IT’S NOT ENTIRELY surprising that critic and scholar Greil Marcus would choose Etta James’s 1960 hit “All I Could Do Was Cry” for a book about the history and the language of rock ’n’ roll. What is startling is just how long he takes getting to it. That chapter opens not at Chess Records in Chicago, but at the White House in January 2013. At Barack Obama’s second inauguration, James Taylor sang “America the Beautiful” as an “autumn-leaves stroll,” which prompted Stephen Colbert to joke, “I have to admit, this shows how far we have come as a nation…A black guy who likes James Taylor!” That comment leads to a brief interlude where Marcus imagines Colbert imagining Obama as Steve Martin’s character from The Jerk, “explaining how as a white foundling he was raised by a family of black sharecroppers, only discovering his true self […] when, as a young man, he heard Mantovani for the first time.”
Next up was Kelly Clarkson, who included the “forgotten” third and fourth verses of “My Country 'Tis of Thee.” “Joe Biden looked shocked, and thrilled,” Marcus writes. “You couldn’t tell whether he hadn’t heard the verse Clarkson sang before, or if he hadn’t heard her before.” She is not, however, the point of the chapter: Beyoncé ends the ceremony by singing the National Anthem “as a show-closer, drawing attention to her own gorgeousness.” Two weeks later the “Put a Ring on It” singer played the Super Bowl with a similar bravado: “Throwing off the restraint of the inauguration, she plunged into the melismatics that turn every song into a mirror into which the singer gazes at her own beauty.”
What follows is some of the best writing yet on R&B melisma, which culminates with the assertion that “what was once a sign of meaning what you said is transformed into a device by which singers communicate that they don’t.” Those gaudy displays of vocal acrobatics, in other words, have become so expected that they lose their power as an interpretive tool, conveying only the intention of emotion rather than the emotion itself.
Eight pages into a 20-page chapter, Marcus finally arrives at the doorstep of Chess Records, where Etta James recorded “All I Could Do Was Cry.” His pace has been patient and careful, less that of an essayist contextualizing a subject than a hunter sneaking up on his prey. Her delivery of just those first two words — “I heard…” — instills them with immense tragedy; she lets “I” linger and drift away, then breaks “heard” into two syllables, signaling that this story will not have a happy ending. As Marcus notes, “Time stops, swirls, and fades out. I heard — James’s sound is so full of beauty it’s hard to stand it.”
Marcus’s route to those two words — “I heard” — may seem initially roundabout, but there’s great purpose in his lengthy preface, which cannily establishes the stakes of James’s performance, as if to say: this is what the song is not. Melisma “allows a singer to mimic the sense of event in soul music,” yet James makes “All I Could Do Was Cry” eventful — even timeless, Marcus would argue — with a simpler, subtler approach. She sings as if stunned by betrayal and reluctant to face a future alone and wounded. It becomes ironic, then, that Beyoncé herself would perfectly capture that sense of devastating loss when she played the role of Etta James in Cadillac Records. That 2008 film is mostly forgettable, but Beyoncé loses herself in the role and shows none of the self-regard that informs her stage presence.
The chapter rambles by design, Marcus’s prose vivid and electric: at once stream-of-conscious and carefully composed and extraordinarily disciplined. He moves by digression and allusion. There is no regard for linear storytelling here, which can be momentarily disorienting but is ultimately rewarding. If there is a sense of play in Marcus’s writing, there is likewise a sense of danger and excitement, as though you’re watching a man dance along a tightrope. Marcus works best up in the heights. He began writing about rock ’n’ roll in the 1970s, part of a wave of music critics who wrote as vividly — and sometimes as recklessly — as their subjects sang and strummed guitars. As he makes clear in foundational books like Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music (1975), Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (1989), and The Old, Weird America: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes (1997), rock ’n’ roll cannot be isolated from the larger culture. Instead, its riffs and tendrils reach into every corner of American life: into churches and schools, into shops and banks, into bedrooms and cinemas.
That big-picture approach is profoundly freeing, especially in The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs, allowing Marcus to present rock ’n’ roll history not as a linear story but as a bundle of connections and references. As he notes in his introduction,
Going back to the Orioles’ "It’s Too Soon to Know" in 1948 and forward to Lady Gaga’s "Bad Romance" sixty-one years later and on from there to the present day, rock ’n’ roll may be more than anything a continuum of associations, a drama of direct and spectral connections between songs and performers. It may be a story about the way a song will continue speaking in a radically different setting than the one that, it may have seemed, gave rise to it, a story in which someone may own the copyright but the voice of the song is under no one’s control.
In other words, don’t take that title literally. Bookstores are overflowing with object-oriented histories, such as The History of the World in 100 Objects, The History of the World in 12 Maps, and The Smithsonian’s History of American in 101 Objects. Especially at a time when museum collections are under constant threat of liquidation (see the travesties in Detroit and Delaware for shocking examples), anchoring scholarship to specific objects is incredibly important not only for deepening our understanding of the past but also for shoring up our appreciation and preservation of its artifacts. Yet, there remains something arbitrary and pat in this list-oriented publishing trend, as though any round number of things can explain something as complicated as human history.
