BWW Reviews: THE HISTORY OF ROCK 'N' ROLL IN TEN SONGS Shows Greil Marcus at His Best...Most of the Time
Greil Marcus has been a big-time rock critic for over forty years. I've been reading him for the last thirty-five....As with most long-term relationships, I've learned to take the good with the bad.
And to expect that it will often be difficult to extract one from the other.
His latest, The History of Rock 'N' Roll in Ten Songs, is one of his best--way more good than bad, though (as usual) the bad tends to make me throw up my hands and go, "Why Greil, why?"
Start with the title.
I have no idea if it was Marcus' idea or the publisher's, (though in interviews he's given since publication, he seems to have no issue with it), but it speaks to an arrogance the book itself is designed to undercut.
I mean, why "The?"
Why not "A" history?
Given that no one could possibly tell "the history of rock 'n' roll" in a thousand songs (Marcus' friend and contemporary, Dave Marsh, once gave it a very admirable try and came up well short), let alone ten, perhaps a little humility would have been in order.
With that for a first impression--and with the latest Marcus I've read, 2011's The Doors, being one of his weakest efforts (he premised the need for the book on the curious assumption that the Doors get more radio play than the Rolling Stones, the Who, Creedence or the Beach Boys...in what universe he didn't say)--I didn't get my hopes up.
Sure enough, there were snags along the way:
He thinks famed producer Phil Spector's murder of Lana Clarkson was a tragedy....for Phil Spector.
He swallows quotes from famous self-mythologizers like George Goldner and Shadow Morton (like Spector, great, hit-making procuders of rock's early dawn, unlike himr, not murderers) completely whole.
He thinks "you can hate [Amy Winehouse] for what, as over a few July days she drank herself to death, she withheld from the world."--an attitude I can only describe as both vile and likely to induce further "withholding" from the future's fragile spirits.
Greil being Greil in other words.
And yet....the book is still marvelous, a real showcase for Marcus' biggest strength, which is connecting seemingly unrelated fragments and making fresh narratives from plot lines that previously seemed either farfetched or wearily familiar.
The finest example here is "Crying, Waiting, Hoping,"-an essay on the Buddy Holly song that is one of those "songs" indicated by the book's title.
It's common knowledge Holly influenced the Beatles (their name was a variant of his band, the Crickets). But that connection has most often been described in purely technical or historical terms. This or that guitar part, what John said about Buddy at such and such a party, and so forth.
Here, Marcus makes the connection deeper, more implicit and spiritual than common chord progressions or the standard tropes of hero worship. The result is an impassioned take that humanizes the Beatles (which, due to the measure of their fame and their audience's adulation, is no longer easy) and says much about why Holly's music has mattered so much to so many.
There are a few things I want from a book by a rock critic and the Holly essay certainly satisfies the most basic: It makes me want to listen to the music.
However, since I already love Holly, the Beatles and several of the book's other subjects, even fresh insight (such as Marcus provides here--hearing "...anger, resentment, discomfort, and determination--and a will to inflict that anger, resentment, discomfort, and determination on everyone in the world." in John Lennon's teenage voice may not be as flattering as the author intends, but it certainly crystallizes Lennon the artist, not to mention Lennon the flamethrower) can serve to reconfirm existing prejudices.
Nothing wrong with that--let's be honest, it's something most of us expect from a writer we like (or, in my case with this particular writer, want to like).
And it's exhilarating to be at one with Marcus when he takes flight on the connections between Motown's first big hit (Barrett Strong's "Money"), the Beatles' searing cover version....and the de facto "battle of the bands" that's taken place for a generation as Cyndi Lauper and the Bad Brains' Tom Gray keep trying to find the bottom of "Money Changes Everything" ("Money"'s spiritual descendant--originated by Gray, immortalized by Lauper, traded back and forth between them ever since).
And, as someone who writes regularly about the decline of popular singing myself, a passage like this one--on the complicated, but ultimately dispiriting, journey from Etta James to Beyonce--had me alternately smiling and weeping lamentations:
As worrying is mimicked into melisma, it is also, behind the curtain of the effect, in a lie no one who tells it will ever admit to, satirized. What was once a sign of meaning what you said is transformed into a device by which singers communicate that they don't.
All these are great reasons to keep reading.
But I'm even more impressed--and just as thrilled--when Marcus opens up worlds I don't know nearly as well.
Here he is on Ian Curtis' lead vocal for Joy Division's "Transmission":
Curtis's performance might have been a mirror of his epilepsy. But it might also have been a matter of intentionally replicating fits, re-enacting them, using them as a form of energy and a form of music....More deeply, it might have been a matter of Curtis's using his fits as an idea, the idea for which songs were only containers. Was it a matter of calling up the demon, and letting it take the stage?
This is a song, a singer, and a band I've never felt the least connection with. The anti-Buddy Holly.
But that passage makes me want to hear them again--and to listen closer this time.
There's the value of Greil Marcus through the years, and especially in this book:
He tells me things I didn't know.
He told me more I didn't know in The History of Rock 'N" Roll in Ten Songs than he (or pretty much anyone else who writes about rock) has told me in a long time.
So he might make me suspicious the way those good government conspiracies you other poor saps don't believe in do. He might make me want to punch a wall now and then or hold a candlelight vigil for the death of common sense and decency.
But one thing he hasn't done in thirty-five years.
He hasn't made me want to stop reading him.