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Greil Marcus Talks About Trying to Unlock Rock and Roll in 10 Songs

Challenged to write a history of rock and roll, the revered critic naturally went at it his own way, picking songs that each somehow summed up rock, changing us in the bargain.

To the post-Woodstock generation, the name Greil Marcus is as authoritative on the subject of pop music as Pauline Kael’s is to lovers of film. His first book, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll Music (1975), was the first indication that the music of Robert Johnson, Elvis, and Dylan was a legitimate subject for cultural analysis as well as enjoyment. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (1989) put the explosion of punk rock in the late ’70s into perspective, and his three books on Bob Dylan, most recently his collected writings, Bob Dylan (2010), are essential companions to the music.

His latest book, The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs, is in some ways his most ambitious. He spoke to us from his home in Oakland about which songs he chose and why.

First, why a history of rock and roll? Why these ten songs?

Well, the idea came from Steve Wasserman, an executive editor at Yale University Press. He was a student of mine when I was teaching at Cal and has been a good friend for decades. But we had never done a book together. He had mentioned the idea of a rock and roll history, and at first I wasn’t sure. There’s a chiseled-in-stone narrative of what rock and roll is, and there have been numerous histories of rock and roll, including one that came out over the summer, Bob Stanley’s Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Story of Rock and Roll from Bill Haley to Beyoncé.

I decided that the idea was pointless unless you wrote a history that didn’t even mention all the different turning points, the different genres of the music, etc. In other words, I didn’t want to do a chronological history but a book about strong songs.

It sounds like an unorthodox idea.

Yes, I wrote a three-page proposal. Steve thought it was an interesting approach and gave me the go-ahead. But I couldn’t jump in right away. I spent about a year thinking about it, taking notes, searching for songs.

Did you have any idea how you were going to start?

All I really knew is that I wanted the book to begin with the Flamin’ Groovies.

Which I believe you called a “name so stupid, it can’t transcend its own irony. A name so stupid it’s embarrassing to say out loud.”

Yes, and I chose their song “Shake Some Action,” which was released in 1976.

I’ve really never known much about them.

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They began around 1965 as The Chosen Few, another Bay Area band that tried hard to look English.

“Shake Some Action” is really a wish, a desperate wish the singer doesn’t expect to come true. It starts with a bright, trebly guitar, sets the beat, and finally spins into a kind of reckless abandon. No matter how many times I listen to it, it always seems like the first time.

Did you have any other idea of what other songs you wanted to include?

Yes. I also thought I wanted to include Joy Division’s “Transmission.

I have to admit I always respected Joy Division more than liked them. They seemed a little creepy to me, particular the song “Transmission.”

I agree with the creepy part—or at least scary. You can see them perform it on YouTube. It’s one of the scariest performances I’ve ever seen. It’s an example of the way a song can start out as if the band has it under control and suddenly blow apart so that you can’t even imagine how it will end.

You’re not alone in not getting Joy Division right away. That’s the way I felt about them when I heard their first album. I found it impenetrable, I saw Anton Corbijn’s film Control, which is a fictional film about the band with actors playing them. The actor Sam Riley sings “Transmission.” It really stunned me. It got me connected to Joy Division years after those early records.

It’s like you wrote about your final ten, “These songs, they travel.” And one of the strangest odysseys I can imagine is “To Know Him Is To Love Him.” From the Teddy Bears—whoever they were—in 1958 to Amy Winehouse in 2006. When I saw it listed on the contents page, I thought, “Why would he write about a song that insipid?” I didn’t know about Amy Winehouse’s version, and when I heard it, it was so beautiful it left me numb. How did you come across it?

I heard it on the radio while I was writing. Turned out to be from a 2006 compilation album, At the BBC.

I was shocked—I couldn’t believe how great and tragic it was. She had died a year or so before. I knew right away I had to write about it.

But it wasn’t a song you originally chose?

No, I would have never written about the original version, even though it was produced by Phil Spector. I don’t even remember listening to it when I was 13. But I was impressed by the fact that it had never really been forgotten. The song went into the trash can of rock and roll history, and it took almost 50 years for it to find the right singer. The Spector version sounds phony. But when you listen to Winehouse sing it, she understands things in the lyrics that Phil Spector never did. It sounds like something she struggled all her life to interpret and sing.

Did you really like Amy Winehouse?

Her death was awful to me. I really didn’t know how to confront it and I didn’t even know her—some deaths of people you never knew really affect you.

This is one of my favorite passages in all your work: “If you listen to Winehouse sing the song, you can hate her for what, as over a few July days she drank herself to death, she withheld from the world.”

Thanks.

After getting into only a few pages of your book it was evident that you weren’t trying to pick the “best” or most representative songs in rock and roll history.

No, what I wanted was a group of songs each of which in its own way could contain the whole notion of rock and roll and what it can do as music, what it can do to a listener.

I found the best way for me to read this book was to read what you wrote each time you pick up on a new song, then go online to listen to it a couple of times.

That’s how the book was written. Without YouTube, the book wouldn’t exist.

I was amazed how often I had never heard of the versions of a song you focused on. For instance, the Beatles rendition of Crying, Waiting, Hoping, the great Buddy Holly song.

Which was issued as the B-Side to Peggy Sue Got Married in 1959.

I didn’t know that.

I love this passage, too: “Buddy Holly walked into the room sideways. In terms of pure power, he can’t stand up to those with whom he’s most often linked as the founder of a new music: Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry. He recorded nothing as immediately overwhelming—nothing that so forced an absolute confrontation between performer and listener—as Hound Dog, Tutti Frutti, Who Do You Love?, or Johnny B. Goode.”

