Have you read Rachel Joyce’s book The Music Shop? I found it to be a wonderful read. She shows how the LPs Pet Sounds and Kind of Blue are connected, and how Bitches Brew is linked to the Brandenburg Concertos.
– hugh c grissett
I haven’t. I’ll look for it.
I was intrigued by “If Manny were alive now I’d ask him.” How well did you know Farber and how did you get to know him? And since Farber was friends with Pauline Kael, did you ever see them together?
I knew Manny we’ll enough that I think he trusted me to be honest. I wouldn’t ask him anything. He was about as talkative as I am.
I met him through Tom Luddy, founder of the Telluride Film Festival, and the great Berkeley person for bringing people together.
By the time I met Manny Pauline was no longer traveling. As writers they were very different. As people they were two western Jews cut from the same cloth.
Speaking of rabbit holes, your words about “You Were On My Mind” led me to this: We Five performing their new hit, fully live, on the Hollywood Palace, 10/2/65. It takes them about a half-minute to find the song, or themselves, but once they do the momentum is physical, pushing everything toward that cold ending. And they do pull it off again, with the drummer slamming the song and its open-throated voices to a shuddering close with dramatic force—it sounds like the final heartbeats of a cardiac arrest.
It’s a revelation to me—how can anyone watch Beverly Bivens sing right past the song’s hurt with such endearing verve and radiance and not fall in love?—and before I saw this I thought We Five might have been a pseudo-folk studio fabrication meant to keep company with the Mamas & the Papas instead of, maybe, a band fighting to be heard alongside the Byrds, at least for a moment.
What do you think?
You couldn’t be more right about the Byrds. But this is a pretty long song that you find out is really about rhythmic dynamics. And the director placing the drummer far apart from the rest and shooting through his kit is stunning. Not to mention—my god, Fred Astaire?
Always liked your description of Born to Run as “a ’57 Chevy running on melted down Crystals records,” and as someone who knows next to nothing about cars, I have a couple questions on the subject
1) what is the more iconic rock and roll automobile—a ’57 Chevy or a Cadillac? (Or…?)
2) driving and listening to the radio (and pulling over to the side of the road to let songs play out) shows up in your writing often. What are your requirements for a car insofar as the radio is concerned? (AM/FM only? Satellite? Digital dial?)
The ’57 Chevy design was far superior to the Cadillac. But people saw the Cadillac in ads in Life magazine. The Chevy people saw on the street, in the high school parking lot. A real car. See the entry on it in David Wallechinsky’s The People’s Almanac.
Driving and pulling over—in my own life, probably all AM. I have FM/AM in my own car, but almost never listen to AM since the A’s and Warriors are on FM.
It was amusing to read your Real Life Top 10 where you discuss Dylan’s Trouble No More deluxe set. Comments like “Hours of bullying” and “This set documents as deep a creative dive as any in the singer’s career.” Many of us think that this set is a treasure trove of music that we will enjoy for a long time. I can’t help but wonder why you would even take the time to listen to this, let alone comment on it. Obviously you’ve already made up your mind about this period of Dylan’s career. The best we could hope for is a vague complement on a song or 2 (out of 9 discs!). Why subject yourself to many unpleasant hours and us to a biased review?
– Bob Ryan
“This set,” etc. isn’t my comment, but a version of what many other people have said about Trouble No More. To me it’s self-evidently absurd to compare highly competent LA studio musicians on tour to half a dozen of the inspired, collaborative ensembles that have played with Dylan over the years.
What surprised me, listening to the live material on Trouble, especially, was that my responses so closely tracked what I’d written about several shows at the time, re: what seemed true and false, musically alive or dead. It was a self-constricted period characterized, as Dylan himself has said, by songs that, because they existed to convince people to believe in certain things and not others, could ‘lie,’ as opposed to songs that exist on their own terms and speak in their own languages, which, Dylan said, can’t lie.
Have you ever written at length about Ellen Willis’ criticism? She once made the point that you could imagine a woman singing “Under My Thumb” (and thanks to Tina Turner, you don’t have to) but not “Wild World.”
– Kevin Bicknell
As I sort of recently said, I don’t write about myself or friends.
Much as I’d like to agree with you that there’s “something desperate and pump-myself-up” in “Under My Thumb,” I just don’t hear it—except in the Altamont performance, which is about as desperate as anything gets.
I’m sure you’re right, though, that Prince Buster gets the joke in “Ten Commandments of Man.” Have you heard “Ten Commandments (From Woman To Man)” by Princess Buster? She gets the joke too, and makes it even funnier: “‘Cause what’s good for the goose is good for the gander/And Prince? I can sure make you wonder/What’s going on down yonder”.
