See also the 2016 version (now archived) of Ask Greil.
You’ve written very little from what I’ve seen about Exile on Main St. A short entry in Stranded and various mentions of the Robert Johnson cover. It being my favorite album of all time, I’d love to hear how it holds up for you 45 years after the fact. Is it a Stones record you go to often?
I can still play it in my head track by track. “Let It Loose” is the one for me—Jagger has never been so open. Where in “Sympathy for the Devil,” at the end, the whole “You’re to blame” scat singing may be his best, this is more human: a real person, not a coiled snake. “Ventilator Blues” is one of the great titles—what in the world does it mean or, really, where did it come from? Some broken ventilator in a car or a hotel room?
Interestingly, the outtakes that have surfaced are a complete waste of time. They got it all.
I expect that living in the Bay area in the ’60s and ’70s you were familiar with Emmett Grogan, the late poet/anarchist rabble-rouser. In addition to being a prominent member of the Diggers, he seems to have played a fairly significant role in the local music scene: from what I understand, he was held responsible by some for the Hells Angels’ presence at Altamont. Later, he was one of the poets featured at the Last Waltz and was granted access to the Band to write a long article about the concert for Oui magazine. Grogan is also, I think, one of the few people to whom Bob Dylan has dedicated an album (Street Legal, but still). He’s an intriguing figure, but his highly-readable autobiography Ringolevio was too self-aggrandizing and Gumpish to be trusted, and I haven’t been able to find much other information on him.
Do you have any recollections or thoughts about the man?
– Steve O’Neill
I really wasn’t aware of Emmett Grogan when he was around. To me he was the “I am Spartacus” of the Diggers–everyone called himself Emmett Grogan. I didn’t encounter him until Ringolevio. I remember being very unhappy when Robbie Robertson, who was very friendly with him, told me most of the book was made up. I believed every word. The book is a landmark, and it made his death that much more of a waste.
I was born in 1970 and for my first 17 years my rock exposure was through radio (Top 40 and “classic rock”), MTV, my mother’s 45s (1960s oldies), and my uncle’s LPs (mostly 1970s AOR).
Then in August 1987 Rolling Stone, for its 20th anniversary issue, published “The 100 Best Albums of the Last Twenty Years,” and everything changed overnight. It was for me a revelation, an upheaval—my “Secret History of the 20th Century”—and it achieved this out of the gate with its first three selections.
After the expected orthodoxy of top-ranked Sgt. Pepper, Number 2 brought the shock: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, which I had never even heard and always thought of as not just anti-rock but anti-music. The choice was perverse, it felt like a betrayal, and I almost threw the issue in the trash. But Number 3 was intriguing: Exile On Main Street, an album I’d never seen but by a “classic rock” band I already loved and knew—or a band I thought I knew.
From there I was committed. There were familiar objects, but so many secrets: Astral Weeks, Plastic Ono Band, This Year’s Model, London Calling, There’s A Riot Goin’ On, Trout Mask Replica, The Velvet Underground. (And wait—CCR and Al Green made albums?)
Earlier in these pages you wrote, “The point of a list is selection: ruthlessly, unfairly, perversely, both to start a conversation and to mock the whole idea of boiling anything in life down to a list.” From my then-narrow perspective, this list did all that and much more, and I loved the writing too. (Surrendering to Stranded and Psychotic Reactions would soon follow.)
I see now some really dubious entries—Let It Be at 17 seems like an apology for all the missing disqualified pre-1967 Beatles albums, Ziggy Stardust at 6 feels like a sham, and I still can’t find anything in What’s Going On (at Number 10, as if obliging a quota) except the singles—but I still think it holds up and tells an interesting version of the story.
How did you respond to this list?
As I recall, the list struck me as far too much all things to all people, cover the bases, while keeping our own authoritarian tastes in charge. And 100 is a cheat—you don’t really have to leave everything out, and too much garbage seeps in.
Ziggy Stardust, though, is a joke at #6—or for that matter #100. I understand why people worshipped that album, and probably some people still do, but I have trouble believing anybody actually liked it. It’s all concept—why even bother to record it? David Bowie made a dozen better albums, from Hunky Dory to Pin-Ups to “Heroes” and on from there.
Are there any songs, albums, artists that you’ve been listening to frequently in this year since the election? I’m curious to know what music is getting you through.
This more than anything. Dion, “I Wonder Why,” Atlantic City, 2004–
–and if this isn’t the greatest doo-wop ever recorded, what is? What could be? I can’t take my eyes off the mob-muscle back up singers: first the one in the doo-rag, then the huge guy in—what, cowboy hat, espadrilles, epaulets, some kind of cow-skin or whale hide.
There’s never been a song with such dynamic timing. There’s a great long video on YouTube of Dion telling the Buddy Holly Story, but I’ve never gotten past the opening, where he talks about going to the Apollo to hear jazz and developing the “I Wonder Why” doo-wops out of be-bop, which he sings, perfectly. My God.
You mentioned Steph Curry recently, and I vaguely remember you writing something about George Brett singing “Doo Wah Diddy” after the Royals won the ’85 World Series somewhere. Do you have any favourite sportswriters, or are there any who wrote things that influenced you? I was thinking specifically of the baseball writer Bill James—who’s often named as a major influence by a variety of unlikely people—but also earlier writers: A.J. Liebling, Jim Murray, Roger Angell, etc.
– Alan Vint
I like the columnists I read in the San Francisco Chronicle: Bruce Jenkins, who is a great moralist (and the son of Gordon Jenkins, the great Capitol arranger behind so many Frank Sinatra recordings, and the author of, along with Goodbye: In Search of Gordon Jenkins, the delightful Shop Around: Growing Up Motown in a Sinatra Household [Music that Changed My Life]), and Scott Ostler, who has a great touch with what songs to use as sports metaphors and the best sense of humor in the business. I used to love the Chronicle‘s Ray Ratto, who was a nails-for-breakfast writer who thought everything was fixed—especially the first years of the NBA lottery, something that was staring everyone in the face but no one else had the nerve to mention.
Bob Dylan’s first album introduced me to the blues when I was 12 or 13, not long after its release. Then there was no stopping—I got Sam Charters’s and Paul Oliver’s anthologies and books, and I had access to the field recordings at the Library of Congress, so when I couldn’t make out the words to Bukka White’s “Parchman Farm” I went there hoping to sort them out.
I recently (re-)listened to lots of versions of Big Joe Williams’s “Baby Please Don’t Go”: Muddy Waters—with and without the Rolling Stones; Lightnin’ Hopkins; John Lee Hooker—with and without Van Morrison; Them; Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers—who do themselves proud; and Dylan. Finally paid attention to Big Joe’s lyrics, which I found staggering—powerful and raw. Do you have a favorite version?
Bob’s version, unlike the earliest ones, is kind of a collection of blues tropes, and refers to both Parchman Farm and the Jack of Diamonds—that staple of so many blues songs. I don’t play poker, the game that probably lent the Jack (that one-eyed knave) its currency among bluesmen, and can only guess that it was enhanced by the pun on “hard” and some reference to Tarot, cardology and superstition. The Blind Lemon Jefferson early take on the song strikes me as truly great. You?
– Laura Leivick
“Jack O’ Diamonds” is a protean song. It goes all the way down into the ground, and when it comes up, it’s split, the way “The Unfortunate Rake” turned into “St. James Infirmary” and “Streets of Laredo” when it traveled from England to America. Here “Jack o’ Diamonds” comes out of “The Cuckoo”—they’re the same song, with “I played cards in England, I played cards in Spain/I bet you five dollars [ten as time went on] I beat you, next game” turning up in all the best versions of “Coo Coo.” L. V. Thomas recalls “Jack o’ Diamonds” as one of the first blues pieces she learned, around 1902. I don’t know that there’s a bad version. Blind Lemon Jefferson is like a god speaking, but my favorites might be (today) Mance Lipscomb’s, which could be touching the earliest blues versions (and has the odd way of putting it, “Jack O’ Diamonds was a hard card to play,” as if he can’t play anymore, gave it up, or no one remembers what the game was)–
–and the Charlatans’, from 1966—catching the absolute beginnings of the San Francisco scene and sound as they created it, or found it, in the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City the year before. The melody is the prettiest thing I’ve ever heard. I love the buck-dancing around the campfire feeling of it: clickety-clack, rickety-tick.
Apropos of nothing, I started thinking of songs with great middle eights – where they take them off to somewhere you never could have imagined, like The Beatles’ No Reply. Then I thought of a couple where the middle eight eclipses the rest of the song entirely: Bruce Springsteen’s Something In The Night, The Everly Brothers’ Don’t Blame Me. If you’ve got any rattling around your head, I’d love to hear them.
– Lucas Hare
Your question sent me to the edge of the land of a thousand answers—and then my mind just froze. They’re out there. I’ll make a list as they come to me.
10/19/17 [follow-up to old weird beer exchange, 10/18]
Old Weird America Pale Ale is evidently available on tap in bars in and around Washington, D.C. I’ve not tried it, so can’t speak to the quality (more of a lager guy anyway) but “Travlr” at RateBeer opines: “Aroma of lightly dusty herbs, subtle earth. Taste has dust, light funk, more herbs, odd grains.” Which, come to think of it, isn’t a bad description of Clarence Ashley’s “The Coo Coo”.
– Steve O’Neill
That’s a great description. I wrote the company: they say it’s a small batch, not currently in production, available only around DC and parts of Maryland and Virginia. No photo of the label anywhere. Maybe eBay.
Could you share any stories about exhilarating moviegoing experiences? A time when you walked out of a movie theatre feeling like a different person than when you walked in?
Two. When I was about 20 I went to a secret screening of Chaplin’s City Lights in Berkeley. At that time he had forbidden the screening of any of his films that he owned in the US because of his blacklisting in the 1950s as a Communist sympathizer—he was refused re-entry into the country after he left in 1952 to promote his film Limelight in Europe. People were nervous about the illegality of it all, and when halfway through we heard a police siren and a car pulling up on the street below we were sure it would be shut down (Chaplin’s lawyers did find out about it and filed a cease and desist the next day). So there was a lot of tension. But then the end of the movie came—those terrible closeups of the ruined Tramp when the blind girl he’s cured, through money he stole and went to prison for, realizes who her unseen benefactor, the man who’d charmed her as a king, really is. James Agee, I would read later, had called it the highest acting in the history of the cinema. It is. I fell to pieces, walking the streets with tears all over my face, uncontrollably weeping, realizing I knew nothing at all about life, scared and open at the same time.
A few years later, the person who’d organized the City Lights screening, Tom Luddy, who now runs the Telluride Film Festival, invited us to see F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise at the San Francisco Film Festival. It was shown at the Palace of Fine Arts, a 1915 Greco-Roman temple co-designed by the great Berkeley architect Bernard Maybeck that my grandfather also worked on. Early on in the film, when the story goes from the country to the city, there’s a montage of a train crashing through the screen, lights, fast movement, noise—from 1927, it’s silent, as is the 1930 City Lights—and it was the first time I saw what movies could be, what they were meant to be even before the first movie was ever made. I’ve never forgotten that moment. It was a revelation I’ve had looking at a very few paintings, more moments from baseball or football or basketball games, some glimpse of what humanity is actually capable of, what humanity is for.
I googled “old, weird America” and got 4,760,000 results. The Basement Tapes and Anthology of American Folk Music aside, the phrase has been used in reference to (among many other things): the Grateful Dead; Tod Browning’s Freaks; the 1902 “Sears, Roebuck” catalog; George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo; the New York Dolls; Disney’s Silly Symphonies; the paintings of Carroll Cloar; and Huey Lewis’ later career (that one surprised me). Forgive me if you’re tired of fielding questions on this topic, but…
How do you feel about a phrase that you coined taking on such a life of its own? Do you ever wish you’d been able to copyright it? (I imagine you’d be looking at the kind of royalties Leonard Cohen got for “Hallelujah”)… And, finally, have you tried Right Proper Brewing Company’s Old Weird America Pale Ale?
– Steve O’Neill
I wrote about this phrase version of a Frankenstein monster in the preface to the 2011 edition of what was once called Invisible Republic and by then was called The Old Weird America.
Yes, I wish I could have trademarked the thing—though since I half stole it from Kenneth Rexroth’s ‘the old free America,’ who knows how that would have worked out. I imagine my obituary will begin, ‘Greil Marcus, a writer who is sometimes credited with coining the phrase…’
That was my original title for the book. Neither my American or UK editor liked it. I wrote up a sheet of about 20 titles and they both picked Invisible Republic. That was fine—Dylan liked it enough to use it in Chronicles as a description of what his songs were about—but almost nobody else could remember it and every review of the book used TOWA as a pull-quote or a headline. I figured it was a more salable title and so when I got the chance I changed it. Now I don’t know what to call the book.
It has become, as a writer pointed out in Newsweek years ago, meaningless. Except, for me, when I listen to the Harry Smith Anthology and the music of those countries, because that is what that music sounds like. It’s what it sounded like to Smith when he began listening to it in the ’40s, what it sounded like to me in 1970, and I think it’s what the country sounded like to Clarence Ashley and Blind Lemon Jefferson when they recorded in the ’20s—the country they heard in the old songs they rewrote and sang, the country they heard hiding in “The Coo Coo” and “See that My Grave Is Kept Clean.”
So where can I find Old Weird America Pale Ale?
I’m becoming obsessed with “Fourth Time Around” from Blonde On Blonde, and whether the song murders “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles. When I hear Dylan’s song it’s like “Norwegian Wood” is some distant memory, tiny-sounding, and that Dylan is turning the Beatles song into a weakling, not a non-entity, but a faint echo. Why would Dylan do this? I thought he was friends with the Beatles, and in his last album of originals, he even paid tribute to John Lennon. What’s going on with those two songs?
– Josh Smith
I think it’s a comradely tribute. Dylan has said as much. I have vague memories of John Lennon saying he was flattered and pleased that “Norwegian Wood” was based on a Dylan song, and also sounding irritated and ripped off. Lennon was all mood. It’s not as if “Help” didn’t start out as an attempt at a Dylan song.
I was interested in your comments on “I Won’t Back Down.” When I first heard the song it struck me as the perfect MOR single—inoffensively catchy tune with a mildly smug message of self-affirmation, sort of an “I Will Survive” that straight men could feel comfortable singing along to.
Now, after years of use by individuals and groups across the mainstream political spectrum and beyond, the song troubles me. The facileness of it, the generalities of the lyrics (what, exactly, is he not backing down from?) that made it so attractive also left it up for grabs. The creeps and fascists that you mentioned and dismissed have as much right to the song as Dr. David Gunn did. (Going by the lyrics, they may actually have the stronger claim: Dr. Gunn knew exactly who his enemies were—unlike the poison-minded extremists on the right, he didn’t think the whole world was pushing him around.) It wasn’t that “I Won’t Back Down” was widely misinterpreted like, say, “Born in the USA”; it was interpreted perfectly correctly by a lot of the wrong people. Watching the protests and counter-protests in Charlottesville, I could imagine either side or both sides using the song as a rallying cry. (And let’s not forget that Petty himself flew the Confederate flag at his concerts until he saw the Light, or at least the writing on the wall.)
Ultimately, for me, “I Won’t Back Down” is bullshit: a song about taking a stand that doesn’t.
(Written under the influence of Eminem’s BET awards freestyle.)
– Steve O’Neill
No kidding. The Eminem piece is frightening in its momentum, specificity, lucidity—it’s a great work of art. I’ve been bothered by “I Won’t Back Down” since Jason Aldean appeared to sing it on SNL—because of course the shooter could have been humming it while he was firing. I’ve been trying to compose a verse or bridge that would insulate the song from racists and killers—“Man and Woman, black and white, dead or alive, we won’t back down”—no, I’m not Tom Petty.
If the question were, do I think the guy in “Stay With Me” was coming back to her, my answer is “Man, he is flat-ass gone.” How I imagine it is, it’s a roadshow-type movie, big romantic melodrama, and the song is playing full blast on the soundtrack, and we see the guy at the rail of the ship as it’s leaving the dock, and he is stone cold under it—no expression on his face at all. Fade to the Intermission. If she gets him back it’s not the song, it’s something she does afterwards, like when Babbitt fails at all his attempts at social climbing but then breaks through with his boy patriot brigade scheme. I figured the record wasn’t a hit because it was too damned intense.
What I remember about the advent of punk was how it made acts that were the saving remnant of rock and roll a year or two before seem stodgy and quaint—Graham Parker, for instance. But it did indeed seem to up the ante for everybody—Squeezing Out Sparks, for instance. What I wonder when I listen to the early Bonnie Raitt records and the post-Wrecking Crew L.A. session musicians thereon is, how do you make instrumental music sound smug?
– Robert Fiore
Without even bothering to hide your complete reliance on clichés, because anything better would be work and anyway those fools buying the stuff don’t know enough to tell the difference and even if the did they don’t deserve it.
I’m a big fan of The Band but I’ve held off asking about them. Your line that the narrator in “King Harvest” could be Virgil Caines’ grandson has stuck with me. I always think of that when I hear the song. Such a lovely, melancholy thought. But my question has to do with the studio version of “Don’t Do It.” Why was this never released at the time? It’s ten times better than anything on Stage Fright or Cahoots. Are artists incapable of judging their own work? I once saw an interview with Francis Ford Coppola and he said something to the effect that The Cotton Club was his best film!
– Steve Canson
Robbie played it for me in 1974 in Woodstock, describing it as an attempt to try out the capabilities of Albert Grossman’s then new Bearsville Studios. I was stunned by it; I think he felt it could be much better.
I saw The Cotton Club in a “modified director’s cut” recently at the Telluride Film Festival: 20 of the originally cut 27 minutes had been restored after painstaking research, retrieval, re-editing. Coppola introduced it, saying that the studio complained it was “too long, had too many black people, and too much tap dancing,” and that the excision of an unforgettable showstopping performance of “Stormy Weather” was the real crime, but now justice would be done and we could see it in all its glory. The new version was too long, had too much tap dancing, “Stormy Weather” was a big flailing white elephant, and all in all the movie was just as bad as the original release.
I’ve watched and listened to the movie over and over but I just don’t have the ear to make it out: was Robbie really singing into a turned-off microphone at the Last Waltz, as per Levon’s claims?
– Steve O’Neill
I have no idea.
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s music never reached me on the radio during its time—there was always something off-center about it—but in the CD era I caught up with everything, and Ronnie Van Zant quickly became one of my favorite rock and roll figures: tough, smart, and sly; open but always leaving the listener feeling that there’s more to uncover in his music.
I always wished this band would get a closer look, especially by you (or maybe Nick Tosches), but until then I am intrigued with your [recent] observation that Street Survivors “was punk by both conceptual reversal and the fact that everyone who heard it instantly knew ‘That Smell’ was the band throwing punk back in punk’s face and high-fiving it at the same time.”
For me, who only hears “That Smell” as Van Zant’s warning about the band’s self-destructive behavior (which is to say, I never got beneath its surface), you offer a new, fascinating perspective about this song and its relationship with punk. Can you elaborate on these thoughts?
I mean, I think, that the song takes rock ‘n’ roll clichés, like the sweep, like the crescendoing guitar duet that starts as a duel and ends as a single voice, uses all the tricks of the style to show you why they were dreamed up in the first place, and says, you think you’re tough, you sing about how fucked everything is and how pissed you are, how you hate the queen and the cops and everyone around you and yourself too, well, tell me a story half this tough and I’ll see you double and maybe I’ll even listen to you. The moment when Van Zant goes from the accusing you to the complicit, bragging first person is shocking, head-spinning, and so much tension has been built up that you want him to go back to telling someone else’s story, and the guitarists kill them both. Lynyrd Skynyrd sounded better because of punk and after “That Smell” punk had more heart—or you could better hear the heart it had.
Since you brought up Kanye recently, I have to ask if you’ve kept tabs on his music and presence in the last several years (from 808s & Heartbreak through The Life of Pablo). Is he becoming more fascinating or less? Are the perhaps paranoid and vapid values, ideas, and nuances in his music today a step backward from the earnestness of his earlier work, or is he becoming, as some have suggested, a figure who shares the sustained courage and open contradictions of someone like Bob Dylan?
I haven’t kept up nearly as well as I should have. Keeping up with Life of Pablo was a labyrinth all its own. He has been pushing into cathedrals of sound and feeling that are not easy to navigate, regardless of the faculty with which one approaches them. Much of Pablo reminded me of the breathtaking castle ceilings in Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight—they were too beautiful, and limitless, to be real, and too beautiful and limitless not to.
I’m drawn to Kanye as a prankster. I think that as a work of social criticism the “Famous” video is as expansive as anything anyone has produced over the last few years, and a lot more fun. Not to mention daring, outrageous, and libelous. How many people in that video are saying “I wouldn’t be caught dead in bed with Donald Trump!”—more likely George W. Bush than Taylor Swift?
Listening to the MoPop Pop conference that was just posted on the website: I wondered whether some of the qualities for which you praise the Mekons—the communal spiritedness with which they pursue and represent the possibilities of a New Jerusalem—were not the very same qualities you praised Dylan for rejecting when he went electric to pursue his personal path .
– Dave Rubin
I don’t know. I don’t quite make the connection you do. But were the Mekons to reject those values in pursuit of something as big, different, and thrilling as what Dylan went after in 1965, I hope I’d have the openness to recognize it.
Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. Isn’t this the best ever Beatles-song not written by John Lennon & Paul McCartney.I know you included the Knickerbockers’ “Lies” in your book Stranded. In some ways I think “Lies” is even better than many of the Beatles own songs. But the Beatles had better hairstyles!
Much better hair. But it took me a long time to believe this wasn’t the Beatles fooling around under another name.
Regarding your remarks on Tom Petty (10/15/17), surely any rock star of his (comparatively moderate) wattage would have jumped at the chance to be onstage with Prince at the George Harrison event! Also, I would love to know if Dr. Gunn played “I Won’t Back Down” at the March 1993 protest where he was shot dead; it is my understanding from what I have read that he staged this provocation at a January event that year marking the 20th anniversary of Roe v Wade. I also wonder why you think Petty’s song “gave purpose to Dr. David Gunn’s life and blessed it.” Surely the doctor’s life had long had a purpose?
– Laura Leivick
I should have said confirmed his sense of purpose. The film I saw of Dr. Gunn with his boombox was in a non-descript place. He faced a line of shouting people, put the box down, pushed a button, and stood there as the song played. He did play it through his clinic’s speakers on the 20th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, but he was not shot then. He was shot in the back by Michael Griffin at his clinic.
Apropos of Tom Petty, do you have any thoughts about mainstream rock during the first punk era?
When I read “epochal single” what comes to mind is “Stay With Me, Baby” by Lorraine Ellison, which I understand came about in part because Frank Sinatra missed a session and the orchestra he’d booked was idle. And which, like “River Deep, Mountain High,” never was a hit.
– Robert Fiore
“Stay with Me” was overwhelming at first—it seemed so naked and desperate. It didn’t take long for it to sound like an effect. It disappeared. I think for most people who were maybe not really moved or challenged of threatened by the record, as maybe the same people were by Aretha’s “I Never Loved a Man” or Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” but more like knocked out, it never really made it to their hearts, but bounced off. Or it could have been that finally or quickly listeners didn’t like being pathetic and needy and helpless, which is what stay-with-me comes down to.
Do you think the guy in “Stop! In the Name of Love” comes back to her? The guy in “You a Oughta Know”? Like, as a teenage girl said when the last one was impossible to get away from, or a female friend said of a pleading friend when Diana Ross was sounding so great, that ever works.
I’m not sure there was a mainstream after punk. Were the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls or Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, two radically alive albums that the radio could not get at all (when Tusk came out I recall hearing one song and then nonstop Rumours as if maybe we could pretend this other thing never happened; “Some Girls” was obviously impossible, “When the Whip Comes Down” not a metaphor, and the gorgeous soul of “Just My Imagination,” the cover of a recent number one by the Temptations an admission of defeat), mainstream? Maybe The Who’s Who Are You was—even if the title song was about punk—because punk so scared Pete Townshend the album sounded like he’d locked himself in his bedroom and stayed under the covers for a week. But Neil Young—even if they were popular, “Out of the Blue” and “Rockin’ in the Free World” are not mainstream—even without the Pearl Jam-Sleater Kinney raveups on “Free World” they’re as punk as London Calling, as were King of America and Nebraska and maybe Al Green’s The Belle Album and anything by Steely Dan before Aja. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Street Survivors, which showed the band in flames until the record company changed it after that wasn’t a metaphor, was punk by both conceptual reversal and the fact that everyone who heard it instantly knew “That Smell” was the band throwing punk back in punk’s face and high-fiving it at the same time. So what’s that leave the mainstream? Traditionally catchy and hollow radio hits, pretentious Led Zeppelin albums (when you knew Robert Plant would have been thrilled to replace Glen Matlock in the Sex Pistols), and The River? I know I’m leaving everything out. But really, against the true shift in sensibility, and the artistic liberation that went with it—a current that touched so many people—doesn’t even saying the nice, honorable name of Bonnie Raitt seem like a cheat?
