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


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.


Charles Taylor: There’s a line in the introduction to the new book about rock ‘n’ roll, when it emerged, as a “language kept new by a fickle audience.” Is it harder to keep it new now since the audience for rock and roll, as with everything else, is so segregated?

Greil Marcus: I don’t know how segregated it is. I’m teaching a class right now at the New School, a graduate seminar. I went to the TA discussion sections last week, and in one class, one of the students said in the course of an argument about something, “You know, we all have a common lexicon. Everybody in this room can recite ‘Rapper’s Delight.'”

Now, I don’t know if that was true or not but I love the assumption. I love the idea that this group of people, who were, I suppose, within 10 years of each other in age, maybe a lot closer than that, had something that was so shared.

In terms of a fickle audience: when rock ‘n’ roll emerged, there was this thing, mainly on the radio, and nobody knew what it was, but it was different every week and it was cheered on by hysterical disc jockeys and even more hysterical commercials, which were somehow part of the songs. And you didn’t know who these people were, you didn’t have any idea what they looked like, you didn’t care, you just wanted to hear more of it. It was rare to make a commitment. In that sense, the audience was fickle, and that’s good. Because in order to reach the audience you had to get past the fact that they didn’t care anything about you, they just wanted this sound.

Bo Diddley comes on the radio in 1956 or 1957 with a song called “Say Man” which was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard in my life.

I get older, I learn things, and I discover it’s a version of The Dozens, an African-American insult game that’s been played for generations upon generations. It’s a completely standard little routine that any African-American in 1956 or 1957 would have recognized. The song essentially says, about life, “Yo Momma.” It goes on and on, these two guys insulting each other, giggling at each other, and at the end there’s a line which became kind of like ‘Rapper’s Delight’, a common lexicon: “You look like you’ve been whupped with an ugly stick.”

Nobody knew who Bo Diddley was. Nobody cared. It’s not real that there would actually be a person named Bo Diddley. Today, people buy or listen to and choose music, track by track, through all kinds of online services and engines. Nothing could be more fickle than that. It’s very similar. To break through that, to break through the fan-nish indifference, is a great thing.

CT: The book started with someone’s idea that you write a chronological history of rock ‘n’ roll?

GM: I had an editor who I had worked with for many many years, he’s actually here tonight, and he said that the people at Yale wanted me to write a history of rock ‘n’ roll. I said that it was a terrible idea, it had been done to death, it had been done really well, it had been done horribly.

CT: Who did it really well?

GM: Nik Cohn wrote a book that came out in 1968 to 1969 called, originally, Pop From the Beginning, and it’s now called Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock. It was just the most exciting delirious book, full of ideas, wonderfully written, and he put together little sketches of all kinds of people I had never heard of. I learned so much about the music I had grown up with by reading that book, for just the reasons I was saying. I didn’t know who Bo Diddley was. I didn’t care. But he did.

Another really good one was done by Jim Miller, for the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll which I worked on, from 1976.

Rock ‘n’ roll history as it’s written has now evolved into such minutia that there are many whole books on one single song. There aren’t yet any whole books on a single guitar solo. But it will definitely happen.

What I said to the editor was, “Look, everybody knows what the history of rock ‘n’ roll is. It’s been codified, chiseled in stone.” If you were to write a book like that, you have to take into account everything, whatever your thoughts or feelings about all of these people are – from Elvis to Aretha Franklin to Nirvana to Tupac Shakur and on into the present – and there are all these events that absolutely defined what the music was, and who the people who cared about it were. It’s Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show. I said No, I’m not going to do it, I don’t think we should do it at all.

But I kept thinking about it. I thought, Well, what if it was non-chronological, and there are all these gaps? What if it was more about the gaps than continuity? It wouldn’t be just iconic performers, it would be about a number of songs with the idea that these songs would be so good that they would each, in their own way, contain all the aspirations, all the formal limits, all the breakthroughs, all the spiritual longing and desire and despair and defeat, of anybody. These songs would be so good you could find the whole of music in each of these songs.

Each song would have its own biography. The song itself would tell a story. What is the song saying? What does the song say to the singer? The singer doesn’t own it. It belongs to whoever is hearing it.

My editor liked the idea. Yale liked the idea. I spent a year thinking about it, making lists. When I got the idea, I knew instantly that whatever this book turned out to be, it would start with the Flamin’ Groovies‘ “Shake Some Action.”

It’s a piece of guitar-based rock ‘n’ roll recorded in 1972 by a relatively obscure San Francisco band. It wasn’t even released until 4 years later. You write your masterpiece, you bet everything you have on it, you know when it’s finished it’s everything you can do, and then it disappears into obscurity. That song absolutely paid off on every promise the music ever made. And more than that: There’s something about that song’s drive, its rhythm, that – whatever it is – before rock ‘n’ roll emerged – let’s say before Fats Domino‘s “The Fat Man” …

I always think of that song as being from 1950, but I read yesterday in a New York Times obituary that it was recorded on December 15, 1949, so it actually goes back to the 40s. Just as what Fats Domino does on that record was something that had never been heard on earth before, “Shake Some Action” contains a sound that before rock ‘n’ roll had never been heard on earth before.

