Things are rarely as they seem with Greil Marcus, probably the rock’n’roll era’s most lateral thinker. His works – such as 1975’s Mystery Train (loosely about Elvis) and 1989’s Lipstick Traces (loosely about the Sex Pistols) – play out as allusively as any cult classic from a heady fringe subgenre.
The title of the US critic’s latest playful, erudite and passionate work, The History of Rock’n’Roll in Ten Songs, should come with lurid neon inverts around each constituent part: “The History” of “Rock’n’Roll” “in Ten “Songs”.
It’s a magnificently subjective history, in which significant chunks are set outside the realm of rock, in pop or soul. All I Could Do Was Cry – both the Etta James original and the Beyoncé cover, playing James in the Chess Records film, Cadillac Records (2008) – is a touchstone, but it’s a rhythm and blues single, with shades of doo-wop.
He is downright fibbing about the “ten” bit. Marcus has chosen 10 pointedly non-canonical tracks – Crying, Waiting, Hoping by Buddy Holly, Guitar Drag, by sound artist Christian Marclay, and To Know Him is to Love Him, originally by the Teddy Bears, give a flavour – but hundreds of songs ring out of this work. Hundreds of artists, too. He lists the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees as continuous text at one point. If you can get past this writerly foot on the monitor – noting and then kicking away the canon – then you are primed for the riffing around corners further in.
The songs are dissected for every nuance as Marcus grabs at the elliptical truths contained within. To Marcus, songs are entities with plans of their own. Phil Spector cut his teeth on To Know Him is to Love Him, but Amy Winehouse defines it. The song “had been waiting for this particular singer to be born, and was only now letting out its breath”.
Marcus makes a show of ignoring the big guns, but then pulls them in through the side door. The Beatles turn up doing Buddy Holly covers. The Jagger-Richards song Gimme Shelter comes in via an in-depth discussion of This Magic Moment by the Drifters. Keith Richards wrote Shelter on a stormy day, but it gains heft from the unrest of the 60s. Unhitching texts from their authors is not new; songwriters often talk of songs as having their own will. But Marcus takes this idea to thrilling poetic extremes.
Perhaps the most fanciful conceit is that rock’n’roll bends time. Neil Young gives him the idea. “Rock’n’roll is reckless abandon,” says Young. “Rock’n’roll is the cause of country and blues. Country and blues came first, but somehow, rock’n’roll’s place in the course of events is dispersed.”
“A more swirling time is at play,” writes Marcus, a “curving time”, a pop time, one that allows for actor Sam Riley’s portrayal of Ian Curtis in Anton Corbijn’s Control (2007) to be informed by his portrayal of Pinkie in the remake of Brighton Rock (chronologically three years later, 2010).
Rock’n’roll, Marcus argues, is constantly being born in all sorts of places. That idea, so full of potent romance, was clearly forged, like Marcus, in the 20th century, when rock’n’roll still seemed a defining, disruptive force. Our lifetimes have witnessed, however, that rock’n’roll may well just be another consumer choice, one losing ground every moment to computer games.
But it’s fun to follow Marcus down this rabbit hole. The very best chapter, “Guitar Drag”, draws disparate cultural strands – Jimi Hendrix, Fluxus, racism – together in a way that is nothing short of breathtaking. It begins with the mythical John Henry, the African American railway worker so powerful that he beat a mechanical steel driver. Then there is his statue, in Talcott, West Virginia, toppled, tied to the back of a car and dragged around: a lynching, of sorts. And there is sound artist Christian Marclay, retelling this symbolic lynching, and real ones like it, by tying an electric guitar to the back of a car and driving around as it shrieks in agony.