Thanks for your remembrance of Tom Petty. It captures him well. For me his career had some dead spots, some long periods when I couldn’t connect to what he was doing, but the highs were high indeed. My list of his great records hews close to yours. I’d add “I Need To Know,” “Even The Losers,” “The Waiting” and “Insider.” They’ve hit me deep over the years and deeper since he died.
As have a couple of visuals.
Petty & the Heartbreakers’ performance of “I Won’t Back Down” in America: A Tribute To Heroes. It crystallized that moment when we were stood up at the gates of hell.
And the sequence in Silence of the Lambs when a quintessential American girl drives alone at night celebrating her freedom as Petty’s “American Girl” blasts from the radio. Her celebration is pure, full of innocence and light, and way too short, cut off by the evil you can feel coming. But it’s also forever because she cuts all the way loose. “Make it last all night”: Hell yes.
Do you have any memories of the above songs or scenes that you’d be interested in sharing?
– Pete Fehrenbach
The way he so happily hit his marks for the Rock Hall George Harrison induction performance of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and then let Prince make him and every other musician on earth look like a fool. He was not a big shot.
I never noticed Tom Petty till he hooked up with Dylan. He still didn’t interest me—and I hated the Beatlesque name the Traveling Wilburys and Petty’s trademark Mad Hattter topper. Now that he’s dead, I am more aware and fond of his work. Dylan’s unusual outburst about Petty was pretty moving, but nobody’s business. Do you agree that the postmortem praise for Petty is over the top?
– Laura Leivick
No. He made any number of great records—for me, “American Girl,” “Refugee,” “Into the Great Wide Open,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” “Out in the Cold,” and “I Won’t Back Down,” really a permanent statement, yes, David Duke used it to open his radio show, God knows how many other creeps and fascists have taken strength from it, but Dr. David Gunn, an abortion doctor in Florida, once faced down a crowd of screaming protesters, put a boom box on the ground, pressed the button, and made them listen to the song. Then he was murdered.
“I Won’t Back Down” gave purpose to Dr. David Gunn’s life and blessed it. I have no doubt “Refugee” kept some people from suicide. It wasn’t that Petty did good; he touched people, and let people figure out what that meant. He never changed his style, his band, his idea of what his music was about or what it was for. He was happy to be upstaged—by Roger McGuinn, when at the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert he and the Heartbreakers backed him as he sang a once-in-lifetime “Mr. Tambourine Man,” or at the George Harrison Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction when he hit his marks for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and then stepped back and let Prince leave him in the dust, as he knew he would.
I was surprised that he was 66. He seemed much younger. I was shocked to see pictures in the papers of him from the late ’70s or early ’80s that made him look like a fifteen year old. He always looked the same to me, which I suppose means I was always seeing the attitude, the personality, the way he carried himself.
A couple questions about “Historiograph,” the epic 17,000-word (incl footnotes) piece from 1983 which was just posted on the site.
1) How did the form of this “simultaneous nightclub act” take shape? And how (in a technical or mechanical sense) did you get from “Historiograph” to Lipstick Traces? Were you already, in 1983, under contract to write a book about this stuff?
2) Although “Historiograph” is obviously a (quite a ways out-there, I would suggest) work of the imagination, that’s not all it is in the sense that, as your footnotes verify, there is diligent research behind all of it—you attribute much if not most of what these voices are saying to actual text. Did your research in this regard lead your writing or did your writing lead your research?
3) Do you recall if there were other works of art or fiction etc. that inspired you with this piece? I get a bit of a Firesign Theatre/Mumbo Jumbo vibe—are those at all on the mark? What else might you point to?
– Scott Woods
1) I had spent three years doing research, mostly in the fabulous catacombs of the University of California library (where I found any number of lettrist publications from the 1950s that had never been checked out before), but also in 1983 in Europe, meeting the women in Kleenex/Liliput and Gil Wolman of the Lettrist International in Paris and Michèle Bernstein in Salisbury and Alexander Trocchi in London spending time at the Archive of Social History in Amsterdam looking for Situationist International and Lettrist International publications, on my last day stumbling on the last several issues of the LI bulletin Potlatch, which at the time was available nowhere else (except in Gil Wolman’s apartment, but that’s another story). I had gone through dada memoirs and found facsimile editions of their publications from German publishers. I’d read NME from 1975 to 1983. I had taught myself French so I could translate what I was finding, though I had translation help from half a dozen friends and relatives. I had all this information as zig-zagging fragments with no idea what to with it.
One day, to organize it, I sat down and wrote it all up as a nightclub act. Then over several days I sourced everything in it. After that, I could see the story: what it was about, where it started,where it went.
At the time, I was under contract with Pantheon, whose self-legendary, revered editor Andre Schiffrin I never met. The book was signed through a friendly editor who took a long leave, and I went to work with a tri-lingual editor who knew my territory—in terms of place and conventional history, if not the history I was looking for. When I sent her the first 200 pages or so, she reacted with incomprehension. It became clear I couldn’t work with her and would have to find a new publisher. One editor I’d worked with before and with whom I felt great sympathy said he’d publish it because while it sounded like a mess he wanted to publish whatever my next, presumably more down to earth, book would be. Another said it was old hat and who cares. There were finally two offers, a larger one from a very enthusiastic editor who plainly had no idea what I was doing but liked the feeling of it, and a smaller one from Harvard, where the editor I have worked with ever since, Lindsay Waters, just as clearly did understand. I went with Harvard, and the book could not have been published better by the Angel Logos. And that’s another story, too.
2) First, up through 1983, the research led the writing, and then the writing led the research, telling me what more I needed to know and what I needed to find.
3) I dedicated Lipstick Traces to the Firesign Theatre and Monty Python’s Flying Circus, because I played their records over and over and over and over and over and over during the nine years it took me to do the book. I found something new in them every time.
In your recent “American Pie” response (a delight to read), you mentioned an “epochal single…one great hit” by Irma Thomas, referring to “Wish Someone Would Care,” which you have called “the saddest record in all of rock.”
Before that 1964 single, Thomas made records for the hometown Minit label, produced by Allen Toussaint during his masterful 1960-1963 period, when he recast New Orleans R&B and, I think, created his own world of sound. From some strange, moody corner of this world came “Ruler of My Heart,” Thomas’s final Minit single. For me, if “Wish Someone Would Care” is the beautiful, convincing, even ultimate performance of sadness, then “Ruler”—where everything blends into a lonely, melancholy glow—finds the sound of sadness.
In the Crescent City, “Ruler of My Heart” seems part of the landscape, like it’s always been here. The moment the first crying voices flood from the speakers, the air changes. We dance to it, drink to it, break our hearts to it, find solace in it. This might explain why “Wish Someone,” recorded with H. B. Barnum in Los Angeles, doesn’t fully connect with many locals, and why Otis Redding’s “Ruler” remake (“Pain in My Heart”), great as it is, gets little attention here.
I don’t mean to change how anyone feels about “Wish Someone Would Care,” but I hope that “Ruler of My Heart” can stand with it as a reason she will be remembered—and as a New Orleanian I wonder if this record has ever reached you, either in 1963 or when catching up with Irma Thomas.
You’re right and I’m wrong in calling Irma Thomas a one-hit artist. But at least according to Billboard, “Wish Someone Would Care” was her only Top 40 hit, and while “Ruler of My Heart” was big in New Orleans—and over the years would travel the world—it never made the Top 100.
I wish the many albums she’s made as the Soul Queen of New Orleans were good.
I highly doubt I’m the first to put this question to you (there’s a good chance you’ve put it your yourself more than once), but given your relative authority on the subject, how different do you think the trajectory of Dylan’s career (or the contemporary music scene in general) would have been had he chosen to release The Basement Tapes as a legitimate album in 1967 instead of John Wesley Harding? I know that Dylan never considered doing anything with the tapes, but I’ve often thought of the idea, envisioning it as a double album with a mix of the publishing demos and cover songs along with some of the other originals like “Sign Of The Cross” and “I’m Not There.” I’ve never quite decided if it would’ve been viewed as an oddity and bombed, or hailed and mimicked, preempting lo-fi tendencies for a number of other artists. Any thoughts? Another what-if is if Columbia had decided to put out a live album documenting the ’66 tour rather than sit on the tapes for as long as they did.
– Ben Dyment
No one’s asked, and I’ve never thought about it, but now that you raise the question, I don’t think it would have made much difference. Both the Basement Tapes, had it been an album and John Wesley Harding, are so original, so idiosyncratic, so deeply and eccentrically rooted in old American music and tall tales and myth, without real precedent in Dylan’s music and without anything comparable afterward, that it’s hard to see people responding to the Basement Tapes with more or less surprise and more or less satisfaction than they did with John Wesley Harding, or Dylan ruminating over a job well done or chances missed.
I assume Dylan didn’t want a live album from 1966 released, especially when, after the summer of 1966, the difficulties and extremes of that US-Australia-Scandinavia-Ireland-UK-France-UK tour, it was hanging over him like a shroud.
You’ve mentioned before that jazz is a foreign language to you. I feel the same way about bop (Gillespie, Parker, Monk, etc.). But Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald—to name a few I quite enjoy. And Billie Holiday’s work with Teddy Wilson and Lester Young in the late 30’s I think is essential. I guess my question is, do you find jazz boring? Or is it similar to how you view Paul Simon (“I don’t have a responsibility to like respected works”).
– Steve Canson
There’s a lot of jazz I love—or it seems like a lot to me, given my disability. Charlie Parker. Miles Davis, especially his soundtrack for Elevator to the Gallows. Bix Biederbeck. Billie Holiday. Chet Baker. I simply don’t connect to it in an automatic and effortless way. That’s a fault, not a stance. And the best book on music may be Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful.
I think of Janis Joplin, Robert Plant and Swamp Dogg as true psychedelic singers. All three sing like R. Crumb draws—as if they’ve stuck their finger in an electric socket. Are there any others you could name?
– Kevin Bicknell
That’s a perfect formulation. I can’t improve on it. I think anything I’d add would only cheapen it.
Tuning into Bob Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” the first time around, I amused myself after each episode by trying to guess what songs would be played on the next, given the theme. I didn’t get many right, which is good—instead I was exposed to all kinds of great music I’d never heard and likely would never have heard otherwise.
Listening to the shows over again, I am puzzled by a couple of his (it pleases me to imagine that Dylan actually picked all the songs himself) choices—so many great “Sunday” songs out there and he plays U2? Songs aside, I was surprised that some of the artists he’s named as his favorites didn’t get played on the show—Johnny Ace and Gordon Lightfoot especially (although his joke about Lightfoot was one of the show’s funniest moments, which is saying something.)
Any inclusions or exclusions that surprised you?
– Steve O’Neill
I was pretty much surprised by everything, especially Ellen Barkin’s film noir lead ins. I was surprised by the themes and what made them up. “Mother,” sure. “Cigarettes”? Most of all I was always entranced by the songs I’d never heard of, like, on one of the early episodes, some crazy half-country yowl called “Big Guitar,” which sounded like it was somebody’s split-second fantasy, not an actual record that somebody actually made.
Came across your review of Street-Legal in Rolling Stone, August 24, 1978. How in Christ’s name can you say Desire is a bad Dylan album? And what was so bad about Planet Waves?
Question: Have you reconsidered your opinion of Desire?
– C.J. Haine
Desire is the first sign of the sludge that would take over Dylan’s albums in the 1980s—songs that had no reason to be written and no reason to be sung, and he knew it—and he says so, with a farther span than I ever dared draw, going back in Chronicles to before Blood on the Tracks and past even Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong (presumably because he didn’t write the songs)—so the songs were dressed up with overweighted, ornamented arrangements, slack rhythms, and melodic structures that seemed to lose interest in themselves.
Planet Waves has a rickety, banged-out feel I like, and it’s unique as a sound. But despite the all-purpose patting-oneself-on-the-back crowd-pleaser “Forever Young” (Big in Japan’s song is better) the songs aren’t memorable.
Have you written about Tarantula? If so, where? If not, what was the reasoning behind that decision? I think of it as a series of discrete but related prose poems—definitely not a novel—not even of the most non-traditional sort. But that just might be a way of trying to avoid dealing with the totality of what is between those covers.
Do you have any suggestions about how someone might approach it? Or why?
– Dave Rubin
I wrote a bit about it in The Old, Weird America. It’s not fun to read. He had signed a book contract without thinking about it and had to deliver something. His liner notes were better.
1. To follow up on a question from last year, do you favor any particular theories about who killed John F. Kennedy?
2. Are there any books about paleoanthropology you would recommend to anyone new to the subject?
1. I don’t think Oswald acted alone. I think he was involved.
2. So many discoveries are being made all the time, either in terms of re-dating of cave paintings and fossils or the appearance of new finds that have the possibility of completely scrambling the whole picture and the smallest parts of it, that there’s no single, nearly up-to-date book I could cite. I’d begin with Björn Kurtén‘s 1971 study Not from the Apes and go from there.
You included “American Pie” in your Treasure Island, which I believe went against rock critic orthodoxy at the time. How do you feel about it today? It’s a monster hit in its day that doesn’t seem to have stuck—kind of a ghost.
Very few pop music revelations as shocking as that Don McLean was the inspiration for “Killing Me Softly With His Song.”
– Robert Fiore
Oh, it remains a unique touchstone.
People were writing and singing songs about the death of rock & roll and their refusal to accept it from the moment the music took a name, from Danny and the Juniors’s dull “Rock ‘n’ Roll Is Here to Stay” to the Showmen’s transcendent “It Will Stand.” But this was different, and more, and different, and daring, and different, and fun.
As long as I remember anything, I think I will remember the first time I heard “American Pie.” I was approaching the Bay Bridge from the east when it came on the radio. I was immediately sucked into the riddles of the song and the fast pace of the story—thanks to the piano playing of Paul Griffin, who was also on “Like a Rolling Stone” and “One of Us Must Know.” I suddenly realized the singer was going to trace the whole history of the music, and so I pulled over—which you really can’t do on the approach to the bridge—so I wouldn’t miss anything. It didn’t occur to me that I would ever hear the song again. It seemed to come out of the ether, generated by the wishes and fears of everyone who’d ever been part of the story that was now taking shape.
Don McLean may have been a sentimental sad sack still losing sleep over the way Rembrandt wasn’t given his due—like Don?—but in this moment he caught the brass ring. I love the way the song starts so slowly, and finishes to the same beat, and the old guys at the bar all joining in for the final chorus. I’ve never not been moved by it. The song is subtle, attuned, right, never pressing its advantage, not exploitative of memory: he doesn’t say “I cried when I heard about his widowed bride,” which anyone else would have done, he says “I can’t remember if I cried”—which brings you right into the song. If you were around then, do you remember if you cried, or even felt badly, or felt anything at all? No shame if you didn’t—but McLean doesn’t allow his listener to lie to him or herself about it. The dazzlingly complex verse about the field and the marching band and the jester—I’ve seen it convincingly explicated as about the Beatles Sgt. Pepper as a metaphor for the US Army and the players trying to take the field as anti-Vietnam War protesters and the jester on the sidelines as Dylan and on and on, but there’s still more there. I was at Altamont, I saw, felt, and feared what was happening, and when I heard McLean I was absolutely convinced that he’d been there too, that he’d seen exactly what I’d seen. I love his wordplay—“broncin’ with a hard c “buck” makes no literal sense but everyone instantly knows what he means and why as a songwriter he said that instead of “bucking bronc,” because he couldn’t have a pink carnation and a pickup trunk. That takeoff after the sad, slow first verse—it’s what the word rollicking was invented for. The song invented the word.
It’s wonderful that someone who everywhere else in his career revealed himself as a softie without a phrase in his head could create, produce, record, and release such an epochal single, placing himself right up there with the Monotones and the Silhouettes and Irma Thomas and every other person who had one great hit and will never be forgotten as long as the words “rock ‘n’ roll” have any resonance, which may not be forever, or even the next 20 years, though I’d bet on hundreds—hundreds of years in which certain records, names, odd phrases, as in the appearance of “Heartbreak Hotel” in The Handmaid’s Tale, are forgotten, partially remembered, forgotten again, retrieved, reconstructed, dug out of the ground, traveling the world again, as happened with Shakespeare in the 19th century.
After the song ended, I pulled over into the bridge lane and drove on to San Francisco, not to the Rolling Stone offices, where I’d been fired in 1970, the year before, but certain that the next Rolling Stone cover had to be the complete lyrics of the song, whatever they were—I’d come in in the middle. The first ten pages or more of what would turn into Mystery Train, my first book, were all about the song—I threw out the first 50 pages and never thought about them again. I will never get to how different, daring, fun, heartbreaking, this got-to-hear-it-again record is.
What do you think about Angela Merkel?
– Mario Alexander Weber
She did incalculable long term damage to Europe, leaving so many countries financially and socially incapable of responding to the refugee crisis, by imposing drastic austerity regimes across the board, a one-size-fits-all fix for the 2008 collapse, without regard for the particular circumstances of any given nation or society or economic system: a real end-of-history blinkered vision of nothing. It was supposed to cleanse dirty economies and put them on the road to growth; it forced countless people out of work and into penury, crime, black market labor, prostitution. It was only when Obama led the IMF, other agencies, and Germany to back off that any recovery at all began.
At the same time—or rather later—Merkel seemed to understand that. As a scientist, she thought she knew the answers; maybe as a scientist she was able to understand she didn’t. And she grew into her job, and then a job no one had really defined, when against the helplessness of Hollande and the incompetence and worse of leaders throughout Europe, and with an American partner in George W. Bush she could not respect, she realized that as she had driven Europe down with all of their help she could speak for it when no one else could, or would. Faced with Trump, she understood a breach in space and time, in history, was being created, and the choice was to walk away from the abyss or be swallowed up by it. With Putin—and with Bannon, Miller, and Gorka, and Miller still there and Bannon still advising—Trump’s goal is a new Fascist International. Both he and Putin supported Le Pen, both are buttressing the most thuggish, racist, and anti-Semitic tendencies in Hungary, Poland, Germany, Italy, Norway, Greece, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Philippines, with a map they can see and we can only guess at before them. Macron has complicated matters—they bet on Trump-like resurgence from Le Pen, not the wipe out she got. Whether Merkel can create a real alliance with him that marginalizes their enemies is an open question. As of now she’s the last woman standing who can communicate what standing even means.
In 1979 you wrote of Janis Joplin, “A number of recordings were made that captured her power…but none have ever been released.” Have any since been released? Also, to your ears, what was her power?
I could never hear it. I sense it is there, but I can’t get past the convulsive histrionics or the excessive improvisation, and much of the music sounds unctuously dated—more than anything else in rock that I can name. (Following your lead, I do like “Coo Coo,” probably because it is restrained, and short—and it was recorded in 1966.)
How do you feel about Janis Joplin today?
I was thinking of “Ball and Chain” from Monterey Pop (since released) and “Ball and Chain” from the appearance the band made earlier that year, 1967, on Ralph J. Gleason’s KQED-TV show Jazz Casual, which is available now on video as (It’s a weirdly shot show: when Janis is singing they usually don’t show her at all.) It’s the qualities of reserve, desperation, the way she can whiplash emotional extremes, to the point that even though you one part of your mind tells you this is an arrangement, an act, with all effects calculated, rehearsed, planned, an experiment that can be replicated and thus it’s science more than art, another part doubts she’ll even survive the song. I hear the same things in “Coo Coo.”
I saw them twice, in San Francisco, once at the Matrix, a tiny club where An Andalusian Dog was running on one wall in lieu of a light show, where Janis was a force of nature, and a couple of years later at the Carousel Ballroom, on a night when every note by anyone was lead and the air was so thick with death and depression you knew you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
There’s no way to sum up who she was and what she did. She was 27 when she died. She might not have done anything after that worth anyone’s attention. She might have found a way to focus her own, perhaps limited but singular ability so tightly that she could make it explode at will.
I was not at all surprised to read, in your recent “Unpacking My Library” response here, that you unloaded most of your CDs and LPs but kept all your singles. Your writing has usually seemed more interested in the song—or even individual components of a song—as the atomic unit of meaning and the starting point for a discussion.
This leads to the question: given the music industry’s shift from physical formats to downloads and now streaming, do “albums” (as we understood that term to mean from roughly the ’50s through the ’90s) still matter? Was the LP as an art form summoned by the dominant technology of the time, thus destined to pass away as artists/listeners raised on that format do, or does it have lasting value? Do you care one way or the other?
Though they are in a way video albums even before they’re anything else, Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” and Solange’s “A Seat at the Table” are as much or more unified, single statement, self-contained and self-justifying albums than Sgt. Pepper, The Band, Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, Paul Robeson’s Ballad for Americans, or Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You. Technology has opened up possibilities in all directions for those who can and want to use it, especially if what they want is to make unified, single statement, self-contained and self-justifying albums, which despite the success of “Lemonade” and “A Seat at the Table” is very expensive and not necessarily cost-effective.
I’ve been watching Ken Burns’s excellent documentary on Vietnam and the poignant use of certain Dylan’s 60’s tunes (with his express consent, I understand).
Dylan was in his early 20’s when the Vietnam draft was peaking and Bob was not a student at that time. Do you know how he avoided conscription into the military? Did he apply for conscientious objector status? Have never read anything about this in his biographies.
– Ted Foster
I don’t know. I’m sure it’s covered in the biographies. You could ask the same of all the other male folkies in the Village at the time. Could have been considered homosexual commie drug addicts. Though I had friends who went to Canada, I didn’t know anyone who was drafted who didn’t want to be. White middle class people, like Village folkies, had their ways.
From your Ralph J. Gleason obituary: “…comparing [Mystery Train] to an obscure novel he and I treasured…” What was the novel?
– Devin McKinney
I’m ashamed to say I don’t remember. This is going to bother me all day. If it surfaces I’ll let you know.
When compiling Treasure Island, were you surprised at how many greatest hits albums generally (or sometimes definitively) marked the end of a performer’s great period, even when these collections were simply next-in-line releases—that is, not meant to be conclusive—and the artists went right on making records afterwards? I see many examples: Animals, Chi-Lites, Fleetwoods, Four Tops, Aretha Franklin (Aretha’s Gold, which you touched on recently), Marvin Gaye, Martha & Vandellas, Marvelettes, Wilson Pickett, Charlie Rich, Supremes, Shirelles, Percy Sledge, Temptations. (Thousands of Sly & the Family Stone fans would name their 1970 Greatest Hits as the most famous example of this phenomenon, although you of course would not, nor would I.)
Do you think these greatest hits albums had a way of psychologically affecting artists, so far as signaling their decline? Was it just accidental timing? Am I looking for a story that’s not really there?
I think you’re right. A Greatest Hits album can signal the creative end for a group or a performer, an OK what do we do now? moment, with no answer. But often they’re assembled and released when the people in charge, whether producers or management, think an act has reached their limit, creatively and commercially, is trapped in redundancy (as so often with Motown, where almost every next record was a copy, with slight variation, of the previous hit), so we might as well cash in before nobody cares.
I do remember thinking, when Columbia put out Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits in 1967, when Dylan was incommunicado after his motorcycle accident, and there were rumors he was dead, a vegetable, disfigured, going through withdrawal, or notions even more baroque, and people believed them, that this was wrong: he wasn’t finished (which is, as you say, what such an album often signified), and anyway, there was something off, something vulgar, about shoving Bob Dylan into such a cliched operation as a Greatest Hits album. That was snobbishnes on my part, but it was my reaction. By the time they go to Vol. 2, with outside recordings that had never even been released, that were recorded for the album—the folky numbers with Happy Traum—I was happy he was breaking the formula. Now a Greatest Hits album didn’t even have to have hits.
Would you agree that, at least at the extremes, a valid case for objectivity—as in better or worse—can be made in singing? The guy I saw last night at Karaoke who sang “Honky Tonk Woman” was off-key & mono-tonal the whole way through the track. Would you deny that we can fairly, objectively, say that Mick Jagger’s version is objectively better? And even if someone were to honestly say—I enjoyed the the off-key, mono-tonal guy more than any Jagger version—because I found it more immediate, more heartfelt, and more humanly interesting as an instance of someone courageously attempting to transcend themselves at great risk—wouldn’t that sort of reasoning be a subjective, non-binding response that does not speak to the issue of what you have characterized as “what one is given to hear” (in relation to Patti Smith).
Isn’t the defense of the off-key mono-tonal on the above grounds also a form of propaganda designed to shut someone down who maintains that there is at least some room for some degree of objective standards in singing? Taste, yes, is purely subjective—and no one is, or should be, bound in their listening and enjoyment by any objective standards—but that doesn’t mean that no objective standards exist.
In Don’t Look Back, when Dylan is goofing on one of the interviewers and saying that he’s a better singer than Caruso, and that he can hold his breath longer, Dylan is tacitly acknowledging the existence of objective factors in singing—and at the same time pointing to their irrelevance—but the objective factors exist all the same.
