Greil Marcus is a critic of music and culture who has helped redefine the job description. Known for his books like “Mystery Train,” “Lipstick Traces” and “The Old, Weird America” (on Dylan’s “Basement Tapes”), he’s forged a personal brand of criticism that blends traditional close reading with the styles of Leslie Fiedler and Pauline Kael, as well as deep, almost free-associative mediations on American history.
His new “The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs” — as eccentric as any of his previous books — has drawn him more attention than anything he’s written in a decade. These songs — whether by Joy Division, The Flamin’ Groovies, Etta James — tell their stories through the context they summon around them.
Marcus can be a bit like Van Morrison, the subject of his book “When That Rough God Goes Riding”: sometimes portentous and devoid of humor, but often lyrical and sometimes transcendent. “The History” is Marcus at his best.
We spoke to the Berkeley-based Marcus from New York, where he is teaching this term. (Disclosure: Marcus and I are both published by Yale University Press.)
Let’s talk about "The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll." It’s an understatement to say that, for you, a song is not just a number that was recorded once and that it belongs only to the first musician to perform it. What’s a song to you, and how does that work in this history of yours?
Well, I guess the way it works, in this book anyway, is that a song becomes a thing in itself. Yes, it’s written by someone, it’s performed by a person or a group and it goes into the world with various names attached to it. But it makes itself felt as a thing in itself, as its own object, as its own subject. People don’t necessarily know or care, and there’s no reason why they should, who the people making this record are, what their hopes and fears are, what their motives were, what situation in life they were in when the song came out of them, whether they were in a point in their career where they desperately needed a hit, or simply a matter of building on previous success, or if somebody was in rehab, or going through a divorce, or you know, had just signed up for a program to become an astronaut. People don’t know and don’t need to know any of that. That’s irrelevant.
The song becomes a kind of repeating event out there in the world, and people make of it what they will. And often the people who are listening are other musicians. Or maybe they’re not musicians yet or singers yet, but they want to be. And maybe it’s this song or any other song that’s made them want to do that. And maybe at some point in their lives that will happen. But in any case, musicians will take up these songs that are out there in the world and they’ll try to play them. They’ll feel that this song is not finished, this song, this story told isn’t complete, that they have something to add to this story, they want to feel, they want to understand and experience what it would be like to sing this song as if it were their own, as if they had thought of it, as if it comes out of them completely new.
In a lot of ways, that’s the story that this book traces again and again. It takes a song and then it look for, stumbles on or just reaches forward to other people who have taken up this song themselves, whether it’s the Five Satins with “In the Still of the Night” in 1956, and then this forgotten group of white guys from the University of Texas a year or two later, two or three years later, when their band, which came very close to having a national hit and then was completely and instantly forgotten, is on its last leg, they’re about to break up, and they’re rehearsing one afternoon. They’re just singing all the songs that they use to warm up on, and it just so happens they’re taping it when the band breaks up and they leave. The record company comes into possession of this rehearsal tape and then many, many decades later, an archivist is putting together "The Domino Records Story," the Austin, Texas, local label that this group called The Slades recorded for.
And this archivist stumbles across this tape and he decides to put it out, he decides to put it on the "The Domino Records Story" CD, and there it is again in the world. And it does add something new and completely different and kind of shocking to the song as everybody all around the world knows it, “In the Still of the Night.” That’s just one story.
And I think you get at the way a song changes if it’s taken up in a film or a novel, in the way that we can never hear Louis Armstrong’s “Black and Blue” in the same way because of the way it’s used in "The Invisible Man."
Right. Right. And whether it’s “Money” with Barrett Strong, and then the Beatles four years later, whether it’s Buddy Holly’s “Crying, Waiting, Hoping,” that he records singing into a tape recorded in his apartment in Greenwich Village in January of 1959, and he’s dead a month later. And the Beatles stumbling on this song as they’re about to break up, as their story’s coming to an end during the "Let It Be" sessions, and giving it a sense of loss and tragedy that it never had before. And giving themselves a sense of loss and tragedy that their music never had before.
I guess, without necessarily conceptualizing it, what I was looking for in this book was a way to let various songs tell their own stories, and then to argue or just to say … and this is what rock ‘n’ roll is. This is what rock ‘n’ roll is about. It’s songs moving through time, sweeping up all sorts of people, and each song making its own history, which in itself contains the whole history that rock ‘n’ roll has made. In other words, ignoring chronology, ignoring genre, ignoring iconic performers. It’s not about that at all.
