[1997—Reprinted with Michael Goldberg’s permission.]
Greil Marcus isn’t the reason I started writing about rock ‘n’ roll. But he’s been an inspiration, since I first began reading his reviews in Rolling Stone and Creem in the late ’60s.He has always written about artists that matter, be it the Clash (a column in New West in the late ’70s), or the Beatles (his essay in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll is a classic), the Band, Sly Stone and Elvis (in his book, Mystery Train) or, more recently, Sleater-Kinney (in his columns). More than just who he happens to write about, it is what he has to say about the music that has had an ongoing impact. Smart and thoughtful, Marcus has managed, time and again, to get across what a rock & roll song feels like onto the page, at the same time that he gets to the essence of what the song is about.
These days, Marcus writes monthly columns for Interview (“Days Between Stations,” reprinted in Addicted To Noise) and Artforum (“Real Life Rock“), and books, the most recent of which, Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, was published earlier this year.
In a recent “Editorial Rant” column, I wrote about re-reading the intro to Marcus’ ranters & crowd pleasers: punk in pop music, 1977-92, a collection of his columns and reviews that was published in 1993. I wrote that I went to a coffeehouse where
I re-read Marcus’ intro, in which he talks about how exciting it was for those of us who were paying attention during the mid-to-late ’70s when, for a brief moment, punk seemed to take over the world—and then ended just as quickly. The Sex Pistols broke up. It was 1978. “The pop marketplace swiftly reformed,” writes Marcus, “and exiled punk to cult stations scattered along its borders…”
Only a funny thing happened. It didn’t go away. While the media focused on the next glittery thing to catch its short MTV-reduced attention span, the music got passed along to those who really, really wanted it.
What Greil Marcus wrote inspires me so much that each time I read it, I feel like I could invent Addicted To Noise all over again:
“An example, as typical as any could be: in 1983, five long years after the official death of punk, the news arrived in Aberdeen, Washington, a town of 19,000 about one hundred miles southwest of Seattle. One person in Aberdeen, Buzz Osborne, had a tape which he played only for those he thought deserved to hear it; on this tape were punk songs, transferred from records that were hard to find, and he passed them on as secret knowledge. Osborne then formed the first punk band in town: ‘They started playing punk rock and had a free concert right behind Thriftways supermarket where Buzz worked,’ Kurt Cobain of Nirvana told Gina Arnold in 1991, looking back as his band rode their punk album, Nevermind, to number one, but not looking down. ‘They plugged into the city power supply and played punk rock music for about 50 redneck kids. When I saw them play, it just blew me away. I was instantly a punk rocker. I abandoned all my friends, ’cause they didn’t like any of the music. Then I asked Buzz to make me that compilation tape of punk songs…'”
You know the rest. If “Smells Like Teen Spirit” stopped you dead in your tracks, then you understand.
Marcus was born in San Francisco, where he grew up. The first rock ‘n’ roll record he remembers was Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock.” He didn’t like it. But he did like Elvis. A lot.
He studied American political thought at U. C. Berkeley in the mid-to-late ’60s. He saw Bob Dylan and the Hawks perform in Berkeley in 1965, and began writing rock criticism for Rolling Stone and Creem as soon as those publications existed.
For over 30 years, Marcus has consistently written insightfully about both the music that touches him, and on occasion, that which disgusts him. Today, he is probably the most respected rock critic in the world, and, with the exception of Dave Marsh, probably the best known.
His book, Mystery Train, is considered one of the best examinations of popular (and in some cases not so popular) music ever written. And both Lipstick Traces and the recent Invisible Republic are brilliant, thought-provoking works that will inspire you to seek out the music that Marcus has written about.
You won’t go wrong seeking out either Stranded, a collection of pieces by 20 different critics who each wrote about the one album they couldn’t be on a desert island without, or Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung, a collection of pieces by the late Lester Bangs, both of which were edited by Marcus.
I interviewed him in June at this home in the Berkeley hills. The very top floor of the Tudor-style house—an enormous attic—consists of Marcus’ office, and his enormous music collection. It is there that he spends his days, listening to music, and writing. We spoke for about two and a half hours, touching on everything from what excited him about Sonic Youth, Nirvana and Sleater-Kinney, to the state of rock criticism in the late ’90s.
You’ve been paying attention to rock ‘n’ roll since the very beginning…
From the official beginning, “Rock Around The Clock,” Bill Haley. Not from what we now know are the deeply excavated beginnings in the 1940s when I was either learning to walk or not born. My first memory of anything connected to rock ‘n’ roll is listening to “Rock Around The Clock.” And I would have been nine or 10 then. No, it was spring of ’55 so I was nine. Yeah, I was nine years old then. Didn’t like it. Didn’t like it at all.
Well, what did you hear that you did like?
The reason I remember this is because this kid who was carrying a transistor radio was making such a big deal out of it and demanding that I listen to this. It wasn’t ’til Elvis that I became thrilled, that I began to listen to the radio and discover a whole new world and be awestruck at the fact that every week there were gonna be new songs that you hadn’t heard before. And there was probably gonna be one, maybe even more than one, but almost certainly one that you would just fall in love with and you would have to hear and you would spend all of your time listening to the same damn station hoping to hear this record. Because it didn’t really occur to me or anyone else I knew to actually buy records. I mean, you could but the most disposable income I had at any one time in those days was about a dime, which is what it cost for an Uncle Scrooge comic book. That was much more important.
From where you sit right now, is this a good time or a bad time for rock ‘n’ roll?
I think it’s very difficult for me to say. My position now is someone who… I write two music columns a month. They’re very different. One’s an essay [“Days Between Stations”]. One’s just stuff that I pull together from all different areas, whether it’s books or movies or song lyrics or wisecracks or commercials made out of old hits or actual records people are releasing or concerts that I might go to [“Real Life Rock”].
So, I’m more than paying attention. This is still an arena where fun and shock and social meaning is produced all the time for me. But on the other hand, it’s probably less a milieu or a medium that I use to construct an identity than it was in the past.
Because I’m pretty much stuck with whatever identity I’ve got now. That doesn’t mean I’m not gonna learn new things. That doesn’t mean I’m not gonna see things I haven’t seen before. God knows with Heavens To Betsy and Sleater-Kinney over the past four, five years, I’ve seen a lot I had never seen before and didn’t know.
But in terms of it threatening me in a way that really great rock ‘n’ roll has always threatened me, maybe it’s gonna do that somewhat less now. So I look at it more—I don’t want to say distanced—but more partially, I think, than I used to. I’m always looking for something to write about. Well, that’s very different than just living in a world that is going to confirm you or pull the rug out from under you, if you see what I mean.
Whether it’s good times or bad times, you know, I don’t even think about that question anymore. I really don’t. I’m always reading Bob Christgau’s year-end wrap-up in the Pazz & Jop poll in the Village Voice, the critics poll where Bob writes an essay summing up the year every year. And other people do that too. “This was a terrible year. This is the worst year since…” Usually that’s the line. It’s been a long time since this is the best year since… And I just don’t think about it that way.
I mean, it’s just not an interesting question to me anymore. And you know, I don’t think people in general think about it that way. I mean, my kids certainly don’t. They may say, “Nothing really got to me this year.” Would you say this is a bad year for rock ‘n’ roll? “Oh, I don’t know. But nothing really got to me.” It’s a different way of putting the question.
There are things that are getting to you.
Oh yeah. Sure. But I mean, I’m always out there looking in a maybe more obsessive or active or engaged or desperate or neurotic way than the ordinary person. I’m always hoping that the next record I put on is gonna make me turn around and say, “What’s that, what is that?” And that doesn’t happen that often. Of course, I’m playing lots and lots of different records. And every time I hear a record that’s really a fake or that just doesn’t make it or that shouldn’t have been released, I’m really disappointed. I feel bad for the people who are either fooling themselves or trying to fool you and me.
It’s not like when you go to a really terrible movie and you paid seven bucks to go see it and it insults your intelligence, it’s not fun, nothing about it is as promised. A movie like True Lies, that horrible Schwarzenegger movie and you come out feeling humiliated, tricked, they got you, they suckered you. I don’t feel like that. If I’m paying for records and well over half the records that I play I’ve gotten out of the record store—I haven’t gotten in the mail—I’m still not paying for them ’cause I’m dumping the records I don’t want to the record store and taking the stuff I do. So it’s all trade. And if I was paying 12, 13, 15 bucks a shot, I’d probably feel very humiliated and tricked and angry as opposed to disappointed or sad.
What are some things that you’ve reacted to positively and that you’ve reacted to negatively recently?
All kinds of stuff. But as I was saying before, for the last four or five years, it really has been Corin Tucker [former leader of Heavens To Betsy; current leader of Sleater-Kinney] who I followed, who I’ve said, “Whatever this woman does is gonna be interesting, I’m gonna pay attention to it. She knows things I don’t know.”
See, that’s really what distinguishes artists from critics, I think. And I think critics need to learn this or realize it: that artists know things that critics don’t know, that most people don’t know. And sometimes the artists don’t know. They don’t know they know them. But that’s why they’re artists. Because they’re trying to reveal, they’re trying to tell truths and stories that they have to get out of them. And most people don’t need to do that. They aren’t impelled to do that. And I think Corin Tucker knows things about what it means to speak out that critics and listeners just have to try and catch up with, have to try and catch up with her on, have to try and figure out, have to try and get through. That doesn’t necessarily mean figure out intellectually.
This is a woman—she must be now 24, 25, 25 I guess—from Olympia, Washington, Portland, that area. And she formed a band a number of years ago called Heavens To Betsy with another woman; there’s two women, a drummer and a guitar. They sort of switched off. Tracy Sawyer was the drummer. Corin Tucker was the guitar player and the singer.
