Uh oh. Another Greil Marcus important book that the thinking music lover has to chew his way through. Like Art Forum without the pictures. And it is called The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs, no less.
Why oh why does he make it so tough on us? There is a ton of wonderfulness in this book if you can make the slog through the stacks of adjectives, piles of proper nouns, song lists, discursive metaphors and just plain ornery prose he throws out to guard his central conceit.
Which to my ears goes something like this.Take a bunch of good songs — not necessarily epochal hits but important enough and representative of their time and place — and turn them over, pull them apart, look at the songwriters and the recordings, the impact they had, their later cover versions and how they have stood up over the years.
The dots begin to connect themselves; Bo Diddley to Buddy Holly, the Beatles, Berry Gordy and on down the line. It turns out to be a neat trick. Marcus sketches out a kind of matrix — a sideways look at history — that pops the continuum of this music into a high relief.
You get the feeling he could have picked a different ten or five or thirty songs and ended up in the same place. In some important ways it is all one song, one feeling, connected at the absolute root of American pop culture. So he does something with this book that any sort of conventional history could never do — he puts it in its proper context, an emotional context.
There is plenty in this book to fuel any opinionated connoisseur’s barroom conversations. I am not sure what Joy Division’s “Transmission” is doing here and how that chapter ended up on a Brighton Pier deep into a movie no one has seen. But keep reading, music snob, and you will be rewarded. The various musical eras and heavyweights of rock ‘n’ roll are in attendance in unexpected ways.
There are also huge swaths of rock history that are not in this book. If you are interested in the birth of Punk Rock or the California Sound or the various strands of metal there are plenty of other books to read. This book is intended to be a core sample of sorts but with just a few of the layers under the microscope.
The pages on Buddy Holly are brilliant and heartbreaking. And yes, he puts you right into that Liverpool auditorium with a sixteen-year-old John Lennon. The promoters and labels and sidemen shade in the backgrounds and the details educate. For instance Barrett Strong who sang the original “Money (That’s What I Want)” also co-wrote Edwin Starr’s “War,” “Just My Imagination (Runnin’ Away with Me),” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and “Heard it Through the Grapevine.” I did not know that.
And it is a good sign that the book will get you dialing up YouTube to listen again. Chances are that may infuriate you as well. You may have forgotten how utterly fantastic “Money (That’s What I Want)” really is. However, you do remember correctly that Cyndi Lauper’s version of “Money Changes Everything” is not exactly pantheon material. It is included I think to make a place for an exigis on the relatively unknown songwriter still playing it — money does indeed change everything. It is a side-alley to the history of the music but a good example nonetheless. There were a probably a million to pick from.
As with all of Greil Marcus, narrative flow is in short supply in this book. A list is not a sentence. There are fifteen index pages for a 250 page book. With much to track, paragraphs have to get re-re-read. With the close reading required, getting through more than a few pages at a time is a chore.
I did unearth a few observational gems reading the passages of Marcus’s vaunted “close listening” of songs but much of it is impossible. He is passionate. He has done the work. But seriously? On the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night:”
“... Parris’s aching lead and Denby, Freeman and Martin mouthing doo-wops behind him: ‘Shoo-doot, shooby-doh, shoo-doot. shooby-doh, shoo-doot, shooby’ -- and then an unexpected ‘Whoa,’ a long, climbing syllable that seemed to soar out of earshot and took the performance into a realm of its own.
As the song went on, that sensual hesitation at the beginning disappeared, and everything was chaste, fated, in God’s hands --....”
Three pages later he’s still at it….
“.... where for a few seconds every dream is fulfilled and every debt forgiven, and Mazetta and the singers floated through time as if it wasn’t there: ‘It just came out,’ Mazetta said in 2010. ‘I played what I felt.’ The singers gained in passion with each repetition, Doo-bop, DOO-BAH, doo-bop, DOO-BAH, then a single doo-bop, cut off, suspending the moment, time not stopping but pushing back….”
It is a great song, and the dooby-dooby-doos of popular music need celebrating, but this is way too much of an OK thing.
On the other hand, Marcus manages to drill home the importance of the rock ‘n’ roll drama of the pause between “that’s” and “what I want” in the chorus part of “Money (That’s What I Want).” Listening yet again I got it because he did it simply and the point wasn’t lost in the thickets.
There is a chapter in the middle of the book, “Instrumental Break,” where Marcus conjures up a 20-page alternate history, musing on the question: What if mysterioso Blues legend Robert Johnson had not died in 1938 at 27 years old? It is kind of funny — among other things Johnson produces a Ricky Nelson single. It also helps to highlight one of the themes of the book: the random nature of history and especially of an art form as slippery as rock and roll.
Towards the end of the book there is a brutal analogy between the noise piece, “Guitar Drag,” and the race-murder of James Byrd. He is getting at the racism and cultural appropriation of blues and country music born of pain by artists in search of a hit record that will get the kids dancing. If you’re attempting a history of this music it must be said.
Sure, in history this happened and then that happened and one thing influenced the other. But the real connections are rarely so clear or simple. The forms of popular music are always looping back on themselves, copied, evolved, tweaked and pushed but still holding on to the original twang; the gut-punch and the exuberant shout that make rock dreams. Ultimately your time spent with this book will be rewarded.
#bookreview #musicbookreview #musicbooks