To his credit, Marcus isn’t interested in recounting the full history of rock ’n’ roll, as he makes clear in an introduction that includes a list of every single Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee from Chuck Berry and James Brown to Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. There are hundreds and hundreds of names, some obvious and others more obscure, spreading across six pages. Encountering this list so close to the beginning of the book is certainly daunting, and no doubt many readers will skim or skip most of the names. But it’s less a stunt than a piece of rock criticism as performance art: the sheer length and tedium of so many names demonstrate just how dry and cumbersome, not to mention how institutional, the popular history of rock ’n’ roll has become. For Marcus, history is not a noun, but a verb. It’s an action undertaken by any reasonably attentive listener who hears a song and begins to make their own connections and write their own stories of it, whether consciously or subconsciously.
Freed from any expectation of comprehensiveness, Marcus chooses songs not for their historical importance (as though influence were the only measure of quality), but for the opportunities they allow him to take core samples of history. There’s no account of Elvis meeting Sam Phillips in these pages, no anecdote about Dylan plugging in at Newport. The Beatles don’t invade America, nor does Nirvana eradicate hair metal from the planet. Those are, of course, important events, although the stories have become threadbare in their constant retelling. Marcus is more interested in the stories that haven’t been told yet, the connections not made. So there’s Joy Division’s rampaging “Transmission,” an anti-anthem pitched somewhere between rebellion and nihilism. And there’s Buddy Holly, the “embodiment of ordinariness” who became a mythic figure, singing “Crying, Waiting, Hoping.” And there’s “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” a song that has survived both its writer (Phil Spector is doing life in prison for murder) and its greatest singer (Amy Winehouse died in 2011).
Marcus opens with the Flamin’ Groovies’ “Shake Some Action,” a fantastically rambunctious garage-rock number that was recorded in 1972 and released in 1976, and sounds like it might just as easily have emanated from 1966 or 2000. That timeless quality is telling:
[N]othing like what happens in "Shake Some Action" had ever been heard on earth; the point is that rock ’n’ roll, as music, as an argument about life captured in sound, as a beat, was something new under the sun […] rock ’n’ roll could be invented anywhere, at any time, regardless of any rumors that something vaguely similar might have happened before.
Which is another way of saying that the Flamin’ Groovies, along with many other bands, invented and continue to invent rock ’n’ roll.
The closest Marcus gets to canonical is during a chapter on two songs, “Money (That’s What I Want)” and “Money Changes Everything,” when he discusses the Beatles reinterpretation of Barrett Strong’s 1959 hit. Each performer had a very different idea of what the song could mean, and neither version is more legitimate than the other. Rather, they demonstrate the elasticity of rock ’n’ roll songs — how they can change radically from one person to another, from one place to another, from one time to another. In that same chapter, Marcus describes the origins of another song, “Money Changes Everything,” which Tom Gray wrote as a bitter break-up number in 1978. Six years later — and well into the Reagan administration — Cyndi Lauper would cover it on her breakthrough album She’s So Unusual, not only assigning herself the role of the betraying woman but playing it triumphantly. “What Lauper heard in the song was not, you could think, what Tom Gray had ever imagined anyone might hear,” Marcus writes — but infinite mutability may be rock ’n’ roll’s greatest asset, a trait that is absolutely crucial to its constant self-invention.
Perhaps the most powerful chapter is the one about the most obscure song. “Guitar Drag” never charted, did not appear on a successful album, wasn’t even made by a rock musician. In 2000 a Swedish-American artist named Christian Marclay tied an electric guitar to the back of a pickup truck and drove around rural Texas, dragging the instrument behind him and recording the noises it made on asphalt and dirt roads. It was inspired, Marclay says, by the murder two years previous of James Byrd Jr., who was beaten by three white men in Jasper, Texas, and dragged behind their truck, his body dumped at a local cemetery.
At first Marclay’s project seems like a glib response to Byrd’s murder, the stakes lowered to such an alarming degree. But Marcus rescues it through a close description of the recording (which was released on one-sided vinyl through a Swedish label) and the ways a listener might try to make sense of it: You can detect what might be patterns or scales, flutters of intended notes or intentionally shaped drones, as though your ears are trying to impose humane order on inhumane chaos. “If you can’t find a story in the noise, or make one up, you get used to the noise, stop hearing it, erase the story you can’t decode.” “Guitar Drag” becomes, in a sense, a murder ballad, ugly and violent and morally suspect. Marcus reads it as a kind of folk music, specifically a cover of the old ballad “John Henry,” but he hears the entirety of the rock ’n’ roll canon in its squall. Rather than pin down the racial metaphor at the heart of this unlikely music, Marcus leaves it somewhat open-ended, as though he understands it will be all the more powerful for listeners to intuit and explore these connections themselves.
It’s especially grim and damning to read this chapter in late 2014, when so many well-established artists are wringing their hands over the fate of rock ’n’ roll. Gene Simmons showed no self-awareness nor any remorse when he recently proclaimed to Esquire that “Rock is finally dead.” His statement raised a minor commotion on social media, especially when he announced that he was starting a battle-of-the-bands reality show. The genre’s demise is the overarching theme of Weezer’s latest album, the despairing, joyless, expensive-sounding Everything Will Be Alright in the End, which even includes a song called “Eulogy for a Rock Band.”
The rock-is-dead talking point comes up every couple of years, usually when one generation realizes it’s no longer the dominant force in popular culture. The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs reads as a direct rebuttal to such worries, a reminder that rock ’n’ roll acts as a language rather than a genre — one whose health is measured not by chart positions or album sales, but by artists and listeners. In Marcus’s words: “Records that made no apparent history other than their own, the faint marks they left on the charts or someone’s memory, might count for more than any master narrative that excludes them.”