The book is organized around something Neil Young said. Neil Young is great at oracular, gnomic, almost impossible to decipher grand statements. He said this in an interview once, and I never forgot it. He said, “Rock ‘n’ roll is heedless abandon. Rock ‘n’ roll is the cause of country and blues.” In other words, you needed this more orderly, this more adult, this more serious, and this more formally static music, to emerge in order to control rock ‘n’ roll. Young says, “Blues and country came first. But somehow rock ‘n’ roll’s place in the order of things is dispersed.”

I mean, what does that mean? But we know what he means!

I don’t even know if I agree with what he said, but I love the philosophy of history in that statement. And that’s the way the book works.

All these songs are playing and are speaking to each other, are being recorded, are being heard, simultaneously.

Pitchfork – a wonderful pop music website – just started putting out a print magazine, The Pitchfork Review. Very interesting writing. I was reading a piece this afternoon by someone who is 30 years old, and it’s about Astral Weeks, the Van Morrison album, which is in fact quite a bit older than the writer is. He talked about how when he was fifteen years old, he absolutely hated the record, and now that he’s thirty, he loves it and understands it. He said, essentially, “This album came out in 1968 but that doesn’t mean anything to me. I was born in 1987 and I first heard it in 1998. So as far as I’m concerned, this record first came out in 1998.”

That sense of time is, more or less, what the book is about.

CT: One chapter is on two songs: “Money (That’s What I Want)” and “Money Changes Everything.” Each of those songs were originally done and then done again by someone who comes in and brings something completely different to it. “Money”, the first Motown hit by Barrett Strong – and how many years later did the Beatles record it?

GM: Four.

CT: You said one time that the Beatles’ version of “Money” is the “toughest piece of rock ‘n’ roll” you know.

GM: It’s frightening. It’s absolutely terrifying.

I mean, here’s Barrett Strong, in the Motown studio, and “studio” is kind of stretching it: he is in the room in the house which Motown has rented to be the headquarters of their company in Detroit. The downstairs room is where they have a piano and some microphones. Barrett Strong is not really a singer. He’s a songwriter, he plays the piano, he sings some. Strong and Berry Gordy, the head of the company, in 1959, are sitting at the piano, trying to find a riff. Barrett Strong starts playing a riff from Ray Charles‘ “What’d I Say”, the huge hit of the moment. But he’s changing it, he’s trying to find a way to move it a little bit. He begins to hammer out a rhythm within the rhythm. He’s heard something harsher, more staccato than is on the actual record, and that’s what he starts to focus on.

Berry Gordy and another songwriter in the room start throwing words back and forth at each other. It’s got this great groove, and they know it’s a hit somehow, if they can make it into a song. Berry Gordy says, “What are we gonna call this?” The other songwriter, a woman named Janie Bradford, says, “Money. That’s What I want.” The song starts to come into focus. Berry Gordy’s girlfriend and eventual wife, Raynoma …

And I’m telling this story because it’s an origin story. There is this idea of abandoning chronology, of saying that what rock ‘n’ roll is for any artist is a continuum of associations as opposed to a story of progress and evolution. There’s a label in Olympia Washington called Kill Rock Stars and it emerged in the early 90s as part of the Riot grrrl movement.


It was Sleater-Kinney‘s label for a long time, and many other bands too. They put out a record that was a compilation LP of about 20 different bands, and at the bottom they had their logo, and it said, “Olympia, Washington: Birthplace of Rock.” Wow! Really? Elvis was from Olympia, Washington? Chuck Berry, too? But what they meant was rock ‘n’ roll can be born at any time, anywhere.

So here is rock ‘n’ roll in 1959 being born, being discovered, stumbled on, as a pre-existing spirit that has yet to take any kind of form, in Detroit. Raynoma Berry hears all this noise downstairs, and it’s a great noise, it sounds really good. She comes running down the stairs, and they’re singing “Money that’s what I want, Money that’s what I want,” and she comes down just as Barrett Strong hits a pause on the piano. And they’re singing, “Give me money – Thats—” and in that pause, she joins in and sings, “That’s — What I want.” She realizes – and she writes about it in her autobiography: It’s the pause. It’s the hesitation that puts menace into the song and makes the desire real and overwhelming. It really makes the thing scary.

To me, whoever is singing that song – they want it too much. There’s nothing else they want. “The best things in life are free, but you can keep them for the birds and bees. I want money.”

The Motown song is a tremendous record. It’s not a huge hit at the time. It reaches #26 or something like that, but it is huge because nobody who hears it forgets it. It becomes part of the lingua franca of music. Raynoma Berry said in her book: what it did on the charts was nothing compared to what it would do in the decades to come.

The Beatles‘ version comes 4 years later. They’re a guitar band. They’re not a Motown band. And yet they bring more desperation, more desire, a different sense of rhythm, more harsh, more monolithic, and it ends up being far scarier and more spiritually corrupt in an incredibly alluring way than Motown’s version.

I tell this story in the book, and if I hadn’t had this story I probably wouldn’t have written this chapter.

