Of the first generation of serious rock critics, Lester Bangs was the wild man, writing as if he were a rock star rather than a critic, Robert Cristgau was the self-proclaimed "dean" (cranky, humorless), while Greil Marcus is the gnomic scholar, ensconced in his study with the rock and roll scrolls, issuing erudite and esoteric pronouncements. Marcus strikes me as someone who loves thinking about rock more than he likes listening to it. While I think rock can bear a scholarly approach, Marcus never seems to feel music viscerally, which, for me, is a problem. I remember him proclaiming one of my favorite bands Sleater-Kinney the best band in America in the early 00s (I feel this has been quoted in nearly every article about the resurgent band.), which was great, but the article he wrote about them made them sound boring and made him sound like he didn't really get their music. Anyway, this ludicrously, if ambitiously, titled book has the same problems as much of his writing. At its best, it will provoke debate, as no one will be satisfied with his ten song choices, which include Joy Division's "Transmission," Etta James's "All I Could Do Was Cry," and various versions of "Money (That's What I Want)." Along the way he draws in MLK, Norman Mailer, Steve Martin's "The Jerk," and lit critic Leslie Fielder, among others. His obtuse of connecting the dots is a constant annoyance, as, for example, he starts out discussing Joy Division's immortal "Transmission," but then veers into Sam Riley's performance as Ian Curtis in "Control" before ending with Sam Riley's performance in the film "Brighton Rock." Ok. His pronouncements are also dubious, as he criticizes Beyone for her lack of real connection to the R&B/soul tradition, but then praises the late Amy Winehouse, who as a white Brit, has a more dubious claim on that tradition. There's also little to suggest that he cares much about any recent developments in much (by which I mean pretty much anything after 1980). I mean, not a single hip-hop song? Of course, his beloved Bob Dylan makes a cameo. This is rock criticism as its most egg-headed, dessicated, and, ultimately, futile.
You might not always agree, but you'll definitely learn lots. An entertaining read.
As the title suggests, rock critic Greil Marcus has selected ten songs - all recorded between 1956 and 2008 - that he feels effectively embody the spirit of rock 'n' roll. Many of the songs have been re-recorded, for example Etta James' "All I Could Do Was Cry," which was later recorded by Beyoncé. Musically minded readers may not agree with all of Marcus' choices, but that's part of the fun. His in-depth analysis explores unusual connections between versions and calls attention to the different aspects each performer draws out. For more in-depth and song-specific analysis, try Dave Marsh's Louie Louie. Popular Culture November 2014 newsletter.
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