the development of rock.
For example, the list contains no songs by Elvis Presley, Dylan, The Rolling Stones or The Sex Pistols (even though Marcus is an authority on punk, the last genre that really turned him on). Chuck Berry and Little Richard are mentioned only in passing, and The Beatles make it into the book mainly because of their connection – however labyrinthine – to a largely forgotten Buddy Holly song that is lauded here, and thanks to their cover version of a Motown song.
Contrary to possible expectations, the book is not about the “10 greatest rock songs.” The songs Marcus has chosen are those about which he has something interesting to say – and what Greil Marcus has to say about specific songs, no less than about artists, is always worth reading. The book probably jelled around ideas and thoughts that came to Marcus over time about different songs.
In a somewhat lengthy introductory chapter, “A New Language,” Marcus explains that the idea for the book sprang from his habit of listening to a New York radio station that played oldies, and from contemplating the genre’s portrayal in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Patently, this somewhat artificial concept is only a new excuse for Marcus to discuss themes that have long occupied him – notably the largely subterranean connections between songs from different times and in different styles. He also remarks on the way popular music carries on a dialogue with other arts, principally the cinema and literature, and, to a lesser extent, television and the plastic arts.
As always, Marcus sets his analyses against the backdrop of the relevant political and historical developments in American culture. U.S. President Barack Obama plays something of a supporting-actor role in the book – just as the spirit of one of his predecessors, Richard Nixon, hovered over “Mystery Train,” which was written in the years of disillusionment with the shattered rock dreams of the 1960s, a period that intersected with the Watergate scandal of 1972-74.
That Marcus himself is a product of the period in which he came to maturity, the ’50s and ’60s, is reflected in the fact that many of the songs in his latest book were first recorded and released in those decades. But one of his seminal arguments is that events in culture – music, specifically – don’t necessarily unfold in sequential, chronological order. A song might be recorded and released but enjoy only marginal success or be totally ignored at the time, then sink into the recesses of oblivion for years – until another artist suddenly decides to do a cover version, and that thrusts the original back into the public consciousness. And, of course, new listeners are constantly joining the circle, hearing the songs in a variety of chance encounters and being exposed to them more easily than in the past – via YouTube or other websites, or even as soundtracks to television commercials, rather than in record stores or on the radio.
When a new listener encounters an old work, new impressions are generated and different interpretations conceived, even if the element of reprise and similarity exists. (I think, for example, about the way each one of my children has discovered The Beatles’ songs, most of which were recorded before I was born.)
Marcus possesses encyclopedic knowledge of rock and of literature, and of culture itself. His writing borders on a stream-of-consciousness style, packed with associations and rife with chronological leaps that sometimes make it hard to follow. He is plainly a romantic, always seeking the moments of breakthrough and transition, of the redefining of familiar music. And he is on a perpetual quest for revelations of a particular spirit – youth, rebellion against authority, interracial interaction, reciprocal relations between center and fringe. The book reads like a type of alternative history of popular music. Its implicit argument: A song that succeeded and remains popular on oldies-playing radio stations is no more important, and certainly no better, than a failed song that appeared for an instant on the cultural radar and then vanished.
He himself admits he could have easily focused on a specific style or period – perhaps the 10 greatest hits of Memphis-based Sun Records (where the giants of the first generation of rock, like Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, recorded) in 1955; or the 10 top soul hits of 1963.
In this book, as in his previous works, Marcus masterfully delineates the encounters between music and the other arts. For example, many observers commented on the sharp, crude cut that ends the last episode of the acclaimed HBO television series “The Sopranos,” against the backdrop of a song (“Don’t Stop Believin’”) by the American band Journey playing on a diner’s jukebox. But probably only Marcus noted that a few minutes earlier in the episode, a discussion had taken place about the relevance of Bob Dylan, at the conclusion of which the Mafia family’s SUV is seen going up in flames. Indeed, Marcus seems to share some cultural obsessions with his contemporary David Chase, the creator of “The Sopranos,” who followed up the series by directing “Not Fade Away,” a film about a fictitious, failed 1960s rock band from New Jersey.
