‘Ask Greil’ Bonus Beat, 9/19: See the results of an informal G.M. poll on Twitter.
I play a lot of video games, and am fascinated by video game music. Particularly how video game music is shaped by the technology of the console that plays it (e.g. only 5 sound channels on the NES) and how the music works to elicit emotions in tandem with an interactive gameplay experience (e.g. tempo picks up when a player is down to their final life). Andrew Schartmann discusses both topics in his excellent 33 1/3 book on The Super Mario Bros. soundtrack.
Do you play any video games? Any thoughts on video game music?
A tangentially related question if video games aren’t your thing: Do you find yourself listening to any film music on its own? Any favorite movie soundtracks or scores? I ask because video game music is similar to film music in the way that it conjures emotions to fit specific “scenes,” making it interesting to listen to on its own for me.
– Nathan Gelman
I’ve never played a video game.
Soundtracks: my first musical revelation may have been with a rhythmic jump in a song on the Flower Drum Song original cast recording LP in 1958—growing up, in my house music was musical comedy soundtracks, especially Gilbert and Sullivan, which my brothers would sing and act out, and pop songs from the ’20s my father sang and played on the piano. That said to me: anything can happen in music, usually stuff beyond human ken—no way someone thought of that, let alone then went and made it happen. It just happened, and someone was lucky enough to be there to pick it up. I still feel that way.
But soundtracks I actually listen to: Kill Bill 1, Kill Bill 2—mixtapes, in the old sense, a love letter to someone, in this case the world—Reservoir Dogs, the best surf music compilation ever, and Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. I don’t think Monty Python’s Holy Grail and Meaning of Life really count.
Have you found a new home for Real Life Rock Top Ten now that the Voice has folded? Hope so.
– Mark Sullivan [Ed’s note: one version of last week’s most popular inquiry]
I have. But I don’t want to jinx it until the first one is up. Thanks for asking.
Is there a list anywhere of the actual musicians that made up the Masked Marauders?
– Michael Weiss
This should answer all questions.
Or not. I was only present for the first session, in a garage in Berkeley, for “I Can’t Get No Nookie,” for which I wrote the words and Langdon Winner did the arrangement, based on the Rolling Stones’ “2120 South Michigan Avenue,” and “Duke of Earl.” Brian Voorheis did the Mick Jagger vocal for “Nookie” and Phil Marsh the supposed-to-be-but-not John Lennon lead vocal for “Duke of Earl,” which turned out to be extremely difficult. (“Cow Pie” was an instrumental because Brian refused to sing the lyrics I wrote and was at least that night uncomfortable with imitating Dylan, who he thought so highly of as a singer—we were always raving about his singing on “Absolutely Sweet Marie”—“They must have put him inside the mike,” he said once.) I’m not sure if Anna Rizzo played drums. She did in Grootna, a band she formed with Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane, which itself performed “I Can’t Get No Nookie” on occasion.
I was introduced to the writings of Lester Bangs through the [Greil-edited] Psychotic Reactions collection, which I loved. Years later, I was really disappointed with John Morthland’s collection of Bangs’ material, too much of which I found self-indulgent and lazy (my opinion only—I’m not trying to dis your friend). I couldn’t help but think that maybe you’d culled all the best stuff from Bangs’ too-short career. Am I (I hope) wrong? Is there still lots of great, uncollected Lester out there? (If so, would you ever consider another compilation?)
– jalacy holiday
I’m biased of course, but yes. What John used I had decided against.
I feel like I’ve got as good a handle on your musical sensibilities as a mere reader can, but, while they seem like they’d be up your alley, I don’t recall seeing much from you on what many people my age (born 1970) consider the Holy Trinity of ’80s American indie rock—Hüsker Dü, The Replacements and R.E.M. (aside from a favorable review of Candy Apple Grey). To me, they were like my generation’s version of The Beatles, The Stones, and The Who/Byrds/Beach Boys/whatever your third choice would be (all due respect to the actual Beatles/Stones/etc., who I also loved). Obviously not in terms of cultural relevance—but then, by the ’80s, subcultural relevance was more important anyway. Do you place any of these acts in your personal pantheon, or do you regard them as simply relics? If it’s the latter, who from the era/scene does it for you? Minutemen? Robyn Hitchcock?
– john elliott
Aside from Hüsker Dü, which were a force of nature, I couldn’t close the gap. I always felt an undercurrent of calculation, of buried imitation (of the Beatles, Eric Clapton, even the Raspberries, even Badfinger), that walled off, for me, the core of emotion that had to be there somewhere, though I couldn’t find it, not even on The Shit Hits the Fans. I loved the concept; it didn’t live up to the concept. It didn’t feel that different from Paul Westerberg’s split seconds just before SNL commercials. And REM bored me to tears until “Losing My Religion,” when I gave in, and then became a fan: “Night Swimming,” “Man on the Moon,” on and on.
The ’80s were a queer decade. I find them hard to remember. Maybe that’s because every night I was trying so hard to forget whatever had happened that day—and also because I was living somewhere else. Zurich in 1916, Berlin in 1918, Paris in 1945 and 1952. For all that time.
Do you believe there’s a marked difference between Randy Newman getting inside some of his characters and using the ‘N’ word and what Guns & Roses do in “One in a Million” and what X do in “Los Angeles”? They all make me uncomfortable to listen to, but I do like all of their music (including some of their more offensive songs) to varying degrees.
It’s a matter of gradations—the degree to which the fictional characters slide back into the actual person, and vice versa.
Newman inhabits his characters. He respects them even if he hates them: as he put it, “You have to make your best case,” meaning you have to let the characters make their best case. There’s no character in Axl Rose’s songs. He’s telling you what the world looks like to him. He doesn’t want to share the streets with certain kinds of people. Which is a good reason why one might not want to share the streets—listen to his records, go to his shows, take him seriously—with him. X in “Los Angeles” is the toughest nut to crack. It cracks you over the head. “She—” So it’s all about somebody else. But I think it comes straight from the heart and is given to a character to disguise the hate-seeking-objects virus coursing through LA punk. It’s a tremendous song and you can’t get out from under it. The very thin distance between character and singer implicates the listener; you’re right there, forced to make a choice. Would I think like that?
1. Ever since Songs From the West Coast in 2001, I think Elton John [has] had one of the most amazing creative resurgences I’ve ever heard, with albums (especially Peachtree Road, the Leon Russell collaboration The Union, and The Diving Board) to rival his early seventies run. Have you checked out any of his 21st century work?
2. Although you’ve written about both the Peter Green and Buckingham/Nicks versions of Fleetwood Mac, I haven’t seen anything about the Bob Welch era. Do you find anything during that period speaks to you? Personally, I think Welch’s “Hypnotized” (his best, I think) and McVie’s “Heroes are Hard to Find” (I would have given anything to hear Aretha cover this one) to be right up there with the classics from the other lineups.
3. What do you think of Don Gibson?
– James L.
1. I haven’t kept up with 21st century Elton other than to follow the course of his all around goodguyness.
2. When they got to Welch’s fascination with the Bermuda Triangle I about gave up. Christine was all that kept me hanging on but “Heroes” seemed infected by the overall mediocrity.
3. Nice, bland, charming voice. But no Marty Robbins or even Jimmie ‘Honeycomb’ Rodgers.
How did 9/11 change music?
I think the underlying and controlling question is how did 9/11 change the economy, if it did—which is also to ask if 9/11 was a partial impetus behind the domination of the tech sector both on the economy as conventionally measured and everyday life—and I’m not equipped to answer that. Who is? Someone. Not people in the record business.
I seem to remember an article or interview in which you said that Blood on the Tracks had lost some of its power for you over the years, and that it sounded less like a truly great album than it once did. But I’ve been unable to find this article or interview (and now I’m wondering if I imagined it!). In any case, I would love to know how the album holds up for you today.
I’m not sure what I said or where. I might have been ruminating on Jon Landau’s comment on a Blood mini-symposium in Rolling Stone that it would “only sound like a great album for a while.” He was talking about a slapdash quality in the recording, but I had a sense of what he meant for different reasons. What seemed to me at first the most arresting and deepest of the songs, “Shelter from the Storm”—and it’s still what I immediately hear when I hear the album title—now sounds slick, the effects inescapable as effects. What seemed like the most original and almost biblical lines—“In a little hilltop village/They gambled for my clothes”—now seems both cute and an applause line.
At the same time I always come alive for the pure exuberance of “Tangled Up in Blue.” And “Idiot Wind” is still a hurricane—imagine a hurricane still blowing after more than forty years.
I think what it comes down to is that in the light of the late-‘90s-early 2000s shout out to destiny, from “Arthur McBride” to “Sugar Baby,” against the albums from Good as I Been to You to “Love and Theft”, Blood on the Tracks feels arty: contrived, a career statement, a con game, a kind of self-propaganda: “Let’s make a ‘great album.’ And watch ‘em fall for it.” As opposed to what Dylan and his then best friend, whoever it might have been, might have said after sequencing World Gone Wrong: “You know, this is a great record. And they’ll never know it.”
You’ve discussed your audio system here, but I don’t recall a mention of headphones. Did you ever use them? What are your thoughts on how they affect the listening experience?
I loved them when I first got a good stereo system and was living in a small apartment where I couldn’t play loud music. Lester Bangs’s description of the headphone revelation at the start of his Psychotic Reactions piece was mine (and anyone’s). But while I still have a pair I haven’t used them forever.
Dwight Macdonald as a film critic [see 9/6]: One of the main questions in my mind when reading Against the American Grain was, how the hell could a guy like this be a regular movie critic for a magazine like Esquire? So I got a copy of On Movies. What becomes absolutely clear is that Macdonald doesn’t make allowances for anyone. He will not make allowances for the strictures imposed by the movie business on commercial filmmakers, but neither will he give the makers of art house pictures any extra credit for their artistic ambition or the causes they might espouse. He would simply apply the highest standards to absolutely everything. Edmund Wilson would also apply the highest standard, but he seemed to have a tragic sense about it, that centuries of artists had raised the bar so high that even highly talented artists were doomed to fail. With Macdonald, on the other hand, bad art seemed to make him angry, and he would be just as savage with avant garde pictures as Hollywood pictures. He condemned Billy Wilder’s The Apartment for passing off the Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon characters as decent “Little People” when in reality she was a whore and he was a pimp (and the Fred MacMurray character was a psychopath). On the other hand, he also called A Hard Day’s Night “as good cinema as I have seen for a long time.” A misconception about Macdonald is that there was a contradiction in him championing the working class while condemning the sort of art they enjoyed. What he actually thought was that the working class ought to have the best kind of art like anyone else. Which I guess meant that after the revolution longshoremen would be enjoying Hiroshima, Mon Amour.
– Robert Fiore
Now I’m going to have to read On Movies. Thanks.
I recently heard Dylan’s complete Isle of Wight performance and it has many good moments. There’s a Basement Tapes vibe to a few of the songs such as “I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine” and “Highway 61 Revisited.” Any thoughts on that performance?
– Scott Bunn
I’m away from my Another Self Portrait so can’t listen now to the Isle of Wight “St. Augustine,” which hasn’t left a strong impression with me. But I’ve been raving about the IoW performance of “Highway 61 Revisited” since the first bootlegs of the show appeared. As I’ve said before, everyone sounds like barkers hustling customers to the best (they say) whorehouse in Tijuana.
[9/19 note: revised answer to jalacy holiday question, 9/11, re: “artists…you know you should like but just don’t…”]
When I don’t like someone I supposedly should like—because they’re like someone else I like? Because everyone else likes them?—I don’t worry about it. I never want someone not to like someone they like—except for Journey—and when it comes to Jeff Buckley and “Hallelujah” it might make me think about what it is in the performance that makes it so unbearable to me.
You’re scheduled to speak at The Humanities Studio at Pomona College on “How Failure Makes History.” Will your subject matter be music-based?
– Pat P
You’ll have to wait and see. I hope you won’t be disappointed. I don’t mean to be coy, but I still have a lot of balls in the air.
Becoming a part of ‘Ask Greil’ has, among many other things, introduced me to the Firesign Theatre, and they’ve been one of my absolute favorite things ever since. When I recently read that you also wrote Lipstick Traces listening to Monty Python, I looked for more on them by you but couldn’t find much. Would love to hear which albums are your favorites and why.
I never liked the TV show. I found the sniggering, one-and-a-half entendre British music hall humor stale and cute. But without all the mugging and physical comedy, the dialogue made its own dimension, and I got lost in that. I started with one used best-of LP—there were tons of them, all with elaborate titles and usually completely redundant, with the same routines appearing on album after album. Then I picked up whatever I saw, and the soundtracks to The Meaning of Life and The Holy Grail. The movies definitely had their moments—I was, like I think no other movie has ever made me, actually on the floor of the theater writhing with laughter over the liver-transplant and vomiting scenes in The Meaning of Life—but they were also pretty poor—and in fact the soundtrack albums, which contained more of a linear narrative than jumbled TV skits, lacked the absurdist surprise I found whenever I played a TV-based LP for the 100th time.
Looking back, I think it was a revel in a bunch of people who in moments could seem like the smartest people ever born. But they were like the Beatles. Put them on their own—John Cleese, Eric Idle—and while they could still pull off remarkable projects, they were all kind of obvious, and not the least bit nuts.
What are your thoughts on the so-called “resistance” to Trump? As someone firmly against and disgusted by the daily breakdown of constitutional norms and the hourly shitshow of the executive branch and toadying members of congress, I’ve nevertheless been appalled at how ineffective the opposition has been. The “resistance” of course is an impossibly broad term and I don’t mean to brush all opposition with the same brush (the nationwide women’s marches were inspiring and there have been promising victories in some of the primaries). But events such as the anonymous New York Times op ed, various Republican congressmen expressing “concern” but not once taking an actual stand, and Democrats failing (not even trying?) to rally the base to oppose the likely inevitable confirmation of Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court—help me here, is there light through a keyhole somewhere I’m not seeing? Are you similarly freaking out about the decreasing viability of actual change? Can America’s much-vaunted institutions really withstand all this?
– J Donne
I think people have realized that mass marches make people feel solidarity but lead nowhere. Conventional or even radical acts of opposition such as the disruptions of the Kavanaugh hearings are important and necessary but in practical terms only stiffen Republican self righteousness and feed the paranoia of Trumpists. I think many many people are working out of sight in political campaigns with the understanding that traditional checks on authoritarian power or even a takeover of the US government by Russian fronts are useless and the only effective check is organizing electoral turnout. [Stacey] Abrams and [Andrew] Gillum are part of a check. A Democratic House is. Not sufficient: if Trump declares the results of the November election invalid, in whole or in individual states, the Supreme Court would uphold him. Then you’re in a revolutionary situation: action in the streets against government presence and the obedience or refusal of troops to stop it.
Trump was elected because of dislike of HC, by fascist empowerment, and possibly by Russia. But he was especially elected by people who didn’t vote.
I’m a big fan of Bing Crosby (my interest was kindled by Gary Giddins’ definitive biography A Pocketful of Dreams: The Early Years 1903-1940) and I would be interested in your thoughts on him. There are some interesting parallels to Elvis’s career: an initial splash made fusing black and white musical styles, an attempted makeover into a sort of musical comfort food (although I think Bing fared much better in this than Elvis did, creatively speaking), and an intermittent return to initial musical roots in later years (the reissues in recent years of Bing’s Dixieland and small combo projects from the ’50s onward has been a real eye opener to me). Bing was obviously a model on virtually every singer who came after him (I love your observation of Robert Johnson’s absorption of Bing’s style in “Love in Vain”), and I find it sad that his own music is sometimes overlooked. Does any of it resonate with you?
Also, have you ever checked out Scott Bradlee’s “Postmodern Jukebox” project on YouTube? If so, have any of his throwback takes (the vintage New Orleans dirge version of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” the 60’s soul cover of OutKast’s “Hey Ya,” etc.) provided you with any new insights or perspectives on the songs?
– James L
I grew up tuning out Bing Crosby and finding him kind of creepy in the movies. He was a major presence in the Bay Area with his golf tournament, and it seemed his sons were always turning up at local nightclubs in an attempt to trade on their father’s name—a drama that was fascinatingly traced in a scandalous 1983 book by Donald Shepherd called The Hollow Man, which disappeared as if it had never been. But when I found out that my father had listened to the Crosby version of “Blues in the Night” over and over again in the forties, I listened to it too, and got some idea of what he wanted his music to be and where it came from. “Mississippi Mud” was my tour guide.
I don’t know the Postmodern Jukebox. I’ll look. Thanks
I haven’t seen any mention of this on your site, but about a year back it seems a researcher named Chris Kennedy has identified the haunting and mysterious singer of the May 1954 publisher demo “Without You,” the ballad that compelled Sun Records’ Marion Keisker to urge owner Sam Phillips to contact “the kid with the sideburns.”
On June 26 he did, and within two weeks the world would never be the same.
MOJO published an article last August, and a forum discussion site added even more detail. The singer on the demo? R&B singer and songwriter Jimmy Sweeney.
Another mystery solved! What are your thoughts? Do you know Sweeney’s work? He also recorded under the name Jimmy Bell. He had a hit in 1962 with the song “She Wears My Ring.”
In an interesting postscript, the demo disc you write about in Mystery Train has a B-side! It is called “No Gas,” and appears to be a country novelty song.
– Johnny Savage
When Chris Kennedy put Jimmy Sweeney, who he’d discovered while searching for forgotten records while on tour with his band, together with “Without You,” which he’d heard thanks to John Bakke in Memphis, who owns the acetate given to him by the late Marion Keisker of Sun Records, he got in touch with me. Listening, I was instantly convinced. He asked me to write the story of this terrific discovery; I told him the story was his to tell, and I was sure, given the lucidity of the tale as he presented it in e mails, that he could tell it. I put him in touch with Mojo, and they went for it and did a marvelous job—they have such good art directors. I just hope Chris will be able to complete the Jimmy Sweeney retrospective album he’s working on.
Have you heard the album Wonder Wheel by The Klezmatics? They put music to unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics, and I think it’s a much better successor to the first Bragg/Wilco album than any of the subsequent volumes were (the song “Mermaid Avenue” itself might be the best pure pop take on Woody’s work ever).
Also, I’ve recently discovered Steve Goodman’s music, and am amazed by his songwriting and guitar playing talent, not to mention his ability to work a crowd. Did you ever catch him live before his untimely death in 1984?
– James L
I haven’t heard the Klezmatics’ Woody Guthrie album, as my little exposure to them convinced me I could never connect with them. Steve Goodman for me was in the same boat. I always thought the small cult that grew up around him had more to do with his illness and early death than his music. “City of New Orleans” is very well-crafted, but so attuned to clichés of The Vanishing Past it seems to have written itself.
Forgive me if I’m phrasing this awkwardly, but are there any artists that you acknowledge are good, and maybe know you should like, but just don’t? In my case it’s Steely Dan: I understand how good they are and I’ve tried hard to find a doorway in, but for me listening to them is like standing in line to get a vaccination (except for “Dirty Work”, and even then I prefer the Pointer Sisters’ version). Anyone like that for you?
– jalacy holiday
I like the Be Good Tanyas’ version of Townes Van Zandt’s “Waiting Around to Die” far more than his. But I’m not sure that isn’t because it’s a deeper reading of the song, with a better orchestration of the melody, and a bass part Van Zandt obviously never thought of.
You’ve obviously written a lot about Pauline Kael, and I think you’ve expressed admiration for Manny Farber, too. I remember a Rolling Stone piece on Andrew Sarris that—correct me if I’m wrong—was fairly negative.
I was wondering if you have any thoughts on three other film critics from the ’60s (well, two film critics and a third who was primarily a political writer): Stanley Kauffmann, John Simon, and Dwight Macdonald.
– Alan Vint
Stanley Kauffmann was one of the great bores. I recall him fulminating about the use of the word movies, rather than film—saying if you’re going to call films movies, why not call books printies? Well, why not?
John Simon was on the same wavelength: a collection of his pieces was titled Movies into Film, implying that some who made mere movies might indeed, somehow, aspire to making films. To call him a snob degrades the word—as someone else described him, he was the sort of person who if he weren’t being paid to review movies he’d probably be embarrassed to be seen entering a movie theatre—or anyway, a screening. His judgment of actresses by their looks, or rather insulting and savaging actresses for not conforming to his taste, was, I’m sure, meant to provoke outrage, and thus raise his profile and make him more money, and also completely sincere.
He could be relied on to play those numbers on The Dick Cavett Show, and in that capacity he did provide me with an opening into a piece that eventually turned into the beginning of my book Mystery Train, and for that I’ll always love him.
I never read Dwight MacDonald on movies. I liked a lot of Against the American Grain.
[cf. G.M. on Andrew Sarris]
What’s your take on Glenn Greenwald, particularly his assessment of Hillary Clinton as no better—and potentially worse in terms of foreign policy—than Donald Trump?
– Derek Murphy
I think there are strong reasons to believe that Glenn Greenwald, like Edward Snowden, is either a Russian agent or an agent of influence—someone who believes he or she is operating independently but for various reasons, which could involve apparently independent financing or patronage, access to privileged information, facilitation through cut outs, and so on, is in fact promoting stories, arguments, individuals, and policies his or her controllers want promoted. The argument that there is no difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is, from either a right or left perspective, lunacy—unless you believe there is no difference between the US and Russia, which is to say that you believe that democracy, as practiced in the US and much of the West, is a hoax, and that politics is only a point-by-point choice between autocracies and kleptocracies.
When I read Greenwald in Salon, I thought he merely demonstrated textbook symptoms of paranoia, in particular over-sourcing every assertion, argument, statement of apparent fact, as if to say I KNOW YOU DON’T BELIEVE ME BUT LOOK AT THIS THE PROOF IS HERE YOU CAN’T DENY IT! I think that’s still an essential part of his political personality, but I think now there’s far more going on.
Favourite radio DJ(s) of all-time, and why?
– Scott Woods
Russ “The Moose” Syracuse, who on KYA in San Francisco in the early ’60s piloted the “All Nite Flight,” where from midnight to 6 AM he played records you never heard anywhere else, except the ones you heard everywhere else, which he kamikaze bombed from his bomber. As in KABLOOWIE.[Listen to “The Moose” here]
First: Are you at all familiar with the writer Tom Miller, who used to write for Rolling Stone? I met him recently, and he sends his regards.
Next, two questions about the early Rolling Stones. Apart from his good looks (certainly a valuable commodity) and a cool looking Vox guitar, what did Brian Jones contribute to the early Rolling Stones? And then, what were your favorite tracks (not counting singles) from their 1964-65 American LPs? Here are mine.
–England’s Newest Hit Makers: “Not Fade Away,” “I’m A King Bee,” “Carol,” “Walking The Dog.”
–12 X 5: “Around And Around,” “Confessin’ The Blues,” “It’s All Over Now.”
–The Rolling Stones, Now!: “Down Home Girl,” “You Can’t Catch Me,” “Down The Road Apiece.”
–Out Of Our Heads: (I was disappointed in this LP at the time. I thought the only real standout tracks were the two single hits and to a lesser extent, their two flip sides.)
–December’s Children (And Everybody’s): “She Said Yeah,” “You Better Move On,” “The Singer Not The Song,” “Blue Turns To Grey.”
– Robert Mitchell
Tom’s a remarkable writer, always chasing down stories forgotten or never known, whether histories of the southwest, as with “On the Border,” or the territory mapped in his masterpiece, The Assassination Please Almanac, originally published in 1977, usually described as the ultimate guide to the Kennedy assassination and all attendant theories, but which I remember for its unbelievably extensive chronicle of political murder in the United States—a rereading of all American history through the prism of the assassinations and attempted assassinations of the 1960 and early 1970s. It was republished in 2000 and is still in print. But I love it most for the title, a play on the name of an old radio quiz show. Tom was never short on humor.
When they started out, the Rolling Stones were Brian Jones’s band, just as the Band, when as the Hawks they left Ronnie Hawkins and went out on their own, were Levon Helm’s band. Jones was the true blues fanatic, the one who stayed up all night trying to get Elmore James’s sound, not just learn his riffs but to reach a point where he could almost believe he was Elmore James. He was the missionary, the prophet—and the fuck-up, the miserable human being, the cruel and unreliable guy Mick and Keith had to get rid of. So I’d say that, along with the suit he wore onstage at the Cow Palace in 1965, he was, at the beginning, as close to everything as one part of a three member cult, which is what Brian, Mick, and Keith were, as could be. As for the albums, I could easily say, forget it, take it all. One little bomb after another. To me those records hold together, in every aspect, from songs to sleeves to liner notes to credits as objects of infinite fascination and pure record-fan fetishism like almost nothing else. I know the US and UK versions are so different keeping track of what went where is almost impossible. Still—what you’re hearing is a sensibility taking shape. Take a piece away, even something as slight as “Little By Little” on the first album, and you have less.
So these aren’t any claim for the best, or even favorites, just numbers I can’t imagine having lived without:
–England’s Newest Hit Makers: “Not Fade Away,” “Route 66,” “Carol,” and—especially–“Tell Me”
–12×5: the big three: “It’s All Over Now,” the unbelievably swift, dismissive, hard as nails “Empty Heart,” and what Keith and Brian do at the end of “Around and Around”
–The Rolling Stones, Now!: “Heart of Stone,” “Off the Hook,” “Little Red Rooster,” “Surprise, Surprise”
–December’s Children: “She Said Yeah,” faster than sound, “The Singer Not the Song,” “Blue Turns to Grey,” “I’m Moving On”
–Out of Our Heads: “The Last Time,” “I’m All Right,” “Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man,” and—especially—“Play with Fire” and “The Spider and the Fly”
I never meant to suggest [9/4] that it fell on you to apologize for Bill Clinton’s behaviour during Smokey Robinson’s Aretha eulogy (though you always do it so well). Anyway, I wouldn’t have made the criticism if I’d watched Clinton’s eulogy first. It was painful to watch—the people who love him should have talked him out of appearing. I took your advice and compared the applause Clinton received to the “polite applause” for Smokey’s eulogy. I don’t hear an audience moved or emotionally transported by Clinton to Aretha’s last performance, as you claim; just people showing pity for a once vital man who now seems so addled and frail.
– steve o’neill
I don’t know. He did look unsteady and unsure at the start; he came into his own focus as he went on. People his—and my—age can fall apart at any time. But it wasn’t exactly Judy Collins on Saturday Night Live.
“Love is Here and Now You’re Gone” is my favorite Supremes record. “Where Did Our Love Go” and “You Can’t Hurry Love” are irresistible, “You Keep Me Hanging On” is eternal, and “My World is Empty Without You” has a dark, doomy allure.
But “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone” sounds like Diana Ross past the edge, at the end of an unraveling lifeline—the way she pushes the verses forward with increasing tension, desperation, confusion, fear, haste, volume, and momentum, which the band then cuts off cold, followed by shattered voices chanting “look what you have done, look what you have done…” (I never hear the words Ross speaks over them. For me, everything else in the world stops.)
And I love the music: Motown quits the soul beat and goes for headlong wall-of-sound drama and grandeur driven by clambering rhythm—there’s no downbeat or groove, it’s all panic—fighting to keep up with Ross, with melodies twisting in and out of the sound’s sweep. But really, it’s Ross, finishing that final verse in shouting, crazed terror, pouring it out like she never did elsewhere.
It’s hard to convince someone today that all this is there: the stereo digital version is a dissection, a feeble artifact; only the crackling mono 45 puts this cataclysm across.
Do you like this record? What do you hear?
I love the Supremes. “My World Is Empty Without You” always seems to come from another planet. It’s so spectral, as if it’s not quite there—and that might be part of what you hear in “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone,” which seems light and airy to me—spectral, not quite there, in another sense. But I’ve never gotten over “Stop! In the Name of Love.” It’s a drama, a silent movie starring Greta Garbo, that passionate, that defeated. You can hear Diana Ross in a way you can’t anywhere else: you can hear fear, fear of being cast back into anonymity, fear of never making it—they were knocking on the door with release after release, only once cracking the Top 40, before this overwhelmed the country in 1964—and you’d never hear that voice again, not even in “Love Child.”
You don’t seem to have written about Van Halen on this blog and I wonder what you think of their first album, which (in my opinion) is an ageless trove of invigorating hits. Van Halen and some of Ted Nugent’s best hits are upbeat landmarks of a period that is probably not your cup of tea but I’m still curious about your opinion on these two.
The high point of Ted Nugent’s life was that he was once in a band named after a not bad novel. Other than that he had a second-rate radio hit with a good catchphrase for a title. He’s a dangerous racist whose very existence is a stain on the country. David Lee Roth is an open, self-mocking, hilarious, principled person who had the guts to say that his whole approach to music was rooted in his hatred of anti-semites. As he once put it, Sammy Hagar had to sing "Jump" But he didn’t have to sing no stinking Sammy Hagar songs. That’s all I have to say.
I know he’s your man and all, but could you believe Bill Clinton during Smokey Robinson’s eulogy at Aretha Franklin’s funeral? Rifling through his notes and actually fucking yawning?
– steve o’neill
Yes, it falls to me to make all necessary apologies. So—he looked at his notes briefly when Smokey stood up. Not a crime. He may have yawned, but I may have blinked—I didn’t see it. He did look quite bored. Most eulogies are boring, and Smokey’s was especially so, even when he sang.
Clinton’s own eulogy seemed tepid, distracted, a little why-am-I-here, until the end, when he spoke about being present for Aretha’s “last public singing” at Elton John’s AIDS benefit in Harlem last year. Here at first there was too much self-referencing—it’s a disease, making someone else’s funeral a celebration of how important you were in said someone else’s story—but as he wound into the tale of her performance, the Clinton who made audiences in black churches swoon in 1992 was right there, alive to the moment, and people broke into applause, because they were moved, because he had made them feel that they were there, too. Compare that to the polite applause Smokey received at the end of his talk. That’s not to criticize him in any way; it’s a rare thing when someone can truly rise to such an occasion. I know one person who always can, who leaves those who are present thinking new thoughts about the person they have gathered to, supposedly, think about.
I’m curious if you’ve ever heard the Blue Mountain song about Elvis’s birth and the death of his twin (“Epitaph”), and what your thoughts might be?
– Daniel Lunsford
I hadn’t heard it. I like the tone–I’ll never not like a song based on “The Hills of Mexico,” which makes you wait for the chorus as if it’s a punch line to all of life. I ordered their Roots album—I always want to hear what people do with Dock Boggs songs. Thanks.
I’ve been looking for a list from one of your old book reviews. I think it was published in the late 1970s or early 1980s. It was a list of the four best books for anyone trying to understanding the 1960s. Two of the books on the list were Ringolevio by Emmett Grogan and Play Power by Richard Neville. The third may have been Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and I can’t remember the fourth. Do you remember what the fourth book was? Are there any books you would add to this list now? Also, if you know what I’m talking about, do you have a copy of the original article you can share?
– Chris Peters
I don’t remember—but Ringolevio and Play Power would definitely have been there. Two I would add that I’m sure weren’t there when that list was composed: Barney Hoskyns’s 1997 Beneath the Diamond Sky: Haight Ashbury 1965-1970, which is at once soft-headed dribble and inspiring, and the late Jenny Diski’s cold-eyed The Sixties, from 2009, which might be the best of all. And it’s no fun to realize that of the four authors, the three who were there at the time are dead. I never knew Emmett Grogan, but he was part of the cultural weather in the Bay Area in 1965. Richard Neville was a friend. After reading Jenny Diski, who at the time I’d never heard of, I read some of her novels, and then we began a correspondence that lasted until her death.
re: …John Dahl film (and where did he go?) Red Rock West in 1993. (8/29)
Dahl settled into directing TV episodes since the late ’90s, including some great (Justified) and some very good (True Blood, Dexter).
Red Rock West, though, nothing finer-and he might be the only director to ever get Nicolas Cage to underplay.
– David McClure
I think the heart of the movie is the constant backbiting between Lara Lynn Boyle and J. T. Walsh.
The Bangs review of It’s Only Rock’n’Roll had one of my favorite lines about criticism (paraphrasing): “If you think I’m going to review the new Stones album, you’re crazy. I am however, going to swim in it.” Do you have a favorite Lester line?
– Kevin Bicknell
I’ll just choose what popped into my head, which was the first sentence of his review of the first album by It’s a Beautiful Day: “In conclusion: I hate this album.” Its that proper, polite, term-paper “In conclusion” that does it.
You’ve talked here about the question of influence vs. inspiration vs. imitation. I guess my feeling is that influence might be something less conscious than imitation, but more conscious than inspiration. Somewhere in between.
For instance, more than any other piece, your review of It’s Only Rock and Roll seems influenced by the writing of Lester Bangs. It seems similar, stylistically, to Bangs, with touches and currents that go beyond the idea that Bangs’ writing was simply “filling you with the urge or ability to do something” (as “inspiration” is defined).
But at the same time, it never seems that you are trying to imitate or replicate Bangs’ style, or voice. It’s still your voice, just…influenced—subliminally, subtly, under the surface, mostly, though sometimes on it. What do you think?
I must have been imitating somebody—that’s not my voice. Everything I said is right—I mean, I believed it then and agree with myself now, especially on “Luxury”—but God knows who that poseur is who’s mouthing off as if he knows everything and always did. Certainly not Lester.