I’d forgotten Princess but will no longer.
Dennis Potter’s musicals have made occasional appearances in your work, especially the film of Pennies From Heaven. Do you still prefer the film over the TV series? I love both, especially since their visual approaches were so divergent, but seeing the show beforehand made the film feel like a digest of the original’s storyline.
Also, what did you think of Lipstick on Your Collar? Did Potter use rock’n’roll as lovingly and inventively as the pre-rock songs in Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective? For me LoYC fell short as a dramatic comedy, but a couple of the musical sequences (especially “Little Bitty Pretty One”) still had the Potter touch.
I think the original TV version of Pennies is drab and emotionally cramped compared to the movie. I agree with you completely about Lipstick—dramatically it’s incomplete and may actually not ever really get off the ground. “Little Bitty Pretty One” is fab but the sequence that has always stayed with me is Ewan McGregor in his office and just like that the whole world is “Be Bop a Lu La.” You can find it online just like that.
You once called Paul Thomas Anderson’s films “soulless,” but I was curious if since then (2002) your sense of his work has changed in any way. His new film, Phantom Thread, seems to me his best movie yet, and his most soulful.
I haven’t seen it. The Master has fine performances from Phoenix, Hoffman, and Adams, but is it even remotely satisfying?
Have you heard Nirvirna’s “Teen Sprite (Sleep Good Mix)”? It’s…something to talk about, I think. I love it. I can see where someone else might passionately hate it; I’d be more surprised if someone felt indifferent. I don’t think it discredits or makes a mockery of the original at all (how could it, and why would it?), and I’m also guessing that Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, and Courtney Love are aware that it’s out there and, simply by virtue of it’s not having been taken down, are okay with it. I hear it as a fascinating version of what might have been if one of the pop-metal bands at the top of the charts just before Nirvana came along had somehow come up with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” instead. And it sounds fantastic. If anything, it deepens my love of the original.
– Alan Vint
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” didn’t hit for me until I saw the video. After that the song spoke in its own voice and I didn’t see the video when I heard it—but whenever I do see the video I’m stunned, thrilled, awestruck by how complex, sexy, visceral it is.
The music here could be the K-tel version. I’d feel better about it if Kurt Cobain weren’t dead and could laugh about it or not, himself.
Have you given any thought (or for that matter, ink, or whatever we say in the digital age) to revisiting the ideas (yours and others) of Lipstick Traces in the post-digital, post-ISIS, post-Trump (maybe that sounds too optimistic, the “post-” part) era? I’ve been rereading it, and now that obscure histories and secret movements can be found by just typing in their names, Johnny Lydon has come out as a Brexiter and Trump fan, year-zero nihilism and puritanism have shown themselves to be close cousins, and we can read it seems on a weekly basis that “ordinary” citizens are performing Breton’s “simplest surrealist act,” it all gives me a very different impression than it did 20 years ago. I’d be curious to know what you think about all this now.
– David Tarr
The “simplest Surrealist act” was always stupid, and of course no Surrealist ever did any such thing. The simplest situationist act, as lined out in an early lettrist essay, was to try to explore a city using the map of another one, or confusing tourists by handing out the wrong maps, or posting the wrong times on a railroad station board—something that might have turned up, by suggestion or common hunch, in “God Save the Queen,” where opening fire in to a crowd is replaced as a means to social transformation with “Give the wrong time/Stop a traffic line.”
You couldn’t be more right about all the true blue surrealists out there murdering their families, ISIS fans blowing up whatever they can get their hands on. Does Breton step out of his grave and cheer the thugs who murdered 89 people at the Bataclan Theatre in Paris? Maybe.
Lipstick Traces is a story about a current that ran through the centuries, attracting all sorts of people who would never recognize or acknowledge each other. It’s not a manifesto. It’s not a call to arms. It’s a book of regret. That’s why I can go back to it, because it’s an unfinished story. There will be a new French edition in April, with new tales, faces, and publications in the back section—and a continuing log of all the people who figure in the book who have died since the last edition. It’s been a pile up. That’s what happens when time passes.
It’s clear you’re not a Leonard Cohen fan and it’s equally clear that you are a Lana Del Rey fan (me too). So what do you think of Lana’s cover of Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel No. 2”? Also, do you have a favorite artist/song that Lana has covered and if so, what makes it a stand-out to you?
She covers, in her way, at least a dozen and probably far more old rock ‘n’ roll songs on Lust for Life, more as symbols than as songs, which is perfect, because there’s a way in which all of her music is symbolic, at least as Adam Duritz defined the notion in “Mr. Jones.” As for “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” her version is as unbearable as anyone else’s, because there’s nothing to listen to but the words.
