Yale University Press
T-Bone Burnett is quoted, in this book, “Listen, the story of the United States is this: One kid, without anything, walks out of his house, down the road, with nothing but a guitar and conquers the world.” It’s a good quote – but as usual it’s how Greil Marcus uses it, where and why he places it where he does, as likely to disappear off down a tangent discussing film or literate as music when working through his list of ten songs. It’s a good list of songs, of course. But you just know it’s about the side-journeys and Marcus could have made (and possibly did) ten other lists…
It’s good to have him back in this capacity. Writing in a way similar to his landmark Mystery Train.
Midway through reading this book I stopped to appreciate all that Marcus’ writing has meant to me and never returned to write any sort of review. So I’m filing this now. A bit late, but because I’ve since read another book of his and I’m pleased to find his long-running Real Life Rock column has a new home in this digital era of absolutes but total uncertainty.
Marcus is the best. But he’s absolutely at his best when in this territory, when tackling bigger context. So when he tells you that Beyoncé isn’t doing it right, he’s not only right, he backs it up by pointing out that the likes of Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin – bastions to us, now – were all charged with a similar blasphemy relevant to their era and appropriation.
This is what Marcus does. And has always done. He goes wide. He celebrates dialogue and circular thinking, but in recent years he has favoured collections of writings about one artist whether compiled across the years (Bob Dylan) or sets of brand new essays on one artist (Van Morrison, The Doors) so to have him moving between Amy Winehouse and Phil Spector – and finding connections – is exciting to watch; to read. There’s something virtuosic about the way his long essays unfold. We’re constantly dazzled as he goes as far wide as possible, then brings it all back home.
The songs span 1956 to 2008 and we travel back and forward, diagonally and across all points from there. We touch down with Joy Division (Transmission) and assess All I Could Do Was Cray by both Etta James and Beyoncé (Queen Bey played Miss Etta in the movie Cadillac Records).
As with Lipstick Traces and Mystery Train we get to so many artists through key songs and moments. The Beatles don’t make the list of 10 songs, but they’re in there via their covers of Buddy Holly songs. Jagger and Richards’ Gimme Shelter written on and about a stormy day, with a metaphorical tempest circling within its opening guitar magic, is discussed in a long tangent drawn from The Drifters’ This Magic Moment. The way Marcus’ mind drifts, to find magic moments within other magic moments, is never less than thrilling. He’s a writer – still – at the top of his game. And though that could almost seem churlish it’s simply meant in and as utmost respect.
His History of Rock’n’Roll in Ten Songs shows how deep you can go and how silly it is to try to sum up a history of Rock’n’Roll definitively. I look forward to future volumes – Ten More Songs and Ten More. And So On. And So On. And So On. And in some way, shape or form we’ll likely get those books from him. And I’ll read them all. And look forward to being dazzled again. And yes, of course his lists and books send you back to the music. You listen with newly opened ears and wide-eyed as so much more seems to fall into place as a result of his writing.