Close Readings: A QA with Greil Marcus About The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll In Ten Songs

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Greil Marcus’ latest book is The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs, a non-chronologically-ordered eccentric book, focusing on 10 songs that Marcus has chosen for his own reasons (reasons which he went into in the QA below). Part of the fun of the book is removing the demands of chronology, prioritizing emotion and association. How do songs speak to the singers that sing them? Marcus also highlights a lot of pairings, a song covered by two separate artists, and how those different versions inform and reflect and disagree with one another.

This past week, my pal Charles Taylor hosted a QA with Greil Marcus at the NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute as part of their “Close Readings” series, narrowing the focus on one or two passages from the book, those dealing with Cyndi Lauper and The Beatles. But of course in order to discuss those artists you also need to discuss The Clash and Buddy Holly and a host of others, everyone crowding onto the stage at the same time, which, I suppose, is one of Marcus’ ultimate points.

The event was held at the Journalism Institute, with a small stage, two chairs, and a bunch of folding chairs for the audience. The audience members were primarily students at the school, faculty, and a couple of interlopers like myself. Charles Taylor is an incredible writer himself (film, books, music), and Mr. Marcus, naturally, needs no introduction. He’s a great and entertaining story-teller and it was fun because I know all of these songs, but he made me want to listen to them again immediately. I listened to Bo Diddley all the way home. It was a special evening, gracefully run by Charlie, and I was really happy to be there. I’ve been reading Greil Marcus’ stuff since I was 15, 14 years old. He’s wonderful in person. The best part is is that it’s not so much about getting such lists right, because that would be an impossibility anyway. Marcus writes from his own taste, experience, and his own “close readings” of the songs he loves. There are things to discuss, and I think there may be more satire/humor in The Beatles’ version of “Money” than he seems to feel is there, but again, it was a great and thought-provoking discussion. Music. Let it live and breathe.

Here are some snippets from Charles’ QA with Greil Marcus, as well as some audience questions. I tracked down as many clips as I could.

Enjoy!

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Hector and the Search for Happiness (2014)

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I haven’t hated a movie in a long time.

My review of “Hector and the Search for Happiness” is now up at Rogerebert.com.

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His Name Was Rico. He Wore a Diamond.

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The ATM at the Copacabana, 47th Street, New York, NY.

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Swim Little Fish Swim (2014)

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Swim Little Fish Swim is a first feature. Sweet, slight, but confused. I think the message I took from it was not the one intended.

My review of Swim Little Fish Swim is up at The Dissolve.

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The Guest (2014)

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Super fun. Highly recommended.

My review of The Guest is up at Rogerebert.com.

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A Fingerprint

I came home the other night and opened my mailbox. There was a big envelope there, with my name written on it. No return address. But I recognized the handwriting immediately. From an old old flame of mine, a major old flame, who burned up my late 20s and early 30s. That makes him sound horrible and destructive. He wasn’t. The love going on there was … almost addictive. Or totally addictive. We were addicted to each other and the detox process took forever. There were moments of ESP and even a creepy Mr.-Rochester-calling-out-to-Jane-Eyre-across-the-space-time-continuum moment, when we were in different cities. It probably wasn’t healthy, but that was Love, I guess. When I moved to New York, he still lived in the Midwest, and we wrote each other letters. Long chatty letters. The “thing” between us was done but there was still so much we had to tell each other. Funny stories from the day, what we were working on, stuff like that. There was no email. Or, there was, but neither of us had it yet. Looking back, maybe we shouldn’t have been corresponding. It didn’t keep me hanging on or anything like that. There was nothing manipulative going on. It was just two people who got so much out of our interaction that we had to keep it going. Who will I talk to about the things I could only talk to about with him? And they were dumb things – like: “Holy shit, Leslie Van Houten is up for parole again, have you heard?” Or “I have got to tell you that I am now OBSESSED with early Bee Gees …” You know. Stuff that only he or I would “get”, or that’s what it felt like. So the letters flew back and forth until, at one point, or at many points, I can’t really remember, we stopped. Time to move on. It took us forever to let go. The last time I had a letter from him was, 10 years ago, or something?

I haven’t spoken to him since 2010. There was a prickly interaction over text back then. I wasn’t doing well and he strolled into the middle of it, unknowingly. I handed him his HAT. He must have felt blindsided. We don’t always do our best in life. I mean, he and I are going on 20 years of knowing each other. Or, no, it’s been longer than that. Damn, I’m old. From the first moment we met, there was a recognition thing going on. Like babies reaching out to each other from separate carts in the grocery store; “Oh. You. You’re like me.” That has not changed.

So I opened the mailbox and saw his handwriting.

Knew it instantly. After all these years. Instantly. Said to myself, even with no return address, “This is from him.”

It was a chatty conversational hand-written letter. It made me feel happy. He is doing well. He is happy I am doing well.

