The Critic’s Hook: Greil Marcus (1975) on Sly & the Family Stone (1971)

The phrase “the critic’s hook” might make you think first of critical rejection, as in the hook that pulls the failed performer off the stage.  Erase that thought.  I have a better one.

The art of the rock critic—my favorite part of it, anyway—is to write so that an interpretive proposition makes intimate contact with a high point in music, gets entangled with it, draws energy from it and adds energy to it: a hook of discourse interhooking with a musical hook.

There are great rock critics who write with killer hooks of their own about what is going on in and around the music. I want to salute one of them, Greil Marcus, by citing a great interhooking moment in his immortal Mystery Train.  This passage impresses me not because it lights up an enjoyable element in music but because it convinces me I have to listen to music that’s not what I want to hear at all, and watch out! it might convince you too.

Marcus is discussing Sly Stone’s descent into malaise in the 1971 album There’s a Riot Goin’ On.

This music defines the world of the [mythical figure of] Staggerlee who does not get away, and who finds hell as advertised. There is an enormous reality to the music: a slow, level sense of getting by. It is Muzak with its finger on the trigger; the essence of the rhythms James Brown has explored without the compensations of Brown’s showmanship or his badass lyrics. It is a reality of day-to-day sameness and an absence of variety—like prison—that requires, if one is to endure it, either a deadening of all the senses, or a preternatural sharpening of them, so that the smallest change of mood or event can be seized on as representing something novel or meaningful.

In this sense, and only at the farthest margin, the music is part of the way out of the disaster it affirms. If you listen, you get sharper, and you begin to hear what the band is hearing; every bass line or vocal nuance eventually takes on great force. The disaster gains an emotional complexity, and you enter it.[1]

Muzak with its finger on the trigger (“Africa Talks To You”)

This is a painful hooking. You’re warned that, if you didn’t know this already, you’re probably not going to cotton to the music. The only way you can appreciate it is by, in effect, going to prison. But you’re reminded that there’s a bigger situation. Not to listen would be not to look around at what’s happening with your fellow citizens, not to think about what happened to Staggerlee who still lives in the American mind, and (even more unavoidably) not to follow through with the examination of Sly and the Family Stone’s music that Marcus’s chapter has gotten you to invest in.

After you think this over, you may reject the whole deal. But it was quite a deal. You were on the hook. You may still be.


[1] Greil Marcus, Mystery Train. Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, 4th ed. (New York:  Plume, 1997), pp. 73-74.


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Rock Aesthetics, Words and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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