Nothing Has Been Done Before

Robert Loss

Debate his song selections if you like, but in his latest book Greil Marcus is not out to craft a new Top 40—or, indeed, a Top 10. Instead, he’s out to challenge the basic principles by which the history of rock music has so far been understood.

From its opening pages—a visually dense yet ostentatiously simple list of every inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—The History of Rock n’ Roll in Ten Songs takes aim at the “conventional, chronological, heroic” versions of rock’s narrative epitomized by the Rock Hall’s monolithic story of the art form’s rise to legitimacy and power, a myth that seeps into the Grammys, retrospective box sets, and Cialis commercials. The book’s goal is to de-organize and destabilize such neat and redemptive narrative structures and register a subtle protest against the reductive nostalgia upon which those chronicles are founded and maintained, by examining the possibility that “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.” With a title that playfully alludes to Buzzfeed-style link-bait reductionism, The History of Rock n’ Roll in Ten Songs goes deep and wide, evoking those 10 songs and their performances across time in some of Marcus’s best writing in a decade.

The songs chosen are not all obscure, nor are they all excluded from that master narrative. “Shake Some Action” by the Flamin’ Groovies is just this side of obscure, and Christian Marclay’s “Guitar Drag,” the soundtrack of a video installation, is obscure and excluded, both, but the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night,” Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want),” the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” Doc Pomus’s “This Magic Moment” as performed by the Drifters, Etta James’s “All I Could Do Was Cry,” Buddy Holly’s “Crying, Waiting, Hoping,” and Robert Johnson all certainly have their place in the official history. The Brains’ “Money Changes Everything” may seem outside the pale, but at least it was a hit for Cyndi Lauper. Joy Division’s “Transmission,” though never a hit, became an indie-rock touchstone. What matters more to Marcus than chart position or rock credentials is how these songs break loose from “the prison of fate” and evolve, sometimes finding their truest form, or at least their most provocative one, in other contexts—the way “Guitar Drag” enacts the protest and affirmation in the folk song “John Henry,” or Amy Winehouse plucks away the pop feathers of the original “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” or Tom Gray, the writer of “Money Changes Everything,” tries to reclaim it from Lauper by revising it into a folk song. Or, in the book’s most soul-crushing narrative, the way the end-of-the-line Beatles find a glimpse of their former selves in Buddy Holly, who, it turns out, they’ve been chasing since Germany.

That chapter, “Crying, Waiting, Hoping: 1959/1969,” is remarkable. After surveying Holly’s music, persona, and legacy, which for Marcus is “that someone could be both … ordinary and immortal,” the author imagines the rather ordinary life Holly might have led if the plane carrying him had not crashed on February 3, 1959. Marcus conjures him into the Greenwich Village scene, prowling clubs like Gerde’s Folk City, searching for a new direction like any other working musician, and passing along the “secret of rock ’n’ roll” to Bob Dylan, who, in reality, caught Holly’s next-to-last show in Duluth and learned there the secret that would eventually propel him onto the stages at Forest Hills, the Hollywood Bowl, and the Manchester Free Trade Hall. In 1969, the Beatles are panning for that same secret by running through old songs in the studio, seeking and finding, momentarily, their own former innocence in Holly’s “Crying, Waiting, Hoping.” It doesn’t last. It can’t. “Everything they ever had shines more brightly,” writes Marcus, “as, here, they feel its absence, feel what has slipped away, what can never be recaptured.”

Bill Murray channels Buddy Holly. Photograph by Alex G / Flickr

That poignant scene helps make an important argument in The History of Rock n’ Roll in Ten Songs. What you hear in the Beatles’ performance of “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” might change how you think of the band—it does for me, anyway, speaking as someone who’s never connected emotionally with most of their music—but it might also change what you hear in Holly’s versions of the song. It might even convince you that a certain potential was dormant in “Crying, Waiting, Hoping,” until Dylan or the Beatles unlocked it. That might sound metaphysical, but it is Marcus’s thesis that history is a subjective understanding of past events, an understanding that can fulfill the possibilities of those events, dormant in the interim, through new artistic expressions. This is especially true when musicians work by intuition and formal affinities, borrowing a chord progression here, a fragment of lyric there. Instead of re-creating received historical narratives, they write their own. Listeners can do the same. From this viewpoint, Neil Young’s claim, quoted early in the book, that “rock & roll is the cause of country and blues” makes sense despite its ahistoricism. So does the notion that “Shake Some Action” sounds like the first rock ’n’ roll song even though it was released in 1976, 25 years after the recording of “Rocket 88,” arguably the first rock ’n’ roll song.

