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Here’s a little spirit of rock ‘n’ roll for you: https://twitter.com/Randy_Shannon/status/1455226224800841734
– Robert Fiore
Fingertips Pt. III!
I’ve been reading Percival Everett with absolute astonishment—one book after another, I can’t stop. You’ve written about Erasure and Telephone. Are there others you particularly like? Also, in your Bookforum interview with Everett that centered around Telephone you don’t mention that it was published in three different versions. Did you know that when you interviewed him? Have you read all three? Do you have to?
You have to read The Trees, his most recent, which centers around the Emmett Till lynching—a comedy about lynching. I’ve been collecting material for a piece on it since last summer, when I read the few books of his I previously hadn’t. Illness and the vastness of the project derailed me. But you must read Glyph and then leap in all directions from there.
I hadn’t read all three Telephones when Percival and I talked. I have now. You don’t need to read them all. But if you can find them in a store it’s only the last few pages we’re talking about.
have you read Bob Stanley’s new book, The Birth Of POP? Lots of interesting stories in there.
I’ve looked at the Stanley book but the tone put me to sleep. On the other hand, I get tired very easily these days. Just climbed the stairs in my house for the second time. What interesting stories struck you?
When I recently opened a box that’s been packed away literally for decades, I found a copy of Fred Goodman’s 1997 book Mansion on the Hill. When I read it, I thought it was ironic that a book about how money wrecked rock & roll was almost all about money and hardly at all about rock & roll. Also, kind of fetishistic about Neil Young and pretty harsh on Springsteen and Landau. If you read it, any thoughts on its thesis?
– Derek Murphy
That book struck me as either willfully naive or blindly ignorant. The idea that rock ‘n’ roll was this angelic, pristine field of play for the pure of heart that was corrupted by greed is far less convincing than the paradox of cynical hustlers and thieves—DJs, producers, music publishers, agents, managers, band members, jukebox operators, on and on—creating a field of play that sparked and realized the creativity of countless people and allowed them to leave a mark on the consciousness of countless people all over the world. “Over the Mountain” may have hit on the radio through payola (I don’t know that it did; just a fantasy example) but it left the hearts of many people richer, even if they never saw a penny, Johnnie and Joe.
Rock and roll is rampant, even criminal, free market capitalism. To claim otherwise is to play Claude Raines in Casablanca: “I’m shocked! Shocked!”
Plus, Goldman’s making Bob Dylan the one figure who never compromised, sold out, did anything for money, who recited Allen Ginsberg’s “Mammon” under his breath, is both silly and reflects poorly on what Dylan, as a supremely ambitious person who wanted to be bigger than Elvis and who treasured Elvis’s versions of his songs over all others, actually accomplished and how. And who currently has a Martin Shkreli-like single copy re-recording of “Blowin’ in the Wind” up for auction with an estimate of $600,000-1,000,000. Would like to hear it myself. I doubt that whatever else it might be or represent, the actual music will have been ruined by capitalism. Except that, unless there’s a mole in Christie’s, I won’t get to hear it.
I was reading an old interview with Jonathan Lethem today, and I noticed a rave review of Stranded embedded in it. “I re-read half that book every time I pick it up, I lose whole days to it, I have to hide it from myself in my house, like porn.” I think that would make a nice blurb if Stranded is reissued again. The original interview has been removed from the web, but the Internet Archive has a copy. The quote above is about 2/3 of the way down the page.
– Chris Peters
Thank you. I never saw that. What great company to be in.
Hello Mr. Marcus—Thank you for doing this website—it’s incredible! I’m from Fargo, North Dakota and idolized Bobby Vee growing up. He was ten years older than me but I grew up in his neighborhood and know him well. My question is, is it true that Snuff Garrett was offered “Marie’s the Name of His Latest Flame” and “Little Sister” by Doc Pomus for Bobby Vee but Snuff turned him down? If Bobby Vee had recorded these songs rather than Elvis do you think they would have been hits and they could have changed the trajectory of Bobby’s career. Both are great songs.
Thank you, Mr. Marcus. I loved your book, Lipstick Traces. Best Wishes, Lee Swanson
– lee swanson
I only met Bob twice—once for a long talk with Bryan Hyland in the early ’70s, then much later, when he had Alzheimer’s but was still social. A lovely, thoughtful person who had to deal with the fact that time passed him by. There’s a wonderful recording of Bob Dylan performing “Suzie Baby” for him at a show at the St. Paul Saints ballpark, dedicating it to him as the most beautiful person he ever knew, “Bobby Vee is actually here tonight!” and he was.
I don’t know that story. “Marie” would seem to fit Vee’s commercial style very well, but “Little Sister,” if done anywhere near Elvis’s version, would have broken the mold as too much of a rocker. Maybe it was a take-’em-both-or-nothing deal.
Did you ever read Sean Macleod’s book on the history of girl groups in popular music? And whether or not you did, who do you think captured the essence of the girl group phases of popular music in writing?
– Ben Merliss
Haven’t seen the book. Captured the essence? Me, in a piece for the Washington Post that went through various versions until ending up as a chapter in Jim Miller’s 1976 The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. [Village Voice 1975 version.]
Serious question (well, maybe half-serious): With all the licensing of songs to be used to push “products for the modern home” as Neil Young sang, why hasn’t any enterprising yoga or wellness studio picked up Elvis’s “Yoga Is As Yoga Does”? I mean, look at this film clip: Jurgen Habermas and Advanced Capitalism almost demand it. Almost.
– Jeff Makos
I don’t do yoga, but it doesn’t seem the beat is right, just as “Yoga Is as Yoga Does” is not really a song. A 1956 New York Times review of an Elvis TV appearance described him as, not unexpectedly, a sausage: an empty case filled with dubious meat. Even if that were true and you had to watch it being made, having to watch a once world-changing artist be turned into well-trained chimpanzee with a nice voice is much worse. But given how many songs Elvis recorded, I’m sure soundtracks for all forms of yoga (hot yoga: “Burning Love,” for the rhythm) could be contrived. Surely someone’s working on it right now.
You once cited the late Kevin Courrier’s Randy Newman’s American Dreams, as the definitive work on Newman. Having liked the book myself, I have three questions in relation to this. 1. Do you think it holds up against more recent writings on Newman such as a book published a few years ago called Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong? 2. Did you ever read Courrier’s book on Frank Zappa as well? I know you’re less a fan of Zappa but I’m still curious. And if not, have you ever read anything by or about Zappa that met the Greilian standard? 3. Is there any book or article on John Lennon you would consider an equivalent to Courrier’s book on Newman?
– Ben Merliss
Kevin Courrier’s Randy Newman book is solid, expansive, and readable. There are better books to be written, not least by Randy himself. Haven’t read—didn’t know about—Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong or the Zappa book.
What I like about Frank Zappa out from under his cultivated cynicism: “America Drinks and Goes Home,” Cruising with Ruben and the Jets, the cover of Weasles Ripped My Flesh, and, as for writing, his own essay in the extremely well edited 1968 Life magazine issue on “The New Rock” (I was listening to everything they covered and learned a lot and I don’t mean facts). I think of his perfect ending all the time.
Coming back to immerse myself in Warren Zevon’s music after a period away is always a joy. Love that guy. But can I just ask: Both you and Howard Hampton have praised “Mohammed’s Radio” in the highest terms. Um, what is that song about? I don’t ask this out of any anti-Muslim sentiment. I just don’t think I understand it.
– Edward Hutchinson
It’s God’s radio: they play what they knows you want to hear, or what you need to hear. Named for Mohammed so as not to be obvious and a a little fearsome: after all, once the Islamic Revolution overthrew the Shah, one of the things it did was ban music—as someone said after the ban was relaxed and foreign music was permitted on a limited basis, “Three weeks and even the Afghans were sick of Creed.” Only Warren knows the playlist.
RE: Altamont, where’s the gun?, where’s Passaro’s knife? Is the fat naked guy alive/if not, what happened to him?
– Lee Shafer
There was no gun. Knife is framed with a commemorative plaque in the Hells Angels clubhouse. Naked fat guy died of infection after having his teeth knocked out in 1971.
Actually, I have no idea. Though I did see the naked fat guy in the cold darkness behind the stage dragging a blanket, with his mouth a mask of blood.
Have you ever heard Peter Bellamy’s version of the Bob Dylan song “Death is Not the End”? When Dylan himself performs his Come to Jesus catalog it sounds like doom, but Bellamy makes it sound like something the Carter Family might have sung, and that might have come over on the Mayflower. Eight months after this performance Bellamy committed suicide. If you’re impatient, the squeezebox intro goes on for about 40 seconds.
– Robert Fiore
The simplicity of the song—it’s Congregationalist but also almost a children’s song—reminds me more of the Shakers than anything else. I hate the chorus.
What is the oldest recorded performance you love? Is there anything that predates 1920s blues or folk music? Does what we might call “primitive” sound quality ever impede your enjoyment?
Bert williams, “Nobody,” recorded 1906. There are also recordings of the likes of school board meetings from the 1890s that are pretty hot.
Would you make something of the warm moment in Once We Were Brothers when Robbie describes showing “The Weight” to Bob, who—like everyone else—was grabbed by it and praised him for it, and Bob had the publishing rights to sell with the 600 “dylan” songs. #601 “The Weight.” I say love—not theft. peace.
– Bob Reutenauer
I say, a bridge too far.
Following up on Wally’s 6/7/22 message, I’d say that Yazoo’s “outsized influence” in regard to classic blues reissues was mostly a matter of being there first during the LP era. Today, my go-to reissue labels for U.S “roots music” are JSP, Proper, and Catfish, with Bear Country being the gold standard when I can afford its products. These companies are all based in Europe, where copyright protection expires considerably sooner than it does in the U.S. I’ll also note that, in the U.S., Smithsonian Folkways has done a fine job of keeping Moses Asch’s legacy alive and available.
– Bill Betts
All true, but what about Document Records? Very academic in formatting, the sound isn’t always the best you can find, but for atmosphere as well as knowledge (the first and second versions of Frank Hutchison’s ‘Worried Blues’) their completism is essential.
Thank you for receiving my comment on Mystery Train‘s Randy Newman chapter as lightheartedly as it was intended, and sharing some interesting background on its inclusion in the bargain.
I was being disingenuous, anyway—not about Newman, who leaves me cold, but about your chapter on him, which is swell. It didn’t change my mind about Newman’s music, but when I re-read MT I never skip it.
I’m sure you’re familiar with this: great writing celebrating an artist (book, movie, whatever) you don’t care for. Any particularly memorable instances? Maybe something that made you reassess your original judgement? Has a critic ever changed your mind?
– steve o’neill
Let’s put it this way. I’ve read a lot of paeans to and exegeses of Leonard Cohen. Some are impassioned, some are erudite (I can’t think of one that was memorable as writing). But all focus more on LC as saint, aesthetic and sexual adventurer, seeker of truth and wisdom, than on his music—where he performs as someone who has accumulated enough truth and wisdom to save the world, though unfortunately the world doesn’t deserve it. The songs in McCabe and Mrs. Miller are as good an example as one might need.
I can say that Lester Bangs, who, in 1969, reviewed the first It’s a Beautiful Day album in my first section as Rolling Stone‘s Records Editor, made me embarrassed that I let “White Bird” play on my car radio instead of immediately changing stations. If I remember correctly, his review ends, “In conclusion: I hate this album. I hate everything it stands for.” It was paired with his review of Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, which was historic.
Hi, Greil, get well soon. Enjoyed your recent insightful piece on Mailer (Sept. 2021) and your historical pieces on him (like on Miami and the Siege of Chicago in Rolling Stone). Wondering if you could comment on Mailer and music. I’m thinking specifically of his breathless few pages (in Miami) on “cherub-faced” Rob Tyner and the MC5 in Grant Park, esp. given The Reporter’s admission of a grasping, generational disorientation as someone raised on Hoagy Carmichael. However quizzical or profligate his take, doesn’t Norman come far closer to the mark (and to the moment) than does contemporary Lester Bangs in his pan of Kick Out the Jams a year later? More broadly, what’s your sense of Mailer’s take on the music of “the times of his times,” given how he often seems to prioritize sports and film culture instead in his socially/politically observational non-fiction. (Of course there is Kinshasa concert reportage in The Fight. And some “transgressive” interpretations of jazz heroes even earlier in The White Negro‘) Thanks.
– Craig Proctor
Nothing he said about music has stayed with me me other than his Bay of Pigs line about how you should never presume to invade another country without understanding is music, which has always struck me as a very self consciously hip piece of utter bullshit (D-Day: start by listening to Maurice Chevalier or Marlene Dietrich?). Not a person for whom music is any kind of frame of reference.