I think you pinned down Holly’s appeal precisely: “What Buddy Holly was saying, what he was acting out, was that you could also be ordinary.”

So the Beatles had recorded that Buddy Holly song many times?

Yes, you can hear it on a 1962 demo, available on “Decca Auditions” bootlegs, and there’s a version performed in 1963 at the Paris Theatre on Live at the BBC.

The one I wrote about is from 1969, a time when the Beatles hated each other. George is quitting, Yoko is sitting next to John and is all he cares about, Ringo isn’t happy. It was terrible. One day they were trying things out and started playing old Buddy Holly songs. They started with Not Fade Away and went from one song to another over a 14 minute stretch. Every time they seemed to be getting closer to something they had never been able to touch before. After all, the Beatles named themselves after the Crickets. The first song they recorded in 1958 in Liverpool was That’ll Be the Day. And there they are, getting to Crying, Waiting, Hoping—suddenly everything is there—all their passions, all their love for each other and their misery over their loss: “I know it will never come back.”

AB: I think my favorite chapter might be where you spin several songs into a chapter about rock and roll songs about money, from Barrett Strong’s Money That’s What I Want (1959) to Tom Gray’s song Money Changes Everything with versions by Cyndi Lauper and Gray with his band, the Brains.

Gray gives the story from a man’s perspective, Lauper’s from a woman’s. I like the way you put it, “Cyndi Lauper went beyond the Brains [version]. Listening to what she did with Money Changes Everything, it’s clear she owns the song for good. She lives in its house. She might as well have her name on the deed.” But both Lauper and the Brains kept on doing new versions over the years. You write that in 2008, “He [Gray] was ready to do something he hadn’t done before: to let the song sing itself with its writer its finder, its singer only a medium for any of the many things that, on any given night the song might choose to say, with each note, each word, telling the next what to do, and why.”

It goes from a man’s lament into a woman’s manifesto. Then in Gray’s late versions back again, and then, in a later acoustic version Lauper finds even new depths in it. What a great show it would be if you had just Cyndi Lauper and Tom Gray doing a “battle of the bands” type thing, back and forth on that one song.

I guess the most controversial—or maybe I should say puzzling to many—is the chapter on Guitar Drag by Christian Marclay, which was made into a 14-minute video installation shown all over the world.

I had written nine chapters and had one left. That’s when the absurdity of the concept of this book really hit me. Before I had never been thinking, “How can I include this performer and leave that one out?” Now I was having so many thoughts about what I still needed to write about, I was completely stuck.

I went to dinner with Christian and he talked about Guitar Drag and I suddenly realized I was going to write about it. He told me I was nuts, but I knew I could do it. It was so impossible and so unlikely, and it struck me as so right. The song, the video, it really is an incredible story.

You say it was recorded in San Antonio on November 18, 1999.

GM: When I first heard it, it was an incredible listening experience. You get 2 ½ minutes into it, and there’s the unmistakable sound of a car starting—as it turns out, the only really unmistakable song you’ll hear … I mean, you don’t even know what the title Guitar Drag means. Is Guitar Drag the name of a band, or a song? At about seven minutes, the sound begins to fade. Whatever it is you’re listening to seems to be assuming a kind of shape. I felt at one point like I was looking right into a chainsaw.

You can distinguish several different levels of sound. At the beginning there is a rumbling sound that seems to be feedback. Then a slowing down, the sound narrowing from a dark mass to a single line. The sounds holds, and at just over 14 minutes, it disappears.

The whole thing was inspired by the murder of a man named James Byrd Jr., in Jasper, Texas in 2008. Byrd was a 49-year-old black man walking home from a party when three white men in a Ford pickup offered him a ride. They drove behind a store, pulled Byrd out of the truck, beat him with a baseball bat, chained him by his ankles to the truck and dragged him to death. They dumped his body at the gate of a black cemetery—his head and right arm were gone. Two of the three men, as it turned out, were white supremacists—one of them, John King, had a tattoo of a black man hanging from a tree.

Christian Marclay was on a plane and came across the story in Time magazine. A year later, he was in San Antonio as a resident artist and he borrowed a truck—“from Linda Ronstadt’s cousin,” he told an interviewer—and recruited two people to film from the truck bed. He mounted a Trace Elliot amplifier on the back of the truck. A man wearing a baseball cap is holding a new Fender Stratocaster, and he knots a rope around its neck and secures to the back of the truck. Then he gets into the driver’s seat, starts the engine and drives off.

There isn’t any reference to James Byrd at first, but within seconds you are drawn into the destruction, and after a couple of minutes that destruction casts off any perspectives that are not completely sucked into an irreducible violence. The guitar begins to sound like a living thing, an animal or a human, something that can feel pain, and you’re listening to its scream. You realize you are watching torture. When I first saw it I began to flinch. The truck pulls the guitar over railroad tracks, through rocks and gravel, whatever, and the guitar is still speaking.

As the piece ends, the truck goes up a hill in a haze of sun and a cloud of dust, like the end of a western, John Wayne framed in the cabin door in The Searchers. There’s no resolution, no real ending. Marclay said in a 2008 interview, “Once you go down that road, there’s no way out.”

Watching it is an extremely intense experience, as it certainly should be as it’s an allegory of the murder of James Byrd.

I know it’s unfair, but if you had to sum up why you wrote the Guitar Drag chapter, how would you do it?

I guess it’s out of an ambition to be a storyteller. To start with something that seems both abstract and random and try to make a compelling story from it. I’ll stand behind the legitimacy of including a chapter on Guitar Drag in a book on rock and roll. It’s both a piece of music you can actually listen to and an incident in the history of sound.