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Artist Mon Feb 23 2015

Greil Marcus: Legends in Words and Music at the Old Town School

GB-marcus-langford-timms.jpg
Marcus, Langford and Timms.

Greil Marcus is a legend among music writers. He's one of the world's first rock and pop critics and author of more than a dozen books on music themes and musicians such as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and The Doors. Thursday night he sat on stage at the Old Town School's comfy Maurer Hall to talk about his new book and listen to the music of two more legends, Chicagoans Jon Langford and Sally Timms, formerly of punk band The Mekons.

On a national book tour for his latest work, The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs (Yale University Press 2014), the evening was filled with Marcus' reading and reminiscences of our shared history in music, as well as live performances.

The 10 songs that Marcus uses to bind together our musical history are not the 10 you might think. No "Blue Suede Shoes," no "Purple Rain," no "Born to Run." Instead, Marcus writes about "songs that have traveled through time," gaining meaning as they are performed in different versions by many musicians.

GB-marcuscover-10songs.jpgWhen Marcus was asked by Yale University Press to write a history of rock and roll, he said no. It's been done before, over and over again. But after thinking about it for a few days, he proposed that he write a history about songs that embodied music itself. These songs are a part of a new language of music, not necessarily the "best" or most influential songs.

As an example, he describes the 1958 Phil Spector song recorded by the Teddy Bears, "To Know Him Is to Love Him," which Marcus thought of as "treacly," and was a pop hit. The song took on new life in 2006, when it was recorded by the late British singer Amy Winehouse, influenced by the Shirelles and the Shangri-Las, two 1960s sister acts from Queens. When Winehouse sang the song in a BBC studio, "she unlocked the song," Marcus says. "Each word as she sang it demanding to be the last word, or merely wishing for it, the song expanded as if, all those years, it had been waiting for this particular singer to be born, and was only now letting out its breath."

Marcus also talked about Barrett Strong's early Motown hit single, "Money (That's What I Want)." It became a Beatles standard and Marcus cued it to be played "loud" on the Old Town School's excellent sound system. He pointed out the power of "that little piece of silence" after the word "That's" in the Lennon vocal (recorded in Hamburg in 1963) and also evident in this video with Lennon and McCartney on vocals in their 1963 TV appearance on the Ed Sullivan show.

Langford and Timms gave strong performances of a short setlist: Three songs from Marcus' list: "Money (That's What I Want);" "To Know Him Is to Love Him;" and Joy Division's "Transmission," as performed by the band in 1979 and in the 2007 biopic, Control. The two musicians also performed Langford's rousing "Lost in America" and a song from a Minneapolis liquor store (swore Timms), "Drunk by Noon." (It's actually a Handsome Family song.) Langford's driving guitar and voice were backed up by Timms' strong vocals. She also whistled and played a shruti box (an Indian instrument that works on a system of bellows and looks like a small attaché case).

The 10 songs and their original performers, through which Marcus tells his own version of the history of rock and roll, are:

1. "Shake Some Action" by the Flamin' Groovies

2. "Transmission" by Joy Division

3. "In the Still of the Night" by the Five Satins

4. "All I Could Do Was Cry" by Etta James

5. "Crying, Waiting, Hoping" by Buddy Holly

6. "Money (That's What I Want)" by Barrett Strong

7. "Money Changes Everything" by the Brains

8. "This Magic Moment" by the Drifters

9. "Guitar Drag," soundtrack on video installation by Christian Marclay

10. "To Know Him Is to Love Him" by Phil Spector with the Teddy Bears

Some critics have commented that Marcus' song choices are generationally biased, since most of them emanate from the 1950s and 1960s. But to me, the elegance and virtuosity of his writing and the charming, personable nature of his speaking make up for any lack of currency in his music choices.

GB-Marcus-signedpage2.jpgIt was Marcus, after all, who said Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is "the closest a mere song has ever come to sainthood."

After the performance, Marcus signed books for the dozens of fans who lined up, some of them holding battered old copies of his books, Lipstick Traces or Mystery Train. He listened patiently as a young woman described how much his book meant to her and signed the beatup title page with a flourish. And he signed my new copy of The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs, with a signature I would not want to try to cash a check with.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

Read this feature »

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