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Strictly speaking, the title of Greil Marcus’ latest series of essays on music has more to do with the conceptual history of pop music in America than a material trudge through facts and dates. As with his magisterial Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, originally published in 1989, The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs is a fascinating exercise in associative historiography and chronicle, bringing together fringe, mainstream and canon singers, songwriters, bands, performers, A&R men, producers and audiences into the whirling gumbo of rock ‘n’ roll.
Pulling apart the themes and motifs in the book’s ten songs, Marcus plucks their threads to see where and how they resonate in pop consciousness. To Marcus, the ten songs under discussion here — The Flamin’ Groovies’ “Shake Some Action”, Joy Division’s “Transmission”, The Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Nite”, Etta James’ “All I Could Do Was Cry”, Buddy Holly’s “Crying, Waiting, Hoping”, Barrett Strong’s “Money”, The Brains’ “Money Changes Everything”, The Drifters’ “This Magic Moment”, Christian Marclay’s “Guitar Drag” and the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him is to Love Him” — approach civilizational significance.
The performance is so fast, so big, relentless and unforgiving it feels as if it’s flying apart, three minutes and three seconds of the Big Bang in a box made of mastery and will.
Referring to Groovies’ guitarist Cyril Jordan’s description of rock ‘n’ roll as “the only free country left in the world… no boundaries, no passports [there] wasn’t even a government”, Marcus argues that the music represents “an argument about life captured in sound”. In the pre-punk 1970s, when dinosaurs roamed the rock landscape and boogied agreeably to laser show stagecraft, the comparatively lo-fi “Shake Some Action” tapped into the voodoo of Little Richard’s “Ready Teddy” and Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”. Marcus suggests that the cult San Francisco band’s song is every bit a foundational statement as its antecedents, the idea being that rock ‘n’ roll may be “invented” by anyone, anywhere, at any time. There is no one history, but many histories.
By far the most interesting chapter in the book, and representative of Marcus’ method, is the section on “All I Could Do Was Cry”. Opening with a brief account of Barack Obama’s January 2013 inauguration, where James Taylor warbled “America the Beautiful”, Kelly Clarkson sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and Beyoncé performed “The Star Spangled Banner”, Marcus maps a diverse web of interconnected images insinuated into the event — ranging from The Colbert Report, Steve Martin’s The Jerk and Martin Luther King’s 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial, to the films Ben Hur and Les Miserables. The reader follows Marcus’ logic through Obama and Stephen Colbert riffing on “a black guy who likes James Taylor” on national television and Obama’s winking repartee derived from the Steve Martin comedy, to King’s incorporation of the hymn Clarkson would sing fifty years later into his “I Have a Dream Speech”, to Beyoncé’s rendition of the national anthem as a “the last number of some quasi-historical-religious Hollywood epic”.
She brought herself to life as her own Pygmalion, breathing into her own mouth… she plunged into the melismatics that turn every song into a mirror into which the singer gazes at her own beauty.
Picking up from her performance at the Super Bowl a few weeks later, Marcus recounts Beyoncé’s immense commercial accomplishments and lingers on the idea of mimicry and artifice. Like her two most obvious analogues, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, Marcus writes that Beyoncé has succeeded in “replacing even the memory of soul music with its counterfeit”. He moves to explore the relationship between emotional efficiency and sincerity just as Etta James finally enters the narrative, halfway through proceedings — only towards the end of the chapter do the various fragments of culture and music laid before the reader begin to coalesce.
Marcus reflects on Beyoncé’s portrayal of James in the 2008 film Cadillac Records (the story of James’ record label, Chess), noting how the uncanny vérité only seems to restate the fundamental unreality of Beyoncé herself. In the film, at the inauguration, at the Super Bowl and sold-out arenas around the world, Beyoncé plays at inhabiting Etta James, and the spirit of what the Etta James story represents — she remains shadow.
Though mapping similar territory to Lipstick Traces, Marcus’ new book reads as a series of meditations on disparate cultural events rather than a comprehensive survey of culture. He teases out complex and inventive ideas, comparisons and connections between isolated incidents that map out histories and trajectories rather than the monolith suggested in the The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs’ title. For example: a teenage Phil Spector’s obsession with the inscription on his father’s gravestone, “to have known him was to have loved him”, which he transcribed into a faux doo-wop that topped the charts in 1958, which in turn established his Wall of Sound production technique, which spawned such imitators and copycats as The Shangri-Las, whose own success with songs like “Leader of the Pack” and “Remember” led to lead vocalist Mary Weiss’s burnout, is tied to Amy Winehouse’s 2007 recording of “To Know Him is to Love Him” and her own difficult relationship with fame.
The essays’ prose is tight, with the passages describing the songs and the effect of the music on listeners being particularly evocative. Those new to Marcus’ sometimes involved compositional style may at first be confused with where exactly his musings on, say, photographer Nan Goldin’s visual diary The Ballad of Sexual Dependency intersect with boxer Joe Louis and The Drifters’ “This Magic Moment”, but he remains admirably on point pulling these strands together into a broader commentary. Equal parts challenging and compelling, Marcus makes the fundamental point that it’s only rock ‘n’ roll — but it’s also something much more important.