Secret Chords

The brilliance—and the blind spots—of one of the world’s great rock critics.

Photo Illustration by Slate, clockwise from top left: Courtesy of Lucas Jork/Flickr, Courtesy of Roland Godefroy/Wikimedia Commons, Courtesy of Brunswick Records/Wikimedia Commons, Courtesy of Atlantic Records/Wikimedia Commons
Clockwise from top left: Cyndi Lauper, Etta James, Buddy Holly, and the Drifters.

Photo Illustration by Slate. Clockwise from top left: courtesy of Lucas Jork/Flickr, courtesy of Roland Godefroy/Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of Brunswick Records/Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of Atlantic Records/Wikimedia Commons.

If you had to take just 10, what songs would you choose to stand for the story of rock ’n’ roll? Maybe “Johnny B. Goode,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “She Loves You,” “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “London Calling,” “Planet Rock,” “Purple Rain,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and, I don’t know, “Hey Ya!”?

Whatever your answer, it probably doesn’t overlap much with Greil Marcus’ picks in his new book, The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs:

1. The Flamin’ Groovies’ mid-1970s retro-garage anthem “Shake Some Action
2. “Transmission” by Joy Division
3. “In the Still of the Nite,” first recorded by doo-wop group the Five Satins
4. Etta James, “All I Could Do Was Cry
5. Buddy Holly, “Crying, Waiting, Hoping
6. Barrett Strong’s founding Motown single and later Beatles standard, “Money (That’s What I Want)
7. “Money Changes Everything” by new wave group the Brains, popularized by Cyndi Lauper
8. The Drifters (with Ben E. King), “This Magic Moment
9. The soundtrack of artist Christian Marclay’s video installation Guitar Drag
10. “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” originally by Phil Spector with the Teddy Bears

Except perhaps for “Money,” this is not the rock canon as given in textbooks, TV documentaries, or Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (Marcus starts the book with a name-crammed, six-page tour of the Rock Hall, as if to prove he has the stock narrative down cold.) Nor are they the critical darlings that might populate music snobs’ counter-canons, such as the Velvet Underground, Sly Stone, or Laura Nyro.

For many readers, that may be an obstacle. For Marcus, it is the point, or rather the vehicle for many points.

As reviews editor of Rolling Stone in the late 1960s, Marcus was one of the world’s first professional rock and pop critics. Today, along with the former Village Voice writer and editor Robert Christgau (who’s now a Billboard columnist), he’s the most prominent surviving and practicing member of that founding guard. But along the way, Marcus evolved out of rating and analyzing records to listening through them to all of culture—to the “Real Life Rock Top Ten,” as he titled his long-running column (which now appears in the Believer).

For Marcus, every great song is a Rosetta Stone, an esoteric code. This approach gives him great imaginative, literary breadth; it was one of the things that made me want to be a music critic, and I’m far from alone. In his 1989 masterpiece Lipstick Traces, for instance, a book ostensibly about the Sex Pistols becomes a story of protest, artistic experiment, and grand refusals through the centuries. A friend recently called it, jokingly, “that book about how Johnny Rotten started the French Revolution.”

Such inversions of linear order, of cause and effect, are part of the fun—proposing, for instance, that songs or events of the recent past are influencing songs from decades ago. Marcus’ mystique—his charm and, at times, his maddeningness—is that he often sounds as if he means all this literally, as if he doesn’t quite believe in time, space, or sociological conditions. Instead, everything is bound by secret chords.

This new book’s title, then, is a wink, not a promise. There will be no straight chronological account here. Better to think of it as a philosophy or a theory of rock instead of a history. And there aren’t really only 10 songs. Marcus selects not only off-center tracks, but often obscure versions, demos, concerts, rehearsals, covers, even imitations.

And so it’s not just Joy Division’s single 1979 “Transmission” that absorbs him, but the actor Sam Riley’s uncanny performance of the song as Ian Curtis in the 2007 biopic Control, and then it’s Riley as a character in another film, based on Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, set in the 1960s, making a spoken seven-inch record for his wife that delivers a proto-punk message of hate.