And I was playing a compilation of about 18 bands from somewhere in the Northwest [Kill Rock Stars]. And I think it must have been somewhere around track 8 of this very, very boring record where nothing was happening. Something went on and I turned around and I said, what’s that? And I went over and I looked to see what track 8 was. Heavens To Betsy—what a great name for a group. And it was a song [“My Red Self”] about a girl getting her first period. Not a thrilling notion for a song. It wasn’t even a good song. It was barely a song at all. But there was something about it that was so alive and so harsh and so different.
The next time I came across a Heavens To Betsy record I played it immediately and it just exploded. And they’ve been like that ever since. And then Corin Tucker broke up that band and went into a band called Sleater-Kinney, which of course now is getting written about in just about every publication in the country and is touring nationally pretty frequently. They’re just an amazing band. Shocking how good they are. It really is.
The first time I heard about Sleater-Kinney was reading your column in Interview, which I think was probably the case for a fair amount of people.
Well, I’ve been writing about them since ’92, at least, I think, in one form or another writing about Corin Tucker. It’s a matter of stumbling. Hearing something on the radio is stumbling, tripping over something. And instead of just getting up and brushing yourself off and walking on, looking to see what you tripped over—that to me is what listening is all about.
But you said what have I reacted to positively? What have I reacted to negatively? What I most reacted to negatively recently is two things. One is a commercial for Sprite. I normally like the way old songs are recycled into commercials. Sometimes it’s because it’s really well done. But often I just love hearing whether or not a song can stand up to being corrupted and defiled and rewritten or decontextualized. I love to see what happens in those situations. I really think in a way that the very best songs, the songs that we most love and treasure ought to be reduced to this level to see if they can stand up to this horrible punishment.
But Sprite has a commercial that sounds like a late Beatles recording. It’s got one of those sighing John Lennon vocals and an even deeper mass sigh from George and Paul. And it’s just got this ethereal slide to it, like a lot of the old Abbey Road record did. And since it’s not the Beatles, since it’s just some people imitating their sound and imitating it really horribly well, it’s grave robbing. It’s eating the dead. It’s necrophilia. It’s disgusting in a way that it just instantly turns my stomach.
The other thing that turns my stomach is that recent Laura Nyro tribute album. And not only that. The things that have been written about her since she died. I always thought Laura Nyro was a joke. I mean, I guess she was a competent songwriter. She came out of a songwriting tradition. But this whole holiness routine that she would always go through—the goddess number, the saint schtick, the angel from above routine that she loved to play, the junkie angel, the angelic junkie, whatever the hell she was. I thought it was really ridiculous, stupid and funny, really funny the way people fell for it.
And here is an album, a Laura Nyro tribute album that was done before she died but only released after she died. So it too took on this aura of saintliness. And it’s just so embarrassing. There’s some good people on it—Rosanne Cash and people like that, all making horrible fools of themselves. They’d all be better doing a Metallica tribute album. They’d be more convincing. Nobody can sing Laura Nyro songs without sounding really stupid. And then I read this wonderful article that I happened to read right after Bob Dylan went into the hospital when there were still headlines saying, “Will He Live?” And it said the shock that went through the world of pop music when Laura Nyro died won’t be equaled again until Bob Dylan dies. And I thought they can’t wait, you know. They’re just salivating. They’re looking forward to this. And this person was actually hoping that maybe when Bob Dylan dies it won’t matter as much when Laura Nyro died. Well, for people who loved Laura Nyro, it’s like the Nick Drake cult, the Tim Buckley cult, the Jeff Buckley cult.
I read an article in a British paper, the Independent… facing pictures—Tim Buckley, Jeff Buckley. Under Tim Buckley: “The Greatest Singer of His Generation.” Under Jeff Buckley: “The Greatest Singer of His Generation.” Headline: “The Double Tragedy.” What can you do but laugh? Tim Buckley? The most influential singer of the ’60s? The man for whom it could be said, “No great loss?” To those of us who knew him only through his music. So, see, I can still get worked up. I can still get just as disgusted as I’ve ever been.
Right. Well there’s intelligent people who would argue just the opposite, who would argue that Tim Buckley made a couple of good albums, a lot of crummy albums but that he was not an artist comparable to Bob Dylan. But on a certain level…
That’s just what I’m talking about. I’m talking about people who are saying he was greater than Bob Dylan, he was greater than John Lennon, he was greater than Carole King, he was better than Otis Redding. That’s what they’re saying. He was the “greatest singer of his generation.” Last time I looked, that included people of his age, whoever they might be. It didn’t just mean white curly-headed junkies in L.A. That’s not a generation. That’s a type. So I’ve never met an intelligent person who’s made that kind of case for Tim Buckley and I hope I never do.
That would be a difficult case to make. I don’t think you can make that one.
Well, there’s certainly people out there doing it.
Do you think that rock criticism has been on the wane in the last 10 years?
I think rock criticism seemed pretty stale, at least it did to me, five, six years ago. There were only a couple of people who I had any interest at all in reading. But I don’t think that’s true anymore. I think the reason is there are so many young women and some not so young, but women who are writing today who weren’t writing then. Or maybe who were writing then but are writing much better now, who really found their voices.
If you look at an anthology that Ann Powers and Evelyn McDonald edited called Rock She Wrote, which is an anthology of rock criticism by women, you will find over and over and over again experiments in form. Or maybe they’re not experiments, just uses of form and subject matter that male rock critics would never have thought of. Questions that would never have occurred to any male rock critic, I don’t care how smart, sensitive, empathetic this person might be. It would never have occurred to them to ask. They’re all over this book. The book is just bursting with the eagerness to go out there and rewrite the territory.
And I think a lot of that is happening. There’s a woman in Chicago named Sarah Vowell who writes for Salon. She used to be a rock critic for the SF Weekly. There’s Gina Arnold, who’s been doing her “Fools Rush In” column for God knows how many years now, every goddamn week. And every week there’s a story in there, often about some band that no other critic in the world would go to see, some washed up, used up band from five, 10, 15, 20 years ago playing some God forsaken bar in Vallejo that Gina has decided to check out along with U2 or whoever’s playing the Coliseum. She covers the territory like nobody. And she is telling a generational story; that’s really her beat. She’s writing a biography for a generation, which no rock critic has ever even attempted to do, I think. There’s a lot of that. There’s also the fact that a lot of people are doing good work in books and it’s not journalism anymore. So that’s a shift. That’s different. I think it’s a real changing field. It really is.
So in the last five years you’ve seen that.
Yeah, it seems to me.
You mentioned Gina Arnold. Who else right now do you read?
I read whoever I come across. I always like Ann Marlowe’s writing wherever it appears. I guess I usually see it in the Village Voice. She’s a very obsessive writer, very, very serious and sort of troubled. I mean, situations trouble her. She writes out of being bothered by a situation. I like that kind of energy. I like Stephanie Zacharek who lives in Boston. I like her writing. But whenever I’m asked a question like this, I tend to blank and so I’m surprised I’m actually thinking of all these people instead of just being vague. But there are really a lot of surprises out there, I think. And the people who started writing a long, long time ago… we’re still doing it. We’re lucky if we still have readers and if we still are not going through the motions. I don’t think the people who are still doing it are. There must be better ways to make a living if they are.
Have you seen some of your colleagues lose interest, lose touch?
Sure, sure. I mean, I don’t think it’s because people get older and that there’s some sort of physiological or emotional or psychological change people go through that makes them less able to listen to music in the same way that as you get older you’re gonna be less effective as an athlete. It’s pretty well established. I don’t think anything like that happens. It has to do with the kind of lives people live. And as people get older, they tend to live more and more private lives. And they tend to not be part of a world where music is a defining factor. And they tend to talk about it less and they tend to have less access to it. Their access to it may be reduced to the car radio, if that. And that, I think, sends people away.
But in terms of people drifting away, Jim Miller is a perfect example. Jim started writing for Rolling Stone before I did, maybe as early as ’67. And he was a wonderful critic. He was always questioning. He was always clear. And he edited the original edition of the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Did a great, great job. And he really felt his interest in the music drying up. He really felt his contact with it all but broken any number of years ago. And he wrote a book on SDS called Democracy Is In The Streets and then he wrote [some other books] and became a political theory professor for a number of years. Went to work for Newsweek and is now the Dean of Liberal Studies at the New School for Social Research in New York. And what is his current project? A social history of rock ‘n’ roll. People cannot get free of this subject. They just change the discourse. They change the language. They translate. But this doesn’t leave people, you know. There’s a way in which nobody who ever really cared about rock ‘n’ roll whose life was truly changed by it, made by it, made up by it ever outgrows it. Oh, you can get bored by it, you can lose interest, you can go somewhere else but you’re never really gonna get its hook out of you, I don’t think.
I remember in 1976 and 1977 when KSAN [one of the first FM rock stations] started playing the Ramones, Sex Pistols… They tried some New York punk and then a little bit of UK punk but they got a lot of negative response from their listeners, I was told. And I knew a bunch of people who… I mean, they couldn’t relate to the Sex Pistols. They had been sort of going along listening to whatever, Little Feat, the Eagles, the Doobie Brothers, whatever was going on in early ’70s rock, pop. And suddenly this thing came along. One friend of mine, I put on the Who’s “My Generation” and then I put on the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy In The U. K.” It was like, “Wait a minute, you liked this. Why don’t you like this?” Have you seen that sort of thing happen, where people just sort of stopped.
Yeah, I saw it happen I guess at the same time you’re talking about. Not necessarily that dramatically. That was a real verge. That was a real put up or shut up moment, I guess. And I think people who chose the Doobie Brothers over the Sex Pistols never really liked rock ‘n’ roll in the first place. I question their sincerity.
Have you ever hit a point where you got bored and so you went off in some other direction, exploring some other kind of music for a while?
