How Greil Marcus’ New Book Gives BuzzFeed the Finger and Rescues the List as an Art Form

If naming his new book The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs is Greil Marcus’ idea of a joke, then it’s quite a practical one, designed to get readers to pick it up and thumb through, perhaps starting with a few ideas of their own. And even if Marcus is in complete earnest, it’s an au courant conceit, ripped straight from the click-lines of BuzzFeed’s ubiquitous listicles.

A more accurate title would replace “The” with “A” or maybe just rephrase it all as A History of 237 Songs in Ten Songs, at least by approximate count of tracks mentioned in the book’s index. But the “Rock ‘n’ Roll” part is unquestionable — and to cover his bases, the veteran critic expends the book’s first six pages with a lightly annotated list of every inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as of this year. Really, what Marcus means is “rock ‘n’ roll” as it was understood and practiced up through the arrival of punk in the late 1970s, and how its early players and their songs continue to resonate in contemporary culture like sometimes-benevolent specters.

Reduced to a playlist, as it inevitably will be, the ten title songs make an excellent listen, from the pressurized yearn of the Flamin’ Groovies “Shake Some Action” to the inescapable lull-ache of “In the Still of the Nite,” declared an oldie by a compilation LP only three years after its 1956 release, as Marcus points out. Almost. That is, Marcus’s chapter picks will make an excellent listen up until the book’s penultimate entry, focusing on the LP release of Christian Marclay’s 2006 piece “Guitar Drag,” the multimedia artist’s harsh field recording of an electric guitar being dragged behind a pickup truck in the manner by which three white supremacists murdered a black man named James Byrd Jr. in 1998. “Other music begins to rise out of it,” Marcus writes of the recording, a work that doesn’t immediately resonate as either a song or having much to do with the history of rock ‘n’ roll.

In this way, set amid baby boomer standards like Barrett Strong’s “Money” (and especially the Beatles’ cover thereof), “Guitar Drag” acts as the book’s punchline, and a powerful one. No matter how many streaming audio plug-ins get embedded within a given work to distract readers from actually reading the words, you could hear a recording a thousand times or more and never hear it like Greil Marcus. Similarly, you could never possibly listen to a playlist of even all 237 songs mentioned in The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs and pick out any kind of narrative. Marcus writes of a George Harrison solo on a Let It Be-era take of Buddy Holly’s “Crying, Waiting, Hoping,” “George’s notes are liquid, unstable, shifting into each other, a swirl of clothes, jackets and ties and shirts and scarves floating by like pages blown off a calendar by the wind of an old movie” and out into the stratosphere.

marcusAs it has been for many years, “could be” is Marcus’ preferred literary device, as in (to describe Ben E. King’s vocal on “This Magic Moment”): “it could be Lincoln trying to explain justice to a crowd, whether it’s a few layabouts in New Salem, Illinois, in 1832, or the African-American Union soldiers in the front rows for his second inaugural in Washington, D.C., thirty-three years later.” Why, yes, it could be that. This is a special kind of pivot that Marcus invented, one on which he has built many of his books, barely stating a subject before veering off into the deepest reaches of history, and (perhaps) eventually returning dramatically to his original theme. Nearly each of the 237 songs Marcus mentions feel like lists unto themselves.

Though the information overload of the link-bait era has removed some of the glitter from list-making, it was a form that guided the structures and language of music during the era of early rock and roll that Marcus visits and revisits, from sales charts to record guides. “The list doesn’t destroy culture, it creates it,” the writer Umberto Eco once posited.

Amid that backdrop, Marcus veritably reinvented the form as a thoughtful medium, via his years of “Real Life Rock Top 10” columns for various outlets starting in the ’70s and his seminal 1979 Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island anthology, the first book publication for both Ellen Willis (on the Velvet Underground’s debut) and Lester Bangs (on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks). Preliminary googling indicates that no one else has yet written a post about the Top 8 Pop Songs That Could Be Abraham Lincoln Speeches. Contemporary Internet culture is a strange place, though, and perhaps there will come an era when BuzzFeed-type lists embrace the absurd poetic cadences of Marcus’s chosen voice.

But while Marcus has been a regular pop reviewer since days with Rolling Stone in the late ’60s, his long-form work goes beyond even enlightened arts criticism to what might be characterized, in the best possible sense, as fan fiction. At its most coherent, when Marcus’ whimsical cast of recurring characters and boomer icons take the stage dramatically enough, The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs unfolds as an imaginative novel with marquee appearances by the common figures of pop history. Unfettered by a central argument about Bob Dylan or Elvis Presley or any of his other perennial favorites, it is a perfect structure for the 69-year old Marcus. Despite very, very few autobiographical moments, the book is so Marcus-specific that it might also be read as a secret memoir.

Finding cultural synchronicities in old performance clips was a nigh-heroic task in ye olden days of discographical rock crit but has become an unremarkable feat in the era of “related videos” algorithms, at least on the surface. “Most of the recordings, live performances, and movie scenes mentioned in these pages can be found on YouTube,” Marcus notes on the Contents page. Most, that is, except for the book’s literal heart, a 21-page “Instrumental Break,” an incandescent fantasia positing what might have happened if bluesman Robert Johnson hadn’t been murdered in 1938. Moving through the backroads of history, Marcus and the ghost of Johnson collaborate on recordings that even the most web-savvy editor couldn’t embed, sounds exclusive to a listener’s imagination as she reads Marcus’s description.

The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs isn’t as ambitious as either Lipstick Traces, Marcus’ classic 1989 linkage of punk to Dada and Situationism, or Invisible Republic, his 1997 manifesto connecting Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, though it’s not lacking for sweep, either. Like all of Marcus’ work, the book isn’t for everyone. One can easily imagine a reader walking away from it echoing The Simpsons‘ Nelson Muntz after seeing the film adaptation of Naked Lunch: “I can think of at least two things wrong with that title.” For those sharing in the still-vibrating lineage of the “New Language” that Marcus declaims in the book’s introduction, however, The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs makes an agreeable read alongside Elijah Wald’s pioneering contrarian statement, How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll, his ode to pre-Fab American r’n’r. If you’re planning any kind of ghost-stalking expedition in the ever-present now of old recordings, it remains hard to find a better companion than Marcus.