Chuck Barry jams with fellow starts in an illustration by Robert Crumb.
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Red, white and blues: The History of Rock’n’Roll in Ten Songs

This ambitiously-titled new work eschews the blunt logic of most rock scholarship, and instead charges down a particular path and then meanders off-road through the dense pop-cultural undergrowth.

The History of Rock’n’Roll in Ten Songs 
Greil Marcus
Yale University Press, 320pp, £16.99

Greil Marcus takes the scenic route. Not for him the blunt logic of most rock scholarship, which usually drills deep into the narrow confines of one subject area. The highly regarded Californian author and lecturer charges down a particular path and then meanders off-road through the dense pop-cultural undergrowth.

Here’s an example. Each chapter of his audaciously titled new book is built around a particular song and the second of these takes a Joy Division single as its springboard – the bleak and unsettling “Transmission”. He finds echoes of the Beach Boys and then remembers the Sex Pistols’ show in Manchester that inspired the members of Joy Division to form a band, and how the Pistols performed “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” by the Monkees which leads to the symbolism of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and to Saul Bellow and William Faulkner and thence to Sartre and Dostoyevsky, as read by the haunted Ian Curtis, and this to a 2010 adaptation of Brighton Rock starring Sam Riley (who played Curtis in the movie Control ) and on to a theory about Sixties London and, eventually, to the revelation – news to me – of a plot by the Kray twins to blackmail Brian Epstein into selling them the Beatles.

It’s fascinating stuff. As with his game-changing Mystery Train in 1975, and Lipstick Traces: a Secret History of the 20th Century in 1989, his approach to the world of entertainment is fiercely academic. Marcus is now 69 but you picture him as one of those teenagers that refused to dance, old and wise before his time. He rarely even meets the people he writes about, preferring to occupy the Quiet Zone of intellectual rumination, listening very hard to their music in pursuit of new layers of meaning.

There are beautiful turns of phrase – he hears the Rolling Stones’ “Not Fade Away” as a race “with the harmonica pulling ahead of the pulse, the bass and drums watching the road while the guitar drives blind”. He calls Eric Idle’s Beatles spoof the Rutles “appallingly perfect”. His prose has an almost solipsistic self-confidence about it, an enviable strength and assurance – Sgt Pepper, he claims, “made almost every other performer in rock’n’roll feel incomplete, inarticulate, fraudulent and small: left behind”.

Marcus searches for flashpoints when the earth’s axis seems to shift – recordings by the blues evangelist Charley Patton were the first time in history a single person was writing a song about their own life “and speaking to the world by themselves” – or simply shines a torch on magical moments full of folklore and mystery, my favourite being one in a documentary when Peggy Sue Rackham, who inspired the Buddy Holly hit, rings the girl she’s never met who sparked a rival single – both then in their fifties – and says: “Is that Ritchie Valens’ Donna? Well this is Buddy Holly’s Peggy Sue! Want to do lunch?”

Another of his signatures is to excavate records right down to a single phrase or even the split-second gaps between notes, Roy Orbison’s “bluegrass pause” being “a silence at just that instant when the music is at its highest – Wile E Coyote as he realises there’s nothing beneath him but air, then the plunge down into what feels like an unsinkable increase in speed”. Sometimes he likes to chuck a rock in the pond and watch the ripples – Phil Spector’s much-covered “To Know Him Is To Love Him”, he claims, “took 49 years to find its voice” in the Amy Winehouse acoustic version of 2007.

The book is really a series of essays, cunningly chiselled, lovingly woven, bold, tough and illuminating, the intention being “to feel one’s way through music as a field of expression and as a web of affinities”. And it’s exquisitely sustained, apart from a deliberately anarchic moment where he lists in one sentence lasting five whole pages – just because he can – the names of every act ever to enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

The master stroke is his soliloquy about Red, White and Blues, an event at the White House in 2012 in which the US president, Barack Obama, joined various rock luminaries on a Robert Johnson song. This sparks a fantasy: what if the great Delta bluesman hadn’t died from drinking poisoned whiskey in 1938? Marcus traces his imagined route through the showbiz quicksand which ends with Johnson attending the White House show and, in a moment pregnant with significance, refusing to perform when told “no one gets paid for playing for the president”. Before scanning the room and thinking, “Mick Jagger looks older than I do.” 