Like all art, rock music is an assertion that defies objective knowledge. In a single performance, a singer, guitarist, or any musician can make you believe in the spontaneous generation of the original rock ‘n’ roll, “regardless,” as Marcus writes, “of any rumors that something vaguely similar might have happened before.” This is what the aesthetic philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto meant when he wrote, in his book After the End of Art, that “there really is, in history, no such thing as having done something before.” (I dare you to disagree after blasting Lauper’s “Money Changes Everything” at high volume.) Marcus argues that context is fundamental to the understanding of history as what happened, what might have happened, and what may yet happen.

Marcus’s latest book is everywhere informed by his strengths as a critic and historian.

As such, The History of Rock n’ Roll in Ten Songs includes the imagined, the potential, and the possible. If that brief passage about Buddy Holly haunting folkie clubs seems like a lark, Marcus’s extended imagining of Robert Johnson’s unlived life reads like the précis of a novella someone should be writing right now. The chapter, “Instrumental Break: Another History of Rock ’n’ Roll,” begins by reminding us of the historical particulars and the timeless qualities informing Johnson’s art, and the fictions, facts, and fascinating gaps of Johnson’s brief life. (For instance: Johnson’s diverse repertoire might have included polkas.) And then the chapter slips loose, imagining how Johnson, had he lived, might have been rediscovered by the 1960s folk revivalists, how he might have performed in salons and befriended Ralph Ellison, fought for royalties from his reissues, and heard Barack Obama sing “Sweet Home Chicago.” The key to it all is a phrase the imagined Johnson reads in Dylan’s Chronicles: “An audience far off in the future …” It’s what Johnson had in mind in the 1930s, what any artist might have in mind. Marcus writes a history of that audience in the past tense, as if it really happened—because it really did. Johnson just wasn’t around to see it.

The History of Rock n’ Roll in Ten Songs is everywhere informed by Marcus’s strengths as a critic and historian, from his good ear—Buddy Holly, he writes, “built his music around silences, pauses, a catch in the throat, a wink”—to his meticulousness with biography, recording session details, and discography. Striking a balance between the cultural and historical reference-weaving for which he’s best known and the close listening of his two previous books, When That Rough God Goes Riding (about Van Morrison) and The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years, this new work is also his most sustained attention in recent years to music made by black American artists. Marcus critiques Beyoncé as the epitome of our culture’s obsession with wealth, describing how, at the Super Bowl in 2013, “she seemed someone entirely composed of money,” but his portraits of Fred Parris, Etta James, Barrett Strong, and Ben E. King, all seeking love, success, and dignity in old age, are emotional reminders of their overlooked importance. If his writing occasionally strays into the melodramatic (he describes a moment in Lauper’s performance of “Money Changes Everything” as possessing “an intensity so great it is barely human”) he’s also one of the more humane music critics working today.    

A sign marks the crossroads where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul. Photograph by Paula Padilla del Valle / Flickr

Another of Marcus’s strengths hit me for the first time on reading this book: he’s that rare critic-historian with an artist’s blood in his veins. For one thing, he dares to treat pop singers like they’re artists. In the chapter about “This Magic Moment,” he challenges the notion that a song is informed only by its artist’s biography, craft, and immediate social context. In the studio, in 1959, the Drifters are “writers and singers with an inherited repertoire of gestures and vocal signifiers … entering a constructed, fictional situation where they have to feel their way as if in the dark,” Marcus writes. “Here, in this new country, each word, each note, will suggest what might come next, what should, what could.” Time and again he shows how artists knowingly interact with the past as they hear it. When you read his take on history, you’re reading history the way artists do. Marcus understands that all ambitious artists, driven by the necessities of creation and assertion, are magpies for whom history is filled with shiny objects: hints and mysteries, scraps of sound and structure around which their own singular expressions can be constructed. For the artist, history is about futures. Other critics might want to consider that.

