The first installment of Ask Greil at greilmarcus.substack is available. All future editions of Ask will be hosted there.
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– Previous editions of Ask Greil 2016 / 2017 / 2018 / 2019 / 2020 / 2021
First, thank you for the depth and clarity of your writing. It is inspiring. A day or two ago I decided to revisit Down in the Groove as though it was a new Bootleg Series volume with outtakes. The standout cut was “Shenandoah” that includes an unidentified mandolin player. Why do you think even obscure (and much maligned) Dylan albums can become the subject of interesting if not joyful rediscovery?
Bob Dylan likely played “Shenandoah” with “Spider” John Koerner in Dinkytown in 1959 or 1960. I’ve never heard a bad version of the song—the melody is just too stirring, even utopian. It speaks for an America where all people feel at home, and it’s a wind of peace of mind blowing through Down in the Groove. It’s just what you say: like a forgotten gem rescued by an archivist.
I expect you’ll be writing about it in detail at some point, but any early remarks on Dylan’s Philosophy of Modern Song? I haven’t yet read it, and probably won’t for a while (I can ill-afford hardcovers, let alone the cost of shipping one to South Korea) but the excerpts have me excited – his depiction of the (possible) author of “Strangers in the Night” “playing his way across the Middle East during the early forties, at one point teaching Iran’s Shah Reza Pahlavi how to correctly swing dance” with its unexpected, perfect placement of the adverb, absolutely kills.
An unrelated question: was your “flat out unambiguously idiot error” in Mystery Train describing the character who delivered The Godfather‘s devastating line “they’re animals, let them lose their souls” as (if I recall correctly) “carefully off-screen”?
– Steve O’Neill
I’ll be writing on Philosophy on/in my Fosbury to launch my Substack newsletter and don’t want my thoughts to get stale by posting them in advance.
Yes I think off-screen, or not distinguishable in the crowd around the table, but what’s the error there?
Robert Christgau recently stated that he considers The Funk Brothers to have achieved a feeling in their mutual chemistry that almost no other studio group did, and that the only ones who nearly matched them were The Wrecking Crew at certain points, as well as Al Green’s musicians in the early ‘70s, with The Rolling Stones coming close in their own way in the mid ‘60s. I’d like to know your own take on this particular question.
The Youngbloods. Booker T and the MGs. A thousand doo-wop groups, but above them all Dion and the Belmonts “I Wonder Why.” After the mid ‘60s, individual virtuosity undermined group identity and a single sound—realizing one’s true self as separate from or over a group replaced the Beatle-ideal of realizing oneself as part of a group. The idea that all individuals are incomplete was replaced by the belief in self-perfection. Thus, guitar solos—as opposed to Phil Manzanera’s accents in Roxy Music’s “More Than This,” which mean more to me, open up a deeper emotional well, than anything Jimi Hendrix ever played.
What are your thoughts on the passing of Jerry Lee Lewis? According to his seventh (!!) wife, he was at peace when he went.
I thought, “The last man standing from the Golden Age of Rock and Roll.” But then, I remembered Pat Boone. Although he is reportedly very nice to his fans and still has a weekly show on Sirius, to quote Casey Kasem, “Fucking ponderous!”
– Erik Nelson
I don’t count Pat Boone, even though his first album was the first “rock & roll” album I ever owned—my parents gave it to me for Christmas, my father explaining that he seemed to be “a more solid citizen” than Elvis. Though my mother had already bought me the “Hound Dog” 45.
I will have an item on Jerry Lee in my return Real Life Rock column, though I don’t know when that will be. I think his wife saying he died at peace is hilarious. I wonder if we could say that about the two (at least) dead wives who preceded her?
The arrival of Jerry Lee Lewis was the cause of great confusion at the Pearly Gates. The thought in everyone’s mind was,”I could have sworn Stagolee was Black.”
They asked Billy Lyon about it and he said, “I’ve never seen the man before in my life, but he can keep his hat.”
– Robert Fiore
And everybody else said, “Just like we thought Elvis was white.”
Hi Greil, all my best wishes for a continued recovery. I am now making my way through Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad and I think it’s harrowing and brilliant. If you’ve seen it, I’d love to hear your take. What spurred my question this morning is the recent conversation about “Sail Away.” The second “chapter” of The Underground Railroad is a chilling illustration of that “sales pitch” for slavery in its conception of an idyllic refuge for escaped slaves that isn’t so idyllic (it’s like a Twilight Zone episode). I wonder if the mystical railroad in Jenkins’ film is the real Mystery Train, headed for the promised land or another fool’s paradise.
– Charlie Largent
I stopped watching when the slave (I am not going to use the currently mandated euphemism ‘enslaved person’) was burned alive for the amusement of the white diners, both because the exact scene had already been used in 12 Years a Slave and because, to be honest, it was just too ugly. It wasn’t so called slave porn, which implies a certain attraction. I can’t watch rape scenes either.
What you say about the presentation of South Carolina as the escaped slave utopia is acute and deep. Yes, the Undeground Railroad, Whitehead’s or historical, is the real mystery train, and the latter might actually have been in the back of Junior Parker’s or Sam Phillips’s head when they wrote/recorded the song.
Hi Greil. I know you don’t typically have much use for questions like these—or, alternatively, have all the time in the world for questions like these! Like, if that’s what you think, just fly with it. They are for you!—But, seriously now: having just seen Tropical Fuck Storm on the final show of their recent US tour, is there any reason to believe they are not currently the best band on the planet?
– Edward Hutchinson
I haven’t been lucky enough to see Tropical Fuck Storm—I do love that name. I’m not sure they’ve played the Bay Area. I did see Gareth Liddiard’s previous band the Drones in Brooklyn sone years back and even though the band was clearly jet-lagged and Liddiard more flu than human they lit fires all over the place and I left feeling like I could fly. I see no reason why on any given night they couldn’t make anyone else seem small, compromised, cowardly, and redundant. But what about the show you saw? Where, how, what?
Re: resemblance of Elvis to a Greek god, I shot this on our family’s first Memphis visit in December 2010.It’s at the Downtown Memphis Welcome Center. Fit for the Uffizi?
Thanks for the decades of inspiration, Greil. Just today I watched the ’68 comeback w/my Elvis obsessed daughter and showed her the corresponding part of Mystery Train, which opened up that whole world for me about 40 years or so ago. On our same Memphis visit, she got to spend the night in his bedroom at Lauderdale Courts—worth a dozen Graceland tours. None of it would have happened without your book.
The Lauderdale Courts story is priceless. Still, it makes me curious what a night there goes for.
If you were not you, but still most everything you are (but not renowned, as I am thinking could happen to a person with a similar skill set but different circumstances), would you ever write to this site to ask a question? You note that you wish we would talk about our experiences more than asking what you think. However, the heading is Ask Greil, why not Tell Greil? My suspicion is that the built-in respect for your work, and your place, makes conversation difficult (impossible), unless my self-advertisement is confessional enough to start a chat about the oddness of success and failure. I have written you before and been, first and foremost, happy to see my name and the words I carefully (but also with an error that embarrasses) typed. And then I feel a bit vain about this pride.
My question is: what is your view of this column and (because you mentioned it when you were in the hospital) what does it provide for you? I enjoy it immensely but am not sure why, or possibly I do not want to know why. It is like a presentation of democracy where we are shown that every voice matters and that this is also clearly not true.
Thank you for staying alive.
It says ‘Ask Greil’ which means you ask, I respond, and sometimes people answer back. More and more, when people write in with opinions, or doubt or disagree with mine, or are raving about a show or a song and are putatively asking me what I think, my response has been, say more, tell me more, what happened? If this succeeds ultimately, this—whatever it is—will be a forum, and as has already happened people aren’t asking but, in your word, telling. And when people ‘ask’ in order to get someone who supposedly matters to tell them what to think, render a cosmic judgement, or confirm their choice, that’s when I reply, if I’m not too exasperated not to just do so, go away. But what do you think? Who cares what I think, especially when you already have ideas?
I don’t know if you know the critic Alfred Soto, or look at his site, but in a recent post he had some nice words about Under the Red, White and Blue:
“Greil Marcus’ 2020 rumination on The Great Gatsby and American myth is one of my favorite recent books. Approaching Scott Fitzgerald’s novel as the ur-text for self-creation, Marcus regards West Egg as another region in The Old, Weird America, indulgent of a bootlegger whose ridiculous affectations mesmerize anyone willing to put suspicions aside. The Tom Buchanans are a thuggish presence always, a reminder that some men and women belong and some don’t and they don’t mind reminding you. “It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or those other races will have control of things,” Tom explains to narrator Nick Carraway without a trace of irony, for to have a ironic sense is to recognize when you—inevitably—won’t have control of things.
I regard The Great Gatsby and Citizen Kane as companion pieces. Men from Nowheresville who transforms himself through industry and an implacable will into Somebody, Jimmy Gatz and Charles Foster Kane don’t recognize or recognize faintly their hollowness; this congeries of industry and will is all they got. Think of Ronald Wilson Reagan of Dutch, Illinois. Remember every hustler, amiable and amoral, and those sainted bootstraps. Here’s Marcus on one of Fitzgerald’s prophetic passages:
“No one ever captured the promise of American life more beautiful than Fitzgerald did in that passage. That sense of America is expressed so completely—by billboards, by our movies, by Chuck Berry’s refusal to put the slightest irony into ‘Back in the U.S.A.,’ by the way we try to live our lives—that we hardly know how to talk about the resentment and fear that lie beneath the promise. To be an American is to feel the promise of a birthright, and to feel alone and haunted when the promise fails. No failure in America, whether of love or money, is ever simple; it is always a kind of betrayal, of a mass of shadowy, shared hopes.’
Besides a robust defense of Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation and best film, Marcus finds correspondences: the blues, W.E.B. Du Bois, a political moment when thousands of Tom Buchanans on Twitter and YouTube find audiences for their racism. Whiteness is not a color—it’s a status, an honorific conferred by the dominant race who have control of things…”
Thanks for this. I hadn’t known Soto before. It’s interesting that his long quote, which came off of the Dutch-sailors paragraph in Gatsby, is from Mystery Train, rather than my book on the book, Under the Red White and Blue (2020), which he’s ostensibly writing about. It just speaks for a love and fascination for what Fitzgerald accomplished and where his writing has been and where it’s going.
While reading your review of Peter Guarlnick’s Careless Love and your thoughts on the limits of biography vs myth, I thought of a World War I novel you reviewed. A soldier is describing the sudden death of a comrade, what it was like to see the light go out of his eyes, when another trench mate says, “Well he can’t have felt much could he?” “I don’t know what he felt,” the soldier says bitterly, the author making you hear and feel the bitterness, “I only know what I felt.” Can’t tell whether I’m quoting it correctly because I’ve forgotten the name of the book and author of one of the only Undercover-reviewed books uncollected on this site. Do you remember the book (which I read and lost) or the quote? It’s not only moving in it’s own right but was also part of my learning to be a critic.
– Kevin Bicknell
I think that was from a piece on The Great War and Modern Memory but I’m not sure and, I know this is odd, I’m not able to bend down to pull out the drawer where the Rolling Stone issues with my book column are to find out.
Hi, Greil, I’m glad that you’re doing better. I’ve visited your Undercover columns over the years and read several books that you reviewed. It would be great to have a collection of your book writings from the 1980s on. Are there any crime novels from the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s that you like as well as The Chill and The Last Good Kiss? Thanks for your time.
All superseded by The Sopranos and the more unhinged episodes of Criminal Intent.
I don’t know if you’d agree with me sir, but when I heard the backing track of the Beatles’ “Rain” at its original speed it acquired a new air of mystery for me. I don’t love the song as I earlier mentioned, but I do like the musicianship which is on fuller display. I find it interesting to think about how it could have ended up differently as a song than it did. If you’re willing to give it a listen, I would be interested to know your own view.
– Ben Merliss
Please don’t call me sir.
Do you think there is a serious case to be made for Desire being Bob Dylan’s most coherent and accessible album, and therefore possibly his most successful one from a popular music perspective? I’m not talking about success in terms of album sales, or even in terms of impact, but simply in terms of producing an album as a singular coherent artistic statement. It contains some of his most underrated work—“Black Diamond Bay,” “Romance in Durango,” “One More Cup of Coffee,” and the majestic “Sara,” The overlong “Joey” is the only one that I could do without. I understand that it is nowhere near as ground-breaking or influential as the mid-60s trilogy, but the atmosphere and consistent flavour of the album is something that I do not get with any other Dylan record. It is comforting and relaxing, like sitting next to an open fire. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on an album that, to my mind, is a little overlooked.
– Dean McBride
I thought at first you said “a little overcooked,” which Desire is to me, but I’m not here either to tell people not to like something or to validate their taste.
What about “Isis”? It may not be all that it could be on the album, but on the Rolling Thunder tours it was shocking how much it brought out of the singer, who performed it not as something he himself had written but as a visitation. Or for that matter “Hurricane,” which may be terrible songwriting (“And the all-white jury agreed!’) but hits like Carter’s left hand?
I have a Reissue of the Anthology of American Folk Music, which came with all the original sleeves and stickers from the front cover.
One of the stickers says “Got Folk,” and has a picture of Harry Smith drinking a glass of milk. This sticker has reviews of the album, one of which is attributed to you: “This is Gansta Folk, post traumatic art far from the shores of Lake Wobegon,” but I cannot find where it was said/published by you.
The only somewhat viable reference for this quotation that I can find is here.
In this article the text looks like it’s coming from the author, and not from you, even though you are mentioned just before and just after the quote.
Is this a misquotation, or did you say this somewhere else?
– Rich Soni
I never wrote that, and never saw the sticker you mention. In the article you link to, which I’d never seen either, it’s clearly the writer’s characterization of something I wrote about Dock Boggs.
If you could recommend a book or article on the early ’60s New York folk scene that the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis tried and failed to inhabit, what would it be?
– Ben Merliss
Suze Rotolo’s A Freewheelin’ Time and Dylan’s sections on the Village in Chronicles. Dave Van Ronk’s book and his articles, especially on Elektra Records, in the folk music magazine Caravan, which you can find online.
One thing that has always bugged me about Randy Newman’s “Sail Away” is that we all know the real sales pitch for slavery was “Get on this boat or I’ll kill you.” One thing you’d have to say for chattel slavery, if you had to say anything for chattel slavery, is that its victims were never misled about the nature of their catastrophe. What I have recently come to realize though is that the real world equivalent of “Sail Away” was sung more times than you can count, but it was sung in retrospect rather than as a come on. It was sung by a white man nostalgically yearning for a plantation he himself never could have had masquerading in blackface and a clown suit as a reluctantly freed slave yearning for a lost paradise.