There were only two times when anything like that happened. One had to do with—maybe boredom’s not the right word but it’s close enough. The other was something very different. In around 1958, 1959, certainly 1960, as far as I could tell, rock ‘n’ roll just had become something so putrid that maybe every few months there’d be something strange on the radio, something odd like “If You Want To Be Happy” by Jimmy Soul. “If you want to be happy for the rest of your life, never make a pretty woman your wife.” Or “Foot Stompin'” by the Flares. I’m thinking of records of that time that I liked, that I cared about, that I sang along to at the top of my lungs. But there was something stomach-turning. I remember feeling physically ill listening to the radio around that time because it was so putrid. And I started listening to KSFO then and I listened to KSFO for a couple of years. Basically Frank Sinatra and stuff like that because there were disc jockeys who seemed intelligent. And they just didn’t seem to be insulting you all the time.
The only person I could listen to in those days on rock ‘n’ roll radio was Russ the Moose Syracuse, who had an all night show on whatever station he was on, KYA, I guess. And that was fun when I would stay up ’til two or three in the morning listening to Russ the Moose. But I went away. And I did what a lot of people my age did. I was listening to Joan Baez, I was listening to the Kingston Trio. And that music seemed more alive and seemed more meant than most of what was on the radio, 99% of what was on the radio. You just couldn’t live on a diet of Dion alone. And Dion was losing it too, in the early ’60s. And I’ll tell you, I really even had a sort of intellectual position even then.
I remember it was 1958 when “Tammy” by Debbie Reynolds was the #1 song of the year. And I remember thinking, we as a generation—I was 13 years old—we as a generation, we 13-year-olds, we said to hell with this crappy old music, to hell with this boring garbage. We’ve pledged ourselves to a new music and a new world. And I believed our generation when we made that pledge but we weren’t serious. Because if we’d really meant it, how could Debbie Reynolds have the #1 record of the year? We must have been kidding ourselves and I felt terribly disappointed by this.
The other time when I turned away from rock ‘n’ roll was in 1970 and it was right after Altamont. And Altamont, for me, it was up to that point, it was probably the worst day of my life. It was the ugliest, most violent in a sustained way, in a nightmarish, will-this-ever-end way, the worst day I’d ever been through. Not just in a direct, personal sense of being physically threatened and seeing awful, awful things over and over and over again, but seeing everything that I had devoted myself to as a writer (and I was an editor at Rolling Stone), as a professional person—I didn’t think of that in those terms then but I do now—turn to garbage. Everything good turned into evil. It disgusted me. I couldn’t believe that I had anything to do with this. A feeling I later had in years to come watching MTV often, watching Warrant, watching Poison videos and thinking, I have something to do with this? Oh my God. This is horrible. This is me?
But I felt that way then and I didn’t listen to anything but Mississippi blues for a year, for a whole damn year. It didn’t start out as a conscious choice but after a while I said, “This is just what I’m gonna do, I just don’t want to listen to this stuff anymore. I don’t want to listen to records that kill people.” I was sort of on that simple, stupid two-year-old level. But that’s how I reacted. And so I listened to music that’s really about death—Mississippi country blues—and I did that for a year.
So, what were you doing in terms of writing that year?
Well, I had quit as the record review editor at Rolling Stone. I was burned out after six, nine months. I couldn’t take it anymore. And I also felt that I’d done everything I’d wanted to do in terms of putting together a section and trumpeting the bands I wanted to get attention and savaging the bands I wanted to destroy. All those kinds of things. I wasn’t doing a whole lot of writing. And then in the summer of 1970, I got fired from Rolling Stone so it was a moot point. I wasn’t doing a whole lot of writing. I was focusing on graduate school. I was in graduate school and I just didn’t want to know about it, you know, right then.
What brought you back?
I don’t know. Probably Rod Stewart. Probably “Maggie May.” I don’t know.
You don’t remember?
No, there wasn’t any epiphany. Walking into the old Record City on Telegraph Avenue in late December ’69 or early January 1970, still feeling shell-shocked from Altamont and seeing this blues record with the song “Four Until Late” on it, which I knew was a Cream song and seeing the name Robert Johnson and buying it and taking it home and playing it—that was an epiphany. Now that was something unforgettable. But Altamont, I saw people beaten almost to death. I saw what they looked like before and I saw what they looked like after and I saw it all fucking day. It was really quite something and that was just part of it.
Sonic Youth is another band that I really started paying attention to after I read an Artforum column you wrote about them. How did they come to your attention and can you talk a little bit about that?
I don’t remember exactly. I know when they put their first album out it wasn’t an album, it was an EP [Sonic Youth, 1982]. I played it and I liked it but I didn’t think much of it. And when they put out their first real album, Confusion is Sex , that got to me. It was a mess. That album was just a mess. It had terrible singing by whoever was singing. It was just a mess. And there was stuff on it that was so strong. I never heard anybody pull her guts out and throw them at the audience the way Kim Gordon did with “I Wanna Be Your Dog” on that record. I mean, Iggy Pop must have been either ashamed or thrilled to hear what someone did. Everybody did that song, “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” It’s like “Louie Louie.” It is “Louie Louie.” It’s the simplest thing in the world. And it was scary. It was scary. I never quite knew what it meant for one lover to tell another, “I want to be your dog” until I heard that song. Then I understood.
“Shaking Hell” was the other song on that record that got me. And I thought, these are people who are really pushing. These are people who are reaching and nobody else is reaching the way they are right now in whenever it was, ’81, ’82, something like that. And I had read something in Artforum. This is how I came upon Sonic Youth. I read something Kim Gordon had written in Artforum [“I’m Really Scared When I Kill In My Dreams,” January 1983] before I’d ever listened to them. And she wrote an article about Glenn Branca, the guy who Thurston Moore played with before he formed Sonic Youth, the guy who’s always doing his symphonies. His 40-guitar orchestras.
She started off by alluding to her own experiences as someone in a band. And she said “in rock ‘n’ roll people pay to see other people”—how did she put it? I want to get this right: “People pay to see other people be free.” And I thought that was just an astonishingly powerful thing to say. I don’t even know if it’s true. But like Kim’s performance of “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” it was a scary thought. And I thought, this woman knows stuff that I don’t know. I’ll read the next thing she writes whatever it is. And the next thing she wrote happened to be a song, not an article.
And after that, I just thought, this is a band that’s taking big chances. This is a band that wants it all. And I would go see them. And I don’t know how many times I saw Sonic Youth. I never saw them very good. You know, I never saw a great Sonic Youth show just like I never saw a great Clash show. I just never hit the right nights. But their records for a long time seemed to be out there, seemed to be on the other side. Like Skip James once said, my favorite musical story of all time maybe… A kid walks into Skip James’ dressing room. Skip James is in his 60s. He was once perhaps the greatest of all Mississippi blues singers. Now he’s an old man. And he can’t play as well. He can’t sing as well. Sometimes he’s sick and he doesn’t play or sing well at all. But he still has dignity. He still knows he’s a genius. He still does not bother to condescend to his fellow man. He is still noble. The kid comes in–Peter Guralnick tells this story–into Skip James’ dressing room and he picks up Skip James’ guitar and he plays a Skip James’ run on his guitar. But can you imagine the rudeness, the audacity of doing this? But he picks up Skip James’ guitar and then he says — well, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt—he says, “Mr. James, do you think I’ll ever be able to play the guitar the way you do?” And Skip James turns to him and he says, “Son, Skip has been and gone from places you will never get to.” And that’s how I felt about Sonic Youth when I was listening to them in the early-to-mid ’80s.
And I became friendly with Kim and with Thurston. They’re lovely people. What Kim wrote is true: she becomes free or she had moments where she became free on stage in front of other people and lived a life she couldn’t live on the streets or in her apartment. And you could hear that in music. You can really hear that. There’s an ease with life in Rod Stewart’s music. That’s a lot of what I like about it. That I don’t have any trouble imagining an ease that he lives out in his everyday life. But I think I’m drawn to extremes where that isn’t so, where what’s going on in performances is not going on in that person’s everyday life. I don’t know what Corin Tucker’s like in her ordinary life. I mean, if she’s like the way she is on stage, I don’t know, I can’t imagine anybody could stand to be around her. They couldn’t keep up. They’d get burned.
You started writing a column, “Real Life Rock,” for New West magazine in 1978. It seemed like you sort of started writing about a lot of relatively obscure things. I mean, occasionally you would do a column about Elvis Costello or Van Morrison. But a lot more often, you were writing about the things some of which ended up in your book Lipstick Traces. Now, I imagined the readers of New West to be sort of middle-to-upper class yuppies. And I couldn’t imagine most of the readers of New West being able to relate to a lot of that. And I just wondered, did you have to fight with editors to be able to write about what you thought was important even though it wasn’t popular music at the time?
No, I never did. Jon Carroll was the editor of the magazine when I started writing for it. He asked me to write this column. I started off writing about whatever I wanted to and I continued to do that. No one ever told me or even made any suggestions about what I ought to be writing about or what the readership really wanted to read about. You know, I’ve never paid any attention to the supposed demographics of whatever magazine I’m writing for. One thing I’ve learned as a journalist and it’s spilled over, I hope, into the books I write, is you have to give people information. You cannot shut people out. You have to tell people who the people you’re writing about are. You have to give them some grounding. You also have to do it in a way that you’re not lecturing to them, you’re not condescending to them.
You don’t start out by saying, “Well, you’ve never heard of this group and this is who they are and this is why you should pay attention. Now I’m gonna tell you why they’re so wonderful or horrible or whatever the case may be.” You have to let the information just slip in as part of the narrative. And that’s something you learn how to do. So if I’m writing about the Gang of Four before anyone knows who they are, I have to give them a reason to be interested. I remember I wrote two columns in a row in New West or California [in the early ’80s the name of New West was changed to California; the magazine eventually folded], whichever it was, on them when they were utterly unknown, when they were utterly new to me, when I had just heard of them. Then you have to say, “Well, why should you pay attention to these people?” You have to give whoever’s reading a reason. You have to give them an entree into the piece. Now, whether they’re gonna be interested or not, you’ve done your best. You can’t worry about that.
