The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs
by Greil Marcus (320 pages, Yale University Press)
Review by Andy Childs.
Am I alone, I wonder, in failing miserably to understand what Greil Marcus is on about sometimes? Is it tantamount to treason in the higher-brow-end of music writing to suggest that there might actually be a large number of us reasonably articulate, passionate music fans out there scratching our heads repeatedly as we devotedly feel our way through a new Marcus tome? The ‘godfather of rock criticism’ or some similar epithet has repeatedly been used to describe this most erudite of commentators and, despite making me feel like a complete dullard more often than I’d like, his many books have, and remain, compulsive reading. Mystery Train is of course a classic as is The Old, Weird America : The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes. Neither of these titles are without their Marcus trademark passages of bewildering and impenetrable analytic prose but on the whole clarity in making labrynthine cultural connections, combined with solid, sometimes revelatory information, and deep passion for the subject matter prevail, which helps to make these books so great. Lipstick Traces too is fascinating in concept if not in execution. But then there is Dead Elvis, The Dustbin Of History and The Shape Of Things To Come which, I reiterate, I had to read, but which I found so incomprehensible and, dare I say it, pretentious, that I really had to force my myself to finish in the hope that the eureka moment of ecstatic revelation, which when it does arrive does much to validate Marcus’ reputation, would be my reward.
Greil Marcus is nothing if not an ambitious and confident writer. Anyone who writes a book with a title like The History Of Rock’n’Roll In Ten Songs just has to be. He is also a serious writer, dedicated to unlocking the hidden truths and secret meanings in popular music, making those cultural connections to literature, film, and art and by doing so elevating rock and pop music to a discipline that demands to be taken seriously. There is a great deal of earnest thought, enthusiasm, and a staggering amount of knowledge in Marcus’ work, but not much humour. It’s sober. You don’t read his books for riotous anecdotes and comic hearsay. And that’s not a criticism, just an observation.
But what of this book and its title? As Marcus states early on, “the official, standard history of rock’n’roll is true, but it’s not the whole truth. It’s not the truth at all. It’s a constructed story that has been disseminated so comprehensively that people believe it, but it’s not true to their experience. And it may even deform or suppress their experience”. So there’s the objective “history of rock’n’roll” with all the facts about all the artists who ever made a record worth listening to twice, with all the discographical information, the lineage of all the bands, all the records ever made, and all the minutae that no one person could possibly comprehend let alone document. And then there is our own subjective history, a history that tells our own stories, is enveloped in and connects our own experiences. Anyone’s history of rock’n’roll begins (and ends) arbitrarily. Hearing Elvis Presley in 1956, the Rolling Stones in 1963, the Clash in 1976, or the White Stripes in 1997 for the first time could seem like the birth of something that was beyond anything you’d experienced before. For Marcus even an under-appreciated band like the Flamin’ Groovies could have (re-)invented rock’n’roll : “the point is that rock’n’roll, as music, as an argument about life captured in sound, as a beat, was something new under the sun, and it was new here, in 1976, in the hands of a few people in San Francisco”. It means that “rock’n’roll could be invented anywhere, at any time, regardless of any rumors that something vaguely similar might have happened before”. So, strictly speaking, this is A History Of Rock’n’Roll In Ten Songs and a not altogether surprisingly idiosyncratic, often affected and sometimes unfathomable history it is too.
After a pre-amble that seeks to establish the potency of rock’n’roll as “a language that, it declares, can say anything:divine all truths, reveal all mysteries, and escape all restrictions,” we dive straight into the deep end of music/cultural critic Marcus-speak. The first song in his history is ‘Shake Some Action’ by the aforementioned Flamin’ Groovies, a great band at their peak but one all too-often out of step with current fashion and ultimately a side-show to the main event. I loved the Flamin’ Groovies, especially those singles they made for United Artists, but Marcus assigns qualities to them and this song that surely only he could possibly discern. The following chapters on Joy Division’s ‘Transmision’ (during which he references, among others, William Faulkner and Richard Attenborough in ‘Brighton Rock’ – his observation that Attenborough’s character Pinky made the first ever punk record is one of those Marcus-eureka moments), and ‘In The Still Of The Nite’ took a couple of readings to try and de-code while ‘All I Could Do Was Cry’, which contrasts, in snapshot, the careers of Etta James and Beyoncé and opens with the bold statement : “In early 2013 Beyoncé bestrode America as a colossus”, is a poignant and informative essay on exploitation and other stuff . (Marcus’ essays are NEVER just about one thing).
He then really hits his stride with, first, ‘Crying, Waiting, Hoping’ – a brilliant examination of both Buddy Holly’s and the Beatles’ versions and which also takes in a diverting portrait of ‘Peggy Sue’, and then with an essay, my favourite in the whole book, called ‘Instrumental Break : Another History Of Rock’n’Roll’ which begins as a factual and revealing life of Robert Johnson and then cleverly morphs into a very credible and imagined life had Johnson lived beyond August 1938. There are further chapters on ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’, ‘This Magic Moment’ and ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’ which all had their moments of enlightenment for me but which also succeeded in losing me far too often in the convoluted web of significance and connectivity that Marcus weaves for them. One point to make though – having invariably led you a merry dance around the cultural cosmos, Marcus does know how to end his essays with a punch, and the conclusion to the piece on ‘Money’ with Brad Pitt’s dialogue from the film ‘Killing Them Softly’ is memorable and not untypical. And then at the very end of the book, with your mind reeling, wondering whether you need to completely re-think the way you listen to music, and tempting you to dig deeper and think further about the many strands of rock’n’roll that comprise this idiosyncratic history, there are a further thirty-four pages of notes and source material.
Despite unwanted feelings of inadequacy, I am grateful that Greil Marcus exists and that he does what he does. I do believe that its healthy for our perception and appreciation of rock music to be constantly challenged and stretched and, on balance, there are enough gems in his output to justify the effort of trying to fathom it all out. I’m still trying. Read this book. Despite my own misgivings it’s still obviously one of the more intelligent and thoughtful books you’ll read on music this year. But be prepared. Have the relevant records and a supply of paracetamol handy.