When it comes rock ’n’ roll journalism, few writers boast a greater pedigree than Greil Marcus — many argue the veteran Rolling Stone contributor invented the genre.
But where the San Francisco native outpaces the pack of music writers and fans is in his view of what rock music means from a cultural perspective. Marcus’ 1975 book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll explores the impact of rock on American culture and mythology through the stories of Harmonica Frank, Robert Johnson, the Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman and Elvis Presley. Time recognized Mystery Train in 2011 as one of the 100 most influential nonfiction works published since 1923.
Marcus’ latest book is The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs, published in 2014 by Yale University Press. In this history, Marcus selects 10 songs — some familiar, others perhaps not — and dramatizes how each embodies rock ’n’ roll. The songs, the writer says, contain the whole DNA of rock.
Forget Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” Marcus says. Listen instead to “Transmission” by Joy Division, “All I Could Do Was Cry” performed by Etta James (and later, Beyoncé) and Phil Spector’s “To Know Him is to Love Him,” first recorded by the Teddy Bears and covered much later by Amy Winehouse, among others.
Like a good rocker, Marcus is touring. His road show arrives in Milwaukee on Nov. 20, part of Alverno College’s Alverno Presents series. Joining the author will be Jon Langford and Sally Timms (The Mekons), who will provide additional commentary and musically illustrate aspects of the songs that led Marcus to place them on his list.
WiG recently talked with Marcus about rock criticism, his book, the history of rock ’n’ roll in 10 songs and who and what didn’t make the list.
What prompted you to define rock ’n’ roll in 10 songs? I was asked by Yale University Press to write a history of rock ’n’ roll. I said it was a terrible idea, had been done to death, that there was a master narrative of all the people from Elvis to Nirvana and beyond that you had to talk about, of all the events from Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show to Woodstock and beyond that you had to talk about, and who would want to do all that again?
But I kept thinking about it and the idea of telling the whole story in just a small number of songs — I originally thought of 16, a nice rock ’n’ roll number — interested me. Especially, if you left out everything you otherwise couldn’t leave out. So, no Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis, James Brown, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, Tupac or Nirvana. Name someone who had to be there and rest assured he or she wouldn’t be.
That was the premise, along with a kind of secret list. A lot of people have realized that if you could find the whole history of the form in 10 songs, you could also find it in one song, almost any song. I succeeded, except for the Beatles. There was just no way to keep them out. They are the history of rock ’n’ roll in one band.
Your choices are unorthodox, or at least none that I would have expected to be included on the list. How did these particular songs fit the bill? When I started there were only two songs I knew I would write about: The Flamin’ Groovies’ “Shake Some Action” and Joy Division’s “Transmission.” The others made their way into the book while I was writing it.
I never would have even thought about “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” an embarrassing No. 1 1958 hit by the Teddy Bears, if I hadn’t heard Amy Winehouse’s version on the radio after she died. I knew I had to write about it. The song sailed into the book from out of nowhere.
The book organized itself around songs I wanted to write about — or songs I’d always loved and had never written about, like the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night.” I wanted to see if I could find a story in them that I could tell.
Did you consider lyrics, melody/harmony, social implications or a combination of those and other factors when you made you choices? None of those things. If the history of rock ’n’ roll could be found in any one interesting song, then I could write about any song I wanted to write about, if I could tell its story.
I wasn’t in any way interested in what influence a song might have had outside of itself. “Shake Some Action” has probably influenced a lot of hearts, but perhaps no other songs. The Beatles’ version of “Money” is so big it couldn’t have influenced anyone, unless it was to convince them to quit before they started.
Jon Langford and Sally Timms from The Mekons will be on hand to perform during your Alverno presentation. Why did you choose them to participate? Jon and Sally are old friends. I actually appeared — I don’t know if I can say performed — with the Mekons some years ago at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. We did a show based on my book at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago last year. And we had so much fun we wanted to do it again.
I will talk and read from the book, they may talk and read from the book, but also play songs from it. There will likely be analyses from them directly, but their interpretations of the songs are analyses of the songs.
Are there any rock songs and artists that people might consider a serious omission from your list? Of course there are. I dedicated the book, “To everyone I left out.” But the 10 songs are not meant to be the 10 best songs, the 10 most important songs, the 10 anything songs. They are a constellation of songs, all rushing off in different directions, bumping into each other, just missing each other, smashing together and coming out differently.
Given your extensive body of work, does this presentation/book represent next-generation thinking for someone who clearly looks beyond the current music scene? For me the book is a kind of conversation, with the different songs and performers talking to each other, listening to each other, as we might hear any of these songs in a single day on the radio. (And there are stations at the back of the end of the dial that might even play Christian Marclay’s “Guitar Drag” soundtrack).
So for that conversation, I wanted men and women, black people and white people, people from the 1950s and people from the 2000s. I really do believe they all speak the same language and would have no trouble understanding each other. When Jon and Sally play, I think that is what their performance will say.
Greil’s Ten Songs
“Shake Some Action,” by the Flamin’ Groovies
“Transmission,” by Joy Division
“In the Still of the Night,” by the Five Satins
“All I Can Do Was Cry,” by Etta James and
“Crying Waiting Hoping,” by Buddy Holly
“Money (That’s What I Want),” by the Beatles
“Money Changes Everything,” by The Brains and Cyndi Lauper
“This Magic Moment,” by The Drifters
“Guitar Drag,” by Christian Marclay
“To Know Him Is To Love Him,” by the Teddy Bears and Amy Winehouse
The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs, featuring Greil Marcus, Jon Langford and Sally Timms, will be performed Nov. 20 at Wehr Hall, 3400 S. 43rd St., Milwaukee. Visit alvernopresents.alverno.edu for more information.