See also the 2016 version (now archived) of Ask Greil.
WRT Real Life Rock Top 10 4/19: I’ve been waiting for years for you to say something mean about Camille Paglia. (I never understood even what was supposed so resonant about that “these fascist bodies” quote you’ve used a few times, much less what she’s doing in A New Literary History of America.) Please tell me you meant it.
Meant what? Sexual Personae is a great, brave, shocking, hilarious book. I read it while nearing the end of Lipstick Traces and felt a real kinship with her—something I wasn’t finding elsewhere. We had a very active correspondence and a few phone calls over the next year. My piece on her book is in my Dustbin of History [also: see here]. As for her piece on A Streetcar Named Desire in A New Literary History of America, I asked her to write it and edited it.
I quoted Dwight Garner’s review of her new book not because it was a put down but because it was a terrific line—about anyone’s book. And it said as much about Pat Benatar as it did about Camille.
In case you missed it, Elvis is back.
Ted Nugent tells the tale of his night with Trump and Kid Rock (Brian McCollum, Detroit Free Press, April 21):
Q: I have to say I’ve never gotten a good feel for his music tastes. He’s always struck me as a guy too focused on other things to spend much time with it.
A: You’re right, it’s not easy to pin that down, because we have no indicators. There’s never been a review or discussion of his musical tastes. But boy, he knew my songs. And he knew Bob’s songs. When I gave him this autographed guitar—I brought a red, white and blue guitar that Bob signed, too—he started beating on it, doing his best Elvis Presley impersonation. It was really rather precious. And he was able to reference Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley and Little Richard. Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. He’s got a couple of years on me— he’s 70—and those are certainly the core influences of all things Detroit music and certainly Kid Rock and Ted Nugent, and he was aware of that. And I don’t think he did research just so he could bring up Bo Diddley’s name to me. He knew about this stuff, and he referenced it often.
The demonic killer Elvis.
He’s 70 years old. He couldn’t have missed all that if he’d tried.
I am a recent UCLA Grad working as a musician in California. I read Mr. Marcus’s book, When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening To Van Morrison. It is a wonderful read. Though it is true that certain highlights from Them and the ’70s (solo) titles are Van’s best work, why the passionate dismissal of Morrison’s other efforts such as No Guru No Method No Teacher and Avalon Sunset, namely? I understand the trivial nature of other titles of that era. However, dismissal of namely these two seems a bit out of hand given the rationale for approval of other works and The Healing Game. Is the songwriting on No Guru and Avalon Sunset not deserving of the same appreciation (“Foreign Window,” “In The Garden,” “When Will I Ever Learn,” “Daring Night”)?
– Saeed Marandi
I said what I had to say. I’m sure there’s more to say, but not by me.
Forgive me for the length of this and if you have touched on this topic before:
As a younger music enthusiast, growing up in the “digital age” means that most, if not all of the information I receive to keep up on music comes from the internet-e.g., social media and media websites such as Pitchfork, The Needle Drop, or Consequence of Sound, to name but a few. In the mid 90’s through the 2000’s a communal voice to combat what some considered downfalls of conventional music journalism and criticism was given to anyone with a network connection and an opinion. Independent music blogs formed in an abundance. But it seems that even those outlets that were able to thrive past the blog-boom are either being diluted in a sea of cliché and “content-overload,” or are becoming just as big as the established media sources they looked to differentiate from in the first place. (It wasn’t that long ago that Pitchfork Media was acquired by Condé Nast.)
Considering your experiences being involved with a site like Pitchfork, one which has continuously been widely criticized for thriving on “controversy” and “exclusivity”, what do you think are some of the positives and/or flaws that exist with today’s standard for music publication content? Building on that, what do you think is needed or missing from the world of online music journalism and criticism? What is, in your opinion, the future for media content regarding music? What is next? What advice can you give to someone with aspirations in contributing to the canon of music journalism in forming an original voice and keeping his or her integrity among so many others?
I haven’t been involved with Pitchfork as such. They were open and gracious enough to take my column. It lasted a little more than a year. The column has always worked best in a non-music-specific publication. It will start again in the Village Voice, print and online, next month.
What’s at issue now is not different than any time before (or in the future). People unafraid of the sound of their own voices and unafraid of what they’re supposed to think. People who fall in love or get angry and say, “Why?” and then figure it out and say what it is.
Would you discuss when and how reggae first came all the way across and made its mark on you? My guess, based on “Treasure Island,” would be The Harder They Come or Catch A Fire. What was your opinion of late-Sixties Top Ten singles “Hold Me Tight” and “Israelites”? Did they sound like passing curiosities, or maybe a new form of soul music?
Finally, were you tuned in to the October 1973 Wailers KSAN live-in-the-studio broadcast, and did you like it? (This performance was later released as Talking Blues, which is how the Wailers came across to me.)
The Harder They Come, first movie, then record. But I’d well before embraced Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now,” so the beat was open. Then seeing the Wailers at the Boarding House in San Francisco, a shockingly transcendent night. Then the floodgates opened, but especially, and still, ‘”Concrete Jungle.” The adulterated, whitened, overdubbed version.
I’m a long time Dylan fanatic and have enjoyed your writing about him. I really loved Good as I Been to You and the most of the records that followed, until Shadows in the Night in 2015. I’ve never cared about Frank Sinatra or any other music that gets shelved in the “Easy Listening” section. I was hoping Dylan just wanted to get this out of his system, and that he’d go back to more stuff like Tempest. But then came Fallen Angels, and now Triplicate. I’m starting to fear this is all he’s going to want to do anymore.
So far I haven’t paid any attention to these records. What am I missing?
