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The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs

Posted on Aug 29, 2014
    Greil Marcus' book includes a discussion of “To Know Him Is to Love Him” performed by the late artist Amy Winehouse. Photo by Steve Taylor (CC BY 2.0)

By Peter Richardson

To see long excerpts from “The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs” at Google Books, click here.

“The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs”
A book by Greil Marcus

As Rolling Stone’s first album reviewer, Greil Marcus had few peers and one major precursor: Ralph J. Gleason, who cofounded that magazine, wrote a column for it, and covered popular music for the San Francisco Chronicle and Ramparts magazine. Ranging effortlessly over jazz, blues, folk, pop and rock, Gleason made his difficult craft look easy. Along the way, he wrote liner notes for comedian Lenny Bruce’s albums, testified in Bruce’s San Francisco obscenity trial and landed on President Nixon’s second Enemies List—the only music journalist to achieve that honor.

When Gleason died suddenly in 1975, Marcus wrote his obituary for The Village Voice. By that time, Marcus had left Rolling Stone and recast himself as a cultural historian. That transition began with the book “Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll Music” (1975), now in its fifth edition. In a series of loosely connected essays, Marcus claimed that the music of Elvis Presley, the Band, Sly Stone and Randy Newman seemed to “crystallize naturally in visions and versions of America: its possibilities, limits, openings, traps.” The language was pointed—Howlin’ Wolf’s best records, Marcus noted, “came on like three-minute race riots.” The book was an attempt “to broaden the context in which the music is heard: to deal with rock ’n’ roll not as youth culture, or counterculture, but simply as American culture.” In addition to assessing individual artists and their work, Marcus’ purpose was to “discover whose America we are living in at any moment.”

“Mystery Train” helped make the study of popular culture respectable. It did so in part by drawing on Marcus’ graduate training at UC Berkeley. His teachers there—especially Michael Rogin, Jack Schaar and Norman Jacobson—were political scientists by training, but they introduced him to the broader sweep of American history and culture, and it’s a rare Marcus book that doesn’t somehow connect popular music to Melville, Twain, Tocqueville or Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards. Now, many books later, Marcus writes a column for the literary magazine The Believer, teaches at the New School in New York City and lectures occasionally at elite universities. Despite his academic training and position, he puts little energy into instructing or persuading his readers. Instead, he spins a web of associations around specific songs and flashes across eras and cultural forms in search of connections. His goal isn’t to explain or decode these songs or even to understand their power to thrill him. Rather, he tries to re-create in prose how it might have felt to perform them. His books aren’t known for their reference value; one can plow through long stretches of his work without learning anything except a new way to read.

Nor is Marcus’ associative style built for the long haul. His longest work, “Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century” (1989), labored to connect the Sex Pistols to the European avant-garde tradition that claimed Marcus’ attention in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As usual, his politics were close to the surface. He recently described “Lipstick Traces” as his Reagan book and left no doubt about how he regarded his fellow Californian. “I hated Ronald Reagan. … I hated what he did to this country and I hated what he stood for. And I couldn’t bear to look at the country—to seriously, intellectually, grapple with it, critically—in those years.” He later regretted turning his attention away from the American scene during that critical period. 

“Mystery Train” and “Lipstick Traces” established Marcus as a shrewd cultural observer, but “The Old, Weird America” (1997) remains his most compelling work. It traced the 1967 Basement Tapes of Bob Dylan and the Band to an “invisible republic” rooted in a southern, agrarian and largely occluded American past. Marcus noted that Harry Smith mapped that terrain in “The Anthology of American Folk Music” (1952), which helped launch the folk revival of the 1950s and early 1960s. Riffing on San Francisco poet Kenneth Rexroth’s notion of the “old, free America,” Marcus probed the anthology’s influence on Dylan’s sensibility and collaboration with the Band. But the influence didn’t stop there; several parts of Todd Haynes’ kaleidoscopic film about Dylan, “I’m Not There” (2007), seemed to grow directly out of the book. 

Marcus is forthcoming about his method and style. “I don’t have the ability, or the desire either, to write an extended, coherent, step-by-step argument about something,” he told the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2012. “I like to write through indirection. I like to come in the front door, and while you’re opening the front door, come in the back door, too.” He admitted that his obsession with mystery compels him to seek out “occulted subjects,” or at least to frame his topics that way. And though he marvels at America’s inexhaustible utopian energy, he regards his signature books as anything but optimistic. “I always thought ‘Mystery Train’ was a deeply pessimistic book,” he said, adding that “Lipstick Traces” was “very bitter and defeated.”

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