– Dave Rubin
Well, maybe. But maybe not. When you relate the scene in Don’t Look Back, I can see your point. But when I replay it in my head—or in all the times I’ve seen it directly—that’s not what I hear at all. I think Dylan is arguing that he’s as good a singer as Caruso. Caruso could find things in opera songs countless others had sung before him they they never found—Dylan had already done the same with folk songs, and was, as he spoke, taking what other singers had found as obvious in old songs and that he found strange and putting that sensibility into his own songs, which he then sung as if they had been around forever, graves no one had dug up. As for holding his breath, to me he’s saying that standards like that, for measuring the value of a singer, are ridiculous—even though, on the harmonica breaks in “Mr Tambourine Man” or in the Ahhhhhhhhh! that comes before the “You’ve been with the professors” line in “Ballad of a Thin Man,” in 1966 UK performances of the songs, he holds his breath long enough to kill people with less.
I once heard, on the radio, some tapes that were made in a Nevada casino where customers went into a karaoke booth and sang along with the instrumental tracks of favorite songs. One was some guy—listening, you have to think of him as overweight, in a pastel leisure suit, sweating his hairpiece off—trying to sing Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.” After about a minute, if you could stand to listen, you could begin to think the song meant more to him than it ever did to Joel, and by the end you wanted to hear it again so you could be sure it did. Was Billy Joel’s version better? Of course. Was it worth more? Maybe not.
I’m curious to know your reaction to Patti Smith’s performance of “Hard Rain” at the Nobel ceremony. It knocked me right out, despite the flubs (or maybe because of them?).
– Mike Russell
I liked it. It’s not an easy song to sing, or recite. It’s not obvious. There was no shame in missing a step, even if it was rehearsed—I don’t think it was, but I might like it more if it had been. Makes me think she could be next up.
We’ve just celebrated 50 years of Sgt. Pepper, and I expect similar retrospectives when The Beatles and Abbey Road hit the half-century mark. All three are great, but I feel the band’s early and mid-period work captured an excitement and thrill just as artistic as their later work. Have people forgotten Beatles For Sale/Beatles ’65, with the Nirvana-like “No Reply” and dark tunes like “Baby’s in Black” and “Mr. Moonlight”? Do you agree that people wrongly view Beatlemania’s music as silly compared to the band’s so-called mature work?
– Josh Smith
You’re right. It’s silly to try to pit “Eight Days a Week” or “It Won’t Be Long” against “Yer Blues” and “I Want You”—except isn’t it obvious that “Eight Days a Week” and “It Won’t Be Long” (not to mention “No Reply”) are more alive, more inventive, more full of discovery, more fun? God knows “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is less serious than “Please Please Me,” not some step forward in sophistication, if that’s a value that can be applied to rock & roll.
The art album is “Rubber Soul.” But the deepest art statement is the cover of “With the Beatles.”
From there, anything could happen, and anything did.
You are so perceptive and articulate about many things and yet are clueless when it comes to appreciation of certain great albums like No Guru No Method No Teacher, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, and Graceland. This isn’t Sergeant Pepper vs. Revolver. There seem to be many universally lauded albums that you can’t grasp. Have you no comprehension of your loss or is it just like the fact that millions of young people couldn’t care less about Bob Dylan? As a respected rock critic don’t you feel that you should try harder? I say all of that (mostly) tongue in cheek but I’m sure that there are many of your readers who are regularly stunned by your dismissal of various masterpieces.
– Bob Ryan
I don’t have a responsibility to like respected works—to put it another way, to like what I’m supposed to like—any more than you do. All criticism is is an analysis of one’s own response. I like this. Why? I don’t like it. Why? I know this is manufactured nonsense but I can’t get it out of my head, and the more I hear it, the more I think about it, I realize something special, even unique is going on here, something nervy, something brave, something no one will ever do again: I give you a-ha, “Take On Me.” I give you Kanye West, unafraid to like what he likes:
Graceland and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road—or as I can’t help thinking of it, Tire Tracks on My Broken Heart–are very well made. They’re also preening, narcissistic pieces of junk asking the listener, or the album-cover gazer, to admire them. Take a look at the video for “You Can Call Me Al” if you want the most embarrassing, or shameless, Simon version. (Why has there never been a Paul Simon song as shameless as the Thanksgiving turkey outfit he wore on Saturday Night Live?) Paul Simon is an accomplished craftsman: a song like “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” is like a class in songwriting. Until you realize it’s a class in songwriting tricks. The Eagles’ “Lyin’ Eyes” has more heart, more real life, more love in it. As for Lucinda Williams, I have never heard a word out of her mouth, spoken or sung, that wasn’t meant to establish her purity. I don’t think her music is about anything else. There is a lot of love in her music—self-love. Just listen to the way she drags out words.
I’m willing to admit I can’t hear No Guru, et al. There may be things there I can’t find. I’ve looked. That’s the best I can do.
I imagine you’ve seen Festival Express, the documentary about the short 1970 tour wherein the Band, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and a bunch of other acts traveled from show to show across Canada by chartered train. Given the sheer oddness of the concept and diversity of the line-up (Ian and Sylvia! Buddy Guy! Sha Na Na!) I’m surprised the tour isn’t more famous. Judging from the film, the real fun was had on the train between shows—the footage of a very happy Rick Danko leading Janis and members of the Dead in a sing-along of “Ain’t No More Cane” is unforgettable.
You were following the Band closely at the time—did you happen to catch any of the shows? What did you think of the movie?
– Steve O’Neill
I didn’t go to any of the shows—didn’t live anywhere near any of them—and the whole enterprise seemed like a great way for musicians to take too many drugs and blow off audiences with third-rate performances. I can’t recall if I ever saw the whole movie. But I’ve watched the “Ain’t No More Cane” sequence many times. Too many times.
Partly that’s because it’s such a great song, a permanent song, and a song the Band was always drawn to. There are two different versions on the Basement Tapes, with Dylan leading (he was singing it, poorly, at the Gaslight in New York in the early ’60s), plus the verse about “driving the women like they was driving the men” in another Basement number. The Band recorded it for Music from Big Pink. It’s a Texas song—Elvie Thomas, Geeshie Wiley’s partner, was playing around the Brazos in the 1920s, if not before—so Janis Joplin adds more than her voice. There’s Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Rick Danko leading, and John Dawson aka Marmaduke of the New Riders of the Purple Sage—and when I look at that bit of film, I’m staggered by how many of the people there are dead. Or that only one of them is still alive.
John Dawson and I were classmates at Peninsula School in Menlo Park through eighth grade. I always appreciated John, though for some reason we never got along, because he was the only person in class who was both shorter than I was and a worse athlete. We last saw each other at 40th anniversary class reunion. He died soon after. I knew Rick, who was so warm and open when I was writing about the Basement Tapes. It’s ugly to watch that song.
The Village Voice is over, and now Rolling Stone is on the block. We all know why. As a distinguished alumnus of both indispensable publications, you must have an idea of what the future holds for the informed, ardent reporting and analysis of culture. Obviously historiography will suffer. But I can’t imagine, as they say, what that will look like.
– Laura Leivick
There’s no telling what the Voice will be. I started writing there in 1975 and people told me it wasn’t the Voice anymore, which I imagine every writer before me after 1960 and every writer since has been told, just as people have been saying since the late 19th century to anyone arriving in Greenwich Village or Hawaii that they’re too late, it’s been ruined, it’s all over (that’s what I heard the first time I went to Hawaii, in 1962, when I was 17; they probably said the same thing to my great-great grandparents when they went there a hundred years before). My experience writing for online magazines—Salon, Barnes and Noble Review, Pitchfork, has been fine in terms of overall editorial vision and audience response. They felt like real places. I suppose with the Voice the question will be whether or not they go full-service or criticism and journalism remain key poles of gravity. If ownership and editor don’t change I’m eager to see what happens.
I can’t imagine Rolling Stone without Jann Wenner—I mean without his having claim on it, regardless of whether or not his son takes formal editorial control—and without ownership, it’s hard to see him staying on. But that may just be my small-mindedness. My main worry: where will Rob Sheffield go, if he has to go?
Any thoughts on Hillary Clinton’s new book or about the overall responses to the book, some of which essentially mean to say “how dare you, bitch?”
– Lou Sinda
I haven’t read it yet. I will. What excerpts I’ve seen and the interview with Rachel Maddow make me think it will not be a positioning, like her other books, all calculated not to give offense or reveal anything, but a score settling. Which is what I want to read.
Robert Christgau has rated four of Taylor Swift’s albums as A-. Do you share his enthusiasm for her work? If so, how do you rate her latest single, “Look What You Made Me Do”?
– Andrew MacDonald
She makes very well made records. You can’t hear “Shake It Off” without knowing it’s a hit. But it was made to be a hit, according to a certain formula, and after I’d heard it twenty or a hundred times I could no longer hear the song. All I could hear were the nuts and bolts of its construction—the way the notion that you have to have a hook every seven seconds is followed to the… second. I realize one is supposed to respect success, because at a certain level there’s no success without real content and real innovation. I don’t care.
More on Elvis and Cultural Appropriation, this time in Public Affairs, which argues “exploitation” and “cultural disrespect” are more useful terms than “appropriation.”
Author Briahna Joy Gray writes “The trouble with Elvis’s version of ‘Hound Dog’ is not that it is bad. It’s that it doesn’t make any goddamn sense.” Elvis’s version, with its different lyrics, is “sanitized for a pop audience” and “drained of its original meaning.” She continues “when Elvis sang ‘Hound Dog,’ it made him rich and he became ‘The King,’ while when Thornton sang what is—let’s be honest—an objectively better version of the song, she didn’t become a world-famous megastar.” She concludes, “If we embrace a strict prohibition on borrowing, as Kenan Malik says, we wouldn’t get Elvis Presley. But if we don’t recognize how racial inequities structure the success of different cultural products, we might lapse into an even worse fate: listening to Elvis’s version of ‘Hound Dog’ rather than Big Mama Thornton’s.”
What do you make of that “objectively better” line? Am I wrong in thinking that it isn’t supported by her argument and that deciding what is and isn’t “objectively better” has little to do with music criticism? And isn’t it possible to recognize and deplore that “racial inequities structure the success of different cultural products” and still prefer Elvis’s version of “Hound Dog”?
I sort of liked it better when the operative word was “theft,” as in “everybody does it.” But when someone weighs in on this subject with a phrase or an idea like “objectively better” you know they’re writing propaganda, trying to shut you up, make you stop thinking. There is no such thing in art. You make a case. How, why, is it better? Better for what purpose, for what values?
There are problems, since what’s really being talked about here is race. As I tried to work through so many years ago in Mystery Train, the song was first recorded by a black singer, but the songwriters were white. It was a number one R&B hit, though it didn’t make the pop charts. It became a hit for Elvis after he heard a white group’s cover of Willie Mae Thornton’s original—which as a constant listener to Memphis’s R&B station he surely knew. The performances, from the words to the rhythms, are completely different—they are close to different songs. Elvis doesn’t even seem to refer to Thornton.
I’ve heard Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller discuss how offended they were by Elvis’s version, how it was white, empty, hollow, pandering to the teen audience, and so on. When someone asked them, that day, how they could say such things when they themselves were white, Leiber said, “We weren’t white then.”
Best, though, was their story about teaching Thornton how to sing the song. She was bigger than they were, older, and a hundred times tougher. But they thought she didn’t get it, so scared to death, they sang it they way it was supposed to go—according to them. But what did they know?
You see? There’s no simple answer. Or maybe even a complex one.
In reply to a question about the Clash, you wrote, recently: “I think ultimately the band comes down to Joe Strummer…” It put me in mind of a previous comment of yours on this forum: “You might prefer Joe to Mick but there would have been no Joe without Mick…”
Okay, okay, so you were actually writing about “John and Paul” not “Joe and Mick,” but it’s as true for the Clash as it was for the Beatles, and if a “Somebody Got Murdered” knock-off like “This is England” is the best you can offer to shore up your Strummer-was-the Clash argument, I’d say you’ve already lost it.
Sorry if I’m touchy about this, but I’ve never quite gotten over the sense of betrayal my teenage self felt when Joe broke faith with us by ousting Mick. (Didn’t stop me from going to see the Jones-less “Clash” though; they weren’t bad. And “land of one thousand stances” is a great line.)
– Steve O’Neill
Joe had an addled, messianic sense of principles, but he did have a sense of principles.
I’m interested in your declaration that Graceland was “awful” in an earlier reply here. How about it really grates on you, as “awful” is quite a strong word? I can see that it’s morally questionable and politically empty, but its strange beauty wins me over every time I put it on, it moves me in ways that overcome the fact that it’s, perhaps, intellectually void.
Are there any Paul Simon records that you enjoy, and believe have stood the test of time (including his work with Garfunkel, which I personally find turgid and unlistenable)?
– Oliver’s Twist
I’m not a Paul Simon person.
I recently read a comic strip adaptation of “Pretty Polly” which had me confused because the cartoonist adapted the original version of the song, “The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter.” As you are no doubt aware, in the full version Willie returns to his ship after the murder, and at sea several of his shipmates are murdered, and Willie ultimately learns that they were killed by Polly’s ghost, who has returned to kill him. I was not aware of it, and at first thought that two different songs were being combined. So I did some YouTube research on the longer version and found I actually owned a recording of it myself, sung by Mike Waterson, but it had never registered with me the way the shorter version did. The question I have is, is it possible that “Pretty Polly” as most of us know it is the result of the time limits imposed by the 78 RPM record?
On the totally different subject of Twin Peaks: The Return as a callback to earlier days, the thing I couldn’t get out of my mind while watching James Hurley on the show is how much he looked like a young Tommy Smothers.
– Robert Fiore
I hadn’t made the Tommy Smothers connection, but you couldn’t be more right.
As for “Pretty Polly”—when the ballad began to travel in America, it lost both its supernatural overtones and Polly’s pregnancy. I don’t think it was so much the three minutes of one side of a 78—there were plenty of one-song, two-sided blues 78s—as an instinct to bring the story down to earth, so it would fit any situation, any man, any woman.
Given the fact that you are a huge Chandler/Macdonald fan, please comment on one who was also a fan of those two, Warren Zevon.
– Todd Skiles
I can’t, as you say, comment on Warren Zevon, any more than I could comment on Bill Clinton or Steph Curry—i.e., sum him up. He was a figure of great complexity. With a gift for melody that some people never paid any attention to.
Any thoughts on Sinatra’s incomplete “Only the Lonely”-era outtake, “Lush Life”? Strikes me as one of the great missed opportunities. Another is the Beatles version of “All Things Must Pass”—the rehearsal with John and Paul singing sublime harmonies, not the George solo version on Anthology. Any particular songs you wish someone had sung or would sing to make the world a better place? I’ll throw a couple potential Dylan covers out there: Springsteen doing “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” and Maria McKee doing “When He Returns.” What are yours?
The only thought of any kind is from long ago: Elvis doing Dylan’s “I Threw It All Away.”
Have you ever written about Richard Berry’s work with the Crowns, Cadets, Flairs, etc.? I especially love a couple of songs: “The Big Break,” obviously a rewrite of “Riot in Cell Block #9” a year later (and just as wild, I’d say—Berry’s on both, I think), and the Flairs’ “She Wants to Rock.” In ’56, Berry and the Pharaohs put out “Watusi,” which is pretty much “Stranded in the Jungle” from the same year. It’s all a little confusing.
– Alan Vint
I’ve written about Richard Berry here and there. For me, it’s always been the prison trilogy: the Coasters’ “Riot in Cell Block #9” with Berry doing the spoken parts, his own “The Big Break,” and his little known “Next Time.” Legal-jeopardy discs were a big part of early Los Angeles R&B and rock & roll, partly because everyone knew the LA police force was racist and murderous to the core. In the fifties the likes of the Rodney King beating was about as remarkable as a traffic stop.
In 1994, for an Oakland conference of the Center for California Studies at the Oakland Museum called “Bright Lights, Mean Streets: California as City,” I set up the panel “Bop City: LA’s ’50s Rhythm & Blues” with Danyel Smith and Richard Berry himself. He was a complete charm, though there because he wanted recognition as a pioneer and an artist. He wasn’t scheduled to perform afterward, but he insisted on it. He was a powerful physical presence, but a legend in the flesh: I AM SITTING NEXT TO THE MAN WHO WROTE “LOUIE LOUIE”!
I never heard of Willie Nile or Joan Osborne before they started doing covers of Dylan songs, and still don’t care about either of them. But I guess other people singing Dylan’s work helps keep him in front of the public and sometimes even augments his place in the canon and the firmament.
Some covers have a life of their own—thank God Judy Collins’s egregious debut of “I’ll Keep It With Mine” didn’t (the arrangement—horrors! It doesn’t even sound like a Dylan song), but it served a purpose with the public I guess. Btw, it seems clear that her claim that he wrote it for her—which Nico said he told her too!—if true, was just sweet talk; he wrote it for himself. He just never got it in shape for a record, or found space for it on a record, or whatever happened.
Nina Simone’s performances of Dylan songs sound nothing like Dylan songs either (though her Brecht/Weill sure sounds like Brecht/Weill), and that is their greatness and their hallmark. In my opinion, which is limited by what I have heard, Simone’s Dylan covers are the most compelling ever. But they are so personal I don’t think they have his reach.
Maybe the enthusiastic response to Osborne and Niles is due to the fact that their voices are more conventional and their diction clearer than Dylan’s. Also their repertoires are made up of songs from the “greatest hits” catalog.
I would like to know what you think about these matters. That Dylan has always sung other people’s material makes it pretty clear where he stands.
His own recordings, manuscripts et al. promise to keep the real thing alive, and as for keeping his work before the public, he’s obviously in hot pursuit, still heading for another joint.
Maybe what matters is that his songs survive in his own voice first, and in the culture second.
– Laura Leivick
I can’t listen to (I can’t even imagine listening to) Joan Osborne. Willie Nile made the fantastic folk-rock rave up “Sing Me a Song” 37 years ago and nothing I’ve wanted to hear more than once since.
In Treasure Island, you listed only one recording by the Grateful Dead—the then-unreleased Live at the Pyramids, about which you said, “Who knows what it’ll sound like: the concept is staggering.” The concert was finally released in 2008 as Rocking the Cradle: Egypt 1978.
A few questions: Have you heard the CD release? If so, would you still include it? Are there any other recordings by the Grateful Dead you wish you had included? Although you were living in San Francisco during the Dead’s heyday, you don’t seem to have written much about them. Any general comments you’d care to share about them?
– Elliot Silverman
The one Grateful Dead recording I might have included is “I Know You Rider,” from an old “Live at the Avalon” semi-bootleg LP, Vintage Dead, recorded in 1966, that I no longer have.
Live at the Pyramids was ALL concept—I pretty much hoped it would never come out. When it did I paid no attention. The noodling 1971 version of “I Know You Rider” you can find on YouTube and elsewhere—as opposed to the flying dynamics of the 1966 performance, which was simply what you heard at every Dead show every weekend that year.
It’s funny. The Dead started out as a Palo Alto-Menlo Park band. That’s where I grew up. I knew Bill Kreutzman in grade school—he was a year behind me—and vividly remember the day he ended up with a concussion after running into a post during a touch football game. I didn’t know him, but Bob Weir was two years behind me in high school. Jerry Garcia was my sister’s guitar teacher. The band came together at the few outposts of bohemia on the San Francisco Peninsula, Kepler’s books in Menlo Park (where Ira Sandperl, my grade school English teacher before he became Joan Baez’s guru, worked) and the St. Michael’s Alley and Tangent coffeehouses in Palo Alto, where Garcia and Weir’s Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions played. But then there was a night at the Fillmore, sometime in 1966. Quicksilver Messenger Service opened; they closed their set with “our version of ‘In the Midnight Hour.'” Then the Dead, who closed their set with “our version of ‘In the Midnight Hour.'” Then Jefferson Airplane, who closed their set with “our version of ‘In the Midnight Hour.'” Then all three bands came on stage and played “In the Midnight Hour” together for what seemed like two hours. I’m not sure I saw any of them again.
You mentioned the Bang Bang Bar as the “only grounding” in the new Twin Peaks. Now that it’s over, do you feel the series wound up meaning something more than its individual parts?
Yes. But only because a 50-year-old Sheryl Lee showed up at the end. That brought it all into focus—or balance. I could at least imagine what it was all for. I hope to say more in my October Real Life Rock column.
I’ve always wondered about Heart’s “Crazy on You” from your Desert Island list. For me, the record seems completely built on ’70s arena-rock clichés, yet somehow transcends them with furious passion. What drew you to the song? Did any other Heart recordings move you?
I think you caught it yourself. The disco drumming still undercuts the song—it sounded like pandering then, it just sounds like bad rhythm now, or stupidity—but the desperation has never dimmed. And “Straight on to You” is close
What’s your stance on cultural boycotts? It all seemed pretty cut and dried in the ’80s, when I could smugly refuse to go to a Ray Charles concert because he’d played Sun City. Now I’m not so sure—I admired Springsteen for cancelling his North Carolina shows over the bathroom law, but I also respected Cyndi Lauper for performing in the state but insisting on non-gender-specific bathrooms at her gigs and donating concert proceeds to organizations fighting the bathroom bill. I recognize that such boycotts affect small businesses and part-time workers who had nothing to do with passing the laws in question, but I imagine that must have been the case in Apartheid-era South Africa, too. Would it be reasonable for artists to boycott states that display confederate monuments, and for the public to boycott artists who don’t?
The whole issue confuses me, plus I’m a bit pissed I never got to see Ray Charles live…
– Steve O’Neill
I can tell you this. I was invited to a conference in North Carolina last fall. I spent a lot of time trying to decide if I should go. I went back and forth with several other people who’d been invited. Without boring you and myself with all the doubts and conflicts and confusions, I went. I spoke to a number of people about the boycott—this was in Research Triangle Park (site of the conference taking place on Randy Newman’s new album Dark Matter)—and they were all against the boycott. “NO!” one woman said to me. “We need Bruce Springsteen here! We need everyone. They’re on our side, they’re part of the same fight. We get strength from going to their shows and knowing the whole country is watching North Carolina.”
So there’s no simple answer. Even with Paul Simon breaking the boycott of South Africa with his awful Graceland. As I believe Armond White wrote at the time—not an exact quote—“Paul Simon had the right to say anything he wanted to say about South Africa on Graceland except what he did say: nothing.”
I love your writing on Lana Del Rey, I wish there was more of it. I can’t understand how she does not get more critical acclaim from more current writers. Her new album Lust For Life is a totally amazing thing, I think, her voice even better than her other gorgeous albums, the production amazing, Rick Nowels is so good. I am 63 now, and I like a lot of avant music, but I find Lana so special, I have just seen her live at Brixton in London, one of the most amazing concerts I have seen, and I have seen a few: Bowie 1972, Stones, Dylan, Led Zep, Bikini Kill (one of my faves), X-Ray Spex with Lora [Logic], Sex Pistols 3 nights running in May 1976 (and quite a few times after), and lots more. It was such a magical concert, she did “Love” acapella after the keyboard player could not get the start right, she said fuck it I will do it acapella—punk rock! She had 3000 young girls singing
along with her, magical. She did the amazing “In My Feelings” acapella as well after someone shouted for it, she said we have not rehearsed that, yet walked over to microphone and just started singing it, amazing. Why do you think she sort of hits a brick wall with a lot of critics?
All The best—
I envy you for the shows you have seen. I met Lora Logic, I spent a long time talking with her, but I never saw her play, let alone with X-ray Spex. I spent time with Liliput, and never saw them play. I was lucky enough to see the Raincoats, the Gang of Four, the Mekons in 1980, and the Clash—better in their shamed New Clash version than at the height of their first American tour.
I watched the Lana Del Rey acapella performances you saw on YouTube. Why is it so hard for writers, at least male writers, to understand her music? Is it because all the two- or three-times her age biker thugs in her videos threaten them? Because, as Skip James once said of himself, she’s been and gone from places they will never get to—or imagined her way there, and told about it as if she had been there? Because she may know more about pop music, in a critical sense, than they do, and care more about it?
I think it is because, despite the name she’s given herself (and the one she’s erased), she doesn’t perform as a construct, which is not the same as a persona, as Father John Misty does—but also as Katy Perry and Taylor Swift do. She doesn’t perform with a retinue of servants (that’s what backup singers and dancers and redundant musicians really are) and floating stage sets or even costumes. She looks like a glamorous version of an ordinary person. She wouldn’t necessarily turn heads as she walked down the street. She sings ethereal songs that seem, in their scope, sweep, emotion, and knowledge, out of proportion to the person you can see singing them.
I think one of the things that is appealing about Katy Perry and Taylor Swift is that they make no bones about being products. Lana Del Rey plainly isn’t, and it isn’t plainly clear who or what she is. That has to make some people uncomfortable.
But I really don’t know. To me, she’s the most interesting performer working in music today, with the possible exception of Bob Dylan, and I think she has more in common with him than she does with anyone else.
As for 9/11, memory serves and I can’t revisit it—though there’s no escaping the devastation that persists in its wake. But it was also the day Dylan’s Love and Theft was released and I just reread this Village Voice piece on the confluence of events.
