The first page of Greil Marcus’ latest book, The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs, begins with a list of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees. For about five pages, Marcus lists the genre’s accepted innovators, geniuses, and most charismatic practitioners. Marcus — a longtime Berkeley resident and originator of rock criticism whose earlier books include Mystery Train and Lipstick Traces — gleefully leaps over the entire rock canon in one criminally long sentence. Here are the expected historical figures, the list suggests — let’s move along.
Last month at a reading at Pegasus Books in Berkeley, Marcus explained the impetus for The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll and its heavy conceit. “My editor, Steve Wasserman, called and asked if I’d like to write a history of rock ‘n’ roll,” he recalled. “I said that was a terrible idea.” The title calls attention to Marcus’ disregard for the usual chronology of a historical text. Instead, he explores rock and its cultural context through misty allusions and disparate cultural moments, themes that are evoked ironically by the book’s authoritative title.
As Marcus acknowledges in the introduction with a nod to Nik Cohn and Guy Peellaert’s collaborative work Rock Dreams, the genre lends itself to collapsed histories. Cohn and Peellaert’s 1972 fantasy tribute book couples musician portraits with oblique text, eschewing names and facts in favor of hazy, surreal depictions. “That book has always been a huge inspiration to me,” he said. “It has dream logic. It’s about alternate histories — the lives implied by the music people made.”
While completing The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs, Marcus’ reasoned impulse momentarily thwarted his endeavor. “You can’t choose between a million possibilities rationally,” he said. “When I had to choose a tenth song, I ran up against the absurdity of the concept. … I started out by saying, ‘Okay, there’s a million songs to choose from and I’m just going to — in a spirit of complete play and abandon — choose these ten.'”
Faced with completing the selection of songs and omitting all of the rest, he became nervous. In 2012, Marcus went to lunch with his friend Christian Marclay. The respected artist was in San Francisco to prepare an installation of his 24-hour video piece, The Clock, at SFMOMA. As he explained his problem to Marclay, Marcus saw the solution sitting across the table. The final song wouldn’t be a song at all. “I said, ‘I know, the tenth song will be the soundtrack to [Marclay’s video piece] Guitar Drag,'” Marcus said. “Marclay looked at me like I was crazy.
“If you actually considered 100,000 rock ‘n’ roll songs, ‘Guitar Drag’ wouldn’t come into the equation,” Marcus said. Choosing it evaded the whole daunting selection and delivered Marcus back to the book’s casual shrug in the face of canonical convention. In Marclay’s video, Marcus explained, “This guitar is dragging behind a pickup truck for fourteen minutes, through swamps, gravel, [and] concrete roads. It’s just being tortured and punished. It’s scary without even knowing that it’s an allegory for the lynching of James Byrd Jr. some years before in Texas.” The sound, he said, “is just this screaming noise of an electric guitar modulated by the speed of the truck and the surface it’s drug across.”
In the chapter on “Guitar Drag,” Marcus launches from Marclay’s video imagery into Colson Whitehead’s novel John Henry Days, whose title refers to a host of folk songs that contain allegories for industrialization and racism in America. Out of the historical facts of Byrd’s murder, Whitehead’s fictional allusions to it, and a lineage of folk songs before it, Marcus extracts “an affirmation of the power of a single African-American to deny and defeat the white power set against him.”
The quote speaks to another section in the book, in which Marcus writes about doo-wop curio once called The Spades. An all-white Texas vocal group from the 1950s, The Spades changed its name to The Slades and cut a single called “You Cheated” for the upstart label Domino Records. It was a near-hit, sunk by label mismanagement and poor promotion. However, for an exceptional moment in the era’s flagrantly racist and exploitative music industry, a team of black studio musicians saw opportunity. They convened in Los Angeles for one session as The Shields to re-record The Slades’ song. With proper label backing, The Shields’ cover of “You Cheated” became a national hit. It’s a lost little moment of empowerment: Black artists took a song written by white artists in what was originally a black style, and reaped the rewards.
Elsewhere in the book, Marcus abandons reality altogether. The elusive bluesman Robert Johnson died in 1938. In the chapter “Instrumental Break,” Marcus presents an alternate biography that settles Johnson on the West Coast, where he lives well into the 21st century. In Marcus’ story, the artist co-produces N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton and later watches President Obama sing the last chorus of Johnson’s song “Sweet Home Chicago” on TV — then calls the White House to get paid.
Throughout The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs, Marcus dismantles the notions of authenticity to which so many music fans cling, illuminating the essential thrill of becoming besotted with a song. One chapter about the English post-punk band Joy Division’s song “Transmission” features a description of its performance by professional actors in Anton Corbijn’s 2007 biopic, Control. Marcus analyzes the cover version just as seriously as countless other writers have the original. Instead of setting “Transmission” where it was written, in late 1970s Manchester, Marcus focuses on a post-millennial cover — acted out by actors before him on screen — because that’s the one that left him deeply moved. “When I saw [Control] in the theater, these actors were performing the song and when it was over I realized I hadn’t taken a breath for thirty seconds,” he said.
“If a re-creation is done the way it ought to be, then your sense of distance and representation dissolves. You don’t care about any of that. Your senses have been completely destroyed by the power of what you’re watching,” Marcus explained. “I think it’s wonderful when the concepts we use to inhibit ourselves — those worthless shibboleths — don’t matter. You go, ‘This has to be the way it was,’ whether or not that’s a rational or defensible statement.”
The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll isn’t a rational or defensible history of rock ‘n’ roll, either. That’s the point. The narrative fluctuates according to every listener’s unique experience. At the Pegasus reading, Marcus recalled, “[The moderator] wanted to ask me some questions, like ‘What is rock ‘n’ roll?’ I’m not interested in that question. I don’t want to respond to it. You end up sounding pompous and ridiculous.” Marcus shrugged. “It doesn’t need a definition, anyway.”