I think that if Newman’s pitchman had been selling America to my great grandfather the pitch would have been, “Say, Guido, you look like you’ve got a strong back. How’d you like to live in a rich country?” My maternal great grandfather was German, so the pitch would be more “You’re doing pretty well for yourself here Fritz, but how’d you like to get your hands on the REAL money?” What my family found in America was a golden door, with the words written above it, “Civil Service Exam Given Here.” In the end the true American paradise is not Randy Newman’s “Sail Away” but Uncle Dave Macon’s.
Reading the accounts of Bob Dylan’s Greenwich Village parties in Folk Music I had the same feeling I had watching Todd Haynes’ Velvet Underground movie or the books of Eve Babitz, which is that the only way I could have ever gotten into those worlds was with a badge and a warrant. Of course, even those of us who are neither lovely, talented nor interesting can listen to the records and read the books.
– Robert Fiore
I can feel the same about the golden gates barring unschooled and the unhip from the golden gates of Babitz-Lomax-Factory Land. I love the way you put it. You’ll have to tell me what Uncle Dave’s “Sail Away” is—you mean “Sail Away, Ladies” or something more metaphorical?
There are documented but still likely apocryphal stories told by supposedly Africa-born American slaves that precisely match Newman’s pitchman tale. To me it’s more a parable about and send-up of American exceptionalism—so stirringly dramatized by the gorgeous movie music strings—and a Twain-like celebration of hucksterese before it’s about anything else. But while African slaves captured by Arab and African raiders and traders and then brought to port cities understood what slavery in their own world was, no one could have been prepared for the Middle Passage, the sudden emergence into an entirely new world, the overwhelming sense of displacement that, behind the formal argument, lies DuBois’s ideas about twoness and double consciousness in The Souls of Black Folk.
Who is your favorite bassist in popular music as you have lived it?
– Ben Merliss
Charlie McCoy on Bob Dylan, John Wesley Harding.
I am really enjoying your new book. I was especially pleased with you inclusion of “Ain’t Talking.” I think it is a masterwork. I wonder why it has not received the acclaim of so many other Dylan songs.
– Rich Whalen
Maybe because in the course of telling a long story filled with vague allusions and abstractions he never raises his voice. Those were the qualities that drew me in from the first time I heard it and their pull has never lessened, but unlike many other Dylan songs (and like some others, such as “Going, Going, Gone”), it doesn’t announce itself, doesn’t begin with a verbal or musical fanfare.
Congratulations on Folk Music. This might be the most trivial question you will ever be asked about it, but I laughed when you wrote of “O Superman,” “this was her ‘Gimmie Shelter,’ her ‘Anarchy in the UK,’ her ‘Sugar, Sugar,’ her ‘Hey Ya’—it’s the end of the world, and it’s catchy.” I’ve never in your work come across a mention of the Archies before. I love “Sugar Sugar,” I grew up with it, and its catchiness is self-evident (I’ve also held to my belief over the years that “O Superman” has more than a little bit of bubblegum in it)—is there anything you can say about its end-of-the-worldness? Are you a fan of “Sugar Sugar”? How did it play to you when it first came on the radio?
– scott woods
“Sugar, Sugar” and the end of the world: because in it’s own fun fun fun way it’s so complete. As with the other songs in that little list, as it plays nothing exists outside of it. That’s less solipsistic than nihilistic. And you could say the same about Hanson’s “MMMBop.”
There is something about Folk Music that is like the most wonderful book ever published. First of all, it is really pretty. The colors of the cover, the design of the words FOLK MUSIC, the physical feel and read of the book is noteworthy. The chapter “Murder Most Foul,” crescendo; off of the earth, and gets what really happened to JFK, perfectly. This is a book that radiates relevant brilliance; it’s a plow. Thank you Greil. The heavens opened up and the light shined thru your remembering heart, to us.
– Alan Berg
I’m so glad it reached you.
You’ve published a good number of books, but there’s one obvious omission: a collection of your early rock criticism—the reviews you published in Rolling Stone, Creem, and The Village Voice. To be sure, a few have appeared in your Dylan collection and your Let it Bleed review was in Ranters and Crowd Pleasers, and a lot of the ones I remember are on your site (your double review of This Year’s Model and Little Criminals, your put-down of Aja, your great Fairport Convention piece, Excitable Boy, Some Girls, Rumours, among others) but, still…this seems like something some publisher would have been interested in at some point. Did you not want to do it?
There are a number of ways to look at this. Not everything I wrote from late 1968, when I first published anything (a review in Rolling Stone), until late 1969, when, with a piece on Let It Bleed and a David Bailey book of photos looking back at Swinging London I finally found out what writing could be and what I could do about it, not everything was very good. Some of it, then and after, in Creem and the Village Voice, was lousy. And there was a lot of it.
Some years ago a since-retired editor at Harvard proposed a collection of my uncollected elsewhere pieces over the years. I spent a month or two going through stuff and even with radical culling what I came up with was far too long for a book. We talked about two, one to 1989, one after. But what I wanted was a picture both more specific and broad. I wanted a book collecting the six years of book columns I wrote for Rolling Stone from 1975 to 1980, good bad and indifferent, I wanted a book collecting all of my music columns from Interview, from 1992 to 2008 (with a lot of breaks). I wanted books in long conversations with a subject. And more.
Nothing has come of any of these notions. I don’t know if any is a good idea, if anyone would want to publish such books, or read them. I have at least one more book I’ve committed to write. I’m not sure I want to devote a year or more, working with an editor on a day to day basis, to looking back.
Last month [9/9] I asked a question about a photo of a blackface performance where the audience also appeared to be in blackface. Yesterday I went back and took a photo to send to you. My best guess is that it was some type of pageant? Either way, here’s the photo.*
I asked the great folklorist Dick Spottswood what he thought.“The photo looks like cast members posing on stage for a publicity shot,” he said. Eric Lott, author of Love and Theft, the best modern book on blackface performance, sees it similarly:
“Not convinced it’s an audience. Looks as much like a stage backdrop as it does back of the house. Who can tell? Lots of film/stage occasions with raucous multitudes all in blackface. Still, it’s odd. Let’s all be black for a while? Some kind of Darius James phantasmagoria (which it always is anyway)? Vibe and beard on central clown call to mind Bing Crosby in blackface celebrating Abe Lincoln in Holiday Inn, an instance of New Deal blackface per Mike Rogin. I wish he were still here to talk with us about it.”
*Photo not for publication -ed.
Robert Christgau on his own question blog recently stated that with s couple of exceptions the early music of the Byrds has not aged too well overall. Knowing that you included both Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn! Turn! Turn! in your desert island list from Stranded, I’d like to know your own present day view on the Byrds of the ’65 to 67 ‘period.
– Ben Merliss
I’ve just finished reading your rich, discerning, delightful Folk Music. Terrific on every page, with your usual stunning details (as example, the long footnote on the fate of James Kennard, Jr, p. 148); and by the way, thank you for the quotes from D. H. Lawrence and Machiavelli. Your pages on “Only A Pawn in Their Game” ended with a sentence, though, that did confuse me: “the last verse returned to Medgar Evers, for his funeral, with the same last line carried by every verse now on his tombstone: ONLY A PAWN IN THEIR GAME.” I asked myself: does he mean on Evers’s tombstone? In the last verse Dylan sings: “But when the shadowy sun sets on the one/That fired the gun/He’ll see by his grave/On the stone that remains/His epitaph plain…”. I have always heard it as the epitaph being written on the gravestone of “the one that fired the gun.” Is there ambiguity here? With best wishes for health, & deep respect.
– Chip Hughes
You’re right. That’s the theory of the song: every one is a pawn of the rich and powerful, and the assassin is presumed to be, as the song classifies it, a “poor white.” But I always heard it as I wrote it: those words on Medgar Evers’s tombstone. That’s apparently not what Dylan meant to say, but to me, analyzing my own response, that’s where the momentum of the recording truly carries the song—past Dylan’s sociology and into tragic irony.
Thank you for your kind and heartening words on the book.
I’ve finished with Folk Music … another GM keeper, that’s for sure! I do have a question, though: did I overlook an explanation for how the images/illustrations (on front cover of dust jacket/inside with each chapter) connect to the appropriate song? Didn’t see anything in the notes or index either. They are all puzzlers, especially the pipeline with “Desolation Row”… thanks.
– Joe Specht
With the exception of people running up the Grassy Knoll for “Murder Most Foul,” I was in the dark too. Max Clarke, the artist, keyed the images to the chapters, but I think without any real finality. I puzzled and puzzled, finally sort of tying the black elevator repairman and the woman with her little boy dressed up like a cowboy for “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (something about a black man on his knees and a white person with a gun?) but it was a real swirling mystery. I couldn’t be happier with it all.
[See Max Clarke’s Instagram page.]
Hi Greil, I hope your recovery is going well. I enjoyed your interaction with Valerie Harms about Elvis. It’s obvious why young girls of the time were so excited by him: he radiated sex and rhythm and an exotic, dangerous, rebellious energy that was unstoppable… Besides which, he was a pretty good singer, and Scotty, Bill, and DJ were not too shabby either. Valerie says that he was so handsome and represented a new masculinity, which is true, but there was also a new androgynous quality and a beauty more than handsomeness that he exuded (In Love Me Tender, I think Richard Egan is handsome, Elvis is young and beautiful), and it’s this homoerotic component to his appeal that makes things complicated and problematic for his male fans. Growing up in the early ’70s, I bought every one of Elvis’ RCA albums (my first exposure to EP was my mom’s Camden Flaming Star LP—she must’ve thought he was Greek because his name ended in S), but I just could not bring myself to buy A Date with Elvis—just cut too close. It’s tough being a straight male—in those less enlightened times—obsessed with a performer whose fans are mostly screaming young girls. That may be one of the reasons you and your male classmates were jealous of the girls in your school who were free to go and see Elvis and unabashedly express their excitement (desire) for him. You wrote quite insightfully about this in Mystery Train in one of the footnotes where you relate a dream in which Elvis and his band were in a peepshow reel, and also, I think it’s in Mystery Train, where you compare Elvis to George Reeves as Superman as far as their respective costumes presenting an illusion of power/strength covering a sordid weakness. Your anecdotes about your classmates were sad and fascinating—now I know why “Second Hand News” sounds like Buddy Holly avoided his fate and snuck into a recording studio in 1977. Have you ever watched the TV show Monk? It’s set in the Bay Area and Randy Newman does the theme song. It’s a lot of fun. Stay well.
– Peter Danakas
People used to joke with Elvis that he looked like a Greek god. Elvis, not unfamiliar with statues of Apollo, agreed. Maybe that’s why your mother might have thought he was Greek, if she did. Growing up, I always thought the sexiest thing Elvis ever did was “Don’t.” These were not gender issues that I understood. It was a fantasy that just by listening to the song at a party girls would react to an ordinary boy who was silently singing along just as they would to Elvis. Years later a woman told me I was wrong: the real open sesame song was “I was the One.” As it was the B-side of “Heartbreak Hotel,” which I wasn’t crazy about and didn’t own—and singles were not included on albums—when she said that, I didn’t even know the song. I listened. I don’t know if she was right or not, but what a song.
RIP to Art Laboe, one of the great voices of radio and one of the indefatigable heroes of rock & roll. I never was privileged to hear him on the air, but he’s a legend to all of us who love the music, as well as the legacy of vintage-era radio.
– David W. (Chicago)
Art Laboe. A legend. I was shocked to find him taking prisoners’ requests in Rachel Kushner’s novel The Mars Room in 2018—could this be real? Was he really still alive? A working DJ in his 90s when everyone else of his generation was gone?
I never heard him either, being in Menlo Park when I first heard rock ‘n’ roll on the radio, but friends and I swooned in around 1959 or 1960 when the local station ran an oldies weekend and we listened obsessively to the lost, forgotten, all but entombed music from a few years before. When I bought the first Oldies But Goodies album, so much of it assembled out of LA R&B and doo-wop little heard outside of California, I was almost mystically transported when I saw that one of the tracks went back not to 1955 (the first Chuck Berry record), or even 1954 (the first Elvis record), but eons before, in 1952–as if it had been recorded in a secret studio in the Great Pyramid, that hot new sound of the Land of the Pharaohs. It was so displacing. But thanks to what Laboe could get his hands on cheaply he rewrote the history of Los Angeles, 45 by 45.
Wondered if you’d read this. Any thoughts on the project? Outstanding nominees for long-term deep-freeze preservation?
– Andrew Hamlin
Johnny Cash’s recording of Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam Mcgee.”
Did you ever read Dave Van Ronk’s autobiography and if so, what is your view on it?
– Ben Merliss
He was a great storyteller, sometimes on himself, as with his description of hearing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” for the first time: “I could not even talk about it.” Elijah Wald did a very good job.
Hello Greil, I am enjoying your new book. Great stuff. Hope there are many more for you to write. Recently, I came across a YouTube clip of the post-Jim Morrison Doors performing and it was painful to listen to Ray Manzarek try to sing “Love Me Two Times.” No one could sing ’em like Jim. The Doors did record a couple of albums after Jim died and I know they were not well received. Could today’s AI voice cloning bring Morrison’s voice back and re-record vocals on those songs? I don’t know if the songs were any good and Jim’s not here to re-write them either. But one miracle at a time. Next century will see the Beatles return via AI?
– Jim Stacho
I hope not. Much prefer to raise Ray M. from the dead and let him try again.
Mr. Marcus, I am hoping you could provide some insight into the Masked Marauders album cover. In the October 1969 “review” published in Rolling Stone, the album cover is a cropped photograph of Sharon Tate and Ferdy Mayne taken by Roman Polanski on the set of The Fearless Vampire Killers; and was published in the March 1967 edition of Playboy. Do you recall how and why that particular image was used? I’m also curious if there was any feedback to that being used since her death had occurred only two months earlier? Or, did the fact that the photo was of Sharon completely go over everyone’s heads? The album itself has models recreating the photo and my assumption has been that permission to use the photo could not be obtained. If you have any information about the actual reason the photo wasn’t used for the album, I would like to know that as well.
I apologize if I’ve just bombarded you with questions about a subject you haven’t thought about in years.
Thank you for your time.
After I wrote the Masked Marauders piece, I got together with Robert Kingsbury, the Rolling Stone art director, to work out a jacket design. I was still the Records editor at the paper, and I wanted to hold the fake review for a very large records section I was planning for October. I brought in the Sharon Tate image, from a Playboy spread on Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers—the threatening hand (Polanski’s) held over her as she’s taking a bath just seemed horribly prescient. In horrible taste, but irresistible, and in 1969 Rolling Stone was not selling good taste. At the time, we almost always used an album jacket to visually cue a review, so this went in. It ran as one of as many as twenty regular reviews, along with several full page featured reviews, just dropped into the section.
