Wes Reviews… Marcus, Petty & Yes
Wes was in the crowd for the Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers show in Philly. He has this to say about that.
In July, he wrote a review of the Philadelphia stop on the Yes tour.
And in the Wall Street Journal Life and Culture Section, Wes reviewed the new book by Greil Marcus.
The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs
By Greil Marcus Yale, 307 pages, $28
A review by Wesley Stace
Tripping through time to discover what connects Buddy Holly, Beyoncé, Ben E. King and the Sex Pistols.
Greil Marcus doesn’t need anyone’s praise. He is one of rock’s pre-eminent critics and historians, a founding father. His 1975 classic “Mystery Train”—an eye-opening blend of close listening, cultural materialism and sheer good taste—redefined not only the rock criticism but rock history itself, persuading a generation of readers, this one included, to listen to music they’d never considered and to reconsider music they thought they knew. Bruce Springsteen once sang that “we learned more from a three minute record than we ever learned in school”; “Mystery Train” taught me more about America than I learned at school in England.
Books like “Lipstick Traces,” “The Old, Weird America” and “The Dustbin of History” followed over the last three decades. Keywords in the titles and subtitles of these are instructive: “Secret,” “Invisible,” “Old,” “Weird,” “Prophecy,” “Obsession.” Mr. Marcus has become the guardian of the arcane, a psychogeographer of song, wringing meaning from old music and occasionally old photos, W.G. Sebald-style. Though he believes that rock ‘n’ roll can “divine all truths, reveal all mysteries, and escape all restrictions,” it is Mr. Marcus himself who proposes to offer this kind of enlightenment.
Mr. Marcus’s editor had suggested a book-length history of rock ‘n’ roll. The writer smartly demurred. This is well-trodden territory, and in any case straightforward narrative has never been his thing. The standard history, he states here, is “not the truth at all” but “a constructed story that’s been disseminated so comprehensively that people believe it.” Instead, we have the story of rock told in glimpses, through 10 songs. Here’s the list: “Shake Some Action,” “Transmission,” “In the Still of the Nite,” “All I Could Do Was Cry,” “Crying, Waiting, Hoping,” “Money (That’s What I Want),” “Money Changes Everything,” “This Magic Moment,” “Guitar Drag,” and “To Know Him Is To Love Him.” Some you’ll know and some you won’t: There’s no Beatles or Dylan, but it doesn’t mean the book doesn’t keep circling back to the big guns.
The idea is that each song in some way embodies rock—escape may be a theme—but another prominent strand is how different artists cover, and rediscover, one another’s work. The Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Nite” has hit the Billboard charts in four different decades. Phil Spector wrote “To Know Him Is To Love Him” for the Teddy Bears but Mr. Marcus prefers Amy Winehouse’s version, recorded years later. “Money (That’s What I Want”) was the first hit for Berry Gordy’s Motown Records, but became a staple of the Beatles, Stones and other British bands.
Mostly, though, the songs are occasions for Mr. Marcus to free associate, and the book is a ramble through his mind. It’s possible that the title is a joke—a Greil Marcus first—so magnificently does it misrepresent the contents: 11 loopy essays, by turns abstruse and charming. It could easily have been a different 10 songs, and the chapters could be reordered as casually as the verses of a recent Bob Dylan song.
Mr. Marcus’s chapter on Buddy Holly’s “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” might be the closest to the sort of criticism promised in the title, but the most typical of the book’s highly digressive style is the essay on Joy Division’s “Transmission.” He begins with a description not of Joy Division’s own recording of the song, released as a 1979 single, but a version played by the actors in Anton Corbijn’s “Control” (2007), a biopic of the band’s gifted and suicidal singer Ian Curtis. There follows a cut-and-paste history of the actual band and a lengthy quote from the literary critic Leslie Fiedler about William Faulkner.
The focus then shifts to a 2010 film version of Graham Greene’s “Brighton Rock” starring Sam Riley, the actor who played Ian Curtis in “Control.” Three versions of a single scene are detailed (from the original novel, from the 1947 Richard Attenborough film, and from the 2010 remake), one in which Mr. Riley’s Pinky goes into a “Make a Record of Your Own Voice” booth. Because of the palimpsest of Ian Curtis left on Pinky, according to author, this record becomes the “first Punk single”—at the very same moment that Mr. Marcus becomes the David Thomson of Rock. It’s a magnificent game of consequences that you yourself can play at home.
The cameo of “Brighton Rock” is telling for another reason. In this slim book on rock ‘n’ roll, there are disquisitions of various length on, among other works of cinema, “Dead Ringers,” “American Hot Wax,” “The Buddy Holly Story,” “The Searchers,” “Baby Face,” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Sometimes it’s as though the screen, silver or small, is where rock really happens, as if sound only means something with an accompanying image. We learn that Lou Reed’s performance of “This Magic Moment” “only came to life” a year after he recorded it, when David Lynch used it in his film “Lost Highway.”