One of the things that I’ve so loathed about the Village Voice music coverage over the past years is the use of catch phrases, the use of insider jargon, the way that performers are not identified by full name, that you’re just supposed to know who so-and-so is and we use their nickname or their first name and we don’t have to tell you who these people are. We don’t have to tell you where they came from, what they’ve done, why you’re reading about them. I can’t keep up often with the Village Voice music coverage and I do this for a living. If I can’t keep up, God knows who can or who would be bothered to.
But I’ve never written for any publication where people have said “I really think that this is not what our readers are interested in.” I did lose my column at California magazine ultimately when they changed editors and they got an editor who didn’t like what I was doing. I lost my column. The same thing happened at the Village Voice when I was doing my top 10 column. They got a new music editor. He didn’t like what I did. He killed the column. That’s different. At Interview, where I’ve written now for five, six years, I do something I’ve never done before writing a column: I discuss with my editor what I’m gonna write about in advance. I never used to do that. I usually decided what I was gonna write about the night before it was due. And I don’t do that anymore. We actually discuss it. And he likes to keep some sort of balance between familiarity and unfamiliarity, big names and small names. I don’t have a problem with that. God, it’s easier for me to write about somebody familiar and famous than it is for me to write about someone no one’s ever heard of, including me. But it’s not as much fun. It’s not as interesting.
But no one’s ever said, sorry, I don’t think our readers would be interested in that. As times goes on, you learn more about what you’re doing. And I’ve learned with columns you make a deal. And the deal you make with the place where you write a column, my obligation is that I have to write a column and deliver it to you. And your obligation is that you have to print it. If you think it’s incoherent, you can tell me that it’s incoherent; I have to rewrite it. But you can’t tell me, “No, sorry, we don’t want to run a column about that or we don’t like what you said, we aren’t gonna print that.” You don’t have that option. You have to fire me then. That’s worked pretty well.
You were very moved by punk.
And since then, you’ve—I don’t know if carrying a torch is the right way to put it—but you continue to draw attention to things that have what could be called a punk attitude… When New York punk didn’t catch on here, when English punk didn’t catch on here, the media kind of moved on to early ’80s rock. Meanwhile, indie began happening and SST records started up. But on the surface, we were in a period where punk wasn’t around. When you would come across things, it would show up in your columns. Like it would show up in the New West columns and the California columns and later in Artforum columns. Like coming across that Heavens To Betsy song and then starting to write about them and then Sleater-Kinney.
That’s all true. I don’t know if it’s so much an attitude—it’s sort of a cheap word these days. It’s an ethos, it’s a way of being in the world, a way of not being in the world maybe. Most other stuff during this whole period has not been that interesting to me. And when people have grabbed hold of this live wire that just sort of skitters through our culture, this electrical shock which is punk, when people have grabbed hold of it, yeah, I’ve paid attention to that.
And I’ve been so amazed at what punk really is. We’re talking about something that’s well over 20 years old now as a historical fact, as a historical tendency. And one thing I learned about punk is that punk is never revived. There’s no nostalgia in punk.
When there’s a Sex Pistols reunion tour or a Ramones farewell tour—I think there were about 20 of those, maybe it just lasted five years—that’s not punk. That’s something else. Punk is always rediscovered. People are always discovering punk as if for the first time and they’re re-enacting the entire history of the thing in their own bands, in their own lives. That’s why, to go back to Corin Tucker again, Heavens To Betsy was so explosive and so shocking. Because it was as if this 18-year-old girl got her hands on the same power Johnny Rotten got his hands on when he was 20 but as if she didn’t even know he’d ever lived. I’m sure she did. But that’s what it felt like.
They record for Kill Rock Stars among other labels. Sleater-Kinney. And Kill Rock Stars, when it started, this Olympia label, boy, they had a great slogan. Their motto on the back of their records said: “Kill Rock Stars. Olympia, Washington. Birthplace of rock.” I remember the first time I saw that I thought, really? Olympia, Washington? I’ve heard arguments for Memphis, New Orleans, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago. Olympia, Washington? What are they talking about? And then I realized what they’re talking about is that their kind of rock ‘n’ roll can be born again as if for the first time, anytime, anywhere. That’s what they meant. As far as they were concerned, when the Olympia scene began to take shape, nothing had ever existed before. They didn’t care if anything had ever existed before. They were going to act as if nothing had and as if they knew they were gonna try to forget. You know that old great line about the Mekons, when the band formed? Those who didn’t know how to play tried to learn and those who knew how to play tried to forget? It was like that, I think.
To me, it’s so interesting how there’s this band, Sleater-Kinney, on this relatively little indie label. They’ve made, to my mind, some of the greatest albums in a long time, albums that stand with whatever. And the fact that that can happen, that a band can come out of nowhere, they’re completely outside of the music business.
Well, see, that’s the promise punk makes. Punk promises not only that that can happen but it will happen. And of course, that is how rock ‘n’ roll was born. That is what the beginnings of the music were all about. The great early figures in music were not coming out of—you didn’t find them on Capitol, on RCA, on Columbia. You found them on Sun, on Atlantic, on Chess, and on hundreds and hundreds of tiny little labels that maybe put out one or two records or maybe were in operation for a long time, like Ace in New Orleans. But labels that were not corporate labels, they were small companies run by one guy and his wife or his sister-in-law or one woman and her brother-in-law, that kind of thing.
That’s where these strange characters who came out of nowhere and invented rock ‘n’ roll came from, and that’s where the strange characters who are reinventing it are coming from now. It’s not that odd really. What is odd about Sleater-Kinney is that while staying on a tiny, little label, they’ve been able to somehow garner the economic resources to tour the country. And because of that, they’ve been able to attract this sort of amazing media attention they’ve gotten in the past year because they’ve been able to go around and tour. But they’ve played everything from lesbian bars to sushi bars in the course of these tours. And stranger places than that probably.
Do you think they’ll become a popular band?
They’re already a popular band. I mean, they’re already a band that people know about, that people care about and people would not miss their shows if they had a chance, just wouldn’t think about it. Will change their plans, whatever is involved.
They’re already a popular band. If you look at Rolling Stone‘s college album charts, the last time I looked they were number two. I don’t know how many copies of records you have to sell to become number two on the Rolling Stone college album chart for one issue. Maybe not very many. There are all different kinds of popularity. There’s mass popularity, where everybody’s heard about them and they can become the punch line to a joke on Jay Leno. That’s a certain kind of popularity. That’s a certain kind of currency. But being a band that people all over the country care about is another kind of popularity and they’ve reached that point.
What is your definition of punk?
Oh, I don’t have a definition. I don’t know. I could say any number of things but they’d really all be bullshit. I don’t know that it’s something that needs to be defined. It’s a terrible name, you know. It’s really a crappy name. It’s a nothing name. It’s too bad somehow that the music wasn’t able to seize or invent a better name for itself. But that’s what it got stuck with and I never liked it. When I began working on Lipstick Traces I came across any number of other art movements that ended up really becoming the core of that book. And I thought, you know, Dada, now that’s a good name. That’s a name with endless resonance, with impossible meaning and impossible meaninglessness. Much better than “punk.” ‘Cause I knew the original meanings of punk, you know. There are a lot of them and they were all creepy. And what was going on in that music was so debased and so heroic and so funny and so threatening that you needed a little bit of the genius that went into the music to go into naming it. But people were too busy; they had other things to do.
What is the job of the critic?
I think the job of the critic is not to lie. And that’s hard. Or at least it’s often hard for me. It’s hard to say what you really think, to discover what it is you really think and then find a way to say it. To not hedge what you want and what you really feel because of what’s cool, what’s hip. Because you don’t want to look like a fool, because you don’t want to embarrass yourself. That’s sometimes difficult. That’s certainly the beginning; the beginning and the end is not to lie.
Otherwise, the job of the critic is to open a conversation with an imaginary reader so that the reader can discover that there’s more going on in the culture than he or she cares about, than he or she realizes. The critic is gonna be able to open that conversation because this is what the critic does with his or her time. The other people are busy. Ultimately, the critic is not telling the reader anything the reader doesn’t already know. But the reader hasn’t conceptualized it, hasn’t put it into words, probably hasn’t thought about it. Because like I said, the reader’s busy. The reader’s got a job, the reader’s going to school, the reader’s running around taking care of children—they’re not spending all of their time thinking about, where did this record come from? Why is this performer unlike any performer I’ve ever seen before? What’s going on here? How does this relate to something that happened 50 years ago or 500 years ago?
Probably the critic’s reader is not gonna be asking those questions. But the critic’s reader is still gonna be responding in the same way that the critic is, which is, “Oh my God, what was that, I wanna hear that again.” The critic says, why did I respond that way? And out of that question comes thousands of other questions. The listener, the critic’s reader, probably doesn’t ask that question but the response is still there. So that’s how I look at it.
The job of the critic is to open that conversation and let the reader realize that he or she knows more than he or she thinks he or she knows. It’s not to tell people what to listen to. It’s not to tell people what not to read.
I was doing an interview about my new book [Invisible Republic] a month or so ago in Minneapolis and I did a lot of interviews. I did dozens and dozens, all over the United States, all over England and in Amsterdam and by phone in various places. And out of all those interviews, there were maybe three or four that were dumb, where the people either hadn’t prepared, didn’t care—you just wondered why they were bothering. This interviewer was not dumb. But he was, in a way, venal. I don’t mean he was a bad person. But I got angry at what he asked me, in a way that I’ve gotten angry very rarely at other critics. He said, “Okay, you’ve written this book about Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes. How are you gonna convince an 18-year-old kid that he ought to be listening to Dylan’s Basement Tapes instead of Green Day?” I was just shocked. Why would I want to do that? I don’t want to convince anyone to listen to something. I don’t want to tell people: “You should be listening to this and not that. This is good for you. This is bad for you. I know what’s good for you, wash your mouth out with soap.” What are we talking about? I have no interest in doing that at all.
