Ask Greil 2022 [update: Jan 9]

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– Previous editions of Ask Greil 2016 / 2017 / 2018 / 2019 / 2020 / 2021

At the risk of inquiry overkill, I’m curious about your take on Elvis’ version of “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” To me it’s a great combination of his Sun and RCA sounds, but I imagine some find it too slick.
     Also, returning to this century, was there a song or album in 2021 that will particularly linger with you, or even become an all-time favorite?
Stay well in the New Year.
– Derek Murphy

To me it doesn’t even exist compared to Big Joe Turner’s. I love the fact that the chorus included Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler. Same with E’s “Blue Suede Shoes.” Elvis almost always brought himself, something radical and unforced, to blues, but not always to pop.
     I always go blank when asked the second kind of question.

Are there noticeable differences in how your work is received in countries outside of America? For instance, in the UK or Paris? (I understand your books sell well in both places.)
– S. Quinn

There was a great divide between the US and France as to how Lipstick Traces was received. Here in 1989 the initial reviews, and there were a lot, were either dismissive, negative, apoplectically negative, or at best mildly tolerant, and except for Jerome McGann, of the University of Virginia, writing in the London Review of Books, no one engaged with the book in a way that told me something I didn’t know, which is what I want from a review. It was pretty much So What v. You Wouldn’t Want This, or This Guy, in Your House. The one real exception was at a reading in a bookstore in New York near the Whitney Museum where people I’d written about in the book but never met showed up, as if to take part in the story: Walter Karp, Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore. I’ll never forget that.
     In France, where the book didn’t appear until 1999, I’d expected the reaction, if there was one, to be Who needs this character from the US to tell us about our culture? Instead the reaction was Why did it take this person from America to tell us about our culture? The book became a touchstone. It seemed to introduce a lot of people to hidden selves. After that, whenever I’d go back to Paris, where I’d done research for the book in the early 1980s, I’d feel like I had a reason for being there. 

I share your general dislike for the “functional” songs of the American (and British) musical. Would you agree, though, that every little once in a while a song can transcend the confines of the musical’s book? “Summertime”, maybe, or “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”? (And the movie Sister Act turned that one on its head wonderfully by having Mary Magdalene sing Mary Wells’ “My Guy”).
     As far as Sondheim goes, I always thought he was lousy even by Broadway standards, with two very major exceptions: “Somewhere” and “Send in the Clowns”, which Tom Waits and Chet Baker & Van Morrison showed are undeniable as songs. Two great songs in a career isn’t bad: more than a lot of songwriters can claim, and as many as Randy Newman and Bono managed between them.
– steve o’neill

I don’t l know any great Bono songs, except “One,” and only by Johnny Cash (or in my dreams Bunny Wailer). I can think of a dozen Randy Newman songs without taking a breath.
     I liked “Summertime” until I saw the show. “Send in the Clowns” I never got. Maybe I’ll try again.

Longtime reader…and my eyebrows raised enough at your assessment that Sondheim’s “expository” songs are “unbearable” [see 12/8/21] that I felt it necessary to write in.
     “Send in the Clowns,” expository? Sweeney Todd’s schizoid epiphanic breakdown, expository? Even if Sondheim’s intellectualized approach to character psychology doesn’t strike a chord, to write him off as expository strikes me not only as profoundly glib, but shows a lack of understanding of his contributions to the form of the Broadway show, or even really, of what the function of a song is in the American musical (they’re meant to serves as scenes in and of themselves, moving the plot along, unlike the revues of the turn of the century).
     Ditto the questioner’s profoundly astute (but unanswered) observation that West Side Story is “some kind of masterpiece with a verve and wit equal to but distinct from the rock’n’roll music of the era.” Kael’s smug, hipper than thou denunciation of the original West Side Story scores some points, if only because the original ’61 film turned Bernstein’s lithe, Stravinsky-by-way-of-the-hydrogen jukebox “Prologue” into a lumbering “March of the Elephants” (listen here); when in reality, it’s every bit as Kushner says, “…these moments when people come up with something brand-new, and there’s some daring, radical energy trapped inside it. A lot of [Jean-Luc] Godard. Jaws. Close Encounters. Taxi Driver. Mean Streets. Badlands. I’m sorry—I’ll stop, but you know these things where somebody’s doing something that’s never been done before and you just can feel it, and it will always be there.”
     Anyway, the defense rests. Shame that the rest of the world rejected Kushner & Spielberg’s version that actually honors the pop Guernica Bernstein, et al. actually wrote, and not the stagey mess Pauline blew raspberries at.
– Nick