Because the Village—what it was and what it represented—now seem like Prospero’s Island, the fact that its Voice will cease publication this month strikes me as inevitable as it is shocking. Where should we look for your Real Life Rock Top 10 now?
– Laura Leivick
I don’t want to speak too soon but should have an answer on the future of the column soon.
Sorry if I’m belaboring this discussion, but commenting on Pauline Kael’s praise for Albert Goldman’s Lenny Bruce biography, you cited the friendship between Kael and Goldman. In Easy Riders and Raging Bulls Peter Biskind questions Kael’s objectivity, suggesting she gave preferential treatment to directors who “charmed” or “finessed” her, such as Robert Altman and Warren Beatty. Is this what you were getting at in your comments—was Kael prone to letting her personal relationships interfere with her critical judgement?
On a completely unrelated note, what do you think of Robbie Robertson’s solo work?
– Steve O’Neill
Letting personal relationships interfere with her critical judgement—not with me. I suppose Altman and Beatty did finesse her into writing negative reviews of their movies, and certainly Sam Peckinpah, who clearly finessed her into calling Straw Dogs a fascist work of art.
After his first solo album, Robbie’s work has often been honest and admirable, if not music that necessarily calls you back to it. I like his book better.
Where to start with the Mekons? Can you help?!?
– Mary Crowe
That’s a difficult question, as they are a band so varied and shot-in-the-dark creative over 40 years that there’s no way of knowing who might find what key to the box. Shooting in the dark myself, I’d say first go to the website of Mekonville, the celebration of the band’s 40-year anniversary held this summer in Sussex, with good videos of many performances including the band as it was in 1977 (nobody dead, with Jon Langford hidden on drums and Mary Mekon with her back turned on bass) and as it is now. Then listen to Fear and Whiskey, for me the best album of the 1980s, or to Journey to the End of the Night. And you could look at the Mekons pieces in my In the Fascist Bathroom.
How did the title of Ranters & Crowd Pleasers become In the Fascist Bathroom? Have you named all, or most, of your books?
– Scott Woods
I always wanted to call it In the Fascist Bathroom, but Doubleday rejected that, so I came up with Ranters and Crowd Pleasers, which I also like. But it was “Fascist” in the UK, from Faber.
My German publisher, Rogner and Bernhard, rejected the book when my German-language agent submitted it to them under the US title. Later that year I was in Germany doing publicity for the Rogner and Bernhard edition of Lipstick Traces when my publisher, Niko Hansen, saw me carrying the UK edition, with the “Fascist” title and the Jamie Reid cover art. He said, “What’s that?” I said, the UK edition of the book you rejected. He asked to borrow it for the night and the next day said he’d publish it. I said, Oh, you reread it and had a new opinion? He said, “I didn’t read it. But I can sell that title and that cover.” When it went out of print at Doubleday and Harvard picked it up, along with Dead Elvis, they liked the UK title and art better, so they went with it.
I do title all of my books, but sometimes I have to fight and sometimes I lose. As with The Old, Weird America, originally. Neither the US or UK publishers liked it, so I typed up a sheet of about 20 alternative titles and they both picked Invisible Republic, which no one but Bob Dylan could remember or get straight. Almost every review or mention of the book used The Old, Weird America as a catchphrase or headline, so when I had the chance to do a new edition I went with that. And now I never know what to call it.
There are many wonderful obscure singles in “Treasure Island,” but the one that stands alone for me is the Blue Ridge Rangers’ “Back in the Hills.” I’ve never heard it played on the radio, I’ve never seen any writer mention it, and it almost seems like a ghost, or that it never existed. (I had to buy a Brazilian 45 on eBay to hear it.)
It is John Fogerty’s strongest post-Creedence music, but he never played it at shows, and to my knowledge it has never been commercially available in any form, not even digital download, since its original 1973 release. This is strange.
Is there a story here? What is your story with this record? Was it a local hit in the Bay Area? What are your thoughts about it today?
I don’t know anything about it. It came out just as Creedence dissolved, or maybe before, I saw it in a record store, bought it (as I did the second Blue Ridge Rangers single), took it home, loved it, still have it. The album didn’t come close. I’m glad you found it.
Greil, unlike many rock music critics you have also reviewed books. Here is my question: several rock/pop musicians fundamentally altered our conceptions of, and the direction of, rock and pop music since WWII. Can you think of writers who have done the same in their field? That is, writers since WWII who are respectively as significant as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, etc.? I think of Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, maybe Truman Capote (since he virtually invented the true-crime genre with In Cold Blood), but after the mid-1960s am hard pressed for names that have withstood the test of time. Your thoughts?
No. I really don’t think so.
So what’s your assessment of The Clash’s discography and the band as a unit? Ive always found their first three albums as a shining example of great music, let alone punk, rock, or any other description. As someone that dabbles in music criticism, I’ve read many a summary and review of their work but usually as parts, not the whole.
– Thomas Briscuso
It’s an almost impossible task, as the band was so confused about who it was, why, how, when, if… and a lot of people don’t consider the Clash without Paul Simonon and Mick Jones the Clash, and I do. I think ultimately the band comes down to Joe Strummer, and no one was more confused—in an honest, sincere, messianic, sometimes frighteningly unhinged way—than he was, and he didn’t live to tell his story. I’ll simply say that that “This Is England,” by the by-some-called New Clash, is the dark, defeated B-side of “Complete Control.” And that anyone who cares about the Clash should read New Clash guitarist Vince White’s Out of Control—The Last Days of the Clash, Lester Bangs’s account of a UK Clash tour in his Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, and Johnny Green and Garry Barker’s A Riot of Our Own.
I’m glad Robbie finally cleared up the boat matter. For the record, every white citizen in the South who had a living memory of the Civil War believed they had caught a glimpse of Robert E. Lee, just as every white citizen thereafter has believed they’re related to him. Stoneman’s Cavalry left from my father’s back yard and ended in my mother’s so I know a little about this. Sorry I can’t pass along what all Virgil told my uncle. But I promise you he’d be amused by all this.
– John Ross
Your second sentence absolutely clears up everything else.
[Follow-ups to David McClure’s question from 09/01 re: Robert E. Lee’s appearance in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”]
Maybe Eric Foner’s question [09/01] has an answer. In “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” Levon Helm sings “Virgil quick, come see, there Goes the Robert E. Lee” (some of the on-line lyrics miss the “the”). I always assumed it was a reference to a steamboat passing by. Just looking it up, there was a steamboat named after Lee, but it was not built until 1866. Perhaps Robbie Robertson’s poetic license provides the answer.
I have to weigh in on this discussion of the “Robert E. Lee” line from “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Not in regards to Foner’s equation of Lee with “the very best”; that’s clearly wrong. I’m talking about whether or not Levon drops in a “the” before Lee’s name, turning him into, as you and Barney Hoskyns have pointed out, a boat. That would be the steamboat Robert E. Lee, which apparently was built in 1866 in New Albany, Indiana, a Union state. Famously it defeated the Natchez in a race on the Mississippi River in 1870 and set a new speed record.
I’ve always heard the lyric without the “the,” but I can understand why a person might hear something in the space between “there goes” and “Robert E. Lee.” Helm adds some kind of sung syllable after “goes,” kind of a “goes-uh” that swings the phrase into the next one. I’m sure it’s because of his southern accent, but it’s also a musical choice. It’s this way on the version of the song on The Band; it’s very slight and not at all a “the.”
But in the dirge-like version on Rock of Ages/Live at the Academy of Music, I do hear a “the.” Same with the performance on Before the Flood. It’s not very distinct in the version from the July 1976 show in Washington D.C. or the September ’76 show in New York, but watching and listening to Helm in The Last Waltz later that year, I do think he might be singing “the.”
Does a reference to the steamboat Robert E. Lee take away from that verse? I’m not sure it does. For me, adding “the” actually makes the second verse more coherent. The first and third verses are sustained stories or declarations—self-contained units—but the second verse has always seemed kind of an oddball compared to them. David McClure interprets the “very best” line like I always have: “the improper requisitioning of civilian private goods in a military zone.” But what does that have to do Robert E. Lee going by? (As Foner said.) And what does it have to do with chopping wood…if the setting is not during the Civil War, but well into the Reconstruction?
So, what if this is the scene: Virgil’s come home defeated. A few years have gone by. The South is still wrecked. He’s humiliated by the manual labor of chopping wood. He’s getting paid shit for it. And where is this wood going? Who’s profiting from his labor now? His wife calls to him and tells him to look at the steamboat Robert E. Lee barreling north on the Mississippi. The hull and infrastructure of steamboats by this time were definitely iron, but the interior was usually wooden. This one was described as having lavish furniture, etc. So there it goes, steaming by, and Virgil is thinking of how the North has taken all of the South’s natural resources. “You take what you need and you leave the rest”—well, the North didn’t just take what it needed. It took everything, including the very best. And for what? The South’s resources (and Virgil’s labor) are being used for a steamboat race featuring two ships made in the North—the Natchez was built in Cincy—and named for a Southern town and hero. It’s an enormous middle finger to the South.
All of that makes sense in the context of the song, and it firms up that second verse. As a side note, an annotation on Genius says Lee never left Virginia after the Civil War. From what I’ve read, this seems to be true, but I’m not 100% certain.
This is one of the things I love about music: how a syllable swallowed or tossed out can change the story. The official version of the story is probably that Virgil is singing about Robert E. Lee. It’s a mix of myth and memory. (Who cares, really, if Lee never visited Tennessee?) But if we hear it as a boat, and sing it as a boat, the story doesn’t change, it becomes more complex. The symbol of reconciliation between North and South (Lee himself) turns out to be a joke at Virgil’s expense. I find that version even more heartbreaking.
In your research on The Band, has Robertson or Helm ever addressed this? I can’t recall seeing a reproduction of the handwritten lyrics for the song. Is it out there?
– Robert Loss
Robert Loss’s contribution to this debate is utterly characteristic of his writing and thinking: unstoppable historical curiosity, true storytelling, the unusual combination of intellectual ambition and modesty—all matters that will play out this fall when Bloomsbury publishes his incisive book Nothing Has Been Done Before.
But I queried Robbie Robertson, who owns the last word as he did the first: “There’s no boat in the song.”
Given that you and Pauline Kael were both admirers of Lenny Bruce, I was interested in your respective reactions to Albert Goldman’s biography of him: Kael called it brilliant; you characterized it as Goldman attempting to prove he was hipper than Bruce. I suppose there’s no reason you can’t both be right—bad motives for writing don’t necessarily result in bad writing. Still, did Kael’s praise for the book surprise you? Did the two of you ever discuss it?
– Steve O’Neill
Pauline was friends with Albert Goldman; I had the pleasure of never meeting him. I can’t recall if she she and I ever discussed him. I haven’t changed my mind. He was a goon, living off the superiority of the living over the dead: his first book was an attempted takedown of Thomas De Quincey’s great book Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, claiming it was plagiarized and that De Q was a dabbling dilettante who probably couldn’t tell horse from sugar. All you need to know about his Lenny Bruce book is on the endpapers—the police photo of a naked Bruce dead on the floor from an overdose. It’s the dead Bruce that mattered to Goldman, not the man who lived a life, changed the world, and paid the price (as Phil Spector put it, “Lenny Bruce died of an overdose of police”).
After a lifetime of record collecting how difficult was it to get rid of the majority of your albums? How long did it take to decide what to get rid of and what to keep? Have you reached for an LP that wasn’t there and said, Damn what was I thinking?
– Craig Zeller
As I said in response to an earlier question about getting rid of stuff, I didn’t have that many LPs compared to most rock critics, especially those who started writing (and receiving review copies) in the late 60s. For a long time I had a record cabinet dominating one wall of my living room and tried to keep what I had to what it would hold, which eventually meant deleting one record for whatever new one I was going to keep. But punk and reggae made that impossible, not to mention the blues, country, and rockabilly reissues that began to flood in in the late ’70s and ’80s. So I built another shelf, the same size, in the attic of my house, where I also kept a limited number of CDs and dozens of boxes of 45s.
When in 2011 we moved from that big house to a small house, it was time to cut bait. I had to face the fact that the hundreds of LPs that I’d kept for research or reference were never going to be listened to, or listened to again—the endless Relic series of city-by-city doo wop albums—or that I really did not need, or for that matter want, a picture disc of Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London.”
I asked Jeff Gold, a record collector and dealer from LA to come up to Berkeley and look at what I had, saying I didn’t want to talk about anything worth less than $100. I had no idea how many, or rather how few, records I had that might meet that definition. I knew that among collectors, condition trumps every other measure of value, and that my unbelievably rare copy of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, with songs other than those listed on the label—worth according to some sources $25,000 or more—and I didn’t collect it, it’s just what I bought in 1963, I never thought of it as rare, I figured they were all like that—was worth almost nothing, because I’d played it to death and written my guesses as to the real song titles on the back. It was interesting to see what I had that was worth something: the first Neil Young album, The Angry Young Them, the UK version of their first album (neither of which I considered selling), a live Yardbirds album made when the band was breaking up and Jimmy Page had replaced Jeff Beck (I don’t even know why I kept it—it wasn’t very good). It turned out the most valuable thing I had was an impeccably rolled Grateful Dead skeleton and roses Fillmore poster that we’d taken home one night.
After Jeff left, I asked Joe Goldmark from Amoeba Records in San Francisco to come over and pour through the rest. What neither he nor I wanted I sold for pennies.
With one or two exceptions—recently I went to a reading where a member of the 1971 Detroit punk band Früt took part, and was so proud I had their bizarre Keep on Truckin’ album, which includes a cover of “Runnin’ Bear” that is not of this earth, except when I got home it wasn’t there—I would never had gotten rid of that, it was just too strange—I haven’t missed what I no longer have, because you can now hear almost anything on YouTube. That said, I still like objects. I may not fetishize them as I once did, but I like them—they’re reassuring, they exist. So I often take things off the internet—like recent YouTube albums of a Rick Danko/Levon Helm show with a version of “It Makes No Difference” you could kill yourself over, or a “1967 Moby Grape Live” compilation that is even better than anyone remembers—and have them made into CDs.
I don’t anticipate getting rid of anything else.
I saw that you recommended three records for recent graduates: Al Green’s The Belle Album, Gang of Four’s Entertainment!, and Cat Power’s The Covers Record. Just wondering if there were any reasons?
They are three different ways of looking at the world. That’s what you go to college for, to find out what you don’t know.
In 2002 you wrote, “Once a Sex Pistols record appears on the air, everything around it, anything played just before or after, sounds stupid and compromised.” You’ve echoed this elsewhere—the idea that other music disappears when a good 1977 London punk record is playing.
Assuming you spent a good part of 1977-78 shocked by and immersed in English punk, was this truly your reality as a listener during this moment? If so, I specifically wonder how in this context you were able to hear and be moved by albums such as Rumours, Street Survivors, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and especially Boston’s Don’t Look Back. (I don’t wonder about Some Girls, though, whose fast, fresh edge sounds like the Stones earning their place alongside if not inside this moment, as they had done for so many other moments.)
I think of the patient, thoughtful October 1978 review you wrote for Who Are You—a tired-sounding effort that must have seemed to embody rock’s staleness and everything that punk was discrediting and burying and leaving behind—and all I can imagine is what discipline it took for you to make time for it against the thrilling rush of this new rock and roll.
How much were caught up in the punk rock moment, or maybe even the punk rock aesthetic, at the time? How did you grapple with it, reconcile it, make sense of it? Was it difficult to keep a broad perspective? I guess what I’m essentially asking is, for you in 1977-78, were there moments when “Gold Dust Woman” or “Racing in the Street” sounded stupid and compromised, and did it make you ask, “What has happened to me?”
I meant only what I said—when a Sex Pistols record appears on the air—on the radio. That’s when, like Guy Debord’s Mémoires, which was bound in sandpaper so that when placed on a shelf it would damage the books on either side of it, the Sex Pistols destroyed the legitimacy of whatever came just before or after. It came on—it was a surprise, you weren’t ready for it. Listening on your own, deciding what to play, is a completely different story. Different mediums tell different tales.
I’m a high school teacher, and one of my favorite essays on education is from an author you’ve recommended: Walter Karp. In “The New Social History” from his collection Buried Alive, Karp (and Frances Fitzgerald) refers to a great period for American History textbooks—the years 1910-1930—and his critical engagement and passion is so irresistible that I’ve tried, without much luck, to track down the non-watered down editions of the textbooks in question. For similar reasons, a stray comment from Pauline Kael’s “The Glamour of Delinquency” has haunted me for years: “Patriotism becomes a series of platitudes; even statements that are true seem hypocritical when no longer informed with fire and idealism.” Since it’s even harder today to convince high school students that there are truths about the American experiment worth preserving, let alone getting excited about, can you recommend works of history, political criticism, and/or biography that the young (and maybe the not-so-young) might read that could instill in the reader the kind of patriotism honored by Karp and Kael?
– Patrick McAvoy
Richard Hofstader’s The American Political Tradition seemed cynical to me when I first read it at 16 or so, maybe because I hadn’t read American history infused with skepticism and doubt. It is still generating new ideas. Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” and the Band’s “We Can Talk” and “The Night They Drive Old Dixie Down” might work well—Dylan’s song is an answer record to 1950s and ’60s American history textbooks. The American-themed chapters in Pauline Kael’s I Lost It at the Movies—on delinquency, West Side Story, Hud, Billy Budd, and more—might work wonders. Depending on the sophistication and openness of students Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist might come across as a deep investigation of what it means to try to define what it means to be American. Albert Murray’s The Omni-Americans is criticism in a similar vein. And at the risk of being overweening, my own The Shape of Things to Come at least tries to be what you’re looking for.
Good luck, and stay away from Howard Zinn.
1. What books (besides your own) are in your permanent library ?
2. What books over the years have you reluctantly or eagerly parted with ?
3. Is there a Greil Marcus version of Benjamin’s Unpacking My Library somewhere that I have missed?
4. And, lastly, do you think a collection of essays on “desert island” book lists by prominent rock critics would be a viable project?
– Dave Rubin
1. Too many to note. Raymond Chandler in two different places.
2. I’ve sold lots of review copies I had no interest in because I never considered that I was parting with them. They came unrequested in the mail. They were mine only in the transactional sense that they generated bookstore credit I could use to buy books I might actually write about or that would inform other writing.
3. No. This will be it.
Six years ago we moved from a very big old house where we’d lived for 38 years and, inevitably, accumulated a lot of stuff, to a small new house on the other side of town, which had room for a fraction of my books. I had to face the fact that I was never going to read, for example, the 20-volume uncensored illustrated Richard F. Burton translation of and elaboration of The Arabian Nights published by the Burton Society in a very limited edition that I’d bought at Moe’s Books in Berkeley in 1975, figuring I’d get around to it in my 90s, or reread countless other books I’d liked enough to keep out of affection but not desire. So I sold hundreds of books of all sorts, somewhere around 2/3 of my LPs—I never had nearly as many as most rock critics, but still have about 500—very few CDs, because I didn’t and still don’t have that many, and almost none of about 1000 45s (half oldies, many of them Philles singles, about half punk). The embarrassment comes when I reach for a book for a quote or a reference, a book I suddenly realize I got rid of by mistake, and have to go back to the store that got it and buy it back—not just a copy of the book, but my copy—for $7 when I sold it for $2.
4. Desert island books: would have to be one you could reread forever. For me: something by prewar Eric Ambler or anything by Raymond Chandler through The Long Goodbye or Ross Macdonald’s Freudian mysteries. Since I’ve read them all 20 times already I figure I could just keep going.
Since the subject came up, what do you consider the best sound quality for Elvis’ Sun sessions on CD? My source is the 1992 box set The King of Rock & Roll: The Complete ’50s Masters, but I would be willing to upgrade if the difference was worth it.
People might say the first Sun 78 and 45 rpm pressings, but I’ve never heard them and don’t have them. The RCA 45 reissues from not long after EP’s death sound great to me, as do mono originals of RCA albums including Sun material Sun didn’t release. The ’50s Masters set is fine.
Richard Meltzer has claimed (in “Vinyl Reckoning,” Chicago Reader, July 1, 1999) that you didn’t request a piece from him for Stranded due to his “rude behavior” emceeing the Sex Pistols show at Winterland. Years later, he suggests, you said that had you “understood punk” at the time you wouldn’t have excluded him. Is that the way you remember it?
– Steve O’Neill
Richard’s piece is so full of resentment, anger, and a desire for recognition that, as it led to countless misremembrances, accounts of incidents that never happened, and imputation of base motives, I’ve never replied and never will. I’ve admired his work and in the few times we met it was always friendly.
What do you consider the best album titles ever? I go for either Bringing it all Back Home or Darkness on the Edge of Town.
With several million titles to choose between, there’s no way to play this game, but I’ll stay in one court: Meet the Beatles and With the Beatles as a perfect ontological one-two, and Rubber Soul on top, for a title that seemed to sum up everything at the time—the Beatles, their audience, a good life—and that has become more mysterious, threatening, and open as time goes on.
Quick question: is it true that Robert Christgau is know as the “Dean” of rock critics because of his tendency to, like Dean Martin, work drunk?
– Steve O’Neill
No, it’s not remotely true. Anyway, Dean Martin “working” drunk—being on stage with a drink in his hand, if you want to call that working—was an act.
Edmund Wilson did write while drinking.
I was wondering what is your opinion of the new Elvis Presley box set, The Boy From Tupelo? Could you give us a mini review?
– hugh c grissett
It’s wonderful to have it all in one place. I’m confused by the omission of the studio dialogue between Elvis and Scotty Moore—unless it somehow flew by me. I love the way it ends with all those takes on “When It Rains It Pours”—on every one, Elvis just powers into the song as if he’d never sung it before, completely fresh (though I’m confused by Carl Perkins, who seems so evident on guitar, and who Elvis mentions as being there, omitted from the credits, here and elsewhere). There’s a certain bounce missing in the sound, when you compare to earlier reissues or reissued singles or original mono LP cuts. And I don’t like the title. The relevant place here isn’t where he was born, but where he turned into Elvis—and that was Memphis. I like it that the producer is still looking for more tracks that were probably erased or recorded over or thrown out.
“In the Band’s popular song ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,’ an ex-Confederate soldier refers to Robert E. Lee as ‘the very best.'” Eric Foner, NYT (8/28/2017).
The very first line of (an otherwise good) essay by the most noted chronicler of the Reconstruction Era completely misreads Robertson’s lyrics: Foner misinterprets a reference to the improper requisitioning of civilian private goods in a military zone (they should never have taken the very best) into a suggestion of how much everybody loved Robert E. Lee.
There are no comments allowed on this essay and no link to contact the author, but this really needs to be fixed, if there’s anybody you know there.
– David McClure
You couldn’t be more right. I know Eric Foner slightly and will write him.
Update: Eric Foner acknowledges the error with a good question: “So what’s Robert E. Lee doing there anyway?”
I agree with you that Farewell My Lovely is not a good movie, though “terrible” seems a little excessive; the 1978 version of The Big Sleep, also starring Robert Mitchum—now that was terrible. Still, I enjoy both of those movies more than even the original Big Sleep, simply because Mitchum is such a better Marlowe than Bogart.
Also (and this shows what a lousy critic I’d make), I just can’t find it in my heart to be too hard on a movie that gave Jim Thompson a much needed paycheck.
– Steve O’Neill
I saw Jim Thompson outside the food trailer for the film. He looked as tired as he does in the movie.
You and Pauline Kael must have had some interesting conversations about Robert Altman. Could you agree, at least, on McCabe and Mrs. Miller (which, I, for the record, consider Altman’s one great movie)?
We didn’t talk about it. I didn’t know her when it came out. We both fell all the way into it immediately. I was sucked in by the way the conversations or cross talk in smokey bars sounded like music—especially the way the vocals on the Band’s Music from Big Pink crossed each other so wildly—it was “Chest Fever” on film. But the whole movie is a lovely, gorgeous, believable dream. I do recall Pauline going on The Dick Cavett Show when the movie was bombing and about to be pulled from theaters. Cavett went off on how she never does television, how great it is that she’s on his show, and she interrupts to say I came here because a great new American movie is dying at the theaters and I want to tell people to see it. And she proceeded to do just that, refusing to talk about film criticism or other critics or the New Yorker or anything else.
I was intrigued by your remark that Elvis would not support the current president, thanks to his mistrust of someone “not like him.” I like to think the same. But I think the bigger question might be whether Elvis would have openly and sincerely supported any candidate, ever. Considering the way Elvis played apathetic about Vietnam, and seemed eager to placate any audience, coupled with his health spiral, you’d guess not. But for Elvis to have lived another forty years, a miracle would have been needed—a complete reversal of his lifestyle and habits. And if that had taken place, isn’t it fair to assume his attitudes about many things could have changed too? In that case, it seems to me that only one politician of the last four decades would have really appealed to him… The only one who pulled himself from abject poverty, came from the same part of the country, womanized, dodged every bullet, appealed to minorities, looked like Elvis, and carried a charisma that would have impressed Elvis. And once E and Bill Clinton formed an alliance, it seems hard to believe that would diminish. So, “Could an 80-year-old Elvis sing for Hillary Clinton?” is my question. Would a friendship with The Clintons have pushed Elvis into politics at least to the degree that Obama’s campaign conscripted Springsteen? Thanks for your time, and for all the great books.