I was not involved with the actual Warner Bros. album. That cover was bland compared to the Rolling Stone design, but half-decent taste won out, plus there would have been no possibility of permission to use the still, given the circumstances.
I’m amazed at the misinformation online about this little parody that could. Nothing is correct, especially Wikipedia. And I think about it often enough: on a shelf just to the side of the bed in our house is a little array of photos, including one from a 2013 episode of Rock Center with Brian Williams about how he’d been fooled into buying the album (the picture shows him holding a copy, Masked Marauders pianist and composer Langdon Winner seated at a piano, and me) and believed every word of the original review, thus warping his entire personality to the point that he perpetrated a hoax of his own and ruined his career.
Loving the new Dylan book, but I don’t quite understand what you mean when you write of “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” that Dylan “drops all of Jefferson’s most colorful verses—there are no coffins, no church bells. I don’t need that, the song says now.” But Dylan does sing those verses in the version on the first album, no?
– James Penha
That’s a huge error and I can’t remotely explain it. It doesn’t make sense on the page, never mind the album. Thank you for pointing it out, and it’ll be corrected down the line, but I’ll spend the day with stones in my shoes for penance.
Will there be any live events in NYC for the new text on ‘Bob in Seven Songs’?
– Lee Kaufman
Unhappily no. At least not this year.
When I asked you sometime back who your favorite crime writers were after Ross Macdonald I actually meant it literally as in who you liked who came after him. But I guess that would constitute asking for a list so I’ll let that pass. Even so…
What’s your opinion on the work of Elmore Leonard? I remember one critic (David Yaffe I think) claiming Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Vol. 1 was closer in the spirit of its prose to Leonard’s work than more obvious literary comparisons.
– Ben Merliss
Well-plotted but interchangeable and forgettable, in the sense that with, whatever title, you can go many pages in before realizing you’d already read it. They make better movies than books.
Howard Hesseman died earlier this year. A two-parter then: 1. Did you ever see The Committee live during their SF heyday with Hesseman, Peter Bonerz, Roger Bowen, Carl Gottlieb et al? If so, any reflections or reminiscences? 2. Johnny Fever resonated as a recognizable if fading ’70s stereotype. And WKRP did predict and lament the disappearance of sui generis radio personalities in favour of corporate programming. Sure, it’s great that youtube can help us can relocate Wire performing “The 15th” on German TV in 1979. But when one encounters Stanley Elkin’s The Dick Gibson Show, Donald Fagen’s chapter on Jean Shepherd in his Eminent Hipsters memoir, or Peter Wolf midnight footage in the recent WBCN documentary, it can’t help but register that “you had to be there” at a certain time and place to appreciate the legendary local deejays of yesteryear fully (in the decades prior to satellite radio). It’s far harder to unearth archival evidence of same, save via anecdote and rumour. We all have our regionally lost-forever favourite deejays; could you possibly discuss a few of yours? Thanks.
– Craig Proctor
I started going to The Committee in the fall of 1963, when I was 18, the year it opened; I’d stopped going by the time Howard Hessman was part of it. The original cast included the goofy and charismatic Larry Hankin, the moonlighting folk singer Hamilton Camp, the sometime Beat poet Gary Goodrow, and my favorite, the scowling and cynical Scott Beach.
You had to be 21 to get in, but they were pretty lax. I had a very effective fake ID—my drivers license got smeared when I was thrown into a pool and it was easy to change my birth year from 1945 to 1942. They checked me and then ignored whoever I was with. It was wonderfully inventive and full of what seemed like unscripted comebacks and wisecracks. It was cross cultural, filling the gap between the heroic Beat years and the emergence of the Acid Test and Fillmore bands a couple of years later.
I concur with your response to Ben Merliss regarding Get Back. Do you have any thoughts on Peter Jackson’s hinting at another Beatles project?
– Theresa Kereakes
I wrote two reviews “for” Rolling Stone, and got nice replies, one hand-written, but they were unsolicited and a bit late, and did not meet the fate of your first offering to that organ. One was of Ram (I loved it); the other was of Slow Train Coming—I loved a lot of it but mostly loved what voice he had on it. I thought for a while I could write about music, but then I read Mystery Train and realized I should leave that for the real ones. (I did have two reviews published in Creem, though.)
Anyway, Dylan ruined my life. Because of him, I started writing songs, and I thought I could make it as a singer-songwriter, since my songs had some worth. So I abandoned a “promising” career in academic philosophy and moved from Toronto to… L.A. and other towns. But through no fault of his, I could NOT make it in music. Of course I kept writing songs, I couldn’t help it. And ended up adjunct-teaching in philosophy… I think failure is a subject that is under-explored.
– John Kearns
I was not long ago asked to give a lecture on failure. I’d never given it much thought. But it was fun. I started with all the terrible albums Neil Young made in the eighties and his agreeing, but saying he did it on purpose, to drive his listeners away, create a new audience, and for himself a new reason to make music. “Failure guarantees success,” he said. Of course, he had a lot to fall back on. But as an adjunct—are your classes satisfying? Do you learn new things, including what you don’t know and don’t understand, from your students or from the act of teaching itself?
In your desert island list for Stranded, you recommended the American version of the Beatles’ Revolver claiming that the “golden rain” of “And Your Bird Can Sing” was one of the songs that saved the album from its pretensions. However “And Your Bird Can Sing” was actually one of three Lennon songs excluded from the American release. I do understand it was decades ago when you wrote what you wrote (and I wasn’t even born at the time), but I would like to ask if it was possible you were thinking of “She Said She Said” or “Tomorrow Never Knows” instead, if you do in fact still prefer the original American release.
Also, I know you don’t care for “Dr. Robert” or “Rain” (which I have mixed feelings about myself since I wish Lennon had sang “When the rain comes,” instead of “If the rain comes”) but regarding “And Your Bird Can Sing,” do you think it would have improved the American Revolver if it had been retained instead of being released on Yesterday And Today?
– Ben Merliss
I don’t know.
Were you aware of Randy Newman as a songwriter at all before he started making albums himself? Based on the two Ace Records anthologies (On Vine Street and Bless You California) his specialty was not so much writing singles for others as writing album tracks for them.
– Robert Fiore
I’m not familiar with those albums—will have to track them down. He did write a lot of B-sides.
I read somewhere (wish I could cite the source, but it’s been a while) that during the sessions for There’s A Riot Goin’ On, Sly Stone was getting so drugged out that the sessions were in danger of collapse, so his friend Bobby Womack stepped in and helped get it over the finish line. Womack has long been an underrated favorite of mine, a terrific soul singer-songwriter (his usual persona: a sexist pig who gets his comeuppance and learns his lesson…until next time…), a splendid gospel/r&b guitarist and a man who seemed to show up in plenty of unexpected places and leave his mark, which lends credence to the Sly story. Riot contains a number of musical departures (apart from the obvious thematic ones) from previous Family Stone records, so I’m inclined to credit some of that to Womack. Do you know anything about this, and can you shed any light on what his specific contributions were?
– Jim Cavender
Joel Selvin’s Sly and the Family Stone: An Oral History* is the best source for this. Bobby Womack certainly crafted Riot with Sly more than any other principal. But they were both a mess at the time, and later both attempted to get out from under legal pressure by embarking on a tour, which soon collapsed, as a form of “performing therapy.” But when you listen to the album, you hear many voices, all woven together. You hear the presence and the statement of a group as well as of its creator. Whether that’s studio trickery, and it’s really just Sly and Bobby with the doors locked, I don’t know.
I have read War and Peace. It was so long ago that I remember almost nothing of the book itself. Napoleon, the dumb genius of the Russian peasantry. Stuff like that. And the lead character was named Pierre, which to me was the name of a Quebec defenseman, not a Russian aristocrat.
But what I do remember vividly was the experience of reading it. In the beginning, it’s just depressing and discouraging. It’s like you’ve been at it for days, and you’ve barely made a dent into this enormous pile of book. And then—you get sucked in. And you can’t leave it alone. It turns out to be a compulsive page-turner. You have to speed through the occasional digressions, as Tolstoi expounds his peculiar historical theories—but you do that so you can be with these people again, and find out what happens to them.
– Daniel F McIlroy
That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Richard Powers’s The Time of Our Singing had the same effect on me—I did not want to let go of the characters, which meant that when any of them died—and in the course of the book, three out of the five principals do—it was unbearable, an unacceptable loss, especially of the father, who unlike his wife and son doesn’t die violently—I just broke down. Though unlike with your War and Peace the book had me from the first pages. What you’re talking about reminds me of as unalterably painful an artistic moment as I know: the end of the movie version of Dr. Zhivagao, when Julie Christie disappears into the Stalinist crowd as Omar Sharif so desperately tries of get off the bus from which he’s glimpsed her, and never gets close. You can feel that way when you finish a great book: that no matter how many times you reread it, you will never feel that sense of loss as keenly as you do in that instance. Except that’s the magic of literature: it isn’t true. You can feel it, and just as strongly. The end of Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist, that last paragraph, the real last paragraph—if only he’d cut that pointless last sentence, which undercuts what he’s already done, and betrays a kind of uncertainty about what he’s already done, a writer just slightly afraid of his own words. Roth once told me I understood that book better than anyone except he himself, but in this case I think I understand it better. Not that he’s around to argue the point.
Sad to learn that Joe Bussard has passed away. His enthusiasm and knowledge of those great 78s was truly something to behold… Always got a buzz watching Desperate Man Blues, even the bonus footage had me on the floor esp when he demos how to clean a 78 with a horse brush.
If Huck Finn hadda collected records this is kinda how he woulda been.
Safe journey and thanks for all you gave.
We talked on the phone a few times. His enthusiasm burnt up the line. And without him the world would no longer know “France Blues.”
I flat-out stole your name.
The all-powerful, all-knowing specter of a villain in my first and only spec script I ever wrote which, naturally, was never produced—while, shockingly, got me signed with an agency—was named Greil Marcus. I was young and came across your name somewhere? Vanity Fair, maybe? Can’t recall. But I’ve always loved it and, forgive me, used it in a piece of fiction.
It’s a badass name, man.
Yours is not the only villain my name has played. Matthew Robbins’s 1981 Dragonslayer features the leader of a vile cult—Christianity—that means to replace pagan magic with its own—and with the end of pagan magic comes the end of dragons. This is Albert Salmi as me—Matthew and I saw each other all the time then.
You say that you didn’t understand girls’ reactions to Elvis. When he first sang in my high school auditorium in Texas, the boys all hated him. He was a different type of masculinity. For us girls he was magnificent. So handsome and sexy. The best. I got to meet him several times and I wrote a book (of course) called Tryin’ To Get to You, my favorite song.
– Valerie Harms
When Elvis came to Oakland in 1956 and one of our 6th grade female classmates down the Peninsula in Menlo Park actually went the boys made fun of her because secretly we were insanely jealous that she had the nerve to do it and we didn’t. Not long after both of her parents were killed in a car crash and her devotion to Elvis spiraled out of control, ultimately consuming her life and making expected relationships impossible, at least into her forties. So it was a double-edged sword. She won, but paid a terrible price.
My mother had already bought me the “Hound Dog”/”Dont Be Cruel” 45 but the next year “All Shock Up” became the first record I ever bought. Still have it, of course. Little did I know that when I went to Menlo Atherton High in 1959, Jeff Buckingham, who with other brothers ruled the school, was compiling a rockabilly collection that would eventually serve as a Bible for his little brother Lindsey.
Congratulations on Folk Music. I bought an early copy at the Politics and Prose bookstore.
Would you consider Double Life of Bob Dylan, as well as Clinton Heylin’s other books on Dylan recommended reading?
– Ben Merliss
It passed me by when it was released, but I recently discovered Bob Dylan’s version of “He’s Funny That Way” from the 2018 album Universal Love: Wedding Songs Reimagined (which, according to Wikipedia, “features wedding songs with gender-specific terms adjusted to refer to the same gender as the singer”—figure that one out). Conceptually, the album’s a bit of a cheat—I suppose someone, somewhere, danced to Big Brother and the Holding Company’s “I Need a Man to Love” at their wedding, but I’d hardly call it a “wedding song” and anyway, most classic wedding songs (“Can’t Help Falling In Love,” “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Just the Way You Are” etc.) tend to be gender-neutral to begin with—but its heart is in the right place. Like Detective Fin Tutuola once said: “Gay marriage—it’s about time.”
“He’s Funny That Way” is an interesting choice—written as “She’s Funny That Way” to be sung by a man, Billie Holiday changed the pronouns and popularized it. There’s a line in the song that’s key—in the original lyrics: “I can see no other way/And no better plan/Than to end it all and let her go/To some other man.” Holiday changed the lyric to “let him go/to some other gal” which sounds awkward. Dylan sings it as “let HIM go/to some other MAN,” rescuing the rhyme and removing any doubt about the perspective: this can’t be heard as a man singing as a woman (“Dink’s Song,” “House of the Rising Sun”); the narrator is, simply and unambiguously, a gay man.
Which is just a long-winded way of saying it’s a relief that Dylan seems to have put all that anti-gay Old Testament shit he was spouting in the ’80s behind him—maybe due to his love for his daughter, who’d have her own same-sex wedding. Plus, Dylan’s “He’s Funny” is good! He sings it with just the right mix of pride and disbelief at his good luck (still can’t touch Billie, of course).
I always thought my own pick for a wedding song would be either “Let It Be Me” or “Out of Left Field,” but that ship has sailed. If I may pry, what did you and your wife choose?
You may not pry.
1. Now that you’ve seen Get Back, what is your full and and unvarnished opinion of it?
2. What do you think are the best/most important film(s) or documentary(ies) on the Beatles? (I personally don’t believe you’d have to frame it as a list in order to give an answer. One example or two in your own fashion would I think be consistent with your rules here.)
– Ben Merliss
1. A wasted opportunity.
2. A Hard Day’s Night.
As I continue to study and appreciate music, especially albums, I have found that the songs that I initially dismiss eventually become the songs that have the most long lasting impact on my appreciation for that album, work, or artist.
As I write this out, I am realizing this idea is reminiscent of “The stone that the builder refused shall be the cornerstone”… (Psalm 118:22, e.g. Bob Marley).
Tonight I experienced this when all of a sudden “This Song of Love” by Middle Georgia Singing Convention No. 1 revealed itself in all its glory, just as Smith probably intended.
“If you were with Harry you could discover something new every moment, and it was in complete disguise.” ~ Harvey Bialy
Have you experienced examples of this phenomena? Do you have any thoughts on why this happens?