“The function of the song in the American musical”—to establish and organize a scene, to advance the narrative, to establish cues (if you like, tropes, themes, self-starting clichés)—is precisely what I don’t respond to in the American musical. Sondheim may have done it better than anyone (he didn’t), but I don’t care. As Mike Bloomfield once said, he wanted to be moved, he didn’t care if it was Pete Townshend smashing his guitar or a bunch of guys singing Papa oo mau mau a hundred times in a row, he wanted to be emotionally and intellectually and sensually moved from a place he knew to one he didn’t. I’m not moved by songs that function. I’m moved by songs that create worlds in and of themselves, for a moment depriving other worlds, including the regular, necessary real world, of their primacy, of their claim on you.
     As for Pauline, yes, she was hip, yes, she was cool. What that meant was that she was a single mother in Berkeley who did other people’s laundry so she could write about what she cared about for nothing in little magazines or subscription radio. That meant shouting in the dark. Everyone genuflected before West Side Story then. Pauline went to see it, probably eager to see the American musical, which she loved, realized, and instead saw the emperor’s new clothes. Her point—her argument—was that it was anything but “something that’s never been done before,” an argument that the new was the last thing one would find in West Side Story. (I mean, even I, as a teenager, was embarrassed by Officer Krupke and why do you kids make everything so rotten and the final death scenes.). Romeo and Juliet was not exactly some avant-garde one-act solo performance finally given its true voice: “something that’s never been done before” where everything that happens was set in stone before you were born? “Don’t you like anything?” people said to Pauline after that review. Sure, she said, but not necessarily what I’m supposed to.

Bob Dylan had released ten or eleven albums when Self Portrait appeared. (Do we count Greatest Hits Vol. 1?). Your review, which should be read in its entirety but rarely is, featured its famous lede, “What is this shit?” Fifty two years on we have a lot more context to consider it within, and it seems to me that an artist’s work should probably always be considered not just in a state of immediate reaction, but as a statement to be reflected upon as we grow, change, age and learn. Given that your quip is famous and hilarious, do you, as a critic, ever feel a twinge of regret about it?
– Bill Altreuter

No. It wasn’t meant to be snarky. It wasn’t meant to be a judgment—immediately following is praise for the opening track. I knew it was provocative, but to me it was the inevitable opening line—because in the great conversation that then greeted every new Dylan record—and given “Murder Most Foul,” still can—it was what everybody, and I mean everybody, was saying. I structured my piece as a conversation among many voices and that was how the conversation had to begin. But I wasn’t intending for it to be on my tombstone.

Greil, I’ve followed you since buying the first edition of Mystery Train at Moe’s Books when it came out, but this time you’ve completely flummoxed me. Do you actually think it would have been better if the Replacements had been known to their fans as “the Repeers” (the what now? How do you pronounce that? And what does it even mean?) than as “the ‘Mats” (which at least has a clear derivation: Replacements-> ‘Placements-> Placemats-> ‘Mats).
     More importantly, who cares? Why does that even come up in an evaluation of their music? I know several people who hate Steely Dan because of what their fans are like. I don’t expect that from my favorite critic.
– Edward Hutchinson

“The Reepers” was just an example of another in-groupy name people could have given the group. I admit that “The Mats”—yes, I get the progression, or declension, of the wording—is much more hip. But I bring all that up because I do think the hipster byword If-you-have-to-ask-you’ll never-know (weird phrase, isn’t it? Of course if you’re asking you don’t know—so if you want to appear hip, don’t ask, fake it, and live your life in ignorance) affected or at times even became the underpinning of the music. And I think that’s why I could admire so much about the songs they never made me really care.