I was 18. The Beatles had played the Ed Sullivan Show. People had the first Beatles album. They were on the radio all the time. It was Beatles, Beatles, Beatles. A friend said that his father, who was an airline pilot, had come back from England and he brought the second Beatles album and would we like to come over and listen to it. So we go over to this guy’s house, and we’re all listening to it, talking about it, “I like this one better than that one,” but then he says, “The last song on the album is ‘Money.’ Do you want to hear it?” “Of course we want to hear it.” “Well, it will cost 2 dollars to hear, from each person.” I’m thinking this is some conceptual play, like, the song is called “Money,” you know … But he was saying, “This is so great I’m gonna get paid for it.” We all listened. He said, “Would you like to hear it again?” We said, “We have to hear it again.” He said, “You’ll have to pay another 2 dollars.” And we all paid!

No one had ever heard anything like that. The Beatles had never heard anything like what they did with that song when they recorded it.

CT: The other song in that chapter is “Money Changes Everything”, which was written by Tom Gray, and his band The Brains, and as he sings it, it’s a guy singing, his girlfriend is leaving him for some rich guy. And then a year or 2 years later, Cyndi Lauper covers it for her first solo record. Her version – I’ve said this to you – was the basis for one of the most shocking live performances I’ve ever seen.

GM: It’s 1978, in Atlanta, Tom Gray has played around town in various bands. Punk has thrilled him like it’s thrilled so many people. You can say anything you want to say, you can say things that aren’t supposed to be said. In fact, you have to try to find things in yourself that you’re not supposed to say and then find a way to say them and make them stick. He names his band The Brains. He calls his label Gray Matters, in case you’re missing the point: I’m smart! And on the back sleeve of the “Money Changes Everything” single, there are four undistinguishable guys in the background and in the front a guy with a really high forehead, and huge glasses. That’s Tom Gray. Gray Matters. The Brains!

In “Money Changes Everything”, he plays the organ, that’s the riff, up and down, up and down, that’s what the song is built on.

He sings it in a thick voice, it’s absolute despair, absolute shock, that his woman is walking out on him. It’s a brilliantly written song. What’s so brilliant is: It starts out: “She says, ‘I’m sorry, baby, I’m leaving you tonight.'” The man says, “Oh honey, how can you do it? We swore each other everlasting love.” She says, “Yeah, well, I know, but when we did there was one thing we weren’t thinking of, and that’s money.”

It’s that “Yeah.” He wrote that. He wrote in that “Yeah, well …”- that puts in the dose of naturalism. You see it happening. You see the guy, he looks however he looks to you, you see the woman, she looks like however she looks to you, and you see them on that front porch, and you see them looking at each other, and you are right there in the middle of that situation. It’s just horrible. She says, “I found someone new, he’s waiting in the car outside,” and off she goes.

It’s about how there’s no one in the world you can trust, everybody will let you down. People will turn their backs on you. It’s all about money. That’s all anybody ever cares about.

The song never made the national charts. It was played to death on college radio. It became a kind of lingua franca, as great songs do.

And then it’s 1983.

Photo studio de Cyndi LAUPER

One of the great things about writing a book: people read it, and they tell you things about your subject that you didn’t know. Cyndi Lauper is in the studio making her first solo album, and this is one of the songs that she records. And after the book came out, a friend of mine named Michael Zilkha – who used to be a record producer, and had his own label called ZE Records – told me how she came to record this song. He said, “I was trying to find songs for Cristina” – his chanteuse on his label. She made a very memorable version of the Peggy Lee song “Is That All There Is”, a really Weimar cabaret decadent version, where you want to kill yourself halfway through the song, because that would be the most glamorous thing you could possibly do.

Zilkha said, “I made up this tape of songs for Cristina, but she wasn’t really a singer, and these songs really needed to be sung. ‘Is That All There Is’, you can talk your way through, you don’t have to sing. So I was playing poker with Rick Chertoff, another record producer, and I handed the cassette to him, saying, Maybe you can find someone who can sing these songs, I can’t use them.”

Rick Chertoff goes home, listens to it, and there are two songs on the tape that he thinks would be good for Cyndi Lauper. One was Prince‘s “When You Were Mine” and the other was The Brains’ “Money Changes Everything.”

He takes them into the studio. They record “When You Were Mine.” Then he plays “Money Changes Everything” for her to hear. To Rick Chertoff, the producer, it’s a Dylan song. It’s a folk song. It’s like “Don’t Think Twice.” It’s got this plaintive melody, it’s got sadness, you should do it sensitively.

But Cyndi Lauper says, after hearing it, “No. That’s not what this song is at all. This is ‘London Calling’ by The Clash.”

And that’s how they do it, with that kind of drive, that kind of momentum.

Anybody else but Cyndi Lauper, anybody less tough, anybody less in-your-face, anybody less stick-your-leg-out-and-trip-the-person-on-the-street-just-to-see-them-fall – anybody but Cyndi Lauper would have said, “In the song, the guy gets left by a woman, and he’s the victim. So when I sing it, I’ll be the one being left, and so I’ll be the victim, because that’s the way the song is written.”

But Cyndi Lauper doesn’t start out with the lyrics, “He said, ‘I’m sorry, baby.'” She changes it to, “I said, ‘I’m sorry, baby, I’m leaving you tonight.”