I’m writing about this stuff because it interests me. If other people are interested in what I’m writing, great. And if that leads them somewhere else, fine. But you could read my book on the Basement Tapes and it could make you think of something completely different and make you passionate to read Herman Melville, go see John Ford movies or listen to someone who’s not even mentioned in the book. It could have those consequences. That would be wonderful as far as I’m concerned.
The only time this year that I got angry in a critical sense like that was at this conference [“Stars Don’t Stand Still in the Sky: Music and Myth”] in New York City that the Dia Foundation [now called the Dia Center for the Arts] put on. And Evelyn McDonnell [the New York-based critic who co-edited Rock She Wrote] organized it. And it was a really interesting conference in that there were all these different panel discussions and each panel had a critic, an academic, and a performer. Just about every one had that mix of people. And maybe somebody from the music industry too. But there was never just a bunch of critics or just a bunch of academics. Never.
And at one point, on this panel—the panel included Chuck Eddy, who’s a critic, and DJ Spooky, who’s a performer—DJ Spooky was talking about innovations in hip-hop and talking about doing things that hadn’t been done before. And Chuck Eddy interrupted him and in a sneering way started talking about “Oh, what do you mean, everything’s been done before, people have been doing this stuff for years, what are you talking about, my God, there’s nothing new, and it’s all been done before. It’s just a matter of who can kinda fool someone into thinking it hasn’t been done before.”
God, I haven’t been so mad in so long. In essence, I stood up and said, “The job of the critic is not to shut people up, which is what you’re trying to do. And the job of the critic is not simply to say, ‘I’ve heard it all before.’ The job of the critic is to recognize those moments in cultural time when it feels like it’s never happened before, when it feels like something has come out of nowhere and that everything is changing. That’s what a critic ought to be able to do, ought to be able to open himself or herself to. And if you’re closed to that, find another line of work.” I was really incensed. And Chuck Eddy’s a very, very smart guy. [But] I’ve never trusted his writing.
The point is not to shut people up. To recognize that there are times when it feels as if everything is changing and when it feels as if something came out of nowhere. That’s a remarkable thing. Since rock ‘n’ roll is now many, many years old, people have for a long time since gone back and said, “Well, rock ‘n’ roll didn’t really come out of nowhere. Here are the antecedents. In fact, it was an inevitable development for these sociological, economic, demographic and musical reasons. Would’ve happened if Elvis Presley had never been born. And if it didn’t happen in 1955 or ’54 or ’56 or whatever year you wanna put on it, when it did happen, well, it would have happened some other time.” Maybe all that’s true. But when you make history a straight line, when you make what in fact has occurred, inevitable, then you lose all the flesh and all the blood of lived history.
And if something feels as if it came out of nowhere, you have to ask why did it feel that way. Forget about whether it did or it didn’t. Why did it feel that way? Why do people react that way? Why do people act as if they’d never heard, seen, done anything like this before? Probably because they hadn’t ever heard, seen or done anything like that before. And if they hadn’t, why not? If it was all there anyway? That’s getting to the job of the critic. We’re getting to more and bigger questions now. The job of the critic is not to shut people up and the job of the critic’s not to close questions. The job of the critic’s not to end discussion.
David Lodge has written a whole series of books—they’re sort of academic satires and fables. The first one is called Changing Places . Fabulous book about an English professor who comes to teach at Berkeley and a Berkeley professor who goes to teach at the University of Birmingham in 1969, the year of People’s Park. Really incredible, hilarious, painful book. Best book about Berkeley I’ve ever read. He wrote other books. One of them’s called Small World , part of the series. Well, the foil character in these books is Morris Zapp. He’s the Berkeley professor. He’s just this ball of fire. He knows everything. There are no flies on Morris Zapp. Morris Zapp is based on Stanley Fish, one of the great names in English departments the world around. And Morris Zapp is always gonna write the book that ends Virginia Woolf studies, the book that kills off Jane Austen once and for all. He’s gonna shut it down. That’s Morris Zapp’s ambition. And more power to him. But that’s not what a critic ought to be doing.
You know, Bob Dylan once said that all his songs end with good luck. Someone said, “What are your songs about, what do they mean?” This is about ’65, ’66. And he said, “Well, you know, they all really end with good luck.” And no good critic ends a piece with “shut up.” But plenty of bad ones do.
Since you started writing about rock ‘n’ roll, being a rock critic is now a job. Every newspaper in the country has their rock critic. When it started, my impression was it was people who had to do this. People who were driven to do this.
Sure, but that’s true now. That’s true now. Look, when I started writing, the first piece I ever wrote was for Rolling Stone. But I very quickly began writing for the San Francisco Express Times, which was an underground newspaper. I wrote for free. Nobody was getting paid. I wrote because I desperately wanted to write and it was fun and it was thrilling to do it. And then I wrote for a number of years for Creem. And I also wrote for free. I was in graduate school but they weren’t paying anybody. That’s how people still start. They write for college papers. They write for fanzines. They write for throwaways. They write for anyplace that will allow them to get their words into print. They write for no money or a tiny bit of money. They write because they have to. Writers write; writers have to write; they don’t have much of a choice about it. The people who are just doing a job, we can all tell who those people are.
Definitely there are people who are emerging, who have emerged from wherever, who cares. But I’m just wondering if you think this sort of institutionalization of the staff rock critic at the daily newspaper or at Time magazine, at Rolling Stone, at Spin or whatever, if you think that that’s been positive, negative.
I don’t know. It depends on where we’re talking about. The more outlets there are, the more people are going to be drawn to try and do this, I think. The fact that you don’t have to create your own medium is good for some people, not for others. Some people will create fanzines no matter how many outlets they have available to them because that’s the way they want to do it.
Certainly, at Rolling Stone, there hasn’t been an interesting critical voice for I don’t know, 20 years. I don’t know how long it’s been, probably not quite that long. The last piece that I remember, a piece of critical writing in Rolling Stone that I recall that stayed with me was a piece Mikal Gilmore wrote about Joy Division and New Order. So that was a good while ago. That’s going back. Otherwise, it’s bean counting or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin counting.
Look, my daughter, my younger daughter has started writing. And she’s in Minnesota. She’s in Minneapolis where she’s in graduate school. And there are outlets there for her to write. And she was able to just sort of fall into it. It’s good that there are outlets. It’s good that there’s City Pages. It’s good that there is the Minnesota Daily.
When I was in college, there were two places that you could write about pop music if you wanted to. No, I take that back. There were two places where you could read about it. One was the San Francisco Chronicle, where Ralph Gleason was writing. And the other place was the Daily Californian [the U. C. Berkeley paper] where Jann Wenner was writing a column under the name of “Mr. Jones.” And it wasn’t a very good column but it was fun to read because there was nowhere else to read about rock ‘n’ roll. I remember reading a review of December’s Children, the Rolling Stones’ album. It wasn’t by Jann. But it ran in the Daily Cal and I was so shocked to see the Daily Cal was reviewing rock ‘n’ roll records. They called them the ‘Lolling Stones,’ they didn’t like that record. Wow! Some of this stuff really sticks in your mind. It sticks in my mind because there was so little around then, so just about everything was memorable.
I loathe writers who show off, writers who promote themselves, who congratulate themselves. And I see a lot of that and it just turns my stomach. But the more outlets there are, the more people will find their voices, I think.
You spent several years writing a book, Invisible Republic, about music that was recorded 30 years ago. Why?
One of the reasons was I wanted to write a book. I was ready to write another book and I didn’t have a subject. And I happened to get a five-CD set of Basement Tapes bootlegs, 100 or so songs. And I listened to them driving to Montana, all the way to Montana and all the way back in the car. And I’d heard most of the stuff before but I’d never heard it that vividly and all at once and over and over again. I just thought, this stuff is so rich and there’s so much of it and it goes in so many different directions. I bet there’s a great story here. I meant in the music, not the story of how the music was made. And I bet I could write a book about this. You know, it was a bet. It really was. I was betting myself that just out of this one body of music, there would be a book.
And I had no idea what the book would be or really if even if there was a book there. But in fact, the book is more about music that was made 70 or 100 or 150 years ago than it is just about music that was made 30 years ago. That the Basement Tapes were made 30 years ago is in a way a kind of accident. There’s a way in which it is music of its time. It is music that was, to a degree, formed by the tremendous social upheavals that were taking place in the United States and around the world at that time in 1967. But there’s another way in which it is a fooling around with, a playing around with tradition and history and time, legend, memory. It’s an experiment with all those things and so time floats in the Basement Tapes music and in the music that it derives from and that it calls up. So that no time holds and you don’t know where you are. It is not an antique. It is not a throw-back. It is not a golden oldie.
The other thing that inspired me to write this book or to get started on it were the last two albums of new material that Bob Dylan had released, which came out in ’92 and ’93. In other words, it was music he was making in the 1990s that made me begin to think about the music he’d made in 1967. And this was Good As I’ve Been to You and World Gone Wrong, his two albums of traditional music, old blues, old folk songs, sung in a learned, gnarled, weathered, suspicious, fatalistic, amused, pissed-off voice. And I was hearing the Basement Tapes again. I was getting that feel. That aura was there that I hadn’t heard in Bob Dylan’s music since the Basement Tapes. And that made me think that the music had nothing to do with time.
