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Greil Marcus


I was going to try and write a proper review of Greil Marcus’ new book The History of Rock N’ Roll in Ten Songs for the blog. But I found myself having not a lot to say about it. Mostly, I thought Marcus’ over the top writing style and tendency to mythologize rock pioneers took over too much here. Imagining what happens if Robert Johnson lives and basically connecting him to every major musical event of the 20th century, going all the way to Obama’s inauguration seems a bit, um, far-fetched, while some of the chapters hardly make sense. There’s a lot of sections where clarity really struggles to be achieved. Plus he really likes The Doors. There were some interesting things here, such as comparing versions of “Money Changes Everything” over time from Cyndi Lauper and Tom Gray. And his discussion of Christian Marclay’s experimentation is quite interesting. But most of the chapters don’t work well.

So I guess that is some sort of review. It’s rare that I don’t like a book about music. But I didn’t like this book. He needs a stronger editor. It’s hard for a big star to deal with editors. But if you consider how Daniel Lanois forced Dylan into actually making a good album for once with Time Out of Mind and how that transformed the great songwriter’s career (once again), sometimes the genius has to suck up the ego and deal with it.

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  • advocatethis

    I recently made the mistake of trying to read “Mystery Train” like it was a book, rather than a collection of essays, each of which should be read, oh…, a couple of years apart. The guy does have some genuine insights, but they get lost in the bombast. The American experience is not encapsulated in the early career of Randy Newman and it’s not insight, or even accurate, to portray Levon Helm as the one true American.

    • sparks

      I think I still have my copy, though I haven’t read it in decades and it only worked as a collection of essays for me. Tried reading Marcus during the time he wrote for Artforum too, but if anything it drove me further away from his view.

      • Scott Lemieux

        I really like Mystery Train, although apart from Presliad I actually think the annotated discography is the best part. I think he’s brilliant as a straight critic — the stuff compiled in In the Fascist Bathroom holds up surprisingly well — but when he grasps at bigger themes it’s very hit or miss.

        • Richard

          Other than Mystery Train, its pretty much all miss. Griel is a decent writer but he strives for the big statement when the big statement, as applied to the history of rock and roll, is invariably wrong – e.g. Invisible Republic and Lipstick Traces.

        • Halloween Jack

          I’ll admit that I’ve only read Lipstick Traces and Dead Elvis, but I thought that both books were hits.

    • rea

      it’s not insight, or even accurate, to portray Levon Helm as the one true American

      Well, he was the one true American, in the sense that Danko, Robertson, Hudson, and Manuel were all Canadians.

  • I can’t remember the last time I read something by a “rock journalist” that I didn’t think was absolute, unsalvageable crap.

    • Origami Isopod


      Dave Marsh is even worse.

      • sparks

        Ugh. I once sent Marsh a fairly nasty letter after reading one of his books.

    • tsam

      Me either. They have some pretty goofy ideas about how rock is made and played, and they always seem to have these idiotic fascination with Radiohead and Elvis Costello. Rock is far from a monolithic thing that can be summarized in a book.

      • Origami Isopod

        They’re glorified fanboys. There’s nothing wrong with being a fan of something, but that doesn’t by itself make you knowledgeable, much less a “journalist.”

        • keta

          Bingo! See, also, “sports journalism.”

    • wjts

      I liked Lipstick Traces, but I read it when I was young and stupid.

      • Scott Lemieux

        Both Lipstick Traces and Invisible Republic have their moments.

        • wjts

          I read it when I was 16 or 17. Adolescent me was capable of some wildly inaccurate assessments of quality.

  • hylen

    Time Out of Mind

    Love that one.

  • Boots Day

    The problem is that Marcus has enough clout to write a book that really isn’t about anything other than “here’s a bunch of disconnected things I felt like writing about.” So there’s no through-line, no connection between the chapters, which leaves each individual chapter feeling half-baked, rather than being turned into part of a larger endeavor.

    His books work a lot better when they’re about one thing, like “Invisible Republic” or “Mystery Train.” This is like reading an old collection of pieces that appeared 15 years apart in Artforum.

    • I haven’t read this book, but I have read Ranters and Crowd Pleasers which basically is a collection of pieces that appeared 15 years apart in (first) New West and (later) Artforum. I found an awful lot of it to be pretentious crap. I mean, there’s a whole essay in it about how totally punk the Fleetwood Mac album “Tusk” was.

  • Dr. Ronnie James, DO


    • rea


      • Lee Rudolph


    • Ronan

      ; )

      • Origami Isopod

        • tsam


  • Fats Durston

    Was excited to get this for Xmas, but reading sputtered out on song five or six, I forget which. One of the early chapters is mostly a list.

    My favorite Greil Marcus story (we all have one, right?) was when one of the wags in Pazz ‘n’ Jop 2003 was criticizing “rockist” ballots, and picked out a former dorm-mate of mine, Marc Greilsamer, who was declared Greil Marcus’ “evil twin.”

    • Ah yes, the list. I managed to decide to skip those pages entirely.

  • Phil Perspective

    But if you consider how Daniel Lanois forced Dylan into actually making a good album for once with “Time Out of Mind” …

    Don’t forget the album he did with Neil Young a few years ago. Le Noise I think it was.