If you will allow a different kind of question, what are your thoughts about marriage? I’m not asking you personally about your marriage, but rather the value of the institution, the idea, the contract of marriage, in modern society (outside of special considerations like raising children, religion, and finances).
I asked my friends, “Why do people get married?” The best answer was the most vulnerable one: “There was something binding and meaningful about standing before our family and friends and declaring our commitment to each other. At the same time, we realize that this may be an illusion.”
For two people committed to building a loving, lifelong partnership, what can they achieve with a legal contract that cannot be achieved without it? If the marriage contract fails, in its explicit purpose, to hold things together—which is often—what good is it? On the other hand, if a marriage contract holds together something that would otherwise fall apart, is that a good thing?
I have no contempt for marriage. Among the people I know, it has helped produce life’s greatest rewards. But it has also caused many damaging defeats, and those lines in “Money Changes Everything” are scary and powerful: “We think we know what we’re doing/We don’t know a thing.”
I think that’s the heart of the question. It seems marriage requires that “we know what we’re doing.” But do we know? Can we know?
My favorite comment on the subject, from Oliva Harrison, George Harrison’s widow, in Martin Scorsese’s wonderful documentary Living in the Material World:
“You want to know the secret to a long marriage? Don’t get divorced.”
Do you agree with Elizabeth Rosalie Hann’s argument [1/4/18] that “hard” sexism in pop music (i.e. “Under My Thumb”) is preferable to “soft” sexism (i.e. “Wild World”)? For me it’s a bit reductive, since it doesn’t take into account individual song quality; I share your dislike for “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong”, for example, but simply because it’s a lousy song—I don’t find it any more objectionable lyrically than “Under My Thumb”. Also, I’m not sure that “Wild World” is any more condescendingly sexist than “Just Like A Woman”, but “Wild World” is marginally more listenable than “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” and “Just Like A Woman” is even greater than “Under My Thumb”.
I like to imagine that somewhere in the ether John Lennon and Prince Buster are having a lively discussion about the relative sexual and racial politics of “Woman is the Nigger of the World” and “The Ten Commandments of Man (Given to Woman Through the Inspiration of I, Prince Buster)”.
– Steve O’Neill
Well… “Under My Thumb” doesn’t seem remotely as sexist as “Wild World.” A female friend who loves “Under My Thumb” objected to the condescension in “Wild World” the first time she heard it. There’s something desperate and puff-myself-up in “Under My Thumb” that cuts it up from inside. The same for “Just Like a Woman”—“one of the great make-out songs of all time,” another friend said. The singer is pathetic, wounded, blasted. That’s there in Dylan’s version, and even moreso in Van Morrison’s. As far as John Lennon and Prince Buster in heaven—they would have so much to talk about—really, all you have to do is listen to the spoken intro to “The Ten Commandments of Man” to realize Prince Buster always got the joke.
I loved seeing and hearing you in the recent BBC documentary Elvis: The Rebirth of the King. Finally, some kind of decent analysis of the heights he scaled in 1968-9. I could listen to you and Steve Binder talk about this stuff for hours. When you mentioned that Elvis “threw it all away” it set off a couple of thoughts: one—and I think you have said this yourself—is that I wish he’d covered Dylan’s “I Threw It All Away”; but two—what are your thoughts on Warren Zevon’s “Porcelain Monkey”?
– Lucas Hare
I haven’t seen the Rebirth show and don’t remember what I might have said. I’m glad if it came off decently.
It was my fantasy—and I closed the Elvis chapter in my first book, Mystery Train, with it—that one day Elvis would sing that song. Of course he’d do it brilliantly. And then he’d laugh.
“Porcelain Monkey” has the hard boiled empathy that so distinguished Zevon from others. “He was an accident waiting to happen/Most accidents happen at home.”
I’ve listened to my UK copy of 12 Songs and Suzanne [see 1/4/18] survives the whole song. Was it Lucinda who died a ‘ludicrous death’?
Sorry. Yes, Lucinda and the beach-cleaning machine.
What is your take on the the long-gone Punk-Bluesman Jeffrey Lee Pierce of Gun Club? I’m an original fan—saw him live in the UK in ’87. Do you know the albums—Fire of Love, Miami, Mother Juno, etc. For me—a gifted lyricist, a true descendant of Robert Johnson, etc. (Ex-drummer Terry Graham recently published a very funny, personal history of his time with Gun Club, & the L.A. Punk scene—Punk Like Me.)
