Tag Archives: rock n roll

Music critic Greil Marcus’ ‘10 Songs’ will rock Alverno

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
Beyoncé

“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

ON STAGE

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.

‘Hair’ is just as groovy and socially relevant as it was in ‘67

In 1967, the Broadway musical world was rocked like never before by Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. Nothing like it had been tried before, and it spawned an entirely new direction in musical theater.

Wrapping sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll in social, political and environmental themes, the show captured a unique time in American history. Nearly 47 years later, Hair still speaks with vibrancy about issues remaining at the forefront of American social concerns, according to Ray Jivoff, the director helming Skylight Music Theatre’s upcoming production of the classic.

“The show is about raising people’s awareness,” says Jivoff, a native of Syracuse, New York, and life partner of C. Michael Wright, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s producing artistic director. “The idea of men with long hair as a revolutionary statement has evolved, but there is still controversy in terms of language, sexual references, racial issues, the war and the government.”

“This is more of an event than a show,” he adds. “It’s a ritual that asks more questions than it answers.”

The play’s street theater conventions and cultural references, which would date a lesser work, simply serve as a starting point in Hair, says Jivoff, who’s directed the work twice before.

Written by James Rado and Gerome Ragni with music by Galt MacDermot, Hair’s loose storyline chronicles a “tribe” of characters on New York’s Lower East Side at a time when the Vietnam War raged, racial unrest burned in America’s cities, and young people questioned every aspect of traditional society. 

Claude (Doug Clemons in the Skylight production) receives a draft notice telling him to report for military service. Friends Berger (Alex Mace), Sheila (Alison Mary Forbes), Woof (Ryan Cappleman), Hud (Sherrick Robinson) and the rest of the tribe attempt to talk him out of going, but with little luck. 

Between the opening notes of “Aquarius” and the closing anthem “Let the Sunshine In” come a host of former pop hits, including  “Hair,” “Easy to Be Hard” and “Good Morning Starshine.” The play also includes a “be-in,” an anti-war protest, a hallucinogenic drug trip and an obligatory nude scene.

Make that a nude “episode,” Jivoff says.

“The nude scene seems to be what everyone remembers, but it’s really only 20 seconds at the end of Act I,” he explains. 

More unsettling to contemporary audiences might be the racist stereotyping in the song “I’m Black/Colored Spade” sung by Hud, an African-American character. The song “Sodomy,” sung by Woof, a closeted gay character, broke new ground in 1967 and might continue to set some audience members on edge.

Act I is full of high energy as it establishes themes and explores the characters’ joyous, hedonistic lifestyles. Act II turns darker as it follows Claude to Vietnam and explores the narrative’s anti-war roots.

“Claude is often compared to Hamlet and Jesus Christ and quotes from both of them,” Jivoff says. “He feels he is a character in a myth and turns out to be a character destined to be sacrificed to inspire the tribe to continue with its anti-war mission.”

Hair has seen notable actors and other performers in productions throughout its history. Authors Rado and Ragni appeared in several early iterations, and a young Diane Keaton was part of the original Broadway cast. So was singer Melba Moore and dancer Ben Vereen. 

Performers Andre DeShields, Donna Summer, Meat Loaf, Dobie Gray and Jennifer Warnes appeared in various productions. The London staging introduced Tim Curry to Richard O’Brien, who went on to develop The Rocky Horror Show.

Jivoff is proud of his all-Wisconsin cast, including 19 performers from the Milwaukee area. He also is thrilled with Jeremy McQueen’s choreography, which he says takes the show to a new level.

Audience members should be prepared to interact with the cast. The actors have been instructed to break the fourth wall and address audience members, asking for spare change, handing out leaflets and encouraging them to come on stage for the finale. They also dance in the aisles during the song “Hair,” he says.

Although not designed to make the audience uncomfortable, interaction with the cast could be a little more extensive than similar shows, Jivoff adds.

“The character of Berger is extroverted and fairly sexual,” he says. “I think that’s all I will say about that.”