The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in Ten Songs by Greil Marcus

Books Reviews
The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in Ten Songs by Greil Marcus

The latest book from Greil Marcus finds the noted critic once again enthusiastically drawing musical connections and illustrating the interrelatedness among all arts. The title includes “ten songs,” a convenient, graspable number we can count on two hands. But it also mentions “the history of rock ‘n’ roll,” a much larger, harder-to-hold concept. That’s the point: Marcus works hard to bridge the gap between the small details of songs and more expansive points about the whole nature of popular music.

Marcus made his mark in rock criticism by showing his willingness to reach beyond it, starting with his seminal 1975 work, Mystery Train. Before interdisciplinary approaches were common, Marcus drew from a variety of fields for his analysis—jumping, for example, from Randy Newman’s “Davy the Fat Boy” to Herman Melville. Marcus helped spread the critical belief that popular music holds a place at the table with wars, weddings, sports, and other elements as a part of a cultural history.

The beginning of Ten Songs sets up this approach once again. Marcus proposes that “a key to a richer and more original understanding—or a different story from the one any conventional, chronological, heroic history of rock ‘n’ roll seems to tell … might be to feel one’s way through the music as a field of expression, and as a web of affinities.”

There’s his mission. And although the title of his book evokes some sort of controversy-stirring listicle, it’s not entirely accurate. Marcus wants to tell a “different story,” to provoke a “different understanding.” He pushes against the conventions, the Rolling Stone lists, the canonization that demands certain tales about popular music be told in specific ways, silencing other approaches or interpretations.

In Ten Songs, Marcus draws his web of affinities with an eye towards overthrowing the kind of kings/dates/battles history all too common in music criticism. His 10 songs will often not be what you would expect: Consider tracks like the Flamin’ Groovies “Shake Some Action” or the Teddy Bear’s “To Know Him Is To Love Him.” The Beatles come up largely in the context of Buddy Holly. Other songs include Joy Division’s “Transmission;” Barret Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want);” Etta James “All I Could Do Was Cry;” and Christian Marclay’s “Guitar Drag.”

Expect biases of taste in Marcus’s selection—he explores mostly classic rock and soul, and nothing here really acknowledges the importance of hip-hop and electronic music in the last three decades. Still, the song selection matters less than what he does with the songs he picks.

At times, Marcus’s opening manifesto makes him seem like a music critic version of Rust Cohle, Matthew McConaughey’s character from the show True Detective.

“There is no reason to be responsible to chronology, to account for all the innovators, to follow the supposed progression of the form,” writes Marcus. Unlearn what you have learned! (In McConaughey’s words, “Time is a flat circle.”) “The Matyals’ ‘Funky Kingston,’” Marcus continues, “is not a step forward from the Drifters’ ‘Money Honey,’ or Outkast’s ‘Hey Ya’ a step forward from ‘Funky Kingston.’ They are rediscoveries of a certain spirit, a leap into style, a step out of time.”

If, as Marcus posits, “rock ‘n’ roll may be more than anything a continuum of associations, a drama of direct and spectral connections between songs and performers,” then do we find our traditional methods of analysis as something akin to forcing square pegs into round holes? Maybe; Marcus imagines any number of equally valid alternate-universe versions of Ten Songs.

“This book,” he writes, “could have comprised solely records issued by the Sun label in Memphis in the 1950s, only records made by female punk bands in the 1990s, or nothing but soul records made in Detroit, Memphis, New York City, San Antonio, New Orleans, Los Angeles, or Chicago in 1963.”

Once he frees your mind, Marcus moves quickly and covers a lot of ground. He analyzes the Joy Division performance in the movie Control (2007), and Beyonce as Etta James in Cadillac Records (2008). He touches on Faulkner and Camus, and moves from Cyndi Lauper to The Great Gatsby in the blink of an eye. At one point, he invents an entire fantasy life for Robert Johnson, in which the famous bluesman, thought to have died in the ‘30s, lives to see Barack Obama elected and gets involved in lots of other music along the way.

It’s hard not to get swept up in Marcus’s enthusiasm as he picks apart performances. Though his close readings can sometimes run long, he justifies the meticulous song analyses as essential. In support, he quotes critic and guitarist Robert Ray’s argument: “What’s interesting about rock & roll is that the truly radical aspect occurs at the level of sound. ‘Tutti Frutti’ is far more radical than Lennon’s ‘Woman is the Nigger of the World,’ and the sound of Bob Dylan’s voice changed more people’s ideas about that world than his political message did.”

As Marcus traces complicated arcs of influence, the reader may start to observe the author’s own network of impact. The “web of affinities” approach could characterize passages from Ben Ratliff, who writes for The New York Times. In an interview, Ratliff once noted, “It’s not always obvious how A informs B—how knowing something about jazz or hip-hop or bossa nova would help you in understanding things about rock or salsa … But I think in the long run … you start thinking of the things that really matter: about performers and audiences and the social ritual of music; about rhythm and how it comes to be borrowed and how it drifts from one culture to another; about how we use music in our lives.” In other words, you start to create your own web.

When Marcus describes Ian Curtis (the lead singer of Joy Division) as “a marionette who has just discovered that his movements are not his but can’t remember a puppetmaster,” you can also easily imagine The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones reading a good amount of Marcus back in the day. Take Frere-Jones on the frontman of Jesus Lizard, who “throws his body around without any particular rhythmic predictability, seeming to engage with an invisible opponent … kick[ing] as if shaking off the pincers of a persistent crab.”

Of course, seeing that chronology is completely flexible in the world of Ten Songs, it’s also possible that Marcus has been reading a lot of Frere-Jones.

Elias Leight’s writing about books and music has appeared in Paste, The Atlantic, Billboard and Salon. He comes from Northampton, Massachusetts, and he can be found at signothetimesblog.

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