P.S. Hope your recovery, and integration back into home life is going well
– Rich Soni
I’m not sure what you’re asking. Of course on countless occasions I’ve heard a recording in different times or circumstances than before and it’s been utterly changed. I can think of many examples, some of which I’ve already written about on this site. But in terms of discovering something new—I think of Alexander Trocchi speaking of Guy Debord and London—Debord was no Londoner, apart from his love for Thomas de Quincy’s Confessions of and English Opium Eater—of how he could take you down some nothing side street and reveal its history, its architectural uniqueness: “He could discover a city.” And in the same vein, Ed Ward, the late Fresh Air music historian and the second Rolling Stone Records Editor, one day walking my wife and myself through Berlin, which we’d visited many times—I was there when the wall was built—and opening up the place as if we’d never seen it at all.
Have you ever seen Lana Del Rey in concert? If so did she live up to or surpass your expectations based on how much you love her records?
A while back you mentioned you never saw the Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange. It actually got me thinking about all the literature I’ve never read. The Postman Always Rings Twice, Lost Horizon, The Invisible Man, Gone With the Wind, Oliver Twist, and so many others I know from the (mostly) Hollywood films of the 1930s & ’40s. Have you read all of these novels? What about the Bhagavad Gita? Voltaire? Zora Neale Hurston? Kant? Nietzsche? Wittgenstein? I’m jumping around but you get my drift. Are there any significant holes in what you’ve read?
– Steve Canson
The most significant hole in anything I’ve read came with War and Peace. I had my father’s old Modern Library edition. When I got to the end the last two pages were missing. And by that time I was so numbed I didn’t look elsewhere to find out what I was missing.
As far as 1,000 page novels go I’ll take The Count of Monte Cristo anytime. Though I have a friend who’s currently walking around with a t-shirt with the cover of one of Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle books—that six-volume 3,600 page novel—and the headline “FINISHED!” on top. I read the second and then the first in the hospital and am now a bit into number three, though after watching Pistol I took a break to reread Steve Jones’s Lonely Boy, which I liked just as much.
RE: Blowin’ In the Wind
I think I prefer John Fogerty’s “Wrote a Song for Everyone” (not necessarily a better song):
“Saw the people standing,
Thousand years in chains
Somebody said it’s different now,
Look it’s just the same.”
Hope you are well.
– Bo Brynerson
Can’t argue with that. And it’s such a realistic song. What it’s really about is that the answers aren’t blowing in the wind: there are no answers, and even if there were, you can’t get them across: “Wrote a song for everyone/And I couldn’t even get to you.” You make me wonder if, somewhere in its genesis, it’s an answer record to “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Like many others have stated, I’m glad to hear you’re doing better. As a thank you for all that you’ve done, here’s my favorite cover of one of your favorite pop songs (don’t let the opening riff fool you, although fair warning: I can’t hear the song now without it).(Oh, and if you like this, they also do a killer cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U” on the same album.)
– James L.
Thanks for this. Not a bad idea, but I prefer “Pretty Vacant” as done by the Pistol Sex Pistols. I’m sorry the Sex Pistols themselves didn’t do it. But that show is truly gripping, and when the band plays, especially as the story goes on, it’s inspiring. People in the crowd are as transformed as, sometimes, the Johnny Rotten character is. It’s completely convincing that this is something new under the sun, that people realize that, that it sets them free.
Do you think Philip Roth deserved a Nobel Prize in literature before Dylan.
– Jacob Zeder
Yes. If only for his whole body of work, for doing his most ambitious and deeply, paradoxically patriotic, work near the end of his life and career with American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain, and The Plot Against America. Put that with Portnoy’s Complaint, Sabbath’s Theater, and The Great American Novel, and you have more than enough to say that if Roth had never been born the country and the world would be impoverished.
Like Bob Dylan, Roth had a long fallow period through and out of the eighties, with pointless mirror novels about, in essence, whether he existed at all. It goes back to The Counterlife—all this teasingly autobiographical board/game puzzle fiction. But he came out of it like an avenger.
Why not? I was told by someone in a position to know that for years before Dylan was named in 2016 he was the only American who had been seriously considered since Toni Morrison: Roth and Joyce Carol Oates never really came up. I find this a little hard to believe, since Louise Gluck was named just four years later. Maybe Roth was passed over because it was known he would most likely be unable to travel to be present to accept the award (a year or so later he had to turn down the $1 million Jerusalem Prize, which had to be accepted in person—“Oh,” he said when he was informed that he had been elected unanimously, “there goes another million”). Little did the Swedish Academy suspect that Dylan would prevaricate about acknowledging his selection at all and send the American ambassador to Sweden to read his initial—and eloquently hilarious—acceptance statement, Patti Smith for the formal award ceremony, and a cocktail jazz-themed taped Nobel Lecture on his favorite Great Novels based on Cliff Notes: another way of accepting the prize while also turning his back on it. But the prize made the Academy look good, broke the mold more effectively than the award for Dario Fo, and, if it really did nothing for Dylan, thrilled countless first-rank novelists who might themselves have been considered, from Salman Rushdie, who ought to win this year if not next year, and Kazuo Ishiguro, who won in 2017, and, though I never read anything to say so, likely Peter Handke, who won in 2019, and who probably bought his last Bob Dylan album in 2020, when Rough and Rowdy Ways came out.
I felt bad for Philip Roth when the 2016 announcement was made. I know personally how much he wanted it. I felt bad for the world. But I also felt good for Bob Dylan and the world. That he didn’t miss a step afterward, but in his own way topped himself (which does not mean here what it means in Britain), is a kind of proof that it was a, if not the, right choice.
I’m certain you’re aware by now of the recent return of Creem. Although you wrote for them several years ago, were you in any way involved in its return? And should we expect to see articles from you with them anytime in the future?
– Richard Crane
If you count around 47 years as several, you lead a very fast life. I have nothing to do with the new Creem and have no plans to write for them. The Creem documentary isn’t bad, though.
The recent tragic killing of [Teenage Head guitarist] Gord Lewis brought the Frankie Venom statue debates in Hamilton back to mind: Zappa in Vilnius. John Lennon in Havana. Chuck Berry in St. Louis. Freddie Mercury in Montreux. Bon Scott in Fremantle. Rory Gallagher in Ballyshannon. Phil Lynott and (two of) Luke Kelly in Dublin. Ron Hynes in St. John’s. Glenn Frey in Winslow, Az. Etc. Wondering what you make of “rock statuary”. Merely kitsch or something more? Appreciably different than the statues of Glenn Gould in Toronto, Lou Costello in Paterson or Willie Stargell outside PNC Park? Bearing in mind that a parcel of purists would automatically deem there to be nothing less R’N’R; or “punk” than having one’s feet cast in cement.
Jamie Reid getting the museum treatment was inevitable, though I guess no one was imagining that with any certainty in 1977.
Take care, thanks.
– Craig Proctor
The very idea of a statue of Glenn Frey has me reeling. His name on a nightclub, sure. An alley or cross street, ok. Even a library. But unless he’s on horseback in full 19th century military dress, to compound the absurdity, it’s an image my brain simply will not accept. And we can take that down the line. Except for sports heroes at their stadiums or home town neighborhoods, where they’d probably be vandalized or carted off to someone’s man cave.
In “Take it Easy,” Frey and the rest of the Eagles were playing fictional characters in a drama that began on the side of of a road in Winslow, Arizona. Should there be a statue of Atticus Finch in Maycomb, Alabama, if it existed, instead of a statue of Harper Lee in New York, where she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird? Say, in Christopher Park in Greenwich Village, Lee sitting on a bench with Truman Capote? The possibilities are endless.
I could definitely go for Jamie Reid on a side street near Buckingham Palace. He’s 75; let him go up while he can see it.
I love your love for “Up Around the Bend.” John Fogerty packs more joy into one “OOOH” than most artists manage in a lifetime.
My favorite has always been “Lodi,” in no small part because my dad used to sing it to me with the words changed to “Oh Lord, stuck in Novi again”—Novi being the Detroit suburb next to the one where I grew up, and it fits the song in more ways than one.
I always assumed contemporary critical consensus toward CCR was almost universally positive. I was born well after they broke up so I can only go by what I’ve read, but even Rolling Stone, whose supposed indifference toward CCR was the basis for the question you fielded about the group last month, appears to have published glowing reviews for Green River/Willy and the Poor Boys/Cosmo’s Factory when they were released. What’s your recollection of how most critics viewed them during their prime?
– Ben S.
I didn’t know anyone who didn’t think they were wonderful. Their string of hit singles was so rich every one was a surprise with its radical shifts in rhythm and subject: war, a turn in the road, a dead end town, and the ultimate mystery: cross-tie walkers.
What do you make of Joe Biden referring to MAGA folks as “semi-fascists.” Does the “semi” throw you off the way it does me? Is it a wise move politically?
I’d prefer “new” or “present-day”—“neo” always sounds wishy washy to me. But what he said did what he presumably wanted. It drew a line. It shocked Republicans to hear their own reality thrown back in their faces. The horror, the horror!
I have read your writing over the course of many years, and thank you so much for all your thought provoking and nuanced criticism. And just to note I also went through open heart surgery a decade ago, and it took much time and energy to recover, but it also became a significant period for rest and reflection.
I was wondering if you were familiar with a podcast called Bandsplain hosted by Yasi Salek?
Each episode is a roughly two-hour critical overview of a musician/band’s recording career. Listening to an episode on Randy Newman (with guest critic Molly Lambert) sent me back to his early “classic” LPs, and to Mystery Train. It was interesting to hear a discussion by two women writers in 2021/2 on Newman’s work, and they did raise points about how his fandom (for his core output) skews male and white, and likely of a certain age. But then again, his widest audience (knowingly or not) would be for his animation soundtracks.
I am wondering if you had any thoughts about Newman’s impact as a writer (well, lyricist, primarily) today given the 21st C context that is often resistant to the labyrinthine ironies, contradictions, and satirical voicings that are so often foregrounded in the (especially early) work?
Thanks in advance for any thoughts.
– Martin Patrick
I have no evidence, or first person testimony, or biographical confirmation, but I think Randy Newman, while primarily influencing himself in his writing (I’ve done enough, I can get away with a little sloppiness here v. that was good enough, but if you compare it to “Uncle Bob’s Midnight Blues” it’s really a cheat), has probably effected a lot of people in many fields in terms of concision, setting up zingers that don’t feel like zingers but like a slightly more stressed continuation of ordinary talk. Musicians, sure. But also novelists, journalists, filmmakers, and more. Elvis Costello, obviously, especially early on—and absorbing Newman’s skepticism about all things under the sun and his misanthropy in a way that vastly expanded the landscape of punk while drawing on older British traditions that, so to speak, made John Osborne a member of Monty Python. Denis Johnson. Maybe Rachel Kushner and Dana Spiotta. Songwriters who learned how get in and get out, how to say everything while seemingly saying nothing: isn’t Townes Van Zant’s “Waiting Around to Die” a Randy Newman song with a lazy rhythm? And isn’t that what a lot of Randy Newman songs are about, from “Uncle Bob,” again, to “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country”?
Greil, I just wanted to apologize for my nonsensical comments about “Blowin’ in the Wind”… I completely misremembered the lyrics (at my age it’s dangerous to rely solely on my memory), and I thought the “some people” referred to the oppressors not the oppressed. An Elvis version of “Over the Mountain” would be great, but I think listening to “Tryin’ to Get to You” and “Blue Moon” back to back is as close as we can get. Take care of yourself.
– Peter Danakas
Doesn’t matter. I think it still works.
Historical accounts of the ’60s consistently blame the Manson murders and the Altamont tragedy for the end of the counterculture movement. Although it’s clear these events were major blows to the youthful innocence that was a cornerstone of the era, the hippie movement seems to have continued in some form well into the ’70s, and indeed the effects of it are still being felt to this day. When it is stated that these events were the end of the counterculture movement, what are they actually referring to as “ending”? Did these events feel like an ending to those who were around to experience them?
– Luke Cross
I don’t know about the end of the counterculture, which was always a construct. Culture is culture, as Chuck D once said, and Theodore Rozak’s CC invention was just another way of drawing lines. I don’t remember anyone referring to the Manson murders—the spectacularized ones—as the end of anything: R. Crumb thought they were the apotheosis, where it had been heading all along. But in terms of the era, the time, what people had already historicized as it was happening, there’s this real-life dialogue from Altamont, at about three in the afternoon, before anyone had died but when fantasies of turning the crowd into an army to conquer Berkeley or it turning into a fascist mob to devour itself were already rampant:
Person one: What an ending!
Person two: To what? The sixties?
Person one: No! To my book on the sixties!
At the risk of starting this message on a rather obsequious note (however unintentionally), I’m in the midst of reading Mystery Train, and it’s the finest piece of pop culture criticism I’ve had the pleasure of reading—truly a brilliant piece of writing.
Anyway, to my question (and hopefully it’s not too loaded): Would you consider Harry Styles’ recent breezy summer hit “As It Was” to be a masterpiece of modern pop music? Personally, I think it is one of the finest pop songs of the last ten years as it is instantly recognizable, has an irresistible hook, understated but highly polished production, and at 2 minutes 47 seconds in length leaves me wanting just a little more, but glad that it doesn’t outstay its welcome. It would be great to know your thoughts.
The production and arrangement are lovely, irresistible, but too much like a hundred other records to stand up over much time: I doubt if anyone will be playing it next summer. But the voice is paper-thin and incapable of expression. For me it’s all over by the time he comes in, and that’s under 15 seconds. This is a better Justin Timberlake number, and his voice is paint thinner.
This week I went to an antique store and came across a photo of a blackface performance presumably from the early 20th century. It was particularly startling because the audience (or a group of people who appeared to be the audience) were all in blackface as well. Have you ever heard of a show with an audience like this?
I asked Eric Lott, likely the greatest living authority on the subject: that’s not something he ever came across. Around 1900-20 it was common at large functions, like a company Christmas party, for various people to black up, just another costume on a festive occasion, but not the whole crowd. But in the 1930s black audiences were still cheering black blackface performance—that is, black people darkening their skin and drawing huge white lips around their mouths. Are you looking at blackface performers and a black audience? Want to send in the picture?
Hello from Maine… A sincere thank you for your upcoming publication, Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography In Seven Songs. I can’t wait to read the book.
A respectful question: will signed copies be available to order? From a long time reader of your work… All my thanks and well wishes.
— Maurice Harmon
At bookstores where I do readings—if I do. If and when there’s a schedule of events it’ll be posted on the site.
Glad you are home and doing better. I hope your wife is well also. A quick thought and question.
