‘Rock ’n’ roll may be most of all a language that, it declares, can say anything,” says Greil Marcus: It can “divine all truths, reveal all mysteries, and escape all restrictions.” Even better, rock says all that without really saying anything. We non-musicians learn the words to songs — that’s all we can learn — but Marcus quotes guitarist and critic Robert Ray as saying, “What’s interesting about rock & roll is that the truly radical aspect occurs at the level of sound.”
Greil Marcus is our greatest cultural critic, not only because of what he says but also, as with rock-and-roll itself, how he says it. He’s also our greatest cherry picker of the ideas of others, as we see with that Ray quote; then again, a critic is nothing if not a magpie, less a creator than a master collator of the ideas and images of others.
In one of his best-known books, “Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century,” Marcus uses cultural artifacts, many of which are staggeringly obscure, to unpack what we think to be true, linking Little Richard’s nonsensical warblings, for example, to the utterances of the pre-Christian Essenes. Readers have accused Marcus of being cryptic, although “gnomic” is a better word. His pronouncements tend to tease and provoke rather than obscure, to lead us to our own new ideas rather than simply accepting what’s dished up.
His trademark is looking around the corner, behind the tree, in the cellar where the bodies compost and give life to the living. “The official, standard history of rock ’n’ roll is true, but it’s not the whole truth,” he says, and then “it’s not the truth at all.” There’s a truth everyone can agree on, but it may not be true to your individual experience. And if you fall for the official stories you’re told, your experience will be warped by the “facts.”
So for “The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs,” instead of writing a chronological account of rock’s first 60 years, Marcus concentrates on just 10 songs, usually contrasting the first version and then a later cover of it. For example, “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” (as performed by Buddy Holly, then the Beatles) or “This Magic Moment” (The Drifters, Lou Reed).
One of Marcus’s genius pairings is the 1958 original of “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” by the Teddy Bears, with the version Amy Winehouse recorded. The recordings, which can be seen and heard on YouTube, couldn’t be more different. The original features Phil Spector , who composed the song, went on to pioneer the girl-group concept and the “wall of sound” production method, is now in a California prison for the second-degree murder of actress Lana Clarkson. The Teddy Bears sang the song on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” and in the video they come across as earnest but nervous and amateurish.
In contrast, Winehouse sounds like a teenager in her bedroom. She comes in at the wrong moment and stutters the refrain; you can almost imagine her painting her toenails. Yet she sounds so much more assured than the Teddy Bears. This is partly because production values have improved so much but also because the song is a standard now and not the risky experiment it must have seemed to Spector and his two high-school classmates. The song’s the same, yet it’s a hundred times better, an argument you could make in either direction — plenty of listeners will prefer the artlessness of the 1958 original to the later version’s studio polish.
Marcus’s casual observations are so frequent and sharp that any one of them could serve as the keystone to someone else’s book. But he makes big points aplenty as well, the most important of which is that chronology really doesn’t matter. Marcus quotes Neil Young as saying the most astonishing thing, which is that if you look at it in the right way, rock-and-roll predates its sources: “Rock & roll is reckless abandon. Rock & roll is the cause of country and blues. Country and blues came first, but somehow rock & roll’s place in the course of events is dispersed.” What does that even mean? It’s just as inexplicable as the lyrics to many a Neil Young song, and just as true.
That’s because rock appeals to an audience with no sense of history. Teenagers don’t know where their music comes from, and they don’t care. Nor should they. As long as it’s new, different and not something their parents like, that’s what counts. Music writer Nik Cohn (another of Marcus’s go-to sources for killer quotes) says this of the first days of rock-and-roll: Prior to that time in the music business, “for thirty years you couldn’t possibly make it unless you were white, sleek, nicely spoken, and phony to your toenails — suddenly now you could be black, purple, moronic, delinquent, diseased, or almost anything on earth, and you could still clean up.”
When you throw history out the window, everything else goes, too. That’s why the Pilgrims came to America, and that’s why rock-and-roll was invented here. And that’s why, to understand history, we need an original mind like Greil Marcus’s, one as thoroughly steeped in history as his is, to remind us that when everybody’s running toward the dance floor, the music is all that counts.
Kirby is the author of “Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll.”
Yale Univ. 307 pp. $28