Your correspondent Johnny Savage recently mentioned [the movie] Elvis. I’ve never seen an Elvis movie, I’ve heard they’re all pretty bad. Is that true? Are any of them worth a look?
– Tony Wollock
I haven’t seen them all, but Kurt Russell is a cool actor and he digs in in John Carpenter’s very early (post death) 1979 TV movie Elvis. My favorite, while it includes made up racial themes that make Elvis a pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement, is the 1990 Elvis: The Miniseries, starring a definitely ok Michael St. Gerard but really starring shockingly right ’50s ambiance in everything from interior decor to cars to car radios to clothes. Even the leaves on the trees. Produced by Priscilla.
Hello Greil, it’s been a pleasure reading anything and everything you put into print and on this site. Sending good vibes and hope for a speedy recovery. I recently enjoyed The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in 10 Songs (despite the blatant deceit of the cover, there’s a lotta songs in that thing). I was wondering if there was another recording that was a close contender as a chapter focus? No need to dive too deep, I kinda like the potential for imagination of where you would go just by learning the song title and the experience of listening to it. I’m thinking about how I would write a chapter on the little world I hear within Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.” Besides the fact it’s got a rhythm I can’t ignore, growing up on a farm and working 12-hour days creates an interesting personal connection. Or maybe I’d write on “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” [Mwah!] by The Shangri-Las.
– John O from Toronto
When I had finished nine chapters the absurdity of the whole project hit me. While before that I had written in the tunnel of each song, now it was—how can you possibly choose, say, “Summertime Blues” over “Give Him a Great Big Kiss”? I would have bet on the New Pornographers’ “Letter from an Occupant.” But then I heard Amy Winehouse on the radio with “To Know Him Is To Love Him” and that was all she wrote.
Are there any singers that you’d like to cover a Dylan song or, for those who have passed away, to find an unreleased Dylan cover? For me, I think Elvis would have done a great version of I Threw it all Away and it would have been interesting to hear Sinatra sing Just like a Woman. For a good laugh, I’d love to hear Springsteen do a full throated cover of Tweeter and the Monkey Man.
– Andrew Hutter
Lana Del Ray, “Just Like a Woman.” Sleater-Kinney, “Holy Roman Kings.” Eminem, “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.” Bettye LaVette, “Desolation Row.” Kendrick Lamar, “All Along the Watchtower.” And… Little Richard, “Tombstone Blues.”
I appreciate your telling me you mean no disrespect to those who submit questions to you, Mr. Marcus [5/20], because I too mean you no disrespect in asking them even if my style of asking differs from what you are accustomed to. In light of that, I beg to differ from your dismissal of my last question as ridiculous since if you took note of the wording you would have seen that my last question wasn’t about The Belle Album but about Al Green himself. I had been wondering if your views on the man (please be kind enough to remember I said the man) had either expanded or changed since he had released The Belle Album and you had reviewed it, since that particular review was from years ago, and I wasn’t asking about the album itself.
Also, since you have stated you intend to be respectful to those who ask you legitimate questions, I feel comfortable enough here to give you a word of advice out of my respect to you. I am a relatively young man and I have yet to get to the depths of your writing and I have nonetheless greatly admired what I have read of yours so far. I am sure there are others besides myself who, when they ask you questions, are not trying to be redundant or irritate you, Mr. Marcus, but are simply not familiar with what you have in fact written on the subject. If I or anyone else asks you something that strikes you in this particular way, may I suggest that you tell them where they can find a previous writing of yours that can give a semblance of an answer?
On that note, I did have a similar question this time around. I had been wondering about your opinion of Prince in the years since his death and what writings on him you would consider definitive. If you have in fact already answered this question elsewhere, surely you can tell me where I can find it? (You don’t have to go through the trouble of showing me or others. As long as you tell us I’m sure we can find them on our own).
– Ben Merliss
I answer Asks as they come in. I react. I have fun. I tend toward hyperbole. I shoot from the hip. Sometimes I tell a story. Emails are the only writing I’ve been able to do since January and for the last five weeks everything has come from a hospital bed. So when I say something is ridiculous I mean that’s how it struck me—but it also may mean that we apply different values to incidents of discourse. What may seem useful to you might be my aversion to having been asked so many times to make lists and rankings.
But I have no excuses for misreading your question about Al Green as being about The Belle Album. Except that for me, even [compared to] Call Me, and what he does with [his] Hank Williams fade—it’s like his Astral Weeks. I hear his whole career though the screen of that album.
re: Prince: I did a joint interview on Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul the day after Prince died. I haven’t read anything that memorable or even particularly interesting, though I haven’t read any of the posthumous books. A forthcoming book edited by Daphne Brooks, drawn from a Yale conference on David Bowie and Prince in 2017, might be different.
Hey Greil, Why isn’t there an audio version of Old Weird America? There should be.
– Richard Soni
Publishers weren’t doing them so regularly in 1997. Mainly for prospective best sellers. I agree it would be fun. Especially with different readers, as Sarah Vowell has done.
Dear Greil: You write favorably about Neil Young’s “The Ocean.” That’s one of my favorite/most emotionally powerful NY songs. Another one is “Thrasher.” Question: As a longtime observer/critic of NY’s canon, are there other “obscure” (post-Harvest?) songs that are profound/meaningful/important?
– Dan Weiss
Or fun? Anything on Re-ac-tor but “Surfer Joe and Mo the Sleaze” is at the top of my chart.
I know this is a little late to the party, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen your opinions about Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul” (and if you have expressed them and I missed it, I apologize). But the song impresses me on many levels, and I’m curious to know your take on it. Many thanks!
– David W. (Chicago)
Sequential Los Angeles Review of Books Real Life Rock columns from the time of the 2020 release have continuing items on “Murder Most Foul.” No end to how people–video makers, sound collagists, writers—can play with that song.
[See RLR: April 2020, May 2020, June 2020]
Your answer about Randy Newman in Mystery Train made me wonder: why didn’t you do a chapter on Bob Dylan—who’s always jumping out from behind doors in your books even when they aren’t about him—or, for that matter, Chuck Berry?
My criteria was to write about people who hadn’t been written about that much or well. Plenty of great stuff had been written about BD, though not about Elvis. Robert Christgau had written definitively about Chuck Berry. And with Sly Stone, even given great Rolling Stone stories by Timothy Crouse and by Ben Fong-Torres, no one had written about the music in any way close to what I wanted to do.
Have you listened to Randy Newman’s “Putin” since the war in Ukraine started? I can’t stop listening to it: it’s no longer a funny song, to me it’s as dark as the darkest extreme death metal out there.
This juxtaposition explains why.
First, a Masha Gessen interview with Anand Giridharadas, 4/6:
AG: There are so many analyses in the media about what Putin wants as well as these debates about his rationality or irrationality. Is he going crazy? Is he paranoid?… What is your fundamental understanding of his motivation?
MG: I don’t think he’s particularly mysterious. I find all of this speculation really annoying because what is crazy but another term for somebody existing in coordinates that you can’t see?… Since his Munich speech in 2007, there has been a constant and open insistence on re-establishing Russia as a great power and a refusal to recognize what’s referred to as the world order. There is the constant glorification of what Russians call “the great patriotic war.” The repeated reminders to the world that Russia fought the Second World War and won it for the universe. That message is unambiguous. The message is that because Russia won the war, it has the right to at least share in world dominance.
Second, this lyric from Newman’s song:
Putin: “Who whipped Napoleon?”
The Putin Girls: “We did!”
Putin: “Who won World War II?”
Putin Girls: “The Americans!”
Putin: “That’s a good one ladies.
It’s our time to sit in the comfy chair.”
Putin Girls: “And you’re the man gonna get us there!”
After the doom-laden orchestration of the song’s beginning, and some funny stuff from the song’s narrator, the song completely shifts into Putin’s head for the rest of the song: “Let’s listen in, a great man is speaking.”
And everything he thinks is insane.
Newman’s Weill-based orchestrations, bordering on being from a drunken carnival, is ironic commentary on Putin’s thoughts. But post-Ukraine invasion, the carnival is sinister, the dance-hall is haunted by the death Putin had caused.
The five-note horn phrase Newman adds at the end, after “God damn, I’m the Putin man,” no longer sounds to me like a funny musical tag. It sounds like a five-note warning—Putin isn’t funny, he’s an insane barker at a carnival of death.
I mean, “Gimme Shelter” was written way before Altamont, but after Altamont, how can anyone hear the song and not think of Altamont.
For me, that’s “Putin” and Ukraine.
Thoughts? Thanks again for all your insightful writing.
— Jeff Makos
The first three minutes have an undertow, but all in all when it was released it struck me that the vaudeville routine at the end was just off, given who this person is and what he’s prepared to do, and that bled back to the first part. It feels the same now, but I’m glad you hear much more in the song than I do.
[See Greil’s original 2016 review of “Putin.”]
Hope you’re feeling better. I went on a binge recently and re-purchased three of your books which I’d lost over the years plus both volumes of RLR and 10 Songs. If there’s better content for the serious music person, I don’t know where it is. So, thank you for your work. Two questions. First, the Yazoo blues compilations had an outsized impact that (I believe) remains under-appreciated when chronicling rock. Why? Second, wondering if you read Trouble Boys and whether it changed your feelings about The ‘Mats. It changed mine, and I grew up in MPLS. Lastly, please keep sticking it to Lucinda and any other hype machine.
P.S. I saw Dylan in Dallas recently and it was effin’ fantastic. That formula works.
I can’t say much about Yazoo other than that you can find better sounding collections with more than sub-minimal when-where-how discographical information, and better programing/sequencing. The many collections were essential to my education, but they may have been superseded.
I haven’t read Trouble Boys. Glad to hear about BD.
Greil — I’m wondering if you’ve ever commented on Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” I don’t think it had much critical support at the time. I was 11 when it was a hit: it was one of my favourite songs from my favourite year then, and remains so today. I don’t think I’m alone in the deep impression it made on me: it’s been used memorably in episodes of both Mad Men and, more recently, Atlanta.
– Alan Vint
I’m kind of shocked that you had the concept of critical support in your head at the age of 11, not that the record needed it. It was a natural hit and made its own atmosphere. I liked listening to it, admired its craft, but it dried up for me very quickly, like “Live to Tell” and “Every Breath You Take,” which came on so strong, promising eternal wisdom and world domination and then became good songs you’d heard enough.
Regarding Robert Mitchell’s questions about the authenticity of various recordings attributed to Elvis, I was emailed a version of “Satisfied” by a friend several years ago that may or may not be the version he’s heard, but it not only didn’t quite sound like Elvis, it also didn’t sound like ’50s recording technology. Everything had the closely miked, glassy, spit-shine quality of ’80s records, along with a hyped-up room ambience that sounds artificial, probably digital. Sam Phillips’ slap-echo has been successfully “referenced” on plenty of records over the decades, but never really duplicated. Obviously I could say the same about Elvis’ singing. I’m still hopeful more of those lost acetates like “Fool, Fool, Fool” will keep turning up, though.
Now, here’s a question: have you heard the FTD releases of Elvis’ home recordings, and if so, what did you think? I really loved “Dark Moon”.
– Jim Cavender
Thanks for the detailed analysis. My ears (and knowledge) are not as sharp.
I swooned over Bonnie Guitar’s “Dark Moon” in 1957 and still think it’s a singular record, though maybe a little thin in the vocal. For the singing, Elvis doesn’t really grab it—but it’s his guitar playing that lifts it up, and past the original.
During lockdown I decided to catch up on books I was ashamed to have never read. I started with Moby-Dick. Needing annotations and commentary, I bought the Norton Critical Edition, edited by the prominent Melville scholar Hershel Parker. Scanning the table of contents, I was delighted to find you there. Your essay from A New Literary History of America kicks off “Moby-Dick in the Twenty-First Century.”
Do you feel a sense of honor or pride at being included? Not in the sense of prestige (“Big time Bill, big time!”)—as a literary critic you don’t need validation by Parker or Norton—but in having your literary criticism included by a leading Melville scholar in an edition of Moby-Dick that will take many students and general readers into a great American classic?
However, I was slightly irritated that in the introduction Parker referred to you as a “rock critic.” Gary Willis did the same thing in John Wayne’s America. (What did you think of that book by the way?) Why not “cultural critic,” “music critic, or just “critic”? “Rock critic” is a title to be proud of, but it belies the scope of your writing.
