Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Greil Marcus, _The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs_

NO LIGHT CLAIM on my part to say this is Marcus's best book, because Mystery Train, Lipstick Traces, and Invisible Republic were force fields that profoundly altered the trajectory of my listening habits, but his best book it may be, simply because of the amount of ground it can survey without being even all that long, eleven ordinary-length essays, the whole thing coming under 300 pages.

The title is apt even though it may mislead the inattentive. These are not rock and roll's ten best songs, ten most famous songs, ten most influential songs--they are reasonably well-known songs, some were big hits, but there is no "Satisfaction," "Like a Rolling Stone," or anything else likely to wind up on a VH1 countdown. Instead, we have ten core samples, ten lightning-in-a-bottle moments when some gaggle of young musicians in a recording studio discovered something in a song that until then maybe not even they knew was there.

Marcus's ability to discern these moments and then write of them evocatively is uncanny. And unique, I daresay. And then there is his ability to contextualize them by drawing on an extraordinarily deep and sensitive understanding of the history of the genre.

I can imagine someone glancing at the table of contents, discovering with dismay that no song by the Beatles or Bob Dylan is included, and giving the book pass.  That person would miss out on three essays-within-essays--one on the Beatles' ferocious cover of "Money," one on their briefly re-discovering an old joy as they play Buddy Holly's "Crying, Waiting, Hoping" during the slow-motion trainwreck of the Get Back sessions, one on the pinnacle that is "A Day in the Life"--that are altogether more powerfully insightful than any of the enormous, exhaustive Beatles tomes that occupy several sagging shelves in my house.  Same for Dylan, the Stones, the Pistols, etc--all the people you think ought to come in to the discussion do, eventually, in unforeseen and always illuminating ways.

And of course Marcus knows, as anyone ought to know, that the living line of the music after the 1960s passed not through the Eagles, Bon Jovi, or any other of the innumerable platinum-selling pretenders, but through Joy Division, the Brains, and...yes...Christian Marclay.

Even the footnotes are better than most books about rock and roll.

That eleventh essay? It imagines the career Robert Johnson might have had had he survived whatever killed him in 1938.  

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