I love Gun Club. I treasure their albums. Geoffrey Lee Pierce had a sense of humor and as a blues lover he was messianic—this was the truth, it was his truth, he had to tell its story in his own way, but he never insisted—like, say, John Hammond Jr—that it was the only way. And I knew nothing about Terry Graham’s book or the recent Gun Club album on Bang!—so thanks for opening this up again.
I recently read your answer to a previous question where you claimed you only wanted to hear Hüsker Dü if it was “Diane.” Seeing that answer, I was wondering if you had any connection to another Minneapolis band: the Replacements. Are you a fan of the Replacements and their discography? And if so, any favorite albums or songs?
(Also, I just would like to thank you as being one of the two music critics to direct my attention towards Hanif Adurraqib’s new collection. It is excellent.)
– Kyle Cullion
I was kidding somewhat—Hüsker Dü was a great band in so many ways so many times, but for me “Diane” overwhelms everything else. The Replacements never really got to me. Or vice versa. Maybe there was something just too right, too expert behind all the sloppy posturing and onstage drunks, too Big Star about them, or the intolerance and smugness of their fans. My favorite Replacements album is the little The Shit Hits the Fans cassette, just as my favorite Oasis album is the bootleg argument Wibling Rivalry.
1. What do you think Putin’s ultimate motive was for helping Trump win the election?
2. I’ve been surprised (and disgusted) to see how many nominally liberal writers—from explicitly left-wing publications like The Nation and The Intercept as well as mainstream outlets like the London Review of Books—are taking the line that Trump’s collusion with the Russians didn’t happen, that it’s basically a hoax made up by the intelligence agencies and pushed by the Democrats to excuse their failure to win last November. No question here, I guess—I’m just curious if you’ve had a similar reaction.
– Justyn Dillingham
It’s an open question as to whether Putin was trying to get Trump elected—given that even Trump and his campaign never expected to win—or disrupt and discredit American democracy. Every week we find out that Russian disruptions were more widespread, inventive, creative, and likely effective than we thought. Before long there may be evidence that actual ballots were hacked, so that Democratic votes were invalidated or GOP votes were faked. That would fit in with what Putin has done all across Europe, supporting every fascist, racist, or anti-immigration party in every country, with money, personnel, expertise, and black ops against conventional or legitimate democratic parties. The short term motive for this is to weaken democratic countries, discredit democratic norms, break NATO and the European Union, and give Russia, as it reassembles the most useful parts of the Soviet Union, effective suzerainty if not rule over Europe, through bribery and recruitment of politicians—and satisfy Putin’s need to Make Russia Great Again, which is his basic political message in Russia.
But longer term, and Putin thinks in the long term, there are at least two other ways of looking at it. First, assume, that as a growing number of people who formerly ran US intelligence agencies have said, and as the CIA briefed people after the election, that Trump is a Russian asset or an agent of influence: that is, whether or not he was actively recruited to work as a Russian agent—and he would have been very important as such even if he’d lost the election—he is under effective Russian control to advance Putin’s interests, whether that means (small time) lifting of sanctions or (big time) strategic alliances or deferences, which has already happened in Syria. I’ve argued before that if Trump is, as, again, the CIA briefed people after the election, under Russian control, it’s because Russian mafia or oligarchs, which in Putin’s Russia means the Russian state, essentially own the Trump company by means of billions of dollars of outstanding Trump debt they own and money-laundering they have facilitated.
But this doesn’t address, completely, what is clear and evident from Putin’s actions well before and since the election, and Trump’s acts since, in terms of the construction of a Fascist International, with Russia and the US as the two poles of power and, within their purview, regarding governments to build, democratic institutions to destroy, elections to be replaced by dictatorships, civil rights to be wiped out, full and effective support either for sitting governments or political movements to replace them in—an incomplete list—the UK, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, France, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, India, the Philippines, Japan, and more. Many of these countries—Poland, Hungary, the Philippines, Egypt—are already effectively on board. For Putin this is a project. For Trump it is a matter of instinct and affinities. “Donald, together, we can rule the world.” “Vladimir, I’d love to. But first we have to do something about those chits you’re holding.”