But what struck me was the handwriting. I know the handwriting of all of my friends in grade school and high school. To this day. I could pick my friend Jackie’s handwriting out of a lineup. My friend Kate. All of my siblings. Because I grew up in the day when you wrote letters to each other. When you got to know stuff like that. I joked with my friend Kate that I needed to lie on my side to read her writing, because it is so slanted. Getting letters has gone the way of many other precious things. I haven’t received a personal letter in years.

There is something precious and personal contained IN someone’s handwriting, regardless of the words that are written. It is someone’s essence, who they are, it emanates off the page in a way that can’t be translated via email. When I used to receive letters all the time, I didn’t experience it that way because letters were common. But now, looking at type all day long, communicating with my friends and family ONLY by email or text … I felt this rush of personal-ness, in reading his letter. It felt like he was right there in the room.

Getting that letter made me miss getting letters, and sent me on a little tailspin imagining the handwriting of my friend Kate, my friend Beth or Betsy, my siblings, my father. Each one … unique. THEM.

His handwriting is a fingerprint. It says: “Him. And him only.”

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Happy Birthday, Hank Williams

“He came to Nashville and he just set this whole world on fire. He was the first one to go to Las Vegas as a country singer, he was the first one in a major hotel in New York City to work. He opened a lot of doors for us. Of course he closed a lot of them for us later on in his career when he really got into trouble with his boozing and his personal life and all. When Hank got into his own personal problems later on, it completely ruined him, in a way, in the industry. It didn’t ruin the love that people had for him but it hurt him from the booking – bookers wouldn’t take chances on him because they knew if they booked him they might have an auditorium full and Hank, 1 time out of 10, might show up. He was in so much trouble personally. They had made an addict of him anyway when he fell off that horse and hurt his back and they gave him morphine. So Hank suffered. I know I’ve seen him on the floor on his back, tears running out of his eyes it was hurting so bad. It’s a sad thing. People that don’t know say, ‘Oh, he died a dope addict.’ Well, that ain’t really true. He died a sick man.”
– Faron Young, singer/songwriter

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You Don’t Own Me

Lesley Gore, performing “You Don’t Own Me”, on the 1964 T.A.M.I. Show, directed by Steve Binder (who also would end up directing Elvis Presley’s phenomenal 1968 “comeback special”). There’s tons of commentary out there about what went down on the T.A.M.I. Show (and you can rent it on Netflix – worth it to see the whole thing, although many of the clips are on Youtube.) All of these bands gathered for a live audience and performed. No biggie, right? But what ended up happening was basically a Musical Rumble. A standoff. A competition. Each band competing with each other, the whites competing with the blacks, and it’s all fun and games but it’s also dead serious.

James Brown was placed second to last in the lineup, and the show closed out with The Rolling Stones, who were, of course, initially inspired by people like James Brown (Mick Jagger was one of the producers of the recent Brown biopic, Get On Up.) Brown was furious that he was placed second to last (“NOBODY comes after James Brown!”). James Brown came onstage and performed so well (understatement – it is a performance For the Ages), that he brought the house down for 20 straight minutes. Brown said later, “I danced so hard that night my manager cried.” And the Stones, watching him tear it up from backstage, started feeling incredibly uneasy and anxious, watching Brown. How were they supposed to follow that? No one should have to follow that. When they finally take the stage, they actually look … anxious. Richards said later that the T.A.M.I. Show was one of the biggest mistakes of their career. They don’t flop or anything, and they are riveting in their young 1964-glitter. But … following James Brown was an impossibility. Brown makes the Stones look derivative, and they seem to know it.

All that fascinating background aside, I love Lesley Gore (she was one of the few women in the lineup. She and The Supremes!), and so she didn’t really participate in the ongoing Musical Rumble happening. But I love her performance, and I love how much she means it. She MEANS this shit.

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Supernatural: Season 2, Episode 6: “No Exit”

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Directed by Kim Manners
Written by Matt Witten

“So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is – other people.”
– Garcin, “No Exit,” by Jean-Paul Sartre

On the Supernatural wiki , No Exit (the play by Sartre) is described as “three people are locked in a windowless room expecting to be tortured. No-one arrives, but by probing each other’s sins, dark secrets and thoughts – they torture each other.” Well, kind of, but that summary is missing a very important detail: The three main characters in No Exit (a male and two females) are dead. They have arrived in the afterlife, assuming they will be confronted with Hell-fire for the sins they committed. Instead, they are led into a room decorated, as Sartre says in the stage descriptions, in the Second French Empire style. (Hmm, something a little like the “green room” for Heaven where Zachariah puts Dean and then Adam to get them out of the way? That room, like the one in No Exit, has no windows and no doors.) In the play, there is nothing in the room except for a couple of sofas, a bronze statue on the mantelpiece, and a random paper-knife. As the play goes on, the knife starts to seem more and more ominous.

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It’s Fall

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