– Stephen Pride
I’m not sure you missed much with the first two, but Triplicate is another story, a real story. And I’d think the last word.
Since the subject of “Just Like a Woman” came up, is there any request in popular music less likely to be honored than “Please don’t let on that you knew me when I was hungry and it was your world”? Who could resist? “Oh sure, he’s Mr. High-and-Mighty now, but you should have seen him when he came crawling…”
– Robert Fiore
I guess he saw it coming. I love the way you put it.
People want to ask you about Elvis. They want to ask you about Dylan and Van Morrison and Peter Green and The Band. But nobody ever seems to want to ask you about Steely Dan, for whom you were also once a strong advocate. Did they ever blip back into life for you after Katy Lied? I’m inclined to think their last great song was “Haitian Divorce” and their last pretty-good one was “Peg.” But I wouldn’t mind finding out I’d missed something.
I think you’re right. But I couldn’t begin to name all of their songs that not only still stand up but have yet to really make their mark, like “Dr. Wu.”
To get fairly arcane for a second—Christgau, in his 1984 Pazz & Jop essay, noted that you voted for Robin Gibb’s “Boys Do Fall in Love” on your singles ballot (which the Voice didn’t reprint). (Actually, in asking this, I may have stumbled upon that rarest of rare things: a Christgau mistake. He attributes the song to Barry, not Robin, at least in the reprint available on his website.) Is it a song that holds up for you? Do you recall what you liked about it then? And, between the Bee Gees’ “Holiday” (which shows up in “Treasure Island”) and the Gibb song, are there any other Bee Gees or Gibb Inc. songs you’ve cared about?
– Scott Woods
I like it for the same reason I love “Jessie’s Girl”—it has a fine beat and the song rides it without hitting you in the face with it. It catches your ear when it comes on the radio in the middle when you’re changing stations. In a deeper sense, it was written by John Hughes—it was made for a Molly Ringwald movie.
I liked a lot of the Bee Gees’ early singles. “New York Mining Disaster 1941”—now there’s a sure-fire pop hit title—was stranger, thematically, to find on the radio in 1967 than, say, “Memphis Blues Again.” “To Love Somebody” and “Words” had great lift. But with “I Started a Joke” I began to tune out. I think that was about the time I first got a look at them. There’s something off, not quite human, part horse, about their features.
Do you have an opinion of Johnny Rivers’s music that you would care to share with us?
– hugh c grissett
I loved Johnny Rivers’s live singles—always thought “Secret Agent Man” was “Secret Asian Man”—and “The Poor Side of Town” is a real heartbreaker, and convincing. I once saw a cynical Business School student trying to explain why the song always made him cry, though he couldn’t because he kept crying. Bob Dylan talks about Johnny Rivers producing one of the best covers of any of his songs—maybe “Positively Fourth Street”—which made me hunt up the obscure album it appeared on. I didn’t hear it.
At age 71, do you find it harder to resist impulses toward nostalgia? Do you ever feel such impulses in the first place?
Some weeks ago you answered my question, “Is there such a thing as a perfect album?” with Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hours. But do you have any personal favourite albums made by the same artist/band? What about Highway 61 Revisited or Let it Bleed?
Too many to list. But in fact the concept isn’t one that’s interesting to me.
1. Did you have any thoughts on Duke Of Madness Motors, the Firesign Theater collection with unedited versions of their Dear Friends radio broadcasts? (I recall you were not wild about the double album edited down version.)
2. The music from the Kleenex/Liliput/Slits/Raincoats axis—is there a name for this (sub)genre? There may not need to be one, but it seems strange no one ever labeled it.
– Carl Stone
I don’t know the Duke collection. As for Raincoats Lora Logic Kleenex Slits—that should do.
Thanks for your detailed reply to my question about Minglewood Blues a few weeks ago. It has several ideas I have been mulling over since then.
Bob Weir’s vocal on “New, New Minglewood Blues” is fourth-hand unconvincing. However, Captain Beefheart’s vocal in “Sure Nuff Yes’n I Do” (also released 37 years later) floats over the chasms of War and Depression ultimately delivering a very convincing rendition of the song. Clarence Ashley does the same in “Peg & Awl” (stepping over the chasms of 100+ years which include rapid expansionism and civil war).
As a songwriter and musician I find this ability to convince listeners of a performance imperative. I also view it with the utmost respect, and dedicate rigorous amounts of effort to the cause.
Dylan had a quote in “Rollin’ and Tumblin'”—“I’ve been conjuring up all these long dead souls from their crumblin’ tombs”—which resonates well with these ideas.
…So I ask of you… What elements do you believe make a performance convincing or unconvincing?
Thanks so much,
– Rich Soni
This is a question on the level of what makes life worth living. There’s no answer. Hank Williams said it was sincerity: when a hillbilly singer sings you know he means it, not as himself, but in the song, as the character he’s playing. This is a partial answer to your question, and it may explain Bob Weir’s attempt, but it may also be a lie. It could be that in certain times and places it’s the singer’s lack of sincerity, his or her contempt for what he or she is singing, his or her passionate determination to fake the song, to defraud it, the singer’s knowledge that what the song says is a lie, that makes it so convincing. Because that’s what he wants to say, but she also wants to sell records, so it all gets twisted.
Are there any artists who have been important to you, over the course of several records or a career, that you have yet to write about at length?
– Devin McKinney
Bryan Ferry. I wanted to write a “Listening to” book about him, in the vein of the Van Morrison and Doors books, but no one wanted to publish it. U.S. Publisher: nobody knows who he is. U.K. publisher: He’s a spiv. I may find a way, someday.
I was wondering what you think of Neil Young’s Americana. It almost looks like it was designed to appeal to you, but since I don’t remember you ever mentioning it, I suspect it doesn’t.
