Discounting cash-in reunions, studio sessions with bank robber Ronnie Biggs, and the like, The Sex Pistols last played in January 1978 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Their useful life ended unimprovably, with singer Johnny Rotten asking the crowd, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” and then stalking off the stage.

Among the crowd that night was Greil Marcus, a thirty-two-year-old critic and author on assignment for Rolling Stone. His review of the Winterland concert ran in the March 9, 1978 edition, which featured an alarmingly vacant Jane Fonda on the cover, and was perfunctory at best. In it, he praises the Pistols’ energy and bravado, notes the bad behavior of certain attendees, and infers from Rotten’s exit the conclusion, at long last, of a short, anomalous era in pop music.

An owlish figure who studied political science as a graduate student at Berkeley and writes like it, Marcus, then as now, was known for his focus on the iconography and secret history of rock and roll. Marcus began writing about Bob Dylan in 1968, the exact point at which he lost his relevance, and Marcus has somehow managed to since write enough fawning prose about him to fill a recently released anthology that carries a shipping weight of 1.4 pounds—in addition to two other dense book-length studies. With that record, Marcus may have been the single critic in the United States least likely to write the best book about what punk rock meant and why, all these years later, anyone should care.

Peers and rivals such as Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau were so entranced by this music and the potential it held to redeem all the cashiered promises pop music made in the late 1960s—promises, essentially, that radio songs could create a new way of living, an escape from a world of slicks and frauds—that they seemed to remake themselves in response to it. Marcus was a more wary figure. He was seemingly more comfortable with old, forgotten blues and folk records than with the Billboard 100, and certainly not one to attempt, as Bangs did, to himself become one of the madding crowd. In his review of the Pistols’ last show, there is a tangible feeling of unease, a sense that this was not a place he was meant to be.

And yet, perhaps because punk traded so heavily on such feelings of discomfiture, it was in fact his perfect match. Originally published in 1993, Marcus’s Ranters and Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music, 1977-92 is a collection of occasional journalism comprising dozens of columns and features written for such outlets as Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, and Artforum. It is the one book to read if you want to really know about punk.

So far as punk was anything more than pop style—and most of even the good stuff was not—it was a response to a question: If you could say anything, what would it be? Today, that question doesn’t carry the same implications it once did, but the brief early glory that ended on stage at the Winterland Ballroom represented the temporary triumph of inarticulate free expression over a world dominated by glad-handers and smooth-talkers. It may be that there were no more than a half dozen great records among hundreds in that first wave; the point was that the records were real at all. Their very existence spelled out a horrifically loud rejection of all sorts of smug mendacity. Anyone can be a musician, they said. You don’t need fancy clothes and a contract. You don’t even have to know how to play.

The main line on punk ends in its total, miserable failure. As it turns out, most people who make a fetish of amateurism are making excuses to stall for time while they learn what they’re doing. Steve Jones, the Pistols’ guitarist, went on to a career as a Los Angeles session man, a real pro who landed numbers on Miami Vice soundtracks and actually started up a band called The Professionals. This wasn’t selling out. This is who he was all along, and so too most of his peers and progeny, who mustered up the guts to say something only to find they had nothing at all to say.

Tim Marchman , a sportswriter, will be a 2012 Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan.