Tag Archives: music criticism

Greil Marcus Reveals Secrets Of Rock ‘N’ Roll In New Book

The Flamin’ Groovies ’70s classic, “Shake Some Action,” is one of the ten songs Greil Marcus writes about in his new book. Pictured is the cover of an early ”90s single by the group.

Ten songs that shook the world!

By Michael Goldberg

I’ve learned quite a few things from the critic and cultural historian Greil Marcus over the years, but maybe the first – and the one I keep coming back to — is that when listening to music, the artist’s intention isn’t so important. What really matters is what you and I, as listeners, hear.

You know, what we get from the music.

“I was never interested in figuring out what the songs meant,” Marcus wrote in the prologue to his book, “Bob Dylan, Writings 1968 – 2010.” “I was interested in figuring out my response to them, and other people’s responses. I wanted to get closer to the music than I could by listening to it – I wanted to get inside of it, behind it, and writing about it, through it, inside of it, behind it was my way of doing that.”

Marcus has been sharing his response to the music since the late ‘60s. In “Mystery Train” and “Lipstick Traces,” “The Old, Weird America: The World Of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes” and other books he uses art as a doorway, and steps through it to find vast secret histories, histories of America and Europe that mostly hadn’t made it into the history books – at least not in the way Marcus writes.

After reading “Lipstick Traces,” which starts with Johnny Rotten and then proceeds to spin into a history of anarchistic rebellion going back long before Johnny Rotten was born – I haven’t been able to listen to a Sex Pistols or Public Image Ltd. song without thinking of Dada and the Situationists and the May ’68 protests in France and so many other things that Marcus wrote about in that book.

This new one, “The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs” (Yale University Press, 320 pages), is all about what Marcus hears when he listens to ten songs, and what he hears is unexpected and sometimes revelatory. It’s not any kind of history of rock that you or I have ever read before, because Marcus sees no point in revisiting the same old story that we’ve read numerous versions of since the ‘60s.

“Shake Some Action” is one of ten songs Marcus writes about in the book.

One of the big ideas in the book is that the chronological history of rock ‘n’ roll – that blues and country begat Chuck Berry and Elvis begat Dylan and the Beatles and so on and so on, is, if not irrelevant, beside the point. Or if not beside the point, well, we’ve been there. We all know, or think we know, the contours of that story. Marcus has a different story to tell.

“Whole intellectual industries are devoted to proving that there is nothing new under the sun, that everything comes from something else – and to such a degree that one can never tell when one thing turns into something else,” Marcus writes in the introduction to his book. “But it is the moment when something appears as if out of nowhere, when a work of art carries within itself the thrill of invention, or discovery, that is worth listening for. It’s that moment when a song or a performance is its own manifesto, issuing its own demands on life in its own, new language – which though the charge of novelty is its essence, is immediately grasped by any number of people who will swear they never heard anything like it before – that speaks. In rock ‘n’ roll, this is a moment that, in historical time, is repeated again and again, until, as culture, it defines the art itself.”

He continues:

“’It’s like saying, “Get all the pop music, put it into a cartridge, put the cap on it and fire the gun,’ Pete Townshend of the Who said in 1968. ‘Whether those ten or 15 numbers sound roughly the same. You don’t care what period they were written in, what they’re all about. It’s the bloody explosion that they create when you let the gun off. It’s the event. That’s what rock and roll is.’ Any pop record made at any time can contain Pete Townshend’s argument. … which is to say that this book could have comprised solely records issued by the Sun label in Memphis in the 1950s, only records made by female punk bands in the 1990s, or nothing but soul records made in Detroit, Memphis, New York City, San Antonio, New Orleans, Los Angeles and Chicago in 1963.”

And more:

“From that perspective, there is no reason to be responsible to chronology, to account for all the innovation, to follow the supposed progression of the form. The Maytals’ ‘Funky Kingston’ is not a step forward from the Drifters’ ‘Money Honey,’ or Outkast’s ‘Hey Ya’ a step forward from ‘Funky Kingston.’ They are rediscoveries of a certain spirit, a leap into style, a step out of time. One can dive into a vault as filled with songs as Uncle Scrooge’s was filled with money and come out with a few prizes that at once raise the question of what rock ‘n’ roll is and answer it.”

I’ve been reading reviews and books by Marcus since the late ‘60s, and he’s dead serious about what he puts on the page. And about what he discovers when he listens to and then writes about rock ‘n’ roll. This is serious stuff, life or death, and if you think music is nothing more than entertainment, well this book is probably not for you.

Reading Marcus is hard work because you have to think when you read his sentences. He takes for granted that you know a hell of a lot about music and art and film and literature. He’s not into coddling the reader. So when he calls his book “The History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll In Ten Songs,” it’s not that you’re going to get the literal history of the music, what you’re going to get is a theory about rock ‘n’ roll, and then ten examples that, in different ways, back up that theory.

So Marcus takes his ten songs and writes an essay about each. He works hard to tell us why these songs matter so much to him, why each in its own way contains the history of rock ‘n’ roll, and why they should matter to us too. And after you read this book, they likely will.