Here’s what I wrote in my Real Life Rock Top 10 column for the Believer in September 2012:
Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Americana (Reprise). Too much of what’s here, from the listless, condescending cover of the Silhouettes’ 1957 “Get a Job” to the pallid version of “Wayfaring Stranger,” a song so ghostly it’s almost impossible for a singer not to be swallowed by it, is dead air. But the opening blast of folk songs—more than five minutes of “Oh Susannah,” nearly six of “Clementine,” and more than eight of “Tom Dula,” that last simply hammering away at the standard Kingston Trio lyrics as if there weren’t so many other ways to tell the story—gives these old texts a life neither they nor anyone who’s ever sung them have remotely suggested. The Crazy Horse sound, with Young’s lead guitar snaking through it like a sardonic curse, is battering, rough, big, then bigger, then so complete you can believe the story that Johnny Rotten wanted Young to produce the Sex Pistols. But with “Clementine”—which makes it clear that when Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina, and Poncho Sampedro break through the wall of their own sound Young could sing the telephone book and make you think you were listening to the end of the world—what comes out of the old summer-camp singalong is not just a lament for the poor drowned girl, but a murder ballad. The unforgiving slam of the music leaves you as shaken as the way the singer, ending the song with a smile, confesses between the lines.
I imagine this is something he wanted to do for years. And, once the whole idea had become so marginally popular, blow everybody else away in the process.
Your 1990 Real Life Rock Top 10 entry on Bizarro by the Wedding Present (“a Leeds band whose influences seem to begin and end with the Velvet Underground’s 8:47 1969 Live version of ‘What Goes On’—and what goes on on Bizarro is a fanatical argument that true rock ‘n’ roll, or music, emerges only at that point where repetition takes on a charge so powerful not even rhythm can be heard”) changed my life: it made me rush out and buy the album, which instantly made me catch up on their early stuff and remain a fan of this almost-unknown band until the end. Today I think Bizarro is my favorite album of the Eighties, while their 1986 Peel Sessions and 1994’s Watusi are great enough to make a listener care about the arc of their music and of frontman David Gedge’s persona: a struggle between terminal shyness and tortured romantic jealousy that always wears (or masks) a smile. I hope they will not be forgotten. Have you explored any other Wedding Present music besides Bizarro?
I wrote about Seamonsters, focusing on David Gedge’s voice, and their cover of Julee Cruise’s Twin Peaks number “Falling” from hit parade 1, along with Bizzaro in my Real Life Rock Top 10 column, but I’ve loved all their records.
As someone who was prompted to listen to Rihanna by the Real Life Rock Top 10 book, what’s your favourite of her records?
– Mark Hagen
Regarding Van Morrison and the Chieftains’ Irish Heartbeat, you wrote in an early RLRT10 that it was “not as good as Into the Music, but close.” But by the time of When That Rough God Goes Riding, it’s been relegated (with the partial exception of “Raglan Road”) to the 1980-1996 streak of shapeless, tension-free disposables.
I’m not trying to call you out or anything; I’ve certainly had the experience many times of initial infatuation with a record that doesn’t hold up in the long haul. But I don’t listen as carefully the first time out as you do. Just wondering if you can say anything about how that happens for you. What happens to make you decide your initial impression was wrong? Do you ever double back again?
When I came back to it, it was flat and contrived, and I couldn’t begin to hear what I’d heard—or convinced myself I’d heard—before.
[follow-up to 03/27/17]
I believe it was in your 1979 essay on The Beatles (the one with the terrible error), that you said “Girl” is more sophisticated than “Just Like a Woman.” I know it was a long time ago but, as a fan of both, I was wondering if you recall any context on that opinion.
Since I’m on the topic, do you have favorite recording of “Just Like a Woman”? Mine is from The Concert for Bangladesh.
I don’t recall and am not where I could go through old files. But I’ve never heard anything like the ‘I’ in “I just can’t fit” in the Bangladesh performance of “Just Like a Woman.” Yes, that’s the one.
Why do you think Van Morrison hasn’t experienced a late career renaissance—both in terms of new creative output and/or greater recognition of his body of work—the way that Dylan has post-Time Out Of Mind, or Johnny Cash did with the Rick Rubin-era recordings? It seems to me that Morrison is certainly their equal and all of the raw materials should be there for this to happen. You frequently point to the greatness of The Healing Game but 20 years later it seems like a blip on the radar.
Because, right now, he has no subject: nothing he needs, is compelled, to write about, and covering old blues jazz soul has become a series of repeated gestures that don’t speak to him. Will that change? In moments, almost certainly. For a long career arc? Ask yourself the same question about yourself or anyone else you know.
It’s been a little more than a year since you began ‘Ask Greil.’ I hope I speak for many when I say it is a fan’s dream come true, and I’m so grateful for your generous direct responses. Could you give us your thoughts about what ‘Ask Greil’ has meant to you?
Lots of fun. A great distraction. Some tough questions. I try to respond to everything immediately.
I heard that Barry Jenkins will write and direct a miniseries based on Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. What are the odds that he’ll use Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land ” on the soundtrack?
– Kevin Bicknell
Given that African slavery was likely introduced to what would become the United States in 1609 in Norfolk, Virginia, where “Promised Land” begins—Berry might not have known that, but he was researching the song in prison when he wrote it, and I would bet that he did—who knows? If you look at the acknowledgments to The Underground Railroad you’ll find thanks to the Misfits, David Bowie, Sonic Youth, and Prince, so if Whitehead has anything to say about it—maybe “Expressway to yr Skull”?
