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literature : interview

Greil Marcus

by Matthew Choate

Rock ’n’ roll and the malleability of historical fact.

Still from Guitar Drag, by Christian Marclay.

The history of rock ’n’ roll seems an impossible thing to wrangle into a single text, yet there are libraries of books that have done just that, whether it is the encyclopedic tomes or the single album unravelled. It would seem the job is done and the canon is set. The History of Rock ’n’ Roll In Ten Songs, Greil Marcus’ new book, doesn’t care for that canon. First off, Marcus has written a history of rock ’n’ roll with no Elvis, no Rolling Stones, no James Brown, no Otis Redding, no Aretha Franklin, no Michael Jackson, no Nirvana, no Chuck Berry, and no Little Richard. He foregoes the key moments, performances, genres, and movements. There are no descriptions of Tupelo, Mississippi, or any disquisitions on a kid shouting “Judas” from the audience at a Bob Dylan concert. Instead, this book is a collection of stories about the songs themselves. An album’s worth of songs, that, in Marcus’ own words, “were rich enough and good enough and powerful enough that they could contain or enact the whole story of rock ’n’ roll.”

Matthew Choate There’s a line that you use that’s haunted me ever since I first read it: “The ballad wants what the ballad gets.” Who wrote that?

Greil Marcus David Thomas of Pere Ubu.

MC In my writing, now, I keep thinking, What does the story want? I’m trying to get myself out of it, to get out of the way. That's largely the struggle you're writing about in these ten chapters, the immortality of the song and the mortality of the singer.

GM Right. I suppose the chapter about Amy Winehouse is the end of the book because it was was the second to last chapter that I wrote. She had died very recently and her death was a real shadow over me, but it also seemed like a beautiful way to end the book, to let her end it. Not with fake grief but just to talk about what this person was able to accomplish while she was able to stay alive. Of course, you listen and you hear death in her songs: the more she wants to be alive, the more you hear death. That's not because she's dead though, you could hear that when she was alive. It was ever present. The way she looked, the ways she made herself, what she did with her eye makeup, her tattoos, her bouffant, she looked like she was already in Madame Tussauds.

MC There’s a moment when what might have happened if she hadn't died, all these other places she could be, and things she could be doing. That happens quite a lot in this book. There’s a whole chapter that imagines if Robert Johnson were still alive, which I love, especially the ending where the President sings “Sweet Home Chicago” …

GM Which he really did.

MC And Robert Johnson phones up the White House and wants his royalty check. I remember you once telling me that when you take walks in Berkeley you imagine these fictional stories. You did something similar in a lecture at Harvard last year on Geeshie Wiley.

GM I take the same hike in Berkeley every morning, up the very steep hill behind the football stadium, on a street called Panoramic Way. I've been doing that for well over thirty years and my wife and I do it together. I've done this hundreds and hundreds of times and I know everything by heart, I don't pay attention to anything, so I walk in a kind of trance, half-daydreaming, and situations will just appear. I was walking once, alone that morning, and I was trying to start writing this book on Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes. I hadn't written a word and I didn't have any idea what to do. I'm just walking and an entire scene pops into my head, a complete imaginary scene: Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson are backstage before a concert in England in 1966. Robbie Robertson fooling around on a guitar, which reminds Dylan of something. He begins to think about it, and he drifts off into his own thoughts. It's just the relationship between these two people. Nothing like this ever happened, I mean they both were backstage at shows at that time. I didn't make that up, but it just arrived, the whole thing, everything. I immediately went home and wrote it all down, and that was all I was able to write for the next six months. (laughter)

MC A visitation.

GM I had these three great pages about an event that never happened. But they were totally right to set the stage, so I used them. With Geeshie Wiley and Robert Johnson, you just let one thing lead to another. I just say to myself, What if? What if he didn't die? Geeshie Wiley disappears after she records in 1930, but where did she go? We don't know, so we are free to imagine it. What might she have done? Who might she have met? I don't know if Geoff Dyer is the first person to do this sort of thing—probably that's David Thomson—but in But Beautiful, Dyer’s book about jazz musicians, he uses some skeletal biographical details that are true, but mainly he invents fictional situations in which these real life people do things that seem right to him. Versions of their music, the emotions that are expressed, or withheld, the passions that are dramatized or negated in their music, suggest scenes and how they will play out.