It’s not so much the Phil Spector penned-and-produced 1958 teen-pop hit “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” which Marcus finds treacly. Instead, it is Amy Winehouse’s posthumously released cover from a 2006 BBC session, in which, he writes, “the song expanded as if, all those years, it had been waiting for this particular singer to be born, and was only now letting out its breath.”

And it’s not only the screeching and grinding of an electric guitar being trailed from the back of a pickup truck in that video installation by Christian Marclay (from 2000, a decade before his acclaimed 24-hour montage The Clock). It’s the inspiration for that piece, an actual hate crime in Texas, and Marcus’ notion that “every lynching is an unsinging of ‘John Henry,’ ” that foundational song of African-American humanity confronting white machinery. Marcus hears bluesman John Lee Hooker’s 1949 private recording of “John Henry” in Guitar Drag, along with Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock rewiring of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “the greatest and most unstable protest song there is.”

So when Marcus calls Marclay as “an omnivorous assemblage artist drawn to destruction,” he might as well be talking about himself.

* * *

Out of Marcus’ dozen or so books, Ten Songs is the purest distillation of his ideas, a kind of manifesto, circling a few primary thoughts. That every great rock song invents the form as if for the first time. That rock was a “new language,” calling on artists and listeners alike to expand their capacities and express the inexpressible. That these are acts of annihilation as much as creation. And that while there is something distinctly (gloriously, horribly) American in this, it does not have to happen in America. As he writes in the book’s final line, “there is an infinity of stories that tell this tale.”

So, he argues, it doesn’t matter which great recordings you choose, because any of them will encompass the entire art form. It’s probably more illuminating to look at the less familiar ones, rather than those taken for granted. But each will contain and link to and invoke the rest, such that the book also implies a shadow list of dozens of potential “eleventh songs” (like “fifth Beatles”), including some of the standard classics, treated at length or in passing.

No one will be surprised to hear that Bob Dylan comes up frequently. Marcus has been writing about him since 1968, generating at least three full volumes so far. With this book it finally occurs to me that at some point Marcus began to see all music, all life, as if it were one big Bob Dylan song, “a continuum of associations,” as he says of rock in the intro, “a drama of direct and spectral connections.” It’s “a free-floating Möbius strip of signs,” purloined from sources high and low, historic and imagined, within which “the present day may be an illusion.” Yes, and Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues, you can tell by the way she smiles.

At its best, Ten Songs dares you to think at that critical and creative level, to filter your own observations through its restless queries. The chapters on Joy Division, on Buddy Holly, and on the two “Money” songs are tours de force delving into rock nihilism, the invention of the “ordinary”-seeming star, the contradictions between the craving for success and the craving for truth. The passages on the Beatles in the latter chapters hint at a whole unwritten book. Here’s Marcus describing a Let It Be-era rehearsal tape in which the dissolving group takes a stab at a few Buddy Holly songs they used to play, including “Crying, Waiting, Hoping”:

Everyone shares in the laughter, the embarrassment of how much the song is asking of them and how much, now, at the end, they have to give it. … Once they sent an idea of friendship out all over the world: the idea of a group that could bring out the uniqueness of the individual more completely than he or she could ever do alone. Now they are putting that into the world one last time, but secretly, in a broken performance they have no reason to think anyone will ever hear.

Ten Songs is not always at this level. Many chapters, e.g. on “Shake Some Action,” “In the Still of the Nite,” and “This Magic Moment,” feel meandering. A chapter on Delta bluesman Robert Johnson midway through the book, titled “Instrumental Break,” is very fine in its own right, but seems extraneous—not only is it not about a song, it wouldn’t be out of place in a more conventional, Hall of Fame-friendly history of rock. It reads like Marcus composed it for Johnson’s centenary in 2011, and then decided to throw it in, undermining the book’s cohesion and purpose.