At the time, how closely were you following the story and development (Fall 1966-Spring 1967) of the Beach Boys’ SMiLE? Were you hopeful? Did Pet Sounds make you lose interest? Did Brian Wilson’s breakdown drama become a tiresome subject, or were you intrigued? And finally, do you enjoy any of the SMiLE sessions released in 2011?
Let’s see–1) Not closely 2) No 3) Yes 4)Tiresome 5) Liked the bits and pieces that came out officially over the years more than the Real Thing (but I doubt it).
Wow, I can’t resist—have you seen this piece? Thoughts?
– Scott Woods
I hadn’t seen it. But I noted an Atlantic piece on “Donald Trump, Sex Pistol” in my column last year. It’s proof of two punk maxims: No more heroes, and sooner or later any real punk will make you uncomfortable.
With the “Trumpcare” repeal-and-replace debacle (apparently) behind us, do you believe that sheer incompetence might, if not exactly save the day at least prevent the entire operation from exploding? Is it naively optimistic to suggest that we may simply be in store for four years of political gridlock? (Which I know ignores, among other things, continuing questions of Russian collusion.)
No. Obamacare will be subject to death by a thousand cuts, legislatively, administratively, through the IRS, through the public secret that no rules, penalties, taxes, sanctions essential to the clockworks of the Affordable Care Act will be enforced. The Trump people are not incompetent, given that their goal is to destroy public government and replace it with private government: a state devoted to advancing corporate rule over all aspects of economic and private life.
I’ve been reading you since I was a teenager (now 57). Your prose on the first few pages of The Invisible Republic are unforgettable in their description of Dylan and the “Judas” moment.
Question: You say that “Girl” is more “sophisticated” than “Just Like a Woman”. Would you elaborate on this assessment?
– Tim Hermes
When and where did I say that? The Beatles’ “Girl”?
Just wanted to thank you for recent revelations about Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour shows, which (as you surely know) are available for free download with good audio. Sounds like the ideal travel companion—makes me want to drive all around our country.
I’ve done it (live): driving around the country is the way to go. He’ll historicize where you are right into the present and where you are will sing the songs.
[In reference to question/response 03/24/17]
Not really a list or ranking person? See Stranded, Treasure Island list. Great list by the way, I still refer to it.
– hugh c grissett
Well, you got me there. I suppose what I couldn’t so to speak list was “the most/best/worst” etc. of this that or the other. I could easily make up a list of 20 or 40. And what’s overlooked? Nobody seems to ever mention Bo Diddley’s “Say Man.” It seems to have gone into the ether. But it was #20 in 1959. The Great Society’s 1966 “Somebody to Love” wasn’t a hit—it was barely released—but it has achieved at least a kind of cult status because it’s obscure and wonderful—does that count?
What was the perception of Creedence Clearwater Revival in the Bay Area during their recording career? I find it hard at this remove to picture them as a working band, as opposed to something that’s on the radio all the time. Part of it is a band with that many hits seldom stops cold turkey so early. (Well, there was the Beatles, but they left a pretty strong impression before that…)
– Robert Fiore
All you heard from other Bay Area musicians (and their fans) was “Anybody can play that shit” or “It’s so simplistic”—as opposed to their sophisticated children-of-the-future last-forever stuff. Barry Gifford in Rolling Stone, reviewing Creedence’s first album, praised John Fogerty and dismissed the rest of the group as borderline cretins: “Fogerty’s a gas but Creedence Clearwater may not be worth it.” They had bigger hits than any Bay Area group except for Sly and the Family Stone on Top 40 (and Billboard never let them get to #1), while their betters ruled hip FM KSAN. So they toured out of town. The band rebelled and said they had to write and sing too. But they couldn’t. And though Fogerty could play everything and be a one man band he couldn’t be Creedence. Doesn’t “Lodi” sound true today? Doesn’t “Up Around the Bend” feel like utopia?
I feel guilty I haven’t read John’s book.
Found another mind-blowing fact about Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land: that you probably know. In 1609, the first African slaves used in the USA were forced to work on the tobacco plantations of…the Tidewater area of Norfolk, Virginia, to where the Poor Boy puts in his call to the folks back home. Holy shit. A badass genius…and all of the great American songwriters after him knew it.
– John Evans
That’s amazing. Scary. He saw all around the world.
Is there such a thing as a perfect album?
Once upon a time record companies/artists really started to make the vinyl LP not as just a collection of hit songs plus filler, maybe sometime in the middle of the sixties. With vinyl it was not so easy to jump from one track to another which meant that you often had to listen to all the tracks on at least one whole side of an LP. Then you had to flip the LP over and listen to the other side. We had the same “problem” with cassette-tapes. When CDs arrived you could listen to an whole album (even with up to 80 minutes playing time) or you could select (program) just the tracks you wanted to listen to. Nowadays you can make your own playlists, for example on Spotify.
If you are forced to listen to all the tracks on an album, do you have any favourite “perfect” albums (i.e. albums with no bum tracks)? (My own perfect albums are actually live albums or compilation albums)
Most of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hours, assembled into CDs or whole downloads, make perfect albums.
Speaking of tribute albums (03/07/17), did you ever soak in Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan (Columbia, 2003)? If so, was it any different from being accosted in an airport by a remnant of the Jesus Freak movement, a la your review of Slow Train Coming?
– Scott Marshall
Gotta Serve Somebody is even more pious and unbearable than most tribute albums, but the last track, with Mavis Staples just wandering down the road and showing up at Bob Dylan’s house while he’s cooking breakfast to duet on “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking”—a version of the Jimmie Rodgers Meets the Carter Family 78s Victor put out in the 1920s—is wonderful. And not as simple as it seems.
