Greil Marcus on What the History of Rock ‘n’ Roll Teaches Us about Innovation and the Art of Self-Reinvention
How to continually experience “the satisfaction that only art, only the act of putting something new into the world, can bring.”
By Maria Popova
“All of us, we’re links in a chain,” Pete Seeger said in an altogether wonderful 1988 interview, capturing with elegant economy of words the notion that creativity is combinatorial — that we create, we contribute to the world, by taking a variety of existing bits of knowledge, memories, impressions, influences, experiences, and other material floating around our minds, and recombining them into “new” ideas that we call our own. Mark Twain spoke to this concept with unforgettable wit in his letter to Helen Keller, renouncing the myth of originality. But in The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs (public library), Rolling Stone music critic Greil Marcus — whose School of Visual Arts commencement address on the false divide between “high” and “low” culture is among the greatest graduation speeches of all time — argues there might be more to the story of how truly groundbreaking creative work comes to be.
Whole intellectual industries are devoted to proving that there is nothing new under the sun, that everything comes from something else — and to such a degree that one can never tell when one thing turns into something else. But it is the moment when something appears as if out of nowhere, when a work of art carries within itself the thrill of invention, of discovery, that is worth listening for. It’s that moment when a song or a performance is its own manifesto, issuing its own demands on life in its own, new language — which, though the charge of novelty is its essence, is immediately grasped by any number of people who will swear they never heard anything like it before — that speaks. In rock ’n’ roll, this is a moment that, in historical time, is repeated again and again, until, as culture, it defines the art itself.
Although Marcus is concerned with the history of rock ’n’ roll, he invariably puts in perspective the larger narrative of creative culture, particularly the way we mythologize creative breakthroughs, package those constructed stories, and disseminate them to a point of propaganda, warping or suppressing the reality of the creative experience. Marcus offers an illustrative example:
What if your memories are not your own, but are, rather, kidnapped by another story, colonized by a larger cultural memory? “It gets dark, you know, very late in Boise, Idaho, in the summer,” David Lynch once said of 9 September 1956, when Elvis Presley first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show — a show supposedly watched by 82.6 percent of all Americans watching TV that night. Lynch was ten. “It was not quite dark, so it must have been, like, maybe nine o’clock at night, I’m not sure. That nice twilight, a beautiful night. Deep shadows were occurring. And it was sort of warm. And Willard Burns came running towards me from about three houses down the street, and he said, ‘You missed it!’ and I said, ‘What?’ and he said, ‘Elvis on Ed Sullivan!’ And it just, like, set a fire in my head. How could I have missed that? And this was the night, you know. But I’m kind of glad I didn’t see it; it was a bigger event in my head because I missed it.” … In the history of rock ’n’ roll … Lynch’s story might count for more than whatever happened on TV that night. Records that made no apparent history other than their own, the faint marks they left on the charts or someone’s memory, might count for more than any master narrative that excludes them.
In a way, this is a concept scientists and inventors have not only accepted but even celebrate — the entire canon of scientific innovation and technological breakthrough is woven of a multitude of incremental innovations, seemingly useless ideas upon which scientists subsequently built until the cumulative innovation reached a tipping point and became a so-called breakthrough. Both the tragedy and triumph of this creative lineage, of course, is that the ideas folded into this incremental groundswell, like the records that “made no apparent history other than their own,” were in fact radically innovative in their own right but were overshadowed by the “breakthroughs” built on their backs.
Marcus speaks to this in considering these unsung heroes of popular song, citing Maurice Williams’s 1950s South Carolina doo-wop group, the Zodiacs, as an example:
It was the invention in the music that was so striking — the will to create what had never been heard before, through vocal tricks, rhythmic shifts, pieces of sound that didn’t logically follow one from the other, that didn’t make musical or even emotional sense when looked at as pieces, but as a whole spoke a new language.
But because this music was pioneering a new language, its challenge was to tickle, then speak to, then find a market in “the audience that it at once revealed and created.” To do that successfully, Marcus argues, required — as it does today, in music and in all creative endeavors that create their own market — nothing short of purposeful self-invention and perpetual self-reinvention, the vital and vitalizing cycle of self-renewal which John Gardner memorably championed in the 1960s. With his unmistakable dynamic lyricism, Marcus writes:
The ear of the new audience was fickle, teenagers knowing nothing of where the music came from and caring less, and why should they care? It was new, it was different, and that was what they wanted: out of a nascent sense that the world in which their parents had come of age had changed or in some deeper, inexpressible manner disappeared, a sound that made the notion of a new life a fact, even if that fact lasted only a minute and a half. To make that fact — to catch that ear, to sell your record, to top the charts, if only in your dreams — you had to try something new. You had to find something new. You had to listen to everything on the market and try to understand what wasn’t there — and what wasn’t there was you. So you asked yourself, as people have been asking themselves ever since, what’s different about me? How am I different from everybody else — and why am I different? Yes, you invent yourself to the point of stupidity, you give yourself a ridiculous new name, you appear in public in absurd clothes, you sing songs based on nursery rhymes or jokes or catchphrases or advertising slogans, and you do it for money, renown, to lift yourself up, to escape the life you were born to, to escape the poverty, the racism, the killing strictures of a life that you were raised to accept as fate, to make yourself a new person not only in the eyes of the world, but finally in your own eyes too. A minute and a half, two minutes, maybe three, in the one-time, one-take fantasy that takes place in the recording studio, whatever it might be … or forever, even a year, even a few months, in the heaven of the charts, where one more hit means the game isn’t over, that you don’t have to go back to the prison of fate, that you can once again experience the satisfaction that only art, only the act of putting something new into the world, can bring.
Citing Albert Camus’s famous 1947 proclamation — “There is always a social explanation for what we see in art. Only it doesn’t explain anything important.” — Marcus turns to another record emblematic of the same dynamic, Joy Division’s iconic 1979 album Unknown Pleasures, and reflects on the osmosis between creative vision and cultural context:
The songs were art, which by definition escapes the control, the intentions, and the technique of the people who make it.
Art doesn’t explain itself.
Much later in the book, having examined some of the twentieth century’s most influential songs and musicians, Marcus revisits the subject of that osmosis with a luminous sidewise gleam:
Regardless of who writes it, no successful song is a memoir, a news story, and no such song does exactly what its author — and that can be the writer, the singer, the accompanist, the producer — wants it to do. One must draw on whatever new social energies and new ideas are in the air — energies and ideas that are sparking the artist, with or without his or her knowledge, with or without his or her consent, to make greater demands on life than he or she has ever made before.
This seems to be Marcus’s overarching message, presented with great subtlety and nuance — the idea that the most enduring and influential music, like the most enduring and influential artifacts of creative culture at large, springs from the artist’s courage to surrender to the currents of the time not by relinquishing his or her identity but by inhabiting it boldly, to translate the private story into the language of the public’s longing and to make that common language sing with shimmering honesty.
Midway through the book, he captures this elegantly in an aside that might just be his most piercing point, adding to history’s finest definitions of art:
Any work of art [is] a fiction that bounce[s] back on real life, maybe the author’s, maybe not.
The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs is a beautiful read in its entirety, Marcus’s writing nothing short of enchanting. (The section on Etta James in particular is an exquisite masterwork of prose.) Complement it with David Byrne on music and how creativity works, then John Gardner on the art of self-renewal.
Published September 23, 2014