    • Scott Lemieux

      His first album with Dylan was actually Oh Mercy, and as long as you don’t put “Disease of Conceit” and “What Good Am I?” on your iTunes it holds up almost as well as TOOM.

    • divadab

      Daniel Lanois! Mais oui! C’est le boss des resusitateurs de la carriere!

    • keta

      Lanois is a goddamn genius. Disciple of Eno, so he was mentored by another genius…

  • Richard

    Very similar to my feelings on the book. Hated the part about what would have happened if Robert Johnson had lived. Just pointless.

    A few interesting thoughts but basically a waste of my time.

    Last year saw some really good books on music – Barry Mazor’s biography of Ralph Peer, Do Not Sell At Any Price by Amanda Petrusch and Terry Teachout’s bio of Duke Ellington – but this was not one of them.

    • sparks

      Hm, the only thing I’ve read on music in the past few years was a history of Chess records I got from a used bookstore. Need to dig it out to see who wrote it.

  • ScarsdaleVibe

    Can we do favorite Stones songs? I’ve always loved Sweet Virginia.

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      can’t you hear me knocking

      • rea

        tumblin’ dice

    • Hogan

      Waitin for a factory girl

    • Sway

    • wjts

      “Jigsaw Puzzle”.

    • tsam

      Sympathy for the Devil. (Yeah, I’m going with the popular song. Deal with it.)

    • matt w

      Get Off Of My Cloud. Shine A Light. Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’. Sister Morphine. Monkey Man.

    • Tehanu

      Time Waits for No One. Waiting on a Friend. Gimme Shelter.

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        oooh, ‘time waits for no one’- yes

      • The Dark Avenger

        2000 Light Years from Home.

      • tsam

        Gimme Shelter-another fav of mine. What a great song.

        • rea

          Gimme Shelter was what was playing in the background the first time I had sex, and the first time I got high. :)

          • tsam

            Wow–so every time you hear it a million memories come gushing out?

    • lotsabooks

      sweet black angel

    • Manny Kant

      Well, of ones no one’s said yet, Moonlight Mile.

    • SatanicPanic

      She’s a rainbow

    • Happy Jack

      Country Honk with Byron Berline.

    • keta

      Jivin’ Sister Fanny.

      But really, how can anyone have a single favourite?

  • Scott Lemieux

    Sway. Long, Long While. Respectable. Torn and Frayed.

  • JMP

    He really likes The Doors? I thought it was pretty much impossible for anyone to like The Doors once they grow up past about 19 or 20.

    • Manny Kant

      Yeah, strange. Marcus was 22 when their first album came out, too.

    • Paul Chillman

      So I’ve got this One Weird Trick that can help you appreciate the Doors. It’s actually a two-parter:
      1. They’re a singles band, not an album band (with the possible exception of their debut). Stick with the greatest hits.
      2. Don’t think of them as peers of Jimi Hendrix, the Who, or Love. Think of them as peers of Neil Diamond, Tom Jones, and Nancy Sinatra, who bring a little more rock edge to what is basically ’60s mainstream pop music. Trust me, it makes listening to them a lot more fun.

      • tsam

        That’s how I handle Aerosmith. That Greatest Hits album that came out in the 80s (prior to their big comeback) was fucking fantastic. Most of the other stuff, not so much for me.

      • Scott Lemieux

        I’ve made this case before. They were a very good pop singles band, no more but also no less. OK, more pompous than average, but Robby Kreiger was really underrated so it evens out.

        • Lee Rudolph

          OK, more pompous than average

          Probably it’s just me instantiating the “the most X of Y ever happened when I was quite coincidentally just the right age” syndrome, but I have to say that for me Jim Morrison was and will always be the Most Pompous Ever.

    • SatanicPanic

      They’re a great band with a highly overrated frontman

    • Halloween Jack

      So now we’re getting into the Kidz-R-Dum part of the program. Look, it’s OK to say that it’s a little embarrassing to think that Jim Morrison was some sort of shaman-poet-genius past your teens, but there’s nothing wrong with liking The Doors. Stick mostly to the greatest hits and away from the longer, ride-the-snake-to-the-lake stuff and it’s still good.

  • lotsabooks

    so what’s wrong with lipstick traces? i read it in 1998 while on holiday in cambodia spain and completely enjoyed it. i don’t think it’s history is off (no wild gaffes that i can recall)–though marcus has a more analogic than cause/effect development. it seemed to work very well as intellectual history/literary history. since then, the historical/literary work on various topics (e.g., situationism; less so, lettrisme) has improved, but i don’t see marcus as being horrible or horribly wrong.

    enlighten me, please?

  • sanity clause

    I’ve had a couple of instances where I submitted articles to small publications. In both cases, that involved a good bit of back-and-forth with an editor. And in both cases, the edited version was so far superior to the original that I’d submitted, that it’s made me wish I could perpetually have an editor on tap.

    For most of us, whatever we do, our work improves noticeably when we have to run it by other people. I’m good at what I do, but I’m a lot better because of the people I work with.

    So unless you’re Hemingway reincarnated, if you’re a writer, chances are you really need an editor.

    • Yeah, editors are writers’ best friends, even if sometimes they provide tough love. Unfortunately, too many writers also have large, fragile egos.

    • keta

      Truer words were never written.

      (And even Hemingway had an editor…and not just any editor but the inimitable Max Perkins.)

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