Music Will Set You Free — MASH and a review

Friday, September 5 is Wesleyan’s music festival, The Mash. Student performers and bands, with some faculty and staff also pitching in, will be taking to the stages near Olin Library, in front of North College, and in the Butterfield Courtyards from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. A final stage on Andrus Field has food and even more music from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. I’ll be playing keyboards with some friends in the Smokin Lillies (go Dean Brown!) at 2 p.m. near the library. The schedule is here.

This summer I had the great pleasure of reviewing Greil Marcus’ The History of Rock ‘n Roll in Ten Songs. I just learned that Mr. Marcus had wanted to go to Wesleyan back in the day but fate (and the Admissions Office) conspired to send him to UC Berkeley. The rest is history.

I’m cross-posting the review from the San Francisco Chronicle.


"The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs," by Greil Marcus / ONLINE_YES

Greil Marcus writes about music as if his life depended on it. Maybe it does, and as you read “The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs,” it may feel like yours does, too. I bet you’ll want to interrupt your reading of this book to listen to Etta James, the Five Satins, Buddy Holly, Joy Division, the Beatles, Cyndi Lauper or Robert Johnson. You’ll then go back to the book and remember when music made you recognize that it was time to change your life, or when it simply brought you such pleasure, such joy, you thought your heart was on fire.

Marcus has told rock ’n’ roll histories many times in his distinguished career. In this short, wonderfully alive book, he eschews the straight arrow of chronology and instead wants to “feel one’s way through the music as a field of expression, and as a web of affinities.” For Marcus, “rock ’n’ roll may be more than anything a continuum of associations, a drama of direct and spectral connections between songs and performers.” He’s not that interested in what songwriters said they intended, or what singers and other musicians thought they were doing in studios or onstage. Instead, he is interested in how music comes alive and reverberates in different times and places, creating meanings that radiate into the future while also changing the ways we imagine the past. Marcus’ historical moments have the intensities of a great song, coming together in ways that are both satisfying and appetizing.

Marcus’s 10 songs are anything but obvious: “Shake Some Action,” “Transmission,” “In the Still of the Night,” “All I Could Do Was Cry,” “Crying, Waiting, Hoping,” “Money (That’s What I Want),” “Money Changes Everything,” “This Magic Moment,” “Guitar Drag,” “To Know Him is to Love Him.” The book even has what the author calls an “instrumental break.” Later performances of songs reveal the truths of earlier ones; the future sometimes seems, according to the epistemology of Neil Young, to cause the past.

Marcus is looking for moments “when something appears as if out of nowhere, when a work of art carries within itself the thrill of invention, of discovery.” Or as the Who’s Pete Townshend put it: “It’s the bloody explosion. …. It’s the event. That’s what rock and roll is.” What seemed impossible before now seems inevitable.

After reading Marcus, listening to Etta James and Beyoncé singing their versions of “All I Could Do Was Cry” becomes revelatory, as it was for him. “You could imagine, as you listened, that as the singer changed the song, the song changed the singer, and you could imagine that both would change you. Nothing would be left the same.” Marcus explores how James’ singing became utterly devastating, with the first words of the song not really being sung as much as “let out, stones hidden in her lungs for twenty years.” “James was twenty-two; she could have been sixty, or have lived a dozen lives without reaching twenty-three and remembered all of them.”

What a different path led Beyoncé to “All I Could Do Was Cry.” Marcus is no great fan of the singer who has become a brand, but he can’t help being bowled over by her performance of the song as she portrayed James in the film “Cadillac Man” — a rendition so intensely powerful that it “can make the rest of her career seem like a cheat.” Or, as Marcus says of the great Arlene Smith, Beyoncé went into that ballad “like a maiden sacrificing herself to volcano gods.”

Marcus wants to reawaken in his readers the capacity for surprise, or an intense anticipation that doesn’t diminish our ability to register something completely new. This was the climate the Beatles inhabited and permanently changed in 1967, as did Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, “even the Beach Boys.” This climate change is re-created in each of the songs Marcus discusses.

It was that sense of anticipation commingled with surprise that Marcus remembers hearing in records like the Beatles version of “Money (That’s What I Want).” As a kid in San Francisco, listening to the song over and over again, Lennon’s singing “so full of hysteria you can see the words bursting into flames as they leave his mouth,” Marcus began to understand that the song is “about nothing but freedom.” Or, as he writes about “Money Changes Everything”: “The story we’re telling is about imprisonment, but the music we’re making is about freedom, the tiny moments of freedom you steal from a life you don’t own, that doesn’t belong to you, that you have to live.”

And that’s the thread that runs through Marcus’ history, the thread of a promise of, and even an anticipation of, freedom. Writing of “This Magic Moment,” he notes: “By 1959 it was the ruling question of national life: would America live up to its promises, or deny that they had ever been made.” The history of rock ’n’ roll makes it impossible to deny the fact of these promises, even as it also reminds us that outside of our songs, they have yet to be fulfilled.

Marcus writes “unsatisfied histories” because he tells tales that remind us of what we have yet to do. The point is not to chastise. Instead, he wants his readers to do what his musicians have done: draw on “whatever new social energies and new ideas are in the air — energies and ideas that are sparking the artist … to make greater demands on life than he or she has ever made before.” That’s what Greil Marcus has done in his potent, inspiring book.


The History

of Rock ’n’ Roll

in Ten Songs

By Greil Marcus

(Yale University Press;

307 pages; $28)