As for Moby-Dick itself, I’m grateful to have finally read it and was bowled over by Melville’s language, but I have nothing original to say. I also watched the first three movie adaptations. The first two star John Barrymore, who’d have been great in a more faithful production, but they’re risible travesties (like modern superhero films they feel the need to give Ahab an origin story!). John Huston’s version was often very fine but couldn’t overcome Gregory Peck’s inability to convey visionary madness (he comes off as a wicked Lincoln impersonator). If only Barrymore had been alive and middle-aged in 1956…
I didn’t know anything about this. I appreciate you letting me know.
I find use of my work without being informed of it far more bothersome than what anyone calls me. I don’t like the term rock critic because I don’t like the term rock. I’d call myself a critic, but music has always been central, or at the least an undercurrent (as in Under the Red White and Blue), in anything I’ve written, so rock critic is fair enough, even though its undercurrent, when used to ID me writing about something else, seems to mean that this chimpanzee can do two tricks! Wow!
I don’t recall if it was Pauline Kael or someone else who said, regarding the ultimate reasonable man Gregory Peck as Ahab in John Huston’s film, that Huston really should have played Ahab himself. Maybe, but no: Robert Ryan rose to the challenge in an Ahab-like role in Day of the Outlaw.
Hope you’re feeling better. I went on a binge recently and re-purchased three of your books which I’d lost over the years, plus both volumes of RLR and 10 Songs. If there’s better content for the serious music person, I don’t know where it is. So, thank you for your work.
Two questions. First, the Yazoo blues compilations had an outsized impact that (I believe) remains under-appreciated when chronicling rock. Why? Second, wondering if you read Trouble Boys and whether it changed your feelings about The ‘Mats. It changed mine, and I grew up in MPLS. Lastly, please keep sticking it to Lucinda and any other hype machine.
P.S. I saw Dylan in Dallas recently and it was effin’ fantastic. That formula works.
I can’t say much about Yazoo other than that you can find better sounding collections with more than sub-minimal when-where-how discographical information, and better programing/sequencing. The many collections were essential to my education but they may have been superseded.
I haven’t read Trouble Boys. Glad to hear about BD.
First off, hope you’re feeling better.
You recently touched on Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming Elvis [3/3/22]. There’s now a second trailer out, which made me even more curious about the film.
Luhrmann’s casting of Austin Butler in the title role was intriguing, and his slavish eye for detail in all three decades (’50s-’60s-’70s) striking. The panoramic sweep of Elvis seems fully evident.
But to learn he consulted critic—and non-Elvis fan—Nelson George to look into Presley’s connection to the black communities in Tupelo and Memphis was a surprise. One childhood friend George found, Sam Bell, was interviewed by the director.
It’s becoming clear the framework for this movie, and the choice seems extremely appropriate given the horrific times we’re living through right now in the United States.
– Johnny Savage
I haven’t a clue. Negative reviews of the premiere were unpleasantly convincing. BL course gets lots of bad reviews, but the profiles (Maureen Dowd in the NYT was especially wide ranging) and interviews have been so celebratory it might be he result of snobbery. As in, who is this sugarplum Aussie yob to mess with the likes of Shakespeare and Gatsby? At least now he’s working on someone at his own level of vulgarity.
But we’ll see
Addendum: It all makes me nostalgic in advance for the 1990 TV series Elvis with Michael St. Gerard and produced by Priscilla which got horrible reviews and I really liked.
Not sure if you’re able to comment on bootleg recordings, but I asked you what your favorite album of all time was after a poetry reading in Seattle, I believe in the 1990s. You said it was Astral Weeks but that you could never have written anything as good as Lester Bangs. I mention this because I wonder if you have heard this acoustic live version of “Madame George?” The info states 1973. The entire show is worthy, but the true treasure comes in at 28:14 when this song begins and becomes something else by improvisation by the end of the song.
– Michael Smith
To me it’s a pretty lackluster “Madame George,” as if it’s the big hit everybody came for—something to get over with. He seems much more interested in the unfinished half-song that follows/jumps off of “MG”—maybe we can call it “Approximately Hank Williams”? Does that appear elsewhere in any form?
The recent letter about uncorrected errors reminded me of something in Mystery Train that may not be “flat-out unambiguously idiot,” but has bothered me since the first edition. You say that The Band’s song “Get Up Jake” is about “a man so lazy the whole town turns out to watch him get out of bed.” Isn’t it more plausible, since the ferry-working narrator is hectoring Jake to get up because “we got work to do,” that the people are lined up along the shore because without Jake pulling his weight, the ferry isn’t running on time?
On a less guyishly trivial note, you have occasionally recounted hearing amazing, un-trackable, never-to-be-repeated things on the radio late at night. A personal favorite you may appreciate: In the mid-70s I was living in Berkeley. I have a distinct memory of hearing a wee-hours DJ (probably on KPFA because he was so clearly stoned I’m not sure even KSAN would have allowed it) claiming that Van Morrison was the greatest live performer he’d ever seen, and the reason was this: he’d seen Them perform when they visited the US, and at one point in the concert, Van jumped from the stage onto the top of an amplifier without even bending his knees.
I’ve never been able to decide what’s funniest: A) the idea of Van Morrison actually doing this (R. Crumb’s Boingy Baxter comes to mind); B) the idea that this poor fool actually thought he saw Van Morrison doing this; or C) using this as the criterion for judging the greatest live performer you’ve ever seen. Any thoughts?
I don’t understand the physics of jumping onto an object several feet high without bending legs. Unless Van was into teleporting or levitation. But it sounds more like a circus act. I like your idea about “Get Up Jake.” My line wasnt to be taken literally though I still like that idea too. I could always picture it.
Who are some of your favourite drummers?
I don’t make lists here. But, you know, Keith Moon.
What are your favorite books and writings on American soul music (including from the ’70s to the present)?
– Ben Merliss
I can’t use this column for lists. But you can start with A Woman Like Me by Bettye LaVette and David Ritz.
Regarding “Roll Over Beethoven”: while Chuck singing about catching the rolling arthritis seems fairly clear, George Harrison did the line in 1963 as “I think I caught it off a writer sitting down by the rhythm reviews.” Doubtless learned it from the record, as heard on his crappy 1962 record player.
– Daniel F McIlroy
That must be it. I think in my mind at least part of the Beatles’ version replaced the original. It’s one of their most convincing ’50s covers, not to say Berry’s most furious. And I do treasure George’s words.
Have you, in the last five years, written anything about Twin Peaks: The Return/Series 3? I’m rewatching it at the moment and seeing Kubrick, Hitchcock, Elvis, Dylan, Bowie, Trump and so much more. I’d love to read or hear anything you’ve said about it.
– Lucas Hare
I wrote about the series in my Real Life Rock Top 10 column, as collected in More Real Life Rock: The Wilderness Years, 2014-2021.
August 8, 2017, Village Voice
7. Twin Peaks: The Return, Episode 2 (Showtime) – “James is still cool,” says Mädchen Amick’s Shelly as James Marshall’s James Hurley walks into the Bang Bang Bar, smiling as if he’s mildly surprised to find himself in the place. Why is it so affecting to see him? He was always the most decent person in town—is that why it’s a shock he’s still alive? Or, as Robert Fiore writes in, “Have you ever noticed that the Twin Peaks theme is basically ‘Telstar’ played really slowly?” Or that the device of almost every episode ending with an interesting indie band on the Bang Bang stage, which gives the show the only grounding it has—last Sunday with Marshall’s silencing version of David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti’s “Just You” in a disturbing little-girl voice—is a tribute to the way Ricky Nelson and his band closed out so many episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet?
October 13, 2017, Village Voice
8. Twin Peaks: The Return, Episode 18 (Showtime, September 3) – In this series, people live parallel lives: two, three, or more, sometimes simultaneously, that can begin before they were born and continue after they die. These other lives are forms of energy, generated by the last flash of thought before death, by the fantasies we entertain for ourselves or that others harbor about us, and by certain cultural eidolons—a song, perhaps, like the Platters’ “My Prayer,” or an image of a place that may not have ever existed, but which seems right, a place where parallel lives go to find out where the next turn might be, like an old gas station.
On such a stage, with a story taken up twenty-five years after it was presumed to be over, a key element is how people from then look now: how they’ve changed, how they’ve aged, or how they haven’t. In every case it’s displacing and confusing, alluring and factual. Thephenomenon undermines both the surface reality of the story and the subterranean weirdness of the weird effects: it’s its own special effect.
Peggy Lipton’s diner owner and Miguel Ferrer’s FBI agent haven’t changed at all. As Audrey Horne, Sherilyn Fenn’s middle-aged features are unbalanced as if by some inner rot. Dana Ashbrook’s Bobby Briggs has white hair and a who-me expression but he’s still the same useless jerk he was before, even if now he’s a cop for a force that seems to have forgotten he’s a murderer. Kyle MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper, Mädchen Amick’s Shelly, and half a dozen more are older in a nice, orderly, acceptable way. There is even Catherine E. Coulson’s Log Lady—Coulson was dying of cancer when her scenes were shot, and that’s exactly what is happening to the Log Lady, with the faint wisps of hair on her head like a memory of it.* But it’s not surprising that the revelation is Sheryl Lee’s Laura Palmer. In the second-to-last episode, in a cut-in from the indelible 1992 film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, we see Lee at twenty-five, playing a high-school senior, her eyes opening in anguish and terror with the depths of an actress from the silent era. In the final episode, Cooper, awakened from his life as a zombie Nevada insurance agent, freed from his murderer doppelgänger, once more from the FBI, tracks Laura Palmer down in Odessa, Texas. She opens the door to her house. Sheryl Lee is fifty; she looks every day of it and maybe ten years’ more. Now Laura Palmer’s face is squared and puffy, dented, remade, you can see in an instant, by a life of heroin, street prostitution, beatings by the men she’s lived with—you can imagine anything you want, including that the dead man in a chair in her living room, shot through the forehead, blood on the wall behind his head, whom Cooper seems to see and forget in the same look, is his fantasy, or hers.
She doesn’t recognize the name Laura Palmer, but she freezes when Cooper says the names of her mother and father. She leaves with him for Twin Peaks because she has nothing better to do. Her whole being radiates jeopardy and soul: you are now watching a real person being taken to a place that isn’t real. Which will win, her reality principle or the principle that there is no fixed reality that governs the show? The scream that ends the story is not an answer. It’s merely an acknowledgment that the pieces can’t be made to fit. And it too is from the silents.
* Ferrer too died before the series aired. Peggy Lipton died in 2019.
Hi Greil, Thank you for taking the time to answer all these questions! I enjoy reading your responses very much. I was wondering if you could explain why The Eagles are considered by many to be one of the worst rock bands. I’m really interested in learning more about this. Thanks! 🙂
– Zachary Champoux
The Eagles were always a good band. They had an attitude that so perfectly embodied white male privilege—whether or not those words came to mind, you could feel it—that their songs could make you queasy if not enraged. “Take it Easy” is a stupid song from its chords to its words and also a natural hit. “Life in the Fast Lane” is thrilling, funny, Chandleresque, and “Lyin’ Eyes” is better.
It’s interesting, though, that the best Eagles music is on Don Henley solo albums. It’s as if the band was holding him in. I never get tired of “Boys of Summer.”
I have always enjoyed the work of Chet Flippo, especially his Nashville Skyline columns. Any thoughts on his work and/or personal stories of interacting with Chet?
– James Proctor
Chet and I only rarely crossed paths. His Hank Williams biography is nowhere near the most deeply researched or comprehensive but by far my favorite—a long poem by someone who’d traveled some of the same roads.
Re: “Roll Over Beethoven” [4/4/22]—while I can’t prove it (and Chuck is no longer around to ask), I’m pretty certain he’s singing “I caught the rollin’ ar-thah-ritis sittin’ down at a rhythm revue.” It’s an odd line either way, but in my head at least he was talking about the frustration of having to sit (rather than dance, or jump) through a hot show…
– Charles Olver
According to all sources you’re right. But I heard it that way in 1956 and ever after. I guess it was a self-made prophecy I got to live out.
I think not naming the factual mistakes you’ve made in your work [5/7/22], however embarrassing, is a mistake in itself: you’re only going to have readers scouring your books to find them, and who knows what others they might turn up?
Anyway, even without a copy at hand I’m pretty sure I know what the “flat-out unambiguously idiot error” that survived every edition of Mystery Train is: the inclusion of an entire chapter on Randy Newman, right?
– steve o’neill
Ho Ho Ho. I stand behind that. But you’re not altogether wrong. All the other chapters were always going to be there, no book without them. RN not written last—that was the Band—but devised because book was coming out too short.
How have your views on Al Green changed or remained the same in the decades since you reviewed The Belle Album?
– Ben Merliss
Sorry, maybe I’m in a bad mood, I try never to disrespect people who ask me anything, but what a ridiculous question. That record will remain with me as an exemplar of what a person and sound can do to describe the world even if by some Supreme Court ruling I’m never permitted to play it again.