I love the Ral Donner recording of “Girl of My Best Friend.” It’s a strange record. Ral Donner is obviously trying to sound like Elvis, apparently a lot of listeners thought it was Elvis singing, and Elvis himself recorded the song the year before. Yet I much prefer Ral Donner’s version and I can’t figure out why, except that, given the pathos inherent in the subject matter, an Elvis imitator would have more to bring to the song. I know you are a fan of this record and I would love to hear your thoughts about it.
I remember thinking, Oh, Elvis has redone “Girl of My Best Friend” and made it sound good. I was surprised and kind of disappointed to find out it was someone else. Ral Donner isn’t a fraction of the singer Elvis was when he wasn’t even trying—and he wasn’t trying with “Girl of My Best Friend,” he sounded bored, except when he had to sing “What if she got real mad and told him so/I could never face either one again,” when he sounded embarrassed. Donner’s vocal is a combination of “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” and “I Beg of You.” It’s a mask. But it’s just that mask—as it was for Bert Williams, as it was for the Cabaret Voltaire performers, as it can be for almost anyone—that allowed him to appear in public without shame, as someone else, to make a fool of himself, to put too much of himself into the song. Elvis’s version has taste, artistry, and in moments almost flair. Donner’s has soul. It may not have been his soul, but who cares?
I was wondering what your opinion of Dwight Yoakam might be these days (the only references to him of yours that I can recall is you referring to him as “Dwight Hokum” around the time he appeared on the scene, and later praising his “thrilling” run through “Suspicious Minds” on an Elvis tribute album in the early 90s). I’ve always been impressed by his determination to go his own way and not play it safe through the years, whether it resulted in the commercial success he was obviously hungry for or not (not to mention his ability to dress up brutally honest relationship lyrics in radio friendly arrangements without compromising either, a trick I wouldn’t be surprised to hear he learned from listening to Warren Zevon’s first few albums while trying to make a start in Los Angeles in the late seventies).
Any favourite performances of his, either of his own songs or his left-field covers of “Train in Vain,” “Tired of Waiting for You,” or “Purple Rain”? And do you have any thoughts on his acting in such films as Sling Blade and Panic Room?
– James L.
I think he crystallized the best of himself in his performance in the John Dahl film (and where did he go?) Red Rock West in 1993.
“In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”? Not since I stopped smoking pot. “In Memory of Elizabeth Cotten” is one I found myself listening to a lot after Aretha died, for some reason. Anyway, give me Firehose over the Allmans anytime—better bottom and headphones not required.
– steve o’neill
“Blue Sky”? “Pony Boy”?
Having seen Springsteen on Broadway, I’m curious which other musical artists you think have the repertoire, storytelling ability, and personality to pull off a one man show on the Great White Way. Ray Davies’ Storyteller was something akin to that. What about Pete Townshend? Paul Simon? Anyone else?
One thing worth knowing about Bruce Springsteen is that he has an unparalleled ability to put people at ease. I’ve seen this in all sorts of situations: backstage, in a classroom, inviting people onstage, in a restaurant. That’s because he gets it across that he’s actually interested in other people, and the proof that it’s not an act is in the way he listens to them. He has no need to follow someone else’s story with his own, to prove his just-like-youness-but-better, no need to direct a conversation back to himself, to tell you where he’s been and you haven’t.
In a kind of reverse way, all of this is brought to bear, and all of it comes across, in his Broadway show. The audience is invited in to a scripted, staged reverie, and despite the presence at any show of people who’ve been before and know just what moments they’re waiting for, you don’t get the sense that this is canned, timed, or even rehearsed. It doesn’t seem spontaneous, but rather thought through, as if any situation being described, sung, played, or acted out could, on any given night, be done somewhat differently by Springsteen, or feel differently by anyone there.
This is why, I assume, that Bruce enjoys the show so much he’s repeatedly extended it; clearly, this is a stage he doesn’t want to get off of. And it’s why, to me, wondering if other performers perhaps as self-reflective as he is could do something similar, gets me nowhere. It’s not just the stories you have to tell or the fame you can leverage financially or the devoted following or how smart you are. It’s an affection and respect for the audience.
Given your interest in and knowledge of Situationism and crime novels, I wonder what you think of Situationist Jean-Patrick Manchette’s neo-polars. I think the ones I’ve read (those that have been translated into English, plus some graphic novel adaptations of the same) are pretty great, somehow simultaneously satisfying as crime novels while deconstructing the genre’s conventions. I’m just starting the latest to come out in English, Ivory Pearl.
Sorta related, I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything by you about Brit crime writer Derek Raymond (Robin Cook before the American doctor began writing his bestsellers) other than a passing reference in your review of Cathi Unsworth. Do you read him?
– Mark Sullivan
Neither has really held my interest.
I just watched Lynch’s Eraserhead and really enjoyed it, though I knew nothing about it ahead of time. In general though, considering how unusual Lynch is, how have you approached his work? Do you read/learn about a particular film before watching or do you avoid that and just let yourself get lost in his dream logic?
I don’t read up on a movie before seeing it, beyond reading a review, and sometimes I purposefully skip that. With David Lynch in particular I don’t want to know a thing. I want to get lost, and then with luck pick up breadcrumbs. With his movies that have allure for me, I revel in watching them over and over: Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. As one friend said, the more you watch Mulholland Drive, the more sense it makes—there are clues, it’s a puzzle, and ultimately almost all of it fits. But with Lost Highway, the more you watch, the more any Tab A fits into Slot A, logic recedes. I once asked Barry Gifford, the screenwriter, to explain what happens to Bill Pullman, how he turns into Balthazar Getty and back again, with a completely different frame of reference, is let out of prison, and on, an on—and he couldn’t offer me anything that would hold still for a moment. don’t mean this as a criticism—really, the opposite. It’s not a matter of a quest for meanings. It’s accepting that at a certain point, the line between action and fantasy is erased, both in life and memory.
You said a while back that you aren’t much familiar with Elizabeth Cotten beyond “Freight Train” (though I’m sure you know “Shake Sugaree”… I’ve never been able to figure out what that great title phrase means). How about “In Memory of Elizabeth Cotten” by Firehose? And was that a band you liked at all?
– steve o’neill
“Shake Sugaree” just drifts away for me. It’s too kind a phrase to stick, for some reason. “In Memory of Elizabeth Cotten”? “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.”
You’re probably not the best person to ask this, but since there isn’t an “Ask Marty” feature on the web: When Martin Scorsese says that he based the first 20 minutes of Taxi Driver on Astral Weeks, do you have any guess as to what he’s talking about?
Were you ever into Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm? They’ve both been hit-or-miss but I find Larry David’s best comedy unique and continuously funny. I wonder if there are other shows on TV that have made you laugh a lot.
I don’t think either was ever hit and miss. I can’t think of a show that was off–cruel, disdainful, superior, sure, but that was the currency.
I never watched Seinfeld when it was running. I was irritated at reading that it was the greatest situation comedy ever (or, for the hipper TV critics, “non-situation comedy”), I’d absolutely hated Jason Alexander in his smug McDonald’s commercials, and I didn’t like sitcoms. Growing up in the ’50s, I’d never liked the Dad-rules family comedies, whether Father Knows Best or I Love Lucy. I didn’t like The Honeymooners. I watched The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet just to see Ricky and his band. And I’m still not sure I can imagine anything better than The Phil Silvers Show aka You’ll Never Get Rich.
I recall reading a piece in Art Issues about Kramer taking over the art world, and feeling very left out because I didn’t know who Kramer, apparently lingua franca to everyone else, actually was. But once on an airplane my wife was watching a Seinfeld episode and told me I should look at it. Halfway though I was saying, “Hey, this is really funny”—and from that point on we watched it on re-runs, out of order, every episode, two or three times. Curb Your Enthusiasm—I still have no idea what that means or signifies—took off for me instantly. I fell in love with Susie Essman’s foul mouth—and really missed it when they, or she, toned down her character. It was fascinating to watch Larry David happily sink to levels of corruption and venality that seemed to bother absolutely no one, probably because they only pretended to be better. I could go on, but getting the little girl drunk should have been the prison term he served in the Curb movie. My favorite Seinfeld episodes were the wedding in India. The only difference if it were being made today would be that Elaine would have slept with the bride, too, but forgotten about it.
And it was only the Curb movie, like the Sex in the City movie, that was the miss. It was like David Letterman taking all of his Late Show shtick with him to the Oscars, a bomb on the level of the Edsel and New Coke. Somehow what seems brave and surprising and thrilling—did they really get away with that?—seems stale and self-congratulatory when you move from one medium to another, and especially to a big screen from a little one. Not exactly a profound insight, but people who should know better will never learn.
Favorite memories of Aretha Franklin.
Here is an old quote from Jon Landau’s Rolling Stone review of Aretha Now! I agree! My absolute favourite Aretha recording:
“You Send Me”: Well, if Aretha should stay out of the Ray Charles bag, she should do more in Sam Cooke’s. She does wonders with Sam’s biggest selling record, and this has to be the best cut on the album. It is simple, straightforward, uncluttered ballad singing at its best. The piano intro is superb, the harmony and horns perfect. I can’t imagine the drums, the lyric improvisations, or the entire arrangement being any better. Sam Cooke would have smiled.
Live at Fillmore West. I wonder if she ever passed through the Fillmore District when she was touring with her father’s gospel troupe in 1956.
Your “Treasure Island entry on Aretha suggests that she peaked by the end of the ‘60s. Have you heard anything since to make you think otherwise? (“Day Dreaming?” “Another Night?” “Nessa Dorma?”)
– Kevin Bicknell
Not the time to answer.
Your recent comments about Foul! (love to read if I could find a copy on eBay less than $50/paperback…) bring to mind Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. Without having read the Wolf book, I may be off the mark here, but your comments at least suggest some possible affinities between the two, albeit from different eras/perspectives. Christgau wrote a rave of Ball Four. Any thoughts on it?
– Scott Woods
I liked Ball Four but it seemed like small beer compared to “Foul!“—plus Jim Bouton playing Terry Lennox in the Robert Altman film of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye left a sour taste. The only near sports-book analogue I know—and I’m not a sports book reader, so most of what’s there to know about I don’t—is Peter Gent’s 1973 novel North Dallas Forty. The movie isn’t bad, but compared to the book it’s a cover up.
Have you read Saul Austerlitz’s new book on Altamont? The excerpt I read was, I guess, the climax of the book, about the chaos surrounding the Stones’ performance and the murder of Meredith Hunter. It was nothing that hadn’t been much better reported elsewhere (by you and Stanley Booth, for example) and Austerlitz’s prose can be dreadful (the audience “had practically formed a single, manylimbed organism, Homo rockismus”—love that “practically”). Still, the piece leads me to believe he’s done a lot of solid background research, identifying and interviewing many of the people involved—I don’t think anything I’ve previously read on Altamont even mentioned Hunter’s girlfriend by name, let alone got her perspective on what happened. Would be interested to know if you think it’s worth looking at, or if there’s a better overview that I’ve missed.
– steve o’neill
There’s a lot that’s off about the book. As you say, the writing can be embarrassing. But I found it caught the ugliness, the disgust, the cheapness of feeling of that whole day and its aftermath in a way that was very hard to take, and it should be hard to take. Joel Selvin certainly talks about Patty Bredehoft, but Austerlitz’s decision to make the whole book revolve around Meredith Hunter, his milieu, and his erasure, is central to the burden of the book—the book carries, and passes on, a burden, a realization of what it means not to come to terms with something very big.
I’ve seen you tout some Scorsese movies and dismiss others. Which of his movies (not including documentaries) hold up best for you, and how much does his use of music play into that?
Music is the heart and soul of Scorsese’s first released film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, especially a horrifying rape scene, which is silent except for—I think the Channels’ “The Closer You Are,” but if not that another very soft, comforting doo-wop song—which fragments, shatters, as the scene throws real life in its face. And it’s the lifeblood of Mean Streets, from “Be My Baby” at the beginning to “Pledging My Love” and everything else. But I think his best movie is Raging Bull, and whatever music he used there I remember none of it—it didn’t matter. The actors and the director were the voice of the movie, all it needed. The same with Taxi Driver.
After that, often the music—the constant hum of songs in Goodfellas and Casino especially—seemed there to disguise or distract you from the hollowness of the plot or the shallowness of the material. It all but erases the movies. The songs don’t play, they’re used, and that’s all I hear.
How many Springsteen albums would make it to the Desert Island with you today? I’m assuming Darkness and Nebraska are certainties but after that I’m not clear.
– peter wilkin
Nebraska first and last. But a special edition with “Stolen Car.” And his 1978 show from the Roxy in LA. Someone sent me cassettes, taped off the radio broadcast, at the time, and they still sound better than any of the bootlegs or even an official version I received years later. That would keep me going, and there’s enough there to write about til eternity.
Do you know “Hey Little Girl” by Icehouse? I heard it the other day for the first time in literally 35 years when it popped up in the shuffle mix at my neighbourhood cafe; it knocked me sideways the way random encounters with half-forgotten songs sometimes will. Icehouse channels Bryan Ferry so effectively that you could slip this song onto one of his best-ofs and people would assume it was an outtake from the Flesh and Blood/Avalon era that unaccountably went unreleased at the time. Given how you feel about Ferry, it made me think of you.
– Ian McGillis
You couldn’t be more right. I wonder if Ferry sued.
You’re a big Raincoats fan, but your writings about their music posted on this website are mostly abstract—very rarely is a particular song or album discussed—and nothing by them turned up in your 2002 Margin Additions to “Treasure Island” (although I understand that was done off the cuff).
I have been exploring the Raincoats on YouTube, and so far I like their March 1979 Peel Session (to my knowledge their earliest recordings, which includes a performance of their first single “Fairytale in the Supermarket,” released in April). I’m enjoying some of their November 1979 debut album but I don’t know if it will stick. I scanned through The Kitchen Tapes but that’s probably not the best place to start.
The one that stands out for me right now is “No One’s Little Girl,” a B-side from July 1982. I could listen all day. It has already pushed its way into my collective perception of early ’80s music, as if I always knew it was there.
Consumer guidance has never been your main objective, but I hope you can offer some. What’s your favorite Raincoats? What do you reach for today?
I do often write metaphorically, trying to get at what’s interesting, compelling, and different about a group, performer, or record without focusing on specific titles, lyrics, or instrumentation. Whether or not that’s abstract I don’t know. I did write about Odyshape when it came out, I think in more detail—in any case the album seemed to me a great leap in terms of the band trusting their own impulses toward abstraction in rhythm and melody. But for all of that—their first and second albums, The Kitchen Tapes, shows I’ve seen in the last fifteen years—it’s always clear that “In Love” is the song that melts other songs. And they know it—you can see the tension and excitement when they’re about to go into it.
I’ve noted the occasional reference to longtime Golden State Warriors fandom as “Ask Greil” has continued to expand, but was blissfully unaware until this past weekend that you’d anointed David Wolf’s Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story (1972) as “the best book on pro basketball”, in a 1976 “Undercover” review of Bill Bradley’s first book, Life on the Run.
Foul! is a book I encountered very young, not long after it was published in paperback. I believe I was eleven when I bought and devoured it, immediately after having read the first autobiographies by Wilt Chamberlain and Howard Cosell. Looking back decades later, I sometimes think it may be the most significant book I read prior to college, and certainly one of the most important in my life! The enormous scope and encompassing detail of Connie Hawkins’ life to age thirty gripped me in ways I couldn’t have anticipated, given my then-steady diet of Sports Illustrated and numerous other sports magazines, while the embedded anecdotal critiques of casual American racism, abject urban poverty, corruption in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, the rampant/offhand exploitation of high school and collegiate athletes, and the grimly hilarious/decidedly unglamorous accounts of life in professional basketball forever excised any sense I might otherwise have retained (or cultivated!) that Sports in America was somehow an oasis from societal dysfunction, racial bigotry, or corporate greed (as so many fans then fervently wished to believe, and as figureheads from Avery Brundage to Bowie Kuhn to the NBA’s then-commissioner Walter Kennedy would certainly have preferred I/we accept as gospel truth).
What I’d like to ask, Greil, is simply how you first encountered Foul!, whether you’d been aware of Connie Hawkins in any conscious way prior to reading it, whether you ever wrote about it other than the brief mention cited above, and what aspects especially prompted you to praise it so highly. Oh, and I’d also be interested to know whether you’ve subsequently revisited the book and how it struck you decades after your initial encounter.
I’ve re-read large portions of Foul! many times, and am amazed at how well it holds up for me, with the additional latter-day bonus that it provides such an amazing portal into the now-nearly-unimaginable time just before enormous amounts of money and technology altered every aspect of sports forever. Thank you so much!
– Tom Kipp
I knew about Connie Hawkins only vaguely, and picked up the paperback of David Wolf’s 1972 book because it looked as if it would pull back a curtain on a world I didn’t know—plus I loved the 1951 Harlem Globetrotters movie on TV growing up, and knew Hawkins had played with them. The book was a cauldron, just one shock and injustice after another, and the real tragedy that, even with Hawkins finally admitted to the NBA, realizing that no one, especially Hawkins, would ever know what he could have done. The story and the book perfectly dovetailed with the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement, its unfinished story, and the growing awareness that, from one side, racism was going to be far more difficult to defeat, even legally, than anyone thought, or, from the other side, that racism would endure and triumph.
I think of it alongside Dick Schaap’s The Perfect Jump, about Bob Beamon’s long jump in the 1968 Olympics, which came out a few years later, in 1976. Two writers addressing fundamental questions of sport and society without ever surrendering their love of the game, or surrendering to it.
Curious to hear your thoughts on Robert Hunter’s songwriting. Particularly, from these 1972 pieces:
1. “Brown-Eyed Women”
2. “Jack Straw”
To me they all have many similarities: They are all performed in the key of E, and composed around the same time. All three are ballads dealing with people of close relation conducting illicit activities. The songwriting in these three pieces shares a distinct literary quality which implies its setting to be in the depression era. Weir said that “Jack Straw” was inspired by Of Mice and Men.
“I don’t watch much TV, but one night I was home, it was late, and an old version of Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men came on. I was mesmerized. We were coming out of the Workingman’s Dead phase, and Hunter had this lyric. I grabbed it, and we came with a little sketch of heartland Americana, a ballad about two ne’er-do-wells. It was patterned on Of Mice And Men, but we tried to put a twist or two on it. Same story, different context.”
I am taken to a Steinbeckesque world within each of these tunes, and I am fascinated by them. Curious to hear your thoughts.
– Rich Soni
He’s very literate, his songs are very well structured, and he’s very self-conscious, which to me is why so many initially arresting songs—songs that just seem to stand out in their formal excellence—dry up.
I recently enjoyed your book on the Doors and was a little surprised that you were/are such a big fan of their music since it seemed to rub a lot of their peers the wrong way. I don’t know whether it was the Doors music so much as Jim Morrison’s reputation for being an asshole, but when Robbie Robertson makes a point of juxtaposing the Band vs. other late 60’s groups, he seems to be taking dead aim at the Doors, e.g., ‘we’ didn’t want to kill our parents (hence the ‘Next of Kin’ gatefold on Music From Big Pink) or ‘we’ didn’t have a lead singer with his shirt off, it made me as a fan of Dylan/The Band and The Doors feel a little conflicted. I think musically, the Band and the Doors share a lot and probably would have enjoyed jamming together, and let’s face it, the Band had their share of wild men and drug/alcohol casualties, too. But whereas Hendrix and Janis are sanctified martyrs, Jim Morrison (and Brian Jones also) are not viewed as sympathetically. I’d enjoy any comments you have on this.
– Jim Stacho
I think Jim Morrison is very much a sanctified martyr desolation angel Rimbaud sacrifice as anyone else—probably more so, given his grave in Paris. I’m sure Patti Smith has him right up there with all the greats. It’s a specious and self-congratulatory way of looking at it. Who cares? Do you like to listen to “Roadhouse Blues”? Then don’t worry about where it fits.
Agree with you [cf. 8/7] that rankings compromise criticism. But Rolling Stone reviewers wrote trenchant takedowns of bad bands. Most New Wave/Punk reviewers don’t do that. Hence music criticism is nowhere compared to where it was in 1972. You don’t see that?
– Richard Cusick
I try not to judge one era over another. Or to complains that things ain’t like they used to be.
Flipping through early issues of Rolling Stone (I only have the DVD version), I’m always struck by how great so many of the photographs are which appear above the “Correspondence, Love Letters & Advice” section. Whether it’s a young, long-haired kid in dark shades being held aloft at a concert (Oct 8/69) or an elderly couple having lunch in a big field, with grazing cows behind them (Mar 2/72—almost pre-Hipgnosis), and on and on. I’d love to see these compiled in a book. Do you have any insight into how those were chosen, or any thoughts on them in general?
– Scott Woods
That would all have been the work and eye of the art director Robert Kingsbury. I last saw him about ten years ago when he was in his 80s so not sure if he’s still around.
Have you heard any Ghana highlife? There’s lots on YouTube from a guy named Ghanamankofi, dating back to the Nkrumah era. Especially good is Ghana Highlife Mix Vol 15.
– John Shoon Noshes
A blank for me but I’ll look.
Regarding A Laughing Death in Meatspace, I wondered if you are familiar with early records by Giant Sand? The careening dynamics, wayward vocals and guitar work on the former remind me very much of Giant Sand records like Swerve, in particular songs like “Trickle Down System” and “Angels at Night.” It seemed to me for some reason far fetched that Howe Gelb might have influenced The Drones, but I thought I caught it even there on occasion, and with Tropical Fuck Storm it seems to my ears to be all over the place, so I was curious what you, if anything, might make of it?
They never registered with me.
Have you ever sung, or would you ever sing, karaoke? I’m guessing the answer is a resounding No, but you have sung in public—with the Rock Bottom Remainders—which suggests it might not require a gun to the head. Still, carrying on with the conceit: Say someone did have a gun to your head. What would you sing?
I never have. I loved the shamelessness of performing with the Remainders—and the protection in being part of a group, or a cabal within the group—the Critics Chorus of Dave Marsh, Joel Selvin, Matt Groening, Roy Blount. If I ever did it, say, during a psychotic break that put me into the kind of fugue state Bill Pullman falls into in Lost Highway—it wouldn’t be anything with an element of talent or artistry, like “In My Life” or “Hot Stuff” or “Save the Best for Last.” It’d probably be my Remainders favorite: “Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love).”
I don’t recall seeing any mention by you of Satanic Majesties Request. What were your impressions at the time and does anything from it survive today?
I thought it was fun. I liked the cover. It ultimately left no impression. I recall Jon Landau savaging it in Rolling Stone and Charlie Watts writing a letter to the editor to apologize.
How do you feel about the city of Berkeley today? When for you was the best time to be there? And what did you think of Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley, if you’ve seen it?
– Devin McKinney
I’ve lived in Oakland now for seven years, after 41 years in Berkeley, and I don’t miss it. I still drive all the way across town—I’m at the Berkeley Oakland line—to visit a book shop, fish market, and a post office I like, and when I’m on campus, teaching in the spring, I’m never not moved by personal landmarks and the realization of how privileged I am to be able to teach where I went to school. But I don’t even know who the mayor is, and while Oakland may have a future, may still be defining itself, Berkeley is its own cliche, to the world and to itself, and may never escape that.
I couldn’t say what the best time to be there was. Certainly I loved the University from the moment I stepped into a classroom in the fall of 1963. I looked for great teachers and found them—they were all over. During the Free Speech movement in 1964, and in times after, I would think, either in the middle of a protest or worse, or just walking from one place to another, how lucky I was to be alive, and there, at that moment—to be part of history being made. But it could have been in the early 1980s, when I was researching what became Lipstick Traces in the University libraries, spending hours, days, weeks on end for close to three years in the stacks, going from one book to another, making discoveries that for me would change everything simply by trusting proximity. And it could have been a seminar I taught at Cal in 2008, filled with the bravest, toughest, most vulnerable students I’ve ever had, three of whom have gone on to publish books, though I treasure the papers everyone wrote in class, the way they supported each other in crises in and out of class, more than anything else.
I haven’t seen At Berkeley. It just seemed too long. But I’ve been told there’s something in it I should see—I can’t recall what—so eventually I will.
Have you ever written about Elizabeth Cotten? Are you a fan?
I haven’t. I’m not sure I’ve heard more than “Freight Train.”
1) In your McLuhan essay published in the 50th anniversary issue of Artforum a few years ago, your emphasis (somewhat to my chagrin, initially) was almost entirely on his first book, The Mechanical Bride. I was surprised because, entertaining and sometimes as revelatory as that book is, to me it feels like a tentative first step towards much greater, and more sustaining work. My question is, what did (and what do) you think of the books that catapulted McLuhan into a household word? Gutenberg Galaxy, Understanding Media, and The Medium is the Massage.
2) In your 1968 essay, “Who Put the Bomp in the Bomp de-Bomp de-Bomp!” (collected in Rock & Roll Will Stand), you quote McLuhan (“the youth today live mythically and in-depth”—in fact, you use it as the basis for much of the essay). This is the only reference to him I’ve seen in your work prior to the Artforum piece. Was his work back then part of whatever conversations you may have had about media, culture, etc.? Were his ideas much discussed (or part of the curriculum) at UC Berkeley?
3) Did you ever see him speak back then, and how was that experience?
4) Any ideas as to why he fell out of favour in the ’70s. (I’ve read or heard somewhere that later books, like Take Today, barely sold in the thousands.)
– Scott Woods
I’m not sure how much of McLuhan I actually read and how much I picked up from magazine quotes, the Tom Wolfe profile, and the like. That line from Rock and Roll Will Stand—I have no idea where that came from. I never read The Gutenberg Galaxy and am not sure how much I read of Understanding Media. I remember The Medium Is the Massage as a collage paperback and an album. It could be the most vivid memories I have of McLuhan are his appearance in Annie Hall and a parrot squawking “THE MEDIUM IS THE MASSAGE!” on the record. I don’t think he ever lectured at Berkeley when I was there—by then his fee would have been far too much.
I found a used first edition of The Mechanical Bride in Moe’s Books on Telegraph during the time when his vogue was at its most intense and took it home because it looked interesting. I immediately fell in love with his sense of humor, his love-hate relationship with Life magazine, which had been a big part of my life in the ’50s and early sixties, and marveled at his awful puns. It was later explained to me that this was the only good McLuhan book, because it came from a dissident, critical perspective that McLuhan abandoned when he sold out. There was a definite slacking off and the disappearance of McLuhanmania about 1968 or so, just because of this sense that McLuhan was now a pollyannaish huckster for big media, big money, and by extension the Vietnam War and anything else you hated about modern life. I felt the same, except that it felt that he was less selling out—not that he minded the money and the fame—than buying in. He had seen the future—no matter how pompously oracular he could be about it—and he wanted to be part of it. There’s nothing fundamentally ignoble about that. But to me he was always less a seer than someone insisting on a change in perspective.
But the real killer might have been in Annie Hall, when the blowhard in line has McLuhan’s terms all mixed up, but what the scene really reveals is how glib and empty the terms were from the start.
I’ve read that the Band’s recordings of “Ain’t No More Cane” and “Bessie Smith”—the ones that appeared on the commercial 1975 release of The Basement Tapes—were made (without Dylan) in late 1968, which would have placed them between Music from Big Pink and The Band.
Do you know if this, or a different date, has been confirmed? I think both tracks would sound and feel at home on the second album, especially “Cane.” Do you agree?
To my knowledge they were possibles for Music from Big Pink, though some people claim they were recorded for the Basement Tapes album in 1975. But stories change over the years. I can’t see either on The Band, which might speak for my lack of imagination in the face of a perfectly assembled record. “Cane” has the elegiac tone that really needs to begin or end an album, and The Band needs to begin with “Across the Great Divide,” and nothing could follow “King Harvest.” But beginning or ending Music from Big Pink with “Cane” would make that album much stronger. The Band hedged their bets, opening and closing with Basement Tape numbers they had co-writing credit with Dylan on, and both versions feel forced, because they are—they’d found the right arrangements in the basement, and were now trying to, you know, make the songs their own or something.
As for “Bessie Smith,” it’s an idea, barely a song, with a lugubrious, clumsy structure, and didn’t need to be anywhere.
Have you happened to catch Tropical Fuck Storm yet? I know you’ve spoken very positively of the Drones and Gareth Liddiard in the past.
– Bob Scheffel
Your message is the first I’ve heard of them. I’m listening my way through A Laughing Death in Meatspace and so far Liddiard and Fiona Kitschin have lost nothing and gained a lot. There’s a believable pirate sensibility—attitude?—in the back-and-forth confusion of Liddiard’s rhythms that I haven’t found anywhere else. There’s a distant relationship to Nirvana, but if they were led by Krist not Kurt.
In your 1/19/15 Real Life Rock Top Ten entry about Rhiannon Giddens’ Tomorrow Is My Turn, you wrote that in her version of Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind” she didn’t bring anything new to the song, and I hear it that way too.
But I think this performance, from a July 2015 Brooklyn show, is outstanding—Giddens lives in the song (making you realize what a great song it is), and compared to the careful studio version the band is joyful and rollicking, like they just heard “Apple Suckling Tree” for the first time.
Do you like it?
You’re right—this is more, and something else. There are still moments when Giddens seems to be aiming for the song, singing at the words and notes rather than from inside them, but it’s a swirl with shifting dimensions.
Do you think punk/new wave music critics basically compromised music criticism? For example, the contributors to the Trouser Press Record Guide (a guide to punk/new wave) gave nearly every record (to use Christgau’s scale) the equivalent of a B+ or higher. As such it is a virtually useless.
In contrast, The Rolling Stone Record Guide (which you contributed to) showed little bias and, what’s more, was not afraid to go after sacred cows. For example Crosby, Stills, & Nash, Hall & Oates, and ZZ Top (to name three bands) were reviewed harshly but fairly, in my view.
I think rankings compromise criticism and I regret taking part in that with The Rolling Stone Record Guide.
What are your thoughts on the growing rift within the Democratic party right now, between the Pelosi/Schumer wing and the Sanders/Ocasio-Cortez wing?
– Scott Woods
Right now it’s a news story—it’s hype. That Ocasio-Cortez immediately signed on to a Victory Tour is a disturbing sign—about her. The danger will be if she and her like energize Bernie Nation to either stay home, because there’s no difference between Nancy Pelosi and Diane Feinstein and Donald Trump and Mike Pence—they might not have appointed thugs to the courts and destroyed health care, but they wouldn’t have fought the corporate powers that want the same thing, so it would amount to the same thing—or vote for Republicans, to, you know, heighten the contradictions, so that the revolution that exists only as souvenirs will come. I think there are enough African-American women who won’t buy that to wipe it out. Just remember that Bernie Sanders is no more a member of the Democratic Party than Donald Trump is.
What cannot be underestimated is the fervor and commitment of Trump Nation, which is not just merchandise: it’s identity. The Washington Post put up a video from Trump’s Tampa rally of his people screaming curses at reporters, shouting FUCK YOU and giving the finger with the facial gestures of contempt that are always sickening: the assumption of superiority, of exclusion, of self-affirmation through the destruction of others. The face and the sounds and the gesture are those of white students and parents outside Little Rock High School when a few brave black students walked in under the physical, but not verbal or moral or emotional, protection of the National Guard in 1957. But this was worse: this was more free, more empowered: President Eisenhower was not standing outside Little Rock High School egging on the crowd.
These people have gone over. They aren’t coming back. They will vote. If there is voter fraud, it will be, as it was recently, Trumpists voting over and over because anything is justified if it helps Keep America Great, which means if it Makes Me Feel Powerful. If the Trump Administration, instead of merely separating children from their parents at border crossings had euthanized them, these people would be shouting “SHUT ‘EM DOWN” along with “LOCK HER UP” and “BUILD THAT WALL.” Or maybe that Reagan era hit, for the Dominican Republic, ‘KILL ‘EM ALL, LET GOD SORT ‘EM OUT.”
That’s what people who are saying, without quite saying it, don’t vote for Democrats, vote for real change, are saying.
Any thoughts on 20th Century Women, the Annette Bening film from a couple of years ago? Among other things, Greta Gerwig explains the Raincoats to Bening, and Bening and Billy Crudup dance to Black Flag.
– Alan Vint
I loved the movie long before I read Jen Pelly’s interview with the director Mike Mills in Pitchfork, especially the way none of the characters dominated or displaced any other. But I treasure this story,which is also in her 33 1/3 book The Raincoats:
Pelly: The Raincoats scene—and the whole film, it turns out—were inspired by critic Greil Marcus’ 1983 essay “Disorderly Naturalism,” which served as liner notes to the Raincoats’ live ROIR cassette The Kitchen Tapes. In it, Marcus unpacks how the music of the Raincoats captures “the process of punk,” defined as “the move from enormous feeling combined with very limited technique—more to the point, enormous feeling unleashed by the first stirrings of very limited technique.”
Mills is himself a Berkeley-born, matriarchy-raised, art-schooled punk who’s done graphic design for the Beastie Boys and Sonic Youth (including the cover of Washing Machine) and made videos for the likes of Yoko Ono and Air, not to mention wrote and directed the films Thumbsucker and Beginners. Mills spoke to me about his film’s Raincoats scene, its definition of punk, and more.
Pitchfork: Why were the Raincoats an appropriate band to anchor that moment?
Mike Mills: There are a bunch of reasons. That song came out in ’79, so it’s totally perfect. As a movie called 20th Century Women, it’s great to have a female punk band in there. And another is the way Greta talked about the Raincoats: I showed her the Greil Marcus piece and she spun out her own version of it. What Greta says in the movie is a processing of Greil’s process-of-punk piece. Greta, in real life, also loved the Raincoats. We both have a lot of respect for them. So it was a big honor for us. They’re actually holding the 7” label in the scene; we got the record from [the band]. We felt like we were on hallowed ground.
