Book Review: "The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs" by Greil Marcus “This slim volume tells us enough of what we need to know to negotiate rock’s inscrutabilities, lies, half-remembered truths, cruelty, and sublimity.”

“Ghost” is a word that pops up a fair amount in Greil Marcus’s new The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs, describing those factors in music’s fundamental appeal that common logic can’t explain away. It’s an easy place to return to, especially for an author who borrowed the cryptic blues title “Mystery Train” for one of his early books. However, a larger part of the thrill of secret histories, including Ten Songs, is learning what does add up, giving color and detail to unknown knowns that were heretofore mythical or perhaps just forgotten.

It’s a game I play with myself, too. As a younger pop omnivore than Marcus, my attention is drawn to ephemeral tracks like Candy’s 1985 “Whatever Happened to Fun” (1970s American power pop bouncing atop the dying embers of Los Angeles Paisley Underground, in era-appropriate Sunset Strip clothes) and Kevin Paige’s 1989 “Don’t Shut Me Out” (a boyband confection owing to Scritti Politti’s “Perfect Way” and Robbie Nevil, while straddling the division between the urban toughness of new jack swing and the Vegas flash and dazzle of Eddie Van Halen’s “Beat It” guitar solo).

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, because you can pick any song from any era and it will tell you an amazing story: about the music business, trends in stasis and flux, how much autobiography or apocrypha the artist is able or willing or required to impose upon the material at that stage of his or her career. Marcus’s chapter on Etta James’s “All I Could Do Was Cry” is really about Beyoncé and is a perfect example of such dots being connected. Bey is the personification of a crossroads between agency and industry-initiated puppetry, the trendsetter who wouldn’t exist as we know her without the precedents of corporate synergy (Michael Jackson), melismatic singing (Mariah Carey), and being provocative in a way that even the president approves of (Marilyn Monroe). It’s telling that this queen-of-the-mainstream, this (Etta James’s word here) “bourgie” icon played James in the 2008 film Cadillac Records, about the Chess label — Marcus recounts a pivotal scene in the movie where Adrien Brody’s Leonard Chess character humiliates James into doing a retake of “All I Could Do Was Cry” that has a sufficient reading of heartbreak and despair. The tough James has shown a chink in the agency-armor, and it’s a moment of real-seeming vulnerability for the imperious Beyoncé as well. Marcus’s mastery in this chapter is threefold:

1. Illuminating the politics and shittiness that can occur behind the scenes of these indelible pop classics, songs we think about as if they were always just there

2. Doing it by giving us a movie as “evidence,” subscribing to a “print the legend” ethos that muddies up the waters just like pop and folk and jazz and blues have done since time immemorial, making Marcus’s “history of rock & roll” as gauzy and as delightfully dubious as rock itself

3. The aforementioned Bey-Etta importance-switcheroo, forcing fetishists of the past to acknowledge the present’s relevance to these secret histories

Martin Scorsese once said, “The thing about Robert Johnson was that he only existed on his records. He was pure legend.” This is a problem I have with people’s readings of the Delta blues, that the myths surrounding working musicians with deliberate career choices turned them into a collective, indistinguishable sort of dissolute Santa Claus figure. The “Instrumental Break: Another History of rock & roll” section of Ten Songs has some fun with this, starting with a bit of cursory Robert Johnson biography and veering into a sharp left turn at the phrase “but there are other ways to tell the story.” If Ten Songs were a summer popcorn movie, this would be the point in the trailer with the sound effect of the needle being yanked across the record, as the music bed drops out for a pregnant pause. Marcus has Johnson, still alive in 1938, performing at Carnegie Hall and galavanting around Harlem with PaPa LaBas and Zora Neale Hurston. He composes with Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer; eventually, a church connection ends up earning him a production credit on N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton. It is an entirely silly (and fun) chapter, and sometimes Marcus’s wishful thinking of Johnson as a Zelig-like character, hanging out with the right people at the right time, leads me to wonder what a fabrication of a more banal ending to the Johnson story might have entailed. The point stands, though, that secret histories by no means have to be real ones.

Reality can out-weird fiction, though. My favorite moments in rock & roll are the things that were perhaps never meant to happen at all, like the barely perceptible “faint rumbling of a passing truck” that Marcus notices in a section about The Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Nite.” “Like a phantom bass player, [it] was never erased,” Marcus writes, “leaving a sound that on the record itself you could less hear than apprehend.” Then there’s Buddy Holly and The Crickets’ “Not Fade Away;” the “original remains in another world … the record isn’t easy to listen to, because it doesn’t quite make sense.” Holly’s “Maybe Baby” fits a “personal aesthetic of drift, of floating” that Marcus ascribes to a point in Holly’s creative evolution, complete with “ghostly backing vocals” (there’s that word “ghost” again). Marcus’s Holly chapter, on “Crying, Waiting, Hoping,” is a nebulous presence itself, reading at times like it’s suspended in water. The lack of a strong linear narrative makes it less compelling than other parts of Ten Songs, but upon further reflection, there was something fuzzy and liminal about Holly, something Lynchian about a man who projected “normal” so well he threw people off the scent and was free to visit darker places.

While Marcus never promises us that we’re getting a “complete” history of rock & roll with these ten songs, the underlying message is that this slim volume tells us enough of what we need to know to negotiate rock’s inscrutabilities, lies, half-remembered truths, cruelty, and sublimity. There’s much more, of course, and writers who consistently cover a more youthful beat than Marcus should take this book of relative oldies as a friendly bit of gauntlet-throwing. But any ten pop songs would work toward the end that Marcus envisions, and he has chosen good, diverse ones here and expounded upon them in good, diverse ways. It’s a breezy collection that doesn’t ask its audience for a serious commitment of time or emotional labor, so despite the intimidating-looking “Yale” logo on the spine, it’s a fine place to jump in for those just getting started with Marcus in general — or those looking to embark on some rock archaeology (or epistemology, or fan fiction) of their own.

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