Does Mr. Marcus still answer readers questions? If so, I would like to ask him what singles does he think are the most underrated singles of the 1950’s and 1960’s? My own personal choices would be Larry Williams’s “Slow Down” as the most underrated ’50s single and the Choir’s “Its Cold Outside” as the most underrated 1960s single.
– hugh c grissett
I’m answering questions all the time but I’m not really a list or ranking person.
I’m a magazine junkie, and since I first discovered your book review columns in Rolling Stone and New West back when I was in high school, I’ve always been especially grateful for all the invigorating literary magazines I’ve latched onto thanks to your recommendations, or just from following your byline. Are there any current favorites you’d care to call to readers’ attention?
– Phil Dyess-Nugent
Not since Radio Silence went silent and the Pitchfork Review closed shop. They’re worth searching for. I know Dan Stone of Radio Silence hasn’t given up the ghost.
The story of “Minglewood Blues” and its variants is mingled (pun intended) with mystery and ambiguity. What are your thoughts/speculations about this song?
– Rich Soni
It’s a deep song with such a tangled history. Cannon’s Jug Stompers of Memphis made it in 1927, a song about not letting women rule their men. When harmonica player Noah Lewis of the Jug Stompers cut “New Minglewood Blues” in 1930 it couldn’t have been more different. The meandering, hesitating rhythm of the first version was now brighter, quicker, and it opened with a 19th century brag as tough as any in the language: “I was born in the desert, raised in a lion’s den.” When, thirty-seven years later—which is not like the distance between 1980 and today, but a line from one world to another, the two separated by the chasms of the Great Depression and the Second World War—the one time Menlo Park jug band the Grateful Dead took it up as “New, New Minglewood Blues,” the vocal was fourth hand and unconvincing (it sounds like Bob Weir, who went to Menlo-Atherton High School two years behind me, and he sounds like he’s saying “I was born in Modesto”), the guitar playing fun, but ultimately it was a throwaway. It didn’t have to be that way—at the same time or earlier, in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band in Cambridge, Geoff Muldaur was singing the Lewis version. I saw him do it in 1997 at a Harry Smith celebration at UCLA; when he opened his mouth for the first line it sounded like a tiger leaping out of his throat. I’d like to hear PJ Harvey take it up. Or Eleanor Friedberger.
I just realized that of all my favorite groups, George Clinton and P-Funk might be the one you’ve written the least about; I’m only aware of a passing compliment paid to The Electric Spanking of War Babies. Any thoughts or opinions about the rest of their work?
– Phil Dyess-Nugent
I saw a Mothership show. I was more taken with Parliament. But really, I never got past “Maggot Brain”—something Peter Green would have given a leg to have played. It all made sense when I read what George Clinton supposedly told Eddie Hazel before they cut it: “Play it like like your mother just died.”
What is your opinion of the TV mini series airing on CMT, Sun Records? Any thoughts on the music or the story so far?
– Hugh Grissett
I like the way Sam Phillips is portrayed as a hipster and Marion Keisker as a stone fox. If they keep the focus on them more than Elvis Johnny Cash Jerry Lee it might work. But it already kind of pales against the news that Leonardo DiCaprio has bought film rights to Peter Guralnick’s biography of Phillips and plans to play Phillips himself. And he’d be fabulous.
I’m curious about your oft-stated antipathy towards tribute albums. Is your objection to them based on some broader philosophical objection to them as a genre? Or do you never miss a chance to remind the reader that tribute albums are terrible just because it’s your impression that, due to an unhappy coincidence, all these albums are terrible?
– Phil Dyess-Nugent
Not to get into explaining a joke—but tribute albums are usually terrible, not to mention made from the worst motives (quick money for no work, giving people who don’t deserve it exposure on the back of somebody with a bigger name) with the stray gems both proving the point and allowing an escape from the prison of the concept. They’re sitting ducks that sometimes bite back.
You’ve written of your affection for “Good Lovin'” and “Carry Me Back.” Were you a fan of the Rascals at the time? Did their story, sound, or success (three Number One singles) in this fruitful 1966-1969 pop era stand out as different—or difference making? Does it seem any more interesting now?
“Good Lovin'” was a ferocious shock on the radio. They were a fun band until they got embarrassed with themselves and dropped the ‘Young.’ They still sound fresh.
As a long-time Berkeley resident and UCB alumnus, what did you think of the recent controversy/unrest occasioned by the invitation to Milo Yiannopoulos?
I’m a Free Speech Movement person. Stopping someone from speaking is an attack on democracy. A hundred Berkeley professors signed a letter in favor of the glamorous thug being banned from speaking; more FSM people signed one saying he, like anyone, had a right to speak and advocate on public property, which the University is—that was what the Free Speech Movement was all about. There is nothing wrong with picketing a talk, or even going inside and shouting a question—but trying to stop a speaker, shouting a speaker down, harassing those who want to hear him or her, let alone attempting to terrorize the event itself shows weakness, fear, cowardice, self-righteousness, and contempt for the only values that have saved this country, and might still. During FSM, the administration often claimed the demonstrators were so-called outside agitators, not students, Communists. That wasn’t true, but it seems to be in this case: a well-organized group of masked anarchists afraid to say who they are and what they have to say happy to destroy the campus and any small business without a guard. They have made their presence felt in the East Bay in Black Lives Matter demonstrations and more—essentially turning political protest into its own Trump rally. Quite clearly they could care less that all they have done, aside from smearing real political act and speech, is make Milo look good—to the point that Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor under Clinton and a professor at the UC School of Business, wondered if Yiannopolous hired them himself.
One question—not the ruling question, but no one seems to have asked—is why the Campus Republicans invited a racist woman-hater to speak in the first place. They answer can only be that they find what he says thrilling and who he is the kind of person they’d like to be. That’s worse than anything he might have to say.