Given the recent mention of “Cowgirl in the Sand,” I have a few questions/thoughts. 1) The very underrated “I’ve Been Waiting For You,” with its two glorious guitar solos (I imagine the second one still going after the fadeout!), seems like a rough draft for “Cowgirl…” — what do you think? 2) Is there a tastier live version of “Cowgirl…” than the one on Live at the Fillmore East 1970? The first time I heard that (on a bootleg before official release)—whoah! 3) Neil Young’s use of repetition in his guitar solos adds power and intensity much as Van (the Man) Morrison’s verbal repetition does—do you see the similarity as well?
– Jason H
I don’t hear the rest, but the idea that NY translated VM’s singing into his guitar and VM translated NY’s guitar into his voice is fabulous. Now I’m going to go listen to the Dead Man soundtrack.
Thank you for your writing, a career span where treasure lives. I consistently return to your Beatles entry in the RS Illustrated History of Rock and Roll—it’s the best account of the sparkle and substance they brought to the world.
Friends in publishing tell me that in 2022, proofreading is a bygone priority, so why am I pissed about Lenny Kaye’s Lightning Striking: Ten Transformative Moments in Rock and Roll? Have you read it?
Any merit Lightning Striking may have is overwhelmed by the shameful amount of uncorrected mistakes—and I haven’t seen a reviewer note that.
A few examples (of many): “Raunchy” attributed to Link Wray and not Bill Justis. That The Beatles’ Second Album includes “Twist and Shout” and it’s a cover of the Contours. David Crosby’s Byrds-era “Triad,” eventually cut by the Airplane, is called “Trinity” (insert joke here). Plus the usual rock book misspellings: Jerry “Lieber,” Thee “Midnighters,” Stevie Ray “Vaughn.” I’ve counted over 20 of these goofs so far (it’s difficult to want to finish reading it). Hey, they got Johnnie Ray’s first name right.
Has this kind of hackwork ever crippled your finished pieces? I wouldn’t guess so, since Mystery Train (which I’ve bought three times) credits five of the most trusted ones in your circle as having read every page of the manuscript.
But if you’ve got a near-horror story you managed to sidestep—my small scale work couldn’t escape a Howlin’ Wolf obit for my college newspaper, where the first five paragraphs vanished—I’d like to hear it.
– J.J. Syrja
I’ve only seen an advance uncorrected version of Lenny’s book so I don’t know what errors (which can be introduced by copy editors, leading the author to miss them) survived into the real book. Lenny’s knowledge is vast and specific so it’s hard for me to believe he would say “Lieber”—this is someone who used to memorize labels on 45s.
I’ve made terrible factual mistakes that made it into print. I’m not going to shame myself by naming them. (I will excavate the humiliating fact that when Knopf published Stranded they misspelled my name on the spine). Not long ago a first time reader of Mystery Train found a flat-out unambiguously idiot error that had made it through every edition. In a seminar on Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, where there’s great detail on how during the Harlem Renaissance white publishers would sabotage the work and credibility of black writers by inserting errors in their books, a student pointed out just such an error—so bad it robbed the character speaking of any authority—and wondered if this might have been just such a thing. Mumbo Jumbo has been through many editions—I checked the first and most recent and the error was in both. I assumed this was Ishmael’s joke—to sow that even 50 years after the period he was describing the same racist literary crimes were going on. I showed it to Ishmael. He was horrified. It had gotten past him for more than 40 years.
But your question is more timely than you might imagine. Today I received copies of the new German edition of Lipstick Traces. Pages 417-448 we’re not there. Not out of order. Not printed upside down. Not there.
Is it misguided to see sundry notions and tacks eventually worked out in Lipstick Traces and even Mystery Train as first tried on in Double Feature: Movies & Politics? Any chance of a reprint?
I don’t see themes in Double Feature—the second book I took part in , more Mike Goodwin’s project than mine—carrying over. It was a time of real ferment in Bay Area radical politics and in the friendship between Mike and Joan Goodwin and my wife and myself over several years. We saw each other all the time. The book is about movies and politics. It starts with a japery on Karl Marx by Mike and Joan, the opening cartoon of the book-as-movie; I found a picture of Karl with a twinkle in his eye that we used. I was not involved in the long conversation between Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gordin, Mike, Joan aka Naomi Wise, and Tom Luddy, though I still see Tom and J.P. Mike and I co wrote “The Marin County Shootout,” one of us standing behind the other at the typewriter, word for word. I’m not sure how it reads today, but composing it was a deeply serious charge that was, at the time, completely satisfying.
Mike and Joan died over the last few years. We were long out of touch. We thought it was a nice little book, but no one else noticed it at all. I’d say there’s zero chance of a reprint,
A quick question from a longtime fan: Is The Dick Cavett Show that you describe in the prologue of Mystery Train— featuring Erich Segal, Rita Moreno, John Simon, and Little Richard—available in its entirety? The version I found on YouTube (linked below) doesn’t quite match your description—that is, Little Richard’s “whole history of art” diatribe isn’t included. Is this because it has been edited out in the YouTube version, or because, in the pre-internet era in which you wrote Mystery Train, you might have mistakenly conflated Little Richard’s outburst from some other source? Either way, do you know where I could find a full version of Little Richard’s “the whole history of art” speech?
– alan edelstein
[Search “Cavett” here for responses to this]
Here are two questions I have about the Beatles:
1. You seem to favor the US version of Rubber Soul over the UK one. How in your opinion does the absence of such songs as “Drive My Car” and “Nowhere Man” improve it?
–By their absence.
2. Which version of Revolver (UK or US) has stood the test of time better in your view and why?
– Ben Merliss
–As I said. But who am I to judge against time?
In one sense, British rock ‘n’ roll dominance in the 1960s is far overstated; Dylan, Motown, Hendrix, soul music, Creedence, to name just a few, put the US on the charts and in the game.
But I’ve always wondered why the Beatles and especially the blues-based Stones happened in England rather than here.
If the question bears examination at all, any thoughts?
– Derek Murphy
There are books written about this question. Hundreds. It’s explored like the fables of the quest for the Grail.
My favorite version is in The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash.
What are your all time favorite television shows?
– Ben Merliss
Sopranos, Twilight Zone, Untouchables, Seinfeld, Law and Order, Law and Order Criminal Intent, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Call My Agent!
What is your opinion of Bob Stanley’s book, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop?
– Hugh Grissett
Have you read any of Leslie Fiedler’s work beyond Love and Death in the American Novel? If so, what did you think of them?
– Chris Peters
I met Leslie Fiedler once, near the end of his life. He looked a lot like Norman Mailer, and he had the same crinkly Jewish blue eyes, though his were all sparkle.
I’ve read all of his books, and reread some more than once, especially An End to Innocence, his first, a 1955 collection of essays on politics and literature gong back to the 1940s. I’ve taught it as a centerpiece for classes in criticism, less for the famous argument about interracial homosexual themes in American 19th novel—“Come Back to the Raft Again, Huck Honey” (1948)—than the devastating dismantling of the letters the Rosenbergs wrote to each other in prison and to Alger Hiss. To me it was thrilling to see someone take words so seriously, to open up sentences and reveal their untruth not only in terms of what was said but far more powerfully how it was said: how the lies were said. Test: listen to Bob Dylan’s “Julius and Ethel” and read Fiedler’s “Afterthoughts on the Rosenbergs.” Which sounds like truth and which sounds like bullshit?
Another favorite book: Being Busted (1969), about his arrest in Buffalo—for all his renown and controversy, starting in Missoula, Montana, Fiedler never taught at a prestige university—for letting people smoke pot in his house. That part isn’t that interesting—but that the book really is an account of his whole political education, going back to his left wing childhood in Newark, through the Army, his refusal of left-wing shibboleths, his navigation of the politics of education in Montana, and an odd technique, or whatever you care to call it, of not mentioning a single person he associated with in any manner by name. It took me until right now to understand this: standing before the long-disbanded but in his mind ever-present House Committee on Un-American Activities, he wasn’t going to name names.
Fiedler started on the territory mapped by D. H. Lawrence’s 1923 Studies in Classic American Literature and made a life of it.
Re: Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs. Going out on a limb in taking “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Blind Willie McTell” as a given, what of the other five?
– Tomislav Brlek
The book will be out in the fall. I’m not going to be talking about it for a while.
In 1971, as a graduate student at the University of Kansas, I entered a book collecting contest sponsored by the university library. My collection was books about rock & roll, of which there were far fewer then than there are now. It included the complete monographic works of Greil Marcus, which at that point was only Rock and Roll Will Stand. I won third prize, ten dollars, and I was glad to have it.
I wanted to ask you about another book from that bronze medal collection, as well as two more recent titles, all relating to Elvis Presley. Hans Langbroek’s Hillbilly Cat (1970) was a 58-page self-published paperback by a Dutch author. Langbroek outed Col. Tom Parker as an illegal immigrant years before Albert Goldman’s much more widely read account. He also claimed that Elvis recorded a bunch of songs in 1955 that Sun never released, a statement which was met with ridicule at the time (to the extent that it was noticed at all). Now we know that Langbroek was right about that too, as several of those songs, including the Million Dollar Quartet session, have trickled out over the years. We also know that Elvis recorded some songs, not at Sun Records, but at radio stations in the south while on tour.
In 2004, Richard Boussiron published Elvis: A Musical Inventory 1939-1955, which affirmed most of Langbroek’s claims and added the most complete set list we’re likely to get of Elvis’s public performances prior to 1956. If you believe this account, Elvis, from a very early age, thought of himself not just as a kid who loved music, but as a practicing musician. He made his radio debut a few weeks after his ninth birthday. A Tupelo hardware store, just down the street from Elvis’ house, sponsored a weekend talent show broadcast live from the county courthouse, and Elvis made 14 documented appearances on this show between 1944-1948 (when his family moved to Memphis). He wasn’t exactly a regular, but he would have been familiar to the show’s audience by the end of his run.
Finally, reading Ernst Jorgensen’s Elvis Presley: A Life in Music, I’m struck by how baffled RCA was by the kid they just signed. Once they got past the “Heartbreak Hotel” sessions, they were scrambling for material. “I Ain’t Studying You, Baby,” “Naughty Mama,” “Young Hearts,” and “Titles Will Tell,” would have sunk his career as effectively in 1956 as the Fun In Acapulco soundtrack did eight years later. Luckily someone in his camp noticed Otis Blackwell and the Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller tandem.
So at long last, here’s a question. Years ago, I downloaded a bootleg copy of what was later released as A Boy From Tupelo, 1953-55. When the legal box set came out, I bought it. My (completely one-sided) agreement with musicians is that if I buy or download a bootleg set, and they issue that same material officially later on, I’ll buy the official release. But some of the songs from the set I downloaded were missing—“Satisfied,” “Uncle Pen” (two versions), “Give Me More, More, More Of Your Kisses,” and “Always Late (With Your Kisses).” At best, these songs are basically demos, not up to the quality of the official Sun sides. On the other hand, if they’re real, it’s Elvis Presley in 1955. Even failed experiments and roads not taken would be interesting.
If they were real. These songs have been added to and pulled from YouTube multiple times over the past couple of years. Most of them are available on YouTube as I submit this question. I’d love to believe that they were legit, but I’m inclined to be suspicious. Do you have an opinion as to their authenticity?
– Robert Mitchell
Well—glad you found Rock & Roll Will Stand, but it’s not a monograph—I was the editor.
I don’t remember who passed The Hillbilly Cat on to me, but it was a revelation in many ways (Col. Parker the least of it) and a real engine of Mystery Train (the book) along with an article/collage in Oz magazine around 1970 called “America’s Real Uncle Sam,” which introduced me to the unlikely Memphis bohemia gathered around the Sun studio. I haven’t read the other books. But even though Elvis’s original one-copy vanity records for Sun turned up in the most flea-market manner, I’m dubious about the other records, if they are records—Sun demos (did they make any?), radio shows, home tapes; $Million Quartet wouldn’t count—and not because I haven’t heard the recordings you describe. There were professional Elvis impersonators around in nightclubs in the ’50s—and perhaps would be ’50s Orions. People have been citing an Elvis “Uncle Pen” for more than fifty years, along with other covers, in some cases of songs that apparently don’t exist. Other people I’m sure know more—you should write to Ernst Jogenson—after all, he made The Boy from Tupelo in the first place. Of course I’d love to hear what you’re talking about.
During lockdown I “discovered” the 1975 Basement Tapes release. To clarify, I was 15 when it was released but never bought it, then punk happened (I’m in the UK) and I just never got around to it. Two years of listening and I now love this CD and subsequently bought the Bootleg Series Raw version and read your book Invisible Republic, Chapter 8 of which, “The Old Weird America,” blew my mind and I am now deep down the Harry Smith rabbit hole.