Read the rest of this column at Addicted To Noise, and dig many other great music features, news and reviews.

Hey Bill Wyman, Bob Dylan’s Not Weird At All!

One of our best music critics is Bill Wyman, who wrote an incredible piece about Michael Jackson for the New Yorker in 2012.

I’ve been reading Bill since at least the mid-’90s, and he always has a unique take on the artists and music he writes about.

His latest writing, an essay about Bob Dylan, is in the latest issue of New York magazine and has also been published online at Vulture.

The essay is thoughtful and informed, but I have one big problem with it: the headline.

“How Did Bob Dylan Get So Weird?”

I have two problems with that headline. First, the question asked assumes that Bob Dylan is weird.

And then it implies that Bill’s essay will explain how Bob Dylan went from normal to weird, you know, the way one might explain how a moth becomes a butterfly.

Only as far as I can tell — and this is based on reading everything I’ve been able to get my eyes on that’s been written about Bob Dylan starting in the early ’60s, as well as my one brief meeting with Bob Dylan — he’s not weird.

In fact, I would argue that for someone who has had to deal with international success for over 50 years, who has been accused of everything from being Judas and betraying folk music to inciting racial hatred, Bob Dylan is about as normal as any of us.

I mean how do you define normal?

One could argue — certainly the late Guy Debord would — that nothing about how we live, and nothing about the capitalist system that defines the West has anything to do with normal.

But anyway

One of the big themes regarding Bob Dylan’s so-called weirdness is that he tours all the time. That he practically lives the road.

But why is that a problem. Why does that make him weird?

Bob Dylan is the one who coined the phrase, ‘don’t look back,’ which he used in his song, “She Belongs To Me.”

Remember? “She’s an artist, she don’t look back.”

Dylan took lessons from such fellow travelers as Woody Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Jack Kerouac.

Kerouac’s “On The Road,” a book about two guys who criss-cross the country many times, has been loved and appreciated by millions.

Weird? To want to wake up to something new every few days? Rather than live in the same rut for decade upon decade. I don’t think so.

From what I’ve read. Bob Dylan had some very dark moments during his life. One came at the end of the ’70s, after his marriage to Sara ended in divorce.

That was when he turned to religion in a way that many of us still find hard to understand. But there’s nothing weird about turning to religion at a time of spiritual crisis.

Millions have done the same.

Bob Dylan also lost his way musically for a while during the ’80s. As Wyman points out, Dylan still managed to write and record great songs during that period, it’s just that most weren’t released on official albums and it’s only been during the ’90s and 2000’s that we’ve gotten to hear such gems as “Blind Willie McTell.”

Wyman argues that the ’80s and ’90s “were tough for him artistically.”

I agree that the ’80s was a bad decade for Dylan, but in the ’90s he made Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong and
Time Out of Mind, albums that have gotten rave reviews from most critics including Greil Marcus.

The ’90s turned out to be a great decade for Dylan musically, his comeback decade.

And even the ’80s have turned out to be not a total wipeout. While Dylan’s shows with the Grateful Dead were not so hot, the recordings of his rehearsals with the Dead at Club Front in Marin County in 1987 show him to be in great form. He recorded Oh Mercy in 1989, which got great reviews and is an excellent album.

But what has any of that got to do with weird?

When you headline an article — and Bill Wyman may very well have had nothing to do with the headline — “How Did Bob Dylan Get So Weird?” and then the first graph is some musings about Dylan covering a song made famous by Frank Sinatra, as if that in itself is weird, well is this just a way to sell magazines?

What’s weird is the disconnect between the headline and the article itself.

But then that could just be those pesky editors.

Frankly, that headline doesn’t sound like Bill Wyman to me.

Early on Wyman tells us that Dylan behaves differently than others who are in the “pantheon of great rock stars.”


That’s what makes Bob Dylan Bob Dylan. He doesn’t follow the rules. He does what he wants, when he wants and he does it how he wants.

He answers to no one other than himself, far as I can tell.

That’s one of the things that is so great about him.

That’s what I learned from him when I was in my teens.

Here’s a quote from my novel, “True Love Scars,” in which I address that very thing. I’m talking about “Like A Rolling Stone” here:

Somehow that song summed up exactly and for certain how I felt that day, summer of ’65, every loner feeling, every put down I ever suffered, every bit of existential angst, I hear it all in that song and then, top of all that, that Dylan voice which broke every rule which I didn’t actually know back then, but still I knew, in my body I knew, and what I knew was that every damn thing I’d been told was wrong ’cause if a voice like that, all sneer and sarcasm and ragged and strange, could be on Top 40 radio, anything was possible. And all the rules they taught me didn’t mean shit.

I knew.

“How Did Bob Dylan Get Weird”?

Bob Dylan isn’t weird. He’s just living life to the max, on his own terms.

[In August of this year I’ll be publishing my rock ‘n’ roll/ coming-of-age novel, “True Love Scars,” which features a narrator who is obsessed with Bob Dylan. To read the first chapter, head here.

Or watch an arty video with audio of me reading from the novel here.

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