What Greta’s saying—about how, if their band was based on virtuosity, it would detract from the rawness of the expression—it really actually spoke to Dorothea, and her problem of not being able to say her inner life. Being born in the ’20s, she didn’t have a culture that supported that. These ’70s kids have a culture that supports it. So in a way, the Raincoats weren’t just this cool cultural-musical reference. I was able to use it to speak really directly to the problem of my characters. The theme of the movie is expressed. Greta is going on and on about the Raincoats’ emotionality—and how they’re saying something raw and messy and that they can’t control—and that’s exactly what Dorothea can’t do in the movie, and needs to do.
The Raincoats’ music is really nonlinear. Your movie also doesn’t sell you that false narrative of everything being neatly figured out.
My film doesn’t follow plot structure strongly, or it doesn’t rely on that to hold the film together. It is sort of open-ended; the characters are a little ambiguous. And everything about the Raincoats is open-ended. There is a wobbliness to the music on that first record. I think a lot of people really love that because there’s something more human and inviting in the fragility of it. I definitely like that. In ways—mostly —the writing—I’m trying to do that, too.
The Raincoats are so much about this beautifully flawed statement. In that way, they do sort of echo the philosophy of this film, which is trying to promote these imperfect connections between people, and imperfect people generally. Everyone can’t be who they thought they were supposed to be, or who they want to be. But within that mess, there are some nice moments of connection, or little moments of grace. I feel like the music is doing that same project in a different way.
Wonder if you are familiar with the work of Andrew Britton, in the words of Robin Wood “the greatest film critic in the English language.” In his short life he produced an extraordinary and incomparable body of work, and would be interested to know what impact, if any, it has had on you.
A friend gave me the issue of the British journal Movie with Andrew Britton’s “Blissing Out: The Politics of Reaganite Entertainment” in 1986 or so. It looked from the first paragraph or so a standard Marxist diatribe about manipulative producers and a brainwashed audience, but within a page it was off like a cavalry charge and I was trying to keep up. It was 20,000 words, covered everything from Ralph Macchio to Ordinary People and Return of the Jedi, and there wasn’t an obvious thought let alone a conformist opinion anywhere. The writing was elegant, and powered by respect for both whatever Britton was addressing (if only respect for the power it generated, embodied, or represented). This on Hell Night, is typical in its subtlety, harshness, toughness, and dystopia: “It became obvious that every spectator knew exactly what the film was going to do at every point, down to the order in which it would dispose of its various characters… The film’s total predictability did not create boredom or disappointment. On the contrary, the predictability was clearly the main source of pleasure, and the only occasion for disappointment would have been a modulation of the formula, not the repetition of it.”
Not everything in Britton on Film, collected after Britton’s death in 1994, in his early 40s, is as strong. But he could write about anything with equal urgency and wonder, and there hasn’t been a change in administrations where I haven’t wished he were around to take up the challenge he set for himself more than 30 years ago.
I remember in your summation of ’80s films you discuss Fassbinder. To someone new to his work, where would you suggest diving in?
The Marriage of Maria Braun. It has Hanna Schygulla, but it also has the scene where someone throws a cigarette butt on the floor and half a dozen men immediately dive for it as if it’s the last one in the world.
For more on Britton and Fassbinder, read G.M.’s roundup of ’80s movies in Film Comment.
The 1972 Manfred Mann’s Earth Band album made the Stranded discography. That puts them in the same special category as Moby Grape, the Youngbloods, and Jesse Winchester—musicians who scored a big critical success and then scarcely got mentioned again. Is there anything the group did after that, or that Mann did before, that you care about?
– Phillip Dyess-Nugent
I always liked them. They were wonderful with other people’s songs, especially “Blinded by the Light” and “Spirit in the Night” by Bruce Springsteen, which I liked better than his versions, which were cluttered and unsure by comparison. They understood Dylan to the core. But the first Earth Band album is the one for me—for Randy Newman, Dylan, and “Part Time Man.”
Plus Mann, who was from South Africa, on why he won’t play there under apartheid: “It’d be like doing a gig in Auschwitz.”
What was the initial spark for your interest in politics?
My father telling me about Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.
re: “So Johnny Rotten’s now a cop killer?”
Of course, Johnny Rotten (billed as John Lydon) was the titular (in Italy) Cop Killer (or was he?) in the 1983 spaghetti cop movie, aka The Order of Death (UK title), aka Corrupt (US title), aka Corrupt Lieutenant after costar Harvey Keitel gained notoriety as Bad Lieutenant (I bought it years ago in a grocery store as a cheap two-public-domain-movies-on-one DVD).
Apparently, PiL were supposed to do the soundtrack, but they were replaced by Ennio Morricone. Keith Levene later released PiL’s tracks as Commercial Zone.
– Mark Sullivan
Thanks for the reminder. I tried to see it at the time but never got near it.
If you had to choose one (say, to take to a desert island—and assuming the presence of a playback mechanism): Your favorite western?
I know it’s not as good as My Darling Clementine, Red River, The Searchers, Once Upon a Time in the West, or the Michael Mann version of The Last of the Mohicans—the western begins in the pages of James Fenimore Cooper—but I know I could watch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid over and over forever. “Hell, the fall’ll probably kill you”—I wait for that moment.
I was wondering what your thoughts were on the Retromania thing covered in the Simon Reynolds book, and the Robert Loss book Nothing Has Been Done Before, which takes a different look at it. I personally can always find something new in pop music, it might just be a minute, or even seconds, but sounds clash together for me, and they actually sound new, and this is in some of the most blatantly commercial records, people not actually trying to make something new, but it just happens. Maybe it is just me, but I think a lot of very interesting things are going on in pop music at the moment.
When I was at Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement, I often heard professors saying it was nothing new, they’d been through the same stuff in their college days, it was all so predictable and meaningless: “There is nothing new under the sun.” That’s one of the most powerful passages in the Bible, but I resolved then and there I would never say that, about anything, even if I believed it, and I don’t think I ever have. It’s a terrible critical position. I don’t think it’s Robert Loss’s, and I think Retromania is misplaced, even if Simon Reynolds is always interesting, and usually more subtle than he might seem to be at first glance.
What do you make of the proletarian literature of the ’20s and ’30s? Do any of those novels remain important to you, or stand out?
It depends on what we’re talking about. The classics—that is, the novels that make up the genre, because their writers were from working class backgrounds—may be Mike Gold’s Jews Without Money and Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, but I was never able to get through either. I liked James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan books, but more than that John Tunis’s baseball novels, though they start in the ’40s, from The Kid from Tomkinsville on, and I think they ought to count—these were working class or below-the-working-class people struggling.
But when I hear the words proletarian literature I think of Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle and Cannery Row, and especially John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy. Some people say they don’t count because they weren’t from poor backgrounds, so their perspective is second-hand and inauthentic. Authenticity is the curse of art, and especially the curse of taking pleasure from it.
And you could add Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel, and The Godfather Part II.
Thanks for, beginning in the mid-1970s, introducing me to a lot of music over which I have obsessed for 40 years. Its interesting how you can listen to a song repeatedly and suddenly realize it is a masterpiece. Exhibit A: Howlin’ Wolf, “Mr. Highway Man.” Recorded in Memphis, released by Chess in 1952. I have enjoyed his Memphis records repeatedly over the years. A month ago, “Mr. Highway Man” revealed itself as one of the wildest, most blistering records in U.S. popular music. Willie Johnson commences the recording with power chords never matched by Led Zeppelin or Metallica. Then Howlin’ Wolf provides a spoken introduction: “Be careful what you drivin’ man.” Then all hell breaks loose for 2.5 minutes. Behooves beholding, to quote a phrase.
– Harry Clark
Yes. But I’ll take the ride on “House Rockin’ Boogie.”
I’d like to thank you for steering me toward Jennifer Castle, and to ask a related question: How are you exposed to new music? But really, more specifically: were you ever a regular visitor to MP3 blogs? (I don’t mean the peer-to-peer sharing sites of the early 2000s like Napster or Limewire—that was a wholly different platform, and criminal, and destructive.)
Around 2005, internet blogs began to appear that would discuss new (mostly independent) artists/releases and offer a single track as a free digital download, usually with permission and only for a limited time. By 2008 there were probably hundreds of these sites. I recall that even Pitchfork openly shared tracks this way for a period (though maybe only for its year-end best-of lists). Then came other websites that would record and share in-studio performances, the best being HearYa & Luxury Wafers (their pages and tracks are still up, but new activity has slowed, or ceased).
For me—who kept pace with rock in the 1990s but got totally lost between 2000 and 2005—these blogs reconnected me with new music, restored the excitement of surprise and discovery, brought back the thrill of experiencing the pulse and movement of something just created and hitting the world. They could keep a listener busy all day. They became my radio.
Around 2012 these sites began to dwindle, and today I know of just a handful. Fluxblog (“the very first MP3 blog”) hasn’t missed a step. KEXP posts its “Song of the Day” as a free download. Free tracks can often be found at NPR.org. Aquarium Drunkard, maybe the most famous music blog, still shares new songs as well as obscure cuts from older albums, along with good writing.
Were/are these sites ever part of your search for new music?
That’s all foreign country to me. I used to find most of what I’d hear on the radio, but that time has passed. So it’s reading, following tips, seeing what’s in Amoeba Records on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, and, lately, especially stuff people on this site recommend.
Have you ever been approached by someone who wanted to write your biography? Why would or wouldn’t you take up this offer? Would you ever want to write an autobiography?
I haven’t, I wouldn’t, and I’ve never wanted to write an autobiography. I’m not that interested in myself.
I’ve been reviewing your comments on Raymond Chandler and other American detective writers. Any plans to read or review The Annotated Big Sleep, and/or the new Marlowe book, Only To Sleep, by Lawrence Osborne? Any thoughts on Walter Mosley’s recent work? On Anne Hillerman taking over her father Tony Hillerman’s characters?
Don’t care about Hillerman. Mosley is always interesting, often a surprise. Don’t know about Annotated Big Sleep—will look but fear it’ll all be what’s, as they say, real and what this or that location is based on: anything to confine the imagination. I plan to look at the Osborne Chandler but can’t imagine it will be any better than the Robert Spencer Poodle Springs, which was awful.
We’ve talked about what’s good and bad about box sets here, and I wonder if you make your own distilled compilations from box sets for your personal use. More interestingly, do you, after repeated listenings, come to think of your homemade programs as albums in the same way you think of official releases? That is, do they take on their own life, personality, and meaning in the same way as, say, Sly & the Family Stone’s Greatest Hits or Best of the Beach Boys, Vol. 2?
I think of the 9-CD Complete Stax/Volt Singles (1959-1968) box set, which for me is at once both an essential treasure and an obviously excessive package. After getting to know it, I distilled it to 3 CDs (today it exists as 3 folders of MP3s), and now, after 25 years of listening, it’s hard for me to imagine a world without this exact collection—the story it tells, the path it takes me down—even though it is a unique, private indulgence.
It seems a bit of a cheat to feel this way—as you’ve written, part of what’s great about popular music is the conversation it opens up and the connection it creates among shared listeners—but I doubt a 9-CD set of 244 tracks has much chance of accomplishing that in the first place anyway. What do you think?
I used to make up compilation tapes like everybody else. I don’t create my own sets any more, just like I don’t read magazines. I simply don’t have the time. My older daughter said some years ago that she was giving up magazines because they got in the way of her reading books, and I’ve followed her lead ever since. And the fact is I haven’t yet listened to everything on the Dylan box set The Cutting Edge—which, is, essentially, like saying I haven’t explored all of Utopia, this island where I’ve been living since 1965—though someday I will.
[Regarding] the Beat Era in British music, what we in the U.S. call the British Invasion groups. So many of these bands had a hard passionate edge to their recordings, a level of forcefulness and attack in their instruments and in their voices. It’s not so hard to trace how this scene evolved in post-war Britain. My question is, why was it so difficult for white US rock groups (who clearly idolized these UK folks) to capture this sound? It took a long time for Americans to respond, and when they did, with the possible exception of Bob Dylan they still didn’t have the edge but compensated by going off in other directions (Byrds, Spoonful). It’s mostly not hard to pull off what the British groups did in terms of technique, so what was the deal with white Yanks? Too fat in postwar prosperity to have anything to lay on the line?
I think it’s the difference between always having been locked out and always belonging, having always been second-rate and always taking for granted that you owned the world.
I just saw Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You and the first thought that came to my head is that it’s this generation’s Repo Man. For one thing, it seems to be using Oakland the Same way Alex Cox used Los Angeles. Have you seen it yet, and do you have any impressions?
– Robert Fiore
I think it’s a very good comparison, as they both turn up empty at the end. I didn’t get a feel for Oakland neighborhoods in it, upscale or down; seeing Blindspotting tomorrow with hopes for a different ambience.
Have you watched any of the BBC series Luther? It doesn’t move much beyond the “soulful detective solves crimes while battling his personal demons” template, but Idris Elba is very good. The show likes to drop literary and musical references, usually without much effect. (“The past isn’t dead,” Lucas tells a character who hadn’t suggested it was, “it isn’t even past”; Lucas cuts up his notes on a crime to make a collage, because “that’s how David Bowie wrote songs”). One reference lands, though: a young man dominated all his life by his father, bullied by the old man first into joining the military and now into murdering cops, has the drop on Lucas. As he sticks his pistol into the detective’s face he says: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
I haven’t seen it. So Johnny Rotten’s now a cop killer? I have to hear how he delivers that line.
I didn’t manage to get any Heaven’s Door bourbon before the first batch sold out—what do you think of it?
– steve o’neill
Will be in a future Real Life Rock column. I got it online. Expensive.
Mr. Marcus: I am going to be in Memphis next month to visit the Lorraine Motel/National Civil Rights Museum. I would like to visit some of the museums (Rock and Soul, Stax, Sun Studios) dedicated to the city’s musical legacy. Any advice?
See The King and Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train before you go
Bob Dylan sheds his musical skin every 5 to 10 years or so then creates a new sound while exploring different musical styles. What new territory would you like to see him explore? Or is he riding the crooner phase into the sunset?
– Andrew Schroeder
I don’t see any great shift since the early ’90s; I think there’s been a consistent fascination with older American styles, and the riverboat gambler mustache could be a tattoo. In any case he like anyone else can chart his path without help from me.
I was wondering if you’ve seen Springsteen on Broadway and, if you have, what your thoughts were on it? What are your thoughts on the concept in general? Do you think this is his swan song?
I saw it last night and I can’t help but think this could be the last leg of his live performances. The show was riddled with thank yous and expressions of gratitude and guilt. Regardless, that man can still bring the house down.
I saw the show in January, and wrote about it in my villagevoice.com Real Life Rock column:
Along with a strange version of “Born in the U.S.A.” that was somehow reminiscent of Paul Robeson, the great actor and oratorio singer of pre-war years, the most striking moment in the show—as drama, timing, theatricality, personal history, musical history, and social history—came when Springsteen described encountering his future wife Patti Scialfa climbing onstage to sing the Exciters’ “Tell Him” with a local band in a New Jersey bar. “The first words I ever heard her say were, ‘I know/Something about love,’” he said. A line he followed with a sound lexicographically impossible to render, and vocally impossible probably for anyone else—something between “Hmmmm…” and “Oooo!”
It certainly didn’t seem like any kind of farewell to me. He hasn’t been able to stop performing this show, but anyone can get itchy for something bigger and louder.
Have the writings of other critics changed the way you heard any artist, album, or song? I figure the answer is likely yes, and many times—so what are the most memorable examples?
Too many times to think about or remember. That’s what it’s all about—listening. To music, to other people, to happenstance.
I realize now as I reread my question to you about Dead & Co. [7/11] that I wasn’t very clear. What I meant to ask wasn’t whether Deadheads are unprecedented—I think they are—but rather if what John Mayer is doing is unprecedented. He’s got a career that’s going just fine, but he’s committed intensely to this Dead project. I can’t think of anything like it.
The Dead are a religion. It isn’t hard to see that people would want the chance to join the apostles, and to their credit, regardless of need, that the apostles would welcome fellow long-strange travelers. Has that ever happened before? I kind of hope not.
I love the idea that Dylan picked up the art of the bridge (middle eight) from Rubber Soul. It calls back to his subsequent comment about his first reaction to the Beatles: being floored by the “outrageous things” Lennon and McCartney were doing as songwriters.
But in the case of “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” I’d argue that the song’s construction—especially the bridge’s jarring shift from D to B-flat—was inspired by the Dave Clark Five’s “Glad All Over.”
– Dan Heilman
Don’t tell Kenny Buttrey that! Being compared as a drummer to Dave Clark would give him a heart attack if he wasn’t already dead.
I know you love the great novelists of detective fiction (Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald), but I’m wondering what other writers of noir and hardboiled fiction you go back to—or, even if you don’t go back to them, what writers or books haunt you? You mentioned John Franklin Bardin in your syllabus a few months back, and I’d never heard of him—I have a copy of his Omnibus coming to me through the mail as I write this. It’s a period of discovery for me, and as I come to each book (and movie) from that period I’m overwhelmed with how much they speak American, without compromises. I won’t ask you about movies, though I’d like to, and they are obviously a companion to any books that were published during that period. But what books of that kind have stuck with you from the ’20s to present, and which ones haunt you in the way that a Dylan concert bootleg does?
The detective story that’s stuck with me like Macdonald’s The Chill or Chandler’s The Long Goodbye is the Robert Aldrich movie of Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly. I’ve never gotten through the book, but I remember almost every frame of that story, and there are so many signal moments that construct the atmosphere of complete paranoia, brutality, and defeat trying to think about them all at once is like trying to juggle ten balls in the air. It’s wildly different from anything the three clear masters ever even tried. It may owe nothing to them. But it’s L.A., it’s the ’50s, and it’s part of the same story.
James Ellroy wrote a whole series of small, sick, blasted noir novels before he hit it big with overlong pseudo masterpieces. They’re not like anything else, which is all to the good—but they all seem to have absorbed the Black Dahlia story in a far more effective and convincing way than the actual Black Dahlia novel Ellroy finally wrote. In the same way, L.A. Confidential is an infinitely greater contribution to the tradition than the Ellroy novel it was based on. There’s detail, stuff going on around the edge of the story or in the corners of the frame, that aren’t even hinted at in the one-dimensional book.
I’ve read Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice at least six times, not because there’s so much to learn, or find out, but because it’s so much fun. There’s an undertow of regret and loss that keeps it from being a throwaway—and that links it to what I think is its direct precursor, and also a major part of this tale, Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Again, it’s all L.A.—plus its Las Vegas suburb. And there is the weird HBO film, Cast a Deadly Spell, which combines Chandler with H.P. Lovecraft and quickly become both an L.A. police detective story and a history of the city as the locus point of cult religion and satanism since before the first Hollywood movie.
I’ve read all but one of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther mysteries (and the one I didn’t read I didn’t read because I lost it and haven’t gotten around to tracking it down). The last two have been weak and messy and half-hearted, but maybe his health was already failing—he died this year, only 62. But the character has weight, and the first three books, collected as Berlin Noir, live up to that title and to the burden Kerr took on. The idea, he said, was to try to imagine Philip Marlowe in Berlin around the time the Nazis were coming to power. What would he be like? What would he do? How would he talk? And as the story went on, through the war and after it—into the 1950s, though in the best books the post-war mystery was always anchored in an older one—would the person develop in terms of what he’d seen and what he’d done, and would there be an ethical core that lasted, or would it all dissipate, crack, so that all that was left were gestures and wisecracks? And that test is still going on, with Greeks Bearing Gifts, published just before his death, and the manuscript he left when he died, Metropolis, which will fit right in with the next season of Babylon Berlin when it comes out. But at their best, nothing comes closer.
Regarding your remarks about “It’s Now Or Never” and its use in the Jose Cuervo ad, one reason it sounds different is the fact that it has a string arrangement that’s not on the original version, probably from the recent Elvis w/Royal Philharmonic overdubs release. But you’re absolutely right about the ad creating a whole new context for rediscovering the song. This happens all the time (an old X-Files episode has forever changed how I hear Johnny Mathis’ “Wonderful! Wonderful!”), and since you’ve made a career of reviewing (often skewering) records upon their release, I’m wondering if you find yourself reevaluating records you’d once dismissed (or suddenly hating ones you previously loved) after running into them in some unexpected context, and what are a few examples.
– Jim Cavender
Thanks for the information on “It’s Now or Never.” Now I’ll have to go look for the Philharmonic album, which I assumed was more grave robbing, like the just announced Roy Orbison hologram tour.
I’m sure there are many times when the kind of contextual flip you’re talking about happened for me. It’s just when I’m asked that sort of question, from What are you listening to, to What records did you think you loved that you now find empty, my mind goes blank.
What were/are some of your favourite venues for live music?
– steve o’neill
I assume you mean not where I happened to see the most memorable shows but the places I most liked, where I felt most at home, where navigating the space-time of the spot was best. So—in 1966 and ‘67, the Avalon and the Fillmore in San Francisco and the Jabberwock in Berkeley. In the early 1980s, the Savoi Tivoli, a North Beach punk club. In the 1990s and 2000s, Bottom of the Hill for Sleater-Kinney and the Waco Brothers in San Francisco.
Worst: City Winery in New York.
Thanks for your thoughts on Dylan bootlegs, I’ve enjoyed reading your comments on the ‘66 tour ever since I picked up Mystery Train back in the ’80s.
Have you had a chance to listen to the box set of the tour? Any surprise moments for you from the less well-known shows? I’m fascinated by Bob’s “Tom Thumb” introduction at the final show. The Hawks blast into the tune while Bob is telling his hecklers to “read J.D. Salinger”, and it feels like he is climbing aboard a Saturn V during liftoff.
– Jeff Baskin
I did. I listened to every one of those 36 discs, straight through. I wouldn’t call it binge-listening. More like slog-listening. Or penance. Or a search for something different. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” But Passover was already over by the time the tour started, so they didn’t have to answer.
I liked the comment someone posted on the site re: Harmonica Frank: “Frank’s ‘Great Medical Menagerist’ is a peculiar way of starting up rock’n’roll: the W.C. Fields way.” Do you hear him that way? I love some of Frank’s music (especially the Sun stuff which I wish there was more of), and he’s by far the most obscure and least-talked-about person you write about in Mystery Train—any thoughts as to why?
He probably got a lot from W.C. Fields. Who got a lot from Bert Williams. What a line to be part of.
Harmonica Frank was almost absolutely obscure when I first received tapes of his recordings in about 1972 or ’73 from the late Greg Shaw, who also helped me get in touch with Frank, who I corresponded with and spoke to on the phone. Though after he was located by blues collectors and made albums and played folk festivals, in the later 1970s, he remained not merely obscure but, clearly, for some people, untranslatable.
I wrote about him because I was entranced by his music and because he seemed like a protean figure, an emblematic American musician. But also because I knew that a chapter on Harmonica Frank would ensure me at least one part of the book that no one could criticize, since no one would have heard of him, let alone heard him.
I’d like to ask you about Chuck D and Public Enemy. Your recent admiring comments made me remember the year you boycotted Pazz & Jop because Public Enemy was anticipated to win and you didn’t want to even tacitly support the antisemitism they trafficked in. So do you think he’s changed? Or do you have a different view about him then you did then? And, almost incidentally, since I don’t recall you ever addressing it, do you have any thoughts about his music as music?
I don’t know if he’s changed, or how much the anti-semitism in the group was Professor Griff and Chuck D and others not wanting to back away from him in the face of criticism—and prevaricating deep breaths and continued embrace from white critics. I was reacting only to what Chuck D has to say in The King about Elvis, culture, and America, and how he said it.
Public Enemy had a great flair for phrasemaking—“Fear of a Black Planet” will last as long as anyone reading this—and I think their musical life was in the countless layers of sampling. It was thrilling to be thrust into that world and wonder what was happening. But I think finally Chuck D had the kind of hectoring voice that might define its moment but not escape it.
I know you’ve mentioned enjoying (if that’s the right word) Richard Thomas’s performance in The Americans, and recalling that brief mention led me to agree to watch that series when it was proposed in the household recently. We raced right through it over the past couple months, and I thought it was just one of the best series I’ve seen. But from about 10 minutes into the first episode I’ve been wondering why it wasn’t more culturally omnipresent—not just that it didn’t catch on like Game of Thrones or whatever, but that I can’t recall ever seeing anyone I know enthuse about it on Facebook. I don’t understand why people went crazy for House of Cards, which is similar enough in a world of “if you like X, you might like Y,” but which also pretty quickly betrayed its lack of having anything at stake whatsoever. There were no lines the Underwoods weren’t willing to cross. There was plenty of scheming, but no sense that anything was being risked, because those people weren’t morally grounded in any way. I watched only the first three (or maybe two?) seasons, so maybe that changed, but I’m guessing it didn’t. What I saw mostly seemed ridiculous.
With Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, though, there were those lines. There was a pretty constant struggle not to cross them (particularly with Philip), and sometimes they failed, and you can sense the toll it took on them. It’s really what drove the show for me, although the paranoid Cold War backdrop and the individual performances certainly didn’t hurt.
All of this is just leading up to two quick questions:
1) What did you think of the finale?
2) Have you considered writing at length about the series?
Thanks for making me aware that this show exists.
I don’t know why the show didn’t enter the present-day cosmology—though certainly a lot of people were devoted to/scared of/thrilled by the show and never missed an episode. Maybe because the Reagan-era period setting was so carefully recreated it alienated people who weren’t there when it was happening. Maybe because its sex and violence were too ugly—not dressed up, not glamorous, not sexy. These people were whores and killers. That was the currency of their work. You might have an instinctive, impossible to resist, sympathy, and not want them to get caught, but you are shown that the system they serve—that’s not the right word, I don’t know what is, maybe idea?—is evil, and compared to it the USA is benign (Reagan was evil, but that isn’t explored, it’s beside the point).
The finale was a feat of imagination on the writers’ part. Stranding both the parents and the children on different sides of an absolute divide—geographical, historical, political, and personal—the children will never know who their parents really were, and the parents will never know their children (probably because they won’t survive a year in the Soviet Union before they’re both shot as compromised)—that was as harsh as could be, and I think that after that, we don’t want to know more (though it is interesting to imagine a reunion today, with the kids now running a Kushner Company cut out to help subvert American elections because—because of the money,or because they worship Trump?). And having Stan let them go was a masterstroke. To protect himself, he has to protect the children, even if he knows that Paige too is a Soviet spy, because Paige saw him betray both the FBI and his country.
But it was an episode near the end of the last series that fixed the whole show in my mind. I still think about it. It was one of those times, and there were many on the show, when in terms of cruelty and heedlessness and what is understood as necessity goes too far, in an instant. We’re prepared for Nina’s execution, which doesn’t make it any easier to see or to take. But when Elizabeth is in that apartment, after she’s killed the man, and has to kill the woman too, as a possible witness, and stabs her in the back, then pushes her to the floor, and with her knees around the woman’s torso reaches beneath her head and cuts her throat—my God. You wonder if this person could ever stop killing.
I don’t agree that there are lines, at least in terms of behavior and action. There may be a line that Elizabeth cannot only not cross but not imagine crossing: betraying the Soviet Union and all it’s supposed to stand for. Philip’s ambiguity always struck me as a contrived plot device. I could believe him as tired, worn out, but the point is fundamentally weak; that’s why the whole EST business works. But nothing stops him from doing what he has to do.
In Martin Jay’s Downcast Eyes the chapter on Foucault and Debord makes several references to Lipstick Traces. I was wondering if you’ve ever discussed Debord and related matters with your fellow Berkeleyite, and if so what shape the discussion took. (He also refers to a review of Lipstick Traces by Jon Erickson in Discourse that’s not in the review section here. Could that be posted?)
– David Rubin
I lived down the street from Marty when I was working on Lipstick Traces and he was working on Downcast Eyes. I don’t recall us discussing either, except that he mentioned he was referencing my book in his, on his discussion of the situationists, which he did (as far as I can see, all the references are footnotes).
I hadn’t seen the Erickson review when it appeared. It’s as full and accurate a reading of my book as it received pretty much anywhere, with the exception of Jerome McGann in the London Review of Books. I like what he says about ignoring, or trashing, historicism: “If you don’t read this book seriously, you’ll end up taking it seriously.”
[Admin: working on getting the Erickson review for the site.]
Do you have any thoughts on the recent reboot of Rolling Stone, the move to being a monthly, and what the new ownership might mean for the future of the magazine?
– Jeff Vaca
The new format arrived like a relief. Rolling Stone started out as a big, folded tabloid, and the sense of a large, free field of action, for words and visuals, made it seems as if anything was possible, and for a good while anything was. There were years when Rolling Stone was the best journal in the country.
Every time I saw the thin, disappearing Time-magazine size it was a little more depressing than the time before. The size of Rolling Stone allowed for unforgettably powerful full-page photographs, especially of faces: there was one of Mississippi Fred McDowell in a hat and a cigar that I’ve never forgotten, and can call up from memory as if clicking on it. So the magazine has given itself a chance to again make a difference, to create and fix images, to let a story run as long as it needs to go. What the new ownership and Gus Wenner as the new publisher will mean I have no idea, other than to say that the redesign and expansion of the magazine means a commitment has been made.
I’m currently watching Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War. I was pretty surprised by, as a previous commenter to this forum pointed out, how clichéd the musical choices were. Apart from recycling the obvious—explosions scored to Hendrix solos, hippies back home dancing to “Somebody to Love”—the filmmakers managed to create clichés of their own (like using “One Too Many Mornings” to preface every interview with the family of a particular dead soldier). One song choice that seemed both unexpected and inevitable was Pete Seeger’s awful “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” I remember hearing that in the late ’60s, Seeger, coming off his blacklist, was prohibited from performing the song on the Smothers Brothers TV show until a public outcry forced the network to relent, or something. Apparently the whole affair helped to restart Seeger’s career.
Do you know of any artist who’s benefited more from “controversy” surrounding such a terrible song? The only contender I can think of is Neil Young and “This Note’s For You”.
– jalacy holiday
If Budweiser had been The Official Beer of the U.S. Armed Forces in Vietnam then they could have used “This Note’s for You” in “The Vietnam War.” That would have been so…
[Further GM thoughts on 12/12/17 question from Christer re: simple/difficult lyrics]
It depends on who’s writing and the part lyrics play in a song. I’ve been listening again lately to Skip Spence’s most expansive songs, both with Moby Grape and solo, songs such as “Indifference” and “Grey/Afro.” I couldn’t tell you a word from any of them, though the singing is indelible, as if nothing in the world could matter more than for the singer to get across what he’s saying. But he could be singing in Chinese.
What’s your favorite live Dylan concert bootleg?
I could go on for days, and I probably will.
I have to start with what was in early 1968, on a street corner in Berkeley, where I met one Guy Van der Leun, who offered me a cassette as if he were passing me dope, called just the basement tape. He said he’d gotten to know the Rolling Stones in London, they had been sent a copy, one night he snuck into their studio and copied it for himself, and did I want to hear it? I lived with, in, through, and by that music—just the 13 original acetate tunes—for years. Soon it was being bootlegged everywhere—a cover story in Rolling Stone called for its release—the best version coming in a cover with R. Crumb-like renderings for every track, on the Rover label. For me the original sound of that cassette still has a romance to it no later versions have replaced, though the Garth Hudson “safety” recording, stored in Neil Young’s archives, makes you feel as if you’re in the room. Or as if you’re the musicians’ hands and fingers, as if you’re making the choices between keys and notes as they do. When the five-CD, 100 or so track set appeared in the early or mid-90s, it redrew the map of the country.
But the one, the indispensable, is the May 1966 Manchester concert, for some reason bootleged as “Live at the Royal Albert Hall.” How the confusion came about I don’t know.
In , after I wrote a very long piece for Rolling Stone on the unreleased Dylan recordings that were circulating between traders—from 1961 Minnesota hotel tapes to 1966 UK concert tour recordings that D. A. Pennebaker played on WBAI in New York out of frustration for not being able to make his movie of that tour—the person who’d been the engineer for the Manchester show sent me a tape—reel to reel—of the electric half of the performance. I had seen the Berkeley show of the tour in December 1965, and it had been, and still is, the greatest concert I’ve ever been to, but it was skiffle compared to this. It was shocking—the chord Robbie Robertson uses to open “Ballad of a Thin Man” takes down the walls of Jericho. I played it for everyone I could get to hear it. I blasted it on Voice of the Theatre speakers out over the Berkeley Hills and for all I know all the way to the bay.
Some time after that I saw a well-made bootleg with a black and white cover, Bob Dylan Live at Albert Hall 1966 at Moe’s Books. The sticker is still on my copy: $2.49. It was in stock there, off and on, for at least three years. After that it was bootlegged everywhere, into the CD era. One CD version I own has a particularly rich, full, enveloping sound. This was the “Judas!” show, the “Play fucking loud!” show, but in fact, for me, none of that mattered very much. The thrill of the music, jumping song by song, until the torrent of “Like a Rolling Stone,” the last song of the set—there were never any encores—was all I cared about. Of course it was finally released, as part of Dylan’s bootleg series, with superb notes by Tony Glover.
So that’s my desert island bootleg. I could die listening to that “Ballad of a Thin Man” opening, over and over, turning the crank on my little portable record player. (Yes, you can play records on a desert island. You just have to keep turning the crank.)
