“The Something in Some Number of Some Things” is a tactic that has been tried at least once before in a book on music—in his 2008 book The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature, the psychologist Daniel J. Levitin tackled a much bigger something and a slightly smaller number than does Greil Marcus in his new book. A similar conceit informs such titles as 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die and 10,001 You Must Download (I guess it is enough just to know that you could listen to 9,000 of them). The internet’s variant on this kind of thing, known by the unfortunate neologism “listicle,” thrives because giving each item its own page significantly increases the available advertising space. BuzzFeed, the apotheosis of the form, offers “35 Songs for the ‘Over It’ Stage in Your Breakup” or “17 Songs That Are Older Than the Class of 2019,” which hardly seems to exhaust the possibilities.
Marcus’s chosen form, then, is of the moment, but at first glance his subject matter is not—who even talks about “rock ’n’ roll” anymore? I’m 40 years old, which is only kind of old, and I call most of what Marcus is writing about “rock,” and my students do not talk about that anymore either, except for “indie rock,” most of which does not sound like “rock” to me anymore, and certainly not like “rock ’n’ roll.” Marcus, perhaps more than any other critic, has earned the right to speak for the rock ’n’ roll tradition as one of its most dedicated and influential chroniclers. His 1975 book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll Music, which takes an American Studies approach to fold Elvis and Sly Stone into a narrative that also includes Alexis de Tocqueville and Walt Whitman, is one of the few undisputed classics of rock (’n’ roll) criticism. In the years since, he has been a prolific commentator on popular music in such works as Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (1989), an idiosyncratic treatment of punk rock and its ancestors, and in studies of performers including Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, and Van Morrison. A new Greil Marcus book purporting to embrace the history of rock ’n’ roll is thus a momentous event.
Marcus’s list of ten songs recalls Roland Barthes’s widely read 1977 book A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. The book comprises 80 short essays on words conventionally used to discuss romantic love, arranged alphabetically from “s’abîmer” (to be engulfed) to “vouloir-saisir” (will-to-possess). Barthes doesn’t say much about rock ’n’ roll, but there is an essay titled “Reverberation,” which makes me think of the 13th Floor Elevators song by that name, as well as the Fender Twin Reverb amp, Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, and Sun Records’ renowned “slapback echo.” (In Barthes’s original French, the word is retentissement.) Reverberation, Barthes tells us, is the “fundamental mode of amorous subjectivity.” “In the lover’s Image-repertoire,” he asserts, “nothing distinguishes the most trivial provocation from an authentically consequent phenomenon; time is jerked forward … and back … starting from a negligible trifle, a whole discourse of memory and death rises up and sweeps me away.”
Professional historians, when pressed, often define history as something like “the study of change over time in human societies in the past.” There is a lot of change to consider, so historians, explicitly or not, must find ways to narrow both their subject and the intellectual tools they employ to examine it. Forty years ago, in Mystery Train, Marcus wrote that “the question of history may have been settled on the side of process, not personality, but it is not a settlement I much appreciate. Historical forces might explain the Civil War, but they don’t account for Lincoln; they might tell us why rock ‘n’ roll emerged when it did, but they don’t explain Elvis any more than they explain Little Peggy March.” This staunchly humanist vision of history has informed much of his work since, including Ten Songs. Marcus thoughtfully, if begrudgingly, acknowledges the undeniable role of economic systems and organized political movements in the course of human events, but his real interest is the romance of individual action and achievement. Although this might suggest that Marcus embraces a “Great Man” theory of history, Marcus’s heroes are as likely to be obscure one-hit wonders as Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, and many of his heroes are not men, which deserves an approving note given the masculinist bias of much rock criticism.