So what’s my question? Simply, have you had a similar experience of hearing music that was contemporary to your age many years after release and thought wow, what have I been missing all my life? I hope this question makes sense, thanks for your great writing.
– Tom Watson
I never heard Elvis’s Sun recordings from “That’s Alright” to “Mystery Train” in their time, except as unreleased numbers were used as filler on RCA LPs. Didn’t know they existed. It wasn’t until I heard “Mystery Train” late at night on KMPX-FM in San Francisco in 1967 that I found out and that music came rushing in and set off a second tumble into Elvis fandom and a lifelong obsession was released. By 1971 our older daughter was running around the house at two shouting “Play the train song! Play the train song again!”
When you mentioned here recently something about wanting or not wanting to see the Stones do “Brown Sugar” live, it sounded like you haven’t seen them do it. I’m wondering less about that, though, than just about seeing the Stones in general after 1972 (or even in 1972). Not having been there myself, my sense is that as a live act they turned sort of cheesy after the great tour of ’69, though I’ve seen footage that suggests they had their moments of greatness also. Can you recollect any great Stones shows you’ve seen post-72? I figure asking the same question about the group during the ’60s is self-evident
– J. Michael
1972 was tense, in San Francisco at Winterland, after Altamont, when the Hell’s Angels said if the band ever came back they wouldn’t leave alive. Ticket prices slashed (I remember $5 after $12.50 in 1969). I also remember waiting in line and someone discovering he’d bought a counterfeit. Dark ambience, modest, humble, effective. 1975 at the Cow Palace was fun. 1978 in Oakland was kind of embarrassing—the highlight was a between-set Elmore James recording. 1994 was the Voodoo Lounge tour at the Oakland Coliseum, but for me it was the Never Again tour. That might have been the one sponsored by American Express with bullying TV commercials with some besotted woman in the crowd holding up her ticket (as I remember or want to imagine) as if it were a Birkin bag and after soberly discussing business screaming “I LOVE YOU MICK.”
I’m not going to take the time to look it up but if I ever saw them do “Brown Sugar” I don’t remember it. That’s why I was so surprised to see at least one website list is as their second-most performed song.
Best I ever heard them play: Altamont
Most fun at a show: San Francisco, Cow Palace, 1965, Brian Jones in a yellow striped suit I’ve had far out of my mind.
Bryan Ferry has just released a new single, “Love Letters,” a song once performed by Ketty Lester, who also performed “River of Salt,” of which I consider Ferry’s version a minor work of genius. This new one sounded pretty blah to me. Any thoughts?
Also, do you think you will ever get around to writing a book on Bryan Ferry?
– terryI like the way Chris Spedding plays just like Phil Manzarana would have, but it’s not technique—the roll of emotions can’t be copied. Give it time.
I’d love to write that book. But pieces of it are everywhere, like here. The real book would just be “Love Me Madly Again.” I don’t know why it’s the end of the world, but it is.
First and foremost, I’m very sorry you are having health problems. Hope you recover quickly.
Speaking of Ross Macdonald, are you familiar with what Donald E. Westlake wrote about his late books?
Somewhere in the midpoint of his career, Macdonald began to write a novel in which the mystery was centered on a person’s parentage and the revelation of a twenty- or thirty-year-old secret was at the core of the solution to the puzzle.
Macdonald wrote that book over and over again for about twenty years. It didn’t matter what anybody said. We could plead and beg, we could threaten, we could weep, we could hold our breath and stamp our feet on the floor, he didn’t care—he just went on writing that goddam book. You talk about hardboiled!
(from his collection of essays, The Getaway Car)
Amusing, and not wrong, but I always saw the late books as variations on a theme.
And speaking of Dylan as an artist, are you familiar with his role in Dennis Hopper’s Catchfire (AKA Backtrack)?
– MarkMacdonald wrote the same book over and over, starting with The Galton Case, and even if that was the best of the series, the stream never ran dry. As he said himself, the book he was really writing over and over was The Great Gatsby.
Dylan in Backtrack: Fantasy of playing the Dennis Hopper role in Rebel Without a Cause? I had dinner with Hopper and several other people once. He had a movie star glow, was charming and told great stories, and walked out before the rest of us ponied up.
After Ross Macdonald, which authors and books within the realm of crime fiction speak/spoke to you on the most personal level?
– Ben Merliss
Raymond Chandler. He’s such a great stylist, in love with making sentences that are both elegant and vernacular, that as you read you can follow choices that are both literary and moral and also an exploration of the sardonic and even nihilism.
I read something a while back that was talking about the generational and subsequent cultural differences between Bill Cosby and Chris Rock, as manifested in their pacing and cadences. The writer was more nuanced about this than I’ll make them sound, but their basic point was that Cosby’s background in the jazz scene explains in part why his jokes felt more exploratory, more luxuriating, and maybe more confidently entitled; where, as a product of hip-hop, Rock’s jokes were more restless, more staccato, and had more gimme-gimme.
My question here is not the most obvious, dopey one—“So, what kind of music do you think you write like?” (My own personal milieu is deep enough in that kind of corn that I will have to forever excruciate at the memory of sitting in an Applebee’s as a late teen and telling someone else’s girlfriend that she was “like cool jazz.” Never Again.)—but I am curious about the extent to which you’re conscious of rhythm and sonics when you’re writing.
I’d characterize your sentences as very wavy, very information-rich, generally fearless of length, and immaculately constructed. Are you aware of trying to make them sound and move a certain way, or is it just what happens in the course of making all their many pieces fit? Is this something you still think about outwardly, or has it all internalized?
– James Cavicchia
I am sensitive to rhythm within sentences and from one to another. I recognize musical undertones in things I write, and value them, and might even try to amplify them, but I don’t strive for them. I’m not aware of any musical style, form, or genre I might be drawing on, but my grail is doo-wop.
I’d always assumed that it was the director James Whale who was responsible for the balcony shot in Show Boat I pointed out to you [3/3/22], but now that you mention it, the one other person I’m aware of who might have had the inclination and the influence to include that shot: Oscar Hammerstein II, the author of the book and lyrics of the show. As for how the Black audience came to be in that balcony, they had paid to see a show, and part of the price of admission was a ration of shit. They would likely have been better prepared for it than a Black moviegoer in 1939 who went to see Babes in Arms, unaware that the show that Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland were going to put on was a minstrel show. Something contemporary audiences might find hard to understand was that the White audience in 1930s and ’40s associated the minstrel show with innocence (as opposed to the jaded sophistication of their own day).
– Robert L Fiore
Or the choreographer. Or the set designer. It’s impossible but I like to imagine a bunch of extras herded up to the balcony and told, “Just watch” and they couldn’t. The first time I’ve understood the cinematic idea of negative space.
You listed Led Zeppelin IV in your Stranded discography, and have frequently cited Robert Plant’s solo work, but re: Zeppelin, is that where their music begins and ends for you? Is there anything else in their catalog you return to now?
Also, as someone situated at Rolling Stone during the group’s early years, what do you make of the critical animus towards the band at that time? Was it a sentiment you shared at the start? Was the animus and/or defensiveness towards the group as widespread among American rock critics as has frequently been suggested? I’ve never gotten this at all, but not having been there, maybe there’s a context I’m missing.
– Alan McGowan
When Led Zeppelin first arrived on these shores many heard it as a version of its name: a hot air balloon made of lead. It seemed like a mad screech of bombast in pursuit of a very quick and very big buck, and also a kind of joke: remember the cover of that first album, where it all blows up. And there was a resentment of the band as it first announced itself, as the New Yardbirds: the constrained flair and explosive nuance of “Mr. You’re a Better Man Than I” and “I’m a Man” for this?
At Rolling Stone, where I was either as a writer or editor at the time, I recall Tony Glover angrily condemning the band as “ripping off every note they ever played” and reviewer John Mendelsohn writing a straight piece eviscerating their first album. When that became a huge hit and II looked to become even bigger, I assigned it to John (or he asked for it) and he responded with a satirical review that began, “Hey, I take it all back!” and that even while calling, if I remember exactly, Jimmy Page “unquestionably the heaviest white blues guitarist between 5’ 4” and 5’ 6”” (John was, for a writer of such a judgment, unreasonably tall), remains a classic of rock criticism. I didn’t care, except for the quality of writing the music elicited.
When IV came along, Lester Bangs, in Creem, while semi-celebrating the likes of “Whole Lotta Love” (which really is a racist travesty), dismissed it as “just zoso.” That album made me a fan. “Stairway to Heaven” was an inexhaustible epic—the 174 guitar parts that make up the solo, which really is the song, have never been touched, except maybe in “Rock and Roll,” which is hilarious, moving, thrilling and purist-precise: “been a long time since ‘The Book of Love.’” In fact, there’s an interesting strain of folkie purism through the album, from the above-it-all refusal to release a single to the realization of all dreams of UK folk rock with Robert Plant’s unearthly duet with Sandy Denny on “Battle of Evermore.” And after that, really, it was back to overkill, if a more sort of delicate overkill, to the point that, when the band released its concert film in theaters, they tried to do it at live concert prices.
I met Page and Plant once on a French TV show where we were all guests around the same table. Page didn’t look up and Plant was friendly. On camera Plant spoke about old records with a fan’s enthusiasm and a super-fan’s erudition; Page was sullen. It’s still a highpoint of my writer’s life.
Hope you are well soon. Just following up viz. Meltzer. I’m wondering if you could comment on the posturing, performative aspect of so many ‘rock critics’ from the classic era—Tosches pace your complicated “full of shit” assessment, Bangs, Meltzer et al as against their authentic analytical merits, or as against, say, the comparative sincerity of, say, Guralnick or Paul Nelson. Does it not seem that many were trying to be rock n roll-style entertainers if not “first” than at least as a central priority? The writing serving two purposes, as per Hunter S. Thompson. (Of course, Guralnick is richly entertaining, too, without any of that.) Thanks.
– Craig Proctor
There can be a performative aspect to writing. Certainly when you read Lester Bangs you can see him acting out what he’s writing. The same can be true in some of Pauline Kael’s earlier polemics. And when writers speak—give a talk, do a reading, take part in a symposium—then the performative dimension can really fly. It’s so much fun.
The back and forth is interesting. Peter Laughner was a musician before he was a critic. I think the opposite with David Thomas. For all the critics who went into music—John Mendelsohn (Christopher Milk), Chrissie Hynde, Lester, Meltzer, many more—the two whose critical sensibility seems to have most affected their music are Mark Knopfler and especially Neil Tennant. But I also go back to “Roll Over Beethoven” and the guy at the “rhythm reviews”—which say to me that Chuck Berry was, deep down, a frustrated rock critic.
I’ve been re-reading Richard Hofsteader’s The American Political Tradition (which you’ve mentioned favorably on this site) and I was wondering what American history books have been important to you? Anything as foundational as some of your criticism favorites like American Humor, Love and Death in the American Novel, or I Lost it at the Movies? (Hope you’re feeling better, by the way.)
Perry Miller on the Puritans, especially Jonathan Edwards. Edmund Wilson,Patriotic Gore. But that’s still all college stuff. Discovered since then—so different, but to me all historians on the same quest. John Irving, The Cider House Rules. Philip Roth, American Pastoral. Jackson Pollock, “Alchemy.” Bob Dylan,”Desolation Row.” Percival Everett,Erasure. Ishmael Reed,Mumbo Jumbo. Donald Hall, The One Day. Francis Coppola, The Godfather. Kara Walker, My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska and Land of Hope and Dreams. They have the same ambition, the same scope, the same sense of someone stepping back from his or her finished work and saying, “Now, what is this?” I don’t mean any of these are the greatest anything. They’re reference points and I find myself drawn back to them again and again. As wells of metaphors they never go dry.
Whenever I leaf through Real Life Rock, I’m always amused by your entries on Lucinda Williams’ and Steve Earle’s latest not-so-greatest releases. I was wondering if you could provide some background on how you first encountered their music and how your opinions may have changed over time. I get the impression that you were wowed by Earle’s Copperhead Road but felt that his subsequent albums were disappointing (pretty much how I feel), but I don’t know if you ever cared for any of Williams’ early work (I’ve always personally had trouble seeing in her what others do, so I can definitely relate to your antipathy to her work).
– James L.