So you mentioned chronology, genre, some other things. The conventional way to tell this story, if the story is the history of rock ‘n’ roll, the conventional way to do it would be to start with the Sun Sessions, do a Chuck Berry song, do a Lennon-McCartney song, and so on. Why did that seem to you insufficient or maybe even a false way to tell this tale?
I mean, there are two reasons. I don’t know how long ago it was, but it was maybe in the late '60s, early '70s, when I was thinking about this stuff. And a phrase popped into my mind, that what rock ‘n’ roll is — really what any cultural form is — but I think particularly rock ‘n’ roll, and I’m just talking about all pop music from the late '40s to the present that has any verve or edge or excitement or depth at all. Whatever shape it takes. Any art form. But with rock ‘n’ roll, more immediacy, more sense of the moment, more sense that whatever you’re hearing could disappear at any time, because it’s not something with a grand tradition behind it. It doesn’t have scholarly industries propping it up; it’s on its own as an art form. Put it that way.
Rock ‘n’ roll is a continuum of associations. It’s a conversation going on between records and people and people and songs, wherever they’re performed, wherever they’re heard. It’s a continuum of associations, it’s not a chronology, it’s not a conventional history, it’s not a this, then and that, it’s not a story of progress, you know, some kind of improvement, some kind of aesthetic development. It’s not that at all. So that’s one side of why I didn’t write the kind of conventional book that you’re talking about.
The other reason is, it’s been done. It’s been done over and over again. It’s been done really well by, say, Nik Cohn or Jim Miller with the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock ‘n’ Roll. And it’s been done really terribly. But whatever it is, we all know the story. We all know the narrative. It’s a master narrative, it’s been chiseled in stone. Who in their right mind would want to do that again?
Plus, I, just personally, I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve already written a lot about a lot of people. And I’ve done as well as I can. What was I supposed to do, go back and write about Elvis and pretend that like all the books on Elvis I’ve written didn’t happen, and now fake it and try to write something different? But I can’t imagine why anybody would want to do that at this …
Mmhmm. I’m not sure who could pull it off, either.
All of the songs in your book are unexpected and some are genuinely obscure. Six of them originate in the period from '56 to '60. You work them through time, forward and back, so they’re not limited to the late '50s. But I’m wondering why do these ten songs seem like the right ones, and why does the late '50s produce so many of the songs you want to concentrate on, besides the obvious fact that it’s beginning of rock ‘n’ roll history?
Well, for me, the book just doesn't feel that way. I mean, I understand how it would seem that way to somebody opening it up. But for example, one of the songs you’re talking about is “All I Could Do Was Cry” by Etta James from 1960. So that’s one of the six songs from 1956 to 1960. But I came to that song … you know, I must have heard it when it came out or in the years following. But it never made any impact on me. I never registered it, never thought about it, didn’t own it. That song came to me because of Beyoncé’s performance of it in “Cadillac Records” in 2008.
So it’s the appearance of this … you know, for me … I read a wonderful piece the other day in The Pitchfork Review; it’s this great new magazine that the Pitchfork music site has started putting out. And it’s about a guy and how when he was 15 years old he hated "Astral Weeks," and now he’s 30, he’s loves it, and why he hated it, and why he loves it now, and it’s a wonderful little essay. But one of the things he says is really interesting. He says, “This album came out in 1968.” He said, “That is an abstract concept to me. I was born in 1987. I can ask my parents about 1968, but it’s not a marker in my life.” He said, “As far as I’m concerned, 'Astral Weeks' came out when I first heard it. It came out in 1998, along with ...” and he named five or six other things that either did really come out 1998 or that he just that he first heard there. And I thought, that’s the right way to look at it.
And so, in a way, for me, “All I Could Do Was Cry” came out in 2008, not in 1960. Then I go back and discover the song, discover how great it is, discover the stories it tells, but without Beyoncé’s version ever shrinking because of that, ever becoming less of an event. So I just don’t … I know it’s there, but it doesn’t feel like that to me.
One of the songs is the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is To Love Him,” which came out in 1958. There’s no way on earth I ever would have written about that song. It’s really terrible. It’s embarrassing. I never would have written about that at all, except that in early 2013 while I was just beginning to write this book, I heard Amy Winehouse’s version on the radio. She was already dead, she had recorded this in a disc-jockey studio in 2006. And I just heard it. And I heard what she did with it, and I heard the way she opened the song up as if she had spent years studying it. Years with the idea there’s something more here than anyone’s ever heard. I know it’s there, I can’t find it, I’m gonna keep singing it, I’m gonna keep rearranging it, until the song gives up its soul. And she did that. And I just said, “I have to write about this.”