David Thomson, in his book about film noir, Suspects, does something similar with all these characters from film noir pictures. His definition of film noir is very broad—it goes into the ’70s with say, Night Moves. He says, Here we have these characters, most famously Rick in Casablanca, and what did Rick do before the movie starts? Who was this guy? How did he get to the movie? And what happens to him afterwards? He imagines the backstory all these different characters and then, if they don't die in the movie, what happens to them afterwards. It just frees him as a writer and it frees the reader. Even though I wasn't thinking specifically, I want to do what Geoff and David did, that was obviously there.

MC Again, we have, "What the ballad wants is what the ballad gets." It's as if these stories made the same demands on you.

GM Yeah, exactly. The way you make this work is you make sure that every fictional situation, that every fictional activity, is taking place in a real situation. Everything you write about that didn't happen, could've happened, at least in that place and time. That's why, in 1961 when John Hammond is putting together a reissue of Johnson's ’30s blues recordings, Robert Johnson has long since become a very successful record producer in Los Angeles, and he’s really only interested in money.

MC He's mercenary in a way.

GM He's a complete mercenary and something of a gangster. Hammond says: “I want you to write the liner notes to this reissue of your stuff.” And Robert Johnson does not acknowledge these recordings. He is not an artist, he is not a performer.

MC Doesn't he sign off the liner notes as Ralph Waldo Ellison?

GM I had him do that. He says to Hammond, “I want royalties.” And Hammond says: "No, these songs are all in the public domain, they were never copyrighted.” Johnson knows that Hammond is still going to get producer royalties on the package, and he goes to Clive Davis, a young attorney at Columbia who later becomes this record business titan as President of Columbia to see if he can help him. Clive Davis had in fact just been hired at Columbia when this would have happened. It's just a matter of one thing leading to another. I didn't plan for Robert Johnson to turn into a mercenary record producer, it just happened.

MC It was what the story wanted.

GM Yeah.

MC At the end of the chapter "Crying, Waiting, Hoping," when you find Buddy Holly's real Peggy Sue, I couldn't believe how perfect it was that she had actually become friends with Ritchie Valens' real Donna.

GM This is not something I discovered. James Marsh, the documentary filmmaker, came over to the United States in 1993 to make four documentaries about single songs, which was another inspiration for me, because these are films that I just treasure. His hour-long documentaries on “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Walk On The Wildside,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” and “Peggy Sue,” are all biographies of the song. The song is a living being and he tells that song’s story. He tracks down the real Peggy Sue, who’s been married by now three or four times—she's in her fifties, and is not a happy looking person and is living in Sacramento, California. She hears somehow that Donna Ludwig, Richie Valens' Donna, is also living in Sacramento. These women are both totally anonymous, nobody knows they are real, nobody knows where they live and nobody cares, and yet they are immortal.

James Marsh's film ends with a TV commercial for Peggy Sue's drainpipe cleaning company with Donna endorsing it: "They came, they fixed everything. I recommend them to all my friends."

MC All these stories, told and untold, are spectres of stories around the songs. If there's another spectre in this book it's definitely Colson Whitehead's John Henry Days. There's one chapter in that book about the anonymous singer on the hilltop who becomes the conduit for a song he's heard that he’s ready to give its next iteration, its next life. I'm probably misquoting, but the singer, or Whitehead, thinks, “There's a whole country of songs out there, just waiting to be discovered.”

GM Yeah, that's Colson Whitehead's line, but he puts into the mind of this singer on the hill, piecing together a new version of John Henry. There's another great line in that book: “Like a dollar bill, it changes hands.” He'll sing the song and somebody will hear him tonight, tomorrow that same person will sing the song and it will be a little bit different, he'll sing the song a hundred miles away at another labor camp, and it will change.