But after that there’s A Week in the Life, with numbers from May 1966 from Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, and Sheffield. The recent The 1966 Live Recordings box, with I think 26 CDs, one for each of the concerts in Australia, Europe, the UK, and Dublin (plus some truly unlistenable shows from the U.S., and I have a high tolerance for terrible audience bootlegs) doesn’t make that redundant. The tapes on A Week in the Life have a deep, rich, complex sound; even though they went and got the tour engineer to remaster the tapes for the box, the sound there is thin and hollow by comparison.
There is Life on the Square, on the Boss label—live versions of the songs from Time Out of Mind, with heft, passion, guile, a step back, as if even in the rush of “Cold Irons Bound” the singer is watching himself.
I read once that Christopher Ricks has 20,000 Dylan bootlegs. I know the Dylan office in New York, which keeps up, doesn’t have that many.
For all that, I might have more affection for a collection from the early or mid-90s called Golden Vanity, on Wanted Man. It’s 1988-92 live performances, most seemingly in Europe, of Dylan performing traditional songs, solo, in breaks in his shows with a band. In his repertoire the songs predate most of those he chose for his first album: “A Roving Blade,” “The Girl on the Green Briar Shore,” “When First Unto This Country,” 15 more, each one stilling time, arguing against all notions of progress or even change, a hush emanating from them, a hush not heard, since all the songs are surrounded, in the crowd, with drunken screams and hollers and whoops and impatience. It’s a kind of war, the past versus the present, the present winning, the past playing the long game. I wrote about this in more detail in “All This Useless Beauty” in my book Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus.
And of course there are the 19,207 bootlegs (approximately) I’ve never heard. But I’d bet 90% of them are the likes of Columbus, Ohio, March 7, 1978, which would not make you eat your heart out from regret of not being there.
I’m an Italian scholar and I’m working on Italian songs in the U.S., famous tunes which were translated and adapted in a new language and performed by not-Italian singers. My question regards “It’s Now or Never.” As far as you know, do any kind of studies or books which analyze the song exist, for example who recorded the music before submitting it to Elvis.
– Simona Frasca
There is actually a great deal of useful and pertinent information in the Wikipedia entry on the song. But what’s really a mystery to me is why the dramatization of the song in the recent Jose Cuervo commercial is so effective—I mean, is it the mix, or the characters, or the direction, or some kind of audio trick, that makes the song sound better—richer, more detailed, and both as if it’s always been here and as if it’s absolutely new—than it ever has before?
We’re in a bar somewhere in the nowhere of the barely populated southwest. Arizona, let’s say. The radio is announcing the end of civilization. The wind is raging. People run screaming. Some people run out of the bar. One guy, in his late twenties or early thirties, considers the situation: End of World, Play “It’s Now or Never.” He goes to the jukebox and drops the coin into the slot: of course this bar, this jukebox, has the record. It comes on, and he begins to dance. A woman alone at a table, about his age, whatever it is, joins him on the floor. Their movements are slow, languid, stretched, something more than sexy—acting out not sex but the idea of it, because soon that’s all that will be left. The wind blows the roof off the building and knocks pictures behind the bar askew. A grease monkey—or a miner, or an oil jockey—comes into the bar. His face is completely black from soot; when he take off his helmet, his bald, clean skull gives him a two-tone head. He orders—or doesn’t order, he’s a regular, the bartender knows what he wants—a Cuervo shot. The bartender pours it. He fixes a picture. The song is still playing. The place is turning to ruins. The bartender comes out and begins posing to the song and mouthing the words, with blazing timing, all rhythm. Another couple is dancing. And the assumption that everyone in this bar—everyone in the WORLD—knows this song and is hearing it as if for the first time, with the knowledge of the hundreds of times they’ve heard it before backing up that sense of first impression—is completely believable.
Most of what you’ve written about the Trump Nakba has been about the campaign to destroy the idea of the common good, so I was wondering, what do you think about the campaign to destroy the Atlantic Alliance? My impression, which may owe too much to British spy novels, is that the rest of the free world never exactly relished American leadership, and we maintained it primarily by bringing more to the table than anyone else, and if we stopped bringing more to the table it would evaporate. (I suppose the ultimate expression of barely submerged hostility was James Bond’s “best friend” Felix Leiter, who gets his legs bitten off by an alligator.) The subtext to this all is the sentiment on the right that the legacy free world is too liberal, and America ought to create a block that’s farther to the right.
P.S. “Long Strange Trip”: I wonder how it feels to know you coined your own cliché.
– Robert Fiore
As I’ve written before, I think there is a nascent Fascist International that Trump and Putin are putting place, and the dissolution of the European Union and NATO are crucial parts of that. Trump’s NATO meeting demands and declarations—Pay now! Double it! Fuck you! I won!—no matter how phony, may have the effect of pitting various member nations against each other. If nothing else, it humiliates every nation, stressing that they are nothing without his noblesse oblige. If the leaders of the NATO nations can’t stand up to Trump, it may lead to significant factions in those countries to conclude that they can’t and won’t stand up to Putin, and so an accommodation with Russia is the way to go—even at the cost of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (Poland, Hungary, Romania, Austria, Serbia, and possibly Croatia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia are already in the bag). Trump’s ambassador to Germany let the cat out of the bag: he announced he was going to work to empower right-wing movements across Europe and bring right-wing governments to power.
As for coining my own cliché, if you’re referring to “the old, weird…” it feels terrible. Except I would like to taste the beer, or get a beer mat, or a draft handle, or something. And while I cringe when I see my name pinned to the phrase when someone mindlessly uses it, I’m also pissed off when someone uses the phrase as if it’s always been lying around, or as if he (it’s always a he) made it up himself.
Do you know Nina Simone’s version of “I Think it’s Going to Rain Today“? I think it’s one of the greatest covers of a Randy Newman song. She seems to understand the song better than anyone else and to get further inside it—and what she does in the last verse is breathtaking. I’d love to know what you think of it.
I have never been a great Nina Simone listener. There’s a distance, an archness, that gets in the way for me too often. But this is strong.
Have you ever written about mono vs stereo recordings? Have you ever developed an opinion on how stereo changed popular music?
Mono singles. The most revelatory stereo experience I’ve ever had was putting on Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model after I got a new needle. It was like getting glasses when I was seven: Wow, that green stuff on trees is LEAVES!
The real divide is between digital and analog. It doesn’t matter if you’re listening to vinyl if the music was recorded digitally—or rerecorded. Yes, for analog recordings now transferred digitally you hear all kinds of stuff you didn’t know was there. But it wasn’t there. You don’t have to see every pore to see a face.
What, if anything, did you think of that Doors doc, When You’re Strange? I guess it was kind of a clichéd narrative, but I watched it for the footage, my favorite of which was an inexplicable TV broadcast showing Robbie Krieger with a black eye playing amongst tuxedoed orchestra musicians.
I didn’t see it. I don’t like Johnny Depp’s High Priest of Sixties Weirdness act and have always found non-fiction screen Doors portraits lifeless.
re: “Patti LaBelle, who except for one record was a terrible singer.” [7/4] I don’t know much of her music, but her version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles) is one of the great r+b performances.
– David McClure
I think she’s a histrionic singer whose whole style can be reduced to an attempt to call attention to herself, which for me is perfectly expressed by the kite she tries to fly through the very first word of the song.
Twenty-four years ago this month in your Interview article, “Woodstock 25 Years Later,” you describe the Manson Family as “a hippy commune.” Granted, that was the conventional media shorthand confirmed by Gonzo himself, that raised Charlie in the popular conception to usurp the hippy throne left vacant by anyone who died in possession of a white lighter. Nobody could really argue effectively, for decades, that the Manson Family weren’t hippies, because they dropped acid and looked like hippies. Not to mention, the Diggers had already had their Hippy funeral, and tie-dyes would be sold at Spencers Gifts, so even hippies wanted to let it die, too.
But to generations of youth since then, some positive inflection of anti-consumer communalism and psychedelic rapture continues to inspire continuity with those imaginings that reached their “high water mark” during the Summer of Love. To wit: the entheogenic renaissance in psychotherapy appears as if it may finally emerge benevolently to aid society’s coping, and anti-war protests are bigger than they’ve ever been, despite being more ineffective than they’ve ever been.
So as to bring long awaited checks and balances to the establishment iconotropy, last autumn [Paul] Krassner revealed some mighty nourishing clarification to the realities of the inhabitants of Spahn Ranch, and Manson’s (shall we say) weaponization by shadowy forces-that-be. Namely, the FBI/CIA—or someone else with an equally sneaky capacity for plausible operational deniability, media manipulation, and the ability to bring LAPD procedures to heal—appears to have been integral to Manson’s continued habitual extremities leading up to his gory puppet master performance, really enabling the whole affair.
Put simply, they were grooming him to start a race war with the Panthers… until Charlie double crossed the Feds by instead sending the berserkers on a drug-deal-gone-wrong revenge campaign… Because you can’t do business with a madman in order to satisfy the share-holders’ expectations of certainty without some spectacular blowback. (If true, good on you, Charlie, for sparing us a sparring with those groovy cats in Watts.)
The establishment silver lining, of course, was that the grizzly murder of Sharon Tate and unborn child brought the sheer face of hell right to Roman Polanski’s conjugal bed, as if comeuppance for the class heresies of Rosemary’s Baby, and pretty much turned his life into a never-ending nightmare. CIA somehow always finds a way to win.
With this in mind, as we approach the half-century one year away, what do you say about some blanket historical revisionism (or at least reconsideration) that rejects the lumpy logic that racist, violent, lemming-herded, sexual blackmailers operating with COINTELPRO-like above-the-lawness aren’t accurately, nor constructively described as “hippies,” nor “communers?”
[Post-Script Non-Sequitur—Why decades of silence about the genius (or something else) of Doug Marsch and Built To Spill? Do they ever cross your mind? Cross your desk? Fall on your radar? Fall under your hi-fi needle? I just see that they don’t search out from your website archive, so thought to ask.]
Built to Spill was a knockout.
If you can find it, read the original hardcover of Ed Sanders’s The Family for the chapter on the Process. And don’t forget Scientology. Before government bogeymen invented and programmed Manson they would have had to control those outfits, and they didn’t. Manson—that name, Son of Man, aka Jesus Christ—was a classic American sex cult leader. The template goes back at least to the early 19th century and probably farther than that. It’s part of the American ethos. He had many forebears. He didn’t need handlers.
I was in Eugene, Oregon for the Dead & Company show at Autzen Stadium and was really struck by two things. (After being struck by the quality of the show, which was stupendous.) First, as the bass player Otel Burbidge said after the concert, “it was like some kind of (Grateful Dead) nerve center. Like an Old Growth Forest of Deadheads.” Which conjures up an image of superannuated hippies playing in the woods, but I think Otiel meant it more broadly; my thirty-something friend at his second Dead-type show couldn’t get over the age range of the crowd. You would have been hard-pressed to guess whether there were more 25- or 65-year-olds. It was kind of a comfort in these godawful times. (In fact, Eugene was in general.)
The other was John Mayer. The guy is completely bought in. He knows the Dead’s repertoire forwards, backwards and sideways, he’s referring to Jerry’s parts without trying to be Jerry, and he’s set aside any sense that this is a John Mayer gig. He is in service to the Dead’s music. I can’t think of anything like it in rock history, or even music history.
That’s my question—is it unique?
– Jeff Beresford-Howe
I don’t think it’s unique. I think you’d find the same thing at a Rolling Stones show, without the cult aspect—by now three or even four generations of people being raised as Deadheads in Deadhead families in a Deadhead milieu. I had a sister-in-law once who came out of that background. I wonder if it will keep going after last original member is gone.
You’d find Joel Selvin’s new Fare Thee Well: The Final Chapters of the Grateful Dead’s Long, Strange Trip, an account of the post-Jerry years, more than interesting.
Do we really need this?
What we really don’t need is another—or any remix.
I had the good fortune to catch last Sunday’s afternoon screening of The King in Berkeley, with you and Eugene Jarecki appearing afterward. I couldn’t think of anything to ask during the Q&A, but afterward I recalled Jarecki talking about people he wanted in the film but couldn’t get. He mentioned Aretha Franklin, but wouldn’t Little Richard have been an even better choice? Aside from Jerry Lee Lewis he’s the last surviving contemporary and peer of Elvis, and as the “architect” of rock’n’roll he would have had plenty to say about the genre’s racial politics.
On that topic, here’s a section from a terrific Rolling Stone interview with Little Richard from 1970:
“The reason that people like B. B. King are coming through now is, you see, a long time ago music like that was considered race music. As you know, Muddy Waters has never gotten the recognition he should’ve gotten, Howlin’ Wolf has never gotten the recognition, the Rolling Stones used to sit and talk to me and they were saying, ‘These people are great, how come you never hear them?’ And I think that people like Janis Joplin have made it possible for these people to come through. By them doing it, it makes kids want to see the originators.
Like, see, when Elvis came out a lot of black groups would say, ‘Elvis cannot do so and so and so, shoo shoo shoo [huffs and grumbles]’. And I’d say, ‘Shut up, shut up.’ Let me tell you this—when I came out they wasn’t playing no black artists on no Top 40 stations, I was the first to get played on the Top 40 stations—but it took people like Elvis and Pat Boone, Gene Vincent to open the door for this kind of music, and I thank God for Elvis Presley. I thank the Lord for sending Elvis to open that door so I could walk down the road, you understand? And people like Janis Joplin and B. B. King, I’m glad to see what’s happening to them, because they’re true people, and rhythm and blues is the type of music that can’t nobody teach you, you have to be dedicated.”
That’s a heartbreaking statement: his sincerity comes out like tears.
Eugene said the people he wanted but couldn’t get were Aretha and Elvis Costello. I would have expected him to say Chuck Berry, who was still around and perfectly capable of saying what he meant when the film was in its earlier stages. No way in the world to predict or even imagine what he might have said.
To me it might be Chuck D. who’s most gratifying in the film. He has enormous dignity, his spirit is open and generous, he speaks clearly, his ideas are considered: there’s life and work behind them. And from all that comes an authority that no one else in the picture quite achieves.
I was listening to New Order’s “Temptation” 12″ last night, and I sat there thinking that it might just be the greatest single ever released. It just sets an environment, musically and lyrically, that captures the greatness of life like no other song for me. It explains going out and seeing/meeting someone that you perceive as amazingly unique, and then getting sent to that elevated state of consciousness (although, it could be the drugs in the protagonist’s system?) so well. I believe it’s romanticism at its best in rock n’ roll.
I remember you rating it highly in your end of ’82 list, and I also recall you saying it was probably one of the great 12″ records in rock. I was wondering if you still held that opinion, and is New Order a band you return to often?
– Kyle C
I go back to New Order all the time. Their earlier albums, and the ones from the last ten years. But most of all I do go back to that long, 12″ version of “Temptation.” I remember when I was first playing it, all day, always thrilled by a sense of the miraculous—how could anybody conceive this, and then play it, unless it was that the group started to play and in the process understood what they were doing, even conceived it on the run, as with the Rolling Stones and “Goin’ Home”? I also thought it was so rough, the vocals so unpolished, so un-sung—not punk non-singing, but like some kind of guide vocal ending up more passionate and desperate than it was supposed to be—that it didn’t make sense to me that it would have ever been released, at least with Martin Hannett’s name on it.
I think the best single of all time is the one you’re listening to when that thought enters your head. I could name a dozen, and then start thinking about a dozen more. You can’t say that “Temptation” is better than “Lose Yourself” or “Whole Lotta Shakin'” or “The Fat Man.” You can say they all exist on the same plane of impossibility.
Can you share your ballot for Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Songs of the Century” feature?
I filled out my ballot by hand and didn’t keep a copy. Whether it was used, tabulated, collated, I don’t know. There were some close calls for number one. Eminem and “Lose Yourself.” Lady Gaga and “Bad Romance.” But it was the New Pornographers’ “Letter From an Occupant.” It opened the century and as far as I’m concerned it can close it.
You believe, if I’m reading you correctly, that since she pursued him Bill Clinton has no cause to apologize to Monica Lewinsky for their relationship. I agree… but don’t you think maybe he owes her an apology for letting her swing in the wind after the affair came to light? I mean, however politically expedient it seemed at the time, that finger-wagging denial was pretty ungentlemanly.
– steve o’neill
I didn’t mean to imply BC did or didn’t owe ML an apology. It’s not for me to tell people what to do in their private lives. All I said, I think, was that in this case I thought that despite what ML may be saying now about power imbalance and consent, I think the issue of consent is moot if indeed she came on to him. It was up to him to say no, and because he didn’t he risked, and damaged, the future of the country. That’s why he owes me an apology, and everyone else.
Wondering if you have seen or read Pitchfork’s “The Story of Girl Groups in 45 Songs“?
I’d be curious to know how you feel about the inclusion of the likes of Destiny’s Child, Spice Girls and TLC. Do you agree that they fit into the conventions of the girl group style? Is there anywhere else in modern music that you hear remnants or echoes of the girl group style that you wrote about so well 40 years ago?
The best way to listen to girl groups as I wrote about them 40 years ago (incompletely—I left out the Honeys’ 1963 “The One You Can’t Have,” which I can play all day long and may be the most defining girl group song of all—and if I have to go before the Final Judgement and declare one Brian Wilson record over all the others, that would be the one) is to listen to them. Any style, form, theme, evolves and changes according to who takes it up. TLC is a perfect girl group both for being wonderful and new on their own terms and for changing our ideas of what girl-groups can and should signify.
That said, I think any lists that are too long—longer than 10 or 15—are cheats. If you can put in anything (and on any list of 100, I don’t care if it’s “100 Most Interesting People in History” or something equally broad, you’re going to start running out of things you really want to include and you’ll just be filling it out) then you don’t have to chose, think, decide, suffer the pain over what has to be left out, really take a stand. So “45” is lazy. And I think there are (there always have been) questions of sticking to the, let’s call it, ethos. I always thought the Marvelettes were Motown’s only girl group—Martha and the Vandellas and the Supremes were women groups, and my friends and I argued about this at the time. There has to be an element of girl-ness, of innocent fun, of crushing disappointment (Skeeter Davis—“The End of the World”—it has to feel like that, no Patsy Cline fatalism or learning), the redemption of the world in a kiss or just seeing someone from across the street. LaBelle was not a girl group—Patti LaBelle, who except for one record was a terrible singer, didn’t sing as a girl, and why should she? Sister Sledge and the Pointer Sisters not only didn’t sing as girls, they marketed themselves to and as grown-up people with a lot of money to spend, with black-tie concerts and (for then absurd) $30 or $50 tickets. Destiny’s Child, despite an overbearing, oppressively cliched singing style—so perfectly parodied by SNL’s Geminis’ Twin (Maya Rudolph got Beyoncé better than anyone else not prepared to bow at her feet—on a panel a few days ago one critic referred to her, I think not ironically, as “the mother of us all”) that after hearing them, in whatever version, it was hard to hear the originals as anything but self-parodies—introduced a level of seriousness in terms of money, equality, and self-determination that was powerful partly because the element of facing the real world pushed against the received conventions of the form, and their girl-like sound.
Oh, but the Honeys. If you don’t know it, here it is:
Reading your work I get the expansive (and yes, comforting) impression that all of our accumulated historical cultural life still exists as a simultaneous dialogue within a living, continuously self-creating present. Somewhere Jim Morrison is still prowling the edge of the stage, saying “Hey Look…” I remember deriving a similar impression from Dylan’s account of his early days in New York, when old folk music and literature seemed more vivid and alive to him than current events.
How much better this is than my suffocating periodic middle-of-the-night perception that it’s all just a pile of dust at the bottom of a vault, digitally-enhanced into a holographic imprint of a memory of something created by dead people 50 or a hundred or two hundred years ago. As Kirshnamurti said, the perfume is gone.
It’s impossible to argue against either of your images. They’re both alive and open ended, and indelibly described. If we’re engaged, as you are, I imagine we will go back and forth between the one side and the other the rest of our lives.
I just read an article at The Atlantic on the grandeur of great protest music. It referenced you speaking last week at the Aspen Ideas Festival about a protest song called “It Isn’t Nice” by Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers. It quoted you as saying, “I found myself hearing and memorizing every word.”
I’d like to ask you to read the words of another obscure protest song, “Election Day” by Mike K Brown.
“I can feel a new day coming
Change is on the way
I hear the wheels of Progress humming
I’m just waiting on Election Day
You have tried to keep me quiet
I have things to say
I have a voice
It won’t be silent
You’re gonna hear it on Election Day”
Very appropriate for our times.
But there’s no imagination here, no individual voice, and no musicality. It’s no more and no less a song than a bumper sticker reading “VOTE!” And because it exists as part of a form that demands more than the form of the bumper sticker, its fundamental poverty is depressing, and it may be even less effective than the bumper sticker. Now, instead, imagine someone writing a song with the same aim, to get people to vote, starting with no more than a title, which could go anywhere in terms of sparking a story, melody, attack: “She Didn’t Vote.” What happens? We don’t know, so we’re pulled in. Just like that, the song has an imaginary audience. The other song doesn’t, because the most likely response, I think, is, “I’m busy. Tell me something I don’t know.”
I only see one passing reference to Cormac McCarthy on the site. Any thoughts on his work? Suttree, Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, and The Crossing are all masterpieces for me.
– Scott Bunn
I was knocked out by Blood Meridian at the time but it didn’t stay with me, and I didn’t pursue it after that. My loss, I imagine.
1. In your response to Andrew (6/26), I think you’ve confused (or conflated) David Fincher’s Zodiac with his earlier Se7en. I’d still love to hear anything you have to say about the former.
2. Any thoughts on Negativland?
– Phil Dyess-Nugent
1. I sure am mixing it up. But I always thought Se7en was based on Zodiac. And still do.
2. I always found the concept of Negativland perfect, and as they and I were from the Bay Area, as soon as they started making noise I began to see “…land” signs everywhere, even though I’d never noticed the phenomenon, or the language, or the code, or the message to aliens, before. But the only record of theirs that I actually played (over and over) was their “U2”—“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” plus the Casey Kasem rant, which only the Troggs’ Trainspotting-level obscene studio fight outdoes.
No need to put this on the sight – just responding:
“…and while Van Jones is a blowhard…” (agreed)
“…Ernest Withers photo of King’s funeral procession in Memphis passing the State Theater, where the marquee has Elvis’s latest movie, Stay Away Joe…” (that is a great photo—saw it for the first time in The Searcher—but it made me think, as you mentioned in Mystery Train, by that time he had “been a bad joke for a long time”—why would anyone have wanted him there anyway?)
“…Colonel would have kidnapped him and held him in Fort Knox to keep him from appearing in public in any kind of civil rights march” (that’s for sure)
“if you’ve seen an Elvis movie, you know he could find a way out.” (I don’t think so—as Steve Binder said in Searcher he saw him cower to Parker, and Tom Petty said we’ll never understand why he would humiliate himself for that man—Phil Spector was probably right—had to be a form of hypnosis of some kind—if those movies had continued making money, he may have never stopped doing them.)
Sorry to respond this way, but no one I know like to discuss this subject!
Don’t stop. There’s no end to this story. See The King if you haven’t—couldn’t tell.
I also very much enjoyed Sheffield’s book on the Beatles and he is indeed interesting on Rubber Soul‘s impact on Dylan. It’s indeed true that the women of Rubber Soul have far more life, more autonomy than anyone we’d met in Dylan’s work up to that point. But what always struck me about the Beatles impact on Dylan is something else, something we hadn’t seen in Dylan’s songwriting up to that point. From the first, the Beatles always constructed songs with what they invariably called a “middle 8” (regardless of how many bars were actually involved), a section that introduces a different melody and musical setting from the verses and choruses we’d already heard. (And when they didn’t have one, they liked to begin the song with the chorus.) Dylan, of course, did no such thing. The songs on his first few albums barely have choruses. But suddenly on Blonde on Blonde, we get these middle sections in “Just Like a Woman” (“it was raining from the first…”), in “Absolutely Sweet Marie” (“anybody can be just like me…”) and in “I Want You” (“All my fathers..”). He’d never done anything like that before. The technique disappears completely of course, along with the choruses, on John Wesley Harding, but it continues to pop up from time to time over the next decade (“Lay Lady Lay”, “Watching the River Flow”, “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome.”)
– Daniel McIlroy
You’re completely right, and what’s so striking—I think especially in “Absolutely Sweet Marie”—is how dynamic, galvanic, assaultive Dylan’s use of the device is. So often the middle 8 is used to allow the song, singer, and listener to relax, in terms of what’s being done with melody, lyrics, and orchestration, which is usually lighter. Dylan increases the pressure, raises the stakes, puts everything on edge, so you’re not sure where you’re going. Thus when you return to the main theme, it’s not with a sense of being returned to the fold of the song. It’s new territory, anything can happen, and the resolution, which the conventional middle 8 promises and presages, doesn’t have to take place.
Do you have any thoughts on: 1) Abba; 2) Dionne Warwick; 3) Bill Maher; 4) My Bloody Valentine
– J Donne
I actually don’t.
Have you read, or do you plan to read, The President Is Missing (and doesn’t that seem like a title that’s been used a hundred times before)? How do you feel about Clinton’s book tour getting derailed by #metoo questions?
– steve o’neill
Patterson is a factory, not a writer, and as you say The President Is Missing is a factory title. As for the book tour—Clinton owes a deep, searching apology to the people he betrayed when he put his whole presidency and all it stood for in jeopardy, damaging Al Gore and leading to eight years of ruinous Republican rule. But last I heard, the question of consent and Monica Lewinsky was always moot, as she came on to him.
Did any of the eulogies of The Slits lead singer contain the phrase “Ari Up and Died?” Asking for a friend.
– Kevin Bicknell
I hope not.
Have you seen any of Babylon Berlin on Netflix? It’s the German version of premium television (though I guess you could say that the Germans invented it), set in Berlin in 1929. Bryan Ferry wrote (but does not perform) cabaret songs for it. It might remind you favorably of early Eric Ambler.
– Robert Fiore
It’s a fabulous production, and in some situations—such as the police massacre of communists in streets and doorways and apartments—staggeringly accurate. The plot is hard to follow in the best way, with conspiracies political and otherwise intersecting until you say, What? A Nazi training camp in the Soviet Union? and the show replies, Like, you’re surprised? Don’t you remember the Hitler-Stalin pact? Well, of course not, if you’re in 1929, since it hadn’t happened, but we bring a different memory to the show, and so do the people making it.
The named-after-himself orchestra Bryan Ferry put together for Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby is far more effective here—they’ve really mastered the hobble-step Bix Biederbeck beat of the mid-20s, and they play with it all through the soundtrack. And Ferry does perform, I think in the last episode (so far), appearing in the most elegant of the cafes to sing “Reason or Rhyme,” looking every day of his age—he would have been 71 or 72 when it was filmed—which means we’re looking at a Bryan Ferry born in the 1850s, which is kind of shocking, and also perfect: he’s always been part Bela Lugosi.
Plus he sings “Chance Meeting,” though I think only on the soundtrack album.
I saw The King in NYC yesterday, really enjoyed it—you had the funniest line when you mentioned “crackpot religions” in LA in the late ’60s.
Only thing I got a little turned off to was criticism of Elvis for not marching with Martin Luther King like Brando and Heston did. Why no mention that by performing material on national TV in 1956 by black artists he opened doors for them like no one before? Plus that many people—James Brown, Ivory Joe Hunter, as well as Ali—truly loved him and made no secret of it.
I don’t know—what do you think—is it me?
– Lou Pecci
I think it’s a hard question, less about the March on Washington than any number of civil rights protests in Memphis, and while Van Jones is a blowhard, with, here, none of Chuck D.’s dignity or thoughtfulness, he makes a serious argument. It hit home for me years before, when I looked at the Ernest Withers photo of King’s funeral procession in Memphis passing the State Theater, where the marquee has Elvis’s latest movie, Stay Away Joe—which in context, the context Withers built, means, “Elvis, stay away.” And he could have been there, in his home town, the same place where he sometimes recited the end of King’s March on Washington speech. “If I Can Dream” is about that speech and about the assassination—no, Elvis didn’t write it, but he sings it as if he’s tearing it out of his heart, unsure, tripping and stumbling, desperate to say what he means, to get it across, ignoring melody and rhythm, more like someone jumping on stage to give a speech than being paid to sing a song—but that doesn’t make up for anything. The kinship that James Brown, B. B. King, Eddie Murphy, Muhammad Ali, and Chuck Berry might have felt for Elvis, or his role as some kind of racial ambassador, doesn’t either. Sure, the Colonel would have kidnapped him and held him in Fort Knox to keep him from appearing in public in any kind of civil rights march, but hey, if you’ve seen an Elvis movie, you know he could find a way out.
I catch something new on every pass through Mystery Train, and this time I caught a footnote referencing the Zodiac killer. What are your memories of the Zodiac in the press, and his impact on the Bay Area? Any thoughts on Robert Graysmith’s books, the David Fincher film derived from them, and/or the film’s use of music? (I already found “Hurdy Gurdy Man” creepy, but the static-y snatch of “Baker Street” as Graysmith confronts the killer, hit out of nowhere.) Do you think Graysmith identified the right man?
As for the David Fincher movie, now we know what reserves of self-loathing Kevin Spacey drew on for his role there—not to mention for The Usual Suspects and American Beauty. I haven’t read the Graysmith books. I have read David Talbot’s book on House of Horrors San Francisco in the 1970s—he’s not wrong, just the wrong person to be telling the story, because I think at bottom he didn’t care, he wasn’t scared.
I was. I always confused, if not in the moment, the Zodiac Killer and the Zebra Killers. I certainly wasn’t touched by the Zodiac Killer in the way that my friend Michele Jordan was. It’s a kind of smear—the theme killers, Jonestown, Dirty Harry movies, the mass killers in the Santa Cruz mountains, the war in the Black Liberation Movement over George Jackson and James Carr, my home town, bucolic Menlo Park, for a time emerging as the center of what was promoted as violent revolution but was really an excuse for internecine execution squads, the Chowchilla kidnapping (I’ve always thought the three kidnappers should never have been released, but two of them have been—and I was shocked to find in an online search about something else that Squeaky Fromme is out, for that matter doing motorcycle commercials—what planet was I on when that happened?)—the Symbionese Liberation Army (kidnapping Patty Hearst on the street where I had my first student apartment and live now), Dan White’s murders of George Moscone and Harvey Milk, so much more. It’s hard to navigate by memory, let alone thinking.
And now I feel like asking why you have refrained from watching A Clockwork Orange for the last 47 years.
In the ’60s and early ’70s there were so many cult books and movies that didn’t seem that interesting to me in the first place that I made a point of avoiding them. I don’t know if it was sheer cussedness or the desire to be able to ignore conversations when they came up or a way to avoid intellectual pollution, but that’s why I never saw A Clockwork Orange or Easy Rider or read Stranger in a Strange Land or The Teachings of Don Juan. I did, however, read Atlas Shrugged in high school.
Your “funniest books” back-and-forth with readers got me thinking about the funniest books directly related to music… Dylan’s Chronicles is tops for me, but I also love one I read years and years ago, a fake history of the Beatles called Paperback Writer—an irate Donovan threatening to punch John out for repeatedly referring to him as “Don” is priceless (Mike Love and the Maharishi step in to cool things out). You?
– steve o’neill
No question Mark Shipper’s book is the One. Especially at the end, when the Beatles reform and open for Peter Frampton.
[see Greil’s June 1977 review of Paperback Writer.]
Something I came to late: Esther Phillips, The Country Side of Esther. God how I love it, even down to the “schlocky” period orchestrations and backup singers.
Have you ever listened to it?
– Johannes Rand
Completely new to me. I’ll look for it.
Have you read Ryan H. Walsh’s Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968? If yes, what did you think of it? Even though it seemed a bit of a flimsy construct, I thoroughly enjoyed this exploration of a pivotal year in one of my favorite places in the world.
– Johannes Rand
I agree about the construct. But there’s a huge amount there about all of the subjects Walsh takes on that I didn’t know, and I think most people didn’t know, or never thought about. I met him recently, and he played me and a few other people the Peter Wolf tape of the August 1967 Boston performance where Van Morrison performed several of the songs that would appear on Astral Weeks—most powerful was “Beside You,” which already fully had the shape it would take on the album.
I just watched The Who—Live at the Isle of Wight. Do you think Townshend is one of the main sartorial influences of A Clockwork Orange? A little bit too contemporaneous but striking.
I’ve never seen A Clockwork Orange.
Wondering if you have the book that came out of the first annual International Conference on Elvis Presley (held in Oxford, MS 1995): In Search of Elvis (Music Race Art Religion), edited by Vernon Chadwick (Westview Press, 1997). Some real interesting reading.
The book seemed like an exercise in resume padding to me—opportunistic. A lot of the contributors seemed to be trying to convince themselves that what they were saying was true.
Graham Parker. The first two albums: undeniable. Stick To Me: Hideously botched sound, but the songs cried out for better. Squeezing Out Sparks: His bid for the big time, but by my count three magnificent career-topping cuts and one pretty good title track that makes me want to throw things at the speakers, all filled in with bosh. Was there anything more? (Not that that isn’t quite a bit.)
If I had to take one, I could live with Heat Treatment. There’s something hectoring, without the sense of reaching for freedom, not achieving it, in most of Squeezing Out Sparks—the one there, for me, is “Discovering Japan.” And if I had to go further, I could settle for “Pouring It All Out” and “Fools Gold.” And if I had to go for one, it would be “Pouring It All Out.” I wish there was something, some lousy audience tape bootleg, that caught what they did on stage, what they poured out and why, in the fall of 1977, down Route 66.