I first heard of Steve Earle at the time so much noise was being made over his Guitar Town album. As with the debut, or near records from a lot of other Austin-based people, I found it…marketable. Concept. Not that alive musically. When another writer told me that a subsequent album and how its presumably positive reception were part of Earle’s recovery—i.e., pan it and he might relapse?—and I put none of this on Earle—I became more dubious. Despite a song here or there over the years I’ve found his New Woody Guthrie project breast-beating and unconvincing—the exact opposite of the understated and menacing roles he’s played on film. I’d go see a movie if he’s in it.
I’ve never found Lucinda Williams, who could have had her moments as a decent Nashville songwriter for other people, more than a glittery collection of mush-mouthed self-conscious mannerisms meant to establish her moral superiority over the rest of humanity. I’ve seen her do it in the flesh (a shamelessly self congratulatory keynote speech at SxSW years ago), haven’t heard exceptions (in her countless tribute album contributions, as attacks on the legitimacy of the dead, far worse) and that’s why I can’t stand her.
In regard to the invasion of Ukraine I came to think of the famous Brechtian lament, Thoughts of a Russian Soldier on Returning Home (better known as “Back In The USSR”).
I watched both the later McCartney-versions (one in Kiev, one on the Red Square) on YT. There were tens of thousands clapping (among them a slightly bemused Putin).
Do I delude myself into thinking, that the power of music will eventually prevail or is/was it just another case of keeping us ´kids´ entertained?
Or to put my question another way: Will the Beatles really re-appear every time we need them? Can lives (or at least souls) be saved by Rock´n´Roll?
In 1969, in a Village Voice piece called ‘Rock ‘n’ Revolution’ (lead: “A riddle for you. Why is rock like the revolution? Because they’re both groovy”), Robert Christgau wrote something that has echoed for me since: “in the worst of times, music is a promise that times were meant to be better.” I like the moral, religious, or providential dimension of what he’s saying: not a neutral “should be” but something so much stronger.
I don’t know what music might be giving shelter, solace, comfort, or balm to people in Ukraine or those having left it or anyone else right now (I’d bet “Gimmie Shelter” is blasting out of more than one half-destroyed house and being sung under a lot of breaths). But yes, in bad times the Beatles will always reform, raise their own dead. They will play and people will hear “Eight Days a Week” and say, “That’s what we need” to both the words and the sound: “That’s real life.” People will hear and sing “Here, There and Everywhere” and say, “I know what that means, I’ve felt just like that, I’m fighting”—I’m running, I’m hiding, I’m not speaking until this is over–“for the chance to feel that again.” All of that is more than solace and balm. So music can be where we experience, where we almost perform, freedom when elsewhere the very use can seem like a trick history has performed on itself. Can that save a soul? For a moment.
What did you think of Blonde on Blonde when it was released? I don’t mean the music itself (though I’d surely welcome any fresh thoughts you have on that) but—I’m unsure what word to use—the concept? Format? When I was coming up, double albums were commonplace and side-long tracks weren’t that unusual, but I’m wondering just how radical it all seemed in 1966. Also—any speculation about the record’s title?
That was a time of intense oneupmanship between the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, and anyone else who could crowd into the conversation. Everything came into play: album covers, sound effects, odd instruments, mixing and production innovations. Blonde on Blonde first arrived as an object, this double-fold sweep of a person who seemed to stand over the landscape with a dubious squint. And of course the music, which seemed at once unsurpassably bold, inventive, free swinging, cool. The mysteries and jabs and depths of “Memphis Blues Again” might have hit first, then maybe the down pull of “Visions of Johanna,” then everybody fell in love with “Just Like a Woman,” and who were all those crazy people on that first track?
As it happened, the album came out just before I got married. My wife and I went to Swinging London and had the time of our lives. We saw the Yardbirds in a tiny place called the Ram Jam Club where Jeff Beck mangled his guitar after a Swedish girl begged him for it. We roamed Carnaby Street. But carrying 10 copies of the UK edition of Aftermath we cut our trip short to go back home and listen to Blonde on Blonde.
Your description of Neil Young’s guitar style makes me think of Ted Nugent. It’s easy enough to loathe that man, but more difficult to penetrate what makes him seem less than honest in his presentation of himself as a musician. Unlike Young, Nugent’s playing while technically skilled seems stuck in his initial rise to solo prominence with “Stranglehold.” With his seeming inability or unwillingness to capture the kind of fleeting moments that seem to form a core of your own approach to writing, I am curious to know your take on Nugent in your own words. And I’m thinking of his musical presentation rather than his about his basic political stance expressions. Being a troll doesn’t make one clever. It only makes them a troll.
– Ben Merliss
There’s a quest in Neil Young’s playing, which comes out as invention, curiosity, humor, and a trust that, by playing his guitar, it will always tell him something he doesn’t know. It’s freedom sought and in moments freedom realized. If that was ever there in Ted Nugent it was lifetimes ago.
I’m nineteen years younger than you (born in 1964—I have no memory of the moon landing but I remember Nixon resigning…barely). I was listening to the Linda Ronstadt album Mad Love the other night and it transported me back to 1980 in a way a speech by President Carter or a YouTube video of Nightline never could. Similarly, I remember seeing E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial in the summer of 1982 at Tysons Corner Mall in McLean, VA and the theater broke into applause when the credits read “directed by Steven Spielberg.” Now, Mad Love is not great Ronstadt (although three Elvis Costello and a Neil Young are pretty good covers) and E.T. is far from Spielberg’s best film but they have a power over me I can’t fully comprehend. Do you have a similar experience with music/films/television from the early 1960s?
– Steve Canson
I think what you’re asking is, in the dimension of art, in terms of situating one’s self in the world, how is a frame of reference built, or received, or imposed? What you’re describing, it seems, in terms of work that has a pull on you you can’t really account for (or justify?), is feeling caught or trapped in certain moments that felt revelatory but, it might seem, are in fact shallow or manipulative.
But one’s opening to the prospect of revelation, as experience or idea or the permanent entanglement of both, can come from anywhere. In a phrase I don’t at all agree with but that frames the question, Pauline Kael put it as “Trash has given us an appetite for art.” As Leiber and Stoller and Peggy Lee and the Weimar Republic had it, “Is that all there is?,” and real life, which is not always self-evident, answers no. So where have you gone since ET? Is that still life at its highest and finest for you? I doubt it. It may be that nothing will ever quite hit you as that did at the time. But I’d imagine that even if that’s so, ET allowed you to see and hear as miraculous all sorts of things that otherwise might not have struck you at all.
For me at about the same age, 1960, my frame of reference, rock ‘n’ roll and TV crime shows, had fallen apart. The music that had made me feel like a full citizen in a country of surprises seemed to have disappeared. Oh, songs were still there, oddities that turned your head like whiplash, the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley,” the Miracles’ “Shop Around,” still emerged out of seemingly nowhere, we’re still there, but there was no sense that they were part of a larger world that included you too. It all got so bland I started listening to the local Frank Sinatra station, less for the music than for the nighttime DJ’s long, whispery sermons on the evil that was overtaking the courtyard, which was… beige. A few movies that I saw then have been the underpinning of my idea, or struggle to form one, of America ever since: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1958, though I saw it alone on TV in LA a few years later and was scared to death) and The Manchurian Candidate, which I saw in Palo Alto the day it opened in 1962 (why the rush? I have no idea—maybe Sinatra), have seen dozens of times since, and though I know every word and inflection in it I can never watch without shock and awe, as if it’s not a finished thing but a story without an end. But they are also works that open the door to so many more, simply by saying, this is possible (as art, as life) even if it’s unbelievable.
So don’t worry. Everyone has their own little temple of wonders. They don’t need apologies or elaborations. Or to be seen as rooms that lock from the inside.
What are your favorite films noir?
– Ben Merliss
In a Lonely Place and Out of the Past.
I apologize for sending multiple communiques over such a short period of time—but re-reading your chapters on Elvis in Mystery Train motivated me to find that famous clip of him triumphing over “Unchained Melody” in 1977.
Somehow, I’d never noticed the obvious—the audio goes out of sync toward the end. His vocals don’t match his lip movements, and that final piano chord is heard after he raises his hands. Have his admirers been hoodwinked for all these years? This wasn’t overdubbed, was it? Or is it possible he was pulling a Milli Vanilli and lip-synching to a track?
– David Whiteis (Chicago)
This is a remix/reedit. To me it looks like an asynchronization in a real performance: a glitch brought in when some one decides to improve on a tape. The only real fly in the ointment is that the audio is too clear to believe, on earth or in heaven. But let’s just thank YouTube for that.
What are your favorite works by Ross Macdonald?
– Ben Merliss
The very early Blue City is as good a returning veteran story—after fighting fascism in Europe guy comes back to find home town a swamp of corruption—as the Barbara Stanwyck film The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. Brutal and absolutely cynical. Then The Moving Target introducing Lew Archer and the California landscape—geographic, moral, racial. But it’s when the psychoanalytic dimension begins to dominate that we enter a decisive chapter in American literature. Book after book is richer, more ambitious, and the writing cleans itself up, with bad similes ceasing to clutter the page, and one stunning tale follows another—The Zebra-Striped Hearse, The Goodbye Look, The Far Side of the Dollar, Black Money. But the greatest books in this series are The Chill, the most tangled web of all, and The Galton Case, which both most deeply reflects Macdonald’s own life and most fully captures his lifelong ambition: to rewrite The Great Gatsby, without anyone suspecting that’s what he was doing.
Any thoughts on Richard Meltzer’s Autumn Rhythm? Close to 20 years later, various (candid? poignant?) vignettes therefrom are suddenly starting to spring to mind and even resonate, though I have not re-read it since it first appeared.
– Craig Proctor
It’s like reading a book by someone telling you how great their marriage is, or a memoir by someone who thinks everything they’ve ever done is right. A pile of banalities with a fence of ironies around it.
I’m stuck and immobile with back pain. Would you like to hear about it? I don’t want to hear about it.
Why no Real Life Rock column for February?
Health problems. May take a while to sort out.
I recently went to the Dylan art exhibit in Miami, and was very impressed in how accomplished a painter he has become. The choice of subjects and how he depicts them also gave me added insight into how he sees the world. Here is a link to photos I took. There is no question here—just something I wanted to share with someone who cares about all things Dylan.
— Eric Simon
I’ve liked some of Dylan’s landscapes and remember them, but what glow they achieved seems off, even fake, when I see them in my mind’s eye now.
In your Real Life Rock entry on the “Brown Sugar” question: The official Rolling Stones would appear to be, “A Rolling Stones show is about making people happy, and we understand that ‘Brown Sugar’ is going to make some people in the crowd unhappy, so we won’t play it. We have plenty of other songs that will make people happy, including one of that very name.” The Keith Richards position, however, all unbeknownst to him, reveals the true nature of the song: Of course it’s not about the horrors of slavery, it’s about the pleasures of slave-owning. Keith of course is a savage, and as Mick has said in so many words, if you play me you play with fire.
The actual catechism on “Brown Sugar”, as answered by me, would be this: Q: Is the song racist? A: Could easily be taken that way. Q: Would listening to “Brown Sugar” inspire racist feelings in you personally? A: I would like to think not. Q: Could a person of racist inclination find “Brown Sugar” to be a validation of his views and their social acceptability? A: I wouldn’t doubt it. But the really key question that has not been posed I believe is this: Supposing you were going to see the Rolling Stones live at a time when a Rolling Stones show was worth seeing, rather than an event where the event itself is nothing but a souvenir of the event, would you want to hear them play “Brown Sugar”? My own answer would be, if what other people thought of me were not a concern, I think I would.
The Kara Walker clip you linked to brings to my mind a scene from the 1936 version of Show Boat, in a blackface number called “Gallivantin’ Around.” It comes at around the 1:35 mark and can’t be much more than 36 frames. The performers onstage are gallivanting as promised, and the white audience is shown from a static camera, boisterous and full of fun. Then it cuts to a shot from behind the colored section in the balcony. In the most ominous slow pan imaginable, that part of the audience are sitting stock still, heads bent, shoulders slumped, hands resting on their legs, as Faulkner put it in the appendix to The Sound and the Fury, enduring. I was going to say regarding the clip as whole that if you couldn’t stand to watch Bill Robinson doing his stairstep routine you’re not going to want to see this, but maybe it would be worth taking a peek to ask yourself if the routine were being camped up expressly to set up that shot. Now, the 1936 Show Boat is a movie with a lot of eye-rolling, to the extent that Warner Brothers has been reluctant to issue it on DVD, and those scenes were directed by James Whale just as much as that one I direct you to, but it is one of the more striking moments in Hollywood movies. In those days civil rights statements in pictures were sent like coded messages to the French Resistance.
– Bob FioreI love the rhythms in “Brown Sugar” and always have. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the band play it and would never want to, less for what they might put into it than for anticipatory disgust over how the crowd might react.
