“Listen to what’s going on. What you hear is the metaphorical representation of the out-of-control technological force of modern society grinding the individual down to nothing. Do you hear that scream? That’s the gears of the machine, destroying the soul. I was laughing as I was talking, mocking my roommates’ incomprehension and my own pretentiousness. But in the middle of it all, I thought, why not? This makes sense.”
If any of that makes sense to you, keep reading. Consider that it is referring to the song “Money (That’s What I Want),” written by Berry Gordy and a soon-to-be ex-wife for Motown’s first Number 1 hit. It was famously covered by The Beatles, which is the version that Marcus is referring to above. Now if that still makes sense to you, you should go out and buy Greil Marcus’ latest tome The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs. If you haven’t a clue as to what the above has to do with the Mop Tops version, join the club.
The premise is pure Greil; ten songs he believes define rock and roll; they are NOT, by design, the usual suspects. Fair enough; I’ve followed Marcus down many paths, some (modestly) more successful (Mystery Train) than others (Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010; it was dreadful) and was willing to ride this mystery train one last time to see where it went. It went nowhere. And everywhere. With all stops in between.
I think the premise here is to trace each song from inception to its’ moment of pure rock and roll transcendence, either in spirit, performance or attitude. I think. But I could be wrong. Or I could have just nailed it, but I don’t know. I’ve never been more confused reading a book in my life.
The book kicks off with Joy Division’s “Transmission,” not a good sign for me as this song wouldn’t make my The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll In One Million Songs. On to “All I Could Do Was Cry,” a song Etta James just owns. Except, of course, for Beyonce, who performed the song in a little-seen film and was awesome. Or sucked. Depending. Likewise, Buddy Holly’s “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” was promising, then somehow morphed into The Beatles “A Day In The Life,” before ending with the characters from Richie Valens “Donna” and Holly’s “Peggy Sue” getting together for a Roto-Rooter chat. Or something like that.
The most straightforward narrative is “Instrumental Break: Another History of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” which is ostensibly the condensed story of bluesman Robert Johnson. Sadly, that runs off the rails too, ending somehow with Bob Dylan’s Victoria’s Secret commercial and the ghost of Johnson asking Obama’s Chief of Staff for royalties. Wait…what?
I’ve always considered myself a well-informed music fan. I try and keep up on the latest sounds and read relentlessly. So, why then, do I feel like a complete moron every time I read one of Greil Marcus’ books? I should know not to expect a linear history, but this book would be better titled A History of Rock ‘n’ Roll In Ten Songs and Ten Thousand Unrelated Tangents. Hey…I took the ride, but that’s it for me. No más. I’m off the mystery train. The clue bus. The magic carpet ride. Whatever. Understand?