Mr. Marcus can be perceptive about music and show business. Writing about Etta James’s “All I Could Do Was Cry,” he skewers Beyoncé, and the whole “Showtime at the Apollo” aesthetic, with a sharp thrust—”the melismatics that turn every song into a mirror into which the singer gazes at her own beauty.” He can also write admiringly that soul music is “the limitless affirmation of the individual despite his or her past sins and all obstacles in his or her way, an affirmation that remains even in the moment before suicide.” At such moments, Mr. Marcus remains among the very best, and most generous, of critics.
But once a chapter, Mr. Marcus leaves his fellow critics behind and lets loose with what you might call a solo: He describes the song in question, visualizes it (“you try to make a narrative out of it all, to see the music”), and, like a guitarist losing himself trancelike in his solo, lives within it, becomes it. Very few critics attempt this stuff, and it’s the high point of each chapter. Now—it’s very now—the language flies away, only gesturing at communication. Mr. Marcus is riffing: a guitar solo is “a guitar, more than a guitarist, replacing the story you’ve heard with one you haven’t”; suddenly “this is not just a song’; at the climax, “what was simply a song . . . is now a cauldron, and in that cauldron all songs, the band’s songs, every song they’ve ever heard, every song that has ever been played, the impulse to make sound, the desire to sing and play itself, is boiling over.” Encore!
As hypnotic as such passages can be, however, the author’s fervent belief that the only knowledge worth sharing about music is esoteric knowledge, beyond the standard history, too frequently leads him away from insight into inscrutability. As with the alchemists of old, Mr. Marcus tantalizes us with transcendence. He writes that an audience tape of the Sex Pistols’s famous 1976 show in Manchester—where the members of Joy Division and other seminal bands first felt the irresistible pull of punk— “sound[s] like an initiation into a secret society.” That’s his highest praise, and a good description of his own work.
To convince us of the existence of his philosopher’s stone, the gold he can create from base metal (though never heavy metal), the shaman delves deep into necromancy. In this world, where “a melody hides ghosts of countless other tunes,” the Beatles aren’t just covering Buddy Holly, they’re “conducting a kind of séance with him.” I enjoyed Mr. Marcus four-page fantasy of what Holly might have done had he not died (there’s a sweet image of him going to see Dylan in the Village). But to conduct the same exercise for Robert Johnson (at 10 pages) and Amy Winehouse (perhaps she became “a music teacher for kindergartners”) becomes ghoulish.
Right at the start, discussing “Shake Some Action,” the classic power-pop anthem by the Flamin’ Groovies, Mr. Marcus cites as a kind of guiding principle Neil Young’s charming, if historically implausible, statement that “Rock ‘n’ roll is the cause of country and blues.” A cryptic phrase, but what Mr. Young meant is made clearer when you realize he was glossing writer Bill Flanagan’s observation that, when country and blues artists sing about raising hell on Saturday night, they also sing about feeling like hell on Sunday morning. Rock ‘n’ roll, by contrast, is all Saturday night.
Various passages in the book hold out the promise of Marcus-style time travel, to that Borgesian kingdom where rock ‘n’ roll precedes country, but there is little: Tom Gray, the Brains’s vocalist who wrote “Money Changes Everything” reminds Mr. Marcus of old-time banjo player Dock Boggs. Ben E. King singing “This Magic Moment” “could be Rabbit Brown, serenading sweethearts on Lake Pontchartrain in 1927.” But if history really is “a free-floating Moebius strip of signs,” as the author states, if the present day is “an illusion,” then I want more and weirder. The suggestion that “the real, living connection is not between, say, The Beatles and The Stones but between the Beatles and Buddy Holly” doesn’t require an Escher illustration.
The insistence that the true meaning of music is impossibly difficult to divine has one important effect. It places the critic and the artist on nearly equal terms. “The biographical is just another mode of denying the autonomous nature of any work of art,” the author writes. Tom Gray wrote “Money Changes Everything” in 1978. Cyndi Lauper made it famous in the 1980s, but only decades later, at a performance Mr. Marcus witnesses, is the song’s author finally “ready to do something he hadn’t done before: to let the song speak through him, to listen to it as he sings, to let the song sing itself.” Even great songwriters don’t write their own stuff. Mr. Marcus quotes Dylan on “Like a Rolling Stone”: “a ghost is writing a song like that, it gives you the song and it goes away.” Until, perhaps, the critic can summon the ghost again.
Perhaps I’m being harsh. “What is this s—?” began Mr. Marcus’s notorious 1970 review of Dylan’s album “Self Portrait,” an opinion he slightly revised in the liner notes for the latter’s “Another Self Portrait” last year, recasting his opening line as “the words that were coming out of everyone’s mouth” after that album broke the spell of early Dylan. Hindsight may require, in 2057, that I excuse my opinion of “The History of Rock ‘n’ roll in Ten Songs.”
—Mr. Stace is a singer-songwriter who has recorded as John Wesley Harding and the author of four novels, most recently, “Wonderkid.”