Like many readers, I’m fascinated with your “Treasure Island” discography, especially since you later revealed that Knopf editor Robert Gottlieb required you to “consider his suggested additions and changes” to the list. We know you lamented the Stevie Wonder concession, and you’ve indicated that David Bowie is also in that company. Are you willing to identify and discuss other entries that were compromises? Or is this a mystery that should be left alone?
I still have Bob Gottlieb’s handwritten notes in tiny script. At least five pages of them. That’s for him to publish!
Saw this [link] in the New York Times and wondered if “Absolutely Sweet Marie” might allude to this righteous scofflaw, just the kind of heroine to stick in Dylan’s memory.
– Laura Leivick
I’d never heard of her, but I’d say the likelihood of this being a Dylan reference is about absolute. She is just the sort of person who would have been a Greenwich Village legend, just the sort of thing Dylan was picking up a mile a minute in 1961 and ’62. It’s wonderful how songs write history.
Not a question, just a quick correction to [Greil’s] 1/27 answer [below] on bassists.
Robbie Shakespeare played bass on “Concrete Jungle,” not Aston Barrett. (To be fair, Barrett is credited rightfully as the bassist on that album, but for that particular track only, it was Robbie Shakespeare.)
Thanks for the correction.
Of all the periods of music you’ve lived through, which excited you the most?
– Robert Fiore
1964: the Beatles! Five in the Top Ten? Can this be real? The world is tilting off its axis. Why not all ten?
Mr. Marcus –
I have read most of your unique and analytical tomes, and many of your reviews/columns/essays/pearls over the years. Thank you for adding such depth to my thought process.
I am troubled by artists that continue playing their old tunes, without creating any new resonating material. Creating something fresh could equate to huge expenses vs. limited return due to the streaming impact; touring at a highly-marked up price equates to a much larger chunk of revenue. However, what may be missing in that financial equation is why one initially fell in love with music—to think or feel or act or become part of something much larger than oneself in an honest way, which feels more like a rip-off if one is asked to pay $300 for a ticket.
Do you have issues with acts that should retire, or do you feel it is a craft and trade like any other, and if one needs to work, one does what one can, especially if the demand is still there?
– Randy, aka “one”
It’s simple: it’s what most people are paying for. Rick Nelson addressed all the philosophical ramifications in “Garden Party.” It won’t change your mind and shouldn’t but it makes sense of the situation.
Do you think that Jimi Hendrix’s music has worn well? Do you still feel compelled to listen frequently?
It has. Are You Experienced still carries the full charge of someone seizing his own voice for the first time. Close to half a century has not compromised the daring, delight, subtlety and force of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” or “Machine Gun,” while the permanent playlisting of “All Along the Watchtower” hasn’t lessened its momentum of surprise. And “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” is a true contribution to the blues: something that wasn’t there before and now always will be.
So I just finished Robbie Robertson’s autobiography. I’ll leave opinions on it to others. However, when I go back and compare it to that autobiographical track he wrote about The Band’s history, “This is Where I Get Off” from his last CD, I am still left wondering one thing. At the very end of the song, the lyrics go:
This is where I get off
This ain’t where I belong
Somebody done me wrong, along the way…
I can’t figure out who he is referencing about doing him wrong. The book never brings up such a thought. I really don’t think it could be any of the Band members (including Levon), and his relationship with Albert Grossman didn’t seem contentious. He says David Geffen and him are square, and Geffen did produce his first solo CD. So as any good murder mystery would go: Who done it? Thx.
– M. Freeman
– I would think the junkies in the Band. To me, he says that in almost so many words: Levon LIED to me!
Are there any particular bassists you admire for their contribution to music? Do you have any favs in particular?
– Dann Alexander
Richard Davis on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. Charlie McCoy on Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. Aston Barrett on the Wailers’ “Concrete Jungle.” James Jamerson on Motown. Keith Richards on “Sympathy for the Devil.”
Do you think T.M. Christian is going to review another album in 2017?
– Joseph Wasser
Wow. I haven’t heard from him in years. Maybe the next Lucinda Williams album, There But for Fortune, songs celebrating the best of all the singers she’s loved who ever died, with cool samples from each.
I never liked Pink Floyd’s music—it feels cold and sounds boring—and regarding the (David Gilmour-era) band as an idea I stand with Johnny Rotten: I Hate Pink Floyd. Further, although I can understand the band’s appeal to the rock audience they cultivated in the 1970s, I cannot comprehend the megaplatinum success of The Wall, which to me is the sound of rock’s corpse, or at least a horrible betrayal.
You would make my day if you would just confirm my feelings, tell me to go listen to X-Ray Spex and then everything will be OK and we can move on—but seriously, I would love your honest thoughts about Pink Floyd and how you hear and place them.
I liked “See Emily Play,” the song “Wish You Were Here,” and that album cover. As someone else once said, “Millionaires telling children ‘We don’t need no education’!” And Roger Waters is an anti-Semite.
Did you attend the Modern Lovers show at the Long Branch Saloon in 1972 or see the original band (Richman/Harrison/Brooks/Robinson/sometimes Felice) live at any time? If so, what were your thoughts?
– Bill Alderson
I was at the Longbranch show, which I wrote about in Lipstick Traces. I was there with two critics from New York, one of whom said, in the middle of the set, “We could make this band.” Aside from that being ridiculous, it was the most obnoxious thing I’d ever heard a rock critic say. And he’d begun the night by saying that nobody cared about rock ‘n’ roll anymore, all anybody cared about was politics, so he wasn’t going to write about it anymore.
I’ve had one personal encounter with Jonathan Richman, which came many years ago when he called me up to ask if I knew what kind of amp Scotty Moore used on Elvis’s Sun Sessions.