In other words, she shifts the song completely. She makes it a manifesto, the curse from the person who’s leaving, who’s walking out. Instead of a man talking about how he’s been wounded, betrayed, his whole idea of what life is has been shattered – no, instead it’s “Fuck you, loser. I have a life to live and I’m gonna go get it, and you’re not gonna get it for me. You’re only gonna hold me back. Good-bye. And forget the ‘good’ part.”

Her version is both frightening and incredibly exhilarating.

There is a point at the end of the song where Lauper holds a note for 11 seconds. It doesn’t sound like 11 seconds is a long time, but it is a long time to hold a note. It just soars over the music. It’s like a black rainbow over the song, over the terrain that the song has laid out before your very eyes. It’s absolutely stunning.

Charlie, why don’t you talk about seeing her perform that song.

CT: I saw her at a club in Boston when that record came out. Before long, she would be playing arenas, but this was a fairly small room. She was doing her Betty Boop schtick in those days, and snapping gum, and she does “Money Changes Everything.” At the point in the song that Greil just talked about, when she holds that note, she walks to the front of the stage, and people have their hands up, and she’s slapping their hands – and she grabs this guy’s hand in the front row. And you know that moment in the first X-Men movie when Rogue grabs someone and literally sucks all the energy into his body and you see the person withering and dying? You could see the line of muscles from this guy’s arm going up into her arm, and she just held that sonofabitch’s arm for everything she was worth, and then when she ended the note, she dropped his arm, opened her eyes, as though she realized she had been holding onto an electric current. And she literally jumped back. It was one of the most shocking things I’ve ever seen onstage. It was someone coming out of a trance.

GM: When she began to perform this song in arenas – she did the most bizarre thing. She’s stomping back and forth across the big stage, and there’s a garbage can onstage. And you sort of notice: That is definitely a garbage can. It’s not a strange-looking amplifier or some Caribbean steel drum. It really is a garbage can. At a certain point in the song, she climbs into the garbage can and keeps singing the song as she was hoisted up over the audience. It was incredible: She’s saying: Because I have committed my whole life to money and no other values exist but money – because that’s the way I sing this song – I’m garbage.

Tom Gray and the Brains go nowhere, go back to Atlanta, they break up, and that’s the end of the Brains. Cyndi Lauper becomes an enormous star. 5 singles from her first album are in the Top 10 in the course of a year. There are all these articles written about how Madonna is a bimbo and Cyndi Lauper is the Thinking Person’s Female Singer of the moment. Lauper suffers an enormous backlash, and Madonna turns out not to be a bimbo, she’s the smartest person to make her career in pop music in 30 years, and Cyndi Lauper’s career fades. She continues to sell records, but nobody talks about her anymore. She sort of disappears in plain sight.

In 2005, she does what people do when they are trying to make a comeback. “I know. I’ll do all my old hits but I’ll do them differently.” Great idea. Terrific comeback strategy. Always works. She calls this album The Body Acoustic, she’s doing acoustic versions of her old songs.


One song she does is “Money Changes Everything,” and it’s done as a kind of Appalachian folk-song. It’s being played on a dulcimer and a fiddle. It’s sung as a lament. There’s no more vengeance in it, there’s no more exultation. It’s not about what I’m doing to you or what anyone’s doing to me. It’s about the human condition. Money changes everything. There’s nothing we can do about it, and not only that, but money has colonized our whole lives, it’s colonized our minds, to the point where money has bought and paid for what we consider our desires and fears, even our nightmares are governed by commercials and scenes from movies and products we want and jobs we’re afraid we’re going to lose. It becomes this incredibly sad song, and yet it’s done with Appalachian fatalism. This is the way the world is. And I can accept that, and I can say that even though I don’t own my life, there are little cracks in the prison of our world where I can live, where I can feel alive.

It’s a great recording and it couldn’t be more different than what it was before.

Tom Gray never gets out of Atlanta but Tom Gray never gives up and he never stops making music and he never stops singing “Money Changes Everything.” He’ll appear with some local punk band and they’ll say, “We’re gonna bring up Tom Gray, you all know who Tom Gray is,” and now he really is grey. He’s old. He forms a band called Delta Moon and they do a version of “Money Changes Everything.” They do it kind of folk-y and it doesn’t work, but then there’s a video I found on Youtube of him in 2008. Tom Gray is playing a show with Delta Moon, it’s all acoustic instruments, he plays the dulcimer, like Cyndi Lauper did three years before, and he comes on and he looks great. He’s wearing a nice suit, a shirt with no tie, he looks like a lawyer who just got off work, took his tie off and came down to the club. He sings “Money Changes Everything,” and again, it is a folk song.

It has devolved back, in Neil Young’s scheme of things. It started out as rock ‘n’ roll and then it finds its true voice, years and decades later, as a folk song. He plays it with more bitterness, more brittleness, still, than Cyndi Lauper does. He’s taking that song back from the song that she re-made it into.

And I thought as I watched the video Cyndi Lauper did of her performance, and watched his video, and a number of other videos: These two people are having a Battle of the Bands, using one song, that has lasted thirty years, and it’s going to go on until one or the other of them drops.

Cyndi Lauper says, “This is my song.” Tom Gray says, “This is my song.” “I know what this song is really about.” “No, I know what this song is really about.””I know what this song wants to sound like.” “No, I know what this song wants to sound like.” “This song told me how it needed to be played.” “This song told me how it needed to be played.”

