MANY of us interested in music, American history and culture in general discovered this scholar and scribe with one of his great early books like Mystery Train or Lipstick Traces. Marcus popularized the idea of using music as a “secret history” for other cultural forms, his book connecting Dylan’s Basement Tapes to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music spread the notion of “the old, weird America,” and he’s overall too complicated and protean a guy to sum up succinctly.
Marcus has a new book — The History of Rock N Roll in Ten Songs — that’s drawn more attention than anything he’s done in a long while. The songs chosen range widely, from numbers associated with Etta James, Joy Division (right) and Amy Winehouse. I speak to him for a Salon Q+A today. You have to read past the headline and photos to see that this is mostly a story about rock music and the way songs change and mutate and take on new contexts; to Marcus, songs have a life — maybe lives — of their own.
Here’s my first question:
Let’s talk about “The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” It’s an understatement to say that, for you, a song is not just a number that was recorded once and that it belongs only to the first musician to perform it. What’s a song to you, and how does that work in this history of yours?
Well, I guess the way it works, in this book anyway, is that a song becomes a thing in itself. Yes, it’s written by someone, it’s performed by a person or a group and it goes into the world with various names attached to it. But it makes itself felt as a thing in itself, as its own object, as its own subject. People don’t necessarily know or care, and there’s no reason why they should, who the people making this record are, what their hopes and fears are, what their motives were, what situation in life they were in when the song came out of them, whether they were in a point in their career where they desperately needed a hit, or simply a matter of building on previous success, or if somebody was in rehab, or going through a divorce, or you know, had just signed up for a program to become an astronaut. People don’t know and don’t need to know any of that. That’s irrelevant.
The song becomes a kind of repeating event out there in the world, and people make of it what they will. And often the people who are listening are other musicians. Or maybe they’re not musicians yet or singers yet, but they want to be. And maybe it’s this song or any other song that’s made them want to do that. And maybe at some point in their lives that will happen. But in any case, musicians will take up these songs that are out there in the world and they’ll try to play them. They’ll feel that this song is not finished, this song, this story told isn’t complete, that they have something to add to this story, they want to feel, they want to understand and experience what it would be like to sing this song as if it were their own, as if they had thought of it, as if it comes out of them completely new.
Marcus goes all kinds of unexpected places in this interview — please check it out.