This moment, right now, is entirely unique from the previous, and will be from the next. Nothing has been done before. It doesn’t always feel that way, though. The trick of art, then, its highest calling, is to remind us.

That is what Marcus is listening for in The History of Rock n’ Roll in Ten Songs, and regardless of how much it’s been tied up in American history and culture, it’s what he’s been listening for throughout his entire career. You read his work and discover an echo of what the British record label-owner and promoter Tony Wilson, quoted in this book, said about the Sex Pistols’ first gig: “In its complete indifference to the niceties of technique and respect, they restored to the popular song the spirit that is the only fucking reason it exists in the first place.” That spirit is freedom, and democracy so liberating as to border on anarchy, but what has continually fascinated Marcus is art’s power to enact those abstractions, or to fail them, in bracingly new ways. Consider the shape-shifting of Bob Dylan and old-time folk in The Old Weird America, the shocking negativism of punk and Dada in Lipstick Traces—revisited here in the “Transmission” chapter—or the outbursts of American ambition, prophecy, and contradiction in The Shape of Things to Come. While of late Marcus’s intertextuality has sharpened and his attention to the nuances of voice, phrasing, and beat has re-intensified, he is still chasing the same spirit of the new. In The History of Rock n’ Roll in Ten Songs, that chase has led to subtle philosophies of history and aesthetics.

If that sounds strange and you’re not sure why, go read any major music publication, from Rolling Stone to Pitchfork. The version of “new” you find in those outlets is mainly concerned with music as a product, the marketplace where one obtains said product, and what the editors of n+1 described in 2013 as “the emerging mainstream moment of the sociology of taste.” The challenge of music criticism today is that it operates in an intensely consumerist culture that is afraid of art—which is to say, afraid of risk, ambiguity, dissent, volatility. A protest is co-opted into a fashion trend. And yet, music criticism often conspires with the commodification of that fear by refusing music’s potential to be radically new and transformative.

As the new becomes all, history becomes irrelevant—and history is crucial to understanding why, in fact, nothing has been done before.

Even when such radically transformative music appears, the bulk of music-centered critical media blinks and goes about performing its two current functions. The first is public relations, which relegates the new to merely what’s next, i.e., trend forecasting. The second is the sifting of data, aping the technology we’ve apparently made to teach us why we made it. Like iTunes and Spotify, we’ve become excellent at categorizing, comparing, making playlists. Increasingly, music seems like nothing more than a kind of information, constantly being generated and thus constantly in need of organization. The heightened obsession with genre in critical circles is a perfect example of this, since the incessant accumulation of sub-genres not only serves a consumer base seeking ready labels for self-indivuation—something that’s been going on since the 1950s—but also provides a constant sense of the “new,” even in the absence of a new sound.

As the philosopher Boris Groys argues in his recent book, On the New, “the future no longer seems to promise anything fundamentally new; instead, we imagine endless variations on what already exists.” In other words, it’s all been done before. For modernists, innovation was a rupture in traditions of ideology and aesthetics, and a way to truth. In this postmodern age, Groys writes, “the entrenched, culturally anchored demand for newness suffices to explain [the] emergence” of the new. What’s new is truth. Oddly enough, this explains why our artistic culture seems so often to be going through the motions, since the quest for the new is so easily satisfied. It also explains why it’s still possible for a disgruntled music critic to resort to the hoary cliché that everything’s been done. As the new becomes all, history becomes irrelevant—and history is crucial to understanding why, in fact, nothing has been done before.