Are there other books on the Beatles you would consider important or essential, even if they don’t quite measure up to [Devin] McKinney’s?
– Ben Merliss

There are a lot, and a lot I don’t know. Favorites:
In My Life: The Brian Epstein Story, Debbie Geller, edited by Anthony Wall. 2000. A stand-on-its-own book version of Wall’s great documentary The Brian Epstein Story (BBC/Arena).
Love Me Do–The Beatles Progress. 1964. Fly on the wall at the beginning of Beatlemania.
Lennon Remembers. Interview with Jann Wenner. 1971.
– And in some ways as instructive on the utter greyness of British culture before the emergence of the Beatles, landscapes that a year or two later would seem like another world: the 1963 John Schlesinger-Tom Courtenay-Julie Christie movie Billie Liar and Nell Dunn’s 1963 collection of reported short stories “Up the Junction.” Watch, read, and try to fit what’s there to a soundtrack of “Please Please Me” and “There’s a Place.”

Happy new year! Perhaps you are planning to write about this somewhere else, but I haven’t seen any mention about the latest Beatles sensation Get Back. For me the Let it Be album and movie were barely worth a mention in the longer view of the group’s career but the Peter Jackson film casts all of it (including the music) in such a different light I have to say I was stunned by how fresh and new it all sounded to me. Well, most of it. “I Me Mine” is still a travesty beyond words.
– Albert Wiley

I’ll likely be writing about it in the January number of my Real Life Rock Top 10 column. I loved looking at Paul and Ringo’s faces, but I have a lot of misgivings.

You filed “Passing under “Movies not worth seeing despite critical
headstands.” I opened Nella Larsen’s novel a few years back; found it Monty Python’s 16-ton weight, weighted with menace, fear, and erudition. How specifically did the screen fail the page?
– Andrew

By throwing out credulity by casting actresses who could never pass for white doing just that. If the point was to dramatize the absurdity and cruelty of the color line it would have been far better to cast dark skinned actresses and put the burden on the colonizing white gaze.

Re: Sly Stone (12/2/21)
You’re of course right that it’s ridiculous to believe in any artist self-unaware enough to say out loud how much they’ve taken to heart something that’s so fundamentally unspeakable. My personal low point with this kind of thing was probably in the early 2000s, when I paid retail for some abject indie-rock paste pie just because it had been produced on Sly’s mixing console from the ’70s. (For the curious/wary, it was Weird War. As Joe O’Brien might say, “Don’t fail to miss it if you can!”) My only excuse, really, is a lowered critical filter born of a certain heartsickness over the absence. The years of desultorily sifting the drift for my little glimpse of the Robert E. Lee, you know?
     And though in my initial question I used you and your recent writing as a convenient metric—partially because you’ve written so personally and so luminously about Sly in the past, and partially because I don’t expect there are that many people more attuned to the aforementioned echoes and whether or not they exist now–your excellent point about the uniquely complete circuit between the Family Stone and the audience in Summer Of Soul may be closer to what’s probably my real question: Can something operating on a level as deep and as rich as that—that level of art, that level of language—really have gone as far away as it seems? I don’t know if what Sly put forth is just that elusive, just that exhausted, or has just that thoroughly slipped through the teeth of the modern atavism. I just don’t know.
     Put another way, maybe: Looking around today, are you surprised by where Sly’s music has gone and where it hasn’t?
– James Cavicchia
(p.s. For your files: I recently noticed that in the YouTube description accompanying the official audio of Neil Young’s version of “All Along The Watchtower” from the Bob Dylan anniversary thing [see screenshot], your man G.E. Smith is credited with “Unknown.” I have a feeling you would not disagree.)

Buying a record because it had been recorded in an apartment in Oakland where Sly Stone lived for a week in 1963 is just the kind of thing I’d do too. Even if I had no intention of ever playing it.
     One place I think Sly’s music—or Sly himself—may have gone is into the Roots’ version of “Masters of War,” as played to the tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I know Questlove got the idea from a Leon Russell album. But Russell might have gotten the idea from looking at the cover of There’s a Riot Goin’ On, and in any case direct transmission isn’t the point. The gesture was Sly Stone, an attitude he put into the world and acted out.
     Thanks for the G.E. Smith credit. Wonderful, and had to be the work of someone sick of him telling everyone, no doubt including the credits person, what to do. Like a photograph that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, not long after Jann Wenner moved Rolling Stone from there to New York: “Caroline Kennedy and unknown man,” the unknown man being Jann Wenner, who was not.

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