My wife would sometimes say, “Well this is your ’60s book.” And I’d say, “This is not my ’60s book. This book isn’t about the ’60s. This book’s about the ’20s. This book is about when Doc Boggs and Clarence Ashley and Frank Hutchison and Blind Lemon Jefferson and Richard “Rabbit” Brown, when they were recording, when the original body of traditional American music was first put onto records.” And that was something really the opposite of rock ‘n’ roll. We were talking earlier about how rock ‘n’ roll, when it began, it sounded to so many people as if it came out of nowhere. This was music that in the 1920s, when it was first recorded and people began to listen to it, to some people it was the strangest music they’d ever heard, the old American folk music and so it sounded as if it came out of nowhere. But it was also music that was already very, very old. And so, it sounded as if the country that was receiving it was nowhere. The real country was in this old, old music. And that’s the sense that I began to get out of it when I went back listening to it. That’s a lot of what this book is about. Where is the real country?
Right. You started hearing that in the Basement Tapes music and that was your platform to start.
Yeah. In the Basement Tapes, I heard there’s another country here. There’s a country that is utterly recognizable as America and yet it’s made out of different values, different wishes and fears, different stories than the official America or the America we learned about in school or the America we read about in the newspapers is made out of. There is an America here that makes sense out of a lot of what’s in the newspapers, that is presented and printed as if it makes no sense. And I’m talking about some of the most hideous crimes that we read about on a daily basis, these gothic events of child murder and family disillusion. And we say, “Oh my God, someone else has really gone off the deep end again.”
But there is an America, there is an American language where these things not only make sense but they’re necessary. They’re going to happen. They’re part of life. You have to learn how to make your life out of things like this. And that’s the America of the Basement Tapes and the old, old music that the Basement Tapes translate. This book was written just by listening, just by listening again and again and again. I said, what does this remind me of? Who’s that singing? Yeah, it’s Bob Dylan but who are the other voices in his voice? And just finding my way back to singers who I’d known for many years but never much paid attention to like Doc Boggs or singers who I’d never really quite connected with like Frank Hutchison. And really feeling as if you could write as if these people who recorded in the ’20s and Bob Dylan were all there in the same room together.
And yet there was a way in which the old singers, the people who first recorded in the ’20s have this weird quality of sounding as it they were already dead, of sounding as if they were singing from beyond the grave, sending you messages you probably didn’t want to hear. And so they were the voice of the dead that Dylan was calling up in a lot of the Basement Tapes music. And yet Doc Boggs—who was really kind of like the white Robert Johnson in Invisible Republic—Doc Boggs was very much alive when Bob Dylan was recording the Basement Tapes. He was out touring folk festivals. He was playing his music. There was nothing spectral about him at all except that Doc Boggs in Doc Boggs’ music, that figure, that haunt, that specter, he was already dead.
I’ve kind of felt the same way about Dylan, that Dylan of Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde, and John Wesley Harding, and the albums that came before that, that Bob Dylan is gone. And that Bob Dylan seemed like he was way older than his years.
Well, yeah. He didn’t seem older than his years at the time because lots of people his age were doing remarkable things in that point in history in the mid-’60s. The funny thing about the Basement Tapes is, you listen to the Basement Tapes and you try and convince yourself that the person who’s making those recordings is 26-years-old and you’ll fail. Maybe it’s because we’re now so much older than 26 we can’t credit that somebody so young could know so much as the person who’s making these recordings. You can tell just by listening to the way he sings how much he knows.
But maybe if we were 17 listening, he would sound very much 26 to us. I don’t know. He doesn’t sound 26 to me. He sounds 40, 80, 112, God knows what. But yeah, that Bob Dylan’s gone. That Bob Dylan had a choice. He had to get gone in one of various ways. Death was one way. Shutting up and never being heard from again was another. Edging back into public life as a legendary figure was a third and that’s the route that he took. And for whatever reason, that was a road he couldn’t stay on. And so he had to become a tiresome, burdensome, rebuking figure acting out the failure of everyone’s utopian hopes year after year after year of slogging along on these endless tours with these horrible bands with people like G.E. Smith. Can you imagine Bob Dylan playing with this disgusting camera hog? And yet, in the 1990s, he has really recreated himself out of the oldest materials as a new man and a new performer and a new singer. He has started his career all over again. No one is ever gonna break the world in half the way Bob Dylan did with “Like A Rolling Stone.” Or I take that back. He’s not going to, you know.
But Bob Dylan today is doing remarkable things. Absolutely. As a live performer, as a lead guitar player, as a band leader, as a singer, as a writer, as a dissatisfied man. You know that song, “Satisfied Man?” Well, he’s a dissatisfied man. There’s a difference between saying, the Mick Jagger of “Gimmie Shelter”—that Mick Jagger’s gone. It’s true. Think of the alternatives. But that doesn’t mean that the alternative is coming up with a phony new album every time you wanna go out and make $100 million by touring, which is what Mick Jagger now does. There’s a difference between doing what Bob Dylan has done in this decade, which is to shut up when he doesn’t have anything he wants to say and when he has something he wants to say, to then say it.
That’s a very un-pop way to govern your career but it’s the way he’s done it in this decade. Somebody asked me what influence did the Basement Tapes have on Bob Dylan’s later music. It’s something I sort of never really thought about and I thought about it for a moment and I said, “You know, I don’t think any.” They were this great anomaly. They were an escape. They were a hiding out. They were a detour. Whatever they were, he went on with his career in some ways as if they’d never happened. And they did not reappear as a voice, as an ethos, as a way of being in the world until World Gone Wrong and Good As I’ve Been To You. I’m talking about 25 years. Twenty-five years between Basement Tapes in a way for Bob Dylan.
The way you wrote about those mid-’60s Dylan and the Hawks shows, you make that come alive in such a powerful way. Do you think there are artists right now that are as important as Dylan and Hawks were at that point in time when they were doing that tour of Europe?
Well, what they were doing was they were fighting a war with their audience, with part of their audience. One of the things I realize today is that the controversy over Dylan’s betrayal of folk music by playing with a band, putting on an electric guitar, this was the hardest thing for me to recapture in the book, the hardest thing for me to understand. I didn’t understand it at the time. I thought it was ridiculous. Everybody in the West Coast thought, well, it’s about time, what took him so long? There was no controversy here. We thought this was some effete East coast hang-up.
But in fact for many, many people, it was a monumental shock, a betrayal. To understand what that was about was very difficult for me. And to write about it, bring it to life was hard. But the concerts where this was fought out, where the people came to the concerts only with the purpose of drowning Bob Dylan out, of shutting him up and Bob Dylan was playing to make his music in spite of the storm of noise that was being thrown at him. That’s what created the grandeur and the extremism of the music that Dylan and the Hawks made, particularly in England in May of ’66. And I wrote about that stuff because I wanted to, because no one had ever really written about that music before. No one had ever tried. And I couldn’t resist. I don’t know if it had anything to do with the Basement Tapes. There’s an argument in the book about what it had to do with the Basement Tapes.
A friend of mine once said, there’s always two reasons for anything. There’s the good reason. And then there’s the real reason. And I’m very much aware of that. It’s amusing to me that many, many of the reviews of this book have focused on Dylan’s tours with the Hawks, who became the Band, these controversial betrayal of folk music tours and the Basement Tapes being a response to the furor that these tours created, saying “No, you people don’t have any idea what folk music is. This is what folk music is.” Well, there is an argument of that sort in the book, a kind of implicit argument. But that’s not the main argument of the book and that’s hardly its main subject; maybe it’s the easiest one to grasp. The book takes the shape it did because I couldn’t not write about that music. This is my one chance that I was gonna have to get it right. So the thesis has to emerge from the material you’ve already put there. That’s how it works.
Whether anything today is that important… I don’t know. People do get their lives changed by walking into a darkened room where someone’s standing on a stage making noise. It happens all the time. And people often think they’ve had their lives changed by things that only confirm what their lives already are. And when they say, “You changed my life,” they mean “You told me I was okay. But in fact you didn’t change me at all.”
That’s not really having your life changed. But people’s lives are really changed, which is to say they find out that the possibilities of life are different than they thought or greater than they believed, had been led to believe. People are finding that out all the time. That’s the most important thing people get from culture, any form of culture, whether it’s a novel, whether it’s a movie, whether it’s a political speech, whether it’s a song. So that happens all the time. Whether it’s happening in a world historical context that we can now attach to Bob Dylan’s tours of the mid ’60s—that’s another question. It’s not a question you can answer now or that I can answer now.
It’s a pretty one-of-a-kind situation where you had an artist who was so already known for doing one thing and then he went and did it in a different way, where people really were mad.
Yeah, it was one thing for Bob Dylan to suddenly become an evangelical, fundamentalist Christian in the late ’70s. That caused a lot of controversy. That upset a lot of people in all different kinds of ways. But imagine if he’d done that in 1965. My God! I can’t even begin to think what that would have been like but it would have been one hell of a firestorm. And it might have affected a lot of people’s lives in really horrible ways. Imagine if Bob Dylan became a kind of Mansonoid just a year or two before Charles Manson. That’s kind of what we’re talking about. Just think of how many lives would have been foreclosed by that. It’s a horrible thought.
Any fan is a kind of hero worshipper, no matter how smart that fan thinks he or she is. I remember how disappointed and shocked I was when I went to England to write a story about the new punk [for Rolling Stone], the post Pistols punk avant-garde, the Gang of Four, the Raincoats, Essential Logic. I wanted to meet these people. They’re making some of the smartest music I’d ever heard. I wanted to see who these people were. I almost never respond to music that way, want to meet the people making the records. I just don’t have that bone in me normally. But I did want to meet these people.