And that’s how I imagine it. The song, once it’s made, escapes from its creator, from its writer, and it’s out there in the world and at a certain point the song itself wants to be played differently, wants to be heard differently.

CT: This passage is from the discussion of Cyndi Lauper’s first version:

“The song echoes back not to a source but to an American familiar, always present, whatever its form, here to Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face, twenty-six as she walks in front of the camera at 1933, her character maybe twenty as she appears on the screen. Pimped out by her father from the time she was fourteen, to escape Erie, Pennsylvania where even with her father dead every mill-worker knows her as a two-dollar whore, with the woman she’s running with casting a cool eye on her as she seduces a guard in a box-car, then makes it to New York and sleeps her way to the top in a single shot that begins at the ground floor of an office building and slowly rises to the roof. There may be self-hatred in Lauper’s voice and there may be in Stanwyck’s face, but there’s more pride in both, and in the song, as Lauper sings it even self-hatred, for the man a reason to crawl into bed and pull the sheets over his head, is one more engine: the sound is glamorous, not beaten.”

Could you talk about the “American familiar?” What is “always present”?

GM: What’s always present is the idea that without money you’re going to be a victim and you have to get it however you can. When you get your hands on it, regardless of how you’re going to feel in the future, regardless of what disasters the money you’ve got your hands on may actually cause in your life, when you get your hands on it the feeling is of pride and victory. Both Cyndi Lauper and Barbara Stanwyck are unafraid to show that. Plus, I really just wanted to write about Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face.


Charlie opened up the QA to questions from the audience. The first came from a guy in the front row.

Audience #1: The two sections on the Beatles – “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” and the one on “Money (That’s What I Want)” – as far as I can remember, please correct me if I’m wrong, this is the first time you’ve written at great length about The Beatles. You capture, in both of those sections, so much of what makes them so great. I was curious why you waited so long to write this kind of work about them and why you felt this was the time to write about them.

GM: You’re essentially right. I wrote the chapter on The Beatles in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock ‘n’ Roll. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever written. I had no idea how to start. How do you write something about The Beatles that hasn’t been said already? How do you dig out of yourself what your own thoughts are? Because your own thoughts about The Beatles are so much a part of everybody’s thoughts, because they were a common experience, a common conversation. I wrote a lot about John Lennon when he was murdered. But you’re right, I haven’t written at any length about The Beatles.

It comes down to songs and that’s how this book came together. Years and years ago, somebody gave me an album of The Beatles during their Let It Be sessions in 1969. Their last album.


They’re coming together every single day, they go to the studio, they sit there, trying to find some way to make a record. The record was going to be called “Get Back.” They were going to go back to their roots, they were going to go back to the music that brought them together, because now they hate each other. They’re not speaking to each other. John is only speaking to Yoko, who is sitting there in the studio right next to him. George quits, he comes back, he quits again. Ringo quits, he comes back. Animosity doesn’t come close to touching what was going on. It’s like a divorce. I can’t believe I ever loved you. I can’t believe I was ever so stupid as to think we had anything in common. When the whole idea of love has turned not just to hate but meaninglessness.

And one day, they start playing Buddy Holly songs. And there’s a change in mood. They go from one song to the other. They do “That’ll Be the Day”.

They do “Maybe Baby”. They do a little bit of “Peggy Sue”. They’re having fun, but they’re not open, they’re not loose.

They’re afraid that if they commit emotionally to this moment, somebody – probably John – will slap them down. If they open themselves up, if they show any vulnerability, somebody’s gonna stomp on them. You can feel that fear and hesitation.

And then George, who’s really leading the session on guitar, hits a note. It’s just a note, but there’s a certain tone to it, a certain sweetness to it. You can feel the atmosphere in the room change. Everybody knows what that note signifies, knows what song it is, and that that’s what they’re going to do next.

“Crying, Waiting, Hoping” is a song Buddy Holly recorded in early 1959, 10 years before, in his Greenwich Village apartment, singing into his tape recorder, playing acoustic guitar. In a month he would be dead. After he died, his widow gave the home tapes he’d been making to his record company. They brought in a band, they overdubbed singers and musicians, and they put the songs out. The first song they released was “Peggy Sue Got Married” with “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” on the other side, and it was a small hit in England.

The Beatles heard it, immediately loved it, and started playing it. When they auditioned for Decca Records, not much more than 2 years later, they make a whole bunch of demos, and this was one of the songs that got them rejected by Decca.

It really isn’t very good. George is copying the over-dubbed guitar solo from the Buddy Holly record. He doesn’t know there was an original guitar solo, he’s never heard Buddy Holly’s original version, it isn’t released until years and years and years later. He just knows this botch of a Frankenstein monster record, put out after Buddy Holly died.

But it’s in George’s blood, this song.

In essence, The Beatles have been trying since 1959 to play this song.

And now in 1969, George is saying, “It’s now or never.” They start singing the song and there is a warmth and a friendliness and a love coursing through the room. They’re fooling around with it, they do what people do with 50s rock ‘n’ roll songs, they’re making fun of it. Instead of “crying, waiting” – it’s “smokin’ and jokin'”. Paul is chiming in, John is chiming in, and George takes the song away from them and invests it with more emotion than any of them have dared put in, and then they’re singing “Crying, waiting, hoping, that you’ll come back to me” and they’re looking around at each other in that room knowing that none of them are ever coming back to any of the others. It’s over. Everything that they feel is present in that room and it’s present as loss. They are aware of the loss, and they understand what they have lost.

