“The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs” by Greil Marcus (2014)

Marcus

“The only thing that rock ‘n’ roll did not get from country and blues was a sense of consequences … In country and blues, if you raised hell on Saturday night, you were gonna feel real bad on Sunday morning when your dragged yourself to church.  Or when you didn’t drag yourself to church.”
-Bill Flanagan … from an interview with Neil Young (1986)

Greil Marcus’s “The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs” is one of the finest, most beautifully written books about music, art, and culture of all-time.  When Marcus wrote this book, he decided to avoid songs that most people would insist would be on a list of ten songs that would explain rock ‘n’ roll.  The songs Marcus selected are:

“Shake Some Action” – The Flamin’ Groovies
“Transmission” – Joy Division
“In the Still of the Nite” – The Five Satins
“All I Could Do Was Cry” – Beyonce
“Crying, Waiting, Hoping” – Buddy Holly / The Beatles
“Money (That’s What I Want)” – Barrett Strong / The Beatles
“Money Changes Everything” – The Brains / Cyndi Lauper
“This Magic Moment” – The Drifters
“Guitar Drag” – Christian Marclay
“To Know Him is to Love Him” – The Teddy Bears / Amy Winehouse

The songs he selects are all great in their own way, but may not be obvious choices in many peoples’ definitions of songs that define rock ‘n’ roll.  Yet, these songs, in the way Marcus describes them, tell an incredibly rich story of not only rock music, but American culture / history… with a few sidelines into British culture.  Marcus has been one of our finest cultural critics for over 40 years and this book equals his classic 1975 book “Mystery Train,” (which has since gone through 7 editions with additional notes by Marcus).

I will let Marcus explain why he included “Shake Some Action,” from an interview he did with Henry Rollins, who narrated the audio version of the book:

“When I came up with the idea for the book, I knew that ‘Shake Some Action’ by the Flamin’ Groovies would be the first thing I would write about,” he said. “It had to be there, and that’s because from the first time I heard it, and every time since, I’ve just been so shocked by it. It’s like, ‘This is it. This is what rock & roll is. This is everything rock & roll wanted to be. This is a performance that isn’t jazz, that isn’t blues, that isn’t country, that isn’t pop, that isn’t anything but rock & roll. Nothing like what you hear on ‘Shake Some Action’ was in the world before there was rock & roll.”

“The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs” is a terrific achievement and even if you don’t agree with Marcus’s selections, I guarantee he’ll make you a true believer.  If you need further convincing, you absolutely need to check out the audio version narrated by Henry Rollins.  Rollins is an extraordinary orator and the way he conveys Marcus’s words shows a profound respect for Marcus and his thoughts. Easily one of the five best audio versions of a non-fiction book … and that includes Robert Evans reciting “The Kid Stays in the Picture.”

At the link below is a lengthy interview Rollins did with Marcus about the book that’s worth hearing:

http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/hear-henry-rollins-fascinating-chat-with-greil-marcus-about-ten-songs-20150126

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“He May Be Dead – But He’s Elvis” (1979) dir. John Mhyre / scr. John Mhyre and Ken Owen

Here’s a real find … the incredibly tasteless, but extremely funny late 1970s short film “He May Be Dead – But He’s Elvis” which mercilessly satirizes the exploitation of Elvis Presley’s death by taking said exploitation into even darker territory.   I first read about this film years ago in Greil Marcus’s legendary analysis on American rock / soul music “Mystery Train” (now in a recently updated 6th edition) and while re-reading it the other day, got the notion that this short may be on YouTube.

Again, the humor is pretty sick, but not that far removed than a lot of stuff you see nowadays via reality TV.  I can only imagine what this looked like back in the late 1970s.  If you have a strong stomach, Dave says check it out.

And while you’re at it, if you’ve never read “Mystery Train,” check that out too.

“(I Know) I’m Losing You” – Rod Stewart

Video

The original version of “(I Know) I’m Losing You” by the Temptations is one of the legendary Motown group’s best songs. But Stewart’s explosive cover from his 1970 masterpiece “Every Picture Tells a Story” is one of those rare covers (like Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” and Johnny Cash’s “Hurt”) that blows the original out of the water. I feel bad for saying that because the original Temptations song is strong stuff. But I would argue that Stewart here, already one of the greatest vocalists of all time, invests so much of himself into this song that this is a peak which Stewart has yet to duplicate … even 43 years later. Not only does Stewart shred on this song, but that freakin’ drum sound by Mickey Waller will rattle your fillings. Greil Marcus once said that Waller deserved the Noble Prize for Physics for his drumming on this album and I do not disagree one bit.

“I Wish I Was Your Mother” – Mott the Hoople

I’ll quote Greil Marcus on this one: “(Lead singer Ian) Hunter must have smiled when he saw the punks of the late seventies reach the audience he was sure had to be out there somewhere – smiled, and wondered if anyone remembered ‘I Wish I Was Your Mother,’ a shatteringly beautiful horror story that no punk has ever touched on record, though Sid Vicious may well have lived most of it out.”

“Everything is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson” by Kevin Avery

One of the best books I’ve read this year is Kevin Avery’s biography / anthology of rock writer Paul Nelson, called “Everything is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson”.  Most people have no idea who Nelson was, but he was an integral part of rock history between the 1960s and 1980s.  He knew Bob Dylan when he was still Robert Zimmerman at the University of Minnesota and introduced Dylan/Zimmerman to a lot of rare folk recordings that wound up being Dylan staples.  He was also one of the few folk critics at the time who supported Dylan’s move to rock in the mid-1960s.  He worked for Mercury Records in the early 1970s, and Nelson was not only Rod Stewart’s favorite Mercury employee (Stewart was Mercury’s biggest star at that time), but Nelson also signed the New York Dolls.  As a critic for Rolling Stone, he also championed Bruce Springsteen, the Sex Pistols, and the Ramones early in their careers.   He also wrote about and became friends with Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, and Clint Eastwood.   In the early 1980s, he drifted away from his career as a writer/editor and had difficulty meeting deadlines or completing articles.  He worked at a video store during the last years of his life and then gradually lost touch with reality.  He died penniless and alone, a sad end to a brilliant career.

“Everything is an Afterthought” is a loving tribute to a writer who deserved bigger and better success than his demons would allow.   It’s clear from the testimonials and interviews given for this book how loved Nelson was by his colleagues and friends (i.e. Nick Tosches, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Jonathan Lethem).  Special thanks to Avery, as well as Seattle’s Fantagraphics Books for having the vision and passion to bring us this story.