– Glenn Burris
After reading what you wrote, I’m possessed by the idea of Elvis coming on stage at a Hillary rally to sing “Young and Beautiful.” Though I can also see him singing “Hound Dog” at a Trump rally. It’s not true that Elvis never supported any candidate: he said in answer to an interviewer that in 1956 he supported Adlai Stevenson. It was not, to him, controversial. He was white, he was from Mississippi and Tennessee, and in 1956, when Stevenson’s running mate was Sentator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, almost all southern whites automatically voted Democratic—there was, then, all but no Republican party in the Deep South.
Charles Pierce wrote this after Trump’s Arizona speech last week: “I have no more patience, and I had very little to start with. I don’t care why you’re anxious. I don’t care for anybody’s interpretation of why you voted for this abomination of a politician, and why you cheer him now, because any explanation not rooted in the nastier bits of basic human spleen is worthless.” So, a much trickier question, I think: What do you think about Trump voters? Is it unfair to treat them as a monolithic block, or, like Pierce, are you past the point of trying to understand motivation (if you ever thought that worth understanding in the first place)?
– Alan Vint
I don’t think it’s unfair to treat Trump voters as a block. I thought so when he was elected and I think so even more strongly now, after Charlottesville and Trump’s promotion of it as ordinary, historic American discourse. He ran an inescapably racist campaign, yes, against Hispanics and Muslims and even Jews, but at bedrock against black people. Research is beginning to show that the real determinant for Trump voters was what’s being called “racial resentment,” as opposed to, you know, racism, as opposed to economic distress, and that Trump voters had no trouble translating Make America Great Again to Make America White Again, but I don’t think research was necessary to understand that: it was the motor of his campaign and he made no secret of it. So every Trump voter, even if he or she did not vote for Trump because of his racist campaign, had to say, Well, there are other things more important, or He’s not serious, or Nothing will happen anyway: in sum, It’s not a problem for me. Trump voters either directly or objectively affirmed racism, and now the vultures are coming home to roost.
It was nice to finally find someone who shares my dislike of Altman’s The Long Goodbye [see 08/25]—I thought he treated Chandler and Marlowe terribly, reducing a complex character to a vengeful asshole. (I also had a problem with his setting the story in the 1970s, but maybe that’s just a failure of imagination on my part.)
I was surprised, though, that when you discussed the different actors who played Marlowe you left out Robert Mitchum, to my mind the best on-screen Marlowe, even if he was a bit long in the tooth by the time he got the role.
– Steve O’Neill
I was on one location during the filming of Mitchum in the remake of Farewell, My Lovely (the piece about it is in this site). He was stunning, but the movie was terrible.
Your 1975 article on girl groups was ground-breaking, in so much that nobody else was writing about them at that time, other than in the context of male figures such as Spector. Until Alan Betrock’s book was published in ’82, they were almost disregarded as a credible musical genre in the rock press of the ’70s. Why do you think this was? Is there weight to the theory that in the male-dominated rock journalism of the times, the stereotypical thinking was that male fans of girl group records were probably gay and that by writing about them, one might be considered gay by association?
That never occurred to me. I loved the Spector girl group records, and the Chantels, the Chiffons, and the Shirelles, as intensely as—as anything else, as intensely as the Beatles did. With that piece, which I redid for The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, I wanted to shout it from the rooftops.
Speaking of bootlegs, there are many beautifully recorded (radio broadcast) shows from Bruce Springsteen’s 1978 Darkness tour to be found around the internet, and to me this music sounds astonishing. Did you attend any of this tour’s Bay Area concerts, and what are your thoughts?
I was there in Berkeley but the show from the Roxy in LA is the one.
I couldn’t agree with you more on “If You Could Read My Mind” [see 08/24]—it’s a preternaturally beautiful song, and if Gordon Lightfoot never wrote another one as good, well, who has?
Do you have any thoughts on Dylan’s extravagant, outspoken admiration of Lightfoot? He famously said “every time I hear a song of his, it’s like I wish it would last forever” (he must love “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which does.) He also references Lightfoot a lot in concert (at least in Toronto, possibly in deference to the hometown crowd): he’s performed “Early Morning Rain”; given a shout out at one of his Slow Train gospel shows (“I know someone who ain’t gonna go to hell for anybody—Gordon Lightfoot!”); and astonishingly (and I’d guess disingenuously) claimed before a lovely version of “Barbara Allen:” “Gordon taught me this song many years ago… he does it better than me…”
– Steve O’Neill
I’d imagine it’s one songwriter admiring another—another who does things the first one can’t do, write with perfect structure, where everything begins with a hint of desire or worry and by the inevitable time the song circles back to its opening theme, that theme has both expanded and changed. Lightfoot is like Paul McCartney. You might prefer John to Paul but there would have been no John without Paul and there might well have been Paul without John. There would have been Dylan without Lightfoot but maybe not Lightfoot without Dylan, which Dylan is too polite to even hint at.
Would you rather Donald Trump be impeached, or have his Presidency play out for a single term with as little damage done to the country as possible (and then crush him at the ballot box in 2020)?
I’d rather see him out of office as soon as possible by any means at all. He is doing enormous and possibly permanent damage to our Constitution, our idea of government, to all the underpinnings of democratic society, in his serious quest to replace public government with private government, the rule of companies and corporations over every aspect of public and private life. People who say, like Paul Krugman today, that Trump has no “agenda,” that he only cares about “winning” so he can feel powerful, are fooling themselves. Trumpism is a serious project. The ultimate burdensome regulation that stifles his attempt to remake the country is the Constitution itself, its limits on executive power by means of checks and balances between three (in practical, historical reality) unequal branches of government. Mike Pence understands this and does not take the very fact of our government, our public life, as a personal affront. Despite his own right-wing politics he would be an infinitely better person to have as president, even if he would be a formidable and likely winning candidate in 2020. But don’t kid yourself that Trump will be “crushed” in 2020. As of today, against any of the people mentioned as Democratic candidates, he would be the favorite. He is already campaigning, raising huge amounts of money, consolidating the real Republican party, which consists of the Koch network and the Mercers. Most of the people who voted for him will not only vote for him again, but do so with desperate, enormous, complete enthusiasm, and the very force of their belief will make it hard for actual arguments about actual things to sound real. Voter suppression will be advanced and substantial, and it will make a difference in states that might otherwise be up for grabs. You have to realize that everything that looks bad, horrible, unthinkable to MSCNBC, the New York Times, maybe you, certainly me, looks absolutely great to a very large and vital part of the country and the electorate. His people will vote to the last man and woman in the 2018 elections, and the people who voted for Hillary will not.
Trump will not be impeached, because impeachment is not a self-starting machine, it has to be done by actual people, and Republicans will not impeach him, both because he is, in the main, doing exactly what Republicans want—in all of the departments of government and in the courts—and because he would have them defeated in primaries and replaced by his people if they tried. He will not be indicted, because Mueller can’t indict anyone and the Justice Department will not. Trump is not, as some people fantasize, “tired of the job,” not someone to, in even more demented fantasies, “declare victory and leave.” It is conceivable, though I don’t see the path, that his family and his business facing legal jeopardy could cause him to cut a deal and leave—nothing is more important to Trump than what he calls his company—but someone else would have to explain how real jeopardy could attach itself to Kushner, Ivanka, his sons, etc. without the Justice Department making it happen.
Can you elaborate on what you disliked about Robert Altman’s film of The Long Goodbye?
– Devin McKinney
Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe was not a cynic—especially in The Long Goodbye—and he was not a killer, a murderer, someone who kills to satisfy his own sense of entitlement, his right not to be fooled. That’s Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. Elliott Gould may be the most interesting choice of all the actors who’ve played Marlowe—probably Bogart is in the best movie made of a Chandler book but he’s less Marlowe than, say, Dick Powell, who doesn’t have half the style, or James Garner, who isn’t bad at all. What I hate about the movie is Altman having Marlowe shoot, in cold blood, Jim Bouton (and that was really stupid casting), and then walk away with that My Work Here Is Done dance. He’s pulling the rug out from under artists who’ve come before him, to show that he can, just as he ended Ready to Wear with a parade of naked (real) models, to show that he could—that as a director who got to make Hollywood movies and be worshipped by critics he could get anyone to do anything. To show that he’s better than they are. And I liked Ready to Wear.
A passage in an article in the current edition of The New Yorker, beginning “Consider the case of Levon Helm,” was excruciating news to me. No doubt you know and can even amplify this third-hand account?
Unlike the case of Keats—not killed by the critics but by tuberculosis—it seems clear that Youtube et al. bankrupted Levon, though cancer killed him. At Rolling Stone, from my copy-editor’s worm’s-eye view, I followed the Napster question as it was taken up by Jann Wenner and his super-human crew. It was way over my head at the time. Now I have loved the Internet for so long that I can’t stop—and there ain’t no going back. But that story does give me pause.
I can’t find anything you wrote about Napster back in the day.
– Laura Leivick
Well, let me complain about what the internet has done for writers! In Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days his hack journalist J. will write for anybody about anything, as long as it’s $2 a word and expenses. That was 2000 or a little before—before websites found out they could get their content for free or close to it. $2 a word! Less than Fitzgerald was making for the Saturday Evening Post in 1922, in 1922 dollars, which is to say $20 or more per word in real money, but what the hell! At a certain point, and it may not be true now, the NewYorker.com paid $300, regardless of how long the piece was or who the writer was—this from the highest paying magazine in the country. Write an op-ed for the New York Times—if it’s published in print, maybe $1500—maybe $1.50 a word, maybe less—but if it only runs online, and you won’t know what it will be until it runs whichever way it is, $300. The last time I wrote for Rolling Stone they were paying less than a year or so before, for the very good reason that they had far less advertising. Jann used to say, half seriously, that every page devoted to writing was costing the magazine thousands in advertising, which, when combined with the fee paid to the writer and any photo licensing fees, made every piece a triple loser. Not anymore.
I’m as evil as anyone. I’ve always bought bootlegs. I’ve reviewed them. I’ve claimed their sound is better than official releases (because it often is). I use YouTube like air.
I never used Napster, out of backwardness or incompetence or lack of interest, not morals. But I am a little confused. Levon Helm spent a good part of his life cursing Robbie Robertson for cheating him out of his Band royalties. He always said that was what killed Rick Danko—having to play embarrassing gigs in third-rate upstate New York bars because he was broke, because everything had been taken from him. Yet Levon Helm still had royalties enough to give him a more than decent income, until technology took it away. There’s more to that story—and don’t discount the role heroin played, from the 1970s to each person’s end.
Not to beat “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” to death, but to the degree that I worry over whether it falls prey to the Lost Cause myth, I fasten on the verse about Virgil’s brother. In the cultural context of 1969 America, wouldn’t the lines about an 18-year-old who “took a rebel’s stand” and was cut down by the Yankees for it inevitably have enlisted the rock audience’s sympathies on behalf of the “proud and brave” young man and against the Northern oppressor?
To me it’s related neutrally. The Confederate did what he was obligated to do, the Yankee did what he was obligated to do.
Last year in ‘Ask Greil,’ when asked if you intended to update your “Treasure Island” discography, you wrote, “I think it would be close to impossible. The music had a certain shape, even borders, in 1979. Since then both punk and hip hop have exploded that in a thousand ways.” Do you lament this? Is listening to or writing about rock music less interesting or compelling when it lacks a developmental direction or seems unmoored from a coherent tradition?
Also, have you discussed this view with younger rock writers, say, born after 1979? Do they share this perspective?
I just mean that there was too much, and there was no longer any media locus from which you could track what was where and when and why—i.e., Top 40, the Hot 100. Too much for me, in any case. I realized some time ago that I couldn’t keep up with everything, and wasn’t going to. I had certain affinities that I would pursue as other people pursued theirs. Writing certain books changed my tastes, interest, obsessions—changed what I wanted to hear and could hear. I would never have believed that writing Invisible Republic aka The Old Weird America would awaken an interest in folk music—old, contemporary, whatever it might be. Lipstick Traces made me impatient with music that didn’t stake a claim and follow it through, and it destroyed, for me, the appeal of the individual performer telling you (or pretending to) about his or her own life. I don’t care about you, I found myself answering to so many songs: tell me something interesting about the world, or, really be in the world. I never believed, for example, that the Beach Boys, as individuals with names and birthdates, actually went cruising around or took a vow never to go steady because it would be unfair to admit that you cared about your buddies more than your girlfriend—or maybe just embarrassing. They were rendering a social situation, an historical phenomenon, an actual part of everyday life, that all kinds pf people engaged in, and elevating it, historicizing it, aestheticizing it, making it both heroic and more real—that is, more heroic and more ordinary. Dramatizing it, by showing that the ordinary, an activity accessible to anyone with a car, could be heroic.
How does “Brown Sugar” hold up for you? Both as “parody” (which you called it in your 1971 Sticky Fingers review) and as music?
– Lou Sinda
Sounds better than ever. Especially since I found out it was “tent-show queen” and not “muggupf quin.”
Are you familiar with ’50s R&B singer Viola Watkins? On ITunes (which uses a not too reliable database) she was listed as the composer for: “Sincerely,” “Gee,” “The Great Pretender,” “Lily Maebelle,” “At My Front Door,” “Story Untold,” “(Will You) Come Back My Love,” and “Hearts of Stone.” Via Google I found some songs she sang posted on YouTube and a reference to her as an arranger for “Gee” by The Crows.
Any place you would advise to find out more about her work? Better databases available to check songwriting credits?
– Susan Altman
This is all new to me. I looked and listened. She was an interesting ’40s singer easing into the invention of rock ‘n’ roll with George Goldner. I see her listed as the author of “Gee” but not of the other songs, which doesn’t mean she wasn’t there, working under pseudonyms, had credit stolen, sold her interest for $50 a shot, or lost her name on the songs by any of the countless other ways people were cheated. But I doubt she could have broken into the Platters’ bank to write “The Great Pretender,” and a claim for “Hearts of Stone” makes no sense. She was in New York. The song was first recorded by the great, great San Bernardino-Los Angeles doo-wop group the Jewels, and written by Rudy Jackson, a member of the group, and a friend, Eddie Ray. I don’t see room for Viola Watkins.
Thanks for your correction re A.J. Weberman’s stature. [See 07/21] When I referred to him as ‘little,’ I guess I was thinking more in the sense of Theodore Bikel in that Twilight Zone episode.
On another topic, I’m interested in how regard for artists changes over time: Amadeus was fiction, but apparently during their lifetimes Atonio Salieri was generally considered to be a better composer than Mozart. Do you think it’s possible something similar will happen over time and the artists we rate today will be overshadowed by ones we don’t think so much of? Two hundred years from now could, say… I don’t know—Gordon Lightfoot and the Zombies be better regarded than Dylan and the Beatles?
– Steve O’Neill
Sure it’s possible, especially if civilization collapses and knowledge survives only in the hands of tiny gnostic cults. And “If You Could Read My Mind” already is one: a perfect record, a black hole. If someone said that one single meant more than anything Bob Dylan ever did, you couldn’t object.
Have you ever been turned on to a band because of a comment another musician (not a critic) made about them? In other words, the musician gave you an unexpected or quirky insight?
Here’s one I got. Nick Lowe said on NPR that Jim Ford was a brilliant writer and, in Lowe’s words, “way out of our [Brinsley Schwartz’s] league.” A little research revealed to me that one of your fans in Sweden, L-P Anderson (you are mentioned on his FB page), discovered Ford living in a trailer park in Ford Bragg. Anderson acquired the masters and Bear Family has now released 3 or 4 CDs of Ford’s music.
Love to hear your thoughts.
– Richard Cusick
I don’t remember. The closest might have been when I went to a Mekons show and walked in on these two people, a man and a woman, opening. They songs they were singing, or dredging out of the ground, were the most mystical and ordinary I could imagine ever hearing. I had no idea what to make of them, except that I didn’t want them to stop. I asked Jon Langford who they were. “The Handsome Family,” he said. I asked if they had any records—it didn’t seem that they would. I was under some kind if spell—I wasn’t sure they were real. He said yes. I said, you mean you can just go somewhere and buy something and hear this?
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” revisited (August 21, 2017). It strikes me that the name Virgil Kane (often rendered as Caine, thanks to the song’s play on the Biblical reference to raising Cain) is perfect for a guide to the limbo of Reconstruction, the wasteland left by mass fratricide. This idea was much shorter when it occurred to me. It could be commonplace, but I don’t think it’s a stretch, do you?
– Laura Leivick
The wasteland left by having the world you believed in—or at least believed was—had collapsed and disappeared. Virgil Kane (or however it ought to be rendered) has nothing left: nothing material, nothing immaterial. He will not become a night rider. He won’t join the Klan. He may never bring in another crop. Most of the people he knew and loved and trusted are dead or don’t want to talk about it, whatever it might be. It all comes down to that odd but somehow inevitable pun: “You can’t raise a Kane when he’s in defeat”—or “You can’t raise a Cain when he’s in the field.” It isn’t just a matter of what Robbie Robertson wrote, or meant, or spelled. It’s a matter of how Levon Helm sang it, whenever he sang it. And a matter of how we hear it, which isn’t necessarily the same from time to time.
You wrote affectionately about Jackie Wilson in the Stranded discography—I wonder if you had any thoughts about his post-1966 Chicago albums. I ask not only because they’re very good but also because several of their best songs (“Let This Be A Letter [To My Baby],” “You Got Me Walkin’,” “I Still Love You,” “Love Uprising,” “The Fountain,” and “Don’t Burn No Bridges”) were written by Eugene Record of the Chi-Lites, who you praised in Mystery Train. Did you enjoy the pairing?
They’re lovely. They go right back to Jackie Wilson as a boy, in love with Al Jolson. But there’s something studied in “Let This Be a Letter” and (wonderfully) contrived in “Don’t Burn No Bridges.” It may be that it’s the fast, knee-diving, Mr. Excitement Jackie Wilson who moves me. To me he’s Mr. Reet Petite. As in this fabulous claymation video by John Bijleveld.
Love your books on Dylan and commentary on his works. This may seem like an odd choice, but I’m interested in any thoughts or conviction you have about Bringing It All Back Home. A lot of people gravitate towards Blonde On Blonde, Highway 61 (I’ll admit, my personal favorite), Blood On The Tracks, and The Basement Tapes. Despite this, I have an ‘inner self’ that really is stunned when I listen to Bringing It All Back Home. Namely, the songs on side two: especially “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.” In company of “It’s Alright Ma” “Gates Of Eden” and the great “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” on side one.
Do you think this record or its songwriting caliber is sometimes overlooked? It seems to not always pop up in the discussion of Dylan’s catalog/instantly recognizable body of work, yet flows so powerfully as an album and exhibits incredible songwriting. Curious about your take on this sentiment and the album. Thanks so much for your time.
– Saeed Marandi
Bringing It All Back Home to me has always been of a piece with Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde—part of that same unbelievable year (stretching the idea of a year a bit—we can call it a cycle). An explosion of songwriting, word-love, a reach for the music Dylan had to have been hearing but didn’t quite believe he could ever make. Bringing It All Back Home might seem more tentative in terms of the band, but “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” are two of the best songs ever written, and the recordings are perfect. The album is funnier than the others, and in completely different ways: the hard, frontier humor of “Outlaw Blues” and the Lenny Bruce Mort Sahl Jonathan Winters surrealism of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”—with Tom Wilson’s laugh at the beginning playing for all eternity.
I read that Trent Reznor (Trent Reznor?) did the score for Ken Burns’s forthcoming documentary on the Vietnam War. Looks okay—one can only hope Burns will never again deploy anything like the turgid, repetitious music for The Civil War—I have had a migraine since 1990. So stupid, since so many wonderful songs from the period are extant, even currency.
I am wondering what you think of Burns. In my view, he has become unbearably self-promoting; his Civil War was historically unbalanced and sentimental; and The Roosevelts saga was pure hagiography. In the last case, I felt I was being glad-handed to death.
– Laura Leivick
Trent Reznor did a fabulous job on the soundtrack to Natural Born Killers. I’m hearing the same word about [Burns’s] Vietnam series that I heard over and over about The Wire—that it’s the greatest American movie ever made. I could only get through a season and a half of The Wire before realizing I didn’t care about what happened to any of the characters, and I’m dubious about this. I was sucked into Burns’s Civil War series—I don’t know how it would come across today—seduced especially by his panning across still photos, a technique used by Guy Debord in the late ’50s if not by many before him. But I once spent about an hour talking with Burns about his then-upcoming series on baseball. It was so fascinating to listen to him talk about it—the game, the footage, how to shape it, how to tell stories that had never been heard and tell stories everyone had heard. And then I got through about two episodes before I realized I had heard it all before—especially New York as the Capital of Baseball, which would bring arguments from, oh, the rest of the country, not to mention the Philip Roth who wrote The Great American Novel. But so much work has been done excavating Vietnam music—music that the soldiers listened to, music made about the war—that it’s hard to believe Reznor and Burns won’t have surprises, and confirmations, a real texture, throughout.
After 30 years of studying your Stranded discography, I only recently noticed the absence of “Good Vibrations.” Even though it sprang from the Pet Sounds sessions and prefaced the SMiLE project, to me, listening now, it feels closer in spirit to Beach Boys’ Party and sounds like it could fit on Best of the Beach Boys Vol. 2. Which is to say that—despite its famously deliberate production—the result still sounds like a lively, brilliant, fun, honest Beach Boys rock and roll record. What do you think?
It’s a great record—the all-time swirl—and I don’t know why I omitted it. Maybe because there’s a certain blandness in the vocal, or that it’s too self-consciously experimental. “California Girls” is mapping the same territory and it’s a far more successful record—full of feeling, which “Good Vibrations” isn’t, funny, which it isn’t, sexy, which it definitely isn’t. But I’ve always been with Nik Cohn: they never made a record better than “I Get Around.” It’s their “I Wonder Why.”
I wonder what you make of the Joan Baez version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” It’s the first one I heard, and I love her playing Virgil’s wife in Tennessee. And the “take what you need” passage in a woman’s voice made the passage impossible to interrogate.
– Laura Leivick
The problem with Joan Baez’s version, aside from the fact that she recorded it during a period when her singing had gone completely into the tank, was that instead of “There goes Robert E. Lee” (already the worst, least believable line into the song), she sings “There goes the Robert E. Lee”—confusing the general with a boat.
Thanks for tearing me a new one in your impassioned and gentlemanly response to my ill-considered query [August 18, 2017]. I appreciate—but did not deserve—what Jane Austen called the serious compliment of rational opposition. I knew the history you recounted but was taken aback by your explication of how those statues figured in it.
Tangential queries: What are your views on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and Bob Dylan’s plangent filmed version of “Dixie” (2003)? And, in another key, Trump’s remarks about the slave-holding Founders?
– Laura Leivick
I’ve always loved “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”—most of all at the Last Waltz, when Levon put so much anger into it. Even thought Robert Crumb considers it the height of phony, contrived, dishonest, pretentious songwriting—the antithesis of the blues and country. I think it’s a unique work of empathy and reconstruction (in the artistic and historical sense—that is, it recreates a milieu and is set partly during Reconstruction). There is no excuse for the Confederate side, no falling into Lost Cause mythologizing. No Confederate heritage, i.e., white supremacist or neo-slavery (which is at bottom what all this is about), would ever say, describing the Union Army in the south, “Take what you need.” “Dixie” (according to some arguments and research—which is appealing but hard to credit—written and composed by a black family in Ohio) was Abraham Lincoln’s favorite song, and Dylan does it as if he knows that.
About Washington and Jefferson and the like. The basic position is this: they were patriots and Robert E. Lee and all the other Confederate generals and politicians were traitors. They created the nation the others tried to destroy. There’s no comparison and no commonality.
That’s true, but it’s not the whole truth, and the truth isn’t simple. In Washington and Jefferson’s time what we call white supremacy was accepted by almost everyone everywhere. New York only banned slavery in the 1820s. Black people were not permitted on streetcars in New York until a woman broke the color line in the 1850s, and not in Philadelphia until the same thing happened in the early 20th century. Some of the worst mass murders of black people (so called race riots, as if blacks and whites were fighting each other) took place in New York during the Civil War. Schools were segregated in northern New Jersey until the 1950s. Black people were routinely refused entrance in hotels, restaurants, and movie theaters in the north into the 1950s and 60s. For Jefferson or Washington to have taken abolitionist stances would have been not merely unusual, but bizarre. As you and everyone knows, slavery was countenanced in the original Constitution, in the disgusting clause counting slaves for the allotment of House of Representatives seats but not allowing them to vote—as women, people without property, and anyone else not white was not allowed to vote. Slavery was an issue at the Constitutional Convention, but no steps toward its end were taken until the barring of the importation of slaves after 1808, and it was a dead end in terms of progress toward abolition.
