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Memphis Flyer The Trailblazer

Dave Marsh offers 1,001 ways to understand rock and soul.

By John Floyd

AUGUST 2, 1999: 

The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1,001 Greatest Singles Ever Made by Dave Marsh (Da Capo Press), 634 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Picking your favorite rock critic is kind of like selecting your favorite brand of beer or cigarettes: It's all a matter of taste, and everyone's tastes are different. Some rally around the intellectualism of Greil Marcus, the painstaking reportage of Peter Guralnick, the bitingly brilliant expoundings of the late Lester Bangs, or the far-reaching scope of the late Robert Palmer. Others tout the self-important scribblings of Richard Meltzer and Legs McNeil, the campy doggerel of Chuck Eddy, the florid prose of Stanley Booth, or the increasingly impenetrable ramblings of Robert Christgau. Between them all, the full expanse of popular music has been feverishly discussed and dissected -- from avant-garde jazz to punk, from rockabilly and blues to world music, hip-hop, and soul. And most all of them have contributed invaluable tomes to the library of music history and criticism, even McNeil, whose 1996 oral history Please Kill Me stands as the definitive study of Seventies punk in the U.S. (not to mention a vastly superior work compared to Clinton Heylin's similar yet infinitely inferior From the Velvets to the Voidoids).

For me, though, Dave Marsh outclasses them all, as both writer and critic. Over a career that stretches back to the late Sixties, the Detroit-born, staunchly blue-collar, fervently leftist Marsh has been a literary trailblazer, from cofounding the seminal rock rag Creem (in which he coined the term "punk" as a genre moniker) to his determined commentary on censorship, politics, music, and the people who make it and write about it. His debut book, 1979's Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story, was the first book about music to hit the best-seller lists, and played a pivotal role in Springsteen's career. Marsh's passionate, often caustic newsletter Rock & Rap Confidential -- self-published since 1983 -- has provided a much-needed alternative to the ass-kissing pap and smarmy prose that today passes for music journalism in the pages of Spin, Details, Rolling Stone, and the Village Voice. His vast body of work includes a definitive history of the Who, a deliriously wonderful history of the song "Louie Louie," and a collection of his magazine work (1985's Fortunate Son) that masterfully covers the likes of the MC5, the New York Dolls, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Elvis Presley, Mitch Ryder, and the influence of Latin music in rock-and-roll.

Unlike most of his peers, Marsh has never succumbed to the hipster elitism of the rock-and-roll underground or the pomposity and self-indulgence of art rock (which is to say he prefers The Beach Boys Today! over Pet Sounds; and A Hard Day's Night over Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band). He was among the few critics to seriously examine the work of Madonna, and anyone who reads his monthly reviews in Playboy will surmise that he prefers Pearl Jam over Pavement, Alanis Morissette over Sleater-Kinney. Marsh is also among a mere handful of critics who never subscribed to the dunderheaded myth that rock-and-roll all but died in the late Fifties, only to be revived by the Beatles and the ensuing British Invasion.

In order to squelch any potential accusations of conflict of interest, I should say right now that Marsh is a friend of mine. I have contributed to Rock & Rap Confidential many times over the last 10 years, and, at his invitation, I wrote a book in 1997 that was included in a series of oral histories edited by Marsh. At his request, I sat on a panel with him at the Folk Alliance conference held here in 1998. Through phone calls and e-mail correspondence, we've become more than colleagues. He's offered personal advice (damn near all of it useful) when I've been holed up in the emotional dark, and has shared with me many intimate confessions and observations of his own. We've shot the shit about everything from politics and the state of rock criticism to the joyful racket of Albert Ayler and the complexities of Bruce Springsteen's art. We don't always agree, and I'm certain that he's as baffled by my love of avant-garde electronic noise as I am with his thing against late-Seventies post-punk. But friends don't always have to see or hear every little thing the same, and like I said, Dave Marsh is a friend. A damn good friend. However, if none of the above were true, I would still say that Marsh's The Heart of Rock & Soul is the greatest book ever written about popular music. Out of print for years following its initial appearance in 1989, this masterwork -- his selection of pop music's 1,001 greatest singles -- has finally been republished by Da Capo, with a new introduction, a gorgeous cover, and a list of 101 songs from the Nineties that, as he writes, "would have a strong chance of joining or supplanting the current entries." I can't say that I agree with all of these contemporary selections -- Color Me Badd's "I Wanna Sex You Up"? Counting Crows' "Mr. Jones"? -- but I'd love to know why they're on the list, and he might be able to convince me that he's right. If nothing else, it's the first intelligent, coherent summary of this decade's best mainstream offerings, and it gives you an idea where Marsh is coming from as a person and as a critic.