The songs to which Marcus devotes chapters in the book are: “Shake Some Action” (1976), by a forgotten San Francisco band called Flamin’ Groovies; “Transmission” (1979), by the British band Joy Division; “In the Still of the Night” (1956), by the American doo-wop group The Five Satins; “All I Could Do Was Cry” (1960), by soul singer Etta James; Buddy Holly’s “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” (1959); “Money (That’s What I Want),” Motown’s first soul hit (1960), and done in a rousing cover version three years later by The Beatles; “Money Changes Everything” (1978), by a U.S. pop group called The Brains; another doo-wop song, “This Magic Moment,” by The Drifters (1960); “Guitar Drag” (2006), a musical number that is actually a visual performance by the artist Christian Marclay (consisting largely of prolonged abuse of an electric guitar); and “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” originally written by the producer Phil Spector in the late 1950s for The Teddy Bears, though Marcus focuses primarily on a 2006 BBC studio recording by the British singer Amy Winehouse.
The chapter on Buddy Holly, precisely in the less expected context of his influence on The Beatles, is a standout. Marcus provides an enthralling description of the process by which “A Day in the Life” – an iconic segment on the “Sgt. Pepper” album (1967) – was created, and the impact it wielded on other rock artists. Afterward, he discusses an informal Beatles version of a forgotten Buddy Holly hit, during the period when they were recording their last album, “Let It Be.”
“They had all the money in the world, and time was running out,” he writes about The Beatles. “They went into the studio day after day and came out with nothing. They tried the first songs John and Paul had written together, the first songs they’d played. They even went back to [Buddy Holly’s] ‘That’ll Be the Day,’ and got no farther with it than they had 11 years before, in another world.” This is followed by four breathtaking pages, describing in tremendous detail a song that most of the band’s fans have never heard.
Marcus takes advantage of the new book – in a chapter called “Instrumental Break” – to go back to an artist about whom he wrote what I believe remains the finest profile written about a musician: The chapter in “Mystery Train” about the blues artist Robert Johnson, even if some of its details have since become controversial. (Probably the only historical-artistic verbal portrait of a musician that can match Marcus’ work on Johnson is the writer Gay Talese’s 1966 Esquire article “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.”)
Johnson, who died in 1938, doesn’t really fit into a discussion of great rock songs, but he left a lasting imprint on great rockers, from Dylan and the Stones to Eric Clapton. Marcus takes the opportunity to devote a few pages to the alternative life that might have awaited Johnson had he not been murdered at the age of 27 – by the jealous husband of one of his lovers, according to legend. In this imaginary tale, he even gives Johnson retroactive production credit for “Straight Outta Compton,” the 1988 debut album of gangsta-rap group NWA.
This strikes me as the least convincing part of the book. More telling is Marcus’ lethal assault on Beyoncé, perhaps the biggest female pop star of the last decade. Though impressed by her vocal skills, Marcus dismisses her, quite superciliously, for utterly commercializing the African-American culture of her predecessors (even if they, too, did not exactly balk at commercial success). What Beyoncé does, he writes, “is not merely bad music,” but a type of desecration. “Her gorgeousness was a concept, and as a concept it was automatic and finally bland. Unlike Elvis, Little Richard, Bob Dylan, Madonna or Lady Gaga, she divided no one from anyone else. You didn’t have to have an opinion about her; you only had to acknowledge her mastery the longer you looked, the less there was to see.”
Marcus compares Beyoncé to the marvelous Etta James. Beyoncé, not James, was invited to perform “At Last” – one of James’ greatest hits – during the festivities that accompanied Obama’s inauguration as president in 2009. James, who died in 2012, did not take the preference for the young diva with equanimity, just as she was not pleased with the choice of Beyoncé to play her (quite well, actually), in the biopic “Cadillac Records” (2008). “She is going to have a hill to climb, because Etta James ain’t been no angel!” the New York Post quoted her as saying, in response to the decision to cast Beyoncé in the role. “I wasn’t as bourgie as she is, she’s bourgeois. She knows how to be a lady, she’s like a model. I wasn’t like that I smoked in the bathroom in school, I was kinda arrogant.”
Marcus chooses his quotes superbly, as always. This is the stuff of popular music at its best – historical drama, but human, too.
At his best, Marcus is unbeatable as a writer. Almost every page of the new book, even if it’s far from the perfection of “Mystery Train,” will send readers scurrying to YouTube to listen to the songs he mentions. At the end, apart from a few songs you still have to find the time to listen to, your biggest impulse is to plunge back into “The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs,” reading it again from the beginning.