It wasn’t a question of this as opposed to something else, or "Is this really the song that I should include in this book?" A lot of the songs in this book just appeared. Just made their way into it while I was working. There were a couple of songs, the first two that I write about, that from the time I came up with the idea of the book, I always knew I would include. They had to be there, and they had to be first. And after that, it was all … I didn’t know what would be in the book. Didn’t have a clue.
You use the phrase, for what I think is your second book, "Lipstick Traces," you call it a “secret history.” That phrase has caught on and been used by other people since. I’m wondering A) where you got the phrase and B) if you see that as what you do in general as a writer on music and culture.
Well, the phrase “secret history” has a long history. It refers to spycraft. There are lots of books, you know, "The Secret History of World War II," which means the espionage war. Or the secret history of Mata Hari, her life as a spy, that sort of thing. So it’s a very conventional term in that way. But I got the title … or I got the phrase, the idea, whatever you want to call it, from a novel published in the late '70s by Robie Macauley, who was an editor, I believe, at Random House, but I think this was his only novel. He died not long after it was published. And it was called "A Secret History of Time to Come." And it is a novel about the future, about what’s left after a nuclear war, precipitated by a race war in the United States, wipes out civilization and what’s left. And so "A Secret History of Time to Come."
And that phrase was so beautiful to me. It was so perfectly balanced, it was poetry and it just stayed with me. So I stole it. And as far as what I do, I know why I do what I do. I know why I’m drawn to framing things as mysteries, as unfinished stories, as stories that need to be completed, as dead people who need to rise up and live their lives. I know why I’m interested in what seems to be hidden or unspoken or occult. It’s my own story, which there’s no need to tell. But I’ve always felt that neuroses aren’t necessarily a bad thing if they don’t completely rule your life. A neurosis, an obsession, whatever you want to call it, is a source of energy, it’s a source of intellectual curiosity. And if you’re aware of what your neuroses are, what the hell? Ride them. Make them into horses and get on them and let them take you where you want to go or where they want to take you.
People … it’s funny, people used to make fun of Pauline Kael because all of her book titles seem to have something to do with sex. You know, "I Lost It At the Movies" or "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" and on and on and on from there. And I’m sure once that got going, Pauline had tremendous fun tweaking people by never giving up on that. But this book has a very nice, blank title. So there’s nothing mysterious there.
Well, you’ve been writing about music since the Beatles were still together. And you have kept up with younger artists and newer artists along the way, as well as returning to figures like Dylan and Van Morrison and others. How has your taste changed in that time? We’re talking more than 40 years.
My great fear as a writer has been that, when I’m involved in a project, that my enthusiasm for it is going to run out before the book I’m writing is finished, and I’ll have to fake my way to the finish line. And that’s never happened, but with "Lipstick Traces," which took nine years, I was really afraid it would. But it didn’t happen, it didn’t happen with "Lipstick Traces," it didn’t happen with "Invisible Republic," which is now called "The Old, Weird America." Both of those books, the immersion in the music or the culture that I was writing about, with "Lipstick Traces," with avant-garde European art and American art, too, and with "The Old, Weird America," with old folk music. Those books really changed my taste. Really changed the music that I’m drawn to.
And I will listen to more avant-garde garbage and more old folk music garbage than I will listen to any other kind of garbage because I’m searching for the jewels. The jewels in those areas, I guess, mean as much to me now as anything else, and that wasn’t true before. Before I wrote "The Old, Weird America" I don’t think I would have loved Crooked Still, their album "Shaken by a Low Sound." I wouldn’t have understood or cared about The Handsome Family the way that I do. And you know, I’m very happy about that. I write about certain things that other people don't, and I don’t write about a lot of music that other people do and that is clearly more central to the present moment than a lot of the stuff I write about. But I figure I have things to say about stuff that other people are ignoring, and they have things to say about stuff that I’m ignoring, and I don’t see anything wrong with that.
I think you’re talking about something bigger than this, but it sounds like part of what you’re saying is that the music that Harry Smith collected and the music from the period, that sort of stuff, opened your ears, opened your thinking, made you hear differently. Is that fair to say?
Yeah, I mean, I first heard the Harry Smith Anthology somewhere around 1970. And I had it, I played it a fair amount, every once in a while I’d go back to it and there were certain songs on it that became instant touchstones for me. And there were certain songs on there I had just never heard, I never registered, didn’t even know they were there.