As for the left wing line—which is, of course, the Trump line—that any Trump-Russian alliance during the election is a Democratic Party or Hillary hoax—it’s punitive, delusional (really—the FBI and the CIA were suddenly hotbeds of Democratic Party cabals?), sadistic, and makes you question the good faith of the people saying these things—i.e., do they believe them, or do they have another motive, or is someone paying them to say what they’re saying? I think part of it is ideological: they want to sell the narrative, which means, in current actual if not definitional usage, “false story”—that Hillary lost because she is a neo-liberal (I’d like to see that slur defined) who cares only for the rich and the people saw through her and rightly rejected her, and of course Bernie would have won—though he never faced any negative attention whatsoever during the primaries or after, and would have been taken to pieces by Trump in the debates—where Hillary did her best campaigning—and by the right-wing industries everywhere. That boils down to Listen to Me, I Know the Answers, It Was Obvious All Along, and I Want Power. Plus the fun of beating people when they’ve been defeated. Next, people on the so called left will, for very different reasons, of course, mostly having to do with the establishment of a truly credible leftist, progressive, intersectionalized, politically cleansed takeover of the Democratic party, take the position that, of course Hillary, and Bill, should be prosecuted and sent to prison for whatever they can be framed for. Wait and see.
There are many, many reasons why Hillary did not win the election in the way that she and most people expected her to. Her weaknesses as candidate. Trump’s strengths. Racism. Sexism. Voter suppression. Russian interference, by way of Wikileaks, which undercut Hillary’s campaign in a thousand ways. Twenty more reasons. But there is only one reason she lost: Comey’s announcement, likely under blackmail from agents controlled by Giuliani, just before the election, that Hillary was again under criminal investigation. If Comey had not made that announcement, it would have been leaked along with accusations that he was protecting Hillary in order to become Attorney General or Secretary of State in her administration, and there is nothing Comey so cares about as his own rectitude. So he sabotaged her election to protect himself. Without that, Hillary would have won. It would have been close. She might have won the states she lost by one percent or less than one percent or a bit more. But she would be president now, and she would have been a good president—not compared to the wreckage being purposely performed on all democratic and republican institutions in the country, but compared to other good presidents, like, to stick to the recent, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.
When I first started reading stories about the decline of major record labels and the rise of indie (whenever that was) it sounded great to me, maybe the days of young blue-collar musicians getting ripped-off by greasy businessmen would come to an end. But lately, whenever I read biographical stuff about new indie musicians that managed to make a name for themselves it seems like they’re almost always from affluent families—the children of oil-tycoons, electrical engineers, and bank managers. Feels like the rich used to scam the poor, but now the poor are simply locked-out of the game.
Do you think it’s harder for a musician from a working-class family to get a break nowadays? If so, do you think it will get worse over time? Any thoughts on this or any writing you could point me to would be greatly appreciated.
Or…if this is all too big…who do you think makes better music, broke people or rich people?
– Eric Penney
Given that only a very few rock ‘n’ roll musicians can still make sustainable incomes from record sales, however configured, it may be that young bands are where college-age filmmakers once were: parents to buy them lots of good equipment and relatives or friends of uncles make connections. But that doesn’t seem to be true in hip-hop, or country.
Who makes better music, rich people or broke people? Ah… depends on the people. The Beach Boys proved that you didn’t have to come from a marginalized group—at the time, mainly black, Italian, poor southern white—to make great rock ‘n roll. But once someone has made it, even in a niche, they are by one definition or another rich. Was Bob Dylan’s music better when he was sleeping on couches (his first album, or even before) than when he had an estate in Woodstock (Highway 61 Revisited)? Is England’s Newest Hitmakers better than Aftermath or Some Girls?
So, no, I can’t answer your question.
Your “Soul Music and Its Double” used Manny Farber’s concept of “hard-sell” art as opposed to art which can—or should?—be felt, and you note: “[Farber] named Stan Getz and Dave Brubeck in jazz, Franz Kline and Larry Rivers in painting, Salinger, Bellow, and Cheever in the novel, and Elia Kazan, Delbert Mann, and Paddy Chayevsky in the movies.”
Do you yourself find any of the above at all worthy—which is to say, unworthy of Farber’s sorting? If so, which, and why? Is Rivers any more or less felt on his saxophone, than through his brush?
– Andrew Hamlin
You sent me to the well of the internet, where I found Larry Rivers playing very tentative sax behind a brassy blonde singer who was definitely hard sell. I was always surprised by Farber including Rivers—but Farber started out as an art critic, was always a serious painter himself, and surely knew exactly what he was talking about, even if he didn’t bother to say what it was. I met Rivers not long before he died; he couldn’t have been less self-important. He was nervous: what should he talk about? I’d read his autobiography, What Did I Do, where he has a chapter on his appearance on The $64,000 Question, in the fifties the biggest quiz show there was (and fixed, like all of them except The Big Surprise). I realized, reading, that I’d seen his episode—“the painter”—and remembered what happened after he lost and was given a consolation prize of a Cadillac, when he said, “Well, after I sell this car…” I loved the lack of sentimentality over his own big moment, the simple take-the-money-and-get-out stance. Talk about that, I said, which he did. So there was nothing hard-sell about the person.