And I went and I met Laura Logic and I talked with her and she was however old she was—18 years old, 19 years old. Just so smart and so guileless and funny and tough as nails and really seemed to have a sense of irony far beyond her age. And I remember asking some dumb question like “Well, what next, Laura?” And she said, “Well, I’m gonna join the Hari Krishna’s.” I thought, really? And I couldn’t tell if she was kidding or not. Because I do a pretty good deadpan but I could already tell she could do a much better one than I ever could. So I pressed her. It was for real and she did. And she hasn’t left. That was 17 years ago.
That was hard for me. I didn’t like that. That was terribly disillusioning. And you know how I talked about the job of the critic is not to lie? Well, in the story that I wrote for Rolling Stone about that visit to England, I left that out and I left it out because I thought it would weaken the credibility of the case I was making for this new music. And I really should have found a way to get it in to show that there were things in this music, if only to show that there were things in this music that I didn’t understand or things about the people who made it that I didn’t understand or didn’t want to know about maybe. But I left it out. That’s an example of a lie, lying by omission.
It certainly makes sense to me that some people that were caught up in the chaos or whatever of the punk scene and the scene after that would want to retreat or move into some sort of a community or something that felt to them safe and felt to them non-chaotic and where there were defined rules of how you live.
Yeah, sure, of course it makes sense. And that’s why after years of upheaval, people always turn to religion. They always turn to faith. They always turn to answers. But if you’re constitutionally this sort of person who doesn’t believe in answers, who can’t accept them—and I’m that sort of person, for better or for worse—then you have difficulty with that. You can understand it but you may not be able to accept it. That may be a blind spot, a critical blind spot for me but it’s also a source of energy, a source of interest, a source of confusion. And a lot of good criticism comes out of examined confusion. What the hell is going on here?
In Invisible Republic you quote Robbie Robertson talking about The Basement Tapes sessions. Did he tell you more about what those sessions were like?
Well, I didn’t talk to Bob Dylan for this book and I didn’t really talk to the people in The Band while I was writing the book. This was not a book about how The Basement Tapes came to be, how they felt about making the music, what the songs meant to them, their interpretations of the songs. It’s about the country that’s in that music and the music that’s in that country. An imagined America that nevertheless is real, that’s as much a part of our history and our legacy as the official America of wars and elections. That’s what the book’s about and that’s what I think you can find and hear in The Basement Tapes.” I don’t think this is utterly out of nowhere. But it’s a conversation or a confrontation between the listener and some songs. That’s what the book is.
I talked to Robbie Robertson before I ever started the book when I just had a glimmer of an idea. And I called him up and I said, “Robbie, I’ve got this idea of writing a book about The Basement Tapes. What do you think?” And Robbie is a talker. Robbie is a man of aphorisms. He is a phrase maker and he just went off. He just started saying these most amazing things. And I’m sitting there scribbling, just a minute, let me get this down. When he starts talking about The Basement Tapes being more like the Watergate tapes and Bob Dylan saying we should destroy this, we should erase this. That’s priceless stuff, you know. I wasn’t interviewing him. I wasn’t asking him any questions. When I finished the book, that’s when I did spend time talking to Robbie and Rick Danko and Garth Hudson trying to get as clear as I possibly could what was recorded when, in what order, at what house, that sort of stuff, who played what, who was playing here, who was playing there, those kinds of nuts and bolts questions.
Naturally, while that was sometimes a little bit helpful, most of the time they disagreed on absolutely everything. And I wasn’t able to really decide who was more credible. And occasionally, usually Rick Danko would come up with some wonderful line or story that I ended up using in the discography that follows the book where I just write about every single known Basement Tapes song that there is. Because that’s not what the book is. The book focuses on maybe a dozen songs in any detail and maybe only four or five in a lot of detail. I can’t imagine anything more boring than a track by track book about The Basement Tapes or Sgt. Pepper or anything else. You can’t talk to Robbie about anything without him telling you a wonderful story or giving you an angle or a purchase or a perspective that you never would have had otherwise. He’s like Elvis Costello. Among the musicians that I have met, they are the two greatest talkers. And not because they love to hear themselves talk either; they love to explore, invent, meet new people while they’re talking. That’s what it’s like.
So what did he tell you about that time that’s not in the book?
Nothing. He didn’t tell me any secrets that I wasn’t supposed to tell anybody. Nothing.
Did you feel like you really did get a sense of what it was like in those rooms? Did that matter to you at all? It’s interesting to me. When there’s a record that I really like, it’s also interesting to me how that thing came to be.
Well, it’s not so interesting to me. It’s vaguely interesting sometimes. But it’s not interesting in a compelling way. I think there are moments in the book [that convey] the atmosphere of what making music in the basement must have been like. It’s very present; it’s very palpable and a sense of play, experimentation, of freedom is present. But I really wasn’t that interested in the day-to-day routines that surrounded The Basement Tapes music, partly because I found out very quickly you just weren’t gonna be able to be truthful. Plenty of the things that I was told about how The Basement Tapes were made just could not be true. And I don’t mean in terms of anybody making up bizarre and strange stories. I’m just talking about, you could put stuff on a page and read it and say, “That can’t be true.”
The fact is that some people came together; for lack of anything better to do, they began to fool around with each other every afternoon or almost every afternoon playing old songs and that led somewhere. And where it led, forward and backward is what I wrote a book about, not what kind of car they drove when they met each other. To some people that would be interesting. And in a certain mood it might be interesting to me. If Bob Dylan drove up to the Basement Tapes in a ’56 Cadillac convertible, Eldorado, gold—one of those old loaded monsters that you used to see—no way in the world would I have left that out of the book. It’s just too good. It’s too perfect. But I don’t know if he did or not. I didn’t think to ask.
Based on the fact that you were album reviews editor at Rolling Stone at one point, what do you think of Rolling Stone these days? I know you do still contribute on occasion.
The record reviews… they don’t exist. They’re printed, but there’s no strong critical voice. It’s bookkeeping. It’s not even consumer guiding. The kind of vehemence and irritation and satisfaction that you find in Bob Christgau’s “Consumer Guide” is not present in Rolling Stone album reviews. Lately I’ve written for Rolling Stone mainly when somebody I care about has died. And I get a phone call asking if I would want to contribute something and I always say yes. The exception being when Jerry Garcia died because I had nothing to say. And that wasn’t really somebody I cared about. And I think Rolling Stone—and this started when I was just beginning to work there—Rolling Stone really knows how to cover a death, you know? Rolling Stone does that well.
Otis Spann died and Jann [Wenner] told Jon Carroll, who had just started editing at Rolling Stone, that he wanted to do something really good about Otis Spann’s death. Jon said OK. Jon didn’t know who Otis Spann was. I didn’t know who Otis Spann was. I didn’t know he was one of the great Chicago blues piano players. And Jann said—if I remember this correctly—go out and ask people who knew Otis Spann what they have to say about him. Just call ’em up. And so, Jon did. He called up all these people and he learned a lot. He learned who everybody in the Chicago blues scene was. And he learned what wise and deep people they were because they said wise and deep things. And we ran, I don’t know, a one or two-page tribute to Otis Spann. I’ll never forget the headline: “Everybody Will Miss Otis.” I’m thinking, yeah, like everybody reading this magazine even knows who he is. They’re gonna miss him. Well, they’re gonna miss him now because if they read the story, they’d realize what they’d missed. That’s how well it was done.
We did the same thing with Elvis when he died and there were just some fabulous things. Felton Jarvis, I think it was, one of Elvis’s old producers, said when he heard the news of Elvis’ death, he said it was like someone told him there weren’t gonna be any more hamburgers. What more do you want? And when Kurt Cobain died, lots of people wrote different stories. You put those stories together in a book, read that book. That’s a good book. That’s a book of many parts coming from many different directions. I wrote for that. When Allen Ginsberg died… God, 13 pages, I think, were devoted to Allen Ginsberg’s death. And Allen Ginsberg had a major presence in Rolling Stone while he was alive too.
It’s a magazine that can still surprise you and that’s what I value it for. I think it’s amazing that William Greider has been writing his political columns in that magazine for what now, 10 years? More than 10 years? 12 years? 15 years? And Jann has just made a deal with this guy saying you write your heartfelt, bleeding heart, tortured liberal analysis of national politics every other issue or whatever it is and you just do it until you don’t wanna do it anymore. Go ahead. Obviously has left him alone. Rolling Stone has some of the most serious, sustained, liberal political commentary you’ll find in this country. Is it in a place where people are going to find it? I don’t know. I don’t know.
I can’t complain about a magazine that asks me to write things that I wanna write that I wouldn’t have thought of doing and that gives me good editing and publishes the stuff well. It didn’t occur to me to write about Allen Ginsberg. Really. Until they called me up and asked me to. It didn’t occur to me to write about Kurt Cobain when he died. I’m glad I got the chance. Magazines are not in great shape these days. I’m not sure there are any magazines I read except out of curiosity, to see what they’re doing, which is sort of a way of seeing what the line is, of this magazine or its constituency. It’s really sort of base curiosity. There’s no magazine I can’t wait to read that I wanna learn from, that I know I’m gonna be entertained by. That just doesn’t really happen.
Do you watch MTV?
I stopped watching MTV when they really downgraded videos, you know. That’s what I liked about MTV and what I hated about MTV. Sometimes I would sit in front of MTV for hours saying, “I can’t believe this, I can’t believe how awful this is, I can’t believe how corrupt this is. I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it.” And I couldn’t turn it off either. And that was the fascination of the truly vile. But it was interesting and it was fun. And I haven’t watched anything on MTV but Beavis and Butthead for a long time. All these idiot game shows and beach parties. And I wouldn’t have watched ’em when I was 14 either. I found American Bandstand really boring. Same thing.
So do you see rock videos?
Not much. I don’t see them that often. No. And I know I’m missing a lot by not seeing them. It was the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that made me a Nirvana fan. It wasn’t the record. It was the video. Still, I think, one of the sexiest videos I have ever seen in my life. And it dramatized that song while sort of making the musicians inconsequential. The song seemed to exist outside of them. It was like the pom-pom girls or the cheerleaders, whatever they were. They were the musicians in that video. It’s a really magical piece.