I heard that Let It Be sessions tape in 1977, and I’ve been waiting all that time to write about it.

The next question came from a young woman sitting in front of me.

Audience #2: I wanted to ask about the term “rock ‘n’ roll.” When it’s used today, it’s used often in an ironic way. You titled your book specifically using that term, not saying “rock” or “pop”. What does the term mean to you?

GM: That’s a great question.

“Rock ‘n’ roll” to me, maybe 20 years ago, became an absolutely meaningless term. Worse than meaningless. It became a term of ugliness, a term that screamed “Money changes everything.” As a writer, I stopped using the term. I started referring to it as “pop music”, a term that is aggressively meaningless. It’s also a totally lame weak phrase. “Pop music” means everything and nothing.

For this book, I was going to go back to the idea that rock ‘n’ roll is all popular music with any energy to it at all, taking place from somewhere in the 1940s to the present. I read a review of the book that said that The Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night” isn’t really rock ‘n’ roll. It isn’t rock ‘n’ roll? What are you talking about?

A lot of this book is about soul music. People say, “Well, but soul music is made by black people and black people don’t make rock ‘n’ roll.” Tell that to Little Richard.

Ice-T said something wonderful when he was first becoming a star before he became a cop. He was a very controversial rapper, and he said, in response, “Listen, it’s rock ‘n’ roll. Don’t you understand? This is just rock ‘n’ roll. That’s what rap is.”

That was a heretical thing to say because serious rappers didn’t want to be associated with the term anymore than punks in England did. I went to England in 1980, I met The Gang of Four, I met The Raincoats, and the idea of being called rock ‘n’ roll was the most horribly insulting thing imaginable.

For this book, I thought the hell with it. Even if nobody knows what the term means anymore and nobody cares, I’m gonna go with it.

I don’t really have a good answer. But your question is a good question.

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

  1. Wow. Thanks Sheila. I’m almost finished with the book (which I think is his best in a very long time) and that discussion adds a lot, especially his response to the question about rock ‘n’ roll. Weird that I never liked punks for the very reason that I knew the really committed ones hated rock and roll, which I figured meant they also hated me…and Greil decided to spend a good part of his life trying to understand them. He’s a better man than I!…And based on what he said in the book I gotta get Cyndi’s autobiography, which I didn’t know existed. He exasperates me, but I always learn things. Thanks again for the due diligence. No way we get to hear this otherwise.

    • sheila says:

      NJ – thanks so much – it was a great night, and I am happy to share it. Really interesting conversation!!

      In re: punk: I think any new movement – whether it’s rock or punk or rap or whatever it is – has a need to feel like they are the first. It’s made by young people, who have a drive to dissociate themselves with their parents/older people – the culture telling them what kind of sounds it’s all right to make. My brother could weigh in on the punk scene. Or the later precursors to grunge – You know, at a time when Bryan Adams was considered a rock star (no disrespect) – there were The Replacements and others – who were only getting radio play on college radio! Nirvana blew the roof off of THAT one – but it took a long time for people to be ready. And it creates an attitude, for sure, in the fans and the musicians playing that kind of music.

      One of the things I like about him is that he makes these statements but in such a way that I sit there, considering whether or not I agree. For some reason, despite his power and status, I don’t feel that he’s telling me what to like and what not to like. He is sharing what HE likes.

      Like I said, I think the Beatles’ version of “Money” could be seen as sheer satire – although that very well may tip over into an authentic belief in the lyrics of the song that the Beatles then brought out in their performance. I don’t know. But what I DO know is that I really like thinking about it, either way.

      I’m glad you enjoyed!

    • sheila says:

      and speaking of Cyndi Lauper – her acceptance speech for her Tony award for Kinky Boots made me cry.

      It’s some great music. I haven’t seen the musical, but love the soundtrack.

  2. mutecypher says:

    //This is ‘London Calling’ by The Clash.”//

    Jesus. That’s just so perfect it’s chilling.

    • sheila says:

      Right?? Blew me away, too.

      And that’s why she’s a rock star.

      I “came of age” during the Lauper years and I went back and re-listened to that first solo album, the whole way thru, after listening to Greil Marcus.

  3. mutecypher says:

    //And that’s why she’s a rock star.//

    It’s like the line in Eminem’s “Without Me”

    “A visionary, vision is scary” She had a vision of the song and then made it hers for real.

  4. sheila says:

    Yes – and something scary is unleashed in her version of that song.

    It’s interesting – Madonna, around that same time, a couple of months later or something like that, came out with “Material Girl,” – and I’m not a Madonna scorner (except for her British accent), I have been listening to her for most of my life – and while I’m not an enormous fan, I like many of her albums. The whole Blonde Ambition Truth or Dare section of her career was my favorite, when she felt most authentic to me. A snarky broad from Detroit wearing a bowler hat and biker shorts.