In Ten Songs, Marcus lays out a metaphysical model of history. He seeks “a key to a richer and more original understanding—or a different story from the one any conventional, chronological, heroic history of rock ’n’ roll seems to tell.” That key, he thinks, “might be to feel one’s way through the music as a field of expression, and as a web of affinities.” Marcus thus signals that his approach will proceed by association and intuition rather than by tracing the usual chain of influence that connects Chuck Berry to the Beatles and so on. Marcus’s intuition is colored by his fascination with the unprecedented and revolutionary—“it is the moment when something appears as if out of nowhere, when a work of art carries within itself the thrill of invention, or discovery, that is worth listening for.” Each of the ten songs he has selected, Marcus argues, reveal the traces of such epiphanic moments. The songs are organized without regard for chronology or subgenre, beginning with Shake Some Action (the Flamin’ Groovies, 1976) and concluding with To Know Him Is to Love Him (the Teddy Bears, 1958, covered by Amy Winehouse, 2006). Marcus traces all ten songs, with the exception of Shake Some Action, through multiple versions, sometimes out of chronological order. For example, the chapter on This Magic Moment begins with a 2007 performance by Ben E. King (at a tribute concert for songwriter Doc Pomus) and works backward to King’s classic performance of the song with the Drifters in 1959.
If history is independent of time and perhaps even cause and effect, what distinguishes the most trivial provocation from an authentically consequent phenomenon? You cannot tell, and the degree to which you are persuaded by Ten Songs will hinge on your subjective response to Marcus’s choices and interpretations, rather than a more dispassionate weighing of his arguments and evidence.
The book’s curious organization reflects Marcus’s belief that history is constantly renewing itself: “rock ’n’ roll,” he writes, “could be invented anywhere, at any time, regardless of any rumors that something vaguely similar might have happened before.” Marcus can argue, then, that Shake Some Action “can itself serve as a founding statement” of rock ’n’ roll even though it postdates the genre’s origin by more than two decades. Even more radical is Marcus’s implication that history moves in more than one direction; time is jerked forward and back. Marcus approvingly quotes Neil Young’s gnomic proclamation that “rock & roll is the cause of country and blues. Country and blues came first, but somehow rock & roll’s place in the course of events is dispersed.”
You will notice as you read that Marcus likes to write in the second person. This might make you feel welcomed, like you are the center of his attention and he is dragging you toward his stereo to play you a great record, but you might also start to feel like he is putting words in your mouth. Digging deeply into a Joy Division bootleg (Transmission, live at the Factory in Manchester on July 13, 1979), he writes that “it is unhinged—you can’t imagine what it would have been like to see this, if, in the moment, you would have been capable of seeing what now, in the comfort of your own room, with the singer dead and the rest of the band having gone on for more than thirty years as New Order, you can hear, and conjure up out of your own imagination.” This seems like a fairly tortuous philosophical quandary to impute to the reader—you can not imagine what it would have been like to see then what you can hear and imagine now? If you can imagine seeing Joy Division back then, why can you not also imagine what it would have been like to see Joy Division back then? I listened to the recording on YouTube (and I agree with Marcus that it is really great), but part of the fun, as with bootlegs generally, is precisely that it is not hard to imagine what being there would have been like. You almost can not help it.
Marcus has a sense of humor about this rhetorical tactic. There is a generous, self-deprecating aside near the end of the book, when Marcus concludes his grandiose appraisal of the Drifters’ This Magic Moment—“this is … the moment you return to when life itself turns the truth of the feeling with which King endows the words into the lie the words contain”—with the flip “But you don’t have to hear any of that.”
If we do not have to hear any of that, though, can it sustain a work of history? “History” might seem an inappropriate word to describe a temporally unhinged set of subjective impressions. If history is independent of time and perhaps even cause and effect, what distinguishes the most trivial provocation from an authentically consequent phenomenon? You cannot tell, and the degree to which you are persuaded by Ten Songs will hinge on your subjective response to Marcus’s choices and interpretations, rather than a more dispassionate weighing of his arguments and evidence.