MC These songs have multiple stories depending on whose doing the telling.

GM Sure, and there is nothing definitive in anything that I wrote. Obviously if anybody else were to take up the ridiculous conceit of this book they would do it with different songs, but if anybody were to take up the same songs they would tell different stories, they would hear different stories, they would find different stories. These songs are invitations. There is nothing definitive about them. The fact that David Cronenberg used the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night” for a scene in Dead Ringers doesn't say anything definitive about that song. It’s a testament to the suggestiveness of the song, the way it can add to and take away from things, the way it can dramatize what people want, what they can never have, and what they've lost.

MC There are many references to movies in this book. There's a section at the end of the chapter on “Money (That’s What I Want),” where you reference the final scene of Killing Them Softly, in which Brad Pitt says, “This is America, America is a business, so fucking pay me.” And then that song starts playing.

GM That's the end of the movie. The screen goes black and “Money” comes on with that tremendous piano riff that kicks it off, “The best things in life are free / But you can keep them for the birds and bees / Give me money.” The hammer just comes down and hits the nail and pounds it all the way into the wood with one single stroke.

MC What I really wanted with this book was a playlist. Although you map the single song, you make these references to other songs and how they speak, bouncing off of each other.

GM Well, with the exception of Guitar Drag and maybe the Beatles doing all those Buddy Holly songs while making Let It Be, you can find everything that I write about on YouTube. All those different versions of “Money Changes Everything,” they're right there.

MC It's a pity that the Beatles recordings aren’t there. That was, for me, the best example in the book of singers eventually being able to reach a song. You write about how they could never sing “Crying, Waiting, Hoping,” the Buddy Holly song, that they always struggled for it. Then right at the end, with the band coming apart, there is this recording session where they find this song.

GM It takes them ten years to learn how to sing that song, to get it. That becomes its own drama, its own story. They don't even hear the way Buddy Holly actually sang it, and the way he sang it is so fucking pristine, it'll just make your hair stand up. He’s singing into a tape recorder in his apartment in Greenwich Village in January of 1959, he's going to be dead in a month, and he'd just written the song and that recording is perfect. It doesn't even sound like a recording, it sounds like he's right there in the room singing to you. There is a physicality to it, he's absolutely present, and it's so terribly spooky. Then after he died, his record company gets hold of these tapes and they overdub musicians on them and they double track the voice and they distort it. All that's left is the song and the words and the melody. But somehow, that original recording does come through enough to reach the Beatles in 1959.

MC Who are playing clubs in Germany and are constantly playing this Buddy Holly record.

GM Yeah, and they start playing the song, it becomes part of their repertoire and they play it for their audition, they make a demo of it, they're playing it in England in 1963 when they're becoming huge stars.

MC And you find those performances flat right?

GM Yeah, it never comes to life. They love the song, they want to get it, but they can't. They can do a version of The Shirelles “Baby It's You” and for a moment make you forget about The Shirelles, just the song has come to life in a new way, you don't care if it had ever happened before. But in this case it just sounds old and beside the point.

MC I've never heard the recording of “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” that you write about, but the way you describe it, they way they stumble into it during those final recording sessions, they're not even looking for the song. The song finds them.

GM They do this song, that song, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. And then suddenly, someone—I think it's John—hits a note on the piano and that note carries the suggestive melody of “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” in it, everybody knows what's coming, everybody knows that note signifies this song, nothing has to be explained. It's just a moment and they are into it and they're off. It's there and the song is flying like it never has before for anybody.

MC As you said, it's a hard version to find, but reading it, in your book, I could hear it. Your passion for the music comes through so strongly that I got caught up in it, the exhilaration of it. There is another chapter that does that for me, on Christian Marclay's Guitar Drag. I remember when I first saw the video in your class, it was one of the most traumatic visual experiences of my life. I think you can describe it better than I can, but Marclay drags a Fender Stratocaster behind a pickup truck for how many minutes?