The Show Boat story is priceless. Talk about coding: I’d love to know by who and how that sequence was devised. You can see the reaction of the black audience members in the clip you included, even from behind up in the segregated balcony: the hunched shoulders, the downcast heads, as they’re all being forced to watch as punishment for being born black. But what’s Boris Johnson doing up there playing stand-up bass?
I think I might have found a precursors to Ma Rainey’s “Stack O’ Lee Blues,” if we can forgive the phonetic misspelling of the man’s name (no doubt the result of a producer or label exec not understanding the singer’s pronunciation). This is “Skeeg-A-Lee Blues,” credited to Ford & Ford (a Black Vaudeville act) from 1924, with Lovie Austin at the piano:By the way, re-reading your discussion of artists like the Chi-Lites, sensitive-guy-with-a-tortured-soul Al Green (who reportedly resisted Willie Mitchell’s attempts to get him to soften his vocal delivery with the objection, “That ain’t gonna sound like no man singing!”), and others who summoned a new, self-critical Black response to the Stagger Lee myth in the wake of Sly’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, I might also include the Whispers, with “Olivia (Lost and Turned Out).” That one came along a little later in the game in 1978; still, it definitely provides a riposte to Stack’s heroic macho mythology by focusing on one of his victims.
– David Whiteis (Chicago)
Thanks for this. I wish I could make out the words better–is he saying, “If I catch you with a woman, I’ll tear your kingdom down”?—but short of something I’m missing, it feels like a pure floater. The Stag-o-lee signifier in the air, attaching itself to anything: in this case not a barroom shooting but a sex ballad that musically is sort of a rewrite of “St. Louis Blues.”
Hi Greil – just taking a moment to thank you for Mystery Train, which captured my imagination in 1975 when I was about 18, and awakened a pride in America that I hadn’t known was in me. (These days I still think, and hope, this country has some things to be proud of.) And in subsequent editions, I was surprised and glad to see that someone else recognized and captured what Randy Newman did to his in-concert performances of “Wedding in Cherokee County.” I saw him in Boston in ’77 or ’78, and was hoping he would do that song, completely unprepared that he would present it as a joke to an audience that too readily cackled along. Maybe he had even meant it that way when he recorded it, but I didn’t hear that in his singing, or in his piano and the other instruments that joined in the song. I just heard, and still hear, almost a prayer and a man coming to terms with things he cannot change, and ultimately one of the most beautiful songs ever composed: “Lord, help me if you will.”
Thanks for your time. All the best.
– Ralph Montilio
Thank you for that. It’s such a terrible murder of own’s own song, either to protect himself from his own compassion or give the crowd someone they can feel superior to. Luckily that has not turned out to be a stance he’s pursued anywhere else. I think.
I just saw the trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming Elvis Presley biopic, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether you’ve seen it yet. Have you seen it yet? And if you have, do you think it looks good? Do you think that Austin Butler was the right choice to play Elvis? Do you think that Luhrmann can really capture the sheer mythologicalness (for lack of a better word) of Elvis (I mean, capture all the things you wrote about him in Mystery Train) on screen? I would truly love to hear what you think about Luhrmann’s movie.
– Elizabeth Hann
I’d like to know what I think of Baz Luhrmann’s movie too—but that means seeing the movie. The trailer is enormously enticing, but that’s what trailers are supposed to be—they tell you nothing about pacing, story, acting, nerve. It’s all on the surface, and the bits from the trailer don’t, in their instant flashes, promise anything more than the 1990 tv series Elvis, which had many great moments and a not embarrassing lead from Michael St. Gerard, or for that matter the 2017 Sun Records, which came to life every time Margaret Anne as Marion Keisker started to take off her clothes, and died whenever she didn’t. The real question, which Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby answered so outrageously, isn’t how vivid a filmmaker can make the story—it’s already vivid. It’s part of history, you don’t have to make the Second World War (which Bob Dylan seems to credit for having “cleared the path for Presley to sing”) more vivid. It’s whether it can tell us things we don’t know, because we never dared imagine them.
What is your opinion on the writings of Clinton Heylin and especially those on Bob Dylan?
– Ben Merliss
Clinton is an extraordinarily generous person. He holds nothing close to his vest. When he hears something the world ought to hear, he does his best to make sure the world can.
Except for Please Kill Me, I’m not fond of oral biographies, from Edie to whatever the one about Mailer is called—all these rolling points of view (or lack of one)—so that leaves me out of many of Clinton’s books, though I learned an enormous amount, and felt entirely left behind by history, in the sections on Cleveland in From the Velvets to the Voidoids. My favorite Clinton book is Dylan’s Daemon Lover, and his investigation into “The House Carpenter” where you never know what’s coming around the next corner.
In this intensely worrisome if not horrifying political moment, do you think engagement with your adversaries (enemies, if you prefer) is anything other than a non-starter? In my experience, trying to reason with Trumpists is futile and just makes my head explode (leaving me more demoralized as a result), so I haven’t even tried to have a civil exchange about anything other than non-political pleasantries with certain family members and friends in at least three years.
In my personal experience, which is unfortunately getting more broad as time goes on, avoiding people, being minimally polite, or having your head explode are the basic alternatives. There are vaccine refusers in every family. Arguments, facts, or reasoning are worthless against people who say they are just exercising their personal choice or freedom. It’s insulting to such people to try to talk them out of their beliefs and insulting to yourself to feel as if you have to try.
The country is splitting. In California a militia-led movement recalled a Republican supervisor who was pro-vaccine. Another California town has seceded from the US. I recently heard from a friend in Montana that an area in the state has been declared the American Redoubt and has its own realtors—in other words, vetting who might live there.
During the 1918 flu there was strict legal enforcement of mask mandates and other public health restrictions. But there was also more community and a deep sense, at least in the north, that we were one country. Political discourse had not been replaced by death threats.
Greil – thanks for being one of my favorite writers. Reading your work has helped shape the way I think, even/especially when I disagree with you. You’ve exposed me so many artists who are now many of my favorites. Now, for a perhaps too broad question. You’ve written thrillingly a number of times about art allowing a person who would normally never be heard to speak and be listened to—it’s something I find running through a lot of your work. You also write about how exciting it is for people to say exactly what they think (in The Manchurian Candidate, the secretary Frank Sinatra is helping saying that he will give a simple minded answer since he has been asked a simple question). I’ve not sure if my question is answerable, but how do we help people develop in such a way that what they say is good and not awful? I think that delight that I find in artists being heard and reshaping the way I understand the world around me and that moment in Manchurian Candidate is the same delight that people found in President Trump just spewing forth his id or others saying the racist thought they’ve just been holding onto. How do we form societies that make it easier for people to speak in a way that is caring (I don’t really mean loving here, more that the care) versus voicing hate?
Again, too much probably/basically an unanswerable question/something humans have maybe always struggled with, but I’m a teacher and know you’ve taught some—curious to hear your thought on the matter if you have any. Thanks for the consideration and especially for your writing.
P.S. I’d love if you answered my question because my cousin wrote to you a while back and you answered his question and we were both really excited about that. He introduced me to Mystery Train and your writing. We caught the New Pornographers both nites in DC a couple months back in part because you wrote about them two Real Life Rock Top Tens in a row almost 20 years ago—just amazing shows that we largely have you to thank for catching. If you post this, hi Matt.
– John Donnelly
Thank you for all your kind words.
My immediate reaction: the Secretary in The Manchurian Candidate is the anti-Trump—in this case, the anti-John Eislen. He’s asked why the Navy is cutting its budget. He says, “Since you’ve asked a simple-minded question, I’ll give you an equally simple-minded answer. Because no foreign navy currently threatens the United States”—dubious to say the least in 1962, but it’s a movie—“thus the cut in budget.” (One of the good things about having watched the movie at least a hundred times since then and now is that I’ve memorized the script—not that I could get up and recite it, but if you ask me about this or that scene, I know what they say.)Trump is the one asking the simple-minded questions and then throwing back fake answers. “Why did Muslims in New York cheer when they saw the towers come down? Because they hate America.” As both Chris Stapleton and Pete Buttigieg said well before Trump even won the nomination, there were a lot of people in the country who wanted to burn the country down and they understood that Trump was their man. Even to the point of people at his rallies wearing “I’D RATHER BE RUSSIAN THAN A DEMOCRAT” buttons—they knew what was what.
To the other question. There’s no way to lead/make—do anything to ensure that—a person says what’s good and not awful. People can lose their minds in all kinds of ways, sometimes overnight. Some people have been working their whole lives to find a way to give voice to the evil they carry and seek. Free speech is all risk.
All I’ve ever done as a teacher—well, a real teacher, since 2000, not when I was a grad student teaching an honors seminar at Berkeley and had no idea, or only backwards ideas, of what to do, and that was fifty years ago—is try to find ways to get students to find their own voices and trust them and use them, sometimes creating spaces within lecture classes or seminars where they would be sparked to do that: in discussion, in papers, but also in performances, self-made films or music brought in for everyone to see or hear. The results were unforgettable, for the students and for me. Where have they gone? What stayed with them? I’ve heard from people over the years and what stayed with them was the sense that to find out what you want to say and how to say it is a lifelong struggle, and one worth making.
The only people I’ve ever known of who have dedicated their lives to making our society a caring, loving place are people who tell you to put your trust in Jesus. Outside of certain micro-societes—some black churches from post-slavery to the end of the 1960s, perhaps—I’m not sure this ever worked. It certainly never worked on a pan-societal level. WWJD? Kill that person over there? Or kill you? I’ll take We Want Jelly Donuts. Which some might take as hate speech.
I don’t mean to be flippant. But there’s no answer. And teaching by example isn’t an answer either. At Berkeley, in the mid ’60s, there was a political theory professor whose lectures were like a Napoleonic army rolling across a battlefield. Fifteen minutes of soft-spoken intensity and then it was over. Every week. He had a long, rabbi’s face. He walked as if he were burdened—with the weight of the world. He had a sense of humor, and a sense of tragedy. That surrounded him. At one point he found that teaching was therapy but not effective therapy, so he began working at the university as a psycho-therapist. People spoke of him as a saint—I mean, talked about him as a saint, as in, what does it mean to become a saint, do you decide, are you born with it, how do you live with the responsibility of your gift? But one thing we were all sure of: we didn’t want to be saints. We didn’t necessarily want to be good, whatever that meant. We wanted intellectual curiosity to never be exhausted, for whatever that might be worth, and we all knew people older than we were for whom it had turned out to be nothing: in the words of one professional graduate student who never finished, “I’ve solved the thought-action problem. I don’t act.”
People are who they are. You can’t change them. You can open doors, and give them a sense of what they don’t know without shaming them or talking down to them. When people ask you questions in class, often you can tell that they are hoping your answer will be theirs. That’s the time to say: I have some ideas—but what do you think?
In the years since his death how do feel your views on Michael Jackson have changed or remained the same?
On that note, I just finished reading Joseph Vogel’s Man In The Music, second edition. I wonder if you are familiar with his writings. He once criticized a previous writing of yours comparing Jackson’s cultural and commercial impacts. I personally found the book helpful in explaining Jackson’s artistic process but felt that Vogel was ultimately over-reverential in his attempt to validate what he claimed was Jackson’s transcendence, which led to him making observations about his later music in particular that I don’t necessarily agree with. If you are familiar with Vogel, I would be curious to know how is views on Jackson might play into my initial question.
– Ben Merliss
My feeling about Michael Jackson is the same as my feeling about Woody Allen. Their life poisons their work for me—and, in their different ways, their pretentiousness. I was as sickened by a King of Pop mockup I encountered one day in Barcelona as by some of Allen’s movie ads—in their spare, almost wordless austerity, as vulgar in their refusal of vulgarity as Jackson‘s megalomaniacal embrace of it.
I am not sure how the link [see 1/24/22] got mixed up (apologies for that). The Elvis’ version of “Shake, Rattle and Roll” I intended to link to is the live on WJOI, (January 19, 1955), here and here.
– Thomas J. Mertz
I’d forgotten that. It’s hot. I wish Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun were there on the choruses, though.
What is a slipknot movie? [See 12/8/21] I’ve never heard the term before and think it might have something to do with the way Power of the Dog pushes the idea that Phil Burbank’s misogyny and homophobia are deserving of death (like a hate crime without the crime). But please explain.
– Kevin Bicknell
You pull the string that seems so tight and there’s nothing there.