Last year you named 1964 as the period of music you lived through that excited you the most. Do you think 1965 might be the runner-up? I wasn’t alive but I have to believe it was nearly as exciting to hear this reinvented rock music bursting through the doors the Beatles opened up: Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, the Byrds’ first two albums, the Beatles themselves with Beatles ’65, Help!, and Rubber Soul. The Beach Boys continuing to peak with “California Girls” and three fine albums, with Brian Wilson’s ambition and innocence still working together. The Rolling Stones creating a new identity with “Satisfaction” and writing more, covering less. Motown strong, and rapidly gaining strength. Otis Redding’s emergence with “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and “Respect.” Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” helping Otis put the Stax sound on the map. The British Invasion evolving quickly, finding the blues, making rock harder, meaner, tougher, sometimes darker: The Who, the Yardbirds, the Kinks, the Animals, Them.
It’s dizzying for me to think about. What do you think?
I could go either way. I ran down 1965 at the start of my Like a Rolling Stone book and was stunned by how many records were flowering in a sea of dreck, or maybe it’s the other way around. But I suppose for me 1964 is like 1955/56 and 1977/78—surprises everywhere, the sense of a new world, stumbling on the Beatles and then seeing them take over the world in a week, then the Rolling Stones, then, then, then—it was all too much to take in. And all this coursing through the three months of the Free Speech Movement and “The Times They Are a Changin'”—with Motown a kind of street-level counterweight to it all. As someone said of going into a record store in 1979 or so, you were almost afraid to turn on the radio, because you knew what you heard might change your life.
What have you thought of John Irving’s post-Garp novels? And why do you dislike John Cheever so much?
– Devin McKinney
Though I have affection for Hotel New Hampshire, mainly because of the listing of Elvis’s Sun singles, because it came from an Elvis Sun sessions LP I gave him, the book that most moved me, stayed with me, seemed brave and altogether unpredictable, was The Cider House Rules. It’s also by far the best film made from any of his books. Michael Caine is perfect, but it’s no stretch for him. What makes the movie sing is Tobey Maguire and Charlize Theron truly coming into their own, but never revealing themselves, especially to themselves.
As for Cheever—I find a lot of his short stories automatic: predictable, taking place within a narrow framework of time, place, and manners. If he weren’t a New Yorker writer and if what he wrote about didn’t seem like the world to the New York writers who wrote about him, he’d be understood as a regionalist in the most narrow sense, as would be true for Renata Adler, too, as a novelist. And I think Falconer is junk.
I wonder if you see any parallels between Donald Trump’s appeal to his base and Huey Long’s to his. I don’t mean to suggest any similarity of character between the men—Long was intelligent and a savvy politician who had some capacity, at least, for empathy—but it seems to me that Trump, consciously or (more likely) not, has taken some pages from Long’s playbook. He, like Long, has managed to turn his NOKD-ness into perhaps his greatest asset (Trump’s nowhere near as gutsy as Long, though—the Kingfish probably would have appointed Stormy Daniels Secretary of State). What do you think?
Huey Long was not a racist.
I’ve seen you reference Matt Groenings “Life in Hell” more than once but I don’t know that you’ve ever written about The Simpsons. Is that a conscious omission or has it just never come up?
– Kevin Bicknell
I’m very glad for all the money it’s made Matt but I’ve always found it tiresome. I’m a South Park person. The Nazi episode with Mel Gibson is worthy of the Firesign Theatre.
I was listening to the White Album again recently, and I remember somebody once calling it a preview of their coming solo careers, and I wondered, how many songs from the ex-Beatle solo records do you suppose could have made it onto the White Album?
– Robert Fiore
That ‘somebody’ was Jann Wenner in a great review of the album in Rolling Stone: “They may no longer be the Beatles,” he wrote. As for your question, I doubt any. Not the George stuff on Wonderwall. Not Paul’s “Maybe I’m Amazed.” The early albums with Yoko are sort of there with “Revolution No. 9,” but God knows nothing from from the Primal Scream album—though ending the White Album with “God” would have been an atom bomb.
I could handle your omission of P.G. Wodehouse from the ranks of the most funny [5/25] if you were not the very critic who alerted me four decades ago to the worth of that master. His best? Perhaps Uncle Fred in the Springtime or The Code of the Woosters. The candidates are many.
– Billy Hawkins
I’d go with The Code. But I didn’t mention Robert Benchley or Matt Groening either
Recently I’ve been thinking about the way we view famous musicians and other celebrities after they pass away. How do you think we would look at John Lennon if he were still alive? Do you think he would be as revered as he is if he were still alive today? I’ve heard rumors about him being violent towards women… I wonder if he would have been one of the men identified in the #MeToo movement. What are your thoughts?
This is the trickiest of all questions and impossible to answer, for anyone. When, years ago, I ranked Rock Deaths in the ’70s, rankings were based on three factors: manner of death, contribution decedent had made to rock ‘n’ roll up to time of death, and, beyond subjective, contribution decedent would have made to rock ‘n’ roll if he/she had gone on to live a normal lifespan.
I think what John Lennon would have done with his life after his death in 1980 would matter far more to our judgement of him as a person, an artist, and a factor in the lives of countless people than anything, good or bad, he might have done in his personal life before 1980. If, today, going on 78, he was a wife-beater and a heroin addict, someone even the most star-struck knew to stay away from in the nightclubs of downtown New York or for that matter Macau, then his reputation might have curdled—or countless people might still be trying to reconcile the great artist who created “Eight Days a Week,” “There’s a Place,” “I Am the Walrus,” “Yer Blues,” and “God” with the miserable human being who created them. But I think it’s more likely that he would be collaborating with Richard Thompson, Lady Gaga, Bettye Lavette, or Paul McCartney, and people would be arguing over whether his new work was as good as his old work, and keep arguing about it until he or they died, after which the argument would be taken up and continued by those to come after.
Are there any classical records or even just tracks that you regularly spin?
Wondering what you thought of Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour? I know you had nice things to say about her debut, but I see a definite split between country fans who feel she’s softened/sold out towards pop & balladry and those who think she’s just shifted to making very fine soft pop records. Do you have any thoughts on this?
I think she’s softened, and there’s not much to hear there anymore. Or for the moment.
I was wondering if your thoughts on Kanye had changed since entering his MAGA phase. Particularly regarding his 400 years of slavery being a choice comment—which may be the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard a celebrity say (with stiff competition, obviously). I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts, as I’m someone who’s been a long-term fan of Kanye’s (including his public persona), yet now feel deflated and dismayed by his dull provocations.
– Oliver’s Twist
I think trying to follow the caverns of Kanye West’s mind is the ultimate fool’s errand. But don’t forget the “Famous” video—which is only one of his many masterpieces-pranks—and who among others was already there.
Thank you for pointing me to Aka Doc Pomus, a documentary I’d never heard of on a figure I knew little about. One thing I did know, though I’d forgotten, was that Doc collaborated with Willy DeVille in the early ’80s. When DeVille died, I think you referred to him as a “punk flash” which was dismissive and also wrong. DeVille was a great soul singer and performer who slipped through the cracks—you see that now, right?
I meant it as a compliment. “Cadillac Walk” defines cool as much as James Dean.
Regarding Michelle Goldberg’s column that you referenced in your most recent Top Ten, although it’s certainly fair to criticize Ivanka and the awful evangelicals celebrating the move of the embassy to Jerusalem, her description of what’s happening at the Gaza border is depressingly inaccurate. The protests began in March, and were not related to the embassy move. Only later did Hamas opportunistically suggest otherwise, as they continue to successfully wage the war against Israel in the court of public opinion. This is explained well here.
Another more reasonable explanation of the situation is here, with details about how Hamas is purposefully drawing fire from the IDF and purposefully sending the protesters into the line of fire, so they can demonize Israel as a result of the casualties.
What’s more, it’s also explained there (and apparently Hamas has verified this themselves) that 50 of the 62 casualties were Hamas operatives.
I realize that none of that constitutes a question, but I feel it’s extremely important to point these things out.
I agree, and was well aware of the manipulation of the international media by Hamas and their allies. But I wanted to highlight Goldberg’s characterization of I.T. and had to quote the whole to do that. And Goldberg’s perhaps naive reference to juxtaposition was also informed by and within the context of her immediately preceding eyewitness column about Israeli oppression of West Bank Palestinians. I did think about trying to briefly make the points you make or just isolating the “Zionist Marie Antoinette” phrase and concluded it didn’t work. Thanks for reading so closely.
Have you thought about turning the Top 10 into an email newsletter? It seems perfectly suited to the format.
Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel is the funniest book ever written. That’s a given. What are the runners-up?
– Kevin Bicknell
You couldn’t be more right, and it’s a mark of literary snobbery that none of the obituaries seem to mention it at all. Runners up? “The Awful German Language,” “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” and a couple dozen things by Mark Twain; the collected albums of Richard Pryor; Last Week Tonight with John Oliver; How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All by the Firesign Theatre.
“As for Phil Spector, I’m not convinced she didn’t kill herself.”
Wow—care to elaborate on that?
– Milo Miles
Hi Milo—my sense of it is based on prejudice, favoritism, but I think mostly Vikram Jayanti’s 2009 BBC Arena documentary The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector. It left me almost certain that Spector didn’t, in any direct manner that would have justified a conviction for anything beyond reckless endangerment, kill Lana Clarkson. As I wrote at the time, after watching his attorneys, especially Linda Kenny Braden, who makes Law & Order courtroom lawyers look like actors (and she’s a great actor), present forensic evidence at his first trial, which hung the jury, you can imagine Spector bringing out a gun, showing it off, listening to Clarkson talk about how worthless her life had turned out to be, and then handing it to her: “Go ahead and kill yourself, I don’t care.” Supposedly, after his first trial, Spector was convinced anyone could get him off on the retrial, so he didn’t retain Baden, who was very expensive—or he’d run out of money and couldn’t afford her anymore. Much of the movie is taken up by infinitely fascinating interviews with Spector, much of it on contemporaries and competitors and what turkeys they all were, but the presentation of the evidence at the first trial—the second isn’t covered—is strict, detailed, and to me convincing.
You’ve said before that you’re a fan of Walter Mosley. I’ve read and enjoyed the first two Easy Rawlins novels and I’m not sure which of his books to pick up next. What are your favorites?
I think Little Scarlet is the best, but I’m not sure if it would come off at full strength without the contextualization of the books before it. It’s Mosley’s, or Easy’s, post-Watts riot novel—Mosley wisely doesn’t attempt a novel set during the riots, which could almost write itself, but allows himself to look back, and have people talk about what it was, what it was for, what was won. So I’d say look in used bookstores and read them all.
I was wondering what your favorite classic rock documentaries are? Including recordings of live performances (i.e. The Last Waltz).
I kind of like to think that A Hard Day’s Night is a documentary. But short of that, in order:
- Anthony Wall, The Brian Epstein Story, BBC/Arena
- Peter Miller, AKA Doc Pomus, Doc Club
- Martin Scorsese, George Harrison: Living in the Material World, HBO
- Martin Scorsese, No Direction Home, Paramount
Were you a fan of Tom Wolfe’s writing? Did any of his books have a special meaning for you or make an impact on you? In general, I’d love to hear your thoughts about his work. Thank you!
How could anyone not be? Not everything. There was a wide streak of snobbery that gave itself away in such cheap work as The Mid-Atlantic Man, where Wolfe, like contemporaneous Commentary hacks writing pieces on the order of “The Radicalized Professor,” turned a multiplicity of individuals who made him uncomfortable into a single type so stupid no one would ever admit to being anything like it. The infamous “Radical Chic” piece was similar, and so was “The Me Decade” and Bonfire of the Vanities. He mistook his own cliches, like “nostalgie de la boue,” for ideas. But he could write rings around anyone when he was on, and his arguments against modern architecture and modern art were real arguments worth arguing against.
I was sure The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was going to be a condescending, East-Coast sneer at everything about California. It was close to home. Ken Kesey’s original acid milieu wasn’t mine, but his house was a couple of miles from where I lived. Some of my high school friends found themselves in his orbit by junior year. But the book was a feat of empathy, and the story Wolfe wrote was a tragedy. It hurts just to think about it. And there’s not a hint in the book that he ever felt himself superior to anything or anyone.
When you contributed to CREEM in the ’70s were you ever edited by Lester? How did that relationship work?
– Kevin Bicknell
With Lester it was mostly rollicking phone calls over assignments. Dave Marsh did most of the actual editing. But Lester and I co-wrote and co-edited, as with the heroic quiz “Sex Lives of the Rolling Stones.” I wrote most of the questions and, along with readers, Lester anonymously wrote answers to almost all of the questions.
I’m reading and loving The History of Rock & Roll in Ten Songs—your books always energize me and make me want to improve myself as an interpreter of the culture I love—and felt validated when, in the introduction, you articulate some feelings I’ve always had about what makes “Stay” by Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs so tantalizing. I grew up in the South and even then (the ’90s) the song was everywhere and I always marveled at how many ideas it picked up and immediately dropped, and how it left me longing for more even though I knew that what made it great was its brevity. I was curious if you have much of an opinion on one of the few other songs that’s given me that feeling, “This Whole World” by the Beach Boys, which is only about eight seconds longer. Brian Wilson was of course already in severe decline creatively by 1970 but for me that song is everything “Good Vibrations” gets credit for being; it really makes my head spin in the same way as “Stay.” But perhaps that’s a tenuous connection that only exists in my head!
It’s soupy to me, and I don’t believe the singer believes a word he’s saying, or cares if we do. It’s all in the orchestration of the melody—I can see how you might be completely caught up—but for me it goes off the rails very quickly and never gets back.
I loved what you say about “Stay,” picking up ideas and immediately dropping them: we made it, now let’s move on.
Man, I’d like nothing better than to trade names for a proposed Rock and Roll Hall of Fame selection committee—Wim Wenders was an inspired choice; how does Jim Jarmusch work for you?
Why, though, do you think Pete Rose doesn’t deserve Baseball Hall of Fame inclusion? Should Phil Spector’s membership in the RRHOF be revoked?
– steve o’neill
Jim Jarmusch, of course. Also Bettye LaVette, Lady Gaga, Lana Del Rey, and Barack Obama.
Let in Barry Bonds and Shoeless Joe and then Pete Rose can have a plaque in a closet along with Arnold Rothstein.
As for Phil Spector, I’m not convinced she didn’t kill herself.
In your Rolling Stone Illustrated History essay on the Beatles you have a wonderful long-winded description about pop explosions. You note, then, that the Beatles arrival in America was “the second, and thus far the last [pop explosion], that rock and roll has produced.” I particularly like what you say here: “And, at its heart, a pop explosion attaches the individual to a group—the fan to an audience, the solitary to a generation—in essence, forms a group and creates new loyalties—while at the same time it increases one’s ability to respond to a particular pop artifact, or a thousand of them, with an intensity that verges on lunacy.”
I have two (probably more like 7) questions related to all this:
1) By your own definition, would you consider seventies British punk a “pop explosion”? Michael Jackson’s Thriller? The release of Beyonce’s Lemonade? MTV? Nevermind and the grunge “moment” which followed? Napster?
2) Given the instant-access nature of music these days, which is so much more about choosing rather than about being CHOSEN by something (almost as if against your will), do you think a pop explosion comparable to the Beatles and Elvis—where a massive audience will respond to a single musical thing “with an intensity that verges on lunacy”—is even possible?
Re: #1—Uh… hip-hop, which has translated itself into most of the languages on earth?
The Sex Pistols and all aftershocks, echoes, reverberations, ripples—absolutely. The best proof is a 1988 piece by Robin Cembalest called “Punk in a Small Spanish Town.”
But inspiring imitation or adulation, or creating a masterpiece, or breaking sales records—as with Thriller, Lemonade, Nevermind—is not a pop explosion: a pop explosion involves people, changes people, makes them demand more out of life, history, experience, themselves.
Or for that matter the wave of what Viktor Orbán calls “illiberal democracy” and what less polite people, like former secretary of state Madeline Albright, call fascism, which is finding its apotheosis in the USA today but touches every country in the world.
I like to think of the overwhelming flurry of termite activity that for at least a decade followed the death of Elvis Presley as a kind of mini-pop explosion, but that’s my conceit. It was more like a common art project—or real democracy.
#2: Anything is possible.
Like you said, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a can of worms, but doesn’t your fix for it open up a whole new one? What, exactly, does “a small group of balanced people” mean? (I’m hoping it’s not just you on the west coast and Christgau on the east; I don’t think I could stand the drama). Racially mixed, of course; inclusive as to gender identity, sure; and sexual orientation, check. All economic strata represented? Non-English speakers allowed, or is rock and roll a strictly Anglo-American art form? Any room for non-critics who didn’t go to university (relax, relax, just spit-balling here)?
Can you really have a “small” group that is “balanced”? Don’t you think that the current nominating committee considers itself both? Also, should Pete Rose be allowed into the Baseball Hall of Fame?
– steve o’neill
1) We may have to start trading names. I’d start with Zadie Smith, Wim Wenders, and Paul Beatty.
[GM update to question submitted below by JE on 3/29/18 re: Van Morrison’s unreleased album, Chopping Wood.]
I have finally heard it. It’s a lot better than what came out of it.
Really liked your write-up of A-ha’s “Take On Me.” Related, have you seen this cottage cheese ad currently running on TV?
I wonder if they would have had to pay more to make the song actually audible.
Who was a better president, Bill Clinton or Barack Obama?
– Alan Vint
That’s a book, not a paragraph, and it’s too early to write it, especially if the question is who most left the country changed for the better. Clinton left office in a scandal of his own making—the pardons not just of people under indictment but fugitives from justice. Obama’s was perhaps the most honest administration in history. But the question is bigger than that.
I was surprised by your intense dislike for Blowin’ Your Mind!, moreso by Van Morrison’s own repudiation of the album, at least in the form it was released. I like it a lot, big electric guitar and all, though I recognize it’s no Astral Weeks. Has the record grown on you at all over the years? And have you ever heard it mixed as Van intended?
I’m not sure I altogether believe that Morrison didn’t approve of the album. I always liked “He Ain’t Give You None.” I don’t think the guitar is big. I think it’s the atmosphere of bad air that never lets up.
I know these are matters of taste, but gotta say I am mystified that you prefer the US version of Rubber Soul to the one programmed and recorded by, well, the Beatles themselves. Were the dudes at Capitol really that good?
Also was surprised that you are not too fond of the song the Beatles chose to open their version, “Drive My Car,” since a) it points to album title itself—it’s Beatles Soul—and since it was an album made to be an album that’s kind of important (and the title of that album was not Rubber Folk); b) it is a “joke song” followed up by another one, “Norwegian Wood” (again, album as a coherent statement); and c) its tougher beat points the way forward to Revolver (Though i know this is probably a weak argument to you since your classic Beatles essay makes clear that you prefer Rubber Soul to Revolver).
By the way, I have cherished your [1979 Beatles] essay since I was in college in the early ’80s and have re-read it often. Always makes me so jealous that even though I was alive, I was too young to experience the 1964 moment.
As my father used to say, that’s what makes horse races.
I am some years younger than you and have been listening to and reading about rock and roll music (and other kinds of music) since the early 1960s. You have lately written favourably about Nik Cohns book Pop from the Beginning, which is a favorite of mine since many years ago and still is very good and entertaining to read.
Some time ago I bought a copy of the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll the 1979 edition edited by Jim Miller (I once had the original 1976 edition), which I have read again and still think is very well written.
Do you have any suggestions about other books about rock and roll music (excluding your own books which I already have)? And maybe some more up to date books (even if my favourite years are between 1960-1990).
There are endless histories of rock ‘n’ roll. Most of them I haven’t read. The digging has gone on so long and so deeply (or shallowly, with the pretense of depth) that there will soon be a series of books, published by Duke, devoted to single songs. I thought years ago it wouldn’t be too long before we had a whole book devoted to a single guitar solo. And I’m not sure it would be a bad idea.
I’d go with James Miller’s Flowers in the Dustbin and the collected long running comic strip Great Pop Things.
Your mention of finding a Bert Williams 78 reminded me of Ben Vereen’s comment about him: “Underneath that mask, he could say anything.”
In the best Rock and Roll moments—Astral Weeks, “Like a Rolling Stone,” and hundreds of others—do you think the mask the performer is using has slipped away? Or has the mask become fully inhabited? Or both?
I think of Michael Caine’s smile after he sings “It’s Over.”
Songs are fictions, and singers are playing a role. If you want to hear the song played without a mask, listen to the people playing the instruments, including the singer.
I was recently thinking about some of the best songs about heartbreak in classic rock. The first that comes to mind for me is “Silver Springs” by Stevie Nicks about Lindsey Buckingham. What are some of your favorites?
“Down So Low” by Mother Earth and “Love Has No Pride” by Tracy Nelson. “All I Could Do Was Cry” by Etta James and Beyonce. “Why” by Lonnie Mack. Thousands more.
Your Sly Stone chapter in Mystery Train traces the impact of There’s A Riot Goin’ On with the story of black music’s sweeping initial response to the album—“Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” “Back Stabbers,” “Superstition,” “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” “Oh Girl,” “Freddie’s Dead”—writing, “This new music was a step back for a new look at black America; it was a finger pointed at Staggerlee and an attempt to freeze his spirit out of black culture.” You added, “But even as this unique outburst of creativity and success was peaking” in the final months of 1972, “a retreat was underway.”
With a little more archaeology, we can see that this was the exact time that early disco—both as new formal elements seeping into black music (especially in Philadelphia and Miami) and as dance records migrating up from the underground club turntables into the R&B charts—really began to emerge: “Love Train,” arguably the first disco cut (or disco blueprint) to hit number one, cracked the Top 40 in January 1973 and peaked in March. The Trammps, First Choice, Barry White, Bohannon, and T.K. Records followed quickly. Vince Aletti’s article in Rolling Stone about the nascent disco scene appeared in September 1973. “TSOP,” an unquestionably fully-formed (and exceptional) disco track, was introduced as the Soul Train theme song in November 1973; the single went to number one. Things were shifting fast.
I always thought of early disco as black music’s deliberate rejection of Riot itself, a musical current “eager to say that Riot had been a bad dream best forgotten.” But studying your timeline more closely, I’m convinced that early disco was more directly a turning away from Riot’s 1972 aftermath, an attempt to escape from “the world Riot revealed.” In other words, if you could lose yourself in some relatively facile, polished, mechanical R&B made for getting down and partying on the dance floor, maybe there would be no need to face down and freeze out any Staggerlees in the first place.
And then I think, this was the power of Riot—that it could inspire this strong, unified musical reaction, which itself was so powerful that a year later it caused a whole new counter-reaction, which then took over the black and white pop music of the decade. With hindsight, one could make a case that all of disco was its own “enormous answer record” to Riot, even if its answer was to run in the other direction (or maybe even backwards, toward Sly’s own “Dance to the Music”).
In Mystery Train you cite “Love Train” as part of this “retreat,” but for its “sentimental social vision,” not for its music, and you include “Love Jones” and “Keeper of the Castle,” also for their words. The emergent disco of 1973, and then its explosion in 1974, never gets mentioned as part of this “retreat,” but I think the music alone was expressing exactly that, and tells us just as much about the encompassing presence of Riot. What do you think?
– Randy Laumann
I see and hear disco as a thing in itself. As rhythm it was a reaction, and a good one, against the structural, architectural formations of the soul beat and its deep complications in Family Stone music. Not to mention James Brown. It was a prison and it needed either a prison break or an ignoring of the categories. “Love Train” is definitely a retreat—that is, a commercially calculated shift from the politically social to the sexual/cultural social—but also a huge shift toward a bigger, warmer sound: politically, an attempt at either joining the greater America, affirming that such a thing existed, or arguing that it should.
First, assuming you’ve read both Robbie Robertson’s and Levon Helm’s autobiographies, did you enjoy one over the other? I know you probably have met both of them but after reading Helm’s (I read Robertson’s first) I felt disappointed. Obviously everyone wants to paint themselves in the best light but I found myself believing Helm’s account of The Band more than Robertson’s… What do you think?
Second, this person I met who tried to school me on classic rock told me I was wrong for thinking Moondance was a better album than Astral Weeks… I will stand by my statement til the end but was wondering if you had any strong opinions.
First, don’t ever let anyone tell you you’re wrong to like something, or to like something more (or less) than anything else. Moondance is obviously a better album than Astral Weeks, because it sold more copies by a factor of infinity and made him permanently famous and beloved—unless you’d rather listen to Astral Weeks. The two albums speak different languages—who says you have to choose?
It’s true that in Testimony Robbie Robertson takes sole credit for everything the Band did (or rightly didn’t). You can sometimes get the feeling he won the war and wrote the constitution and invented agriculture. But you can read his book as if it’s a person struggling to tell a story, settle debts, settle scores, and leave a mark. The incidents of betrayal that to me are the spurs of the book—by his uncle, by Helm—are so clear and harsh it’s hard to read them. It’s a book.
Levon’s book is not a book—it’s a messy collaboration with a professional clean-up artist and you can feel Stephen Davis come in the way you can tell in an instant you’ve just caught a cold. Levon has great stories—some of the same ones Robbie tells, but Robbie tells them with more fear, glee, wonder. But too often I just don’t trust that he’s saying what he thinks, feels, thought, felt, but what he’s supposed to say to keep up a point of view that may not be altogether his.
I know he was a bitter man. But if I want to shake his hand I’d watch Ain’t in it for My Health and leave the book to the side.
Nico has come up in several (auto)biographies of classic rock musicians. Personally, I didn’t think she was anything that great.She ended up being an anti-Semite and seemed sort of stuck up. However, I read these books and feel like every straight, male rock musician was enamored by her. Why is this? She wasn’t even nice. Lou Reed didn’t like her. Her most famous song was written by teenage Jackson Browne… What am I missing?
The second coming of Marlene Dietrich? If Dietrich had been a Nazi? (Nico was once quoted as saying black people were not the same species as white people.) But if you listen, on the first Velvet Underground album and after, you hear distance, something uncatchable, a knowledge of there being nothing new under the sun that no American can quite understand. It wasn’t only Jackson Browne. Alain Delon was there first (as famous people go), and Bob Dylan wrote “I’ll Keep It with Mine” for her, and I’m not aware there’s ever been a bad version of that song, so she inspired something rare in him. Who cares if Lou Reed didn’t like her? He didn’t even like me. Or a few million other people. But John Cale wanted his hand on her music.
There is one great, disturbing, purely realistic but somehow mystical book—Nico: The End, by James Young, who played piano in her last band, touring through parts of Eastern Europe you feel like no one has set foot in since the end of the Second World War.
You’ve written about “Hound Dog” and “Heartbreak Hotel.” I’m curious about your favorite and least favorite Elvis Presley songs from 1956. From my perspective (born in 1947, playing catch up in the early ’60s) I love the following songs without reservation:
– From his first LP: “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Tutti Frutti.” I bought them first on an EP, and prefer both of them to the originals, which I didn’t hear until a few years later.
– From his second LP: “When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again” and “Paralyzed.” I also bought these first on an EP. From the LP, I’d add “So Glad You’re Mine” and “Anyplace Is Paradise.”
– Among his singles: “I Want You I Need You I Love You,” and both “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel.”
And from ’56 sessions that were released later: “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and “Shake Rattle And Roll,” released on For LP Fans Only in 1959.
– Close but no cigar: “Just Because,” “Money Honey,” “I Got A Woman,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “I Was The One,” and “My Baby Left Me.”
– Songs from 1956 I hated: “I Love You Because” and “Old Shep.” His version of “Blue Moon” gave me the willies when I first heard it in my early teens. Now I regard it as a work of genius. But I don’t listen to it much. I was also disappointed by his versions of three other Little Richard songs, all on his second LP—“Long Tall Sally,” “Rip It Up,” and “Ready Teddy.”
– Robert Mitchell
Tops in no order:
– “Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “My Baby Left Me,” “I Was the One,” “One Night with You,” “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.”
Bottom in no order
– “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Tutti Frutti,” “Shake Rattle and Roll,” “Old Shep,” “I Want You I Need You I Love You” (definitely docked for inspiring Meat Loaf’s “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”)
Some of the songs released in 1956 were leftover 1954-55 Sun recordings: “Just Because,” the out-of-the-ether “Blue Moon,” so I wouldn’t really count them as 1956.
I’m glad Glenn Burris brought up the Steve Allen As The Enemy thing, because it’s something that has stuck in my craw since I was a teenager reading Marcus and Marsh (and others).
Point 1: In 1956, Steve Allen was thirty-five years old. He was, among other things, a comedian and a jazz musician. Is there any reason to expect someone like him to respond to Elvis or Jerry Lee or Gene Vincent in the same way that a teenager (or preteen) of that era would? Of course not. That he was enthusiastic about this new music on any level (and he clearly was) seems almost miraculous to me. (My parents certainly were not, and they were ten years younger than he.)
Point 2: Again, he was a comedian—of course he was going to go for the joke. And let’s face it—rock ‘n’ roll, for all of its deeper significance and impact, was funny. Maybe Elvis wasn’t amused about having to sing to a dog (did he complain to anyone at the time?). But it’s not hard to imagine that, from a 35-year-old TV comedian’s perspective, it was an idea that was hard to resist. (And I’d say Elvis handled it with aplomb.)
As for Jerry Lee Lewis, it’s a matter of record that Allen thought he was a great performer and loved having him on his show. In the early ’90s I saw Allen explain that when Jerry Lee kicked his piano bench away on his first appearance, he did so with sufficient force that it nearly struck Allen who was standing in the wings watching. Allen impulsively grabbed the bench and threw it back, followed by something else that was handy; someone standing in the opposite wings responded in kind; it wasn’t a planned shtick. (Not that time, anyway.) Personally, I think it complemented the manic energy of Lewis’ performance nicely, and Lewis himself appeared to be delighted.
By the way, I loved Glenn’s anecdote!
– Charles Olver
Well, I loved the flying chairs.
I’ll bite: what is it you find so alluring about “We’ve Only Just Begun”? Have you written about it [anywhere besides in your recent MoPop Conference paper on a-ha]?
The undertone of sadness, anticipation of defeat, against what the song is supposed to say, what you’re supposed to believe. It was created by the ad man Hal Riney in San Francisco for Crocker National Bank, a local bank that was old fashioned and had a dying clientel. He got Paul Williams to come up with the outline of a song, which was recorded by a male singer, and run over a montage of a young couple getting married, their family smiling hopefully, and no text except at the end: “You’ve Got a Long Way to Go. We’d like to help you get there.” Richard Carpenter saw the commercial, and as both Williams and the Carpenters were on A&M, asked Williams if he could finish the song. The Carpenters’ version was an immediate huge hit, and reinforced the commercial, which kept running—the bank ad advertised the record and the record advertised the bank. The result was that a huge number of young people with no collateral overwhelmed the bank with requests for loans and they had to cancel the campaign.
Watching Elvis Presley: The Searcher, you can’t help but notice how it, fine as it is, subscribes to traditional, but suspect, presumptions. One is the long-standing criticism of Steve Allen for making Elvis sing to a real hound on Allen’s TV show. Dave Marsh and Jon Landau, in voiceover, skewer Allen, insisting he was out to embarrass Elvis as a hillbilly off the farm. I can recall reading this from Marsh and others as long ago as the early ’80s. Allen’s TV era was before my time, but I had an experience with him that seems contradictory.
Around 1990, I worked at a breakfast appearance by Allen during the convention of a national service club. The group was of decidedly conservative and aging leadership, all of which were thrilled to be near “Stevarino.” One of the proclamations of the morning was to demand a law against burning the American flag. Allen’s paid presentation started with a 20-minute narrative exploration of the history of American jazz and boogie-woogie piano, with Steve at the keys. It was mesmerizing. He ranged from Art Tatum to Fats Waller and both Lewises, Mead Lux and Jerry Lee. One would never get the impression he looked down on music that was in any way bold, well-executed and exciting. Next, he spoke to the assembled throng from the podium. His stories of the golden age of Hollywood were all in play, and the crowd ate it up. Then, leaving the boiler plate behind, he gently commented that he believed our flag was a great thing, but really an icon of things far greater, and that it was perhaps misguided to spend time defending a symbol rather than the freedoms it represented. He thanked his hosts and hit the street, while the national president of the organization tried to conclude things pleasantly.
Backstage, afterwards, there was furor. Allen was labeled a back stabber, a liberal, a liar, and worse. I was just part of the crew, but I should have worked the rest of the day for free, since most of my effort was just to keep from laughing at how Allen roasted these clowns, took their money and breezed.
So… Do you think that Steve Allen really worked to humiliate a popularizer of music that Allen clearly appreciated, and who surely earned him great ratings, or was the dog in a tux just a weak joke that backfired?
– Glenn Burris
I think it’s complicated. There’s no question Elvis felt humiliated. I felt humiliated, watching, and I was only eleven. At our house, we always watched Steve Allen. He seemed like a Democrat, whereas Ed Sullivan was clearly some kind of Republican, and we didn’t watch him until Elvis came on later in the year, and never again for any other reason. I remember even more clearly Jerry Lee Lewis’s first appearance on Steve Allen, where they threw tables and chairs across the stage while he pounded on his piano, which I thought was the same kind of insult: Look at the Wildman from the Jungles of Louisiana! But Lewis thought Allen had taken a chance on him, and he never stopped praising him, to the point of naming a son after him.