Both Washington and especially Jefferson had to hold together an extremely fragile coalition of states that many considered an experiment, and likely to fail. After Jefferson’s election, there was a very serious New England Federalists’ secession movement, and the more dubious Burr conspiracy to establish a separate nation in the midwest. The principles of federalism—the principle that federal laws are the “law of the land” and cannot be countermanded, ignored, or subverted by states or localities—did not come about until early in the 19th century, and which were the basis for the Nullification and Interposition movement in the 1830s, and are still resisted and denied today. The Bill of Rights was in the main not applied to state and local governments until a series of late 20th century Supreme Court decisions. Throughout Lincoln’s speeches there is a continual awareness of this fragility, this sense of experiment: in the Gettsyburg Address the subject is jeopardy as an essential component of democratic, as opposed to despotic, government. And there is a great irony. Without the Louisiana Purchase by Jefferson in 1803, the Civil War, if confined to something like the original states, would likely have turned out differently. By expanding the nation de jure to include what became Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Colorado, Wyoming, and so on, even though the flash-point for the Civil War was the debate over the expansion of slavery into Kansas and Nebraska, Jefferson in effect made the United States of America too big to fail.
Trump has adopted White Nationalist, white supremacist, Nazi, and KKK discourse in professing the history-heritage argument that if we pull down Forrest we have to blow up Jefferson. It’s nonsense. At the same time, we should acknowledge the fullness of who Washington, Jefferson, and so many other founding fathers, actually were. Statues of Washington and Jefferson ought to list “slaveholder” along with their other accomplishments, and let people think that through. It won’t happen. But it would take away from them what was never theirs.
Okay, Charlottesville. My first benumbed, irrelevant thought was that I sort of like that equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee (sculptors: Henry Merwin Shrady and Leo Lentelli).
The episode echoed the history of toppling statues of deposed leaders. I thought of lines from Wallace Stevens’s “Lytton Strachey: Also, Enters into Heaven,” which I have by heart (Berkeley English Department vet here)… “One man opposing a society/If properly misunderstood becomes a myth,” and “In this apologetic air, one well/Might muff the mighty spirit of Lenin.”
You can’t erase history with acts of desecration. Wish there were someplace to preserve these now-targeted pop statues.
On higher ground, I am grateful that Versailles, in all its transformative beauty and terror, has been preserved.
Back to the revolting horrors in Charlottesville—which I cannot process but am sure you can—your reaction, please.
– Laura Leivick
“You can’t erase history with acts of desecration. Wish there were someplace to preserve these now-targeted pop statues”—but Confederate statues are not history. They are propaganda at best and terrorism at worst. Confederate statues began to go up with the end of Reconstruction and the inauguration of the Jim Crow era—which lasted into the 1960s, and began not merely with segregation and the barring of black citizens from public buildings, public services, any form of everyday right-to-be, but with lynch mobs killing, individually and en masse, black citizens who attempted to vote and their white allies who stood with them in affirmation of rights granted by the Civil War amendments to the Constitution. The statues, previously banned, refused by the new local and state governments formed when Confederate supporters could not vote and black citizens could, or avoided out of shame, were meant to send one message: the Yankees say we lost the War of Northern Aggression. We know different: look around you. This is white man’s country; it will never be yours and you will never belong. Your Yankee rights are worthless. Try us.
There was a second wave of the erection of Confederate statues in the 1920s, when white mobs lynching black people appeared across the country, in the north as well as the south. Thousands of black citizens, men, women, and children, where hung, burned at the stake, beaten to death, mutilated—because of a resurgence of the KKK, which effectively took over the governments of several states, including Indiana, with elected officials behaving precisely as the president of the United States is doing now. The statues were meant as a defense against state and federal anti-lynching laws (which never passed, thanks to the domination of Congress by southern Democrats) and the emergence of a civil rights movement with the NAACP and other groups. The third wave of statues went up during the Civil Rights Movement of the ’50s and ’60s—again to say, the Yankees say one thing, you’ll hear something else in your bed at night: your last breath.
The statues have nothing to do with heritage, tradition, cherished beliefs. They were and are about power, humiliation, disenfranchisement on the legal and the everyday, human level. They should all be ground to dust. (And I say this as one whose great-grandfather, Jacob Greil, who is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Montgomery, Alabama, just across the lane from Hank Williams, fought in the Civil War as a member of the Confederate Army.)
I’ve always been in awe of your stamina as a rock critic, the fact that you and Robert Christgau and a few others have maintained your interest as well as your ability to find new ways to discuss the stuff for so long. Has there ever been a time that you considered giving up writing about rock and roll?
Have you seen Adventureland or The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and if so, any thoughts on either? They’re my two favourite movies the past decade for pop music (or at least tied with Carlos).
– Alan Vint
I haven’t and don’t know anything about them, assuming the second isn’t about how cool it is to be in the Wallflowers.
I’m a fan of every Jamaican recording you’ve pointed your readers toward. However, I’ve never seen you write about Lee Perry’s 1976-1979 Black Ark period, which I love as well. I admit it’s like exploring reggae’s lost cave, but there are treasures to be found—the chanting, echoing, taunting fatalism of the Meditations’ “No Peace” chills me every time, and I wonder if Sly Stone was listening.
I think Lee Perry’s Black Ark masterpiece is the 1977 Congos album Heart of the Congos, which sounds richer and deeper, more present and fully coherent, 40 years later. You’ve called Perry a “soul man of mercurial power,” and this is where I find it (although the ghostly, floating voices deserve equal credit here).
Do you like this album? Have you gotten into any other Lee Perry music from this time (besides, of course, The Clash’s “Complete Control”)?
I don’t know that period nearly as well as I should, and will follow your lead and see where it takes me. Thanks.
Hearing a live Dylan concert is obviously a one-off experience; maybe the closest experience in history was to hear Dickens read his own work. Here’s to the trainspotters who produce setlists; sometimes I have been so excited that the moments dissolved as they passed. After the December 4, 2014 show at the Beacon I could only recall “Things Have Changed,” “Duquesne Whistle,” and the final encore, “Stay With Me.” It didn’t even register that it was the last of Dylan’s concerts for that year and he had not made plans for 2015. When I was younger, I would remember every song and write them all down after. Especially the Radio City shows he did in 1989 with G.E. Smith (then not the showboat he became). My companion at these shows was a classical conductor who knew something was happening but didn’t know what it was, so I felt blissfully alone. Generally I have the best and clearest experience on my own. The best—the only, really—companion with whom I fully experienced Dylan shows was Lloyd Fonvielle. Before he wrote up the experience with such immediacy, I was surprised to learn, he had checked his memory against the setlist.
Do you generally consult the setlist after a show (boy, can it be annoying if there are mistakes?) as an aide-memoire?
– Laura Leivick
I check web sites after shows more than I’d like to admit. Sometimes because I just want to see and hear, not take notes, sometimes because I don’t know the songs, sometimes because I can’t read my notes, sometimes because I know my memory is faulty. One more reason I love the internet.
The Mendoza Line were a great band that I never would have discovered without your writing, even though they were practically my neighbors in Brooklyn at the time. They seem to have been consigned to oblivion except for the very small number of people who heard them. I pull out Lost in Revelry at least once a year and it shows no signs of getting old. Even though their eventual bitter collapse seems written into their story from the beginning, I can’t help but wish they had managed a longer run. Do they still hold up for you? Have you followed any of the members post-Mendoza work?
They more than hold up. Their music seems more unlikely and brave under Trump than it did with Bush, and just as funny, warm, melodic and open as ever.
I’ve kept up with Shannon McArdle who I admire enormously. We’ve worked together—a great privilege.
In the history of rock’n’roll there are many interesting moments. Some that you maybe want to forget about, others that are still interesting. I bought the T.A.M.I. Show DVD a few years ago and it features many interesting or/and funny moments. The T.A.M.I. Show was recorded in 1964! Look about 40 seconds into this clip featuring the Rolling Stones performing “Around and Around”—
—I imagine that this is the moment when America realized that the Rolling Stones are not just another pop-group singing about holding hands. Just look at the guy standing to the right of the young blonde girl. What is he thinking? Maybe: what are these guys doing to our young american girls?
In a way, these few seconds maybe tell us more about the Rolling Stones conquering America than written books? Do you have any similar stories?
That’s how it all works—those moments when everything is clarified, and a thousand stories fold into one.
Speaking of “Desolation Row” [see 07/13], just learned that U.S. military (and diplomatic, though I think that’s irrelevant) passports are brown. It’s easy to see the connection to the era of the hanging and that of Dylan’s childhood. Like you (right?), I find great satisfaction in knowing such things. It’s like touching earth.
I also love the story behind “Delia”—my late friend Lloyd Fonvielle lucked out and heard Dylan sing it live, and also wrote a fine piece about the song, its background and Dylan’s variation on the lyrics. His apologia for every track on Christmas in the Heart is nutty but there’s nothing like it and, well, it’s sure from the heart. Were you ever aware of Lloyd’s work?
– Laura Leivick
Thanks for all of this. Sean Wilentz’s chapter on “Delia” in The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love, and Liberty in the American Ballad, which he and I edited in 2004, captures so much of the story, and the shifting feelings of the song as it’s traveled through the last hundred years and more.
To your knowledge, has Randy Newman ever commented on what you wrote about him in Mystery Train? Have the two of you ever crossed paths in person?
We met in 2003 for a long and gratifying (at least on my end) talk that I drew on for an Interview column and for the Notes in the 2015 6th edition of Mystery Train. He was expansive, emotional, demonstrative, tired.
How do you feel about Little Willie John’s music? In “Treasure Island” he is only represented by one song, “Need Your Love So Bad,” which—given his critical adulation—seems to have a deliberate point of restraint behind it. Is this an example of an artist’s “contribution to the story” being “summed up by a single record”? Or is it the only Little Willie John track that reaches you?
He was a fine artist of many parts, as Joe McEwen has chronicled. To me that was the one that put him in the circle and will keep him there.
If you were to make a Treasure Island list of comedy records, would Richard Pryor make the cut? (I assume some Firesign Theatre and Monty Python choices would be there…)
I listen to the Richard Pryor 9 CD box set And It’s Deep Too all the time as background noise when I’m writing, just as I did the Firesign Theatre and Monty Python LPs for the 9 years I was writing Lipstick Traces. And I always end up playing them straight through, over two, three days—once he gets started I can’t hear anything else.
Could you share your opinion of the Platters and their music? I have been listening to their 2-CD anthology The Magic Touch, and I an amazed at how many great songs they recorded. I noticed the only song of theirs in your awesome Stranded discography was “My Prayer.” Tony Williams had an excellent, dramatic, soaring voice that reminds me somewhat of Roy Orbison.
– hugh c grissett
The Platters were wonderful. Watch the YouTube clip of them performing “You’ll Never Know”—Tony Williams is so subtle and fluid it can make you question what you’re hearing. My number one has always been “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”—I heard it when it came out in the mid fifties and have never really gotten over that final ascending swirl. But I put in “My Prayer” at the suggestion/insistence of the now jazz and dance critic Robert Gottlieb, who in 1979 was the head of Knopf, which published the book, because it was the essence of their style.
What are your thoughts about the quick decline of Aretha Franklin’s music between 1967’s I Never Loved A Man and Aretha’s Gold in 1969, when, as you wrote, her “career was already cracking”? In your opinion, what happened—how did her music change? Was it a matter of material, or feeling, or something else?
The material declined, but my guess—and it’s just a guess—is that it was personal. Personal in the sense of an emotional and intellectual response to sudden world stardom—and the understanding that it was both deserved and earned—and in terms of men around her, manager husband producer, who were not necessarily different people, telling her to do this or it will all vanish, do that or she’ll be broke in a year. Instead of peace of mind truly great success brings confusion, resentment, and fear. Not satisfaction but jeopardy.
As I said, a guess.
Greil, the “150 Greatest Albums Made By Women” [see 07/26] does not include any records by our hometown’s Joy of Cooking. Joy still isn’t getting the respect it deserves.
And they were so great in a small Berkeley club.
Many thanks for your time. Have read an article or so containing your thoughts on Neil Young. Was curious how you view his records On The Beach and Tonight’s The Night overall in perspective of his body of work. Also in light of the favored status those recordings have garnered in recent years. Do those albums have any highlights/moments for you?
They might be the essence of Neil Young, or the albums that most set him apart from anyone else. They’re both utterly idiosyncratic, odd, unpleasant, at times morbid. They’re scary. It’s easy to see why some people don’t like them, don’t hear them—don’t want to hear about that stuff. Or can’t take it. Tonight’s the Night takes the title from one of the sweetest and sexiest records ever made—the Shirelles—and turns it toward pure death. The whole album is a funeral, an elegy, a burial, digging up the body, saying, yeah, he’s dead, put him back. On the Beach has Charles Manson all over it—not just in “Revolution Blues,” which for me the Waco Brothers do better, or harder, and “Ambulance Blues.”
Neil Young has made I don’t know how many of my favorite records, from “Cowgirl in the Sand” to “I’m the Ocean” to something he hasn’t done yet. But these will do.
I’d be interested in your thoughts about Sam Shepard as a writer. Additionally, “Brownsville Girl” which he co-wrote with Dylan, continues to be mysterious to me despite the bombast of the musical production. What do you think of it?
– Scott Bunn
I only saw two or three of his plays, maybe in poor productions, but they didn’t set me on fire. I was never as charmed by him on screen as his directors were. His Rolling Thunder memoir wasn’t memorable. “Brownsville Girl”—especially on the outtake called “New Danville Girl,” which is different in terms of words and very different in terms of Dylan’s singing—so much more thoughtful in the midst of being so much more expressive—is a remarkable piece, but I think there’s no way of knowing who wrote what, especially when you hear Dylan changing the words and cadences between versions.
Your reverence for early Steely Dan sent me down a rabbit hole replaying many of their albums, old and new. The Nightfly, Fagen’s first solo effort, to my ears feels particularly amazing. I couldn’t find any comments by you on this one and am wondering how it has sounded to you.
It might be the most conceptually perfect album I know—because the idea behind it—
“The songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build”
—is so completely and lovingly and self-deprecatingly followed through. It’s a cultural excavation project that in its sounds, moods, attitude, and stories says more about the time it means to address than any novel from or about the period I know, and likely any movie too. I remember first playing the record and realizing both that I hadn’t thought about the International Geophysical Year (“I.G.Y.“) in decades, and how thrilling its affirmation that anything was possible as soon as the breakthroughs it promised—all in one year—came in. That is, how embarrassing it was to remember what a colossal worldwide hype it all was, all meant to realign power from old industries toward nuclear power, extractive energy, chemical and drug corporations, mass agriculture, population control, and the Pentagon and its equivalents throughout the Western world. As Fagen puts it, positively for a 12- or 13-year old in 1957 or 1958, “the fix is in”; as someone as described above, you can’t lose.
It’s like listening to the Kingston Trio records made at the same time, but with distance. And it’s not because I share so much with Fagen. He’s three years younger, I’m from a California, not northeastern, suburb, and he’s three inches taller.
Are you a fan of boxed sets? Any in particular?
I love box sets. I love objects, especially when they involve records—beat up old LPs, odd 78s. When I moved from a big house to a small house I had to dispense with most of my LPs, but I kept all of my singles.
I love box sets that are useful, like the Elvis masters series. I like box sets that are perverse, like the monstrous Bob Dylan set, The Cutting Edge. I don’t like sets with seventeen sets of liner notes, unless it’s the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music. There are some really terrible sets, like the Faces, or Mott the Hoople—they cost a lot, you feel stupid trying to sell it back, when you ought to throw it away.
I like the ZZ Top set in the form of a tin-roof Texas barbeque joint.
Have been reading your work since 1976. Speaking as a hopeless music nerd, it has been a pleasure.
Lately have been overwhelmed by the Rolling Stones’ treatment of Chuck Berry songs 1969-72—“Carol” and “Little Queenie” on Get Your Ya-Yas Out and “Bye Bye Johnny” on the 1972 tour movie soundtrack. Stones could turn it up to 11 with no loss of feeling, musicality. Breathtaking.
But the greatest live rock and roll recording that I have ever heard is Jerry Lee Lewis Live at the Star Club, Hamburg. The hardest rock and roll recording. Surprised it did not make it into “Treasure Island.”
Also surprised by absence of: Grassroots, “Baby Hold On”; Big Star; Bill Monroe, “Whitehouse Blues”; Paul Revere & the Raiders, “Good Thing”; Rufus Thomas, “Memphis Train”; Con Funk Sun, “Ffun”; James Cotton, “Cotton Crop Blues.”
– Harry Clark
I can’t argue with your list of omissions, other than to say that Bill Monroe and James Cotton were outside the scope of my “Treasure Island” tour, which was supposed to be about what we called rock ‘n’ roll in its most expansive definition, and that I like Charlie Poole’s “White House Blues” better. But look, Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “Just Like Me” is the one. I once heard a cover band in a basement bar in Aspen sometime in the 1970s announce it as “the best record Paul Revere and the Raiders ever made” and what better testament could there be?
I believe you attended one or both of Bob Dylan’s shows at the Berkeley Community Center in early December 1965. (I’ve been unable to track down my written source for this belief among my bookshelves, but I know it’s there somewhere.) It has recently been determined that the circulating electric set normally attributed to an Allen Ginsberg recording at Berkeley on 04 December is in fact the electric set performed at San Jose on 12 December which is currently archived in the digitised Ginsberg collection held at the Stanford Libraries, along with the acoustic set from that night and the complete concert from San Francisco on the previous evening. I wonder if you would be kind enough to share your recollections of the show(s) on that/those nights at Berkeley, one of which apparently included the live premiere of “Visions of Johanna” in the acoustic half, and which marked the live Hawks debut of Bobby Gregg on drums. Do you recall seeing Allen Ginsberg in the audience, and was he taping the show?
– Peter Coulthard
Ginsberg swept into the hall with a retinue of Hell’s Angels and sat with them in the front row. Whether he was taping I can’t say. During “It Ain’t Me Babe” I saw the roof lift off the building and open it to the stars in the sky. It’s the only time in my life I’ve hallucinated. I couldn’t remember anything else about the performance of the song, and didn’t understand why what happened happened until I heard the bootleg of the show and realized it was all Robbie Robertson.
Greil: Help me out here. While singing “I’ll Be Back” to myself, I was hit by: “THIS time I will TRY to show that I’m NOT TRYING to PRETEND.” I’m convinced this is, at least, a triple negative; perhaps more, if one explicates pretending—not to mention the time element. A quad negative? Much hangs in the balance.
– Kevin Harvey
I’m not a grammarian. I never learned to diagram a sentence. This reads as a declarative sentence to me, accurately capturing the somewhat confused state of mind of someone trying to confess something embarrassing, if not shameful, in an honest way.
Are you familiar with author Maury Dean’s book from 1966, The Rock Revolution? It was released in 1966, evidently one of the first books dealing with rock and roll. I have been reading his 2001 book Rock N Roll Gold Rush, and it is quite interesting.
– Hugh C Grissett
I don’t know it.
Your Stranded discography includes only a handful of instrumental singles, and it seems that, for you, non-vocal pop music often requires an extra dimension of expressiveness (compensating for lack of sung words) to stand out or really pull you inside. Does this sound accurate?
Also, can you tell us what you hear and love in your two 1970s instrumental 45 selections, MFSB’s “TSOP” and the Commodores’ “Machine Gun”?
I don’t have any worked-out notion of why to include anything anywhere. The instrumental singles I have there are simply those that struck me as leaving a hole in the tradition if left out—and I loved them. As for “TSOP,” the sweep over the drift. “Machine Gun”—I have no idea. It sound pretty cheesy now.
I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but there’s an amusing website called literature-map.com: type in a writer’s name and a “map” appears with that name at the center of it, and the names of a couple dozen other writers at different proximities around it. According to the site, the maps are part of something called the Global Network of Discovery (Gnod), and the “closer two writers are, the more likely someone will like both of them.” YOUR nearest neighbours appear to be Richard Hell and Mikal Gilmore. Farther away, but about equidistant from you are Michael Chabon (to the north) and Ward Churchill (southwest). Does this strike you as about right?
– Steve O’Neill
ps: you’ll probably be happy to know that Christopher Hitchens doesn’t appear on your map. HIS closest neighbours, however, include Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson.
As far as mapping goes, Michael Chabon does live a block and a half from me.
I just saw my first Phish concert last night at The Garden. I’m not a big fan of their music, but I had heard enough about the strength of their shows that I felt I needed to see them live at least once. And I was very impressed. The show was truly a SHOW: elaborate set pieces; bombastic lights and grand swooping performances; meticulous presentation and structure.
Have you ever seen Phish live? If not, do you have any desire to?
The story behind songs or the meaning of songs.
I’ve been listening to music and reading about music for many years. One thing I often find very disappointing/boring is books or magazine articles trying to explain the meaning of songs. Or the story behind songs. Mainly because the stories are often made up and not often very interesting.
Philippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon have published books describing the story behind every track (!) by Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd…
I have only browsed in these books at my local bookstore and did not find them interesting. There are many other books and articles of the same kind. If I listen to a song by the Beatles I don’t care if it is about Paul McCartney meeting his latest girlfriend. Because I want to make up my own story.
I often think about the following quote from your book When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison (about his song “Madame George”):
“The tyranny of tying anything an artist might do or say to his or her own life, to give it the weight of the real, and switch off the light on the weightlessness of the imagination.”
One of my absolute favorite quotes regarding music/songs!
John Irving once explained this to me: “People are afraid of the imagination, so they refuse to believe it exists.” I never buy or read these story behind the songs books. As you say, usually the stories aren’t stories at all, and whether they are or not, they’re purely reductionist. The test of any piece of art is its ability to go out into the world and make meaning, not to carry some specific meaning with it like a warhead meant to destroy the imagination of others.
How did Robert Johnson’s music reach you, and would you say the circumstances in which you discovered him were fairly typical? (I mean in the sense that, did you discover him around the same time, and through the same means, as many other people did? I’ve always been a little confused about how his recordings finally got out into the world, and how the world responded. When and how did his stature become solidified?)
– Scott Woods
I can’t speak for when “many other people” encountered Robert Johnson. He had been forgotten except among some Chicago blues players, and only stray recordings were available on country blues compilations put out by Sam Charters and others before Columbia assembled a collection in 1961, put an ineffably dramatic painting on the cover, and called it King of the Delta Blues Singers. For me, the unbearably romantic opening lines of the liner notes, presumably by producer Frank Driggs, meant as much. It was somehow alluring that the album was issued as part of the series (if there were any other examples), Thesaurus of Classic Jazz. I wonder who thought that up.
Bob Dylan found this music when John Hammond gave him a test pressing in 1961. Eric Clapton might have known of it before. Dion heard the Columbia album and it changed his life right there. Virtually everyone involved seriously in the folk revival and the Chicago blues world, black and white, was listening to it in those first years. Charters, Pete Welding, and many others wrote about the music, and what little was known about Johnson, and others, notably the late Mack McCormick, dedicated years of their lives to digging up the facts, including what was for so long the great lost treasure of the blues, a photograph. Other Johnson recordings began to leak out. The Rolling Stones were playing “Love in Vain” during their 1969 American tour and recorded it for both Let It Bleed and (far better) Get Yer Ya-Yas Out, which prompted Columbia to issue “Love in Vain” and the remaining Johnson titles on King of the Delta Blues Singers Vol. II, again with stunning cover art.
I came upon the first album in January of 1970, just after Altamont, when suddenly I couldn’t stomach listening to rock ‘n’ roll at all. I was in a tiny store called Record City on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, for some reason looking at the blues rack. I came across the first Johnson album and noticed “Cross Road Blues,” which I knew was the source of Cream’s “Crossroads,” from Wheels of Fire, which I loved. I also saw “Four Until Late,” which I loved from their first album, I thought it might be interesting to know where Cream songs came from. I bought it, took it home, and from there there was no turning back. For the rest of the year I listened to almost nothing but old country blues, which was easy in Berkeley. There’d long been a cult of ’20s and ’30s blues recordings in Berkeley, and Origin Jazz Library, which collected scores of 78s by dozens of obscure performers, was there, along with the Albatross, pretty much a country blues bar. By the end of the year I didn’t just know where Cream songs came from, I knew who Garfield Akers was—or, at least, I knew his name, and his stunning six-minute “Cottonfield Blues.” It was like what Dylan says in Chronicles about how in the folk world in Greenwich Village in the early sixties, only incidents from the old songs were news: if someone said what’s happening, you’d say President Garfield had been shot or the Cole Younger gang had robbed a bank in Northfield, Minnesota. Now a piece called “Old County Rock,” just a rap over the prettiest melody I’d ever heard, from the 20s, meant as much or more than the Band’s Stage Fright.
I recently spent time in a coffee shop in Buenos Aires called Full City Expresso. They played great music—one day, the Who’s “I’m a Boy” and all of Revolver. Over the coffee bar were dot paintings: a young Elvis, a naked Kate Moss, the Argentine band leader Charly Garcia, and Mr. J.
