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For the last few days, I have been living in hotels, spending nights onstage and seeing up to three airports a day. I had two shows in Iowa, Des Moines and Iowa City, and one in Stoughton, Wisconsin.
They were my last three shows of the year and were to be my last major obligation, but then things changed.
Adding to the commitment of a show a night, I tasked myself with additional work, thanks to my inability to say no to things I can’t resist but don’t have the time or skills to do.
I think that Greil Marcus is one of the best music writers there has ever been. Many years ago, one of his books, Mystery Train, was recommended to me. I read it and was knocked out. He has an uncanny ability to take in so much around the subject of music. It’s as if he is able to fit the entire world under music’s umbrella.
Perhaps one of the reasons I’m such a fan of Marcus is that when I listen to music, I always hear much more than just music. I bet you’ve had that experience when you have put on a record and your mind goes all over, through the years, effortlessly linking memories together, sometimes with such intensity that you barely notice the record has come to an end.
I don’t believe in magic, but music has something that is strong and Greil seems connected to it. He is able to pull realizations out of the ether and connect the dots in ways that allow you to think of artists and songs differently. Over and over again, in his writing, he is able to make it mean more.
Mr. Marcus has just released his newest book, The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in 10 Songs, via Yale University Press. It is unlike any music book I have ever read. In each chapter, he takes a song and then stretches, bends and attaches it to different time periods, artists and bands. No matter how far out he gets, he’s not far out at all but totally inside.
Marcus hits on the idea that writing about music requires you to write about almost everything but the music. If you write about one piece of music, if you tap into the true voice of music, you end up writing about all music, all players and all listeners. The tangential expeditions on which some passages of the book take the reader are extremely rewarding.
He writes about “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” by Shadow Morton, performed by The Shangri-Las, and notes the frequent intensity of the group’s performances:
“The record is melodramatic, distant, dark, hard to catch, moving the way you walk in the sand, the ground slipping under your feet. It began with heavy bass notes on a piano, reached past itself with the faraway cawing of seagulls, a sardonic chorus of ghosts snapping fingers, and harsh, cold voice chanting ‘Remember,’ as if the singer telling the story could ever forget. On paper it was about a boy telling a girl they were through; on record, like all of The Shangri-Las’ best records, it was about death. The cadence was blunt, broken, stark.
“?‘What will happen to/the life I gave to you?/What will I do with it now?’?”
I don’t know if you’ve spent much time with their catalog, but it’s true: The Shangri-Las were totally heavy. Marcus understands this so well.
His deconstruction of an artist is done through a jeweler’s loop, with almost surgical precision. On page 83, he comments on Beyoncé’s performance at the 2013 Super Bowl:
“…[S]he seemed someone entirely composed of money. Her gorgeousness was a concept, and as a concept it was automatic and finally bland. Unlike Elvis, Little Richard, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Madonna, Tupac Shakur, Eminem or Lady Gaga, she divided no one from anyone else. You didn’t have to have an opinion about her, you only had to acknowledge her mastery, and it was impossible not to, even though the longer you looked, the less there was to see.”
When I have not been getting ready to go onstage, and trying to get more than a few hours of sleep, I have been reading and rereading Greil’s fantastic new book, sitting in small seats on airplanes and hotel coffee spots, reading the text out loud.
I was asked to do the audio version of this book, which I start a few hours from now. There was no way I could refuse. The producers initially booked two and a half sessions. I lobbied for an extra day and got it. Greil Marcus wrote a great book. I want to get the audio version just right.
As soon as the last show was wrapped, my preparation for the studio became an obsession. This is the only way I am going to get through the sessions coming up. Much of the sentence structure is complex, almost operatic. I am intimidated.
Greil Marcus is a music fanatic. He lives and writes from deep inside of it. I hope that I will be able to come from that space and bring his great words to life over hundreds of pages, hour after hour.
It’s great to know that there are still people who are captivated by music and are so impassioned by its immense power. Just thinking about getting started, the fatigue of the last several months has evaporated. That’s what music can do.
Perhaps music’s greatest gift is that of total transference. If you like a song, it’s yours. You sing it to yourself, and even if you get the lyrics wrong, that doesn’t matter — that is now how the song goes. It gives itself to you completely and, yes, it will still love you tomorrow.
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