Years later, in the late ’70s or early ’80s, when I was at New West aka California magazine, I was given a piece by Steve Allen to edit. Me, who grew up watching him, now his editor! It was an essay on how stupid punks were. It was vile, but well-written. There was no need to do anything with it. By that time I considered him the enemy, and this par for the course. But I’m sorry he’s not around for us to ask him.
This must be a stale and annoying question by now for you, but—growing up in the Bay Area, how strong was the pull of the early (1965-67) San Francisco hippie culture, or perhaps what you called “the spirit of the Haight” (in your Moby Grape “Treasure Island” entry)? I don’t see any indication that you participated, but were there moments when you felt drawn into it? Or was it always easy for you to stand back from it, to observe it without joining it?
If you did feel attracted, what was the moment or event that made you choose to step back? (Like, perhaps, the January 1967 Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park?) I specifically wonder if any rock music in 1967 felt like a refuge from this pervasive culture, a conscious alternative—not necessarily anti-hippie but decidedly non-hippie. Maybe Bob Dylan (I quickly think of the Basement Tapes, but they weren’t released then), or the Rolling Stones, or the Who, or Otis Redding, or Motown? Wild Honey?
I don’t write about myself, and this comes too close. Let’s just say I was in Berkeley and that was somewhere else. I went for the music; the culture seemed dumb. There’s a book just out called Hippie Food—apparently it’s selling like, oh, granola. I can’t imagine a more depressing idea. As for Moby Grape and the spirit of the Haight, I meant the song caught the place at just that point where no one could continue pretending smiles weren’t false, or just dope.
I just stared re-reading The Shape of Things to Come thinking it a perfect book to speak to these terrible times. Almost immediately I came upon this passage about John Winthrop “The Puritans meant to found something smaller and far greater than any mere country: their New Jerusalem would light the world and it would last forever, at least until the last TRUMP (capitals mine) sounded….” Now I’m scared to keep reading. Prophecy indeed. Have you considered reissuing the book with a new introduction for the Trump era?
I haven’t. But I think your reading answers the question. It’s already there. American types are there in the earth, and they’re unkillable. They are always crawling out.
You wrote an incisive (and unsettling) portrait-essay of California Governor Jerry Brown back in 1978. 40 years later, Brown’s final term is coming to a close. Has his character significantly changed in the ensuing decades? As a governor, how does he compare with his past self?
I’m sorry he’s too old to run for president.
I love the soul singles of the early 1970s. This includes the Stylistics and Russell Tompkins Jr. (“Betcha By Golly Wow,” “You Are Everything,” “Break Up to Make Up,” “I’m Stone in Love With You,” “Rockin’ Roll Baby,” “You Make Me Feel Brand New”). It also includes the Spinners (“It’s a Shame,” “I’ll Be Around,” “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love,” “Then Came You,” “One of a Kind [Love Affair],” “Games People Play”). I feel a very strong argument could be made that both groups should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with Thom Bell as a producer. One of my favorite songs of the era is “Oh Girl” by the Chi-Lites. While I loved 3-4 of the Chi-Lites’ recordings, I can’t make the same argument about their inclusion in HOF because their catalog is not deep enough. What are your thoughts about these groups/records? Do you think my HOF argument has merit?
– Shawn Sriver
I don’t think any Hall of Fame argument has merit when Joan Jett, who is a small-time but effectively self-promoting mediocrity, is in and the Shangri-Las are not. It’s a matter of how you judge it. Kiss and Joan Jett, not to mention Patti Smith, are in the HoF because of their overwhelming influence on other people. I consider that a false standard. I think people ought to be judged on their own work, and that to consider uninteresting and self-promoting people important because of their influence on people who are even less interesting than than they are is absurd. Patti Smith is genuinely a hero to countless people for many good reasons. I once was one of her opening acts, was essentially kicked off the stage because I was taking up too much time (doing what I had been asked to do), was as angry as I could be, and then she came on, and after a few minutes I was humbled that I had actually been on the same stage as she was. Did she define what rock ‘n’ roll is and what it could be, and even what it should be? Maybe. Perhaps definitely. But you can’t even begin to raise that question about the Shangri-Las—they did what all of the people I’ve mentioned did, did it with more depth, and it’s almost irrelevant that they did it first. I don’t believe for a second that Patti Smith would waste a breath denying that; she’d use many breaths agreeing with it. I doubt Joan Jett would yield an inch of her prestige to anyone else.
The HoF is a can of worms. But I know that it means the world to performers. To be included is to be validated, to be told that no matter how poorly anything turned out, their lives were not in vain, and to be excluded is to be stained, exiled, forgotten, even cursed.
Answer: have a small group of balanced people decide. The mass vote is like the Playboy Jazz Poll was in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s biased against black people, against people who did what they did before 1980, and corrupt in terms of an understanding of what rock ‘n’ roll was and is—just compare Gene Simmons of Kiss on N.W.A and N.W.A on Gene Simmons and ask yourself who’s thought about this, who has a real argument, who really cares, and who’s a racist and who’s not.
One’s affinity for some music over other music is not a criterion of virtue: people respond, and it’s just as corrupt when someone praises a performer because he or she think that’s what he or she is supposed to do—will make them look bad if they don’t and good if they do, regardless of whether they are moved, interested, compelled or not—as for someone to dismiss or ignore someone because they’re female, male, black, or white. But not to examine one’s own sexism and racism—and everyone is infected—that’s what Western Civilization is about—is to disqualify one’s self from judgment. So, sure, draw thin lines between the Spinners and the Chi-Lites. I think the Chi-Lites are infinitely more important in shaping ’70s soul than the Spinners, and brave in their affirmation of vulnerability. But I like “I’ll Be Around” more than “Oh, Girl.” So put them both in.
20 – Whiskey Alcohol Addiction Surely,Bob Dylan’s Whiskey should be called “Knocking on Death’s door” if the blight of alcohol is to be acknowledged. (Joy) – (Change Network) from Joy Edwards
You can take a quiz at the 100 percent serious linked site called “Are You a Whiskey Addict?”
Have you noticed that the websites for Dogfish Brewery and Heaven’s Door won’t let you in unless you click to indicate you are of drinking age? Helluva deterrent.
BTW, I seem to remember you calling Pat Garret and Billy the Kid “a dud.” Right? Link, please? Anything to add?
– Laura Levick
Yes. Dull. Except for Alias reading labels, a version of a scene he designed years before for Eat the Document.
5/3/18 [orig. responded to on 4/26 but updated]
Any records you’ve ever traded or sold that you later regretted losing?
Duncan Browne, Give Me Take You. I think I’ve gone back and forth with it at least three times.
I could list a couple of hundred more, but…all albums. I have never sold a single. I did give my friend Tom Smucker my copy of the Beach Boys’ first single, on the X label, but that was because I knew it would mean more to him than it did to me. He still has it. That was at least thirty years ago, and this year Tom’s book Why the Beach Boys Matter will, I’ll bet, still matter. [link]
Hi, Greil. I am so impressed by the focus and erudition you bring to your replies here. Also some of the questions are remarkable. I doubt this is worth your attention, but here goes.
I was delighted to learn that Bob Dylan is now a partner in a whiskey business, a serious venture. Can you think of a more suitable way for him to invest a bit of his Nobel Prize dough?
The bourbon is called “Heaven’s Door,” a name reportedly proposed by his partner Marc Bushala. I’m sure Bob was on top of it, but has anyone remarked on the allusion to the song that’s on the Pat Garrett soundtrack while Slim Pickens is leakin’ blood, praying to meet his Maker? The whiskey slogan could be “It’ll take you there!”
The bottle is so cool!
Speaking of spirits, ever thought of formally endorsing Old Weird America Pale Ale?
– Laura Levick
I’ve ordered it. We’ll see how good it is. It’s expensive. But the Dog Fish Robert Johnson “Hellhound on My Ale” was transcendent, so who knows?
You can only get OWA Pale Ale at a few bars in or around DC, and they’re not currently making it. From what I’ve read it’s fruit-sweet—so I probably wouldn’t like it.
Thanks for your reply to my question about Jackie Shane. From what I understand, she’s now living, somewhat reclusively, in or around Nashville. The New York Times (I think) published a profile of her a year or so ago. You can also find footage of her on YouTube.
As for whether Yonge Street, past or present, had an effect on the murders that happened there, I’m not sure I understand what you mean. I can tell you this, though: halfway across the world, “Any Other Way” was the first song I listened to after I heard the news, the result of some half-conscious mental connection I wouldn’t have made if the killings had happened anywhere else in the city. Yonge Street simplifies life in Toronto, divides the city neatly in half, people tell you their location relative to it. It also helps Torontonians define ourselves and each other, often unflatteringly. When a local critic described the Hawks, Bob Dylan’s band at the time, as “a third-rate Yonge St. rock ‘n’ roll band” Toronto readers understood the real insult. In Toronto, we use Yonge Street to orient ourselves, figuratively and literally, so maybe that’s why the killer chose it.
– steve o’neill
Thank you. This is as rich a version of what the Situationists called psychogeography as I’ve seen.
What do you think about “Society’s Child” by Janis Ian?
A very well made song and a natural hit and a sucker punch, just like “Fire and Rain.” And she didn’t have to break up with the guy.
Two quick questions from a long-time reader, first-time questioner (at least in this space):
In the latest “Real Life Rock,” you write: “I’m teaching a course on the postwar period, where the reading includes the detective novelist Ross Macdonald’s 1947 Blue City.” What else does the reading include?
Also, any chance of getting your intro to the Firesign Theatre book up on this site?
[See below for syllabus, and stay tuned for Firesign Theatre — ed.]
Would you mind terribly sharing the syllabus for your course on the postwar period? (I’m very keen to know!)
The Great Exhaling: American History, Culture, Politics––1946-1952
Eric Goldman, The Crucial Decade and After, 1945-1960, 1960
J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye, 1945
Marshall McLuhan, The Mechanical Bride, 1951
John Franklin Bardin, The Deadly Percheron, 1946
American Studies 101 Reader
The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, 1946)
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Milestone, 1946)
Thieves’ Highway (Dassin, 1947)
Out of the Past (Tourneur, 1947)
High Noon (Zinneman, 1952)
Rebel Without a Cause (Ray, 1955)
A Streetcar Named Desire (Kazan, 1951)
In a Lonely Place (Ray, 1950)
Week 1: Introduction
Reading: Eric Goldman, The Crucial Decade: I
Viewing: The Century: America’s Time, the Best Years, 1946-1952 [link]
Week 2: The Postwar Takes Shape (1946)
The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, 1946)
Reintegrating Veterans and the Domestic Sphere
John Hersey, Hiroshima
Bob Hope, “Tomorrow is a New Day,” The American Magazine, March, 1949
James Agee, “What Hollywood Can Do,” The Nation, December 7 & 14, 1946, 266-271
“The Way Home,” Time Magazine, 1944
Week 3: 1948—The Cubist Election
Screening: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
“It’s too Soon to Know”—The Culture of Abstraction
The Crucial Decade: II-V
Gerald Early, “1946, December 5—President Harry S Truman issues Executive Order 9808, establishing the Committee on Civil Rights,” from A New Literary History of America, 2009
Hubert Humphrey, Speech presenting the Minority Report on Civil Rights, Democratic Convention, 1948
Harry S Truman, Acceptance Speech, Democratic Convention, 1948
Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrat Party
Week 4: Cold War
Screening: Thieves’ Highway
Crucial Decade, VI-XIII
Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism: XIII
Ray Bradbury, “The Fireman,” Galaxy, February 1951
Week 5: The Veteran as Avenger
Screening: Out of the Past (Tourneur, 1947)
Character, Conformity and Storytelling
Crucial Decade, IX-X
Kenneth Millar aka Ross Macdonald, Blue City, 1-9
David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd: Part I
Screening: High Noon (Zinneman, 1952)
Do Not Forsake Me
David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd: Parts I, II, IV
Adorno and Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” 1944
Week 7: The Problem That Has No Name
Viewing: I Love Lucy: Lucy’s Schedule and Job Switching
Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique: chapters 1-3, 12-14
“Peggy Makes the Grade,” Ladies Home Journal, 1947
“Weekend with Daddy,” McCalls, 1949
“Rebellious Creation” Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and the Birth of the Cool
Screening: Streetcar Named Desire (Kazan, 1951)
“Rebellious Creation”—Jackson Pollock and Tennessee Williams
Ralph Ellison, “On Bird, Bird-Watching, and Jazz,” Saturday Review, July 28, 1962
Camille Paglia, “1947, December 3—“‘Hey, there! Stella, Baby!’ A Streetcar Named Desire premieres at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York,” from A New Literary History of America, 2009, 790-795
T. J. Clark, “1950, November 28—A Jackson Pollock exhibition opens at Betty Parsons Gallery in New York,” from A New Literary History of America, 2009, 808-814
Manny Farber, “Hard-Sell Cinema,” 1957
Week 9: The Emergence of a Consumer’s Republic: Advertising and Cultural Critique, Advertising as Cultural Critique
Marshall McLuhan, The Mechanical Bride
David Riesman, “The Nylon War, Abundance for What?”
Week 10: Anomic Youth
Screening: Rebel Without a Cause
Rise of the Teenager
J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
Pauline Kael, “The Glamour of Delinquency,” 1955
Week 11 Spring Break
Week 12: A Sense of Unease
The Red Scare from Two Sides
James Agee, untitled comment, the Nation, December 27, 1947, 329-332
Leslie Fiedler, “Hiss, Chambers, and the End of Innocence,” Commentary, August 1951, Robert Warshow, “The ‘Idealism’ of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; The Kind of People We Are,” Commentary, Nov 1953
Leslie Fiedler, “Afterthoughts on the Rosenbergs,” Encounter, 1953
BEGIN John Franklin Bardin, The Deadly Percheron, 1946
“The Only Rebellion Around”—The Beat Generation, 1
“The Only Rebellion You Can Hear”—The Beat Generation, 2
Jack Kerouac, On the Road—The Original Scroll (1951/2007), 280-309
Leslie Fiedler, “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” Partisan Review, June 1948
Allen Ginsberg, “Howl” (1956), 9-16
Harold Rosenberg, “The Herd of Independent Minds,” Commentary, September 1948, 15-28
Bardin, The Deadly Percheron, continued
Week 14: Song of the South and Post War Race Relations
Screening: In a Lonely Place
A Republic of Doubt—Noir, Humphrey Bogart, Nicholas Ray, Gloria Grahame, Dorothy B. Hughes, and John Franklin Bardin
FINISH The Deadly Percheron, 1946
Matthew Bernstein, “Nostalgia, Ambivalence, Irony: ‘Song of the South’ and Race Relations in 1946”
Week 15: Student Presentations
Are you at all familiar with Jackie Shane? When I was growing up in Toronto, you’d hear Jackie’s great 1962 recording “Any Other Way” a lot. I always assumed that it was the original version (it wasn’t) and that it was an international hit (it wasn’t). I also assumed, until very recently, that Shane was a man, but it turns out the truth is more complicated and a lot more fascinating. Jackie, a black Nashvillian based in Toronto, was, in contemporary terms, a transgender woman. While she referred to herself, in song at least, using male pronouns, she was open about her sexuality, dressed in wigs, make-up and sequins on-stage and off and played the same rough-and-tumble Yonge Street strip, at the same time, as Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. I’m in sheer awe of the singer’s bravery. Did she come up in any of your conversations with The Band?
– steve o’neill
This is all new to me. Where is she now? And speaking of Yonge Street—I wonder if what it is today, or what it was in the past, had any effect on the murders that took place there yesterday.
[Note: Greil is referring to the attack by a van in Toronto that occurred on April 23, in which ten people were killed, though on a different end of Yonge St. than is referred to in the question.]
Have you seen the liner notes for the 1969 Albert King album King Does the King’s Things? I did not know of this album until recently. The music itself is really good; it’s Albert King doing versions of Elvis songs, accompanied by the Stax house band. But what’s striking are the liner notes by none other than Albert Goldman! They are truly bizarre, considering what we know of Goldman now. He is clearly pretending to be a hipster, but his writing comes off as contrived, passive-aggressive, and even vaguely racist: “Allow me to introduce the meanest guitar pickin’, lonesomest shoutin’, biggest, baddest bluesman you ever did hear…”
You can hear his contempt for Elvis (and A.K.) in every sentence: “(Albert) is gonna play Elvis’ Novocaine lip, his pale poached face…the Twist and Grind and Get-It-Off end of Elvis Presley. When he’s through, Elvis will be black and blue. Dig it?”
Good Lord. What on earth was Goldman’s issue, and didn’t the producers of this LP pick up on all the loathing? It’s hard to believe that someone allowed his obvious meanness to accompany an otherwise fine album. Or is it obvious only in hindsight? I would greatly appreciate your insights. Thank you.
I remember the album—Albert King put all his limitations on display—but had repressed the notes. But now, unfortunately, I remember them too, and may never be able to forget them. He really was the worst writer in the world. A hate-crime walking.
Mr. Marcus, since you are an expert on Elvis Presley, why didn’t you take part in the HBO documentary, The Searcher?
– hugh c grissett
I wasn’t asked.
A follow-up on the Flower Drum Song reference in a recent posting about the music in your home. Do you recall which cut, and was it the movie soundtrack or the original Broadway cast recording?
– Alan Berg
Broadway. I don’t remember the song, just this rhythmic pile-up that so thrilled me. I’d play it over and over, placing the needle right at the spot in the track where the surge began.
Thanks for answering my question about Sandinista! I’m a longtime fan of the album but it’s not one I’m prone to recommend given how over the top it is. My favorite song is “Lose this Skin” which doesn’t even sound like the Clash.
Another album I’ve never seen you mention and am curious about: Who’s Next. I know you liked Pete Townshend’s first solo album, but did Who’s Next, or any Who albums from the seventies do anything for you? I seem to recall you were ambivalent at best about Who Are You (which I don’t see on this site to confirm). In particular, I’m interested in Who’s Next, which is an all-time Top 10 album for me in spite of overplay.
– Norm Seltzer
I was just thinking, looking at the new reissue of Pete Townshend’s Who Came First, about whether or not I’d liked any Who album after that as much as I liked this—to me, “Pure and Easy” and “Let’s See Action” were revelations, even after I’d played to death much earlier Townshend one-man-band acetate demos for Who songs that a friend of his had given me. Not even close: the last Who album I obsessed over was The Who Sell Out, and that was five years before Who Came First. (Oh, why didn’t he call it Who’s on First? Because he didn’t know Abbott and Costello.)
Who’s Next has terrific songs that have stood up forever. There’s no question “Behind Blue Eyes” is a masterpiece of construction, and maybe Roger Daltrey’s most convincing singing in terms of becoming a character and never breaking the mask. But there’s something soulless, even corporate about the whole album—and I know I spent far too much time from Tommy on trying to convince myself that I was liking Who songs more than I actually did.
But I still like “The Seeker.”
I have just finished reading the great Robert Loss book Nothing Has Been Done Before which I think is a response to Simon Reynolds Retromania. Robert seems quite shocked that Simon could not see anything new in, say, Sonic Youth, hip-hop, etc., and also the one that stuck out for me, Bikini Kill. Now I was around from the start with UK punk, saw the Sex Pistols three nights running in May 1976 in the North East of England, ended up seeing them about eight times, and I saw everyone else—X Ray-Spex with Lora Logic, the Slits, the Raincoats, Clash, etc. Anyway, come the early nineties Bikini Kill arrived in the UK, I saw them five times, and I had never seen anything like them, yes the music was primitive punk rock, 1976 style, but the live thing was actually more extreme, I had never been to gigs like them—totally female, a lot of my male friends found the gigs uncomfortable, they were not like normal rock gigs, and I found this great. They were electrifying and new to me but the UK press just about ignored them, got the impression they were just silly girls and a boy copying 1976 punk, though they were more than that, a lot more. And funny, one of the last print issues of NME had a small feature, “Bikini Kill’s message of female empowerment is more important now than ever,” a feature about the Raincoats inviting Bikini Kill to perform at a showcase for the great Jenn Pelley 33 1/3 book on The Raincoats. Also Toby Vail’s new band ‘gSp’ girl sperm released a great record last year, even earning a great review in Wire magazine. And another thing on the ‘new’ in music, I think it was you that said you can listen to a so called ‘manufactured’ pop record, it gets stuck in your head, then you start thinking, parts of this sound unique, never hear anything quite like this before, this is also something I find, in fact I probably find more newness in these records than the artists/bands that are going out to try and make the ‘new’—the more experimental artists. Anyway, that Robert Loss book is very good, made me think a lot, and has me getting Dylan’s Love and Theft back out, and sort of hearing it in a different way.
I agree. Robert is always looking for the open window.
What do you think is the strongest of Elvis’ three gospel albums? Having spent all my life listening to his music, I’ve only really just discovered them; and, as much as I enjoy all of them to a degree, How Great Thou Art is the one. There’s a power and a commitment there that I find genuinely moving; and the build to the second half of “Where No One Stands Alone” is, for me, as good as it gets. It fascinates me that, at the same May 1966 sessions, he also recorded “Love Letters,” “Down In The Alley,” and “Tomorrow Is A Long Time.” Some may see a contradiction between religion and the sexualized antics of “We’re going ballin’ ’till half past three”; but, to me, it’s all a cathartic release from the mediocre, frivolous music that he’d made far too much of in the first half of the ’60s: as you so memorably wrote, music that bleeds. The thing that unites all these recordings is that, refreshingly, he means every note of what he’s singing—and, for an artist of his caliber, that didn’t happen as often as it should have. And it had never occurred to me until today that Elvis’s recording of “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” was committed to tape on May 26th 1966: the very day that, in another universe, Bob Dylan and The Hawks were blowing the roof off the Albert Hall.
– Lucas Hare
I just listen to “Peace in the Valley.”
Regarding the varying sound quality on different releases of The Basement Tapes discussed in these pages, did you ever listen to A Tree With Roots: The Genuine Basement Tape Remasters, a 4-CD bootleg set from 2001? If so, do you find this has the “deep, full, every-breath-you-take ambient sound”? It sure sounds that way—vivid, tactile, breathing, undiminished, “the whole account”—to me.
Hello again, Greil. Don’t know if you have ever talked on here about the Zombies. I always liked their 1960s singles and especially the out-of-the-blue Odyssey and Oracle album. I believe it was released after they broke up and, of course, contained the great tune “Time of the Season.” I bought a CD collection Zombie Heaven in the late 1990s and thoroughly enjoyed playing it while I put my weekly newspaper to bed late at night on deadline. Many of the early songs seem dated now, one of which was the soundtrack for a lame movie called Bunny Lake is Missing. But I always loved their vocal sound and, of course, Rod Argent’s keyboard work. It is too bad Argent and Colin Blunstone didn’t keep it going past 1968. Looked like they were certainly on the right track. But the band broke up in acrimony at the time.
I’m just a simple Top 40 person. Still love the momentum in the Beatlestyle “She’s Not There.” Thought “Time of the Season” was pretentious. I still hate that line “Is he rich like me?” But maybe it’s a good line, because it’s been stuck in my head like a bell to ring for 50 years.
I’m currently reading Charles L. Hughes’ Country Soul: Making Music And Making Race In The American South, and while it’s a fascinating read, I have some problems with one of the book’s central premises, specifically that musicians (recording artists and the studio session players behind them) have control over how their recordings are marketed. Have you read it yet, and what’s your take on it?
– Jim Cavender
I haven’t read it. I’d need to know a lot more about that thesis before saying anything about it. Perhaps some musicians have some say in what promotional activities they’ll take part in, but I don’t think most artists, performers, writers, etc. would know how to market their work. The idea that session players could control how records they play on are marketed makes no sense. It’s like saying fans get to control how music is marketed—not to them personally, they can control that, by not showing up or listening—but to everyone else.
Have you seen Donald Glover’s Atlanta? Set in the margins of my city’s hip-hop scene but when I watch, I’m hearing deep blues. Worth seeing and I’d like to know your thoughts.
– Kevin Bicknell
I haven’t seen it. I’ve heard a little of the deep blues in New Orleans hip-hop, but not elsewhere. So I’ll look.
What did you think of the recent Elvis Presley HBO documentary, The Searcher?
– hugh c grissett
I will probably be writing about it in my next villagevoice.com column. But if there isn’t room for all that might be said I’ll get back to it here. I liked the second part much more than the first.
Did you get any music from your parents or older siblings? What music played in your house when you were young?
My parents had a lot of show tunes albums, and my father played 1920s humorous songs on the piano. I’ll always remember the dozens of sheet music folders his aunts collected that were stored in the piano bench. Some were so beautiful my parents had them framed: one I remember distinctly had Bessie Smith, very young and thin, on the front. Out of all that, though, I have two distinct memories that shaped me as a listener and even a critic. One was a rhythmic passage in a song from the Flower Drum Song soundtrack—just so quick, leaping, and supercharged it left me breathless. It didn’t seem real. I didn’t understand how it happened. I played it over and over, lifting the tone arm to place on the LP at just the right spot. I would have been about 13. That sense of impossibility in a piece of music—how could anyone have thought of that?—has been the greatest treasure ever since.
My parents also had what seemed to me a vast collection of 78 albums—there were probably 30 or 40—which were almost never played: mostly classical. But there was one odd one. It was a 78 album—and 78 albums had pages, like photo albums, they were physically albums, which is where the notion of calling a collection of songs on a single LP disc an album came from—of songs sung by the Red Army Choir, one of which was an unbearably stirring air called “Meadowland.” It seemed to capture all the aspirations of humanity through all ages—it sounded that deep. But it was still the McCarthy era—this would have been 1956, 1957. I had already gone around through my father’s library hiding leftist books behind other books, in case the FBI showed up to search our house. This seemed much more dangerous. It actually was Soviet. I don’t know if it was some kind of foreign import or put out by the CP USA or what, but it killed me. I felt disloyal, illegal, and inspired listening to it. This is a version—
—but not, I think, what I heard, which I remember as slower, with no reaching for highs, very level, very heroic and melancholy at the same time.
Those two pieces gave me a sense of the power and mystery of music. So when “What’d I Say” or “Hound Dog” or “There’s a Place” came along, I was ready to hear them, and ascribe unlimited significance to them.
Much later, around 2008, after my mother had died and my father was in a nursing home, my brothers and sister and I went through their house, to empty it. I found that in those thick, heavy 78 albums there were what by then—given what I’d learned about American music—were great discoveries. I liked to think I could have understood them if I’d seen them as a teenager, but I probably would have drawn a blank. One was an album of 78s by Lead Belly—I traded it to the Folkways library at the Smithsonian for an original 1952 three-LP set of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Another was a collection of early 20th century recordings by the great black blackface artist Bert Williams—and I would have loved to have been able to ask my father, who took part in blackface student comedy revues at San Jose Central High School in the early ’30s, when the U.S. government was still publishing guides on how to put on a blackface show in your town, what it meant to him, a life-long liberal and crusader for justice, but by then he was beyond conversation. I donated it to the Archie Givens Sr. Collection of African-American Literature at the library of the University of Minnesota, which my younger daughter curates and archives.
All of my siblings were younger. It was therefore incumbent on me to consider anything they liked as cretinous, so I never learned anything from them. At least not when we all lived in the same house.
What’s the story behind you and Lester Bangs co-writing the Moondance review in Rolling Stone?
Moondance had been assigned to Lester, but I felt what he came up with was way overwritten. I wrote the review instead, keeping one line of Lester’s—on the backwoods church—which in (immediate) hindsight was the only notable thing about what was published, and put both names on it. I was a fascist as an editor starting out. I’m not sure I even discussed it with Lester. I think he said he was ‘surprised,’ though it didn’t affect our working relationship. At the same time I was trying to find a way to get Lester’s endless paean to Charles Mingus’s Black Saint and the Sinner Lady into Rolling Stone. Ralph Gleason said it was the work of a neophyte who was dazzled by a first exposure to a genius and he was probably right. In any case I got nowhere—I knew nothing about Mingus, couldn’t hear the album—but I was dazzled by Lester.
I don’t think I’ve seen so much as a reference in your writing to Sandinista! by the Clash. Did you spend much time with it when it was released? Did anything in its maze or haze captivate you? Do you ever revisit it?
– Norm Seltzer
When I heard that the Clash was going to do a triple album called Sandinista! I thought they were buying their own hype. I couldn’t have thought of anything more self-parodying. Maybe when I heard it I couldn’t hear beyond that impression. I did like the kids doing “Career Opportunities.” I think I need to go back to it.
I’m a big fan of the movie That Thing You Do! and its soundtrack. What were your reactions to it?
– Matthew E
It really left almost no impression on me.
Nothing to do with current topics, just wondering what you thought of Thelonious Monk’s Misterioso album? I’ve been listening to it a lot lately and wondered what you think of how it’s aged.
I don’t know it. I’ll look for it.
I’m curious to know what your thoughts are on Tupac. No matter how many years pass, rap never truly moves on from him. He is perhaps rap’s most universal songwriter and figure. There are murals of him all over the world. Do you feel he will enter the pantheon of the Bob Marleys and John Lennons? Has he already? Would love to hear any thoughts you have on him in general, his songwriting, and on his enduring influence around the world.
I’m not the right person for these questions.
I really enjoyed your detailed thoughts about Rod Stewart’s first four solo albums, and it made me wonder: What do you think of Stewart’s work with Faces during this same period? I hear many charmed and wonderful moments that have the same feeling.
I loved them all. Especially “Debris” and “Memphis” on A Nod Is as Good as a Wink…To a Blind Horse, which I always translated as A Nod Is as Good as a Wink…To Someone Like Me Who’s Blind Drunk.
Greil would probably disagree but I’ve always seen a lot of Stewart in Paul Westerberg’s work (“Things,” “Here Comes a Regular.”)
– Kevin Bicknell
You couldn’t be more right about “Here Comes a Regular.” I’d love to hear Rod Stewart do it, recorded live, under his breath, sitting at the bar of the CC Club on Lyndale in Minneapolis.
Have you ever been to a Dylan impersonator contest? (I went once when Dave Van Ronk was one of the judges.) Any thoughts/analysis of these events? If you have been to one, what were your reactions ?
Also: have you read The Dylanologists by David Kinney, and if so what were your thoughts about the book ?
– Dave Rubin
I’ve never been to a Dylan or for that matter Elvis impersonator contest. There’s a guy who has hung out in a doorway on 6th Avenue between 9th and 10th streets in New York for at least ten years as a rather subtle Elvis, keeping his own secrets.
I expected a snide book from The Dylanologists. I might even have been looking for that. But I found the book consistently interesting and empathetic and ended with great respect for David Kinney.
Am blown away by the Johnny Cash Basement Tape covers. “Folsom Prison” is good. “Belshazzar” is revelatory. “Big River” is breathtaking. After an uncertain 1/2-take, Dylan and the Band find an unlikely, riveting funky groove for the song. I have tried different takes on the phrasing—his is at once utterly casual and, line by line, utterly perfect. And they apparently knocked it off an afternoon. Two geniuses collaborating across time and space. And far better than when they actually performed together about a year later.
– Harry Clark
But what about “Still in Town”?
I think the best Dylan-Cash cover is the duet the two of them do on “I Still Miss Someone” in Eat the Document, somewhere backstage in the U.K. in 1966.
You must forgive my historical blind spot. How was I to know that “fuck” was an obscenity in your language? When I’m thinking “Americanism” I’m thinking of the belief that the American enterprise is in essence noble and good, and whatever the polite word for that is, that’s what I meant. There is a contrary view that America is a whited sepulcher, that its claims to embody liberty and democracy are merely a mask behind which its rulers hide their wicked designs, and it is only noble and good in the person of the rebels and reformers who oppose it and the oppressed whom they champion. I personally am close enough to the Square John point of view to find this aggravating, but the reasoning part of my mind reminds me that the desire to create a morally purified society is 100% in the American grain, and promised in the brochure. While anything that promotes virtuous behavior is good, in a country as reflexively patriotic as this one, the whited sepulcher idea is a political liability.
And it can’t be denied that America asks you no small thing. It’s like a religion where you go to confirmation if the religion used to practice human sacrifice. To take one example, one reason the American Revolution succeeded where so many other popular revolutions failed was that it recognized all property rights antebellum, including people owning people. In effect, slavery was the bride price. I can’t blame anyone for flinching. And as for what it’s asking from African Americans, well, Mama Lucia.
Just to work in some kind of question here: I haven’t been to many other countries and you have, so tell me, is patriotism in the America different from patriotism elsewhere?
– Robert Fiore
I hate people who respond to a serious inquiry with “it’s in the book,” but I did wrestle with, confront, evade, and play with these questions in The Shape if Things to Come and since. The book is about these questions.
I think perhaps the best way to get out from under what can seem like the volcanic ash burying America’s promises and begin to confront the paradoxes and contradictions of American identity is to read Frederick Douglass, Albert Murray (The Omni-Americans), Zora Neale Hurston, Gayl Jones, and Walter Mosley.
As far as patriotism elsewhere goes, I really only know anything about Europe. While Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia have always had nativist and exclusionary tendencies, in Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, Slovakia and especially Russia (during the Soviet Union but especially since), patriotism has been mostly a matter of celebrating great military victories (and just as often, defeats) hundreds of years in the past and thus of determining who is a real Pole, Serb, or Russian—and especially who isn’t.