The stunning “Guitar Drag” essay lacks a convincing ending, in part because its ideas about black music and (white) noise are never pushed forward into the present. In fact, Marcus seems throughout to resist discussing how rap and hip-hop relate to his concept of rock. In the weakest chapter, about “All I Could Do Was Cry,” he praises Beyoncé’s performance of the song, as Etta James in the film Cadillac Records, only to use it as a stick to beat the rest of her career as that of “someone composed entirely of money.”

The remark rankles, reflecting a patrician attitude that prompts him to judge women’s and black people’s music by whether it’s sufficiently countercultural, rather than recognize how much of it is aspirational, economically or otherwise. (See Marcus on “genteel, effete black music” here.) His politics on these issues often seem frozen in the civil rights era of his youth. In the chapter on money songs, I made a note that I wished he’d connected them with something like Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me).” And then I made a second note to be careful what I wished for.

This question of generational blinders hangs over Ten Songs in other ways. It’s not just that six of the 10 songs date from the late 1950s and early 1960s—i.e., Marcus’ teenage years. There’s also a fuzziness about genre. Is he claiming transcendent, transformative effects only for rock, exclusive to other music? He rarely refers to music that isn’t British or American—nor does he reach back to pre-rock popular music, aside from the canonical blues and old-time country. This kind of rock exceptionalism is a tad imperious, a manner not unfamiliar in baby boomers. And Marcus’ signature style of cultural synthesis sometimes reduces difference to likeness. There are lovely passages of autobiography here, more so than Marcus usually allows himself­—I was left wishing that this subjectivity had been built into the framework, that it had been “my history of rock” rather than “the history of rock.”

Photo courtesy of Thierry Arditti.
Greil Marcus.

Photo courtesy of Thierry Arditti.

One of Marcus’ tropes is to say that a sound or a moment in a song murders or destroys identity, renders precedents obsolete, makes the performer almost inhuman—he stresses negation over affirmation. This may reflect a Free Speech Movement contempt for hypocrisy as well as his own desire to counter (and elevate himself above) rock clichés of peace and love. But his suspicion of pop positivity also reads as masculine and privileged, overlooking the likelihood that many artists and audiences are beginning from darkness and aiming to overcome it. Seeking the negative can be a luxury, and at its worst it can exoticize performers, treating them as sacred monsters.

It also allows too narrow a space for rock ’n’ roll fun. Marcus can appear to lack a sense of humor when he hears more cynicism and nihilism than raucous satire in both the Motown and Beatles versions of “Money.” And with so many sounds seeming to him to emanate from the grave, or from some kind of extrasensory gnostic source of knowledge, he loses sight of the body’s role in rock—of Eros, Bacchus, and the Twist. (The less poetic Christgau never makes that mistake.) This again is rather masculine, and a little bit puritan.

Within its limits, though, Ten Songs is a book that should captivate and provoke any rock lover, not least because, at his heights, Marcus is a singer of prose with a virtuosity to match his subjects. “Buddy Holly walked into the room sideways.” “ ‘Guitar Drag’ is a scratch in the record—the historical record.” Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is “the closest a mere song has ever come to sainthood.” Ben E. King, in a late tribute performance, “speaks to the song. ‘Oh, magic moment,’ he says, as if it is a person, with its own will, its own failures, its own cruelty … but the words refuse to answer back. Now the performance is a séance.”

Those short excerpts are inadequate, as Marcus is finest when in flight for two, three, four pages at a sweep, as when he envisions Robert Johnson (who died at 27) surviving to witness his own 100th birthday (among other feats, he earns a production credit on Straight Outta Compton). There is a stale, variously attributed insult that writing about music is like “dancing about architecture.” With Marcus’ catacombed, crenellated, turreted, spiral-staircased prose, that old line seems less like a knock and more like an apt description. The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs may sway sometimes on its foundations, but it is a mansion of many rooms, hidden passageways, and shimmering trompe l’oeils. Walk down to the end of Lonely Street and check in any time you like. It beats any old hall of fame.

The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs, by Greil Marcus. Yale University Press.

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