1. With your book coming out and Bob’s coming out, how about a joint book tour? If that would ever happen, I would pay whatever the ticket price.
2. Have you ever commented on the so called cowpunk scene of the ’80s? (The Blasters, Dwight Yoakam, Los Lobos.)
– James Proctor
Bob? Bob who? Oh, that one. No, I don’t see that happening. I’m sure he’s free and would jump at the chance, but I’m not going to be traveling for a while.
Dwight Yoakam has grown on me over the years, but I still think he’s a better actor.
Los Lobos have made interesting records here and there but not enough.
I loved the Blasters. I loved the sweat all over the cover of their first album. There’s comment on the band and Dave Alvin in Real Life Rock and the reprint of a Facebook post from Alvin in More Real Life Rock.
Apologies to AG readers who may be tired of those taking a scalpel to “Blowin’ In The Wind,” but the comment from Billy [8/31] got me to actually read the lyrics to the song, and that gave me reason to climb on. In 40+ years of listening to and seeing Dylan, I don’t think I ever bothered to read those words. Why would you? They’re clear as a dinner bell on the record, and they’ve been quoted in a galaxy of writing. But when I did look at them in print, something about the song hit me like a hammer on my toes: The song could be conversation, not monologue.
The part I always found, well, maybe not clumsy, but too old-timey was the little rhythmic trick of starting the verse lines with “Yes, and…” But suddenly, I see that phrase as essential, because now I imagine each line is an interjection into another person’s speech. Someone asks the first rhetorical (“how many roads”) and then emphasizes his or her concern by adding the second (“how many seas”). Having raised some attention in the town square or tavern, a second person stands up and joins in, perhaps only trying to upstage the first, but beginning with agreement: “Yes! and…” then continuing with their concern about cannonballs.
Each subsequent line of verse now seems like another person has walked up to the group with their point to make. Who are they? The line about mountains sounds like a Jewish voice to me. The next, about people being free, could be a black woman, or maybe a Honduran who just walked to Texas only to be bused to Washington. It’s an old ashamed white man, maybe, who talks about turning his head. You could insert anyone you want into the play, and you can change the time and place of the gathering a hundred different ways. You could even score it into a hack Hamilton (“Blowin’! comes to Broadway”).
Have you ever read any of Dylan’s songs this way, where what seems to be the voice of one could be the voice of many? I can recall him describing conversations, but not voicing groups.
Now, back to the parlor game: If we put the lines into the mouths of characters, the word to choose over “some” might be “my.”
– Glenn Burris
That’s a marvelous notion. It matches, reinforces, the open and metaphorically inclusive nature of the song. Recently another contributor here made the same suggestion about “Lo and Behold!” which makes sense if you just look at lyrics and not how the song is sung, which is irrevocably in one voice—but you can hear different voices in “Blowin’ in the Wind.” I wish I’d thought of that: it would be two more pages in the opening chapter of my Folk Music, which is “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
As for ‘my people,’ I think that would be taking appropriation a bridge-on-the-River-Kwai too far.
Re: your thoughts on Bob Dylan’s “clumsy” line in “Blowin’ In The Wind”: I don’t share that view. I’ve always liked that line and don’t detect clumsiness in it. To me, “How many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free”—like the entire lyric of the song—scans and sounds like the writing of a raw untutored kid formulating a vision for a new type of art, feeling his way toward it, and, with “Blowin’ In The Wind,” making a big leap forward in his quest. Of course he’s not “there” yet—nowhere near there really—but my god is he ever on his way.
On the other hand, if one were to insist that the line in question had to be changed, it occurs to me that you could replace “some” with “a” without doing damage, and some might even find it an improvement: “How many years can a people exist before they’re allowed to be free.” What do you think?
To bolster this idea, see this pertinent, brief discussion about the use of the phrase “a people,” which, to me, is enlightening in this context.
— Pete Fehrenbach
I think you’ve got it, all around, first with your argument that ‘some’ is both ok and a sign of a writer finding his feet, and in suggesting ‘a’ as a substitute. That immediately struck me as not only right but deep, because while black people or African-Americans are not commonly referred to as a ‘people,’ Jews are: and this links blacks and Jews as outsiders. As Dylan points out in Chronicles, Minneapolis when he arrived in 1959 was notoriously anti-Semitic (Jewish doctors really couldn’t practice there)—it’s not as if it would have been a rumor to him. So thanks.
The Beatles are now releasing a 63-track outtakes collection of Revolver. This is an album I adore as much as any but when will this fucking end?? Should it? (The rub is that I will listen and possibly adore it even more. Maybe it’s just the idea itself that makes me queasy.)
Based on a short entry I think you wrote in Real Life Rock, I know you weren’t crazy about Get Back. Any general thoughts on endless Beatles regurgitations?
Who knows? I’d like to know. At least on paper. Is there a track list out there?
…[Later the same day] Saw the track list. All alternate takes of released songs. I can live without more versions of “Rain” or “Dr Robert,” which I never cared about anyway.
Hi Greil, I’m glad you’re feeling better, and hope your health continues to improve. I appreciate you taking time out to accept and respond to all of us while you’ve been going through this ordeal. What kind of music have you been listening to while recuperating?
I was thinking about the lyrics of “Blowin’ in the Wind”—I like “some people” because it sounds kind of accusatory/judgemental…implying “some people” don’t get it. One of Dylan’s lyrics I just noticed was “Tomorrow is a Long Time” when I was listening to Dion’s version, where it says “heart softly pounding”…can anything pound softly? An inadvertently humorous lyric is Johnnie and Joe’s “Over the Mountain”: “she’s passed the wind that’s blowing loud.” Did Mel Brooks co-write the song? Has anyone commented on this before? I’ve often thought a book of “reviews” of songs Elvis should have covered would have been fun. Couldn’t you see “Patches” as part of EP’s That’s the Way It Is set? Have you gotten into the reaction videos on Youtube? Some of them are pretty interesting—young African-Americans hearing/seeing “Papa was a Rolling Stone” for the first time, or being exposed to Elvis’s 1968 performances, and just not knowing the context…whether it’s a concert or a movie, or what. Then being subjected to the 1977 Elvis as Charles Laughton “Unchained Melody,” which seems kind of cruel to show an unsuspecting young viewer. You discussed this performance with someone a while ago. I’ve seen it several times over the years, but this time I noticed for the first time (I’m sure it was edited from the TV special, or from my memory) how casually and viciously cruel Elvis is to poor Charlie Hodge, who is just loyally and lovingly escorting him to the grand piano, which is covered with amusement park red cups of Coke,
so that Elvis can offer his message of love and longing to Thanatos.
Anyway, I’ve taken up to much of your time. Thanks for all your great work over the years, and your patience. I hope you continue getting better and stronger.
– Peter Danakas
I’d love to hear Elvis do “Over the Mountain.” I can’t believe those lyrics are in the song. Johnny was a very attentive guy. I doubt that would have passed his lips. So to speak.
Message from Greil (8/31/22)
After nearly four months I am out of the hospital and doing what I can to stay out. I deeply appreciate the encouragement and affection from all who’ve written in to offer it.
Well, school starts tomorrow (I teach high school) and I am finishing my American Studies syllabus while enjoying the Spotify Mystery Train playlist on shuffle.
High school juniors were mostly born in 2005-6. They were literally babies when Taylor Swift’s first album came out.
I am thinking of using some of Mystery Train later in the year, when we talk about modern popular culture—and what it replaced. I wonder, though. If you were trying to teach Gen Zers about the music that they won’t hear while following their folks through Trader Joe’s, what might you focus on? Would you talk about the Sun Sessions? Robert Johnson?
Not asking you to plan my course, I promise! Just curious what you think about when you think about music and Gen Z.
Thanks and take care.
I have granddaughters, 14 and 11. The younger one especially loves Lana Del Rey, but my sense is that they will respond to anything they hear and like regardless of its provenance—or especially without provenance, without the burden of knowledge and presumed importance.
That brings up the question of teaching, or music in a teaching environment, which is precisely about the burden of knowledge and presumed importance. Given that, at least from the picture drawn in Mystery Train, I’d say go for what might seem, on paper, the most distant, anomalous, and foreign (“the past is a foreign country”): Robert Johnson. His music has been shocking people into self-recognition for going on ninety years—people who philistine cultural critics might assume had nothing in common with a young and itinerant black man from Mississippi and Memphis in the 1930s. Without flogging Bob Dylan’s name (that is, without mentioning it, just framed as a typical response from people hearing Johnson from way back then to last year) you might want to read his comments on first hearing Johnson (who he’d never heard of) in 1961, in his Chronicles (“I immediately differentiated between him and anyone else I’d ever heard”). Then play the music and ask people to respond. Don’t expect people to like it or respond at all. Most might not. But if you can draw your students out, so they understand there is no mandated or incumbent response, you might be surprised at what you hear. Does this music sound familiar? Odd? Strange? When would you guess it was made? Why listen to it now?
For more reading, for them or for you, Brother Robert: Growing Up with Robert Johnson, by Annye C. Anderson.
Many thanks for this column, it’s provided much joy and has been a wonderful source of discovery.
I agree, “How many years can some people exist?” is clumsy af. Still, how else could Dylan have phrased such a sentiment?
I’m stumped. I’ve fooled around in my head with “our people” and just “people” but they don’t work. Any more ideas?
Do you think Mark Ribowsky’s book on Hank Williams improves on Colin Escott’s, which you once recommended in your notes for Mystery Train? I know I gave you my opinion already but this is your turf and I’d still like to know yours. Also what other books by Ribowsky stand out to you besides the Spector bio? (If his Temptations bio is one of them, I’m fine with that sir.)
– Ben Merliss
I haven’t read it—didn’t know of it. There are fine moments in the Escott book, but my favorite on Hank Williams is a few pages in John Fahey’s How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life and Chet Flippo’s book.
Hope your recovery is going well.
You have been on my mind lately as I have been doing some research for a podcast on the ‘old weird’ brand many of us have mutually come to admire. Lots of that passion is rooted in some of the graffiti you have left along the railroad tracks of the Smithville/Kill Devil Hills Line. This is not unlike the the sign from The Walking Dead leading to Terminus, that initially reads “SANCTUARY FOR ALL COMMUNITY. FOR ALL THOSE WHO ARRIVE SURVIVE,” but is defaced by Rick Grimes to instead heed “NO SANCTUARY.”
As Mary says:
“The signs… they were real. It was a sanctuary. People came and took this place. And they raped. And they killed. And they laughed! Over weeks… but we got out. And we fought and we got it back and we heard the message! You’re the butcher… or you’re the cattle.”
Speaking of cattle, well at least of the land of cattle… Texas’s Stevie Ray Vaughan is often the first name dropped when I try to have a conversation about the blues with pretty much anyone. Am I missing something, or is this perhaps the biggest tragedy of the genre? I cannot say anything about SRV except he is a proficient guitar player. But, even then, there are much more compelling listens, even within Texas Blues (Pee Wee Crayton comes immediately to mind).
For some reason, I cringe inside whenever Stevie Ray Vaughan is brought up. Am I missing something? Why does he often live at the seat of guitar gods next to Jimi Hendrix? In my book, he is the Demiurge of the blues.
– Rich Soni
I feel exactly the same. There’s no there there.
After reading your essay on Inherent Vice, I dreamed of hearing the music of The Doors in the film adaptation. I didn’t and assume it is because they weren’t hip enough for PT Anderson. I would love to hear what you thought of the movie. I have also searched and failed to find your responses to Scorsese’s NO DIRECTION HOME and ROLLING THUNDER and am even more eager to hear your take on them. (I just read your take on Creedence of the 24th and it exemplifies why you are my favorite critic. Your words generate the same excitement in me that Pauline Kael’s do.)
– Robert Puccinelli
There’s only one stray reference to the Doors in Inherent Vice—some cover band in a club playing I don’t remember what—“Strange Days”? “People are Strange”? And probably too expensive to license the real thing even if the production company wanted it. And the movie is terrible.
I wrote a piece about the first public screening of No Direction Home, at the Telluride Film Festival, in the Australian film journal Studies in Documentary Film [recently posted here]. At the same time Don DeLillo and I had a public conversation on the film and his novel Great Jones Street, which is also on this site.
I didn’t write about Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue film because my favorite part—other than the stunning performance of “Isis”—was the Michael Murphy interview—fictional character transposed out of Tanner 88 into another movie—and I couldn’t get a handle on it. With the Criterion Collection DVD with fine liner notes by Dana Spiotta I may take another crack at it.
From reading Expecting Rain I get links to Ask Greil… and came upon the “Blowin’ in the Wind” questions, in response to which u declare a line “clumsy writing.”
He was what? 21 when he wrote it?
21! I think you thinking that is kind of ridiculous thinking .
My question is, what if political right leaning people enjoy your books and have similar taste and loves for the same type of music you write about? Does that annoy you in any way?
– James O’ Donnell
Your question reminds me of an incident during the free and liberating punk years in San Francisco, 1977-83 or so, when I was having the time of my life DJing at a big noisy club when two women about 20 came up and said “Play some of that great nigger soul music we know you love.” I was so shocked and appalled I had no idea what to say or do. I don’t remember what I did say or do. But what you’re talking about is hardly on that level. Given that my politics have always been rooted in the New Deal and the Free Speech Movement and that that has informed every book I’ve written, I find what you’re suggesting a little unlikely. No one has ever said to me anything like “I liked this or that and given that your politics are so fucked up I can’t understand why.” I doubt if anyone ever said to Philip Roth, “The Plot Against America is total bullshit, a typical sentimental liberal fantasy, but I read it three times because the writing is so exquisite.” And none of that is happening on the level of thugs playing Nirvana’s’ “Polly” while committing rape and torture, something that drove Kurt Cobain mad: If my music which was made to show the world what evil is not by saying it’s bad, which is meaningless, but by acting it out, by showing that it is a human choice, like Dostoyevsky did, produces not good but more evil, what is there left to do but never write or sing another song?
It may be me, because evidently he’s a national treasure (see Jody Rosen’s piece in The Sunday Times Magazine) but I don’t like Willie Nelson. I admit in the late ’70s I was attracted to his misterioso western Red Headed Stranger and the elegant Stardust, but even those have curdled for me over the years. Even though I have no reason to believe he’s anything but sincere, he just seems phony to me. And I find his singing flat. I don’t remember you ever saying anything about him one way or another so I was wondering, has he ever done anything for you?
There was a time when his standards album sounded good. That was perhaps before he applied his basic lachrymose runny-nose singing to whatever he goes near, thus becoming the most self branded and boring singer on the planet.
You referred to RJ Smith’s upcoming Chuck Berry biography as “shockingly good.” Why shockingly? And did you ever have occasion to speak with Chuck?