Given the immense popularity of Rod Stewart’s amazing early seventies albums, one might assume that his impact on later artists would be considerable. But I can’t think of anyone who has tried for the sound and feeling of Stewart’s great early seventies work, let alone captured it. Maybe John Mellencamp on a couple of songs, maybe Bruce Springsteen at his most relaxed. Do you hear Rod Stewart’s influence anywhere? Do you think there is something inherently elusive about what Stewart achieved on those few albums?
There are a lot of questions inside your questions. The question of influence—why is it interesting to look for the influence of someone interesting on people who are less interesting, as if that makes the first person more interesting?
Any performer can inspire others, but is that influence? Some people in music are infinitely inspiring and—maybe this isn’t a word—imitatable. Elvis inspired the world and could be imitated by anyone. The Beatles were instantly replicated everywhere and still are. But John Lennon was not imitatable. And Rod Stewart is not imitatable. Is it because he has his own style, or a scratchy voice, or because for a moment he found a voice, then lost it, and couldn’t even imitate himself?
There’s no question his first four solo albums are charmed. Thinking it over, it seems to me that’s because of the cover versions—which in some cases, as with Eddie Cochran’s “Cut Across Shorty,” are so explosively imaginative that the original version all but ceases to exist, as if Stewart had found a note for an idea of a song scribbled by Cochran just before he died and decided to see where he could take it (I know Cochran didn’t write it—but as far as I’m concerned, given Stewart’s version, neither did the people who did). The list is staggering: on The Rod Stewart Album (or An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down) “Street Fighting Man” (Stewart said he wanted people to hear the lyrics, but the revision is far more radical than needed for that), “Man of Constant Sorrow,” then on “Gasoline Alley,” “It’s All Over Now” (which the Rolling Stones’ had already covered from the Womack Brothers, and staggeringly, and this makes theirs sound self-conscious, craftsmanlike), “Only a Hobo,” “Country Comfort,” “Cut Across Shorty,” then on Every Picture Tells a Story “Reason to Believe” (which unlike Tim Hardin or anyone else he makes this sentimental song sound tragic), “I Know I’m Losing You,” then on Never a Dull Moment “I’d Rather Go Blind” and “Twistin’ the Night Away”—and I’m only mentioning the ones I think are wonderful—there are many more that are just fine.
The real explosion going on here is in Stewart’s own songwriting—“Maggie May,” “Every Picture Tells a Story,” “Mandolin Wind,” “You Wear It Well.” But I think what’s happening is that, as someone who wanted to write, Stewart needed other people’s songs—great songs in original versions, as with Etta James’s “I’d Rather Go Blind,” or undeveloped songs, like “Cut Across Shorty”—to prove to himself he was worthy of them, that he could add something to them, that they were, partly, his, just as they belonged to anyone who was moved by them. It was an attempt to prove he could live up to them—and when he did prove that, he could go on and write songs that, as songs, lived up to them, too. And I think that perhaps going so deeply into other people’s songs let him imagine himself into other people’s lives—those of his own songs I’ve mentioned are fictions, they’re not about Rod Stewart, they’re not autobiographical any more than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is autobiographical. It is now ruling cant speech to discuss any piece of art in whatever form as autobiographical—did this really happen to you? Terry Gross asks any novelist on her show. Read about Cardi B’s new single: it’s about her boyfriend. Not a boyfriend, but hers—thus reducing the listener to a spectator, not allowing anyone to imagine herself or himself into the song, but turning listeners into voyeurs. This is now how you sell your work—but any good art is fiction.
What’s been your relationship to Faulkner’s work over the years? Did you first read him before or after you felt your own themes taking shape? Favorite books or stories?
– Devin McKinney
The first Faulkner I read was The Sound and the Fury, when I was co-teaching the American Studies sophomore honors seminar at Berkeley in 1971. My co-teacher was Richard Hutson, from English; I was from Political Science. I found the book completely mystifying. The addendum on the Comptons—added by Faulkner after the original publication—though clear on the surface, only confused me more, because I couldn’t connect the action referred back to in the actual book to what I’d read.
My class was going badly—I was a grad student, I had been a TA but had never had my own class before, the seminar had never been taught by a graduate student before. Hutson said his seminar was going wonderfully, so I attended his next one to see how it was done. It was on The Sound and the Fury, and with a single stroke he opened the book. I hadn’t thought about the title. He simply referred back to Macbeth: “Life is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” The most elegant and profound sentence in the English language, and impossible not to understand. Yes—the book opens, in that all-consuming mental haze, as told by Benjy, the idiot. We are in his mind, seeing what he sees, understanding what he does, which is to say nothing.
After that, Absalom, Absalom! is almost a movie, and sometimes I think I like it more. But after those books everything else seems limited, programmatic, structured—except, maybe, for “Barn Burning.” The movie of Tomorrow shows the isolation, ignorance, and smallness of the backwoods so powerfully that when I read the story after seeing the movie I was disappointed.
When Werner Sollors and I had finished editing A New Literary History of America, we realized we were missing entries on The Sound and the Fury and Moby Dick. We’d assigned an entry on the relationship between Melville and Hawthorne, thinking that would lead into a full discussion of Moby Dick; it didn’t, but the essay was good and we used it. We’d assigned at least two people to write about The Sound and the Fury; the first essay was flat and empty, and the second was a pointless critique of the original critical response to the book. Werner suggested we use Sartre’s original essay on the book, which was overwhelmingly great, but it was too long and went against our pledge to use only original work. So we flipped a coin. He wrote about The Sound and the Fury and I wrote about Moby Dick. I have no idea what I would have done if it had turned out the other way. I still don’t remotely know the book no matter how many times I’ve read it.
On the question of whether it was a mistake for the United States throw off the British yoke, I think we can find an answer in the transition in Hong Kong, when that eminently capitalistic city-state was being turned over by one of the world’s most established democracies that had (about five minutes earlier) granted them full democracy themselves to a totalitarian state that had within living memory killed millions of its own people, and the Hong Kong Chinese were basically okay with it. Anything to get rid of Lord Haw-Haw.
The idea that there was any force on Earth that could have repressed this country’s determination to be is patently absurd. For the left to abandon Americanism to the right is politically suicidal.
– Robert Fiore
I’m not sure what the left is. I do remember a radical activist friend of mine saying—in 1970, when we were talking about the shootings that had just taken place at Kent State, and Bob Avakian of the Revolutionary Communist Party had just laughed at us for being upset (“When you’re surprised, you’re still a liberal”), and we went on to try to figure out what the Weathermen thought it was doing—“No revolution was ever made by people who hated their own country.” But the word Americanism is odious, it has a history, it’s about real things, principally deciding who is and who isn’t an American, which is what Trumpism is all about (and what the Republican Party has been about since Eisenhower left office). So let’s say to abandon America to the right is politically suicidal, and, maybe, spiritually suicidal, for an American—America as a fact, as an idea, as a bad joke, as a promise that can never be kept and that will keep you up at night for the rest of your life.
Have you kept up with Richard Thompson’s solo work? Do you have any particular favorite Richard Thompson albums that you can recommend?
– David McClure
Henry the Human Fly was the first, and remains unclassifiably alluring. The many iterations of 1000 Years of Popular Music from the origin song of “The Coo Coo Bird” to Britney Spears actually works and returns knowledge and pleasure every time. I’ve worked with him on occasion and he’s a warm, open, questing person, with a sense of legacy he wears like a cloak.
After his hilarious anecdote about the death of Albert Goldman [below], I think that Greil should just take the rest of the year off—it will be hard to top that!
– Robert Hull
Oh, I might be able to come up with something better…
When you mentioned a Stones track that you play over and over and “the voice, the words, and the rhythm get more glorious every time,” it immediately made me think of “Waiting on a Friend,” which I think is their best post-Exile recording (excluding Some Girls). Do you like it?
Its a lovely tune, and so convincing.
Just thought I would mention that the first two Cockney Rebel albums, The Human Menagerie and Psychomodo, are about to get released again. I know they were not that popular at the time in the US, but they were quite popular in the UK, and a kind of hidden influence on punk. Steve Harley, the singer and massive Dylan fan, was very outspoken and arrogant, he split the weekly music papers—Melody Maker loved them, the NME hated them, “mincing Biba dummies” they called them. They didn’t have an electric guitar in the band, which I don’t think helped with the ‘rock press’ at the time. I read an interview with Dave Goodman, the original Sex Pistols’ sound man and producer (he and Steve Jones actually played me the demos through the PA system one afternoon before a gig in Leeds). He mentioned Cockney Rebel a few times when they were working on songs like “No Feelings,” which he said was channeling two Cockney Rebel songs, “Psychomodo” and “(Make Me Smile) Come Up And See Me.” This last song was a number one single in the UK, it was the first release after the original band split, and it is a very bitter song about the ex members, it was like Steve Harley’s “Positively Fourth Street.” And something else that has been mentioned—the D-E-S-T-R-O-Y in “Anarchy In The UK” comes from Steve Harley doing the same in the track “Psychomodo.
People like Mark Stewart of the Pop Group and Peter Hook of Joy Division/New Order, Pauline Murray, etc. all mentioned how important Cockney Rebel were to them before punk, even the name Cockney Rebel! Some writers have compared them to Magazine and PIL and “Cavaliers” on Psychomodo reminds me a bit at least lyrically to “Theme” on the first PIL album.
Fascinating archaeology from corners unknown to me. But while people may prize the Goodman demos because they weren’t officially released, and thus must be more authentic, they were derivative in just the ways the released singles had burned off the past and broken into something different. So different that many people who heard “Anarchy in the UK” thought that was exactly what it was. So many people who said, “That’s not music. That’s not even rock ‘n’ roll.” That was so funny.
I just reread your “10 Worst Rock Critics” list from 1982. Now that a few of your picks (including your number 1) have checked out, is that something you’d care to revise? Also, did you ever cross paths with any of those people after the publication of the original list?
– jalacy holiday
That list was pretty well rewritten by Dave Marsh from whatever I sent him, though the judgements weren’t any different. Most of them are no longer around or no longer inflicting themselves on the world. Sure, there are people for whom I have a long standing and still developing loathing, and I’ve said so in print in my Real Life Rock columns, but there’s no need for another list.
I didn’t know any of the people I included way back when. I later met, sort of, Legs McNeil—at a conference on punk at the Fashion Institute of Technology that included Malcolm McLaren, Stephen Sprouse, Richard Hell, and Jon Savage, he shouted to me from the audience that I had no right to say anything about punk because “I never saw you at CBs”—and, at a book party at Housing Works in New York, John Leonard, not long before he died. He’d written a disgusting piece on John Lennon when John Lennon was killed, and I wrote to him, calling him a moron. When we were introduced at the party there was a brief and unpleasant conversation that came down to both of us saying that we had said what we meant and meant what we said.
As Dave Marsh said, Albert Goldman died as he lived, making life a little less livable all around. He was at the airport in Miami, on his was to London for an appearance on the top rated BBC talk show, when he discovered that his ticket was business class, not first class. He threw a fit. He demanded that the airline call the BBC. He demanded that the plane be held up until it was all resolved. He threatened to sue. Finally they put him on in first class, the plane took off, and he promptly died of a heart attack. Which meant some unfortunate person had to spend the rest of the flight sitting next to a dead body.
I’m in my early 20s, and a lot of my current generation doesn’t care about or respect Elvis. This baffles me, because he is the greatest selling artist of all time. Even musicians I know rarely care to understand or listen to Elvis. He’s constantly dismissed. Why do you think this is? Why are The Beatles so much more respected? Maybe I’m wrong and this is just my perception?
Whether or not Elvis is still the greatest selling recording artist of all time, that is no reason for anyone to pay attention to him. There are a thousand other reasons. I would think that it ultimately comes down to the fact that people can dismiss him as a dumb white southerner—and I doubt very much if contemporary country performers have the attitudes you’re ascribing to people in general—and that the way that he died is a big part of that. It allowed anyone to feel superior to him, to dismiss him as if he had never been born, and live out a false version of their own history.
Of the three Elvis documentaries released or due to be released this year—the BBC’s Elvis: The Rebirth of the King, HBO’s The Searcher, and Eugene Jarecki’s The King, which will likely have an independent theatrical release later this year, the last one is by far the most paradoxical and probing on exactly the question you are asking.
With all due respect, your summation of Ringo’s drumming as anonymous and lacking imagination is pretty hard to swallow. Just for starters, his twin kicks after each “yeah, yeah, yeah” in “She Loves You” make a signature drum part that every drummer who’s ever played the song has to replicate just as surely as bass players have to nail James Jamerson’s “My Girl” intro. Ringo then developed that idea into the off-kilter groove of “Ticket To Ride” and then developed that into “Tomorrow Never Knows”. His half-open hi-hat splashing in all the early hits sounds like the white-noise concert screams of Beatlemania converted into a musical tool. “I Feel Fine” is a Liverpool version of the “What’d I Say” groove, balancing the song’s country mannerisms. He demonstrated plenty of imagination over and over again without seeming to directly copy anyone, much like Jerry Allison did with the Crickets. All of which brings me to my question: can you think of any recent records with instrumental parts that stand out as distinctively as much of the playing in rock, soul and country records from the old days?
– Jim Cavender
I never said or meant to imply Ringo was unimaginative, and calling him anonymous was a compliment.
Whenever I’m asked an overall where-are-we-now question my mind freezes up. All I can say is, Chris Stapleton’s guitar.
Enjoyed your comments on Hitchcock, and as he gets more enshrined as a dour master, I especially love that you rekindled the fun in his best work. Maybe it’s your comment about the “puppet strings,” but immediately I was curious what Stanley Kubrick films you enjoy, if any, and why. Lolita always sneaks up on me and is my favorite at the moment.
I don’t think anything quite compares to The Shining, and I think Diane Johnson’s script brought a degree of intellectual rigor and severity to the project that was unusual for Kubrick. The casting is inspired—especially finding a young boy who didn’t overwhelm the screen with cuteness, as any Spielberg equivalent would have. After that, The Killing—the tension never lets up. And then Lolita and Dr. Strangelove, both chilling and hilarious—especially Dr. Strangelove, which becomes more absurd and more credible as it goes on.
Tom Cruise playing a doctor is really crazy—he gets less credible as the movie goes on—but I liked Eyes Wide Shut. Someone finally understood Nicole Kidman.
How many articles did you write for Creem magazine?
From 1971 to 1975, including features, news reports, record reviews, and mini reviews of stuff from bargain bins, dozens. I think my favorites were a review of Rod Stewart’s Never a Dull Moment and the poster illustration they came up with for an imagined film script of the ultimate ’50s teen rock ‘n’ roll movie.
Did you see The New York Times Magazine Music Issue (3/11/18)? (“25 Songs That Tell us Where Music is Going.”)
If you did, any comments on it—in general and/or on specific pieces?
– Dave Rubin
Lots all around. But I hope to take it up in my Real Life Rock column at Villagevoice.com next month. I can say that the editor ends the intro by saying IF YOU WANT TO KNOW WHERE MUSIC IS GOING ASK AN ELEVEN YEAR OLD—so why didn’t they?
I’m curious as to whether you have heard Van Morrison’s unreleased album, Choppin’ Wood? Recorded entirely in 2000 and clocking in at about 50 minutes over ten tracks, this would have been his first all-original album with Linda Gail Lewis. Unfortunately the two had an acrimonious falling out, and Morrison completely changed the album, dropping a handful of songs, re-recording others and mixing Lewis out of the rest. (The end result was released a year and a half later as Down the Road, running nearly 70 minutes over 15 tracks, nine of which were recorded after Lewis was out of the picture.)
Also, have you had a chance to hear Morrison’s own recording of “At the Crossroads,” a song he gave to Solomon Burke?
I haven’t heard or heard of either (how?). I thought the Linda Gail album was ruined by his bullying, his refusal to let her get a word in.
All things considered and with the benefit of hindsight, don’t you think that America’s decision to become independent from Great Britain was a big mistake?
– jalacy holiday
I was surprised a few years ago through Robert Christgau’s website to see that you had placed It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll as your favorite album of 1974. Does that judgment still hold? And how do you feel about the period between Exile and Some Girls generally speaking? Do you find their reggae/Jamaican affectations, for instance, at all convincing?
It was a pretty terrible year. But I loved “Luxury.” Five minutes long and I play it over and over and the voice, the words and the rhythm get more glorious every time. Thanks to [being] funny, it has heart, it’s politically outrageous, and it moves. And that might have been one of the last gasps.
How does Norman Mailer’s work hold up for you? Do you revisit whatever you consider his best work?
It holds up brilliantly because Mailer unlike so many of his contemporaries—Styron, Updike, Bellow, even Roth in a way—was not afraid to make himself look like a fool, even a venal fool, and not afraid to be wrong, in the moment and with history. Armies of the Night and the first half of The Executioner’s Song might be his best work, but Miami and the Siege of Chicago, An American Dream, and Why Are We in Vietnam? have great pull for me. I just started rereading The Deer Park, which is my favorite of his straight novels. There remains tremendous stuff in Advertisements for Myself and The Presidential Papers.
I read your answer about Ringo Starr with disbelief. Why? Simply because you are judging Ringo on the basis of one song (“I’m Looking Through You”) where the percussion is perfect for the song but hardly flashy. There are plenty of other examples of Ringo’s solid percussion including “Rain”, “Paperback Writer,” and “Come Together”. Was Ringo flashy? Nope. Was he a solid time keeper who knew the perfect fills to compliment the song? Yep.
I guess my question is this—if you don’t care for a musician but they clearly have talent recognized by others, how do you justify putting them down or why do you think other musicians want to work with them?
– Wayne Klein
Because they rely on tricks that guarantee imagination will not mess things up. The songs you mention have a stiff beat; Ringo’s great gift is anonymous flow.
The title of this piece from the Guardian—“Trump’s greatest feat: making Reagan and Bush seem like good guys” is by now a dime a dozen, probably not even necessary for you to read to get the gist of.
I’ve thought about this since Trump came into office, and am reminded of it every time I nod in agreement when a Bush flak shows up on CNN to denigrate the current President. What do you think—dangerous revisionism or just sensible? And do you think Mike Pence would be a more reasonable option were it to come to that?
– peter jaspin
Every Republican president makes the previous one look good, because each builds on the previous one’s demagoguery.
What do you think about the role of music in children’s lives and its relationship to stories? What song do you remember from your childhood?
– Meghan Sullivan
The role of music in the lives of children is not that different from that of anyone else. Music makes children aware of a larger world—voices coming from somewhere, or nowhere (I have a friend whose three-year-old was convinced Bruce Springsteen lived in the driver’s side door speaker of his car). It gives them something to fixate on, fall in love with, smile over. And it gives them perhaps the first thrill of memorizing something from beginning to end: a sense of their own mental capacity and appetite. I know a four-year-old who knew the words, changes, and lilts to an entire Pink album before she’d ever memorized a paragraph out of a book.
The song I remember most distinctly from my early childhood was “Red River Valley.” I had a little windup record player box and a red disc that I think had come with a pair of jeans, and I played it all day long.
The actor Danny Trejo recently made a suggestion regarding gun control legislation: “you tell every young black kid,” he said, “‘Hey, go buy an automatic weapon,’ and you see how quick that law changes.”
His comment put me in mind of when when a cadre of Black Panthers led by Bobby Seale entered the California state Capitol building carrying guns, as a demonstration of their Constitutional right to bear arms. They were escorted out but not charged with any crime and allowed to keep their weapons. It’s hard to imagine such a scenario ending as peacefully today.
The Panthers believed that the Second Amendment was designed, at least in part, to allow citizens to protect themselves from government tyranny. That belief seems these days to be almost entirely the province of right-wing extremist groups; the liberal fallback answer to any Second Amendment argument seems to have been reduced to “you can have as many muskets as you want”.
You once wrote that the Bill of Rights is “the only protection unpopular politics have in this country;” in the same article you referenced “those treasured American freedoms embodied in the Bill of Rights—free speech, free assembly, a right to privacy, due process of the law.”
Do you include the right to bear arms among those freedoms? Do you think that there is a rational argument supporting the Second Amendment to be made from a left-wing perspective? Or is any such argument undone by the very real need to keep children safe in their schools?
– jalacy holiday
Given the ambiguous wording of the Second Amendment, it wasn’t until 2008 [link] that the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that individual gun possession was any kind of protected right. Until that point states could control guns and Federal restrictions had no constitutional barrier. The Black Panthers entered the California legislature for many reasons, and they were carrying law books as well as long guns. They wanted to show that citizens had the right to be present in legislature proceedings, that they could and supposedly would defend themselves against police violence and what they called the occupation of black communities by police. Up until that point almost everyone assumed that weapons were prohibited at the State Capitol and other public spaces. The result was that laws were immediately passed closing this loophole—which allowed the Panthers to show how readily governments would close the door when the wrong people tried to walk though it.
The position today of the NRA and the Republican Party is, if you take what they say at face value, and forget that the NRA is a lobby for gun manufacturers and the Republican Party a front for removing the entire concept of “the public” from both government and civil discourse, is that the Second Amendment is in fact the First Amendment: it is the basis on which all other rights rest, because only armed citizens can be understood as truly free. This makes gun ownership, in essence, a First Amendment right: gun ownership is a form of speech, by which it is understood that any citizen has the right to express him or herself by shooting any other person, at any time or place, for any reason. There may be legal consequences, though often, as with George Zimmerman and countless other white killers of black people, there are not. So no, I don’t think gun ownership is any kind of right.
I’ve been listening to the Beatles for decades, but only recently have I really appreciated Ringo Starr’s distinctive and inspired presence in their music—not just as good rock and roll drumming in the back but as an essential ingredient in the songs and the shape, color, and feel of the sound.
Your 1978 piece about Keith Moon seemed a little dismissive of Ringo Starr’s drumming, and I’ve never seen you write about Starr’s playing with the Beatles, except a quick 1979 mention of “There’s A Place.” This was surprising, because you have often been able to hear how a musician finds a place and lives in a piece of music—especially music that no one else cares to examine this way (Mick Jagger’s guitar playing on Some Girls, for instance)—bringing revelations that, I think, are found nowhere else.
Have you listened to Ringo Starr’s drum playing with the Beatles this way? Have you tried to explore what it means to their music? What do you hear?
I think I’ve somehow been affected by claims in Fusion, which also took it for granted that Bob Dylan wrote all the songs on Music from Big Pink, that Keith Moon actually played on most Beatles records, at least from “Ticket to Ride” on. I’d really have to go back and listen to everything. Right now I’d say, lamely, that he’s an invisible part of the rhythm, as on “I’m Looking Through You.” And that’s plainly inadequate.
You had mentioned author Karl Ove Knausgaard in a recent answer [3/5]. I am halfway done with his 6-book series My Struggle and think it is wonderful. But more than just wonderful—unique. He writes with no filter. Even though most of the things that happen are mundane he holds nothing back, no matter how it makes him or others look. He openly discusses childhood weaknesses that most of us would strive to forget, let alone share aloud or write down. He discusses the horrible aspects of his father very matter-of-factly. He reveals things about relationships that had to have hurt the person he is writing about. There are plenty of novelists and songwriters who we suspect have much of themselves in what they are writing. But there is the out that they take that it could be just a character (I’m thinking of Dylan backing off the intimacy of Blood On The Tracks in the Biograph liner notes or John Mellencamp’s comments on some of his revealing recent songs like “Isolation Of Mister.”) Not so with Knausgaard. He is saying, “this is me” with no hedging. Incredibly brave. What do you think?
– Bob Ryan
I don’t believe it. Knausgaard has given himself license to make anything up, or leave anything out, about what-really-happened, so that what happened happens even more than it did—which is exactly what people do in memoirs, which aren’t any more true than novels. If it’s a work of art, it’s imagined. If it claims to non-fiction, so-called true, it’s still imagined—made up—because by the nature of situation, people, or for that matter six-dimensional A.I. machines yet unbuilt, are incapable, even if one grants oneself unlimited space, as Knausgaard does, of rendering any situation, in all of its factors, exactly and completely as it happened.
But that’s the way I see the world. I haven’t been able to read any more of My Struggle than the few pages I wrote about.
Is Free a band that resonates for you? I find they just keep sounding better, and suspect that if their body of work weren’t smothered for exposure by the vastly overexposed “All Right Now” they would be rightly regarded as one of the three or four best British bands of their time—a time for which a claim like that really means something. At the very least they were the greatest all-teenage band ever.
– Ian McGillis
They had moments of real depth. I remember Lester Bangs writing about several British bands, and then saying, “but Free have arrived.” They were a better band than Bad Company: in the first edition of Mystery Train, in 1975, I singled out Free’s “Wishing Well” as a true continuation of Robert Johnson’s spirit and touch. But Bad Company has stayed with me more. Johnson is all through Mick Ralphs’s guitar playing—the thoughtfulness, the way you could sense the choices between notes and tones—but mostly what I carry with me is the sadness, regret, fatalism—the lack of choices in life—in “Bad Company.” The way Paul Rodgers just drops off “And I can’t deny—“
In your 1/14/80 Real Life Rock piece about Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk you discuss the album as gestalt, but one that’s fragmented, writing that “the most striking tracks were not quite songs, and they didn’t make their claims as tracks.”
Do you still have that response? When you hear “Think About Me” or “Sara” on the radio, do they feel out of place? Do you have favorite Tusk cuts, or is your approach the same as with Lana Del Rey albums (“I don’t necessarily even find myself listening to songs, but to clouds passing”)?
Those songs do seem out of place—like what was called the “The George song” on Beatles albums, a compromise Lindsey Buckingham had to make so the others would allow him to commit what must have sounded like commercial suicide. Past that it’s all one song—or unsong.
I recently picked up the Best of the Cutting Edge ’65-’66 set and was astounded by the aggressive rehearsal cut of “Visions of Johanna” (Take 5), which I hadn’t heard before. “VoJ” is probably the Dylan song I go back to the most, though I’ve always found the album recording to be a bit distant; something about the drums rings false to me. I didn’t think I’d find a more powerful version than the one on the Live ’66 “Royal Albert Hall” release, but this one left me dumb. It’s a different power, but just as vast.
Do you know if he ever performed a similarly driving arrangement on stage? I haven’t found anything close.
– Mike Russell
I can’t speak for all the times he may have performed with his current or preceding band, but in 1965-66 it was always part of the acoustic half of the shows—very dramatized, often introduced as “Seems Like a Freeze-Out,” and in tone and delivery not that far from the performance for Blonde On Blonde. What you’re responding to, I think, is one of the January ’66 New York sessions with the Hawks and others, where they were trying out radically different, extreme versions of the song—to find out what the song actually was, how the song itself wanted to be played. I think they made the deepest choice as to what to use, but the swooping organ that lifts the song off the ground in one take, the headlong attack of another, are treasures unmatched.
Have you seen Catherine Bainbridge’s film Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World? If so, what do you think of it?
– Shoshone Odess Johnson
I haven’t seen it, but there have been many attempts over the years to clump Indian-identified musicians together when in truth their affinities are not ethnic but aesthetic, just as with anyone else. The Indian theme in music is a richer way of approaching the subject—and that would include Jim Jarmusch’s Deadman, Sherman Alexie, and Neil Young as well as Link Wray, Redbone, Robbie Robertson, and Jesse Ed Davis—and maybe show the theme is meaningless.
Two unrelated musical things I wonder if you have any thoughts on:
1) “Another Girl, Another Planet” by the Only Ones. One of my favorite punk/post-punk/new wave things ever. To date I’ve still never heard a single other song by them.
2) The Avalanches LP, Since I Left You. A longshot, perhaps, but somewhat within the realm of DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing, certainly in terms of its “found sound” aesthetic.
The Only Ones skidded by me at the time because there seemed to be so much harder stuff to listen to, and for me they are still too power-pop—a more accurate description of a misbegotten approach, or commercial niche in waiting, has never been coined, even though it was Greg Shaw trying to market stuff he wanted to record for his own label. I didn’t know the Avalanches. It’s very noisy, or busy. But I’ll keep listening.
It has just been announced in the UK that the NME will cease to be a paper magazine, so all the weekly music magazines are gone now, although NME was as good as gone as it had been given away free in the last couple of years. In 1970 I used to buy 5 weekly music papers then down to 3, plus the likes of Rolling Stone, Creem, etc. from the US. This leaves the UK now with hardly any proper coverage of pop music; you barely get any coverage for the likes of Lana Del Rey who for me is one of the most important artists of our times. The NME is online but has lost everything that was good about it. I wondered if the UK music press of the seventies into the eighties had any impact on you—did you follow it?
And so they go. Rolling Stone will be gone long before we are, vanished into some half-forgotten corner of an ever more restricted, firewalled information dead end.
From 1976 or ‘77 NME was a beacon. I waited around the Berkeley bookstores that carried it and devoured every issue for the interviews with punk and post-punk bands, for the insanely hysterical headlines and teasers, the wild humor, the writing of Charles Murray and Julie Burchill. For about three years it might have been the freest and funniest publication on the planet. But I haven’t seen an issue in years if not decades. My fault or theirs? They don’t have as big a story to write. The next time there is a story people will find ways to tell it.
I was thinking about Fleetwood Mac, and it struck me, has there ever been another band that in one phase of their career does something that is intensely pleasing to a limited, non-mainstream audience, and in another becomes the biggest thing in mass appeal pop music? I suppose Pink Floyd is kind of similar, but there it was more that what they were doing caught on than that they turned around and became a different thing entirely.
– Robert Fiore
There are probably many examples, but I think of the Drifters—all over the R&B charts from the early ’50s when Clyde McPhatter was the lead singer, then replaced en masse after he went solo, by the manager, who owned the group, their Atlantic contract, and the name, with the formerly Five Crowns, which brought in Ben E. King and put the new Drifters into the pop top 10 for years to come.
But Americans don’t necessarily grasp the impact of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. Though they made no noise in the US until Santana covered “Black Magic Woman,” in the UK and Europe they at times outsold the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the late ’60s. Even after Green left the band adapted to itself—Kiln House is a perfect record. Of course with my fellow Menlo-Atherton High School alumni Lindsey Buckingham (his older brothers ruled the school when I was there) and Stevie Nicks in the band they reached—or created—a new dimension of, for a time, creativity, omnipresence, and wealth. And they’ll be able to live off that till they die. But they were, in the world’s eye if not ours, big from the start.
What do you know about the song “New River Train”? I recently heard the New Lost City Ramblers’ version, as well as one by children’s entertainer, Raffi. Its lyrics certainly seem somewhat suggestive, which makes me wonder what they’re really about. Any thoughts?
– Ben Robinson
I don’t think suggestive is quite the word. The song ought to be called “Whore Train Running.” Usually “lose your shirt” means “lost all your money.” Here it means “you’re not wearing your shirt.”
I listened to your podcast for The Current about Prince, one of my favourite artists, but I’ve only ever read a few tidbits of yours on him. What’s your overall opinion of his work? Any particular favorite albums/songs? A tired theme, but how would Prince figure in a theoretical, impossible Stranded/Treasure Island update?
Really getting to know Prince through his music—even restricted to what he released and the flood of material that appeared online after his death, which is likely only a tiny fraction of what may come out over the next fifty years (an album of Jimi Hendrix blues pieces will be issued soon)—is probably a life’s work. I mean, have you heard the 40-minute “Motherless Child”? I know nothing compared to what there is to know.
If I were writing the Stranded discography now? If I had the nerve, just “When You Were Mine.” It sounded like a miracle when I first heard it and it still does. Everything new, different, radical, and Beatles-in-one-person about Prince is there. Or maybe only the George Harrison tribute “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Prince will live forever simply for what he did that night. And for what he wore. And for throwing a guitar in the air that was, presumably, caught by God.
Your November Real Life Top 10 drew my attention to Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s wonderful mini-essay on the Kendrick Lamar track “Alright,” which identified so brilliantly all the nuances and meanings implicit in the way Kendrick uses that phrase. But I find the rest of To Pimp A Butterfly just as deep, both in its text and its extraordinary kaleidoscopic music. It’s an astonishing piece of work that I could listen to forever. In Mystery Train you wrote wonderfully about There’s A Riot Goin’ On. Without making fatuous comparisons, it strikes me that To Pimp A Butterfly is just as complicatedly brilliant an album, and perhaps Riot’s closest modern-day counterpart. Have you spent time with it? What is your response to it? Have you considered writing about it?
– Nick B
I think it’s a revelatory comparison, or equivalency. There are congruencies between those times and these times, too. But people, some people, have learned from other people’s mistakes. To Pimp a Butterfly should not turn out to be the last word Riot turned out to be for Sly Stone.
What do you make of Donald Trump at CPAC last week reading “The Snake,” the old Oscar Brown Jr. song? I always think of Trump as one of our least musical presidents, and yet, here he is, belting out a reading of the lyrics. It does seem almost like some weird bit of an American unconscious suddenly possessing him. He thinks he is using the song against immigrants, but I suspect in the long run it is the song that has gotten ahold of him. Funny, too, how the crowd was going wild, responding to him almost as if he was singing.
– David Banash
Of course the audience went wild. It’s him. The truest, most acute, and probing thing Trump has ever said is that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue in broad daylight and not lose any votes. Larry Sabato is a polysci Professor who for decades has been the mainstream media’s go-to quote guy—most of what he says is mush, but the other day he said what other people aren’t and he did it in three short sentences we should remember: “His followers aren’t a base. They’re a cult. This is a cult.” Trump could tell his part of America the world is flat and it wouldn’t just nod its head, it would go berserk with confirmation and excitement.