In his book he talks about how the two great passions in his life were jazz—to prove his devotion, he became a heroin addict pretty much straight off, something it took him years and years to get past, long after he’d put the sax aside—and his mother in law. He talks about how he was straight but loved Frank O’Hara so much he couldn’t bear to say no to him—and his Frank O’Hara paintings were some of his best. Modest. Direct. Nothing hard sell about them.
If Manny were alive now I’d ask him. Or maybe not. I can imagine his answer: “Isn’t it obvious?”
I searched and didn’t see anything by you discussing the San Francisco band the Mutants, active during the punk era. They were definitely a period piece, but I’ve always enjoyed their sole album release Fun Terminal and wondered if you had any thoughts on the band’s recordings or live shows?
– Terry H.
I saw them once or twice. They seemed like nice people. But they weren’t exactly the Avengers.
In “Treasure Island,” you wrote that “most singles aren’t annotated because space prohibited it and because singles stand on their own,” but I was hoping you would tell us what you love about some of them in particular: Blue Swede, “Hooked On A Feeling” (1973); Tommy Edwards, “It’s All in the Game” (1958); Free, “Wishing Well” (1973); Jay & the Americans, “Cara Mia” (1965); Kalin Twins, “When” (1958); Marshall Tucker Band, “Can’t You See” (1973); Marty Robbins, “El Paso” (1960); We Five, “You Were On My Mind” (1965).
– Randy Laumann
Well, this might lead me down a rabbit hole I dug myself, but…
— “Hooked on a Feeling” – A pretty fine song to begin with, and made into the most out-of-nowhere hilarious wipeout in history. I mean, would it occur to you that what the song really needed was “Oooga-chaka”?
— “It’s All in the Game” – Teenagers who heard this on the radio in the fifties swooned, and I think because it was such a rich link between pre-rock ‘n’ roll and the new music itself. It had a doo-wop sheen, but it seemed older, or permanent, or from another life deep in the past. Not that people thought about it—but there are ideas in an emotional or aesthetic response, and I think these were some of the ideas. We didn’t know, for example, that Tommy Edwards had previously recorded the song in a very much pre-rock form, and it went nowhere and was nothing. We didn’t know that the song went back to the 1920s, involved a vice-president, and had traveled through time solely as a melody until words were finally grafted onto it. Pushing into Van Morrison’s version, I ended up in touch with the son of the lyricist, and everything opened up. So no one needed to know all or any of this—but it all went into the song, its weight, its form, and was there for the right singer to draw out.
— “Wishing Well” – Early on, the Allman Brothers would talk about “hitting the note.” Free hits the note again and again. It sounds like a demo that they tried forever to make into a real record and finally realized they already had it. It has that sense of discovery—people discovering they can do things they never imagined.
— “Cara Mia.” – They take off, they don’t come down.
— “When” – Ethereal bounce.
— “Can’t You See” – It’s something for someone to sing a suicide note and make you believe it, make you want to keep him company, but not stop him, because it’s so perfect: “I’m gonna find me a hole in the wall/Gonna crawl inside and die.” Top that, Flannery O’Connor. Beat that, Cormac McCarthy. Writer a better sentence, Tom McGuane.
— “El Paso” – Speaking of suicide notes. An epic. Corny as hell. Nothing like it. Unforgettable. Not much more than four minutes and it sounds like it lasts all day.
— “You Were on My Mind” – I’ve always loved this, and only for the momentum that builds at the end and the way they cut it off cold. I love waiting for that, and how every time I don’t believe they’ll pull it off again.
I’ve been reading biographies of all the U.S. presidents in chronological order (I’m currently on Nixon). I have found the book you helped curate, A New Literary History of America, to be a valuable tool in understanding cultural and social developments as I move through the decades of American political history. Now that a few years have passed since its publication, are there any specific topics, pieces of art, writings, or cultural movements from the last six or seven years that you would like to include in a revised edition? Anything prior to the publication of the book has taken on added relevance and would be included in a revised edition?
– Conrad Cordova
There’s some backstory to go into before answering (or not) your question.