And then I became completely obsessed with it in, I suppose, the early '90s. And I began playing it all the time. And the funny thing is I might have played those records hundreds of times, but there were still songs I didn’t register, that I didn’t hear. And people would say, “Well, what do you think about that?” I’d say, “What are you talking about?” “You know, that song on side four.” “What? What? What?” Because that’s really the way I listen. I don't study stuff, I just put it on. And when it sounds interesting, I play it again, and then I begin to wonder about it, or ask questions about it while I’m listening to it. But I don’t spend time trying to divine the inner mysteries of something I don’t like or I don't care about.
Anyone who studied music history or American history knows that this country has a complicated and, at times, tragic, relationship to race, but it seems that even with that background, the last few years has been particularly fraught. It seems at times like the nation has sort of flipped out. I wonder if you noticed this, and if you have any sense of what’s happening. It strikes me that the Civil War has never really been settled.
Well, that’s for sure. It’s not even over. I mean, I remember being so surprised and fascinated and kind of shocked in the early '60s when the civil rights movement was really dominating the news, when it was the national story. The most important national story, the one that everyone had to have opinions about one way or the other, but not just about the civil rights movement, but this event and that speech and that outrage and that atrocity and whatever might be happening. It was the ruling question of national life, and it was so clear that the Civil War not only had never ended, it had never been … nothing had ever been resolved for countless people. Black and white, in the South particularly, but in the North, too. Everything was still open, everything was still being fought over.
And you learn something about history when you look at things that way. You learn that it isn’t … that what is passed on from generation to generation is often passed on whole. Nothing’s lost, nothing’s diminished, it’s very scary. With Barack Obama’s election, and a lot of people my age never, ever thought they would see a black president in their lifetimes, and it was shocking when it happened. People were weeping, and they weren’t weeping out of joy, they weren’t weeping out of sorrow. They were weeping out of ... because they were coming apart, the whole conceptual apparatus that they used to construct themselves as social beings was coming apart because of this event, and it was just so overwhelming that you didn’t know how to talk about it, so you cried.
It happened to a lot of people, but I remember thinking, and I remember writing, right after Barack Obama was elected, that this country was not less racist the day after his election that it was the day before, and it might even be more so. And that I thought a lot of really ugly, scary things were going to start coming out of the ground. And it didn’t take very long for that to happen. And I’m not just talking about people at Tea Party rallies saying there’s a lying African in the White House and showing a picture of Barack Obama with a bone through his nose and stuff like that, which is disgraceful enough.
There has been a breakdown in decency in this country over the past number of years to the point where, just this weekend, somebody showed up at a Vikings game where Adrian Peterson, their running back, had just been suspended or not suspended … suspended by his team for a game because of child abuse indictment. Somebody shows up at the Vikings game in Minnesota wearing an Adrian Peterson jersey and carrying a tree switch, of the sort that he used to beat his son. It’s like, what kind of … how sick do you have to be to even think of doing that? Let alone do it.
But with Barack Obama, racism has become ordinary discourse since his election in a way that it wasn’t before, and the contempt and the ridicule with which Republicans treat him. Not even Bill Clinton, who they felt they could disparage because they thought he was a dumb white cracker, not even Bill Clinton has been treated the way Barack Obama has been treated. He’s been treated as if he’s an impostor, an interloper and as scum.
I mean, the things that have been said about Michelle Obama, the way she’s talked about on Fox News, you know, forget about Twitter or comments on news stories or anything like that where all the morons live, but the way she’s been talked about, can you imagine Laura Bush ever being talked about that way? Laura Bush actually killed somebody. But that was never mentioned, that was never talked about, because it was impolite to bring it up.
Anyway, don’t let me go on like this. But, yeah, yeah. And when you look at the things … when you look at the murder of Trayvon Martin, when you look at the murder of Michael Brown, when you look at those situations, it’s not unrelated to Obama being president, but it’s more the way in which the country has reframed itself or rewritten itself since his election, with all kinds of people saying to themselves, maybe never putting it into words, just feeling it, “There’s a fucking n---er in the White House? Well fuck you, n---er, whoever you are.” And an inchoate loathing and hatred that seeks out its targets.
I’m not a psychiatrist, I haven’t sat down and interviewed George Zimmerman or the cop who shot Michael Brown, I don't know what their motives are, I don’t know what kind of people they are, what kind of childhood traumas they have experienced. But I don’t think it’s nuts that in a certain way, when that cop killed Michael Brown, and when George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, they were killing Barack Obama.