– Craig Zeller
That RJ was able to unearth so much, and weave it into an increasingly complex set of stories is not shocking. It’s that without ever saying anything of the sort he comes away with a sense that the greater story is not transparent, and that becomes the source of the shocking depth he is able to draw out of it.
In 1969 Cal invited CB to deliver a lecture at the student Union and he accepted. I was in grad school there and went, along with a full house. As we were all waiting, I noticed a handsome well-dressed man trying to open one of the outside glass doors to the room. I went over, opened the door, said “Welcome to Berkeley,” shook his hand, and walked him to the podium. He began by saying he had agreed to give a lecture and take questions: “The lecture—eh. The questions—Ahhhh.” And then he talked about everything. Rolling Stone’s photographer, the late Baron Wolman, was there: one of his pictures from that day is on the cover of RJ Smith’s book. I taped it and transcribed it and we ran it in Rolling Stone without permission or complaint.
What is your view on David Leaf updating and re-publishing The Beach Boys and the California Myth next month?
– Ben Merliss
I have no view. When the book came out originally I thought he didn’t know what he was talking about. I had two grandfathers in San Francisco during the earthquake. One lived in Golden Gate Park before moving to San Jose and the other was a marshal. Californians generally consider life in California real life. I never heard the terms ‘California myth’ or ‘California dream’ growing up. We learned all about the Gold Rush but also that the real California gold was agriculture. Avocados. Grapes and raisins. Oranges and stone fruit. Alien seed pods…
My favorite Voight role is Jonas Hodges, a 24 heavy who directed a coup against Hillary stand-in Cherry Jones and then spent the rest of his time sulking because nobody realized what a patriot he is. So maybe not Trump, but how about Rudy?
– Kevin Bicknell
Hope mid-August finds you feeling better.
With the Kingston Trio making an appearance in Ask Greil, some may be interested to learn what Elvis sounded like while being backed by them. It seems in mid-1966 Presley and pals taped some typical-for-the time folk music sing-alongs, accompanied by sharp acoustic guitar, among them Kingston Trio staples “500 Miles” and “Blowin’ In The Wind“:
No “Tom Dooley,” though.
RCA found the reel at Graceland in the 1990s and released portions on their collector imprint: In A Private Moment (Follow That Dream, March 16, 2000).
Those acoustics sounded familiar, and after some digging I discovered they were singing to an instrumental album: Sing A Song With The Kingston Trio (Capitol SKAO-2005, November 15, 1963).
This unusual disc first appeared as “the glamour of JFK’s New Frontier” was about to end.
– Johnny Savage
What a great discovery. Now, if they could just get all those other people off the tracks so you could hear Elvis…
This past weekend I happened across Inside Llewyn Davis, possibly the only Coen production I’d missed in its initial release. The leads do a fine job, though the Coen’s odd-ball-in-and-out approach has worn a bit thin at this point. I was too lazy to look, but if you reviewed or in any way discussed this one I’m willing to bet you thought the performances were way off. That doesn’t really come home until the very end, when an unidentified Bob Dylan takes the stage. The rest sound like ’70s singer-songwriters rather than participants of the early ’60s folk movement. If anything, Oscar Isaac sounds like Dave Matthews more than Dave Von Ronk.
Just wondered what your take was.
– Derek Murphy
I did write about it, in Artforum. Your comparison to ’70s singer-songwriters and Dave Matthews—I wish I’d thought of that.
I think of you as someone who isn’t hobbled by a lot of “shoulds.” That is, I think you follow your tastes and curiosities—in terms of what you listen to, what you read, what you watch, and what you teach—without any anxiety about being comprehensive. (I imagine, for example, that if you taught a course in noir literature and movies, you’d teach the books and movies that interest you, and you wouldn’t feel obliged to include anything just because other people consider it canonical.)
But I’m curious as to whether this is true, or if I’m to some extent creating an imaginary Greil Marcus in my head.
– Cyrus Robertson
I hope it’s true.
I hope you are well, Mr. Marcus.
I have read Mystery Train and Invisible Republic/The Old Weird America. In both, you discuss the Band in the context of America. Have you ever written anything, or do you wish to say something, that addresses the fact that they are four fifths Canadian?
– Jonathan Ryshpan
I hate it when people say, “That’s in the book,” but I do talk about this quite a bit in Mystery Train. I don’t really discuss their Canadianness—what a musical paradise Yonge St. in Toronto was in the early ’60s, or Robbie on the reservation, let alone what he learned about crime and subterfuge from his mobbed-up Toronto uncle—but their attraction to America as The Place, the Source, is a main theme. And the title of the chapter I hope suggests that they were pilgrims to the USA.
Do you remember the first time you heard The White Album—or what it was like living with that album in the days or months after it was released? If so, I would love to hear about it.
Take care and I hope you feel better soon.
Endless talk. Speculation. The labyrinth of songs. Favorites changing by the day. Holier than thou put down by a New York Times critic saying it was inferior to the new Blood Sweat and Tears album (the appalling pretentious second one that replaced Al Kooper with the horrible David Clayton Thomas) and Jann Wenner’s capture of the Times critic: “Either he is deaf or he is evil.” Days organizing themselves around “Helter Skelter,” “I’m so Tired” (waiting for that ripped guitar note at the end), and the titanic “Yer Blues.” Realizing that “Back in the USSR” is wonderful and has lasted because “California Girls” is wonderful and has lasted.
And what does it mean that the immortal versions of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which was undeniable from the start, are those made without George? The live performance with Paul singing and Clapton playing? The big band session (and thank God, but how did they keep that camera hog G.E. Smith away?), where at the end Prince swallows the earth?
Maybe more than any other Beatles album it makes you realize how much was lost.
I hope you are comfortable and recovering. I’m spending some time with Real Life Rock, and I note that even then you saw through Rudy Giuliani— it is strange that many of us had always seen [him] for what he has shown himself to be—but for many others he seemed heroic—even before his catastrophic judgement before the towers fell. (see, e.g., Real Life Rock, 9/17/2001, entry 10.) So, a question: I don’t think I’ve read anything by you about bullies, and specifically the mentality of bullying and the culture that supports it. I would put it to you that the Republican Party as it exists today resembles the culture of the townsfolk in High Noon, terrified into submission by a bully. Your thoughts?
– Bill Altreuter
I don’t think the Republican Party is cowed by Donald Trump. Within the party he is a legitimate political actor promoting fascist morons in primaries, and Republican voters vote for them because they embody their anti-democratic values and make them, the voters, feel like empowered political actors. As I’ve said many times, I don’t believe support for democracy in this country, except perhaps in very special and circumscribed periods of time, has ever exceeded 65 percent and is usually much lower. Democracy is a burden. You have to make choices and defend them. Many people would prefer that all decisions be made for them like the dictator Trump thought he was and seeks to become. This is far beyond bullying.
On a personal, physical, verbal level, of course he’s a bully—though omitting the physical, so was George W. Bush with his renaming of everyone around him to make sure they understood he owned them. Combine bigotry and racism and all around contempt—as one person put it, Trump really does believe he’s the best person ever born—and you have a killer, which again is far beyond a bully. It’s forgotten, or ignored, that along with his other crimes and depredations, Trump, with the. Operation of Bill Barr, left office as a serial killer. No one had been executed in the Federal system for years before Trump: he had 13 people killed, the ultimate exercise of power, in his last year, including six after his defeat, as a thumb in the nose to anti-death penalty Joe Biden.
John Hamm tells a story about encountering Trump and Bill O’Reilly at parties, and the way the two of them would dominate the room, pushing people aside, breaking up conversations, insulting people around them or who approached them, as “tall guys” flaunting tall guy power: physically intimidating people, just as Trump, in his debate with Hillary, lurked over her like Boris Karloff. It didn’t work with him, Hamm said, “because I’m a tall guy, too.” But he found it fascinating to watch.
You introduced me to the writings of Hannah Arendt. It was a 1978 (I think) review in the Village Voice of her book The Life of the Mind which, if I remember correctly, you had problems with. Since that review isn’t on your site, would you say a few words about her work?
The philosophy section of Arendt’s posthumously published The Life of the Mind seemed to sink under the weight of her never-abandoned worship of Heidegger: when she was his student, her lover, truly great philosopher, Nazi, anti-Semite, and who, after his Denazification, in an interview that was not to be published until after his death, still proclaimed “Only a god can save us,” and he wasn’t talking about a spirit in the sky. The timidity, her claims of ignorance—anything to avoid the stain that covered him like a suit.
I encountered Arendt and On Revolution (still, for me, her best book, the most suggestive, the most made of story-telling, in its way kin to Camus’s The Rebel) in 1966, the same year I read Pauline Kael’s I Lost it at the Movies. I think I’ve always associated them: two Jewish women much smarter than they were supposed to be, outraging people who were supposed to know what they were talking about, but with their hard-boiled and yet gorgeous prose leaving their detractors and enemies in the dust (though especially Eichmann in Jerusalem they nearly destroyed Arendt).
Not all of her books have lasted. I don’t think The Origins of Totalitarianism holds water; I think Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium is far more convincing. Homo Faber has a concept that is far too weak to sustain a whole book. Men in Dark Times is a concept that animates all of her best work and yet the book is missing something, some spark—compared to Eric Ambler’s prewar thrillers about Europe descending into barbarism like Cause for Alarm and Journey into Fear it feels hollow.
The touchstones for me remain On Revolution, Between Past and Future (one of the great phrases of 20th century romanticism), and Eichmann in Jerusalem. The latter especially can take your breath away with its argument that the determinative purpose of the Nazi regime was the committing of heretofore unknown and unimaginable crimes, and its conclusion: the verdict Arendt herself would have read from the bench had she been a judge on why Eichmann had to die.
I don’t know if I would have had the nerve to write what I did about Arendt if she had still been alive. (One of the first things I wrote about Pauline Kael was a negative review, which resulted in her calling me up, pissed off, which led to our becoming friends.) But somehow I doubt it.
I assume not, due to your health situation, which of course we all wish you well with, but—did you get a chance to see that Lipstick Traces production there was a post for on your website? I didn’t even know it had been put on stage at all… Did you see the previous versions? And if so, what did you think about how it captured or interpreted your work?
– Zandel Thwaite
To be somewhat redundant on this site–
Lipsick Traces was developed as a play by the Rude Mechs, a theater collective in Austin, Texas, in 1999. The group has remarkably stayed together, and the people principally involved continue to create imaginative works now. Their LT was directed by Shawn Sides, written by Kirk Lynn, with the narrator played by Lana Lesley, who not long ago turned the production, not my book, into a blazing graphic novel as a guide for other productions. After an unfinished version debuted at the Fringe Festival in New York, it opened in Austin. My wife and I flew down to see it. After I went up to Shawn and said, “You staged the book I wanted to write.” I had nothing to do with it—I told them to use the book as raw material and do whatever they wanted. But there was a certain spirit in an early version of the book I wrote one afternoon in the form of a play that I never got into the book itself—they found it and put it in their play. And there were certain events described in accounts of the Cabaret Voltaire that I could never visualize or even understand: they made them happen.
The play had several runs in Austin, then opened in New York in 2001 for six weeks. With a partly different cast, including David Greenspan as Malcolm McLaren, it was even better. The day after the opening, which we were there for, I got a call from, I thought, Greenspan pretending to be Malcolm—except it was Malcolm, saying he was going to stage it in London and play himself (that didn’t happen). The show then played many dates in the Midwest, with residencies in Seattle and Los Angeles.
The most recent production was by the Outcast theater group in Dallas. I wasn’t there. But in any any case it’s an absolutely brilliant work and, at about 70 minutes, perfect for the many people who say they loved the book, but, you know, didn’t quite finish it.
Hi Greil. Best wishes for a speedy recovery. Reading your review of Happy Trails by Quicksilver Messenger Service—an LP I bought at age fourteen when it came out in March 1969—I thought of two other LPs I bought later in 1969, both released on Nov. 2, 1969: Volunteers by Jefferson Airplane and Willy and the Poor Boys by Creedence Clearwater Revival.
All three influenced my young listening tastes (along with Miles Davis’s In A Silent Way, released July 1969—what a year!) and I still listen to them all today. But by the time I got to college, having listened to tons more music, I realized that Willy was way more political and politically insightful than the self-proclaimed political Volunteers.
With songs against the Vietnam war (“Fortunate Son”), Nixon (“Effigy”), the working poor (“Don’t Look Now”), and for the folk/blues tradition (two songs associated with Lead Belly, most notably “Cottonfields”)—Willy still stood up throughout the next decade.
Which brings me to an excerpt from a new book by John Lingan, A Song For Everyone: The Story of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Looking at John Fogerty’s best songs as similar in subject to the working class antiheroes of Leonard Gardner’s California-based novel Fat City—“The wisps of physical detail in the new song [Green River] could be read as a horror story or a bucolic romance”—Lingan explores a key question about/plaguing Fogerty: “How could he sound like Mick Jagger, feel like a Pete Hamill schlub, and come off like Beaver Cleaver? However it happened, he’d found the perfect combination to prevent anyone from taking him seriously.”
So, finally, my question to you, having lived in the Bay Area at the time: was CCR’s lack of critical (not popular) acclaim in magazines like Rolling Stone, which favored ballroom bands like Quicksilver and the Airplane, really just about CCR being El Cerrito suburban boys? Was it really just about the band’s huge AM success at the height of FM Underground radio’s influence?
I guess my question also is, has there ever been a good book that you know of about the class/racial aspects of the “San Francisco Sound” as Ralph J. Gleason (or his publisher) called it? Where the deconstruction of a Bo Diddley classic like “Who Do You Love” by Quicksilver as opposed to CCR’s straightforward take on “Cottonfields” was explored?
Perhaps a class-based analysis of the SF bands wasn’t part of the contemporaneous critical scene, and a music-based analysis was the default critical position.
But was there any really good class-based rock (and other) criticism around in 1969? (And Theodor Adorno doesn’t count, although he was still alive when Happy Trails was released, so who knows.)
Cheers and best wishes again for a speedy recovery.
All you heard from San Francisco Sound musicians about Creedence was “Anybody can play that shit.” The question of why nobody else did didn’t come up. In some ways Sly and the Family Stone were treated the same—they started out playing bars in working class towns like Hayward and Oakland.
El Cerrito was a declassé town in a string of little towns south of Berkeley. I remember the first time I saw El Cerrito High School—an ugly block of a building with bars on the windows. Even without the bars it looked more like a jail than a school. Felt like it inside, too.
There was a Rolling Stone interview by I think Ralph Gleason that may have touched on these themes, but I’m not sure. But the rage in John Fogerty’s songs felt like the rage of people who were not on their way up, right from the start, and nobody I know missed it.