The two editors, an editorial board of ten people with extensive knowledge in certain fields, an editorial director, and two graduate student sub-editors, met over two days to select what subjects we would cover (there was a later meeting to decide who would do what). Each person had been asked to suggest ten items, so we started off with close to 500 possibilities, with a goal of bringing them down to 200—at 2000 or 2500 words per item, aiming for about a 1000 page book. (We ended up with about 220 entries.) In the course of talking it through many more subjects came up. We combined entries—Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth with Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, for one of many. At one point, one editor said that the dominant form of literary discourse at least since the 1970s had been the memoir, and that we ought to cover Linda Lovelace’s Ordeal. Everyone laughed, until almost everyone agreed. Things changed during the writing and editing process. One piece came in at 6000 words. I had no trouble slashing it to 2000, but there was a 2500 word item hidden inside of it on the novelist Gayle Jones that I didn’t want to lose, so we made it a separate, never before anticipated chapter. When Obama was elected—right at the point the book was closing—a lot of people, not including me, said we had to end the book with this cataclysmic event, and of course there was a literary dimension, given Obama’s two books. I said if we were going to do it, we ought to find someone who’d been in Grant’s Park on election night, to provide a down to earth, flesh and blood event, not a What Does It All Mean. We batted it around—if we could ask anyone what they thought about this, who would it be? Kara Walker came to both Werner Sollors, the co-editor, and me, so we asked her, she said yes, she came up with a portfolio of original drawings, and that was the end of the book.
What I mean by this is that once a book achieves a certain shape, as a result of hundreds of decisions, some considered, some spur of the moment, then that shape effects the book, and closes it. We were amazed, as editors, to see the way certain connecting themes and metaphors would appear in three or six consecutive pieces, written by different people not in touch with each other, but each finding metaphors or signposts in a common time, place, even if their subjects seemed completely dissimilar. The book was talking to itself; its different elements were talking to each other. So it’s not a question of simply adding new material, or deleting something that now seems less important and putting in something that now seems more important—say, omitting an essay on the beginning of motion pictures and adding one on the resurgence of the KKK in the 1920s. People have asked Werner and me since the book appeared in 2009 if there was going to be a volume 2. Sure, we say—but not by us.
I read Lipstick Traces in 1989. Even though I spent my ’70s teen years studying 20th Century art movements, and I was a 76-77 punk, the book altered how I thought about history.
Then, decades later, I read KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money, which led me to the early Discordians. And I wondered—did you have any connection to Kerry Thornley, Greg Hill & Robert Anton Wilson? Reading about the Discordians made Lipstick Traces resonate more profoundly.
– Mark Shaw
It’s not a connection in the way I think you mean, but I had a wonderful time with the Illuminatus trilogy. [see review]
Here’s something I’ve wanted to ask you for a long time, about sexism in pop music. I personally think that “soft” sexism from supposedly sensitive artists (i.e, the pseudo-tender condescension of songs like Cat Stevens’s “Wild World”) is ultimately more insidious than “hard” sexism from artists who never pretended to be nice (i.e, the upfront brutality of songs like the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb”). So here’s my question for you: who do you think are the most smarmy, slimy, I’m-pretending-to-be-sincere-and-sensitive-but-really-i’m-just-another-male-chauvinist-pig singer-songwriters, past and present, and which songs do you think most exemplify their insidious sexism?
– Elizabeth Rosalie Hann
I know what you mean. When “Wild World” came out, the person next to me said exactly what you’re saying. My answer according to your framing of this question is immediate: anything by Leonard Cohen. If I have to be specific, I’ll just say “Suzanne.” Less for the song, which I’ve always loathed, than for Randy Newman’s long ago intro of his own song of the same name: “This isn’t Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne.’ It’s on a somewhat lower moral plane, actually.” Of course he’s right, even though his Suzanne dies a ludicrous death and Leonard Cohen’s gets to seduce and corrupt fine men forever. One is human, and leaves her singer human. The other isn’t human, and makes her singer into a saint. But all I really meant to say was: anything by Leonard Cohen.
Does your dislike for Leonard Cohen’s music extend to (or has it kept you away from) his prose? I think The Favourite Game is a terrific novel but, then, I also like his music…
– Steve O’Neill
I haven’t read him.
On the fiftieth anniversary of the release of John Wesley Harding, do you have any stories about what it was like the first time you listened to the album? If so, I’d love to hear them. I can’t imagine how startling and strange the record must have sounded, coming out only a few weeks after the release of Their Satanic Majesties Request and the 45 of “I Am The Walrus,” and after eighteen months of silence from Dylan.
Did people think Dylan was making a deliberate swerve away from psychedelia?
On a related note: are you familiar with the story that the four faces of the Beatles are hidden on the album jacket (hidden in the trees)? I always thought it was a myth. It seemed like a fantasy of what Dylan would do, the kind of thing a fan would dream up. But today I found an interview in Rolling Stone, with John Berg, the photographer who took the cover photo of JWH, and he confirmed it: “When asked about the hidden faces, Berg acknowledged their presence but was reluctant to talk about it. ‘It’s like Dylan; very mystical,’ Berg said.”
