As it has been for many years, “could be” is Marcus’ preferred literary device, as in (to describe Ben E. King’s vocal on “This Magic Moment”): “it could be Lincoln trying to explain justice to a crowd, whether it’s a few layabouts in New Salem, Illinois, in 1832, or the African-American Union soldiers in the front rows for his second inaugural in Washington, D.C., thirty-three years later.” Why, yes, it could be that. This is a special kind of pivot that Marcus invented, one on which he has built many of his books, barely stating a subject before veering off into the deepest reaches of history, and (perhaps) eventually returning dramatically to his original theme. Nearly each of the 237 songs Marcus mentions feel like lists unto themselves.
Though the information overload of the link-bait era has removed some of the glitter from list-making, it was a form that guided the structures and language of music during the era of early rock and roll that Marcus visits and revisits, from sales charts to record guides. “The list doesn’t destroy culture, it creates it,” the writer Umberto Eco once posited.
Amid that backdrop, Marcus veritably reinvented the form as a thoughtful medium, via his years of “Real Life Rock Top 10” columns for various outlets starting in the ’70s and his seminal 1979 Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island anthology, the first book publication for both Ellen Willis (on the Velvet Underground’s debut) and Lester Bangs (on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks). Preliminary googling indicates that no one else has yet written a post about the Top 8 Pop Songs That Could Be Abraham Lincoln Speeches. Contemporary Internet culture is a strange place, though, and perhaps there will come an era when BuzzFeed-type lists embrace the absurd poetic cadences of Marcus’s chosen voice.
But while Marcus has been a regular pop reviewer since days with Rolling Stone in the late ’60s, his long-form work goes beyond even enlightened arts criticism to what might be characterized, in the best possible sense, as fan fiction. At its most coherent, when Marcus’ whimsical cast of recurring characters and boomer icons take the stage dramatically enough, The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs unfolds as an imaginative novel with marquee appearances by the common figures of pop history. Unfettered by a central argument about Bob Dylan or Elvis Presley or any of his other perennial favorites, it is a perfect structure for the 69-year old Marcus. Despite very, very few autobiographical moments, the book is so Marcus-specific that it might also be read as a secret memoir.
Finding cultural synchronicities in old performance clips was a nigh-heroic task in ye olden days of discographical rock crit but has become an unremarkable feat in the era of “related videos” algorithms, at least on the surface. “Most of the recordings, live performances, and movie scenes mentioned in these pages can be found on YouTube,” Marcus notes on the Contents page. Most, that is, except for the book’s literal heart, a 21-page “Instrumental Break,” an incandescent fantasia positing what might have happened if bluesman Robert Johnson hadn’t been murdered in 1938. Moving through the backroads of history, Marcus and the ghost of Johnson collaborate on recordings that even the most web-savvy editor couldn’t embed, sounds exclusive to a listener’s imagination as she reads Marcus’s description.
The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs isn’t as ambitious as either Lipstick Traces, Marcus’ classic 1989 linkage of punk to Dada and Situationism, or Invisible Republic, his 1997 manifesto connecting Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, though it’s not lacking for sweep, either. Like all of Marcus’ work, the book isn’t for everyone. One can easily imagine a reader walking away from it echoing The Simpsons‘ Nelson Muntz after seeing the film adaptation of Naked Lunch: “I can think of at least two things wrong with that title.” For those sharing in the still-vibrating lineage of the “New Language” that Marcus declaims in the book’s introduction, however, The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs makes an agreeable read alongside Elijah Wald’s pioneering contrarian statement, How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll, his ode to pre-Fab American r’n’r. If you’re planning any kind of ghost-stalking expedition in the ever-present now of old recordings, it remains hard to find a better companion than Marcus.