Marsh revisits ‘Heart’Written by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief | email@example.com
”The Heart of Rock and Soul,” which turns sweet 16 this year, is one of most important desegregation works in popular culture. The Dave Marsh book, subtitled ”The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made,” stands with Greil Marcus’ ”Mystery Train” as the most fervent and eloquent rock criticism to argue that rock music’s center, its vital core, was not just relayed from Elvis to The Beatles to singer-songwriters to practitioners of so-called ”art rock.”
The music’s heart, its most emotionally compelling and intellectually challenging works, came largely from artists such as Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Ray Charles and other black artists usually relegated to the sidelines in critical discussion.
Rock and soul music is often defined through the discussion of albums, which biases the focus onto James Taylors, David Bowies, Queens and Pink Floyds. Marsh, in what has been described as ”the world’s lengthiest act of rock criticism,” argues that a discussion focused on great singles offers a more racially balanced artistic reality.
”The Heart of Rock and Soul” is organized in numeric order, but it is not a mere list. Marsh describes the book’s journey as rotating outward from the center, a spiral that begins with the percussion of Marvin Gaye’s ”I Heard it Through the Grapevine” and works its way out to the fringes.
Sales are not a factor in the rankings (a great number of songs are saddled with the label ”Did not make pop chart”); the book’s cumulative argument is what matters, not pitting song No. 71 versus song No. 321.
Marsh spoke with Toledo Free Press last week from his Connecticut home about the book’s relevance in the modern era, when singles and their greatly reduced cultural impact no longer fit the boundaries of his original discussion.
Toledo Free Press: Was there a moment of epiphany for you, when you decided to change the conversation from albums to singles?
Dave Marsh: I never stopped listening to singles. I sat down and knew if I wrote about what I really loved, it would be based on singles. The thought was, how do you write a book in which the dominant artists are James Brown and Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye? I wasn’t inventing a new reality for myself, I was expressing reality in a different way from what most rock writing did.
TFP: Did you encounter resistance to your thesis?
DM: Perceiving this would be a problem, I wrote a bunch of entries and wrote a very long list. I knew people wouldn’t get it unless they felt what I really wanted to do. I had a quarter of the book done before I approached the publisher. I was finishing ”Glory Days,” thinking, what do I listen to, what do I like? You answer that differently at different points in your life. I’m 55. I’ve been doing this for 36 years. At this point, I listen to a lot of blues music, gospel, some contemporary. Call me in 24 months, it will be different.
If you stood the list of the first 250 records on its head, it would be just as good a story, just as good a list, which drove some people crazy. I refused to let the publisher put a numerical list in the book. I told them they could do an alphabetical list, but no numbered list. When they asked why, I told them because people will review the numbers.
TFP: How did you choose ”Grapevine” to start the discussion?
DM: When I was doing interviews for the book, Bob Costas was the only one who figured this out. He said, ”‘Grapevine’ is not your favorite record. What is?”
I said, ”You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’ ” [by the Righteous Brothers].
But I wanted to start with a black record, because that would change the terms of the discussion. I didn’t want to start with a ’50s record, because that would suggest it was chronological. I was just driving around one day, my nephew had just been born and I was traveling from D.C. to Charlottesville to see him, in a snowstorm, of all things, listening to an oldies station in the rental car. ”Grapevine” came on, and I thought, ”I know how to write a book that starts with that record, to a story with that record at the center.” I pulled off at a gas station and wrote it down. I wasn’t trying to figure out the greatest record ever made, I was trying to figure out, how do I start the discussion? That first record had to send a whole bunch of correct messages. It had to send a message about what the book was and wasn’t, and it had to let me give a comment that opened some doors. I owe a great deal to James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin, just being able to write about that song’s introduction. That took us back about 500 years, took us off the continent, heading to the new world.
TFP: How will future generations be able to connect the roots of rock through this singles-oriented history to their present, when there is so much segregation in music programming?
DM: It’s knowable, people will get curious. Maybe not many people, but some people under 40 still have that sense of this. It was much more knowable when I wrote the book. First, there was less to know. Second, there was less to know that you didn’t know. You assume that the story begins with some doo-wop record, sometime between ’48 and ’55, and reached the climactic moment of the first chapter when Chuck and Elvis arrived. If you assume that, it was a knowable body of work. You just have to look back and then catch up. Now, there’s so much more. CDs and the Internet have shattered that knowable body of work. You could destroy my pretense of knowing everything that’s going on now, much less the past 15 years. The Stones took from Robert Johnson. Elvis took from Wynonie Harris and Roy Brown, and that was as far back as you needed to go then.