Well, you’re associated with writing about rock music and contemporary American culture especially, but you’ve also got an interest in prehistory and even something predating Elvis’ Sun Sessions as far back as the Paleolithic era. What brought you to that, and what kinds of things did you find that startled or informed you?
A long time ago, it was probably in the early '70s, I read a book, I can’t remember the name of the writer now, but a lot of the book was about prehistory and it was about things I knew completely nothing about.
A lot of it was about the Celts and a lot of it was about Çatalhöyük, which is a Neolithic settlement in Turkey, a Neolithic city in Turkey that had been discovered and was being excavated in the years just before this book came out. And it was an argument about the times when women ruled society. Matriarchal societies, and you know, some of it was probably made up, but a lot of it was based on archeological research that I knew nothing about. And I was so fascinated by this book that I looked to the bibliography and I got ahold of a lot of the books that the author had read, and I read them, and it just began to take me back, and I developed an obsession with paleoanthropology, with the earliest humans and pre-humans, with Paleolithic art, with the whole notion of things appearing in the world for the first time, whether it was a physical type or whether it was an object or an image, whatever it might be.
And I realized, the more I read, and I read a lot, and I did this for many years, and I at one point had a library of hundreds of books that I was always adding to. I realized that most people who were writing about this, the great scholars, didn’t really understand what they were talking about. They were all groping in the dark, and the best of them knew that, the best of them recognized that, people like Don Johanson, who I later got to know, but the person who discovered Lucy and made many other great discoveries. But they were working in the dark, there were so many missing pieces, that anything they found, anything that seemed like the beginning of a story, that was the beginning of a certain physical type, a certain species, whatever it might be, whether it was the beginning of a certain aesthetic self-recognition … it was never the beginning.
Everything that seemed like the first was only the earliest found, and it was remarkable to see how often that distinction escaped the people who were writing about their discoveries or those of other people. They would say, “This is the first time that anything like this ever happened,” or, “The first appearance of homo sapiens can be reliably dated to …” It just means what’s been found. It just means that six or seven needles had been discovered in this haystack. And there are a lot more. Not only that, but these needles aren’t really needles. They’re just fossilized stalks of hay. So in fact there are millions of these needles in this haystack, and it’s gonna take a long time to go through them and catalogue them all.
Well, I had a wonderful time playing around with this. And it’s part of my own obsession with history, part of my obsession with history that isn’t understood, that isn’t clear or isn’t really known. And you know, it took me and my wife to France; we went from cave to cave. We were able to go into Lascaux, which has been closed to the public for many decades, and spend hours in Lascaux with the guy who, as a teenager, discovered it in the 1940s, who got a sinecure from the French government as the guide. And that was just unforgettable. But if you’ve seen “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” Werner Herzog’s [film]… then you have a sense of the allure of this, and what… He’s talking about Chauvet, but the allure of a place like Lascaux and …
Sheila Ballantyne sums this up really well. She is a novelist, was a novelist. In her book, "Norma Jean the Termite Queen," and in it a housewife is having a breakdown; she’s having a long, slow, overwhelming mental breakdown. And she develops an obsession with the ancient Egyptians, and she begins to make sculptures that are based on Egyptian motifs, but really, the Egyptians become much more real to her than her own community or even her own family is. And there’s a scene in the movie where she’s walking in her Berkeley neighborhood at night, and she looks up at the sky, and she’s looking at the stars, and she realizes that she’s seeing what the Egyptians saw. That some things never change. And the idea that the ancient Egyptians, or you and me and homo erectus, were looking at the same sky, is just overwhelming to me.
And it’s something like that that fuels my interest in this. And I got to know some of the great archeologists, I wrote about this, and actually felt like I had something to contribute, which is: you don’t know. You never know.
Well, you’ve clearly got a huge range of interests that leaves me wondering. You’ve just completed a book on the history of rock ‘n’ roll through 10 songs. What’s next for you? Where is your curiosity taking you?
You know, I have no idea what’s next. I’ve been teaching at the New School since 2007, and my job here has come to an end. I’ve been writing my Real Life Rock Top Ten column, I think since 1986, but since 2008 for The Believer. And I’m not sure where that stands. And I certainly don’t have another book project. They kind of arrive. Sometimes people call me up with an idea and it’s really a great idea; it’s happened once or twice. And it’s become a book. But I don’t have an idea, I don’t have a book that’s asking me to write it at the moment. So I have no clue as to what I’ll be doing next year.
Are you happier leaving things open like that? Do you think it pays dividends — for the way you think and write —rather than the kind of writer who’s got everything mapped out five years ahead of time?
No, I’m scared to death.