    But anyway: Madonna takes that idea, of Money Changes Everything, and turns it into a completely ironic (or – was it ironic? That was always Madonna’s hat-trick) statement – like: She can’t be SERIOUS singing this, can she? And the video explicitly connects her to Marilyn Monroe’s Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend – and it’s also a smash hit, but with a much slicker feel to it – way more performative. And that was Madonna’s brand of genius. It was all PERSONA.

    “Material Girl” is about a gold-digger. It would be difficult to describe “Money Changes Everything” and Lauper’s performance of it in the same way. Something completely different is being expressed – both are ugly – but the results are totally different.

    Madonna’s version was meant to be seen as camp (and she reveled in the confusion it created). Madonna was at her worst when she started taking herself seriously.

    But refer back to icons of the past? Play dress-up? Pretend you’re someone else? She’s had fun with creating different personae over, what, 30 years now? Go for it, you crazy British-accented senior citizen from Detroit.

    Lauper, though? Not so much with the persona. She had the tutus and hi-tops and crazy makeup, but she unleashed the Real Thing.

  5. mutecypher says:

    // something scary is unleashed in her version of that song.//

    I feel like I’m betraying something if that song comes up in iTunes and I’m not in a position to just concentrate on it. There aren’t many songs that demand attention like “Money Changes Everything.” For me, it’s just acid tears of self-hatred and betrayal and defiance, just fuck you defiance.

    • sheila says:

      That 11-second scream!!

      I love the connection with Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face, though – which is a brutal and unforgiving film. She’s pimped out by her dad to his employees since she was a kid – literally – she’s been raped, she has to fight a guy off with a bottle (this was one of the films that made the powers that be decide, “Hmmm. We should probably institute a Production Code of what can’t be shown on film, because this is all a bit much”) – and then – she reads a book by Nietzsche – and realizes what she needs to do. She runs away, with her side-kick, an African-American woman whom she is friends with (another example of how once the Code came down, these kinds of human portrayals of minorities also vanished) – and the two of them go to the big city. They “make it” together. Barbara Stanwyck literally sleeps her way through the city, each guy a notch on her belt, she wants to get to that penthouse. Her pal comes along for the ride.

      What is amazing about the film is that she is not punished for this behavior, as she would in a film made only 2, 3 years later. She is a survivor. She is treacherous but what other choice does she have? It’s the WORLD that made her this way. Change the world then, if you don’t want me to act this way.


  6. mutecypher says:

    So… “Material Girl” was Madonna’s “Rio Bravo.” Wow. For me, “Vogue” is Madonna’s iconic song – for all the reasons you name above.

  7. mutecypher says:

    “Baby Face” just went into the Netflix queue.

  8. Sheila I don’t know if you’ve read the book yet (or part of it) but one thing Marcus says in there that I didn’t know, is that, in addition to being harassed/molested by her stepfather, Lauper was raped by someone in one of her early bands (the way he wrote it, possibly more than one person)….I hadn’t heard that before, but it put that whole first album in a different light for me (even more than the wonderful comment about the Clash)….I always heard the “get-back” in her music–the long climb it took her to be in a position where she wasn’t the one being kicked around. But listening to She’s So Unusual last night was the first time I heard the rage underneath.

    And I must say the chapter on Buddy Holly had an emotional impact on me like nothing Marcus (or pretty much anyone else) has in years….And that response had NOTHING to do with my being Buddy’s reincarnation. I ASSURE you!

    • sheila says:

      NJ – I haven’t read the book yet, but I am very much looking forward to it.

      I had the same experience as you – I listened to She’s So Unusual the other night and heard her rage. It was like a whole new album and I can’t even count how many times I’ve listened to it!!

  9. Jessie says:

    I really enjoyed this read — thanks for bringing the night back from the auditorium for us! And thanks for embedding all the songs, it really helps to have all of that in dialogue with each other. Really, it’s a shame this is a print book. It ought to be electronic. You ought to be able to watch Baby Face as you read it!

    The Lauper/Grey rock–>folk battle reminded me of watching recently Richard Thompson’s 1000 Years of Popular Music. It’s ehhh…some of the performances were good, but (and perhaps this was never his aim, so do I cut him some slack?) he never really talked about what popularity was…why something worked at a particular time, etc; what popularity means; what it means to transform it by playing it now. You never really understand why he chose those songs, or what they mean to him, or what it means for something to be a lasting pop song.

    For instance, when he sings Oops I Did It Again he has to do this tacky disavowal and rehabilitation thing. But to get back to my original connection he mentions it has a 16thC chord progression. And my ears perk up. Why? What does that mean? Do these connections exist elsewhere? What is a 16thC chord progression, even? But he gives us nothing more. Disappointing.

    Not to mention in the film version there is, I think, only ONE song by a non-white artist. NO soul, nothing. Very, very weird and eurocentric (and I say this as someone raised on Blackleg Miner).

    • sheila says:

      Jessie -It’s definitely a book that needs visual/aural aids. I don’t think I own the Let It Be sessions – and I had a lot of fun tracking those down and listening to them.