The dissent of The History of Rock n’ Roll in Ten Songs lies in its argument against this growing perception of music as primarily a construction and a product, something that is new but never very different. For Marcus, the event of performance is necessary to give the constructed song a life, but, more importantly, every performance contains the potential for a radically new effect. Some musicians stumble onto those effects while others quite consciously search for them, as Bob Dylan suggests in the documentary No Direction Home when he says, “You always have to realize that you’re constantly in a state of becoming.” More often than not, the artists Marcus examines in The History of Rock n’ Roll in Ten Songs are of the latter sort. Crucially, he claims those artists find the new by placing songs in different contexts of performance, such as David Lynch inserting Lou Reed’s cover of “This Magic Moment” into his film Lost Highway, turning an important scene into a hypnotic fulfillment of the performance’s promise.

Bob Dylan graffiti in Lincoln Square, Chicago. Photo by Mac(3) / Flickr

If The History of Rock n’ Roll in Ten Songs attempts to demonstrate that rock music is comprised of complex and ambiguously related events, then it’s no surprise that it sees the art form’s history as a web of these events, all with the capacity to speak to one another, regardless of the narratives written by music historians and critics or even a performer’s intent. Marcus seems to be laying out his philosophy of history, a system that combines the idealism, politics, and attention to social change found in Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt School with a more postmodern focus on contingency and contradiction, without abandoning the ability to meaningfully understand history. This philosophy is progressive without being utopian, pluralist but still concerned with what Dick Spottswood is quoted as calling “the excellence of the music and what made the music good.” It is also deeply humanist, attuned to the socially and historically contextual everyday lives of musicians and listeners, convinced that those lives might be extraordinary. “The official, standard history of rock ’n’ roll is true,” Marcus writes, “but it’s not the whole truth. It’s not the truth at all. It’s a constructed story that has been disseminated so comprehensively that people believe it, but it’s not true to their experience, and it may even deform or suppress their experience.”

The aggregateness of Marcus’s approach to history and art is what, I think, drives some of his critics batty. Simple cause-and-effect is much obscured in Marcus’s writing, by his sometimes labyrinthine writing style and dense array of allusions, for one, but more profoundly by his disinterest in historical movements, genres, and progress in favor of individual bursts of expression, marginal artists, and what might be considered an American mythology. Marcus’s work is and always has been disruptive for how it employs tools that critics and historians take to be their nemeses—ambiguity, not-knowing, and imagining—and turns them loose on that “prison of fate.” Thus, on a more pragmatic level, The History of Rock n’ Roll in Ten Songs, like Marcus’s other recent books, offers few obvious thesis statements after its introductory chapter. Writing at times more like a novelist than a critic, Marcus leaves the synthesis of his subjects and their stories up to the reader. The chapter on the Teddy Bears and Amy Winehouse is an ambiguous epilogue; perhaps one last essay might have better tied the book together.

If Marcus relies on his familiar motifs, such as the “stakes” of a performance, at least it’s because they’re important to his viewpoint rather than stylistic window dressing. For instance, one of Marcus’s favorite metaphors is the map; from a song he imagines a whole country—a territory not yet entirely defined. If cartography is arguably overused by Marcus, it’s because the metaphor is crucial to his concept of music as critic and historian, a concept that is as much about what has been as what might be. For some critics, the map is an overreaching metaphor for intertextuality: the seemingly endless connections between what already exists, the secretive histories Marcus tries to unearth. But a map of the undiscovered implies possibility, potential, freedom, and an art that isn’t so disposable that it ceases to threaten transformation of self and society. That danger is the most important thing missing from the constructed story-product of rock ’n’ roll, and contemporary music criticism. In The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs, Marcus, unlike the typical critic, establishes an implicitly holistic view of art as it’s made by musicians and heard by ordinary listeners. This is a philosophical approach, since it attempts to account for everything, including studio sessions and live performances, and this inclusiveness, in turn, pushes Marcus’s criticism well beyond the concept of music-as-product and across critical boundaries into—what else?—a country where history and aesthetics meet in the pursuit of a new that’s really new, and can happen at any moment. In fact, he shows us, it’s happening all the time.