What are the key issues for music criticism in 2017?
– Dennis McDaniel
I can’t speak for anyone but myself. For me, what’s crucial is not to write about music, or anything else, without a sense of tyranny surrounding any attempt at communication, expression, or free speech of any sort.
While having another read through Lipstick Traces I was surprised to see you describing The Slits official releases as “crummy” compared to the John Peel radio sessions. I know you have high regard for Viv Albertine’s book and wonder if you have taken another listen to Cut recently—I maintain it’s a classic of both that and any other era.
– Paul Ashbridge
I may have been harsh, but I don’t know anything on any of their official albums, other than a few moments on their Peel Sessions, that comes close to speaking the same language as the Y label official bootleg.
I remember with pleasure attending Bill Graham’s Day On The Green concerts at Oakland Coliseum. (I was too young to ever see a show at the Fillmore.) I was curious as to your experiences with Graham, and your thoughts on the man.
– Bill Boyd
I had various encounters with Bill Graham, beyond going to shows at the Fillmore and Winterland and everywhere else from 1966 on. The first came at a conference on rock ‘n’ roll held at Mills College in, I think, 1967. Panelists included Graham, Phil Spector (who attacked Graham for not supporting Lenny Bruce when Bruce performed at the Fillmore), Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane, and more. During a break, while I was asking Phil Spector why it was impossible to find his Christmas album, and he handed me a business card, told me to write what I wanted on it and send it back, and he’d send me anything——which he did, my wife asked Bill Graham why he’d started charging at the coat room at the Fillmore. He exploded at her, screaming, threatening her, calling her words I don’t feel like repeating. Two years later, when I was the music columnist for the San Francisco Express-Times, I wrote a piece about the Band’s debut shows at Winterland, and Bill sent me a fan letter. Some years after that, I was working on an extremely elaborate AIDS benefit in a building on the San Francisco waterfront, that opened with a very complex candle-lit entrance. A fire marshal buttonholed everyone he could find claiming a fire risk (unlikely, as the candles were positioned over water), saying he was going to shut the place down. I saw Bill across the room, asked the marshal to wait, went up to Bill and said, You’ve had to deal with this for years (when the Fillmore opened Graham had to battle the city weekly to keep it open), can you handle this? And he did.
1. How would you compare your feelings in January 1980 about Reagan coming into power with your feelings now about Trump coming into power?
2. Do you think that music as a way to mobilize people or at least voice a common discontent will play a role in the coming months and years?
When Reagan was elected I was so depressed I lost a year of work. On the other hand, the rage, disgust, loathing, and anger I felt at the dismantling of the republic I trusted and the country I believed in drove the book I had just started working on, even if, at the same time, in terms of thinking and writing, l left the country, and the present, working my way back through the tangles of the European avant-garde, through the 20th century and, by the end of the book, past France, England, Germany, and Italy, to the Levant in the 12th century.
With Trump, where the dangers may be far deeper—because of the foundation of destruction that Reagan built and that Republicans have been maintaining and extending ever since—a black cloud falls on me every few days or so, but in a way that it sometimes takes me half a day to realize why I’m moving in slow motion. It hasn’t gotten in the way of writing. I am not sanguine that things will be so bad so quickly that the country will rise up as one, that representatives will realize they’ll be thrown out of office if they kill Medicare and Social Security, and this will all be over in four years, or less if Trump is impeached for obvious constitutional violations, if not treason itself, and much of his cabinet sent to jail for self-dealing, bribery, and theft, as the New York Times editorial page so blithely assumes. Impeached by who? This congress? Prosecuted by who? This attorney general?
Trump has created a government that on paper is only steps away from realizing the dream of generations—the repeal not merely of Obamacare—the name of which trivializes it, as if it’s merely one man’s vanity project, not national policy, part of the republic—but of the New Deal and everything that flowed from it, the repeal of any notion of the Federal government playing an affirmative role in national life, “to protect the general welfare”: the repeal, in essence, of 20th century democracy. That means Social Security, the FAA, the Food and Drug Administration, the Center for Disease Control, the National Weather Service, and countless other institutions of American life. It means the dismantling of laws and institutions against discrimination of any and all kinds, to the point, perhaps, of allowing states and municipalities to re-institute de jure racial segregation along with the abolition of abortion rights, the abrogation rights of women to legal equality with men, and the criminalization of homosexuality (none of that sounds that far away for me; that was the America I grew up in). It means the junking of the national highway system, a New Deal successor under Dwight Eisenhower, in favor of selling it off to private companies. It means the abolition of Medicare, the most important New Deal successor program, and Medicaid, the Head Start, food stamps, and a thousand other programs. Oh, pundits say, all of that will hurt so called red state voters, Trump voters, right where they live, and they’ll be outraged! No they won’t. They voted for this. They voted for Trump—not out of some narrow sense of what pundits call their own interests, by which is meant their own narrowly defined economic interests, but because Trump embodied the kind of country they wanted to live in and the kind of people they wanted to think they are—and they will support him again. Many people on Medicaid and so many other linked government programs don’t vote, and merely cutting a lifeline won’t lead many of such people to vote. That is at the heart of American electoral history.
What I find scariest is something that Rudolph Giuliani said at the Republican National Convention, seemingly in a moment of out-of-body mania in the midst of an hysterical speech: “This is the last election!” You could hear it in the moment as meaning, if it meant anything, that if the Democratic Party won it would render all future elections meaningless, from a Republican standpoint, because they would, by institutional buttressing of demographic change, lose them. But it means something different now.