Mark Ellen’s memoir “Rock Stars Stole My Life! A Big Bad Love Affair With Music” is published by Coronet (£18.99)

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris

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Final Portrait sketches Alberto Giacometti in the winter of his life

Giacometti’s life is glimpsed in revealing shards. 

The last time Geoffrey Rush was cooped up on screen in a tatty grey room with a well-spoken man, the result was The King’s Speech, not so much a film as a machine for winning Oscars. Final Portrait, in which Rush plays Alberto Giacometti during the weeks in 1964 that he spent drawing the writer James Lord (Armie Hammer), is a subtler, warmer piece that has few of the earlier one’s imploring, manipulative tendencies. Anyone familiar with movies about artists toiling over their canvases may be minded to bring a cushion to the cinema: Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse ran for four hours, Victor Erice’s leisurely documentary The Quince Tree Sun for nearly two-and-a-half. At 90 minutes, Final Portrait is scarcely more than a doodle by comparison, but that briskness suits its philosophical points.

It begins with a casual request by Giacometti to Lord. Would he consider sitting for a portrait? It should only take a few hours at the artist’s studio in Paris. An afternoon at most. Arriving at the cluttered studio, Lord finds an artist whose idea of an ice-breaker is to tell him he has the head of a brute. He tries to remain chirpy even as Giacometti offers the first hint that the project may be doomed. “I’ll never be able to paint you as I see you,” he grumbles. “It’s impossible.”

The director Stanley Tucci (best known as an actor) exploits the satisfying tension between the reassuringly bland, preppy Hammer, and Rush, whose physical appearance suggests the broad strokes of a street artist’s caricature: cigarette poking from his mouth, ash-coloured curls, melted eyes. Though not strictly a two-hander – Clémence Poésy brings some fire as Giacometti’s muse, the prostitute Caroline, while Tony Shalhoub crinkles his face sympathetically as his brother Diego – the film’s faint drama percolates pleasingly during the face-offs between artist and sitter.

Giacometti’s life is glimpsed in revealing shards. His volatile marriage to Annette (Sylvie Testud) is observed by Lord, who witnesses also the dalliances with Caroline, but Tucci doesn’t try to explain these imbroglios. That applies also to the portrayal of Lord, on whose private life we eavesdrop in a series of snatched phone calls to an unseen partner as his stay in Paris is prolonged, first in daily increments and then weekly ones, by Giacometti’s demands. The film drops occasional hints about Lord’s sexuality but there is something refreshing about its refusal to make it his defining characteristic. Even as a potentially cloying odd-couple dynamic emerges between slick aesthete and irascible rogue, the movie hangs back. The emphasis changes from when the portrait will be finished to what Giacometti has to gain by deferring its completion. “It’s like he’s determined to remain completely unsatisfied,” Lord tells Diego. “Not completely,” he replies. “Perfectly.”

Tucci crowds the screen with sculpted heads that seem to be commenting silently on the action. No film that uses an accordion on the soundtrack to tell us we are in France, or a whooshing out-of-focus camera to signal intoxication, can be said to avoid the obvious, but in general this one errs on the side of understatement. Rather than insist upon the artist’s mortality, the picture instead shows him strolling with Lord through Père Lachaise cemetery, where the colour of his raincoat chimes precisely with the grey of the tombstones.

The subject of the movie, as the title suggests, is completion, and the idea that some things (a painting, a life) need to be taken away in order to be declared finished. Giacometti died 18 months after the action of the film occurs. Prolonging a portrait was a way of postponing disappointment, failure, death. We hear him remarking that he cannot pinpoint the moment at which a picture emerges, and something similar happens here, with a film of small lines and gestures adding up imperceptibly to a fine thumbnail sketch, if not quite a portrait. The words of the school teacher in Six Degrees of Separation spring to mind. Asked by a parent what her secret is for transforming her students into infant Matisses, she replies: “Secret? I don’t have any secret. I just know when to take their drawings away from them.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear