We now live in the seventh decade of rock ‘n’ roll, and it has never felt more irrelevant, if such a thing can be gauged by contemporary radio playlists now dominated by slick rappers and aerobicized dance divas. Even terrestrial radio today plays less of a role than it did in 1964, when a young Greil Marcus discovered the Beatles, paying $2 to a friend to listen to a song on the album “With the Beatles,” the 1963 British version that his father had brought over from England.
“We paid. We listened. It would cost two dollars to hear it again, he said,” Marcus writes. “We paid.”
Reading the cultural critic’s latest book, “The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in Ten Songs” is not a nostalgia trip, nor is it a straightforward lesson plan, as the title implies. What Marcus goes for in these 10 essays is the role time plays in making a song breathe new life into a singer, or sometimes how the right singer breathes new life into a song. Visit the music section of any bookstore or retailer website, and it will be front-loaded with chronological narratives of rock history. You know the stories: How Woody Guthrie served as a talisman for Bob Dylan, what Robert Johnson did to give the British Invasion pure grit, and how Aretha Franklin ushered the church into secular singing.
This isn’t that. Marcus rejects the established telling of rock history and instead pushes through an approach that moves away from the deadened hero worship represented by those forces to show how the richer story of rock music — indeed, the wider category of “pop music” and all its incarnations — is actually the one that travels back and forth between songs and performers.