The Republican prospect of erasing the New Deal—a regulatory state with a commitment to the general welfare of the citizenry—reminds me of the fall, or the erasure, of the Soviet Union. Suddenly the USSR ceased to exist and membership in the Communist party was made illegal, and what filled the gap of regulation, exploitation, and oppression was organized crime. The result in the USA could be the same, because the destruction of New Deal institutions will mean that the gap in the governance of everyday activities will fall into the hands of unregulated corporations, and unregulated corporation are a form of organized crime. Much is made of Trump having no core beliefs beyond a faith in his own sacredness, no comment to any set of principles other than the various elements of his own vanity, and so on. That’s an illusion. His whole life, from childhood on, has been a matter of absolute hostility to any authority, agency, or law that in any way impinges on his ability to do exactly as he pleases and make as much money as possible. Franklin Roosevelt put it squarely at his great campaign rally in Madison Square Garden on October 31, 1936, in a speech so powerful that, listening to it today you can feel the words echoing across the roof of the hall like shots: “Government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob.” That is precisely the future Trump believes in. That is what Making America Great means.
What can music do? Robert Christgau put it well in 1969: “In the worst of times music is a promise that times are meant to be better.” That is not as easy a promise to make, let alone keep—to stay true to—as it might seem. In the next year we’ll find out who can make that promise, and who can’t, who cares, and who doesn’t.
If, in 1961, Woody Guthrie had been in the hospital in, say, Chicago, would Bob Dylan have gone to New York at that time? How would Dylan’s career and music have been different had his early post-Minnesota years been spent in Chicago?
– Dave Rubin
There was a lot going on in Chicago at that time. Dylan would have gravitated to the Old Town School of Folk Music, where he would have quickly developed contacts that would have taken him to New York. Nothing very important would have changed.
I recently saw The Roots in Boston and came away stunned at their versatility and virtuosity. I’d love to know what other current bands you put in their league.
– Steve Varnum
Given their camaraderie, multiplicity, unpredictability, and a world class record geek as chief showboat, plus their unmatched visibility, which allows them to release odd records—their wonderful John Legend album—almost invisibly, they’re in a league of one.
I have been listening to the song “Long Black Veil.” Three great versions by the Band, Johnny Cash, Lefty Frizzell. Any preference? “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”—three great versions, Hank Williams, B.J. Thomas, Al Green. Any preference?
– Hugh Grissett
The Band; Al Green.
Do you think Buddy Holly is a little underrated when it comes to his contribution to rock n roll? He wrote his own songs and was one of the first to have the now typical rock band (guitar/bass/drums and sometimes a 2nd guitar). Elvis couldn’t write a song. Chuck Berry could write but didn’t have his own band (although it’s hard to beat Johnnie Johnson and Willie Dixon). Even his glasses were an inspiration. He’s obviously one of the all time greats but doesn’t seem to get the recognition some of the other greats from the ’50s do these days.
– Bill Alderson
Buddy Holly is anything but underrated—he was part of the first class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with Elvis, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Little Richard, James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmie Rodgers, Jimmy Yancey, Robert Johnson, Alan Freed, and Sam Phillips—all of whom lived and contributed (as Phil Spector would put it) past their 22nd birthdays, as Holly didn’t. For someone whose career had already traced an arc—when Holly died his career was waning, he was broke, and his dream was his own record label, his own art complex, with himself as president, talent scout, manager, and artist, recording with Mahalia Jackson and Ray Charles—Holly has been the subject of one critical study and two biographies, one of them excellent, one knockout feature film, and actors have played him in others. He’s not underrated by me: two of the first pieces I ever published, in Rolling Stone and Who Put the Bomp, were about Holly, and I’ve written about him in one way or another ever since.
A case can be made that, given the brevity of his career and, as Nik Cohn put it in his Holly section of Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, the first good book on rock and roll, from 1969, the “neopolitan flowerpots” of his more treacly records—as a complete phony who nevertheless scored hits, Cohn honors Holly as “founder of a noble tradition”—Holly is overrated. If he’d have been black, he likely would not hold the place that he does today—what if Sam Cooke, the performer and entrepreneur who is Holly’s closest artistic kin, had died after “You Send Me”? His death not only made him a romantic, never-forgotten figure—the drama! the wipeout! the day the music died!—it spared him from failure, compromise, for all we know ending up under the finger of the mob. I don’t think so: the home recordings he made in the weeks before he died, from “Peggy Sue Got Married,” “Crying, Waiting, Hoping,” and more, all but promise music ready to hit a new world head on, to the point that it would have been Holly, not Johnny Cash, accompanying Bob Dylan on Nashville Skyline.
What did you think of the Grateful Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie” as a response to Altamont?
– Robert Fiore
Nice song. Brilliant evasion. Total bullshit.
Dear Greil Marcus,
What sound system(s) do you use? Still listening to vinyl? Even tapes?
All the best for 2017!
Greetings from Nuremberg,
I use Bose computer speakers and a stereo set with a 50-year-old McIntosh amp and a six year old Harman Kardon turntable and a Nakamichi cassette deck. I used to have Voice of the Theatre speakers, but since moving to a small house use Audio Monitor bookshelf speakers.
What are your thoughts on Bob Neuwirth’s solo albums? How much of an influence do you think he had on Bob Dylan’s personality in the ’60s?
– Bill Alderson
Bob Neuwirth was a confidant. Tonto to Dylan’s Lone Ranger, or Pancho to the Cisco Kid, though sometimes the roles might have been reversed. What Dylan says about him in Chronicles is right. We’ve become friendly over the last ten years or so. I wouldn’t say more, though there’s a hilarious performance of “Come See” by him on the Arhoolie 50th Anniversary Celebration Hear Me Howlin’ set released 5 years ago.
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