The former might, of course, be more fun. Twenty-six years ago, in Lipstick Traces, Marcus asked “what is history anyway? Is history simply a matter of events that leave behind those things that can be weighed and measured—new institutions, new maps, new rulers, new winners and losers—or is it also the result of moments that seem to leave nothing behind, nothing but the mystery of spectral connections between people long separated by place and time, but somehow speaking the same language?” No and no, you think. There is a lot of room between a straw-man history of rulers and maps and a “secret history” based on mysteries and spectral connections. That said, Lipstick Traces remains one of the most entertaining and engaging treatments of rock precisely because Marcus is willing to pull out all the stops, drawing affinities and coincidences (The Sex Pistols’ blasphemous Johnny Rotten was born John Lydon, which reminds Marcus of the sixteenth-century Dutch heretic John of Leyden, who was the subject of a 1957 book by historian Norman Cohn, who was the father of pioneering rock critic Nik Cohn, author of Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom (1968) into a playful conspiracy theory of punk’s rebellion and nihilism.
Ten Songs includes similar flights of fancy, my favorite of which is an extended fantasy in which blues legend Robert Johnson did not die in 1938, as in real life, but rather has lived to a ripe old age in the present day. Along the way, Johnson helps Ralph Ellison write Invisible Man, becomes a Los Angeles record producer (he records both Ricky Nelson and N.W.A.), and finally calls the White House to demand his royalties after he hears Barack Obama sing a verse of Sweet Home Chicago.
Greil Marcus comes up often enough when you’re talking to other music scholars, but nobody seems confident about how to say his first name, so everyone mumbles an indeterminate, vaguely Norwegian vowel and it comes out like “Grøl Marcus—you know, Mystery Train?” Google doesn’t help—a YouTube interviewer uses the Germanic “Grile,” which Marcus doesn’t correct, but then you begin the audiobook version of Ten Songs and hear Henry Rollins, who reads the book, call him “Greel.”
A conscientious critic would call Mr. Marcus and ask, but you might go ahead and pick “Greel” for its evocation of Horace Greeley, best associated with the maxim “Go west, young man.” Marcus was born and still lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, central to the California Gold Rush of 1849. And “greel”—with a lower-case “c” (for “common time,” i.e. rock ‘n’ roll’s ubiquitous 4/4, or maybe “C-note,” a hundred-dollar bill) grafted to the final “l”—becomes “greed”; note that Money (That’s What I Want) (Barrett Strong, 1959; the Beatles, 1963) is one of Marcus’s Ten Songs. Or there’s always “grail”—the Holy Grail; rock ’n’ roll as treasure, quest, ultimate concern.
Marcus is one of the best close listeners in all music criticism. He digs into specific, often idiosyncratic moments of rock ‘n’ roll records to suggest new ways of listening to old songs. The Five Satins, In the Still of the Nite (1956): “[Fred] Parris smoothly finished the word ‘precious’ as if it had always come in two parts, soaring again into the word ‘love,’ the word itself now so in love with its own idea that it rippled in widening concentric circles as if a stone had been thrown into its lake.” Buddy Holly, Well … All Right (1958): “the drama is sealed at the end of each verse, the last word sliding into a dream the singer will dream for you if you won’t dream it for him. It’s the gentlest f—k off—to the world, to whoever might doubt a word he says, a f—k off that is also an extended hand.”
These passages typify the passion and urgency that characterizes all of Marcus’s writing on music. In his hands, moments become momentous; starting from a negligible trifle, a whole discourse of memory and death rises up and sweeps him away. Whether you, too, are swept away will depend on your ability to suspend any cynical detachment and dive into the sometimes overwrought but always seductive world of Marcus’s criticism. If you are willing to loosen up a bit, you are likely to have a good time reading Ten Songs even if you are not persuaded by Marcus’s freewheeling vision of history. As Marcus himself concludes, in words that assess record producer Shadow Morton’s stories about the Shangri-Las but apply just as well to Ten Songs itself: “that was only one version of the story, and there is an infinity of stories that tell this tale.”