I haven’t seen the John Lingan book, and while the Fat City analogy is right—Stockton might as well be Lodi, just bigger—the Jagger/Hamill (??)/Cleaver business is ridiculous. Again, that rage. And coming completely out of the closet with “Fortunate Son”—if you had a version without the words and even the title you could understand what it was about. But nothing in their work—not even the deep and perfect “Green River” can touch the cry of freedom, of release, freedom from Bay Area snobbery and the mendacity of the world at large: “Up Around the Bend.”
I can’t in good conscience characterize this as a question (“what’s your favourite Motown cover by a Japanese rocksteady girl group?”) and I think a while back you asked people to stop sending you stuff to listen to, so feel free to ignore this, but if you never hear the Dreamlets’ Japanese rocksteady girl group version of the Supremes’ “A Breath Taking, First Sight Soul Shaking, One Night Love Making, Next Day Heart Breaking Guy”, your life just might be the poorer for it.
– steve o’neill
Well, the description is perfect, but I most liked the name of the label: moon beat. It did lead me to Playing for Change, “When the Levee Breaks,” with John Paul Jones looking 100 percent healthy and 200 percent sane, and then to John Lee Hooker invited onstage by The Rolling Stones and by the cut of his suit and the way that he carried himself for “Boogie Children” reducing them to one of Chuck Berry’s pick up bands.
I was always a fan of the Kingston Trio, because my dad had a 45 of “Tom Dooley,” which haunted him, and two of their early albums—At the Hungry i (full of corn, humor, energy, and beauty) and At Large (a masterpiece). You’ve mentioned them several times and written about them some. But I would love to know what thoughts you have now, today, about their value and meaning in your listening life. Thanks.
– Devin McKinney
What I have to say is in a Days Between Stations column called “Nostalgia” that’s on this site, and collected in my book Double Trouble. It was both inspired and overshadowed by a suicide attempt by my mother. She happened to see the column and, knowing nothing of its origin, told me how much she liked it: the depth of emotion. I told her why I wrote it. She wasn’t displeased.
No one has excavated what made “Tom Dooley” such a milestone of a record—where it came from, how it got to where it got—than Robert Cantwell, in When We Were Good: The Folk Revival. And no one has, to my mind, more smothered the transformational effect of the Kingston Trio in folk-disease piety than the apparent progenitor of “Tom Dooley,” the North Carolina singer Frank Proffitt (1913-65), and his folklorist disseminater Frank Warner—something I write about in Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular, an anthology edited by Thomas Crow.
I still like “Scotch and Soda.”
Any thoughts on the Springsteen ticket fiasco? (Do you consider it a fiasco?) I assume you’ve known Bruce and Jon Landau long and well enough to take the concept that he is a “man of the people” billionaire with a grain of salt, but what do you think about artists using Ticketmaster to squeeze every last cent out of their fans? Were fans wrong to expect more of Springsteen? And can you get me a pair of tickets for the Seattle show?
When, in 1984, the Jacksons (Michael Jackson and the others of the Jackson 5 all now living in MJ’s shadow and subsisting on crumbs from his table) announced their cross country Victory tour, the scam they came up with put Dynamic Pricing to shame. One had to enter a lottery for a chosen show, put down money for a minimum of four tickets for what at the time was the nearly shocking amount of $30 each, and then cede the money for a minimum of three months, during which time Jacksons Inc. would invest the money in guaranteed bonds. If one lost out in the lottery the $120 would be returned—flat.
This automatically excluded the main portion of the audience that had made MJ the biggest star in the world. For working families or families on unemployment $120 could mean missing rent. Or car payments. Or payments on appliances, furniture, or utilities.
A young girl wrote a letter to her local paper saying it wasn’t fair. Instantly, the emperor’s clothes came off and it was a nationwide scandal. ABC’s Nightline made it the lead story for the night of the first show of the tour, in Kansas City—with an overwhelmingly white, affluently-dressed crowd. I was flown out to give live commentary on the show (the segment is on this site, along with “Kansas City Confidential,” a piece on the show as a status event written for Dave Marsh’s Rock & Roll Confidential) and said it wasn’t worth it. The next day people actually came up to me and thanked me for removing a burden of guilt and shame they were carrying because they couldn’t go.
The New York Times story on the Springsteen ticket sales gives a straight and clear account of the supposed rationales behind Dynamic Pricing—excluding scalpers and delivering the scalpers’ surplus value to performers and promoters, noting that only a tiny fraction of tickets were actually sold with a face value of $1000 or more, and that the vast majority of tickets were in the $200-$300 range.
So OK, fine, alright? Except that we’re still talking about, let’s say, $500 for two people, plus fees of $75-$150, maybe $50 for parking, $100 for concession food and drink, or another $500 if you bring two kids and $100 babysitter cost if you don’t… People have accepted this. They don’t question it. This is reasonable. And the people who can afford a $4,000 ticket—or, again, $8,000 for two, plus—or who can’t afford it but want to wave the tickets in the face of anyone willing to stand still for such a spectacle—can bask in their plentitude. They’re in; the world is out.
This will end only if people decide that regardless of how good a show might be they’re being cheated and stop paying what they’re being asked to pay. The audience has been convinced that “this is what it costs.” No—this is what is paid. They’re not the same. So it’s not simply a matter of people being fleeced by greedy performers and promoters and Ticketmaster or scalpers. It’s people lining up to be fleeced and then telling themselves and anyone who will listen how good it felt.
I must confess, I don’t have a question for you at the moment, I just want to say that I hope you’re doing all right. I know you’ve told us you were in the hospital, and I truly hope that you get better soon.
Beyond that, I want to thank you—from the bottom of my heart—for running the Ask Greil column, for Mystery Train and Invisible Republic, for Lipstick Traces and In the Fascist Bathroom, and for all your essays and Real Life Rock Top 10s. If I can say this without sounding sappy, your writing shaped the way I listen to music and the way I think about it. I’d like to think that your writing shaped the way that I write, too, though I know I’ll never measure up to you.
Take care. Best wishes.
– Elizabeth Hann
Thank you many times over. I hope you like Folk Music. If I never write another book I know it’s the best I can do.
I tracked down the RLRTT item left out of your collection [see 7/21], and: whew. I can see why your publisher decided to pass on that one.
The terrain between satire and defamation must be tricky to navigate. I think it would’ve been great if, instead of just complaining about it, Neil Young had gone on some satellite radio show or podcast and said “interesting coincidence: I actually conceived ‘Rocking in the Free World’ while Donald Trump was sucking my dick. And you know, politics aside, the guy gives lousy head.”
The song would never be played at another Trump rally, and though he might threaten to sue, Trump being Trump you just know that he’d also have to stipulate that while he didn’t give blowjobs, if he did they would be the best blowjobs ever.
I think my story is more likely…
Hi Greil, wishing mightily for your recovery. How about Jon Voight as Trump? Also, we just discovered the “History of Rock Music in 500 Songs” podcast. Started with the “All You Need is Love” 3.5 hour episode and were astonished by it. Apologies if this has already been mentioned here a thousand times.
– Johannesburg Rand
Voight is too good an actor, and too protective of his characters—they’re always one-dimensional. Randy Quaid has more range. He was very convincing as a cannibal.
RE: “Blowin’ In The Wind.” SOME People Don’t Know When They’re STILL Sick. Back To The Sack, O Really Us. St. X.
– Sean X. Heaney
My decoder ring is broken.
Having listened to the re-recorded “Blowin’ in the Wind” as posted online, I agree completely that it must have been “secretly” taped by someone who listened to it at the auction house or in the studio. My suspicion, which means nothing, is that T-Bone or someone did want the masses to hear this new production, but not get the full impact of the sound quality that someone with too much money spent more than $1 million for.
Where I disagree with you is regarding the words “some people” in the lines “How many years can some people exist, Before they’re allowed to be free?” I think Dylan’s wording means that some people are not free (Black, for instance), while others are free. If he just said “people,” it would not be specific enough to relate to any injustices. It is akin to those who, in response to “Black Lives Matter,” say, “yeah, but ALL lives matter.” Yes, they do, but that’s not the point. Thank you.
– Christopher Dunn
I know what it means. I just think it’s clumsy writing.
I’m wondering if you’ve read Geoff Dyer’s The Last Days of Roger Federer. I love many of Dyer’s books (But Beautiful, Out of Sheer Rage, and others), but something seems missing in his more recent work. At times it feels as if he’s misplaced the capacity to admire the work of other artists deeply. It’s like he feels threatened by the thought that there are artists greater than he. But I’m not sure my perception of this is on-target. Anyway, I’m wondering whether you’ve kept up with his recent work, and, if so, what you think.
– Cyrus Robertson
The book seems caught between a certain past and dubious future and afraid of neither. Maybe looking not so much at death as loss of will, inspiration, ability, and talent earlier than most: what if I can no longer write? Which, for the time being, I can’t. Geoff can but he can imagine when it’s out of his hands.
Each time I hear Van Morrison’s “Wild Night,” it makes me happy and moves my bones and DNA. It feels like a song that in its rock ‘n’ roll way is as timeless in its composition, performance, and production as “Be My Baby” or “Johnny B. Goode.” It’s got that essence—and I can’t imagine it not bringing a grateful smile to faces 100 years from now. Do you agree?
– Chip Hughes
I felt the same way the first year it was out. Then, like “Live to Tell” and “Every Breath You Take” it faded for me and never came back. I miss it.
Is there any indication, stylistic or otherwise, that Bob Dylan is a James Joyce reader?
(“I’m hearing Billy Joe Shaver
And I’m reading James Joyce”)
From the song “I Feel a Change Comin’ On“
– Henrik Schmidt
I would think the line you quote is a pretty good indicator.
First, my best wishes for a thorough and lasting recovery. Reading your thoughts on PJ Proby’s cover of “A Change is Gonna Come” led me to wonder what you thought of Bob Dylan’s version, done at an Apollo Theatre celebration in 2004. The first time I saw it I was incredibly moved; I’m still impressed by the force and passion of Dylan’s (admittedly grizzled) vocal. And just the fact of Dylan singing this song, in this place, seems to add gravity to an already almost impossibly grave song. Any thoughts?
I wrote about this in my Like A Rolling Stone book. He starts off with a terrible croak and it’s embarrassing to listen to. And then, somehow, the song begins to carry him.
Dear Greil Marcus – I just wanted to thank you for your books and wish you a speedy recovery. Keep on keeping on, we need you. Best regards from Madrid, Spain.
– Antonio J. Iriarte
Thank you. Would love another Madrid night.
I never read Fred Goodman’s Allen Klein biography. I did wonder if you might have and if your opinion might have aligned with the seemingly general critical consensus that he made too many apologies for the man’s darker shadings at the behest of Klein’s estate. And in all likelihood, I’ll probably never be able to recommend any work to you in good faith, as good faith requires a healthy dose of cerebrality when exchanging words with one who has a particular yet challenging and intriguing taste. Then again, I’m still young and probably out of my element anyway.
Here’s a couple of questions for you: You once praised Mark Ribowsky’s biography of Phil Spector. 1. How would you compare it to Mick Brown’s Tearing Down The Wall of Sound? 2. What other works by Ribowsky would you recommend? (I ask this as one who found his books on the Temptations and Hank Williams uneven and choppy).
P.S. The Randy Newman book I mentioned earlier, Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong, was co-written by David Stafford (an English writer whose work has long been featured on the BBC) with his wife Carolyn. They’ve also written acclaimed books on Kenny Everett and Lionel Bart. I don’t really know what you would make of their Newman book. It was published in 2016, and while it does update his work since Courrier’s book, it didn’t do as much for me personally overall, but that’s only me.
P.P.S. Best wishes for your health sir.
– Ben Merliss
I’ve always found Ribowsky’s books lively. There is a great book to be written on Spector, a great book in LA. The problem is that most of those who could do it are probably too old: Joel Selvin (a powerhouse worker), Ed Sanders, Jon Wiener, Nik Cohn. It’s not Kristine McKenna’s scene, which is too bad. Maybe there’s a younger screen writer in LA who might catch the bug, which includes forensic medicine as well as music and Howard Hughes .
You comment about commercial uses of Dylan’s music (“As for the project itself, with one or two exceptions I can’t get too worked up over the commoditization, or ultra-commoditization, of music. Victoria’s Secret didn’t ruin or even infect ‘Love Sick’”) reminded me of James M. Cain’s response to someone asking how he felt about movie adaptations “ruining” his books, “People tell me, don’t you care what they’ve done to your book? I tell them, they haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf. They paid me and that’s the end of it.”
– Mark Sullivan
Philip Roth had the same healthy attitude until he got too interested in the casting.
Anyway the Cain movies were good, and especially Todd Haynes’s Mildred Pierce.
It seems to have been many years since you’ve written anything about Richard Thompson. Have you followed his work?
– Cyrus Robertson
No. Odd, because I twice shared stages with him for talks in the last ten years. I think I got tired of his voice.
I recently re-watched the 1987 Chuck Berry doc/concert movie Hail, Hail Rock ‘N Roll and it is fascinating to watch the head games Chuck tries to play against bandleader Keith Richards without effect. Director Taylor Hackford has detailed the problems he had working with Berry even though it was Chuck’s people who contacted him to do the film. There are YouTube clips of Robbie Robertson working on this project, but he must have dropped out, no doubt because despite lots of experience dealing with eccentrics like Dylan and The Band, Berry proved too much. Do you know if Robbie was originally going to do what Keith Richards ended up doing, i.e., putting together the concert and all-star band for the movie? Maybe Robbie will write about this in a forthcoming follow-up to his Testimony memoir.
– James R Stacho
Robbie was initially on board as musical director, and there are outtakes of his engagements with Berry in the 4-disc DVD edition of the film—so I learned from RJ Smith’s shockingly good Chuck Berry: An American Life, forthcoming in November.
Hi Greil, Thinking about your articles through the years on novels of foreign intrigue, Ross Macdonald, and also your comments about “Murder Most Foul,” have books, perhaps David Talbot’s The Devil’s Chessboard, or Peter Janney’s Mary’s Mosaic, “Murder Most Foul,” or your own work, led to any current thinking for you about JFK, who did it, the price we’ve paid, or in any other way?
– Alan Berg
I haven’t read those books. I don’t have meaningful ideas about who and why, but I lean toward Santo Trafficante (resident of Key West, not mentioned in the song that just precedes “Murder Most Foul’). I do know the assassination made a breach in the common American mind, not just for those who remember it and in a sense almost witnessed it, but for the generations after, living in a country still overshadowed by mistrust, betrayal, doubt, fear: the sense that anything could be destroyed at any time. The crime was enormous. All those bullets hit the whole country. Lou Reed said it best: “And most of all I dreamed I forgot the day John Kennedy died.” In terms of real life politics, or any chance to forge a new nation out of the violation, or the possibilities still open if JFK had lived, MLK and RFK were probably a greater loss.