There’s no reason on Earth why you would know the answer to this question, but it’s been in my mind for decades and I thought I’d ask on the off chance: Why was there never a rap remake of The Harder They Come? You’d think the one thing you could count on Hollywood for is the obvious.
– Robert Fiore
I don’t know. You’re right. Jah has spared us.
Barbara Lynn Ozen recorded as Barbara Lynn. I was familiar with her 1962 hit “You’ll Lose A Good Thing” but I didn’t know she was the singer, songwriter, and electric guitarist, a very rare combination for a female artist in the early sixties. It’s a sublime sounding recording that’s worth a listen today. The Stones covered her “Oh Baby (We’ve Got A Good Thing Going’) on The Rolling Stones Now!
– Paul Zullo
What was truly revolutionary is that she appeared on the cover of her first album with her electric guitar. It was like, What’s that?
Any thoughts on the NPR list of 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women? Lists are mostly useful for arguing about, right? I thought it was pretty good—my personal omissions would include Dionne Warwick, the Jefferson Airplane, Yo La Tengo, and LiLiPUT. [See introduction to piece here.]
– Alan Vint
The point of a list is selection: ruthlessly, unfairly, perversely, both to start a conversation and to mock the whole idea of boiling anything in life down to a list. Dave Marsh’s The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made is not really a list: it’s a long walk through one person’s taste, sense of history, idiosyncrasy, love and hate.
With a list of 150 albums—as if the great moments are there—all kinds of factors come into play that deforms any sense of what is and what isn’t. Considerations of balance and fairness—the opposite of what a list should be—in terms of eras, race, ethnicity, genre, and on and on make decisions, not what do I love, what would distort the story if it were left out (or included). And there’s too much—when there’s room for anything and everyone, who cares?
I could say that any top list that puts Joni Mitchell’s Blue over Aretha’s I Never Loved a Man or X-ray Spex’s Germfree Adolescents is a travesty, but really, you have to dive into the depths of 130-150 to grapple with the thing, and who will? The truth is, when you run through the whole thing, it’s dispiriting. The need to play fair has led to a pile of records, many of which are not really very good, and some of which aren’t good at all.
Bob Dylan seems to be cutting back year after year doing concerts. while I hope he stays “forever young” how much longer do you think he’ll continue doing concerts?
Why would I know?
Do you have strong feelings about the work of Roy Orbison? Either with Sun or afterwards?
How can anyone not have strong feelings about Roy Orbison? He was an original, nobody was remotely like him in any way: voice, looks, style, reserve, unknowableness, depth, truth. I think of Tarnation’s “The Big O Motel.” I think of the incredible mimed Spanish version of “Crying,” his absolute statement, in Mulholland Drive, and Dean Stockwell’s hideous miming of “In Dreams” in Blue Velvet. The gargling sound in “Mean Woman Blues.” The speed of the guitar in “Go, Go, Go,” his greatest Sun recording. kd lang dancing behind him in Black and White Night. Sam Phillips saying, “I knew his voice was pure gold. I also knew that if anybody got a look at him he’d be dead inside of a week.” His page in Rock Dreams. Most of all, the impossible last choruses of “Crying,” the pinnacle of pinnacles.
Is Duane Eddy’s music something you have enjoyed?
Sure. I loved all his hits on the radio, the echo of his reverb across so many decades, but most of all one single song title: “40 Miles of Bad Road.” Why hasn’t anyone made a western called that?
I was wondering if you might recommend a good place to start listening to Phil Spector productions?!?
Phil Spector Back to Mono.
Here’s a specific question: Was that you on the Houston-Baltimore flight Tuesday night? It looked a lot like you, or at least like your author photos, but by the time I realized that I was in my seat 29 rows back.
Follow-up: how often are you accosted in public by fans/etc?
– Lowell Rudorfer
That wasn’t me.
People sometimes stop me on the street to say nice things about something I’ve written. I wouldn’t call it accosting. More like a friendly wave.
A.J. Weberman has uploaded a bunch of videos to YouTube, monologues, really. He’s a genuinely creepy little guy, and his Bob Dylan fixation has become incredibly dark. Now, he explains, not only is Dylan an HIV-infected junkie (old news as far as Weberman’s concerned) but also a virulent racist, a fact that becomes clear when you examine the “subcontent” of his lyrics: “‘You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat’—you used to have diplomatic relations with South Africa… chrome is South Africa’s biggest export.” And on and on. It’s batshit crazy, of course but it’s pretty disturbing in its detail and malice. Do you have any personal history with Weberman? Do you think he really believes the nonsense he spouts?
– Steve O’Neill
We’ve never met, but my impression from photos and videos is that Weberman is very much not little. We do have a history. At a certain point in 1968, I was passed a cassette of the Basement Tapes, and then a person in Manchester sent me a reel to reel of the 1966 concert Dylan played there with the Hawks—the one later known as the “Albert Hall” concert, and the most stupendous recording of anything I’d ever heard. I began asking around, and received other tapes of much earlier Dylan recordings, from Minnesota and elsewhere. I saw a little ad the Village Voice asking if anyone was interested in trading tapes of unreleased Dylan material. I got in touch—that was Weberman. We traded actively for some time; both of our collections grew. It was done with respect and trust. No money ever changed hands, even for the cost of tapes or mail. There was never any suggestion of bootlegging or profiting—something I found true among others, until I ran into an odious character, who later became just as paranoid as Weberman, asserting the same kind of ownership over Dylan, as an idea (as Dylan once said to Weberman, “I’m not Bob Dylan, you’re Bob Dylan”). At certain point we stopped communicating. Then he went into garbage.
I have long been a fan of Mystery Train and have used it as required reading in my History of Rock and Roll course at the University of Nebraska. As a fan of The Band I’m curious…did you have a sense of Robbie Robertson’s feelings about his Native background when you were writing “Pilgrims’ Progress”? He’s been living with his own history for his entire life, but beginning with Music for the Native Americans it has become more integral to his creative process. Did he express any of those feelings in your interviews with him for the book?
– Scott Anderson
No. It never came up. I don’t ask personal questions, and my biographical knowledge of Robbie at the time was vague at best. We talked about the Band—or, really, he talked and I listened. I didn’t take notes. The only specific question I remember asking was about his favorite cities, which came out of something he said. I wasn’t curious; it seemed like a way for him to talk about his view of the world as such.
How do your students react to Mystery Train?
I am really trying to figure out what Dylan is saying here about Israel. I am referring to the part about what his friend Ray says at the beginning.
– Mark Abrams
Ray has always reminded me of the cannibal-killer played by Lance Hendiksen in Dead Man. Other than that I don’t know what you’re talking about.
I recently reread your review of The Last Waltz movie and was struck by, among many things, your wonderful description of Joni Mitchell singing “Coyote”:
“Joni Mitchell, swaying her hips for ‘Coyote’ is mesmerizing; she acts out the role of a goddess on the make, an image only slightly undercut—or reinforced—by the pack of cigarettes jammed into the waistband of her skirt.”
After reading that, I looked around to see if you had any other writing on Joni Mitchell but I couldn’t find any. I’d be curious to know your thoughts about Joni Mitchell’s music or, more briefly, which songs of hers, if any, have resonated with you over the years.
I think I’ve only written about Joni Mitchell one other time, in a Real Life Rock Top 10 item from February 1998
4. Darren Starr, creator, Melrose Place (Fox, November 24, 1997) Dr. Brett Cooper, who has a real serial girlfriend-in-a-coma problem, attends comatose Megan. “Music can get through where nothing else can,” Coop says over Megan. “I’m betting you love Joni Mitchell as much as I do.” He slips a CD into a boom box, and as the camera comes in close on Megan’s face you can barely hear “Big Yellow Taxi.” “I’m awake! I’m awake!” screamed a sympathetic viewer. “Just turn off that horrible music!”
Save for a song here or there, that pretty much sums up my response to the endless self-regard and smugness I’ve found in her music—she and Leonard Cohen were made for each other.
Great songs have the ability to suspend time and place and transport you to another place. I think of them as sound paintings, with various hues, shades and colors.Are there any songs that affect you like that?
– hugh c grissett
Sure. Start with “Gimmie Shelter” and go from there.
Have any of Mahler’s symphonies resonated with you?
No. Not his fault.
Thanks for being here. I’m new to this resource, but I’ve been appreciating your work since your first Rolling Stone appearances. I recently bought the Not New Music 2CD set Be-Bop-A-Lula—great sound. The big discovery for me was “Race With the Devil” and the sound of guitarist Cliff Gallup. The 1956 recordings, produced by Ken Nelson are, to my ears, way ahead of their rock and roll contemporaries. If you’ve written about Gene Vincent and Cliff Gallup please let me know where.
– Paul Zullo
I haven’t written about Gene Vincent outside of my discography in Stranded. You’re right about Vincent and Gallup. But you must see the band as they appeared in The Girl Can’t Help It—
—and hear his “Slow Times Comin’,” from his 1970 Gene Vincent aka If Only You Could See Me Today album—nine minutes that nothing in his earlier music hints at except the attitude, the grittiness, the refusal to quit—
Years ago I attended a weekend symposium on matters dealing with Bob Dylan. The event was held at Seattle’s EMP rock and roll museum. While getting seated after a lunch break I happened to take a seat next to the “Folklore Centre’s” Izzy Young. Izzy took note of the fact I was from Canada and asked me what Canadians knew about Bob’s motorcycle “accident.” I told him we had heard the usual, well known rumours. He then asked me if I wanted to know the “real story.” I knew that Izzy had been well connected to Bob and told him that, indeed, I wanted to know more (especially from someone of his stature.) Izzy told me straight up that the event was a ruse or fabrication. He told me that Bob was exhausted, tired and needing a break to “straighten out some issues.” History confirms the following years.
What can you tell me about this explanation and (perhaps) news?
– John Clark
When it comes to Bob Dylan, there are endless people eager to tell you the Real Story, many of whom resent the possibility that Dylan might know more about his life than they do. Among these were the many who rushed into print as soon as Chronicles achieved the same status to insist that most of it could not possibly be true, since they hadn’t previously heard about the couple he described living with in his early time in New York, his collaboration with Archibald MacLeish, or his appreciation for Red Grooms. So in fact there is no fixed, true, or accepted story about Dylan’s motorcycle accident. It comes down to the people who say it never happened, and Dylan made up the story in order to get out of a punishing or even life-threatening tour, to those, Dylan included, who say there was an accident (according to various versions life-threatening, broken neck, a strain requiring brief use of a neck brace, etc.) and it was a convenient excuse to get off the road and calm down. The people who claim there was no accident are, I assume, the same people who claim Dylan as never booed at Newport in 1965, and that the idea that he was is either a misunderstanding or a plot hatched on the spot by Dylan, as he described it in interviews, and Paul Nelson, writing in Sing Out, to make him look like a martyr to his art.
All of this is a result of what Paul Williams so pretentiously, but, at the time, not off the mark, called “The Period of Silence,” i.e., the time after the accident when Dylan shut up and tended to his own garden. Rumor spread that he was dead, disfigured, a vegetable, and so on. At that time, performers were expected to issue a new album every three or four months—as Dylan came close to doing with Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisted, and Blonde on Blonde. When six months went by, then a year, without an appearance, a show, a single, an interview, whatever it was that happened was blown up into a myth that swallowed Dylan whole. Don DeLillo catches the displaced paranoia of all this in his Great Jones Street.
So be careful of people who have the real Dylan story. They want to own it. Or him.
Are you a fan of the country great Jimmie Rodgers’s music? What is your opinion of Fats Domino and his music? Do you think he was an innovator as far as rock and roll music is concerned?
– Hugh Grissett
Sort of big questions. It’s hard to imagine anyone being a fan of the best music of the last fifty years not being a fan of Jimmie Rodgers, or considering Fats Domino as anything but an innovator. He recorded “The Fat Man” in late 1949, it came out at the beginning of 1950, and if the world hadn’t heard rock ‘n’ roll before, it heard it then.
I’ve listened to everything that Dylan wrote and sang during the Vietnam era (though he was out of commission for part of that period). I haven’t been able to detect a single direct reference to that conflict in his songs and have always been puzzled by that. I realize that Bob did not see himself as a voice on such matters, however, the silence seemed deafening. Did I miss something in his lyrics during this era?
– Ted Feigenbaum
I think you miss something by thinking the answer to your question lies in lyrics. There are references to Lyndon Johnson and people afraid of war (“chickens”) in “Tombstone Blues” (see LBJ mouthing the words on TV in Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There). In a 1968 Sing Out interview with John Cohen and Happy Traum, after a question about Vietnam, Dylan said, “How do you know I’m not, as you say, for the war?” and went on to discuss people he respected who were. But the closest thing to an answer to your question came in Jon Landau’s 1968 review of John Wesley Harding when he said, of the weight of the music and the singing, that they communicated that Dylan “has felt the war,'”and that without presupposing any position, a consciousness of the war pervaded the whole record. In the words you can hear that as a call for seriousness, reckoning: “Let us not talk falsely now.” Put up or shut up. And that was confirmed by the fact that JWH‘proved as resonant for GIs that year as The Doors had been in 1967.
Have you ever listened to Milton Berle’s cover of “Yellow Submarine”? It manages to crush everything from 1947 to 1967 with one turn of the vise. Or perhaps everything from Elvis’ first show with Milty to Monty Python, including Sgt Pepper, in to one ball of suet. A Dylan question will have to wait.
– Kevin Harvey
Uncle Miltie must have really hated that song to subject it to his old blackface minstrel routines.
How does Steely Dan´s Aja sound to you 40 years later? Do you still spin some Steely Dan (or wear your Steely Dan T-Shirt) lately?
I never liked Aja.
Just found this online: “They’re Selling Postcards of the Hanging: The Real Lynching in Dylan’s ‘Desolation Row.'” It is news to me—and makes it breathtakingly clear that history engendered Dylan’s song, but wonder if you know the source for claim that Dylan’s father told him this story. Maybe it’s the book that’s pictured but not mentioned in the piece (On Highway 61, by Dennis McNally”? Not that it matters.)
I was stunned by the partial reproduction of one photo at the top and a link to one of the postcards; I hope I have not grown afraid of the truth in the climate of fear about “trigger warnings”—which means the suppression of reality.
I remember knowing that, as Orwell said, “the power of facing unpleasant facts” is a virtue.
– Laura Leivick
I have my doubts that the story is as clean as Abe Zimmerman passing on his childhood memories of something that happened in Duluth when he was a boy. Lynchings in even fairly big towns like Duluth were community affairs. Everybody turned out, including children. If you weren’t there questions might be asked about why not.
In San Jose in 1933 two drifters, inspired by the Lindbergh kidnapping, which at the time was still unsolved, kidnapped the son of the richest man in town and demanded a ransom, though they had already killed him. It was a big mistake: Brooke Hart was a golden boy: blonde, handsome, brilliant. Everyone in town knew him. He treated everyone like a prince, and everyone loved him. The two men were immediately caught and held in the city jail. Everyone knew there was going to be a lynching. People took the train from Los Angeles to be there. Earl Warren, later the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and then the DA of Alameda County, which then included San Jose, announced that anyone taking part would be prosecuted; Governor James Rolph all but promised to pardon anyone Warren prosecuted. A battering ram was used to break into the jail. The crowd dragged the men out of the jail and into the park across the street, stripped them naked, sexually mutilated them, and hung them from the trees.
Even though Hitler used this event as proof that democracy was a sewer and a tool of the Jews to boot—Brooke Hart was half-Jewish—as in Duluth, memory of this event was suppressed. No one spoke of it. The newspapers did not mark anniversaries. People grew up not knowing that it had happened, though growing up a few miles north, in Palo Alto and Menlo Park, I had a dim awareness of it. My grandparents were from San Jose, and my father was born there in 1917; my mother was born in San Francisco in 1923.
In 1992, a book was published about the lynching, and my parents went to hear the author speak about it at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park. A younger man, noticing my parents’ age, asked them if they remembered the lynching. They said yes, and explained how. He asked if they knew anyone who had been there. They said yes. He asked my father if he had been there. He said no; people had asked him to go, but he said he had to study.
My father was telling me this story a few days later when my mother said, “Would you like to know who asked him to go?” “Yes,” I said, barely thinking about who that might have been—some of my father’s high-school or college buddies? “Your grandparents,” my mother said.
My grandparents were very much on the left. My grandfather, the town furrier, was the only member of the San Jose Chamber of Commerce to vote against buying machine guns to keep Okies out of town. But if they had not been present at the lynching, they would no longer be members in good standing of the San Jose business community, and their business would have suffered—or worse.
So it may very well have been that Abe Zimmerman was present at the Duluth lynching, brought by his parents. And if he wasn’t there, I’d think it’s even money that his parents were.
Donald Trump has said that his favorite movie is Citizen Kane. Do you think he’s influenced by the famous breakfast scene? When Kane tells his first wife people will think “what I tell them to think,” we are supposed to be repulsed. But Trump seems like he had the exact opposite reaction (that Kane’s a tough guy, a real killer), and based his entire campaign and now administration on the guiding principle that people will think “what I tell them to think.” I wonder how much that movie plays into his view of himself, and would love to hear your thoughts on this disturbing subject.
I wouldn’t read too much into it. It’s a great movie. It’s great to watch.
A fan of your writing on Dylan, I was curious if you have any hunches that Dylan might return to songwriting form and produce an album of original material. His most recent and past couple releases being oriented towards standards (I recall a recent piece I believe you wrote upon Triplicate‘s release). Do you think Dylan will produce an album of original material and/or suspect he has some songs to share?
I would think so—based on nothing.
Did you happen to encounter Bob Dylan: All the Songs (The Story Behind Every Track) by Philippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon? It’s a hefty, formidable book, and quite beautiful to look at, but I was alarmed by the actual writing… that is, until I started thinking of it as the work of a couple of earnest young Frenchmen who were certain that an English editor would only misrepresent their message; now I find the book charming. Some of my favorite stories behind the tracks (so far):
—“Desolation Row”: “Behind the typically American Western movie genre, Bob Dylan used untouchable irony as he found equally to blame the industrialists who built assembly lines and the critics who replied with ridiculously simplistic slogans.”
—“Country Pie”: “Dylan used the flavor of comfort food to express how country-and-western music inspired him. Eating red fruit and legumes, apples, squash or prunes gave him as much satisfaction as listening to old Joe on the sax or the fiddler when the day breaks.”
—“Man Gave Names to All the Animals”: “Throughout the song, Dylan gives one or two characteristics to each animal so that the child can easily guess which one he means.”
—Bonus info—“(Elvis’s version of “Can’t Help Falling In Love”) was featured in Norman Taurog’s 1961 film Under the Blue Sky of Hawaii.”
– Steve O’Neill
And they got this published in a book?
1. Can you tell us what your next book will be about?
2. Have you ever considered writing a history about the rise of rock and roll, a general history of 1950s rock and roll?
– Hugh Grissett
1. A still unformed idea growing out of my 2013 commencement address at the School of Visual Art about the intractability of the high-low divide in culture.
2. No, I’ve never given any thought to that. Rejection of that sort of by now completely redundant historical approach is why and how I wrote The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs.
Have you heard any mainstream country music you’ve liked in the past 10 years? Do you have any opinion on Miranda Lambert or The Pistol Annies?
Not really since the country station in the Bay Area changed format.
Going back to Trump and his appeal, the Mika Brezinski tweet is a demonstration of one thing that unites Trump and his core following, and on which they are 100% congruent, and that is their complete lack of class. No small part of the promise Trump presents his flock is that you can have no class and not give up anything in the way of status.
– Robert Fiore
To me the term ‘class’ is socially classist and indicates the user considers himself better than those he describes as having no class and equal to those to whom he ascribes it. But your argument about having no class and giving up nothing in status is interesting.
In 2005 VH1 aired Kept, a reality series starring Jerry Hall, ex-wife of Mick Jagger. The show followed the basic template set by The Apprentice, but in this case the all-male cast of contestants vied for the privilege of serving as Ms. Hall’s “kept man” for a year, through challenges such as learning to play polo and figuring out which fork to use for shrimp cocktail. At the end of each episode, of course, the least worthy contestants were sent home.
An interesting touch was the series’s kiss-off line, Kept‘s riff on “you’re fired.” As each elimination was announced, the losers were reminded that “you can’t always get what you want.” The song itself served as the show’s theme, presumably knocking a few bucks off of Mick’s alimony.
A dozen years on, the star of The Apprentice is the president of the United States of America after having used Kept‘s theme song as his own campaign anthem over the tepid objections of the ex-husband of the star of Kept, and the star of Kept is now married to the founder of the network that helped get the star of The Apprentice elected president of the United States of America.
My question: would we still be in this mess if Mick had just stayed with Bianca?
– Steve O’Neill
If what did happen hadn’t happened I kind of think Bianca would be married to either Justin Trudeau or an Arab emir so it would all shake out. It’s disgusting that “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” has a better life in The Big Chill than in history.
I know you are a big fan of “Stay” and Anti. Have any other Rihanna records reached you, either when they were hits, or subsequently? Any thoughts in particular on “Umbrella” or “Unfaithful”? (Or “Don’t Stop the Music”?)
– Scott Woods
I came late. Maybe Chris Brown got in the way. Those are it for me so far.
What do you make of the resurgence of Elvis into the Cultural Appropriation debate, with reference to Kenan Malik’s recent New York Times editorial and a more recent NPR rebuttal? It seems to me that both authors should have read Mystery Train before stating their cases…
Or any number of other people. Or maybe listened to Elvis himself. I’ve been surprised at how primitive the discussion has been.
You may have already answered this, but I was curious as to your thoughts on liberals tearing down Confederate statues and memorials in the best “dustbin of history” tradition of rampaging Stalinists?
– Stan Davis
I think it’s parochial to call those who favor Confederate removal liberals. The people who raised those monuments—mostly in the 1880s and 1890s, to affirm white supremacy at the same time as blacks across the south were being disenfranchised at the ballot box and legally segregated and subjugated everywhere else after the compromise of 1877, and again in the 1920s, to sanction the resurgence of the Klan, and, as these were official acts, terrorize anyone who disagreed, with the implicit force of the state behind them, which meant the states where these statues stood legitimized and even encouraged lynching—considered themselves patriots, to their states, to the Lost Cause, to the Confederacy, to what in the 20th century would be called White Democracy. It seems to me that people in support of removing these acts of terror should also be considered patriots: patriots of what used to be called the republic. You know, the one “for which it stands.”
I just finished Rob Sheffield’s Dreaming the Beatles. It’s a fun read. My only quibble would be his characterization of “It’s All Too Much” as a masterpiece. I like it better than “Piggies” or “Blue Jay Way” but there are a lot more Harrison songs I prefer. Speaking of George, did you like any of his solo stuff? I always liked “Deep Blue”, the b-side of “Bangla Desh”. Also, “Faster” from his 1979 self-titled LP.
– Steve Canson
I liked Wonderwall Music. Most of all the great Scorsese movie. The things his wife says!
I’m kinda surprised nobody’s asked you this follow-up question yet: just what DID you tell Jonathan Richman about Scotty Moore’s amp? [see 01/21]
– Steve O’Neill
I told him I had no idea.
Is “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” the most polarizing Dylan song ever? I’ve seen more than one person name it as one of Dylan’s worst, a blight on Blonde on Blonde, and in a recent commemoration of BoB’s 50th anniversary, Rob Sheffield called it “one profoundly annoying novelty song.” I don’t get it. For me, it’s Dylan at his wildest, funniest, and most brilliant—and I can’t believe they somehow snuck it onto Top 40 and turned it into a hit single.
– Alan Vint
When I first heard it it terrified me. It sounded like unleashed junkie madness. About two days later, with the radio playing it nonstop, I fell in love with it. It was completely unpredictably musically, so that it sounded different every time. There was no way to know who these people were. I listened for the shouting in the background. Everyone is having a fabulous time. But after the Blonde on Blonde sessions were over and Dylan had left, producer Bob Johnston kept the party going, and he and the musicians apparently took as much time as it takes to listen to it to record Moldy Goldies: Col. Jubilation B. Johnston and His Mystic Knights Band and Street Singers Attack the Hits, which Columbia snuck out at the same time. “Secret Agent Man” is my favorite musically, though philosophically “The Name Game” has it beat. Either or anything else on the album makes “Rainy Day Women” sounds like “She Belongs to Me.”
I just transcribed a 1993 interview between a history professor here at Gettysburg College and Kenneth Stampp, a mainstay of the Berkeley history department from 1946 on. He had very interesting stories about himself, C. Wright Mills, Frank Freidel, and Richard Hofstadter (the four of them began their academic careers together at the University of Maryland in the early Forties). Did you have any classes with Stampp? If so, what did you think of him as a teacher and historian?
Also, did you experience John Searle, the philosophy professor who was a prominent FSM supporter and who later turned neoconservative (and has, I discover, recently been sued for sexual harassment)?
While we’re at it, what did or do you think of Richard Hofstadter as a historian and political writer?