But you just feel it’s not worth putting up with?
Oh, I turn on MTV all the time. They never have videos on. I guess they run them at 2 a.m. but I’m not watching then.
So you check in…
Oh yeah, yeah. Most videos, even really good videos, they wear out after one or two viewings. It’s very rare when you can watch a video five or six times, let alone 12 or 14 times and still have fun with it. That’s why a video is not like a record. We all know that you can listen to a record hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times, hear the same thing every time and still love it. Or hear something new every time. And that doesn’t really happen with videos.
In your book, you find so much in Bob Dylan’s song “Lo and Behold.” It’s like you find this whole aspect of America in that song. I just wondered, does part of you, devil’s advocate or whatever, ever go, “Wait a minute, Greil, maybe I’m finding more there than really is in that song?” It’s just a song these guys did one afternoon?
Well, of course it’s just a song these guys did one afternoon. But that’s how meaning gets made. It gets made when people do something one afternoon and they happen upon certain combinations of words and sounds, emotions and whether that comes together in something that many, many years later will still be listened to. Well, why are we still listening to this song 30 years later? Why will people be listening to “Lo and Behold” 30 years from now? Is it just because it has a catchy tune? Maybe. Or maybe it’s because there is a certain tone of voice in that song that is mysterious, that’s alluring, that makes you listen, that draws you in. That says, “What’s he talking about? What is he saying?” That makes you feel like you’re eavesdropping on a conversation rather than listening to a song. And maybe in that tone of voice is a whole history. Maybe there is a version of the country’s story in that tone of voice. In other words, maybe certain tones of voice, ways of speaking, ways of being developed in America because of the kind of place America was. And if you listen carefully enough to that tone of voice, you’ll understand what country you’re living in.
That’s the argument that I make in that chapter. And that chapter starts off with “Lo and Behold.” They’re in the basement. They’re singing “Lo and Behold.” And within about 10 or 15 pages, you’re in the middle of the West Virginia mine war in 1920 when Sid Hatfield is being shot down in the street by agents of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. You’re saying what? What are we doing here? Well, I think if you read the chapter, you find out that this is, in fact, all about a tone of voice. Why do people speak in a certain, flat, unassuming, undramatic, plain way as if [starts talking slowly in that manner] nothing [pause] is [pause] ever [pause] going [pause] to [pause] surprise [pause] them [pause] ever pause] again? Why do people talk that way? Why is this song sung that way? Why do the most bizarre things happen in this song and why are they related as if they’re the most ordinary things in the world? What’s going on? Maybe it’s because this is an appropriate way to speak in the middle of a war.
The whole first chapter of the book that’s about The Basement Tapes as such, after the chapter about the wild confrontational [Dylan and the Hawks] tours of ’65 and ’66 is like a way of saying to the reader—this is what the book’s gonna be like. This is what I’m gonna do in this book. I’m gonna listen to a song and I’m gonna go as far with it as I can. And I’m gonna draw as much history out of it and I’m gonna put as much history into it as I can. So in a way, the first chapter is like a methodological exercise. It’s saying to the reader: get off this train now because this is the direction it’s going in. And it was also tremendous fun to write.
And it was also a true argument. In other words, I believe everything I say in that. I don’t believe, I don’t believe, that Bob Dylan was thinking about the West Virginia mine war of 1920-21 when he wrote “Lo and Behold” or for that matter, that he ever heard of it. I don’t know whether he did or he didn’t. I do argue explicitly that part of the weird tone of voice that governs that song and that governs so many of The Basement Tapes performances has a source in Frank Hutchison, the white blues guitar player from West Virginia who recorded in the ’20s and whose music did come out of the West Virginia mine war very explicitly.
The critical question that begins that chapter is—the question that matters to me is not what goes into a piece of music but what can you hear in it? What can you make an argument about? What can you tell a story about that’s convincing to somebody else. And if somebody reads that chapter and says this is all bullshit, then I failed. Then I haven’t made my case. I haven’t won the reader over. I haven’t swayed the reader to follow me to the next chapter. But maybe some people will respond differently.
Just generally, does the artist’s intent matter?
No, no, doesn’t matter. It might be interesting, might not be. But ultimately, I don’t think it matters. You know, the song that may mean the most to me and the most to you by Bob Dylan or Little Peggy March may come out of the fact that the person who wrote that song was having a terrible fight with his accountant that day. That may be the approximate source of the emotion that went into that song. And we listen to that song and we think now I understand what it really means to be alive. And I’m gonna hold on to the song as long as I can and I will never forget what it means to be alive. And if I ever am on the verge of forgetting, I’ll play this song and I’ll know.
Does the artist’s intent matter there? I don’t think so. Do we care? I hope not. Are we better off never knowing what the approximate source of that song was? Yes, we’re better off never knowing. What interests me—and this is not the job of the critic—this is just what interests me—other people will be interested in different things. But as a critic, what interests me is what happens when something that somebody makes is put out in the world, goes out in the world and you and I and everyone else can make of it what we will. That’s when the real test of a work of art begins, not when it’s made but when it’s received or ignored. And that to me, that’s the crucial question. That’s the interesting question: Not what was Bob Dylan trying to say when he wrote “Like A Rolling Stone” but what did he say when he sang it. That, to me, is the question.
What was the last really great Bob Dylan album? I know you said that you thought two recent albums of other people’s songs [Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong] are good work.
They’re great records.
Do you feel they stand with the work he did in the ’60s?
Well, I’m not even gonna get into that, you know. The three albums that Bob Dylan made in ’65 and ’66—Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde—those albums are an explosion. Those albums are like Picasso’s blue period. They just don’t bear comparison. They’re not usefully compared to anything by Bob Dylan or by anybody else. The last great albums he made were Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong in ’92 and ’93. And before that, John Wesley Harding, a long way back, a long way back. Twenty five years.
I think that Blood On The Tracks—there’s something hedged about that record. There’s something self-protective, self-justifying in that record. There’s something pinched in the singing. There’s too much held back there. “Blind Willie McTell,” I’ve always thought was left off of Infidels—I think that’s the album it was left off of—because it would have made the rest of the album sound as one-dimensional, as pallid, as flat as it really is. It would have given the lie to the rest of the music. Maybe I’m wrong about that. That’s sure as hell what it does for me. And it doesn’t just give the lie to the rest of that album. It gives the lie to the music damn near 20 years of Dylan singing. But not those last two records. The guy who made those last two records can do just about anything. That’s what I think.
You edited a collection of Lester Bangs’ work, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. Why was Bangs an important rock critic or writer?
Well, lots of reasons, lots and lots of reasons but probably more because—I keep going back to this, but the first job of the critic is not to lie, to find out what he or she really thinks and then find a way to say it and that’s not easy to do—always. Lester didn’t lie. Lester really was willing to make a complete fool of himself in search of the truth about whatever his subject of the moment was, whether it was the truth of being, what his place on earth was or why Lou Reed had made another lousy record. He would not cover up. And the process of exposing himself, exposing the people he was writing about and exposing the reader all at once led to the most extreme outburst of humor, of pathos, of imagination, of invention, of storytelling, of obscenity, of absurdity.
He made everyone else look and often feel as if they were covering up. And that’s a fancy or elaborate way of saying that reading Lester Bangs can free you. It can open you up. Now God knows how many terrible writers have read Lester Bangs and said I wanna write like that, I can write like that, and produced endless dribble, endless self-promoting show-offy, just the worst kind of me-me-me, look at me-me-me, I’m so smart, I’m so outrageous, I’m so funny, I’m so stupid, I’m such an idiot, buy me a drink.
Lots of people write like that. And those are the people who miss Lester’s desperation, his humanism, his love and hatred for all the men and women he passed on the street everyday. They miss all that because that’s the stuff that’s hard to write about. And not everybody feels that stuff. Lester did. But he was also an important writer because he was a great writer. He could put words together. He could tell stories. He could make phrases. He could entertain you. He could throw you. He could write a record review that you’d read 10 times in a row just for the pure pleasure of it. He was a writer, you know. It’s like you say why was Faulkner important? Well, because he could do things with words that other people didn’t do. That’s ultimately why Faulkner was important. Because you had to read him. You couldn’t stay away. And when you read something by Faulkner that wasn’t good, you felt betrayed and disappointed. You felt something terrible had happened and you wondered what it was. Same thing with Lester.
Is there a second volume to be published?
No, not for me. Yeah, there’s tons more writing. There’s millions of words. That was my book—that’s the book I put together out of Lester’s writing which also included a lot of what Lester had planned out for a book of his own writing. He had a scheme and I didn’t follow it exactly. I probably followed it—I don’t remember really—50 percent maybe. But a lot of pieces Lester would have included were there but a lot of those pieces were included because he and I discussed it and I had browbeaten him into including some things. So I would love to see someone edit another book of his stuff. And anyone who wants to can call up John Morthland in Austin, Texas and see if he’ll let them do it. It’s up to John. It’s not up to me.
How much new music do you actually check out?
As much as I can. Sometimes I’m in a mood—I’ll just put on records all day long and I’ll listen to all of them or five minutes of them. And sometimes I’ll go through 20 or 30 records in a day. And sometimes I won’t listen to anything new for a week. It just depends. What I’m always looking for is something that is gonna make me stop and play it again, and then maybe play it all day long, and then maybe play it three days straight. And just live in something that I didn’t expect to make any difference to me at all. I’m looking for that surprise.
When you’re putting on stuff all day long, are you sitting there paying attention?
Are you putting it on, doing this, that and the other thing?
Yeah, yeah. I’m just putting it on and doing other things. I want something that will interrupt me.
Addicted to Noise, August 1997
– Part One
– Part Two
– Part Three