There’s a lot more game playing in , say, ”Mystery Train,” which even as late as 1987, covered people’s sense of the history. Then, with CDs and the Internet, the whole thing cracked wide open in terms of the accessibility, in terms of what happed before World War II. Can you understand Elvis without Wynonie Harris? No. Can you understand Wynonie Harris without Louis Jordan? Not very well. Can you understand Louis Jordan without Jimmy Lunsford? Not really. And you can keep going until you get to someone like Buddy Bolton, or where there is no more recorded history.
When I was 19, I wrote a review of an album by Sha Na Na. The liner notes said they fixed the harmonies, because they were a half tone off. I said, the whole ’50s were a half tone off, and they hadn’t fixed the harmonies, they ruined them. The record company called my editor and said, ”Who is this kid to write this?” And he said, ”It’s a kid who lives it.” But at the same time, I didn’t know the Ink Spots, let alone the Golden Gate Quartet, so I didn’t know so much.
TFP: Billboard is now ranking digital downloads of individual songs. Does that continue the singles tradition?
DM: I don’t know what to make of digital downloads and their cultural impact. It’s too soon to understand, with the greed of the industry and the confusion of the people who make the music and the confusion of the audience. When they spend a dollar, does any of it get to the artist? Is it like singles? No. The implication of the singles culture I’m writing about is, this is stuff everybody knows.
With downloads and podcasts, the implication is, there ain’t nothing everybody knows. Everybody can know that U2 was on Conan O’Brien’s show last night, but not all of us stayed up to see it, and those who didn’t don’t feel like they’re missing anything. That wasn’t true, love it or hate it, about ”Papa Don’t Preach.” That wasn’t true about ”Love to Love You Baby.” That wasn’t true about ”Jailhouse Rock.” Or ”I Want to Hold Your Hand.” There’s an
echelon of material in the book that everybody knows.
TFP: The book is revealing, not only through the artists you included, but the artists you left out.
DM: I very deliberately wrote certain people out of the book. There’s no David Bowie records in the book. Why? All of the people David stole from are in there; I didn’t think we needed him. It was easy to leave out the art rock groups, because they didn’t make great singles. There was an Internet poll recently that named the favorite song of all time a Queen record, ”We are the Champions” or ”Bohemian Rhapsody,” it really doesn’t matter which one, and I thought, OK, now we’ve reached a new nadir of western civilization.
This book was my declaration that I am done segregating music. I am done being told I can’t compare a Who record and a
P-Funk record and a James Brown record and a Talking Heads record and a Clash record. Oh, yes I can; watch me.
TFP: Why is the segregation of music and critical discussion so prevalent?
DM: People come to music with their own biases and prejudices. There’s an illusion in the culture that to foster segregation, you have to be a klansman. No, you don’t, you just have to take the wrong things for granted. We do that all the time, for example, when we assume that because they both make millions of dollars, Latrell Sprewell and Eli Manning have the same cultural reality when they leave the stadium. Uh-uh. Everybody in the Manning family is doing pretty well. Everybody in the Sprewell family ain’t. When Latrell says he has a family to support, he doesn’t mean a wife and kids; he means a wife and three kids and 16 cousins and aunts and uncles, with the best job any of them have is maybe at the post office.
But the people who program or sportscast don’t think about that because that’s not their reality. And in music, there was a wedge; dance music. That disco foot became huge and intrusive. People found it offensive because it was hammering at their preconceptions. That was me for awhile, before I got it, because I’m not a dancer. But when Earth, Wind and Fire and Stevie Wonder came out, it had to be addressed. It’s not an accident that Lee Abrams, who pioneered the segregation of radio, came from the South, from Atlanta. Do I think he is a conscious musical bigot? No, I think he’s an idiot. He developed that format so he would hear more of bands he liked, like Gentle Giant, and less of the music he didn’t like.
TFP: So the segregation is in part encouraged by the industry?
DM: The segregation was on purpose. The fact that people want to hear the same records over and over again in the course of a day, a week, a month, a year, a lifetime, that was developed by a raw scientific observation. The fact that you can manipulate that is not scientific; that was people using their guts.
TFP: In the second edition of the book, you add 100 singles that might have made the discussion, up to 1999. How does today’s biggest recording artist, Eminem, fit in the discussion?
DM: Eminem fits into the overall discussion, but as a singles artist, I don’t know. Are there people who care intensely about pop music who have never heard an Eminem song, and don’t care if they ever hear Eminem? Yes. You couldn’t ever have said that about The Beatles. Even people who trashed The Beatles had heard them in that shared context.
But now, we don’t just have a shattered musical culture, we have a shattered political culture. We have a shattered culture, period.