His 1975 book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock n’ Roll Music managed to present an in-depth tracing of the essence of American rock music, choosing such artists as Harmonica Frank, Robert Johnson, Randy Newman, and Sly & the Family Stone as case studies. Marcus used these artists as jumping off points to tell his larger tale of the history of the American persona. His classification of “the worried man” as the constant character of The Band’s song catalogue is a testament to his ability to treat rock music as literature, giving the genre due analysis.
“The story we’re telling is about imprisonment, but the music we’re making is about freedom, the tiny moments of freedom you steal from a life you don’t own, that doesn’t belong to you, that you have to live.”
Greil Marcus tells the rock ‘n‘ roll story better than most.
In The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs, Marcus does what he does best: he gives credence and worth to the world of rock and roll and its history. He reminds us that it matters, and he forces us to reflect upon what the history of rock and roll will look like to monorail riders of the future, when he lists the entirety (three-plus pages) of the inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which covers most of the greats, some not-so greats, and leaves out many more (Warren Zevon! HARRY NILSSON! and so on and so on…)
Rock and roll is much more than this list of inductees. It is much more than ten songs. But there is a quark of its essence deep within each one; pick any ten rock songs and the history of rock is there. Marcus knows this; in a sense, he uses this playful title to simultaneously debunk the myth of the idea of the list and endorse the necessity of its creation in order to give it more gravitas.
True, rock ‘n’ roll fans are mad about lists of bests. Consider Rolling Stone’s intermittently released 500-best-whatever lists, consider the plot structure of the ever-fantastic book and film High Fidelity, based largely on the idea of the Top-Five. Perhaps this is due to the appeal of how dangerous it is to make lists, for as soon as we choose something we’re leaving another thing out, which will surely irk someone somewhere.
If Marcus’ new book really did set forth a “top 10 of rock” there would be more diverse entries… and some Elvis. This is not a “10 best” list… one soon realizes that the title is just a means for Marcus to make his major point: that the history of rock ‘n’ roll can be told in ten songs because it can be told in one song, or four bars of one song for that matter (queue the opening riff of The Kinks’ “All Day And All Of The Night.”) It is a cumulative story.
The songs that Marcus chooses to discuss in his list make for interesting discussion. He tackles “Shake Some Action” by the Flamin’ Groovies, and classics such as “All I Could Do Was Cry” and “This Magic Moment.” Marcus also chooses Christian Marclay’s performance art recording “Guitar Drag,” ingeniously relating it to the 1998 lynching-by-dragging of James Byrd, Jr.
The connections that he makes between seemingly disparate elements of popular culture and art are astoundingly brilliant at times. In his chapter on Joy Division’s “Transmission,” Marcus goes down a rabbit hole that takes us from Joy Division to the biopic made about Joy Division to a remake of British noir film Brighton Rock to the original film starring Richard Ashcroft.
Marcus goes down a lot of rabbit holes in his writing, most of which are innovative and well thought out, like his tracing of the Money songs (“Money (That’s What I Want)” and “Money Changes Everything”) to the final scene of Andrew Dominik’s 2012 film Killing Them Softly. Some of the rabbit holes are less exciting, like his telling of the story of the real Peggy Sue. Nevertheless, it is always apparent that Greil Marcus is a fantastic writer, and this latest book is no exception, which is also much more than a list.