GM The video that he made is about fourteen minutes long, but obviously it went much longer. He was in Texas, at an artist colony with Ivan Julian the British artist. James Byrd Jr. had been lynched two years before in Texas, and it's still this horrendous crime that everybody knows about and is still talking about. These three white supremacists found a black man who was walking home, kind of drunk, and they offer him a ride. He gets into their pickup truck and they take him behind a building and they beat him, then they tie him to the back of their pickup truck and they take off and drag him to death. They are very purposefully trying to kill him. At one point they swerve to smash his head against a culvert. By the time they stop and dump him at a black cemetery, his head is gone and one arm is gone. It was just this unbelievably horrendous crime.

Anyway, Christian was flying home from Europe, back to the United States, and he opened a copy of Time Magazine and there's a picture of the license plate of the pickup truck, and maybe a caption about it, because the story had already been reported. He just looks at this license plate and it's speaking to him. The way it's battered, the way it's covered in dirt, the license plate itself becomes James Byrd's body. So he's in Texas and he decides he wants to make a video that at least is a version of this crime. He said to me: “I didn't know, as a white artist, if I had any right to do this.” And Ivan Julian, who was there with him, said, “You have to do it.” So Christian gets a Fender Stratocaster and a pickup truck. He puts an amp in the bed of the truck and he plugs in the electric guitar and he ties a rope around the neck of the guitar and takes off. The goal is to destroy that guitar and find out what it sounds like as it's being killed, as it's being tortured to death, as it's being lynched. The guitar is running along gravel and asphalt and then into a swamp and over a railroad tracks and onto a highway, just every conceivable surface. It’s screaming, and it begins to make a drone sound, and the sound doesn't even seem to modulate for a while, and then suddenly it explodes into squawks and squeals. They never did get it to stop emitting sound.

MC They couldn't kill the guitar.

GM They couldn't kill it. I had known this piece and had used it in my class since 2007, every year. It's a piece that is only meant to be seen in a particular installation, a big black cube that you have to come very close to watch. It's a harrowing thing to watch. People have no idea what they're in for and they are shocked by it.

I was talking to Christian once and he said he had actually put out a soundtrack record, and I said, “What!?” It was commercially released on some little European label, so he sent it to me and I started playing it. I'd put it on and sometimes play it three or four times in a row, as background music while I was writing and it really began to sound like music, like something that had intent, instead of it just being whatever noises the Fender Stratocaster makes when you drag it behind a pick-up truck. I had written nine chapters of the book and then I got stuck. Then the absurdity of the project fell on me. How can I include this if I don't include that? Now I was stuck and I couldn't think of anything without thinking of something else. Does the book have enough balance? No don't think of it that way. I want to use “Letter From An Occupant” by The New Pornographers but how can you do that when you’re leaving out something else? I was just completely stuck. Christian was in San Francisco installing The Clock, his twenty-four hour video, and we went out to dinner, and I'm telling him my travails and suddenly I said, “I know what the last chapter is going to be. It's going to be the Guitar Drag record.” He looked at me and he said, “You're nuts.”

MC What's so great about that chapter, and is so beautiful, is the representation of not being able to kill the guitar.

Reading this book, I couldn't help thinking of it as an album of ten songs. In each chapter there is a calling back to a previous chapter, or something repeated, an anecdote, a song, a reference, or a name.

GM The reverberations were all intentional. I like to have something in an early chapter which seems like a meaningless reference that a hundred pages later takes on flesh and really becomes about something. You plant something and it echoes, and later on you hear it and it's much more powerful than the original sound ever was. That's intentional, but I never thought of it as an album. At one point it was going to be sixteen songs. I'm glad it comes off that way.

MC You describe moments of the song calling on the singer, the song demanding something from them. To travel to an imaginary place where the song wants to be. I thought each of these chapters embodied that “singing,” that reaching.

GM Well great, that was what was supposed to happen.

The History of Rock ’N’ Roll in Ten Songs is available now from Yale University Press.

Matthew Choate was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. He’s worked as a journalist, editor and radio producer. He is at work on his own stories.

rock music
american culture
conceptual art
sound art
music industry
music recording and production
blues music
rhythm and blues
folk music