      Fascinating about Richard Thompson. I have seen that Oops I Did It Again – maybe you linked to it before? I can’t remember – but I didn’t know it was part of a longer thing. I’ll have to check it out. I agree that the “let’s re-take this great song” kind of thing is tacky – because Britney’s version is great in and of itself.

      and now I’m intrigued by the 16thc. chord progression. Hmmm. I will ask my aunt, who sings in a madrigal group, what the hell he might be talking about.

      and there is no excuse for having a mainly-white artist lineup in a list like that. Zero. Sometimes people have blinders – big blinders. It’s kind of like a couple years ago the AV Club (a wonderful site, and I have friends who work there – it’s good people – but Oy!) – anyway – they put together a list of the 100 best films from the 1990s. I think it was that long a list. Huge. And NO female directors. No Amy Heckerling? No Jane Campion? No Nancy Savoca?

      They were called on it, HARD, immediately – and I think everyone involved felt quite sheepish and ashamed. The weirdest thing was: Nobody on their end even NOTICED before publishing. That’s the entrenched blinders. Nobody looked at the list and said, “Hmm. Something’s wrong with this picture.”

      I don’t believe in including people as tokens, obviously – and if you’re going to do 100 best films of the 1930s, well, then, yes, most of them, if not all of them, will have been directed by men. That was the era. But 100 best films from the 90s? An era when there were MAJOR films being done by major female directors? And none of them made the list? For shame.

      It actually launched a great conversation – and other sites put up their own lists, with a more diverse group of films, and hopefully everyone learned a lesson. But still. Come on!

  10. Dg says:

    Yeah, well….haven’t we all heard that line at one point or another. Just perfect phrasing in this song.

    • sheila says:

      Totally agree! Conversational, brutally casual. So good!

      Greil Marcus linked to my post on the main page of his site, and it made me happy – very glad I took the time to transcribe it out. Transcription is one of the most boring and necessary elements to this kind of work – but it’s worth it.

      It was a fascinating evening.

  11. Jessie says:

    lol what a handy aunt!

    I don’t listen to Britney (except when a beloved friend without FAIL sings Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman at karaoke — usually he is TRASHED) but what’s the point in disavowing it when you’re covering it? It’s popular for a reason, right? But it says a lot about what music “is” for Thompson — his song selections too — says a lot about where he comes from. The Marcus book sounds similarly personal but does more to reach out, to dig into culture. I like that. Like what you do in your SPN posts, pulling reference points in from everywhere (that is meaningful for you in particular as a reference point). It creates a text and a viewer and a culture, through your own prism. Enough with the flattery — what I mean to say is, this is my preferred kind of cultural analysis, so thanks for the Marcus write-up!

    I remember that AVC dustup! Such a baffling oversight. And normally they are accused of being TOO “politically correct” (which is an accusation I loathe)!

  12. Helena says:

    //what’s the point in disavowing it when you’re covering it?//

    No point – it’s the mark of a twit and a snob.

    Dunno about about 16thC chord progressions, unless he means it ‘has that vaguely baroque sound’ like Pergolesi, Monteverdi or Bach. I like ‘Hit me baby etc’ and for me it channels Abba in their most pure, baroque/romantic chorale mode – which is just to say some of the most supposedly ‘frothy’, ‘disposal’ pop taps into much older musical structures, and that’s why it sticks around forever and we can’t get it out of our heads (to quote Kylie.) To elaborate, it sounds like baroque music as reconfigured by later composers who ‘romanticised’ it a bit eg taking out what sounded discordant to their ears, adding more lush, romantic musical elements through orchestration etc. Albinoni’s Adagio may be an example of this phenomena pushed to its limit – Albinoni didn’t actually write what we know as his Adagio, it’s a reimagining of baroque music by a later composer, incorporating musical elements that Albinoni would never have used but which now sound ‘baroque’ to our ears. And that’s territory is Abba’s musical bag, too.

  13. Helena says:

    Don’t quote any of this to your aunt, btw, though I’d be interested to know what she has to say!

  14. mutecypher says:

    I watched Baby Face tonight. It completely ties in with “Money Changes Everything.” It was strange seeing John Wayne in about a scene and a half as the second guy she seduces. Barbara’s line to the bank VP, “If Fuzzywuzzy really wants to give me something he could put a few more pennies into my bank account” is like a lyric from a Madonna song. The Nietzsche book shows up from her mentor in Erie, just in time to affirm her kiss-off of the previous boyfriend.

    I don’t know if I was rooting for her to stay on the steamship at the end or if I was rooting for her change of heart. Since she went back, I’m glad her husband survived (Cortland Trentholm – what a perfect name for the playboy grandson of the bank’s founder). I liked Chico, her friend/maid.

    A completely unsentimental film. Money changes everything.

    • sheila says:

      Mutecypher – Yay, so glad you saw it! Madonna song – ha, totally! I love to see the young John Wayne in this!! He’s such a hunk.

      Chico is awesome. Despite her maid status, the two are equals, friends and manipulators, simpatico. That kind of friendship-between-the-races thing would end, in one fell swoop, with the Production Code.

      The fact that she doesn’t get her comeuppance, that she is not sidelined as a villain, that she doesn’t go all soft and domestic … the film does not let you off the hook. It’s really rather extraordinary. Totally frank about poverty and sexual assault and prostitution … I mean, Baby Face could barely exist TODAY, let alone in 1933. It’s too unsentimental.

      Anyway, very glad you saw it!

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