How much of the emerging fascism in America do you think is dependent on the cult of personality around Trump? What I mean is, if for some reason Trump himself isn’t the Republican candidate for President in 2024, does that movement still have enough overwhelming support to, well, finish the job he started? Or does the work being done now across the country to install Trumpist electors etc. make the entire premise of the question a moot point? I guess I’m pondering the thought in terms of genuine public approval of what very few any longer are uncomfortable about referring to as fascism. If the next election were not in the process of being rigged, could a mere Trumpian win? Or would it have to be Trump himself to secure a victory? (I firmly believe Trump himself could win again; not so sure about a Trump Jr., though.)
I’ve really been saying for forty years that Republicans are not democrats. I continue to be surprised at how deeply and substantively true this has has proved to be. I’ve also said I don’t believe there’s ever been a time when more than 65% of Americans supported democratic government at all, and times when it was 50% or even less. This is not just an old but a permanent American story. It is a civil war that began early in the 19th century and with luck will be with us for the rest of this one. Read Lincoln’s 1838 Lyceum speech: he saw the story clearly, happening as he spoke, happening for as long as the country had a history.
All that said, we are in a moment, the center of gravity of which is a cult of personality—but what that means is that the cult needs a personality. Trump may live forever; he’s also a walking heart attack. The man who is already standing behind him isn’t Ron DeSantis or Tom Cotton or anyone remotely like that. It’s Tucker Carlson.
A couple of years ago (08/28/17, to be exact), you were discussing with a reader the admiration Bob Dylan has for Gordon Lightfoot, and ended your reply by saying “There would have been Dylan without Lightfoot but maybe not Lightfoot without Dylan, which Dylan is too polite to even hint at.”
Well, I was recently perusing a back issue of MOJO (March 2015) that featured an article titled “Dylan’s 20 Greatest Covers” (as in, the 20 greatest covers Dylan has performed of other people’s songs), and one of them was his version of “Early Morning Rain.” They contacted Lightfoot to get his thoughts on Dylan’s cover (he loved it) and he had this to say about Dylan’s impact on his songwriting:
By the time of Freewheelin’, he was teaching me to write songs without knowing it. He took me away from the old school of romance in the back seat – so to speak. I would not have written “Early Morning Rain” had I not been influenced by Bob’s songwriting. It brought reality and honesty into my lyrical content. Get away from the old clichés, try to change it up as much as you can. Make everything different, which is what he does.
Sounds like you’ll get no argument from him. — James L.
That’s so interesting and modest. But while I can see something like “Early Morning Rain,” which is as close to “Blowin’ in the Wind” as “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” I don’t see Dylan in—or anywhere near—“If You Could Read My Mind.” The elegance, the balance, the symmetry of that song–that’s not Dylan. It’s more like “The Weight.” I could see Robbie Roberston writing it, but not Dylan. And that might be because Gordon Lightfoot taught Robbie in the same way Dylan taught Lightfoot.
Tom Kipp and I could have sworn you chimed in on the TV show In Plain Sight and/or its star, Mary McCormack. Web searches turn up nothing, though. Did we get some wires crossed? If you did write about those, do you remember what you thought?
– Andrew Hamlin
Don’t know anything about either.
Where do you stand on the Neil Young et al. vs. Joe Rogan/Spotify situation? I’m a little conflicted. Young, Joni Mitchell and whoever else jumps on board certainly have the right to choose who gets to distribute their music, but the “him or me” ultimatum veers a little too close to Moral Majority territory for me, Rogan’s reckless and stupid views notwithstanding. (On the other hand, anything that has Armond White this angry must be doing something right).
— steve o’neill
What is so surprising to me is not Young’s position, his stance, his attack, his attempt to use what moral authority he might have (or, in its use, create). That’s in a straight line from his “This Note’s for You.” But I doubt even Young—and let’s say he recognized there is a quotidian civil war of small gestures going on in this country and that everyone must use what they have to take a stand and press the fight—did not imagine how big this story would become. Now there is no telling where it might go. Spotify losing $2 billion in value is in one sense huge, and also nothing compared to the possibility of Joe Rogan (not merely a Covid death merchant, but as India.Arie has exposed, a racist) and a site for fascist election fraud—it’s where Aaron Rodgers felt comfortable referring to Joe Biden’s “fake White House”—and others being taken, on all sides, for what they are. And along with “This Note’s for You” there’s a lot of “I’m the Ocean”—a ten lifetimes’ better song, about the OJ Simpson trial and our collective lust for “random violence”—in what Young is doing. Like Sinead O’Connor, he’s a punk: he’ll piss anyone off sooner or later. He was a Manson person. He got a great song out of it and he’s never disavowed it. In the early years of the Reagan administration, when he was recruiting other famous musicians to play benefit concerts for the school he and his then-wife had started for their own and other disabled children, he said, “You can’t always support the weak. You’ve got to make them stand up on one leg, half a leg, whatever they’ve got.”
You want to understand Neil Young’s politics? Listen to the guitar solos in “Cowgirl in the Sand.” The way each is a springboard to the next. The way each is a physics experiment of smashing the atom into ever smaller particles. The way each gives greater pleasure. His next move—and that of those who are taking up the challenge he laid down—will be interesting.
Thoughts about Springsteen selling his catalog for $500 million?
– Chris Miller
My thoughts on all this—it’s like reading about ballplayers’ salaries. Wow, you really think he’s worth more than he is? But that team has more money to throw around before they hit the salary cap or the luxury tax. And so on. As in, OK, Bruce, $500 million for copyrights and masters. And according to the papers on January 25, the same for Bob Dylan, $300 million for copyrights to Universal Music and $200 million from Sony for masters, the guess for the latter based on $16 million annual sales. But Bob Dylan has always been worth far more to any music-related business, including companies seeking to use his music (or even him) for commercials, as with the never-to-be-forgotten Victoria’s Secret-Don’t Look Now–Death in Venice vampiric masterpiece, than his record sales might suggest. He brings enormous prestige to any operation—Universal and Sony will likely make far more than than they are paying him from the use of music they are able to buy because people want to be where Bob Dylan is.
This is the only way I can think about this. Other than, when you come down to it, ballplayers with their ten-year contracts are playing in the same ballpark. And it’s still peanuts, or the peanut dust at the bottom of the can, to Stephen Cohen, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, or thousands of other people, including Paul McCartney. But Donald Trump is probably trying to license a Dylan or a Springsteen song just to show he can. Didn’t I hear the first Springsteen song with a Bruce soundalike in a commercial during the 49ers-Packers game?
Hello, what do you think about all these artists, like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, selling their catalogue? They represented a special idea of artistic freedom, is this the act that really defines the end of that rock culture?
– Alba Solaro
My best response to this question comes from a fantasy about Malcolm X in my book Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs, which will be out in the fall. Can’t give away the punch line. But I think the question is completely off the mark—of rock culture. Or any other kind. Would you say the same of Picasso near the end of his years, painting anything because there was close to no limit to what people would pay for it? That he betrayed the freedom inherent in art?
It’s foolish to think that the desire to get rich and never have to work for a boss is not at the root of much of the best work you and I cherish as if it were somehow blessed, making us feel blessed when we hear it. What is the founding philosophical statement of rock ‘n’ roll? Sam Phillips, Memphis, early fifties: “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a million dollars.” Don’t you think a powerful motivation for Phillips, Elvis, Dylan, Springsteen—never mind James Brown—was the desire to have more than they had growing up? Dock Boggs, on the records he cut in 1927, among the most singular country blues numbers ever made, unique and generative works of American art to rank with, just to take rough contemporaries, Edward Hopper, William Faulkner, Langston Hughes, Barbara Stanwyck: “I thought I might get a hit, and I wouldn’t have to work in the mines no more.”
Why should performers make less money than the people who sell it?
You could say that we’re talking about people in their seventies and eighties. They have to think about what they’re going to leave to their children and grandchildren. They want to provide for college, the ability to buy a house, maybe to do work as good as theirs in whatever fields. A rational response to that would be that the effective protection of even the largest inheritances from any and all taxation has, since the Reagan administration, been one of the most consequential factors in the radical increase in income inequality which has led to the most disastrous distortion if not absolute contradiction of American democracy since the 1890s. And it has, and I’m not happy just saying, oh well, they’re just playing by the same rules as anyone else. So you could say, they could give half their money to set up programs to fill the gaps that public government—i.e., everyone—can’t or won’t. But that is a far greater distortion of democracy: the idea that a few very rich people should relieve members of the commonwealth of their responsibilities to each other.
But to your real question: this doesn’t have anything to do with the freedom at the heart of rock culture. Are these very rich people now cashing in shocking and insulting their muses, sending them off to find those few left who might be worthy of their favors? It’s for you to judge if “Murder Most Foul” and Springsteen on Broadway are cash grabs or the work of old people trying to top themselves, to do what they’ve never done before, to come as close as they can to living forever?
They have certain freedoms, not unrelated to the money they’ve made, the debt they may feel toward those who paid to hear them, and a sense not of guilt but of earned accomplishment. If we follow the argument I think you want to make, ultimately we have to ask ourselves: I love them, but really, as a matter of dollars and cents, how much are Nebraska and Time Out of Mind actually worth? And I’d bet that isn’t the question you mean to ask even if you are.
Just watched Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train for the first time in a long time, and noticed you were one of the many people who got a thank you after the closing credits. Anything interesting to share about that?
I guess he liked the book. We were corresponding at the time, though we’ve never met, and I asked him about Steve Jones, who as the worst Elvis impersonator ever played the Elvis ghost—who at the time was also Paula Jones’s husband.
Have you ever read any books you liked about any artist(s) you don’t care for?
– Ben Merliss
An answer here is inevitably self-selecting, as I’m not going to read a book about Leonard Cohen, even though there may be a book out there I’d find brilliant and unpredictable. I’ll just miss it. For me I think the answer goes in the other direction. I like—or am often shocked by—Patti Smith’s music, how good it is, but I can’t read her memoirs for the self-congratulation. I have hated books about people whose work I more than love, such as Brian Kellows’s on Pauline Kael. I read James Gavin’s Chet Baker biography Deep in a Dream, which led me into Baker’s music as nothing before had, because the book is a work of art on its own terms. But there might be Larry Rivers’s What Did I Do? He’s not a great artist, his “Washington Crossing the Delaware” is a great cartoon but I never found the rest of his work interesting, though the book is a fabulous yarn without a touch of self-importance, a book in which he makes everyone he writes about seem unique, wishing you could have met them. I met him once and he was just like that.
Thinking about your earlier comments on Frank Zappa’s satire being “condescending,” I tend to agree, although I will say that some of his early work, such as “Mom and Dad,” hit its targets pretty savagely and accurately. I also give him credit for calling out some of the false-bottomed hypocrisy of the counterculture and the self-styled radicals of that era (in both his songs and his interviews, e.g., in Larry Kart’s Jazz in Search of Itself), which few if any other rockers were doing at that time. And, of course, on a purely musical basis, I do believe he was truly gifted, especially as a composer.
But I’ve also long sensed a self-indulgent nastiness in a lot of his work, a disdain—if not an utter loathing—for his audiences, which became more pronounced, and more unpleasant, as the years went by (and which also makes itself felt strongly in the Larry Kart interview). Basically, he found a way to set things up so you were an asshole—i.e., a broomstick-up-the-ass Tipper Gore clone—if you found his “dirty-joke” lyrics offensive, puerile, and/or sexist; but you were also an asshole if you liked that stuff, oozing as they were with contempt for audiences that could find such dumbed-down drek funny (Sheik Yerbouti may well have been the nadir in this regard). In other words, you were the asshole and he wasn’t, regardless of what you thought or felt about what he was doing. Either way, he retained (and gloried in) his superiority over you.
Thoughts? Am I being too harsh?
– David Whiteis (Chicago)
Don’t take it personally. He had fun, too. And he would have been the same to Varese, eventually, had he had the chance.
I’m sure I’m not the first to ask, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on the new mix of Cahoots. I’m slightly agog at how listenable it now is, although I’m not sure “Shootout In Chinatown” can be redeemed by any manner of reverb. Anyway: this is a question, I promise—what do you think of it?
– Lucas Hare
“Move along, nothing to see here, please move along”—I was surprised by how flat and dull the sound was. When instruments were brought out it seemed mostly to expose how contrived and self-imitating the songwriting was. A less than zero.
In response to the 1/9/22 statement Elvis’s version of “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” for you “doesn’t even exist compared to Big Joe Turner’s,” I thought this might change your view, or at least make you smile or laugh.
– Thomas J. Mertz
This gets me Elvis’s atomic-powered version of Arthur Crudup’s “My Baby Left Me” but nothing about “Shake, Rattle and Roll”?
Are you familiar with the recording on Youtube by The World Famous Upsetters, “I’m in Love Again”? Rumored to be Little Richard and his band. What do you think of it?
If it isn’t Little Richard, it’s the world’s greatest impersonator.
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.
“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?
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.