– Devin McKinney
I never took classes from Kenneth Stampp. He was instrumental in changing the nearly 100-year-old narrative (I hate that term, which gives authority to what really means “false story”) concocted by the Southern historians that the Civil War (preferred terms being the War Between the States, or the War of Northern Aggression) had nothing to do with slavery, but rather economic factors, and the need of the north to dominate the south. I took an introductory philosophy class from John Searle, but his support of the Free Speech Movement made a much greater impression on me: one of the things the Free Speech Movement was about was discussing philosophical and historical and political questions and then walking out into the open campus and seeing all of those questions acted out, fought over, and taking part in a completely congruent but different sort of class.
I don’t know if it’s because of his later turn to the right, but Searle appears in Laurent Binet’s novel The Seventh Function of Language, which is a sort of structuralists’ version of The Name of the Rose, at a philosophy conference at Cornell in 1980 where all the big names have gathered—as a murderer and suicide.
In college I found Richard Hofstadter somewhat stodgy and obvious, and preferred the more allusive and Leslie Fiedler-like Louis Hartz. But I’ve come to deeply admire his grounding, his making of distinctions, and especially the dark, poetic, and real-world tragic sensibility of his chapter on Lincoln in The American Political Tradition.
I read somewhere your thoughts on the Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers hit, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.” My questions: 1) Do you think this song is more relevant, in their repertoire, than “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent”? and why? 2) What were your thoughts about the relevance of “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent,” at the time?
– António Vaz
I’m not sure what you mean by relevant, or if, by relevant, you mean significant in terms of important social issues, and if so, why that would be a criterion of judgement between “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” and “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent.” “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” is an original song by Lymon and the Teenagers that truly was original—it broke through the radio, demanding that it be heard, an authentic new sound, absolutely analogous to the Jackson Five with “I Want You Back”—which was, group and record, explicitly modeled on “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.” “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent” was a purely commercial exploitation record, jumping on the JD scare kicked off by Blackboard Jungle, and stiff and contrived musically. Not to mention that by the time it was made Frankie Lymon was most definitely a juvenile delinquent, at least as far as drugs went. He died of a heroin overdose at the age of 25.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the year 1968, what are your personal recollections of that infamous time in history? For myself, I think had Robert Kennedy lived to become president, our country and the world would have become a far better place in which to live.
– Jim Stacho
I agree about RFK—I voted for him in the California primary. As long as I can remember anything I will never forget that long and sleepless terrible night.
So much happened in 1968, from Hue to Beggars Banquet, but I summed up what I thought, what stuck with me most strongly in a piece for Common Knowledge in 2009, which is on this site.
I think the what might distinguish the collapse of the United States from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of the kleptocratic Russia of today is that the American legal system is more complex than that of the USSR. Specifically, the Soviet legal system was nearly exclusively a penal system, without a developed law of, e.g. contracts, torts, or any of the other areas that Western legal scholars refer to generally as “private law”. In the West if two people get together and decide they want to manufacture a product which they will sell for a profit we call this a business enterprise: in the Soviet Union (and other so-called “managed economies”) this activity is/was a “criminal conspiracy.”
– Bill Altreuter
The Soviet Union collapsed because of economic collapse, and loss of belief in the Soviet system at the top. I hate to think where we’d be if Putin or his like had been there instead of Gorbachev.
What’d you think of the musical Million Dollar Quartet? I just saw a local production. I found it disappointing, especially considering Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott wrote it. Condensed and obviously thrown-in cultural references for a mass audience, Forrest Gump-style. Didn’t capture my sense of Sam Phillips much, let alone Elvis. Made it clear how hard it is to play guitar in true Carl Perkins fashion. But somehow Jerry Lee came off entertainingly right.
– TF Lyness
I haven’t seen it and don’t plan to. I stopped watching Sun Records after Becky announced she was pregnant again, thus apparently sidelining Sam Phillips’s girlfriend Marion Keisker, who was the best person on the show, but I hope to get back to it.
Have Dylan’s recent albums of standards made you rethink anything about his earlier “covers” projects? (Thinking Good As I Been To You, World Gone Wrong, Down in the Groove here—Self Portrait feels like it comes from a different place with much different intentions.)
I don’t think those records—except for Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, which are of a piece—have much if anything to do with each other. To me they are as different as Freewheelin’ and Time Out of Mind.
What’s your opinion of Nick Cave? Does he interest you, as an artist? I like what you said about his song “Tupelo”, [in Dead Elvis], and I like that you called his 1996 album Murder Ballads “brutal and weirdly austere” [in your 1997 column “The Biblical Hillbillies“], but I couldn’t help noticing that you’ve never written about him as an artist in too much detail (you didn’t review Murder Ballads in full-length, did you?) I’m only asking because right now, at this point in my life, Nick Cave is my ultimate rock’n’roll hero, and I’d love to hear some more of your opinions about him. I know that a lot of critics consider him to be hokey—Robert Christgau had (has) extremely little patience for him—but I think he’s one of the last true Romantics in rock’n’roll.
Also, any opinions on the Fall? Have you listened to much of their stuff? And if not, why not? I notice that you called their 1988 single “Kurious Oranj” an example of “pointlessness as its own reward”, but I couldn’t agree less. What made you think that “Kurious Oranj” was so pointless? I happen to think that Mark E. Smith, the leader of the Fall, is one of the greatest rock lyricists to come out of England: a real Ranter, in the tradition you wrote about in Lipstick Traces, a rock prophet calling down hexes.
As you’ve figured, Nick Cave has reached me only in snatches. The Fall always seemed like a band I had to love—on paper—but I never wanted to listen to anything I heard.
One of my favorite observations from Sheffield’s Dreaming the Beatles is his tongue and cheek suggestion that perhaps Dylan put “4th Time Around” on Blonde on Blonde, parodying “Norwegian Wood,” to distract us from noticing how much “Norwegian Wood” is all over “Visions of Johanna.” I learned about the book from this site when you said you were reading it. Any thoughts on the book as a whole? There’s a chapter entitled “Paul is a Concept by which we Measure our Pain”. Priceless!
I wrote about it in my Village Voice Real Life Rock Top 10 column. It’s a wonderful book. Doesn’t beat Devin McKinney’s Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History as the best book on the group, but easier to read and more fun.
I was just wondering if you have strong feelings about Frank Sinatra, one way or the other?
I love “No One Cares” and “I Can’t Get Started with You.” Also the novel The Death of Frank Sinatra by Michael Ventura. And the Doonesbury strips about him hanging out with made guys: “Wow! So you’re all murderers!” And that his mother was the number one abortionist in Hoboken.
Thoughts on Dylan’s taped audio Nobel speech? I liked it though he should have given a spoiler alert prior to his Moby Dick synopsis—scratching that one off of my summer reading list.
Compared to the statement read at the ceremonies by the American ambassador, and Dylan’s official acceptance speech, this sounded very rehearsed, very corny in tone, and I really could have done without that soupy piano in the background. I did like the Charlie Poole reference, though—if only because Poole himself, along with all his fans, must have woken up from his big sleep for a moment to ask, “Did I say that?”
I assume you’re watching the new Twin Peaks. What do you think of the music policy at the Bang Bang Bar?
– Robert Fiore
I’ve been traveling and haven’t had the chance to catch up (The Anericans came first). What do you think?
Just which ARE your fave live records?
I gave a flip answer at first (06/02/17) because there are just so many. The first that ever made an impression, that sounded like something different, odd, out of the lines, was the Rolling Stones’ Got Live If You Want It, which probably combined rerecorded vocals and dubbed in applause, might have been a complete counterfeit, but somehow sounded/felt/exploded more like a Rolling Stones show than a Rolling Stones show. After that—their LIVEr Than You’ll Ever Be, from their 1969 show in Oakland. Again, I was there, and it was somehow more. A bootleg, though very widely distributed and years later even reissued on CD (you can hear Mick Jagger in the movie Gimmie Shelter saying of the band’s own live mixes, “It’s even better than the bootleg”). And in some ways even stronger was a terribly recorded two LP bootleg titled We Never Really Got It On Until Detroit, from the same tour.
But the best, ever, beyond all? In their various versions, any version of Elvis’s small combo performances for his 1968 Comeback Show, otherwise known as the Singer Special. (Named for the sewing company, not him.) Some have backstage rehearsals. Some include both shows, some only one. It hardly matters. It’s the continuing attacks on “Baby What You Want Me to Do,” until they get it right, until they ride it out of town, Elvis on lead guitar like no one ever imagined, that matters.
I find your analysis of Trump’s appeal persuasive, but it brings to my mind the next question: What happens if Trump ceases to provide his followers with the vicarious sense of freedom? If he becomes as King Kong at the top of the Empire State Building, unencumbered by any concern for the safety of Fay Wray, but still flailing at fighter planes strafing from beyond his reach? Or Tony at the end of The Sopranos, systematically stripped of the support of his extended family? Will the aggressive feelings of his followers be turned against Trump’s enemies, or directed at Trump for failing to make them feel like they’re winning?
– Robert Fiore
Against his enemies. You describe well how Trump is now, and his followers believe that if not for his—which means their—enemies, everything he promised would already be achieved. Trump is the hero but far more he’s the victim—a role his followers love as much as anything.
Your two extended comments here on Trump’s electoral appeal (9 Jan & 29 May)—namely, his living demonstration of the possibility of a kind of cynical, nihilistic, destructive freedom from all constraints—are among the most right-on explanations I’ve read in this sad political season. But I don’t understand your comment about Trump’s racism—“As for racism, in all forms, stripes, depths, casualness, his promise was that anyone who supported him could be just as free as he is—even more so.” Are you arguing that racism is a red herring, that freedom is the whole story, or or you saying something else? Not to be nitpicky but I’m pretty grimly obsessed with trying to understand what’s going on.
I’m saying the freedom to be racist, to the point of writing NIGGER on LeBron James’s house or attacking Muslim women in Portland and murdering people who tried to protect them, is part of that freedom.
Are there many live albums that have caught your ear?
Would Elvis have voted for Trump?
Probably the 42-year-old Elvis, the last we got to look at, would have. Trump learned a lot from Elvis. Including imitating his hair, though Elvis didn’t do a comb-over. Elvis might have recognized himself in Trump. But it would have been 39 years after Elvis’s death, and people do learn things.
I deeply believe that the great source of Trump’s appeal—the insulating factor, which he described fairly early in the campaign as the ability to go out in the street and shoot people without losing any support—is the sense of freedom he offers to voters. If they can’t actually fuck anyone, walk up to women and grab them anywhere he liked and laugh as he walked away, treat other people like garbage, lie about anything, cheat anyone who got near him, break the law without a second thought, declare bankruptcy and stick someone else with the bill, they could vote for someone who could, and feel a little, or a lot, closer to that sense of total freedom, of contempt for all limits, laws, and other people, that is the essence of Trump’s continuing campaign. If they can’t be like him, they can be for him. As for racism, in all forms, stripes, depths, casualness, his promise was that anyone who supported him could be just as free as he is—even more so. Those two things are what made Trump, and what sustains him, and why those who voted for him have not turned away from him, and, I think, won’t ever.
All the liberal editorial writers and New York Times op-ed columnists going on and on about how people voted “against their own interests” and wow, once their health insurance goes up in smoke, their opioid treatment centers close, and their police and fire departments shut down everything will be different—forget it. People’s interests are not defined by economic factors. People vote for people who promise them the ability to live in the country where they want to live, and a lot of people want to live in the USA as Trump defines and embodies it, and they’re willing to pay for it. The people who voted for Trump have bought in. They’re invested. They can’t take out what they invested and invest it somewhere else: Trump took it as a note and he’s not giving it back. That’s why attempts to change the electoral reality by “winning back” Trump voters, or showing them how they made a bad bet, are a waste of time.
So the real question is how Elvis would have looked at all of this. He would have remembered having nothing. Having a father go to prison for forging a check. Gaining unimaginable fame and riches and still living in fear that none of it was real and all of it was undeserved. This man, he might have said, is not like me. And I don’t need him.
Views on Robert Quine’s career and influence. First half with Voidoids/Reed and hired gun for Matthew Sweet and Lloyd Cole.
– Jeff OBrien
No disrespect—he was a great player—but nothing to add.
ZZ Top: any thoughts on favourite songs/albums/moments?
Eliminator eliminates everything else, just as it eliminated everything else on the radio in 1983. It’s just shocking to realize how many unstoppable tracks there are. The guitar playing has utter force but it’s also casual: all the songs seem to be caught in the middle of some greater song, as if it was playing before the guys showed up to tinker with it and kept playing after they left.
Well, except for “My Head’s in Mississippi.” There is nothing drunker in the annals of the American imagination. Mark Twain would have loved it.
A Heat Street report the other day about Lou Reed’s great “Walk on the Wild Side” (“Student Group Apologizes for Playing “Transphobic’ and “Problematic’ Lou Reed Song“) got a gentle reply in The Telegraph piece: “Is ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ transphobic?”
Its final paragraph reads, “Holly Woodlawn, who died in 2015, spoke positively about the song later in life, saying: ‘(Film director) Paul Morrissey made me a star, but Lou Reed made me immortal.'”
What’s next in the line of fire—“Ballad of a Thin Man”? “Foot of Pride” (which Reed found “so fucking funny” and performed to a fare-thee-well at Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration)?
And may I add that transphobic is an egregious Latin/Greek mashup?
My question: Is there a hole for me to get sick in?
– Laura Leivick
Maybe the holes in the heads of the people who got upset and the people who apologized. Maybe it’s the “Changed her name and then he was a she”—Hey, it’s not that easy! Except isn’t it supposed to be that one is whoever one feels/says he or she is? Maybe it’s the way Lou Reed sounds somewhat sarcastic, especially if you’ve never heard anything else he ever did.
Is there any chance that you would write a book on Neil Young?
– Neil Sidebotham
No. I did an interview with him for Spin, where I learned as much as I could ever hope for. I still listen to “Cowgirl in the Sand” with absolute wonder, and then “Over and Over” and “Like a Hurricane” and “I’m the Ocean,” which just might be the one.
…I was intrigued by your comments on the superior sound—compared to the official Bootleg series releases—of actual Dylan bootlegs. Which in-fact bootlegs from the Cutting Edge and The 1966 Live Recordings era, do you recommend for better sound and/or anything else? Which bootlegs from outside this era remain favorites, and why?
– Andrew Hamlin
See the section on the Band in the Notes and Discographies part of Mystery Train for material from the 1966 tour—though many of the bootlegs I cite may now travel under different names and configurations. No complaints about the sound on The Cutting Edge (just complaints about the title).
(Editor’s note: this question/response was meant to be posted last November. My oversight entirely. The question itself refers to a response G.M. gave to a question on 11/07/16 in the 2016 version of Ask Greil.)
Did you write a book about the group The Band, titled “The Brother of Rock”? I can’t find it in any book searches.
No. The title the New York Review of Books gave my recent piece on Robbie Robertson’s autobiography was “The Brotherhood of Rock.”
Are you a fan of Rob Sheffield’s writing and what are your thoughts on his new Beatles book?
A huge fan, especially of his Rolling Stone column. He pulls no punches and he’s funny without being clever. I’ve just started his Beatle book.
You’ve previously mentioned that, while teaching, one of the items on your syllabus was a CD of the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. I was wondering if you could remember the title? Thanks so much!
“MLK: The Martin Luther King Jr. Tapes” currently on Jerden.
I am a French student in American Literature. I decided after reading Invisible Republic about 2 years ago to write my master’s thesis on the songs “I’m Not There” and “Visions of Johanna” to try to talk about notions of spectrality, displacement and transience in song’s language, and also what it says of the modern (tape-recorded) transmission of folk music. “I’m Not There” is especially difficult to analyze since, as most people know, the song is unfinished. I’ve been trying to work on transcripts found here and there, notably the one in the Telegraph and also the cover by Sonic Youth. I know you did analyze the song yourself in your book, providing lines that you had deciphered but I was wondering if you would give your own transcript of all the lyrics? Would that, perhaps, break the spell of the song?
“I’m Not There” has been pretty convincingly translated by both Sonic Youth and even more completely by Howard Fishman, on his “Basement Tapes” Project album. But that hasn’t broken the spell at all. You can listen to their versions or read the/their lyrics, and be convinced they deciphered it—and then you listen again and it all goes up in smoke.
Always enjoyed the line in Mystery Train about an imminent avant-garde rediscovery of the Elvis films, so it was in my mind recently when I saw a bootleged Youtube version of Beach Blanket Bingo that’d been slowed down to half-speed in transition and as a result tonally resembled, the more I watched it, some kind of mysterious hybrid between the original movie and Blue Velvet… So my question is do you think David Lynch has covertly been making Frankie Avalon-style pop vehicles undercover for years, title roles recast so as not to prematurely give the game away, and if so then for who?? Private guesses are Bruce Springsteen in Lost Highway (as which one I don’t know) and Brian Wilson listening to the radiator in Eraserhead.
This is really brilliant—Robert Blake in Lost Highway as Frankie Avalon—my God, that’s terrifying.
But Brian Wilson is the radiator.
What are your thoughts about late ’60s and ’70s rock magazines other than Creem and Rolling Stone like Crawdaddy, Hullabaloo/Circus, Fusion, and Let It Rock?
– Gary Fenrich
9:21 AM: Let It Rock was fun and innovative. The rest were junk.
4:55 PM: Actually, Fusion was often more than interesting, at least until it was taken over by Mel Lyman cultists. They ran a very abstract, collage-like piece by my old friend Gerard van der Leun (who called me up one day in 1967 or 1968 out of the blue and said, I have this very unusual Bob Dylan tape I think you’d want to hear) that was written as a contribution to a book I was trying to edit, Rock & Roll Will Stand. I turned it down because it didn’t make any sense to me—I was too square too get it—and when I saw it in Fusion it made perfect sense and I spent the rest of the day kicking myself.
When listening to albums (physical copies and online): to what extent does the cover art for an album color your perception of the music? Are there cases where the visual design has enhanced your experience, or conversely, impeded it?
I’d have to go through every album I have and try to remember a lot I don’t to come close to answering these questions. For some odd reason, the cover that keeps popping into my mind (probably blocking everything else) is for the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed, which I think is a stupid piece of work by a then-trendy London artist—that big cake, all smashed in a matching version inside the sleeve. Maybe that’s an example of a terrible cover not affecting the music at all.
The cover of the Clash’s London Calling was interesting in that it matched the cover of Elvis’s first album. It showed that the Clash wanted to be seen as part of the rock & roll tradition, to reenact its arrival, that they had something to live up to. Very self-conscious, and very exciting, and they chased that check.
You see? I could go on forever. The album cover I have up to stare at now—there’s usually one—takes the sleeve art from a Liliput single and makes it the cover of a Kleenex/Liliput compilation. Blowing it up makes all the difference: from a nice homage/joke to a world statement.
I always enjoyed reading reviews and articles by Chet Flippo. His coverage in Rolling Stone of the music (“Outlaw Country” they call it) emanating from Austin in the early 70’s really helped it cross over. His liner notes on the reissue of Townes Van Zandt’s Live at the Old Quarter is one of the most moving [pieces] I have ever read.
Thoughts on Chet? Did you know him well?
He was a dedicated writer. I didn’t know him half as well as I’d like to have.
Alternative Scenario Theatre, here. We go back in time to visit Colonel Parker in 1972, and tell him that in exchange for us keeping quiet about his dubious Dutch ancestry, he has to let Elvis do a “covers” album—where we pick the songs—and no hinky co-publishing deals either. You already mentioned “I Threw It All Away” in Mystery Train (an amazing choice)—I get dibs on “Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (but maybe there’s a better one off the same Band album?)—but what are the other 10 tracks? The Wayback Machine and RCA Studio “B” await your reply!!
– Erik Nelson
A great puzzle. A great contest. Starting with Bob Dylan’s “I Threw It All Away” and the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” we could go forever, but I’ll go from there with having him steal from everyone else he shares my pages with:
– The Band, “It Makes No Difference”
– Robert Johnson, “Hellhound on My Trail”
– Harmonica Frank, “Goin’ Away Walking”
– Randy Newman, “Sail Away”
– Robert Johnson, “Stop Breaking Down”
– Sly Stone and the Family Stone, “Everybody Is a Star”
– The Band, “The Weight”
– Randy Newman, “Old Kentucky Home”
– Sly and the Family Stone, “Thank you for Talkin’ to Me Africa”
– plus a mash up with Bill Clinton, “Heartbreak Hotel”
Have you listened to Alex Chadwick’s Youtube video, “100 Riffs”? What did you think of it?
– Hugh Griset
I haven’t. What is it?
For me, one of your most remarkable works is your review of Albert Goldman’s Elvis. The essay is so devastating and so precise that every time I read it I wonder how Goldman could bring himself to look in the mirror, let alone write another book. I’m curious if Goldman ever responded to your review.
No. But I appreciate what you said. The piece came out as it should. I was so angry, but it was an anger that led to absolute focus.
Your recent Johnny Rivers and Bee Gees answers make me curious about songs you like by artists who otherwise might not have your affection or attention. I guess I’m fascinated by the unlikely triumph, and what that surprise exception reveals about a listener (“I’m Eighteen,” “You’re So Vain,” and “You’re the One That I Want” being some of your best-known examples).
I wonder if you enjoy—even if only on the radio—any stray favorites by the following artists (with my choice cuts added): Earth, Wind & Fire (“That’s the Way of the World”), Faces (“Last Orders Please”), Bryan Adams (“Summer of ’69”), Joe Simon (“Drowning in the Sea of Love”), Foo Fighters (“Learn to Fly”), Kiss (“Shout It Out Loud”), Iggy Pop (“The Passenger”), Cheap Trick (“Everything Works If You Let It”), Don Covay (“Paper Dollar,” as by Pretty Boy, 1957 Atlantic single), and (long shot, I know) John Denver (“Rocky Mountain High,” mostly for the guitars).
I like Bryan Adams’s “Summer of ’69,” though slightly less since I heard him explain what it was about.
Although I accept that the “new” Fleetwood Mac with Nicks, Buckingham, C. McVie, etc., sold far more songs and albums, I cannot see how they compared with the blues-based sound of “old” Fleetwood Mac, led by Peter Green. Then Play On was a smashing album and “Oh Well” is among the greatest rock songs ever. Even Kiln House, after Green left, was a tremendous work, although oriented more toward old rock ‘n roll. L.A. Pop took over with the “new” band emerging. They did produce some good music, but not even close to the original iterations of the band.
Two unrelated questions: What do you think of the music of Ry Cooder and also Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks? I realize they are (or were) very different sounds. Of course, I love that music.
The original Fleetwood Mac and the Buckingham/Nicks version can’t be compared because they were completely different. One was a country blues band, even if the country in question was British, with a lot of rock ‘n’ roll goofballery, the other was a serious rock ‘n’ roll love song band with more than a hint of Laurel Canyon. I love the Peter Green band more, but I love them both, and not just because Lindsey, Stevie, and I went to the same high school (we didn’t overlap, but I knew LB’s brothers—they ruled the school from the water-polo team).
I liked the Charlatans. Ry Cooder has his moments, but to me the story that explains why they never really stick is his complaining that he spent time in London working with the Rolling Stones as they were sketching Let It Bleed, and their stealing all his stuff for it. What they took was what Cooder took from Jesse Fuller, the difference being that they could make something of it, and he never could.
Have you watched the HBO series, The Leftovers? Co-created by Tom Perrotta, some of whose work I know you’re a fan of.
– Scott Woods
Watched the first couple. Of all his books it’s the one I liked least.
Now that interpreting the songs of others has become part of Bob Dylan’s portfolio, has your perception of Self Portrait changed? Would you have any thoughts on how Dylan compares with Willie Nelson as an interpreter of Tin Pan Alley songs?
– Robert Fiore
My perceptions on Dylan’s Self Portrait haven’t changed in terms of interpreting others’ songs, and neither has my response to the original album—as I wrote in a piece in Mojo for the somethingth anniversary of its release, going back to it only made me hate what I hated more and like what I liked more. But listening to the undubbed tapes, and outtakes, as collected in Another Self Portrait, was another story, as I tried to follow in my notes to the set.
Willie Nelson descended into pure shtick years ago. Everything he does has the same regretful, nostalgic glow,and he can sing anything perfectly. With Dylan approaching a standard, you don’t know what will happen.
What did you think of Jonathan Demme’s version of The Manchurian Candidate?
– Phil Dyess-Nugent
I thought I’d hate it, but I found it convincing and disturbing. There were some interesting touches. Making the woman who rescues the Denzel Washington character a government agent, which Janet Leigh just had to be. Having the Democratic presidential candidate who’s buried in a landslide be—in a TV news shot so short its barely there—a black senator from Alabama. I saw it twice.
Do you listen to KALX 90.7 at the university of California? Do you listen to internet radio only and where do you go to for music that you do not already own? Also, has KALX ever had you on as a guest DJ?
I hear the best stuff on KALX. I’ve had wonderful fun as a guest DJ. I always kicked off with “Shanghaied” by the (Seattle) Wailers.
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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