Greil Marcus is an historian, a rock critic and a cultural commentator, known for books that tie together rock and roll music and recent American and world history. His most recent book is The History of Rock and Roll in Ten Songs, which it is my pleasure to review and to recommend. The ten songs of the title are not, of course, the only songs discussed in the book, but they’re carefully, if somewhat idiosyncratically chosen; not the songs most folks, or most rock historians would recommend. Many of them, I had never heard of. But the free-wheeling discussions of those songs, and of the artists who covered them, is lucid, thoughtful, tough-minded, intelligent. I loved this book.
May I also recommend that, if at all possible, you purchase and read this book on Kindle, or some other kind of tablet device. The reason is simple: you’re going to want to listen to the songs, and in many cases, you’re going to want to watch videos of the songs in live performance. If you’re like me, you’re not going to know at least some of them, or recall them to memory. This is less a book than a book experience, and to fully appreciate Marcus’ discussions of these songs, you’re going to need to have them immediately accessible.
He begins the book by quoting this provocative conversation between journalist Bill Flanagan and Neil Young, in 1986:
“The one thing that rock and roll did not get from country and blues was a sense of consequence. The country and blues, if you raised hell on Saturday night, you were gonna feel real bad on Sunday morning when you dragged yourself to church. Or when you didn’t drag yourself to church.”
“That’s right,” Young said, “Rock and roll is reckless abandon. Rock and roll is the cause of country and blues. Country and blues came first, but somehow rock and roll’s place in the course of events is dispersed.”
And those quotations set the stage for the rest of Marcus’ discussion. It’s a book about how rock and roll inverts time, reverses cause and effect. It’s about rediscovery and re-imagining. It’s about how brilliantly some artists make an old song their own, and use it to comment on their own time and place. It’s about odd psychic connections between performers and eras. It’s not so much about timelessness as it is about the ubiquity of time-specificity. It’s quite specifically about Cyndi Lauper turning a mid-seventies Brains’ song Money Changes Everything, and turning into a theatrical punk anthem, all rage and fury and hard-earned truth. And Amy Winehouse finding truth and meaning in a sentimental standard. And it’s about a superb conceptual artist finding a way to memorialize tragedy.
Marcus begins with a discussion of The Flamin’ Groovies and their 1976 hit, Shake Some Action. I’d never heard of this band or song–I was on a mission in 1976–but it’s remarkable, an “argument about life, captured in sound.” It’s a song full of reckless abandon, an unstable song, in which the constituent elements, drums, bass, guitars, vocals, are in constant and exquisite tension with each other. A nice way to begin a book about exactly that tension driving an entire art form.
Next comes Transmission, by the Manchester punk band Joy Division, featured in the 2007 film Control. It’s a song that deconstructs the power of radio, built again on instability and danger. Said Joy Division co-founder Bernard Sumner, “I saw the Sex Pistols (in Manchester, in 1976, in a hall that barely held a hundred people). They were terrible. I wanted to get up and be terrible too.”
In the Still of the Nite was a doo-wap classic, originally recorded by the Five Satins in 1956. Sung by the nineteen year old Fred Parris with some high school buddies, on leave while in the army. It made every oldies album ever. It was featured in American Graffiti and in Dirty Dancing. And then David Cronenberg used it in Dead Ringers, and it took on a whole new meaning. This is also part of Marcus’ project in this book; to show how relatively innocuous songs become darker and more violent as they’re used by great film directors.
Marcus uses the Etta James classic All I Could Do is Cry to explore the kaleidoscope of meanings surrounding the Barack Obama inauguration in 2013, the selection of Beyonce and not Etta James–still alive, and furious at the omission– to sing At Last, the exquisite, and exquisitely inauthentic perfection of Beyonce, and how, playing Etta James in the film Cadillac Records, Beyonce still somehow transcended her own status as media creation and idol, and found the profound and ugly truth of the pre-civil rights era music scene.
Marcus does include one Buddy Holly song, not That’ll be the Day or Peggy Sue, but Crying, Waiting, Hoping, and segues into a brilliant discussion of the Rolling Stones’ cover of Not Fade Away, and the Beatles’ earlier cover of Crying, Waiting, Hoping. So, yes, his history of rock music does include terrific discussions of, you know, the usual suspects, the Beatles and Stones and Dylan.
He then takes a chapter off, so to speak, to write a lengthy alternative history of rock, imagining that Robert Johnson had never died, but had lived to see his music memorialized.
But in the next chapter, after this little Delta blues interlude, Marcus gets to the heart of his thesis. He ties together Barrett Strong’s Money (That’s What I Want), as later covered by the Beatles, and The Brains’ Money Changes Everything, as finally covered by Cyndi Lauper. Music is truth and truth is beauty, but behind it all is poverty and despair and the desperate truth that money is actually what makes a difference. John Lennon, born in Liverpool into abject poverty, and Cyndi Lauper, haunting the New York music scene for eight years, raped twice, hospitalized for malnutrition, later found a solid core of pure truth in songs about money, the power of it, the necessity of it, but also the way it warps humanity. Watch Lauper’s live performance of Money Changes Everything, kicking a garbage can around the stage, then climbing into the garbage can and soaring over the audience, triumphant and wiser and sadder than ever. It’s on Youtube. I don’t seem to be able to link to it right now, but watch it. Marcus is never better than in that chapter.
And then, three wistful codas. First, he writes about This Magic Moment, first recorded by the Drifters, but then, cold-blooded as a rattler, covered by Lou Reed, and used by David Lynch in The Lost Highway. Next, Guitar Drag, less a rock song than a piece of avant-garde multi-media art, by Christian Marclay. A guitar is dragged behind a pickup truck. Just as James Byrd was murdered, in 1998, dragged behind a truck. An unforgettable moment.
And finally, To Know Him is to Love Him. The most treacly and sentimental of all songs, first recorded by the Teddy Bears, in 1958. And later covered, in a revelatory performance, by Amy Winehouse. Revealing, finally, everything we lost when that brilliant young woman’s life ended so tragically. Because that’s rock and roll too. Brilliance cut short, far too frequently.
I spent one day devoted to this book, looking up the songs and listening to them (sometimes repeatedly), and then devouring (and at times arguing mentally with) Marcus’ discussions of them. What an exhilarating read. Really, if this subject at all resonates with you, read this book. You’ll be thrilled at how much you have to think about afterwards.