As does nearly every page of The Heart of Rock & Soul, a revisionist history of pop music and a commentary on what he considers to be the finest pieces of 7-inch wax issued between the early 1950s and the mid-1980s. Whether or not you agree with his selections, the book is a near-perfect distillation of the impact great rock-and-roll can and should have on people, both music critics and the rest of the population who were smart enough to go into other lines of work. Fittingly, the book works as much as a memoir as it does anything else: The entries on the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" and the Flamingos' "The Vow," which is discussed in tandem with the Clovers' gorgeous "Blue Velvet," define the essence of rock-and-roll's emotional power -- its ability to shape your life as it enhances it, to change who you are or to underline exactly who you are -- while shedding light on exactly who Marsh is.

As the critic Charles Shaar Murray states on the back cover of The Heart of Rock & Soul, Marsh is "an opinionated bastard," and throughout the book he chronicles his thoughts, passions, and obsessions with stunning literary artfulness and a critical insight that is unique among his contemporaries. But rather than being just simply a list of his favorite records, the 1,001 entries in Rock & Soul collectively and effectively demolish two of rock criticism's flawed yet fundamental tenets: that rock-and-roll is basically just a combination of R&B and country-and-western; and that the music is "essentially youth-oriented and ... that the message of the music is (to borrow a slogan off the radio) all rebellion, all the time." That should be obvious to anyone with a pair of ears, a brain, and an undying interest in rock-and-roll's constantly evolving history (not to mention anyone who's made it to adulthood and still cares about this stuff). Yet The Heart of Rock & Soul is the only book I can think of that takes the time to dismantle these theories, to reassert that, as Marsh writes in the introduction, "rock and soul is the creation, above all, of black Americans," as well as the importance of doo-wop and the string of brilliant singles issued during the early, pre-Beatles 1960s, when rock supposedly died.

Throughout its 600-plus pages, The Heart of Rock & Soul unearths a slew of lost nuggets and shines new light on singles you've heard a jillion times (no small task considering that the perpetually aired likes of Boston's "More Than A Feeling" and a huge batch of Motown hits are all included in the book). Marsh restores to prominence the neglected work of visionary vocalists such as Little Willie John, while celebrating obscure gems ranging from Joyce Harris' "No Way Out" to the Gants' "Crackin' Up." Songs as seemingly disparate as Porter Wagoner's "Cold Hard Facts of Life" and Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" are juxtaposed, revealing their common ground. Elsewhere, Marsh argues the validity and merit of numerous artists who've seldom enjoyed anything resembling critical praise (Gene Pitney, Lou Christie, Culture Club); weighs in with authority and insight on genres such as reggae, bluegrass, folk, and country; traces the evolution of R&B from the vocal groups of the 1950s to the electronic beats and scratches of hip-hop's greatest 1980s avatars; and, in the entry for Roxy Music's 1980 semihit "Over You," quintessentially defines why art rock sucks.

And because the entries aren't ranked in order of greatness from Number 1 to Number 1,001, The Heart of Rock & Soul reads not so much like a collection of essays and reviews as it does something of an alternate history of the music: "The aim is to make an argument against critical conventions about what great rock & soul music consists of," Marsh writes in the new introduction. Read it from front to back, and you'll discover a history that is relayed with as much spirit, determination, and commitment as the music itself, when it comes bounding or gliding from the speakers to the center of your own heart. And though Marsh will probably hate me for saying this, it also functions amazingly well as simply a list of essential recordings you're compelled to either seek out if you don't have them, or to return to them once again, to remind yourself exactly why you loved them in the first place -- why they mean something.


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