I remember distinctly the first time I heard John Wesley Harding. It was late December 1967, when it was officially released, or maybe a day or two into 1968—for me, it’s always been a 1968 album, or the 1968 album—the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy hadn’t happened yet, Dylan was not predicting them, but “All Along the Watchtower” accounts for them, includes them, provides a hard-boiled emotional response to them—he felt the national mood, he wrote it down, he sang it.
It was about midnight. The DJ on KSAN, the FM station we listened to all the time, was playing the whole album, straight through. My wife and I were listening. One of us said—this I don’t remember—“We’re going to be listening to this for a long time.” One of us was right.
There are a lot more faces than the Beatles in the tree.
When I first heard Elvis Presley’s 1975 minor hit “T-R-O-U-B-L-E,” I thought it could have been written by Robbie Robertson, with The Band backing him up. Do you like the song?
– Robert Mitchell
No. It seems to obvious to me. And I don’t like the big build.
Not a question but a quick thank you for Real Life Rock and leading me to Eleventh Dream Day.
– Lee Stierwalt
They are such a powerful band. I was lucky to see them, once, at the Mercury Lounge in New York.
A question on many of your fans lips, I’m sure: what were your favourite releases of the past year? Indeed, if it’s not too much of a stretch, what new releases of the decade so far have stuck with you the most?
For some reason, maybe finally getting free of an obligation to participate in the Village Voice Pazz and Jop poll, I stopped thinking in these terms some time ago. Partly it’s my own prejudices and unwilled borders, but I no longer really care what’s selling, what absolutely dominates, what’s radical and new, and find myself focusing on stuff that trips me up, surprises me, old and new. It’s not intentional obscurity. But just as I could never find myself interested in any larger questions relating to, say, Radiohead or Arcade Fire, because I found their music tiresome, obvious, pretentious, and empty, my best discovery this year was Hanif Addurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, a collection by a music critic from Columbus, Ohio, and the performer who’s most captivated me over the past years, from her original Saturday Night Live performance on, is Lana Del Rey.
I know you never thought of the Ramones as epochal to punk as some other bands but that aside, I wondered what you think Johnny Ramone (a self described conservative) would think of Trump? I have no clue as to your interactions with him or the band but knowing you knew people that did have interaction and the way you (and other critics) can read people based of their work and performances, I was interested in reading/hearing your view as to what you think his possible opinion would be. I personally don’t think he would have liked him because of his real estate business and his degradation of New York just by his very existence but I also don’t think that he would have swayed to the left. Anyways…that’s just my view, it’s all hypothetical but still interested in your view.
– Thomas Briscuso
I never had any lines into the Ramones, never met any of them, though I could tell them apart. Obviously I have no considered idea of what Johnny Ramone would have thought of Trump. But I’d hazard he’d absolutely love him. All too many people have argued to some effect that Trump is a punk president, and I can see JR crowing on the streets that the Ramones now rule the world, like all good bands are supposed to want to do.
I know by the time you get this you’ll likely be sick of seasonal songs and videos, but would you agree that the antithesis of “oversouling” is this?
– Steve O’Neill
To me it sounds like… “Little Drummer Boy.”
If you don’t mind, a brief survey of your 2017.
– Scott Woods
Favourite new song of the year
Lana Del Rey, “In My Feelings”
Favourite new album of the year
Lana Del Rey, Lust for Life
Older song or album that spoke most deeply to you in 2017
Jelly Roll Morton, “Mamie’s Blues” (1939)
Favourite movie of the year
Favourite TV show of the year
Law & Order reruns
Favourite news source of the year (any medium)
The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, MSNBC
Writer whose work you turned to most frequently in 2017
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Worst trend of the year
Republicans in power
Lowest political moment of the year
This is not exactly an answerable question, given who speaks the loudest and carries the biggest stick. So I’ll forget about the hundreds and thousands of perhaps worse moments and stick to the current [as at 12/15/17] news cycle for two: Losing the smartest and toughest member of the Senate/The president of the United States calling a female senator a whore.
Most promising political moment of the year
The organizing Doug Jones did. I contributed twice and received emails from the campaign five or six times a day thereafter. They were almost all about something specific.
(If not redundant with any of the above) – Most effective political and/or cultural response to Trump in 2017
I’m not sure there has been anything effective. I’m not sure he has lost any support.
Words to live by in 2018
The Gettysburg Address
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