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reading tiger

What Am I Reading This Rainy Wednesday Day?

I blew through the rest of "A History of Rock'n'Roll in Ten Songs" and I've started in, slowly, on Jeff Chang's "Who We Be," which is already very chewy and thoughtful (I would be disappointed in anything less).

"A History" was also thoughtful, and fun. Greil Marcus has his biases and they show, but he knows they're there so that's fine, and he has particular tastes but not narrow ones. None of the ten songs here are obvious choices and some are downright obscure, and that's a large part of the book's charm right there. Sometimes the book turns to memoir, and that's fine too.

I think the oddest parts of the book for me is when he imagines an alternate history of music if Robert Johnson had lived, at the halfway "instrumental break" point of the book -- and then does the same thing for Amy Winehouse, at the end of the book. I am not so compelled by these stories, to be honest.

The Robert Johnson section, though, brings up something that interests me more and more as time goes on. The *myth* of Robert Johnson presents him as "The King of the Delta Blues," recognized as "the most important blues singer that ever lived" (take a guess who said that. Hint: not Marcus) sometime prior to the release of "King of the Delta Blues Singers" in 1961. He was the guy who sold his soul to the devil in return for the ability to play the guitar with supernatural talent, after all. When in fact, up until that 1961 re-release of his bare handful of 1936-7 recordings took off, he was an obscure hitless footnote to music history. He was not only not important in his time, he was barely remembered.

Same thing with Moby Dick (and countless other cultural artifacts). Moby Dick was a failure when it was published in 1851 and remained obscure for decades. It took D.H. Lawrence championing it in the 1920s to raise Moby Dick to its status as one of the classics of American literature.

So do we talk about Johnson in the context of the 1930s, or the 1960s? When we teach Melville, do we place him in the 1850s, or the 1920s? When they were writing/performing, or when they were actually part of the cultural dialogue? Usually, the former. But that's a distortion, to my point of view. It rewrites and oversimplifies how cultural history actually works. And often there's another, possibly more interesting story underneath, now not only buried but erased.

A story much more interesting than "what would have happened if s/he'd lived?" speculations, anyway. While Marcus' reimagining of Johnson is entertaining (Johnson at 101, seeing Mick Jagger and thinking "he looks older than I do," and demanding royalties from the President because "nobody asks Robert Johnson to play for nothing"), it's at the end a thematic re-imagining and thus feels a little forced. Winehouse's, which offers multiple "if she'd lived: options tossed off in one long paragraph, feels more like grasping as straws, a mournful "if I can imagine a way out of her dead end maybe she could have, too" exercise. Well, maybe. But she didn't. The last line of the book is "That was only one version of the story [technically he's referring to the Shangri-Las, not Winehouse, but the two are connected], and there is an infinity of stories that tell this tale." Yes and no. Yes and no. An infinity of stories, maybe, but only one outcome in the end.

I am thinking about this in part because I write a lot of this kind of stuff, too, so I get the impulse. It's not only seductive, it's *important*, and I get that he's making the case for its importance. But Marcus isn't writing fiction, here, he's writing cultural criticism. It's important, but maybe not here. One could argue "if not here, where?" and that's valid. Part of what Marcus is discussing, after all, is the cultural life of these songs and how they are malleable texts that can express many things at once, at many different points in time. Maybe it's precisely the fact that the re-imaginings are so short, at the end of each of their respective sections, that's the problem. If you're going to go there, don't sketch it out and bail; build that room and really live in it. Otherwise it's basically wishful thinking. I wish they'd lived, says Marcus. I wish really hard. But not hard enough to move beyond wish fulfillment and say something more, no matter how adept I may be at making it look otherwise, for a moment or two at least. The length of a pop song, perhaps.