Hoping for the best with your hospital stay… having spent a bit of time in local hospitals, I know Kaiser Oakland’s at least has gotten much nicer. You’ve been an inspiration for so long, in particular in my case because it feels like your being in the Bay Area means you are often speaking of events I, too, have attended, going back to Chuck Berry at the Fillmore in ’67, Sex Pistols at Winterland, Prince at the Stone, and the times we chatted at Sleater-Kinney shows.
I’m thinking of how fans of Pauline Kael often wonder what she would think of a current movie. We’re going to see Elvis today, and I’m wondering what you would think. I’m excited to see a movie about Elvis, but the previews make it look like a movie about the Colonel, and I have no desire to see that. Just read Alanna Nash’s bio of Parker, and she convinced me he was a worthy subject, but if there was a movie of that book, it would be called The Colonel, and my expectations would be different. If a movie is called Elvis, I want it to be about Elvis, and I’m hoping Parker is a necessary but secondary figure. Have you read Nash’s book? I don’t remember you writing about it.
– Steven Rubio
I haven’t been able to see Elvis. During the brief time I was not in hospitals since its release none of the theaters in the East Bay showing it had wheelchair access. So… still waiting
Hope you’re feeling better. I assume you’ve been watching the January 6th hearings. Have you, like me, been compiling a wish list of who should be involved in the inevitable movie? Somewhat of a spoiler alert: after seeing the new Elvis movie at the theater, I nominate Baz Luhrmann to direct. In 3-D if possible.
– Jim Cavender
While we know Aaron Sorkin is already nailing it down, surrealism is the only way to go. Director: Jordan Peele or Todd Haynes. Keenan Thompson is too perfect for Benny Thompson so it has to be Daniel Kaluuya. Donald Trump: Randy Quaid. Liz Cheney: Lady Gaga or Lana Del Rey. Cassidy Hutchinson: Taylor Swift.
In the new Real Life Rock book, there’s a terse notation for item 1 in the September 2017 column that just says “This item has been omitted.” I went back and found the item in question, and fully agree with your decision not to include it (it’s a “future news story” a la the infamous George W. Bush obituary, and it’s not only brutally jarring but goes very much against the ethos of Real Life Rock as a concept); I’m curious, though, why you don’t provide any explanation for the omission in the book.
(Also wondering about the accidental omission of the final Pitchfork column from April 2017. Was the physical production of the book too far along to fix this error when noticed, other than to quickly insert that note explaining its absence? Will the column be added to future editions?)
– Harold Wexler
That item appeared in the print edition of that week’s Village Voice but not in the online edition, as the Voice attorney advised print had stronger First Amendment protection. I wondered about the decency of the item as I wrote it—who it might hurt who was not the target. But it was one of those Popped-Into-My-Head-Complete things I couldn’t let go of. When the publisher of the the book objected (well, he was somewhat stronger), I said fine: people who want to know will do as you did. I thought it worked with one terse sentence and that any explanation would weaken whatever blunt attack remained.
As for the last Pitchfork column, that was my own stupid mistake. If it’s remedied it will be as a little appendix at the end so as to not require repaginating/reindexing so much of the book.
I always loved the little note about your daughters’ favorite songs in Mystery Train. Have you found your tastes shifting and expanding because of your children, especially as they grow older (and presumably, grow away from what they heard in your house as kids)? When my daughter was 6, she loved to dance to “You’re No Rock and Roll Fun,” but she very quickly grew past what we were playing at home. Now that she’s in her twenties we swap playlists every few months, and I’m constantly surprised and challenged by what she turns up. Just wondering if you’ve found your kids have opened up what you pay attention to.
Wishing you a speedy and full recovery,
– Gary Mairs
When our older daughter was 8 it became clear how huge Blondie was going to be. Then the same thing with the Go-Gos. Then the fan’s existential crisis when something she felt was her personal treasure now belonged to the world. But the revelation came a few years ago when I found out my older granddaughter knew the words to every song on the latest Pink album and the younger one made it a project to ‘turn on’ her gym teacher to Lana Del Rey so they could use her music in class and caused a crisis with the principal over lyrics. I was already an LDR fan but this made me realize how she really does and should rule the world.
One of my favorite Stranded entries:
SONNY FISHER AND THE ROCKING BOYS, Texas Rockabilly (Ace/UK). Bitter, world-weary white R&B out of Houston, music of sexual boasting and social defeat. The pace was slow, compared to the stuff Sam Phillips was turning out at Sun, but more sinuous; the bite came from Fisher’s unfriendly drawl and Joey Long’s guitar, which suggested nothing so much as a very poisonous snake. 1955-1956/ 1979.
In “Rockin’ Daddy,” Sonny (given name ‘Therman’) may be poking fun at Sam Phillips’ stable of acts with his reference to “Ding-Dong, Tennessee.” Despite this (possible) jab, the liner notes detail the recent visit of “another young singer Elvis Presley” to Jack Starnes Cosy Corner Club where Elvis borrowed The Rocking Boys drummer’ Darrell Newsome for his set. Makes you wonder how much time passed between that event and the hiring of D. J. Fontana.
Possibly overstating his case, Ray Topping concludes his liner notes with “…Sonny Fisher and the Rocking Boys, one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll acts to appear on the scene so far.” But then again, how many rock ‘n’ roll acts were around in 1956?
I find that time period fascinating… I would much rather see a movie about Elvis, Scotty and Bill’s early tours across the south—in bars and honky tonks—than another depiction of screaming female fans. I’m sure there was a lot of skepticism, if not outright contempt, emanating from those audiences.
You make an interesting comment about P.J. Proby’s performance of a Sam Cooke song:
Even if it were total bullshit, I’d be moved, which here I’m not, if he’d come out and said, “I want to do a song by my close personal friend, my brother, the late Sam Cooke. It’s the best song in the world. It’s the biggest song in the world. It has room for all of us in it. I can’t do it justice, but I’ll try.” Even if he’d never met Sam Cooke.
Why buy into BS and hyperbole? Did punk mean anything to you?
Punk meant everything to me. But there was a Stalinist strain in it very early on that might make it hard to hold onto a sense of absurdity. I never like Sid Vicious’ “My Way” but his opening is the sonic and philosophical equivalent of what a P.J. Proby (and don’t forget the Firesign Theatre’s P.J. Proby wine) tribute to his close personal friend Sam Cooke would be.
Just wondering why your Rolling Stone review of Quicksilver Messenger Service’s Happy Trails album of May 1969 was not included in the book The Rolling Stone Record Review, the anthology published in 1971? (I’ve had a copy since and return to it still with some frequency.)
A particular reason or simply a more random editorial decision or omission? I only came to know that particular review much later, my inveterate reading of Rolling Stone (and later Creem and Let It Rock, ZigZag, Melody Maker, NME, Sounds) only commencing in the fall of 1969.
But it strikes me, your review, as an archetypically valuable example of close attention to the aesthetics of the San Francisco sound and its accompanying material and visual experience (and, to boot, a considerably more positive piece of QMS reception than for instance the review of the band’s first album which is included in that collection.)
You put a genuinely personal stamp on the Happy Trails review, as well as historicizing (Dada-like call and response, Remington album cover, Thirties World’s Fair script, Buffalo Bill, etc.) aptly the obviously well known experience you were hearing on that record, a foretaste of the type of writing you would go on to do so vividly in everything from Mystery Train to Lipstick Traces and beyond.
It was a thrill to write. To map and travel that labyrinth. Langdon Winner edited the book. We would have discussed omitting it but I don’t remember anything about it. I’m very glad it stood out for you.
The re-recorded “Blowin’ in the Wind” is now circulating on YouTube, so I was wondering what you thought of this version of the song and the broader Ionic Originals project.
Assuming this is really the auction house $1,800,00 one of a kind—as opposed to an outtake, rehearsal, something Dylan made years ago with remnants of his the Rolling Thunder band, or a mock up by other people—and it’s interesting that it hasn’t been taken down as stolen property—then it’s a recording made on hidden device by someone invited to one of the listening parties held by the auction house or T-Bone Burnett. That means this doesn’t remotely capture the sound of the actual recording and all sorts of subtleties and inflections that might make it more than it appears to be.
This is mainly thoughtful. The sound of someone—maybe not just Dylan—thinking over the song and all the time it has passed through and gathered to itself in reality and fantasy (Malcolm X reciting it in One Night in Miami), about how it’s joined the old folk song it was based on and become a folk song itself, in the sense that, as Dylan once said, when he sings it “it doesn’t even occur to me that this is something I wrote.” I love the way the rhythm of “No More Auction Block” is brought out, almost but not quite dramatized in the transitions between verses. The elegance of the performance highlights an element of the sing-song that always galls me: the “some people” reference, which is musically clumsy (it’s a verbal pothole), politically vague, and linguistically so weak as to to be self-cancelling. He should just say “people.”
As for the project itself, with one or two exceptions I can’t get too worked up over the commoditization, or ultra-commoditization, of music. Victoria’s Secret didn’t ruin or even infect “Love Sick.” It was a cool, morbid cover version, and a great joke (“See Venice and die”). On the other hand, if the purchaser is the Saudi Royal Sovereign Wealth Fund…
Message From Greil (7/11) (in response to the many readers inquiring):
In early May I had open heart surgery to repair two valves that had been destroyed by an infection that had gone undetected since February, when I was misdiagnosed with what turned out to be a degenerating condition. After a long rehab I am back in the hospital on an indefinite basis because of complications with the first surgery. I have not written anything for publication since becoming ill six months ago, but Asks are a lifeline.
Hi Greil, Thank you for Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations. It has been my favourite book since you published it and one of my most precious possessions. I have Covid so I was just rereading it and relistening to “Last Kind Words” a few times. I think it is a call and response. Had you considered that? Anyway, just wanted to reach out and share my appreciation.
I never heard it that way and now I can’t unhear it. I’m trying to think of who should do it and how:
‘f I get killed
‘f I get killed
I can see my face
I can see my baby
From the other side
On the other side
Jack White’s lead riff thrown back by Kara Walker and Robert Plant’s humming.
Who should be singing and playing? It should be done as a “Playing for Change” video the way “The Weight” was.
Greil: I’ve always meant to thank you for introducing me to the work of Walter Karp. That long excerpt you used in Lipstick Traces opened up a political universe for me, one I followed through all of his published books and beyond to an ever-growing stack of photocopied articles from long-forgotten magazines. Few people saw Reagan as clearly as he did, and probably no one will ever write so accurately about him again. (The deliberate destruction of the public good as a principle of democratic government, which I think was the primary purpose of Reagan’s rule and every Republican administration that followed, seems almost a finished task, with the Supreme Court preparing to deliver the coup de grâce.) I cannot think of a comparable voice in political writing today, and we are worse for it. I’m not sure politics would be terribly different if he hadn’t died when he did—but we might be able to see it differently. I’m wondering if you ever met Karp, or corresponded with him.
Best wishes for a swift recovery.
– Justyn Dillingham
I did a reading in New York in 1989 at a bookstore next to the then Whitney Museum for Lipstick Traces. Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, who I’d never met, came. And a shy, unhealthy-looking man who introduced himself as Walter Karp—he died a few months later. His “Coolidge Redux” on Reagan in Harper’s, less than a year into Regan’s first term, was and remains a revelation. Liberty Under Siege from 1986 was a disappointment, but more than interesting in his singling out Dan Quayle as an instinctively anti-Reagan voice and for calling the then-president “a vile tyrant.” I was so honored to meet him and so impoverished by his death.
If you didn’t care for Fred Goodman’s book Mansion On The Hill [6/26], I can’t imagine you caring for his subsequent biography on Allen Klein. Even on the chance I’m wrong, are there any writings on Allen Klein that met with your approval?
– Ben Merliss
I’m uncomfortable with the notion of material meeting with my or anyone’s approval. I haven’t read the Klein book. Beyond The Sopranos (David Lee Roth fit right in), I’m not that interested in gangsters. Did you read it? What did you think?
Are you familiar with P.J. Proby’s 1966 Live in Australia concert on Youtube? He sings an amazing version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”!
It’s great in its way. Proby knows how great the song is: as the closing number before the intermission at a really big deal circus (all it really needs is a lion tamer and a pride). I like way he stays on his knees. But the erasure of the racial dimension bothers me. Even if it were total bullshit, I’d be moved, which here I’m not, if he’d come out and said, “I want to do a song by my close personal friend, my brother, the late Sam Cooke. It’s the best song in the world. It’s the biggest song in the world. It has room for all of us in it. I can’t do it justice, but I’ll try.” Even if he’d never met Sam Cooke.
Do you know the pages on Proby in Nik Cohn’s Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom?
I’m re-reading Old, Weird America for the fifth or sixth time, fresh off a visit to Big Pink and the graves of Levon and Rick on July 4 (We carried you in our arms on Independence Day) … I cannot express my love of this book enough and I marvel every time at the allusions and references that would take a lifetime to read/hear/see. Quick question regarding Lo and Behold: Did you ever entertain the idea that all these tales are not one forlorn narrator, but snippets of many thoughts on a train car traveling through the American interior? Like the weaving streams of Sound and Fury or To the Lighthouse? Maybe a group of people playing cards or drinking? Each tale ending with an optimistic toast of Lo and Behold!!!
That’s a completely wonderful idea. Makes my hearing very small minded —except for the cynicism and sardonicism that runs through the delivery of almost every line. Deep down it could be Will Rogers after a three day’s drunk with W. C. Fields.
Thanks for your fantasy Dylan covers [6/26]. Never would have thought of Little Richard covering “Tombstone Blues”, but I now can hear it in my head and it’s great. For real life Dylan covers, are there any that have transformed your view of the song? (we can exclude Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” as being too obvious). I recently heard a version of “I’ll Keep it with Mine” done by the elementary school chorus at PS22 that showed it’s really an optimist anthem for young souls and not a song for world weary chanteuses. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by watching this video of the kids singing and signing the song.
– Andrew Hutter
Every version of “I’ll Keep it With Mine” has transformed the song for me. PS 22. Rainy Day, especially the video with footage from Guy Debord‘s 1961 film Critique of Separation. Fairport Convention. For me, Judy Collins and Nico aren’t even blips but the best so-called cover versions are so deep and vivid that Dylan’s own recording sounds like just another cover, which is a testament to the power of the song as a thing in itself.
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, Goodman 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.