I think Mr. Marcus would be interested in the serious error he made in Mystery Train, the fifth revised edition, 2008. On page 309 he wrote about “the late” Tom Lehrer. Unless he was referring to Mr. Lehrer being late for an interview this statement was, and still is, incorrect, as Mr. Lehrer is still with us. I await his response.
– Mark Diamond
That really is a terrible error, and I’m ashamed to say it made its way into the 2015 edition too, which means I’ll probably have to wait another five or six years to correct it, if I’m lucky enough to get the chance.
Just watched Annie Hall again. I guess it was just for laughs, but about halfway through the movie, Woody Allen really laid the wood on Bob Dylan’s pretensions during a brief conversation with a groupie-type girl he had just met. Woody Allen is no angel, of course, but it was funny and I partly agree with what he said, even if it was just to get a laugh. Although I liked much of Dylan’s work, such as the early stuff and John Wesley Harding, New Morning, Blood on the Tracks, etc., I never got the message that he was some kind of musical god. Good artist, occasionally brilliant, but not in my pantheon of “the greatest of all time.” I realize that cuts across the grain on this site, and maybe you agree with some of this, but some of his stuff was not only bad, it was horrible.
Well, sure. There were all those albums after the three Jesus records, and that lasted a long time. But in Annie Hall when the not-a-groupie but utterly unbelievably dumb supposed Rolling Stone reporter is talking about Dylan and The Rolling Stones, it’s not clear Alvy Singer knows who they are, and completely clear that he doesn’t care and, if he does know who they are, considers any interest in them a sign of cretinism. He’s willing to be obnoxiously cool about it because he just wants to prove he can still get an overgrown teenybopper into bed. As for the god business, Shelly Duvall is referring to the Maharishi they’ve come to see, not Dylan.
I used to love that movie. Today it plays like sour grapes.
I’m a Nik Cohn fan. I’ve seen your blurb for, as I still call it, Rock from the Beginning (“the best first book to read” about rock ‘n’ roll; it was), your “Undercover” review of King Death, and your comments here and there about Rock Dreams. Do you have any other opinions or impressions of his fiction or nonfiction—especially “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night”?
– Devin McKinney
I remember when Nik Cohn’s first book—in the UK, Pop from the Beginning—was about to be published in the US—some people at Rolling Stone had already read it. I asked about it—I had a book coming out that year, and I was, you know, wondering about the competition—there was also Richard Goldstein’s The Poetry of Rock and probably one or two more. Everyone said the same thing: “Well, it’s very opinionated.” “Do you like it? Is it good?” “Well, it’s very opinionated.” I was mystified—I thought writing, especially writing abut music, was supposed to be opinionated—it had to be. When I finally read it myself, I was thrilled. Not only because Cohn could write like a comet, or for the trashing of all pretensions, pieties, hierarchies of taste, but for the loving short chapters or maybe just a perfect line or two on people I didn’t know anything about—maybe I knew their names, remembered one record, maybe not, but they never meant anything to me and they meant the world to Cohn, which meant, in 1969, I could go back to 1955 and rehear rock ‘n’ roll as if I’d never heard it before, hear Eddie Cochran, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Charlie Rich (I’ll never forget Cohn describing him looking like a born ticket-taker), so many more. It was so much fun.
I went back and sought out his first book, the novel Market, published in 1965 when he was 19. I never found it, but I did find I Am Still the Greatest Says Johnny Angelo, a 1967 rock novel that divined all the myths the music implied and made up the rest—a book I loaned to a friend, never got back, and considered lost until the internet made everything available and I could find it again. I never heard of Today There Are No Gentlemen, about fashion, until looking up his bibliography just now, and his novel Arfur passed me by. I didn’t know about his 1997 New York novel Need. But I’ve read and treasured everything else. King Death was the first and still the best of many Jesse Garon Presley novels—and read it today and wonder if it isn’t coming true every time you open the paper. Rock Dreams and 20th Century Dreams, Cohn’s fantasies rendered by Guy Peellaert—with the unforgettable spread of Elvis as Narcotics Agent bursting into Bill Clinton’s room at Oxford to bust him for smoking dope—I go back to all the time, for pure pleasure. There’s his anthology, Ball the Wall, the 1992 Heart of the World, about traversing Broadway from one end to the other, and the 1999 Yes We Have No, a book about tribalism in the UK that begins with Cohn encountering, as if by accident—Oh, look who’s there, could that be…?—Johnny Edge, who set off the Profumo scandal that Cohn, like others, recreates as the breach that opened the British sixties. Tricksta, about his life as a hip-hop producer—including his piece on Soulja Slim, death death death in New Orleans hip-hop, almost unbearable to read—isn’t remotely as known as it should be. I’m not sure it’s known at all.
I’ve learned as much from Cohn and have been as inspired by him as by any writer. We’ve never met. We had one telephone conversation in the 1970s—he called me, I forget why—where he gently chastised me for something I’d written about Bob Marley as condescending. He was right, and I was appalled—even if, as Shaw said, a critic should never be grateful, a critic shouldn’t condescend to Bob Marley, or anyone else, either. Attack, dismiss, question the legitimacy, in the cosmic sense, of someone’s birth, fine—but don’t imply the same could never be thought of you, which is what condescension is.
Nik Cohn plays a part early on in my book Lipstick Traces. I was, again, thrilled to find out, a few years before that, that Norman Cohn, the great British historian and author of The Pursuit of the Millennium, a book as important to me as it was to the situationists, was Nik Cohn’s father—I thought it was serendipity, and no accident, that Norman Cohn was central to my book as well. But I had no idea, then, that Vera Broido-Cohn, in the twenties the girlfriend of the Berlin dadaist Raoul Hausmann, who I quoted at length in the book, was his mother.
As for “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” it was never one of my favorite pieces of his. I don’t care that it was fiction. I hope he made a good deal off the movie.
I’m a high school English teacher who, thanks to the benefit of our Senior English college-style seminar program, has the great joy of teaching a “RnR as Literature” course. I have the kids reading lots of great music criticism from the likes of Christgau, Lester Bangs, Klosterman, and you—including The History of R’n’R in Ten Songs, and excerpts from the Like Rolling Stone book and When That Rough God Goes Riding (in which your rich insights about Van’s “Listen to the Lion” are, by the way, some of my favorite music analyses ever). My question for you is: what’s some practical advice you could give to any of my students who might be interested in a career in music journalism/RnR criticism?
Still gettin’ off on that “Rolling Stone” snare shot every time!
– Jason Holtzman
Matters are not as open as they once were, in terms of getting work into print—but more open online than they’ve ever been. Your students should start with the school paper or literary magazine, if there is one. They should read all websites and blogs that are recommended or that they stumble on. They should be alert to affinities: who seems to be in tune with how they think, write, talk (not what they like). Two or three students should start their own blog and see if others want to join in. People should look for fanzines, odd, erratically published magazines, any place that doesn’t seem to be clear on what it’s doing and that doesn’t care.
And if your students feel inadequate, unsure of themselves, with no idea of how to feel that what they’re writing is true, assign them the section in Karl Knausgaard’s My Struggle—I think vol. 4—where as a teenager he wants nothing more than to become a rock critic. He studies the different schools of Norwegian rock criticism, decides which side he’s on, and finally manages to get a record to review. Him! Himself! In print! He listens to everything, listens to the record over and over, and then writes, and has published, the worst piece of rock criticism in history: well written, clear, every phrase, every word, every comma a cliche, every idea a repetition of something hundreds of other people have said in the same way, the most deadening, soul-destroying prose imaginable. They’ll know they can do better.
I’ve long been a great admirer of your work—its unpredictable revelatory quality and persistence, not to mention the thoroughness of certain personal obsessions. I’ve spent much of my life since 1979 as an artist and writer—with limited success. Recently I’ve been working on a series of essays—lyrical essays perhaps—the latest of which quotes your striking phrase from The Shape of Things to Come: “Music can make a utopia that shames life with its beauty.” I would be deeply grateful for any possible advice you could share with me about where I might find a wider audience for such pieces.
Read a lot of magazines, blogs, every kind of outlet. If you find affinities, pursue them—send your stuff as an attempt to join the conversation.
Re: Lester Bangs’ projected work, Rock Gomorrah—The Most Scandalous Lies About the Woodstock Generation. How far off the ground, if at all, did this projected collaboration with Michael Ochs get? Does an outline for it exist?
What do think the most scandalous lies are about the “Woodstock generation,” and how meaningful is (or was) the concept of a Woodstock generation?
– David Rabinovitz
You’d have to ask Michael Ochs. Didn’t he finally publish or half-publish it once upon a time?
I never noticed a Woodstock Generation. There were a lot of people there, but not a generation. I liked Abbie Hoffman’s Woodstock Nation, despite considering him a trend jumper, publicity hound, and all around con artist. But come to think of it, the movie A Walk on the Moon might tell the story you seem to be looking for best: about a woman who joins the perhaps nonexistent Woodstock Generation and comes out a different person anyway. Diane Lane has always been underrated.
I meant to ask—how does the sound quality of the original Basement Tapes release of 1975 sound to you today?
– David McClure
What do you think of Dead and Company?
– Adam Taslitz
I went to grade school with Bill Kreutzman, who I knew, and high school with Bob Weir, who I didn’t. We can leave it at that.
I remember reading your Elvis obit in Rolling Stone whereupon you comment on Chuck Berry’s reaction to Elvis’ death. You wrote that Chuck never hid his bitterness at the fact it took a white man to symbolize the music they all invented in the ’50s. I grew up in St. Louis and had the good fortune of seeing and meeting Chuck numerous times in concert and in life. And yes, he was not always a nice person. But sometimes he was very charming. A moody loner is how I would describe him. One time in the late ’90s I saw him perform at the Blueberry Hill venue. After the show, he signed and met with waiting fans backstage. He was in a a great fun mood. Open and expansive. I had a few moments with him and I asked him a question: “Of all of the artists who have covered your songs, is there any that stand out or you liked?” Without any hesitation he responded, Elvis Presley! He said his performance of “Promised Land” was amazing. I looked at him in disbelief, not because of Elvis, who I love, but because I assumed his bitterness towards Elvis’ success. He saw my reaction and responded even more forcefully. “No, no, listen Elvis added something to that song. He understood what I meant. Nobody else ever got my intent!” I was so excited I embarrassed myself and regret my reaction now. I asked him if he had met Elvis or even told him what he told me. At that moment, the famous defensive part of himself began and he shut down any further comment and dismissed me. I realized later he lost interest when the question and attention was not on him but on someone else. He wanted to control the narrative. In any case, I think you are correct about Chuck’s satisfaction at outliving his peers, but I think Chuck might have been bitter before he was famous.
Do you agree with Chuck’s view of “Promised Land”? I can’t recall him ever speaking publicly with so much praise about any artist? Do you agree with me that the feelings of all of the founding fathers of rock and roll is complex and contradictory with racial, social, and class overtones that were never easily resolved? For me, I was always amazed at how Chuck Berry was a middle class man in a good neighborhood in St. Louis. And Elvis Presley was born in a shack in the Mississippi Delta. It’s almost like, “Johnny B. Goode” could be about Elvis more than Chuck?
Thanks for all your great writing.
– Kris Anglemyer
That’s a remarkable and wonderful story. There’s no question that Chuck Berry’s record is on another plane from Elvis’s—but Elvis’s is thrilling, and I think anyone can hear what Berry heard. Your story explains to me why I responded so fervently when the Elvis recording appeared. Without conceptualizing it, I heard, and Berry must have heard, Elvis’s love and respect not so much for a mere great song—one of so many—but for Berry himself. And after that, you can hear Elvis’s delight and appreciation for Berry telling his, Elvis’s, story—for even if “Promised Land” is a geographically correct allegory of the civil rights movement, it’s also a geographical journey Elvis lived out far more than Berry did.
Continuing on the topic of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” any thoughts on this?
He actually makes the melody interesting—abstract. But if this goes on much longer we’re going to have to start talking about the Leon Russell/Roots versions of “Masters of War”—as performed to the melody contrived by Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s ancestor.
Did you ever read the k-punk blog, or any of Mark Fisher’s writing elsewhere? If so, what did you make of it?
All I’ve read of Mark Fisher is a visionary essay in The Twilight Language of Nigel Kneale, a collection on the British screenwriter, where he compared the Quartermass films about the threat to civilization from alien species—specifically the final, 1979 installment, where civilization has turned in on itself—to Joy Division. [link to G.M.’s RLR entry]
I want to ask about Renaldo and Clara. Has any official work by Dylan been so thoroughly erased from history? Even the misbegotten Dylan  album eventually got quietly reinserted into the official discography. But Renaldo and Clara remains just a rumor to those like me (b. 1978) too young to have caught its fleeting original release. It’s hard to believe that 25+ years of Columbia mining for gold with the Bootleg Series hasn’t turned it up in some form or other. It’s also hard to believe that the film could possibly be as bad as people thought at the time. Is there more to the story here? What was your take, and do you think it deserves to see the light of day again?
Something about it—or maybe everything about it—just smelled to me. A vanity project beyond vanity projects. That white-make up. The whole Mad Dogs and Englishmen routine. Have you seen the six hour version, or only the four hour version? So I never saw it.
In the wake of the Fergie’s scandalous / “scandalous” take on “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the NBA All-Star Game, I’m curious what you think of it. I keep veering back and forth between “brave, arty, idiosyncratic” and “sexed-up train wreck,” and I still haven’t sorted it out.
I’m also curious how you feel about the social-media brouhaha that Fergie’s performance kicked up, and about popular-critical analyses of pop-oriented renditions of the national anthem in general. I generally find the opinions of the armchair critics who pop out of the woodwork after these events annoying and worthless, and wonder if you do too.
Lastly, I wholeheartedly agree with your take on Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, and it makes me wonder what you think of Marvin Gaye’s rendition from the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, and if there are any other renditions that stand out in your memory, for better and/or worse.
— Pete Fehrenbach
Comparing a hologram like Fergie to a human being like Marvin Gaye is like comparing a trinket from the gift shop to Mt. Rushmore. The first lesson of singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” is, it’s not about you, it’s about the song. And even more than that, it’s not American Idol. Fergie’s performance is unbearable and unlistenable from the start. It never gets any better, because narcissism and prettifying are what the performance is about, so it can only get worse. But, you know, are trolls threatening to kill her family, as people did after José Feliciano sang it?
Marvin Gaye’s performance is one of the greatest of his career. It’s really not comparable to any of his recordings. He walks up like an artist and a citizen, and sings the song as if he, as a citizen, has the right to sing it as himself, an artist. No one else has never sung the song this way and no one else will ever sing it this way again, but not because the performance distorts the song, because the performer—God, I hate this cliche—makes it his own (how can you make the National Anthem, any national anthem, “your own”? Doesn’t that mean you now own it, you’ve taken it away from everyone else? So you can collect royalties on it?). He simply walks into the song, walks through it. And everyone hears it. Have you ever encountered a version of the National Anthem where people cheer not only at the end, to show their delight that it’s over, but during it? Where people start a rolling-on-the-beat clap and keep it going? Where the song feels good?
Marvin Gaye did not make the song about himself, but he reduced it to the size of a single person.
Still, my favorite version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is by Leslie Nielsen. In The Naked Gun. It’s a version of the nightmare where you’re standing in the middle of the street naked, or forgot the final:
I noticed that someone writing to you recently wrote that “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.” That remark got me wondering: what do you think of the Mamas and the Papas? Do you like them? I’ve always loved them, and the reason why I’ve always loved them is that—if you ask me—the real secret of their music is that, just beneath the sweet and soothing surface, there lies (or at least, there seems to lie) boundless reserves of wistfulness, ambivalence, and flat-out melancholy. “California Dreamin'”, their biggest hit, is, after all, a song about NOT BEING IN CALIFORNIA, and missing it: it’s a song of longing. The opening lines and images—“All the leaves are brown/And the sky is grey…”—are at once sweetly sad and vaguely melodramatic/spooky, in a “It was a dark and stormy night” way; I’ve always found the image of the preacher who likes the cold (or is it “lights the coals”?) to be even spookier: somehow, listening to the song, you can’t imagine he’s a nice preacher, he’s probably more like the preacher that Robert Mitchum played in Night of the Hunter.
“Dancing Bear,” off their self-titled second album, must be one of the sweetest and most wistful songs of longing and desire—desire for a different life, a new identity, freedom—ever written, with opening notes—and lyrics—that suggest ghost stories and Victorian children’s books.
Then there’s the sting-in-the-tail bittersweetness, or rather, sweetness concealing bitterness, of anti-love-songs like “I Saw Her Again” (sample lyrics: “I’m in way in over my head/’Cause she thinks that I love her/Because that’s what I said/Though I never think of her…And it makes me feel so good to know she’ll never leave me”). And then, of course, there’s the optimism of “Twelve-Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming To The Canyon)”—an optimism so hysterical that listeners can’t possibly take it seriously, that surely must be a put-on. I’ve always considered “Twelve-Thirty” to be one of the greatest songs about California—about people moving to California to start over—that anybody’s ever written, and the lyrics have always reminded me of what you wrote about the California myth and its dark side in the Randy Newman chapter of Mystery Train. Don’t you think so?
I’m only asking you all this because I’ve never read any articles of yours where you dive into the Mamas and the Papas’ songs in detail, and that’s always surprised me. If you could tell me what you think of them, I would be very grateful.
I didn’t like them. There was a subcurrent of smugness, an assumption of hipper and richer than thou I couldn’t not hear, and I got so sick of Yeah Yeah Yeah… and then the so-soulful dying fall of the closing YEAH. “Monday Monday” is one of the most tiresomely oppressing songs in history. But there were notes, moments, and numbers that were just too piercing not to love. That line about “the altar of acid” from “Strange Young Girls” has always stayed with me—I can see the dead eyes in that song. I went out and bought the “Twelve Thirty” single, and I still have it. That clock that always said 12.30—I know that neighborhood, in Greenwich Village, I can see that clock, snow all around it, in the middle of the night, wondering how I was going to get out.
I can’t recall you writing much about the great German groups of the 1970s, any thoughts? Outfits such as Popul Vuh and Can certainly influenced many who you later revered such as Joy Division, PIL and Sonic Youth. Coming from England I’d also like to put on record my gratitude to the late John Peel for playing their records on the radio alongside so many other disparate genres
It was something I missed. And never caught up with.
I was looking at some old Pazz and Jop polls, and noticed that in 1977 you voted for Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s Dancer with Bruised Knees. But I don’t recall you ever writing a word about them. So, what did you think of them? And what do you think now?
They were fun and unpretentious. I especially liked “Kiss and Say Goodbye.”
The conversation with Jenn Pelly made me wonder if you’ve ever thought about writing a 33 1/3 book. I’m sure they don’t pay well since the writers are either young or someone pursuing a passion like Jonathan Lethem. But on the other hand, they’d probably let you write about Bryan Ferry. They published a book on Throbbing Gristle for god’s sake.
I still, sort of, want to write a listening-to book on Bryan Ferry. I’m not sure there’s a book there, at least for me, and I know no one wants to publish it. A one-album 33 1/3 book wouldn’t work—I can’t separate The Bride Stripped Bare from “It’s my Party” from “Love Me Madly Again,” to say nothing of all of Roxy Music. Why aren’t he and Lana Del Rey recording together?
There are great books to be written on John Wesley Harding and any random John Lee Hooker album. Duke is planning a series—45 rpm?—of books on single songs. Who knows where the time goes?
What is your view on the Layla album by Derek and the Dominoes? Specifically, what do you think of Clapton’s songwriting at this time, and what does the album represent to you in the broader context of his life and career?
– Kaleb Askew
It’s a sort of Shangri-la: paradise glimpsed, maybe even touched, and ever after out of reach. In some ways “Anyday” is even greater than “Layla”—not as elegant but so full of pathos—that first vocal by co-writer Bobby Whitlock, the shouting refrains after every passage—you can feel as if it’s only the structure of the song that’s holding the musicians, as people, together. It’s probably the collaborative dream Clapton always wanted to live, surrounded by brothers and then, out of the land of serendipity, almost a double: a guitarist so good at any given moment Duane Allman could be Clapton and he could be Allman. Another heroin addict, another walking suicide. And both of them playing as if they knew everything there was to know and were glad to have lived long enough, in 1970—Clapton born 1945, Allman 1946—to know what that was worth.
Certain you have seen this 12-minute film, issued last year to accompany Dylan’s ’66 Tour Box, but care to comment on the acoustic table scrap soundcheck version of “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”
It appears about 1.40 here:
Is my immediate “this is the greatest thing I have heard in the last few years”, and “Oh God, must hear more NOW” completely misguided?
– (aka Erik Nelson)
Why is any strong response misguided? It hit you, you hear more than others are likely to hear, you need to go deeper. That’s just real life, and anyone is lucky to have the capacity to respond that way.
Your first published album review in Rolling Stone appeared November 9, 1968. The next five weeks would see the releases of The White Album, Beggars Banquet, and Elvis (NBC TV Special).
Did you sense, at the time, some sort of a connected rock and roll awakening——the way these albums signaled a return to form by the giants of the music, not just “getting back to basics” after a time of pretense and confusion but pushing onward with some of the toughest, hardest, and finest rock of their lives?
Also, were you eager to review any of these records? Were you confident enough at the time? Were you offered the opportunity?
I didn’t make that connection then. Along with a lot of people, I did make it later.
At the time, I was still sending stuff in blind. Jann Wenner wrote as good a piece on The White Album as anyone could have. I don’t recall who reviewed Beggars Banquet and am away from home and my Rolling Stones and reference books. [It was Jon Landau–ed.] But I did review the TV Special album.
It occurred to me recently that the biggest Elvis song that you’ve never commented on—to my knowledge—is the song that introduced Elvis to the world: “Heartbreak Hotel.” For me, it feels almost like a genre unto itself, a song that sounds like nothing else recorded before or since—including anything else by Elvis. Paul McCartney said that what struck him when he first heard it was how strange it was to hear a word like “dwell” in a pop song. But I’m curious what you think of the song today.
– Justyn Dillingham
I have written about “Heartbreak Hotel”—both my own response to the song and Ian McEwan’s deep description of its affect on a young Englishman in Berlin in 1956, in The Innocent, or on a young woman in the near future in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I was never crazy about it. For me it was nothing compared to “Hound Dog” or—my first Elvis favorite—“Don’t Be Cruel.” There was something very abstract, distant, arty about it—I wouldn’t have put it that way at the age of 11, but that’s what was putting me off, and still does today. The record sounds like an attempt to exploit the Sun echo sound, Elvis’s deeper register, and most of all the so-called cool jazz so trendy at that moment. It’s the hipster tinkling piano. Of course it’s a brilliant piece of composition. “Down at the end of Lonely Street” will never be topped.
Your Bob Hope/Gene Wilder fantasy in this “Undercover” column about Nixon from 1977, makes me wonder if you have a favourite actual celluloid version of the man: Philip Baker Hall (Secret Honour)? Anthony Hopkins (Nixon)? Dan Hedaya (Dick)? Kevin Spacey (Elvis & Nixon)? Someone else I’m not thinking of?
Hedaya. But none of them seem really there. The role needs someone completely wrong on paper—Godfrey Cambridge, John Belushi, Wesley Snipes, kd lang, Leslie Jones.
Is there a rock dream better than the one that Mickey Jones lived? Step into the drum seat behind the greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world, on the greatest tour, playing the loudest and brashest music that anyone had ever heard? And then, when that’s over (with every show preserved on tape and pored over, obsessed about, even listened to, 50+ years on), pack it in for biker roles in The Dukes of Hazzard and The Rockford Files?
– John Stewart
He seemed to have been satisfied. But I’ll bet he never stopped wishing he had royalties for playing on Trini Lopez’s “If I Had a Hammer.”
Ariel Swartley’s Stranded chapter on The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle was the first to pull me into the book, the first that made me go buy an album, and the first whose words let me hear an album in a new way—my primary wish was not to listen and respond on my own but to hear what the writer heard, see what she saw, felt what she felt, go where the album took her. (I think that is the great gift of Stranded.) Of course I soon developed my own relationship with this album, and despite its flaws it remains a favorite.
You did not like this album at the time of your Born to Run review, but did you hear it differently after reading Swartley’s piece? Is your opinion different today? Did you come to love any of its songs as performed by the revamped E Street Band at Springsteen shows?
Ariel’s piece didn’t open me up to the album as much as it opened me to an understanding of what I’ll call empathetic gaps between people: the way in which, to our poverty, we can’t hear what others who we love and respect hear in certain pieces of music. I don’t think it’s time and place. It’s that all people have a certain mnemonic apparatus that governs how they will respond to music—an apparatus that will never explain itself.
Re: David McClure’s question on 2/11/18 (“on Garth Hudson’s original so-called Safety Tape of the dozen or so performances included on the acetates sent to various people for them to cover (from Peter Paul and Mary to The Rolling Stones), which was stored in Neil Young’s vault, the sound is absolute atmosphere.” Do you know if these are, or potentially will be, commercially available?)
A flat transfer of “I’m Not There” from the Safety Tape appears on the film soundtrack of the same name (which also happens to be the first official release of that song). It’s the very last track, and if you want to hear what the Safety Tape sounds like, listen to that track on that CD set.
When they remastered that recording for the Bootleg Series release, they made quite a few changes like narrowing the stereo spread, limiting or compressing the sound and some noticeable EQ moves. Just compare both masterings and you’ll see what was done—it’s a clear example of what I imagine Greil was talking about earlier with regards to the sound.
I don’t want to play upsmanship on this, but there are differences involved that either open or close certain dimensions of one of the oddest, most incomplete, and most final works of art of the post-war period. Whatever its source, the first official release of “I’m Not There” on the soundtrack album for the Todd Haynes movie has been compressed, thinned, and dehydrated so that it neither sounds nor feels like like what I’ll call the whole account, or the breathing version. It was obvious in an instant.
The breathing version or something very close to it—the best transfer I’m aware of on a transferable object, i.e., something people exchange for love or money—appeared on the deluxe 3-CD set The Genuine Bootleg Series Take 2.
I can’t imagine there will be any further commercial Basement Tapes releases. In the meantime, see if you can hunt up the performance by Eleanor Friedberger.
I’ll get right to it. Have you heard the vinyl re-releases of Pere Ubu’s “geography” trilogy? These LPs exile some tracks to an extras LP and, most significantly, have been remixed by Thomas. This results, in some cases, in what are effectively new songs. Some are delightful. I am aware of his strenuous focus on process and on working with whatever technology is available to him and the tiresome theorizing, but this decision is confounding. Another side of the cup? Your thoughts?
Gratitude to you for:
1) a ‘real life top 10’ years ago on Bruce Conner, highlighting … Dreamland and Trieste Valse on an LA museum DVD—I got a copy. Pointing to Lynch and opening up my own thinking about what was possible/permissible.
2) all your texts on David Thomas—without which i would never have taken the time.
3) the first chapters of The Shape of Things, which set me off on another script idea which seemed brutal and inevitable.- Robert Persons
I haven’t—I’ll be looking.
Very glad you found The Shape of Things to Come.
You’ve discussed Larry Clark several times, memorably for me in Lipstick Traces. I’m very curious what any of the films of his protege Harmony Korine might mean to you?
I’ve never connected with them. And I’ve had real problems with all of Larry’s movies. I don’t know how he gets actors to descend to such levels of ugliness and degradation as if they really want to be there. Maybe it’s that what I can take in his fixed images I can’t when they’re moving. My fault, not his.
A double-barreled question: can you name any songs/artists you always find yourself having to defend liking, and any songs/artists you always have to defend not liking? (I stole this from an interview with Woody Allen, only the subject was films rather than music… Allen’s answers were, respectively: Casanova’s Big Night and Some Like It Hot.)
– Steve O’Neill
No. I don’t believe anyone should be defensive about what they like or what they don’t.
Sorry, this question would probably have been able to be more efficiently answered orally, but I didn’t get my hand up in time. At any rate, I heard your keynote address at the Wounded Galaxies symposium in Bloomington, IN on Feb 9 and my question is (not about Bob Beamon): We have more methods of public communication today than ever before. Do you think this furthers, or hinders, the opportunities for achieving “public happiness”?
I think the proof is is the events. Social media was crucial to the events in Maidan Square in Ukraine, Gezi Park in Turkey, Tahir Square in Cairo, the umbrella movement in Hong Kong.
It’s at the heart of Femen in Ukraine, France, and Tunisia, even if, or especially, that means a single person in the whole country, at once joining with others acting publicly and creating her own public. You’re seeing it now in Iran with the headscarf protests.
This allows for organizing and sustaining actions—public happiness comes out of sustained action that does or seems to replace the life one has known. The Free Speech Movement was very organized, with committees handling everything from audio equipment to haircuts. Present day technology would have made that more efficient and even more fun. Public happiness is about meeting people in public—take it from there.
That social media brought so many people together and allowed them to stay connected in a collective or fraternal manner is not why these movements were crushed, scattered, worn down, or driven into hiding.
I was hesitant to ask your thoughts about AC/DC (say, through 1981), because usually I can’t decide myself: to me their music is by turns pure rock and roll dynamite and numbingly one-dimensional. Or dumb. (Purity may be the key to their upside and downside.)
Which is why, searching your website, I was encouraged at seeing two mentions, both positive: in 1981 you called them “a good, mean hard rock band,” and in 1994 you wrote that Stone Temple Pilots “offer AC/DC without a beat and without humor”—indicating that in AC/DC you heard both a good beat and humor (two elements that can redeem so much).
The part of me that gets a charge from them—I might compare it to how you responded to Cream—continues to grow, gradually, in retrospect. And I appreciate how the band let punk into their music: before their 1976 UK tour, their sound was glammy and often plodding; by 1977 it was slashing, energetic, and explosive, without losing its blues-based muscle.
As an aside, I have spent hours trying to fathom how Back in Black could be the second biggest selling album (50 million copies—double that of The Joshua Tree, Bridge Over Troubled Water, or Tapestry, to name a few) in world history, considering its music was not designed for broad commercial appeal. I suspect, in 1980, it was a galvanizing call to arms for Led Zeppelin mourners, disco backlashers, and New Wave haters (not to mention those who despised the deadness and conceit of The Wall, like me), but nothing credibly explains this astronomical total. I digress.
So, what do you think about AC/DC’s music? What are your favorites? Are there any undeniable tracks that put them in the circle?
For me it’s all Bon Scott. He’s a juggernaut. He’s so focused. But I can’t listen to “It’s a Long Way to the Top” ten times in a row—even if I always wait for “It’s harder than it looks”; I laugh and I believe him—it’s all there the first time. You can hear how, behind the music—inevitable genre pun—he’s burning himself out with every song. I’d like to hear him now. I have no idea how he’d sound.
You wrote (2/2): “on Garth Hudson’s original so-called Safety Tape of the dozen or so performances included on the acetates sent to various people for them to cover (from Peter Paul and Mary to The Rolling Stones), which was stored in Neil Young’s vault, the sound is absolute atmosphere.”
Do you know if these are, or potentially will be, commercially available?
– David McClure
I’m sure not. The same performances are in the bootleg series set.
As a follow-up to your comments on artists that were once, but are no longer, important to you: has the opposite ever happened? Are there any artists you didn’t use to care for that you like now? Bruce Springsteen talks about not liking Hank Williams on first hearing, but listening to him over and over until he was able to “crack his code.” Have you had any similar experiences?
– Steve O’Neill
The Velvet Underground. I had a typical San Franciscan’s disdain for the spectacular irony of their Exploding Plastic Inevitable. And I was terrified of “Heroin.” It took me a while to get past that. And I think my favorite Velvet performance is “What Goes On.”
Did you know John Perry Barlow—either in his Grateful Dead days or with the Electronic Frontier Foundation? Any thoughts on his passing?
– Elliot Silverman
I’ve been struggling to reconnect with my once-cherished early Elvis Costello albums. Whatever it was in them that spoke to me in late adolescence just isn’t happening these decades later. Have you ever experienced that loss of love for music/artists that once meant a lot to you?
– Ian McGillis
The Kingston Trio albums I loved when I was 14 or 15. The show tunes albums—Original Broadway Cast!—I liked when I was eight. With others I hear elements in the music or production that sounded real at the time and now sound phony. I don’t know if that reflects a change in me, the world, or the technicalities of sound we’re now used to.
I was wondering if you have checked the Jon Savage compilations he has released since his 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded book—the one for that book, and the other two, Jon Savage’s 1967–The Year Pop Divided and Jon Savage’s 1965–The Year the Sixties Ignited. I really like Jon Savage, I first met him in 1977 when he came to a Penetration gig, and did a feature on it called “The Future Is Female.” He was wonderful in the Sounds period with the likes of Jane Suck and Vivien Goldman. And of course his England’s Dreaming book.
– Peter Lloyd
Jon is one of a kind. His review of the first Joy Division album in Sounds (I think) is as good as anything in England’s Dreaming, and that’s the best book on punk outside of Viv Albertine’s Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys, and they can’t really be compared. He is a loyal friend, but even more loyal to his intellectual obsessions. He also has fantastic TV presence. We see each other far too infrequently.
Last month you named F. Scott Fitzgerald as the writer whose work you turned to most frequently in 2017. Are The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night the works you turned to most? Are there short stories or essays by Fitzgerald that also resonate with you? And what made Fitzgerald matter especially in 2017?
I used to joke that Fitzgerald and Hemingway should have switched death dates, since the latter had done his best work by 1941 whereas Fitzgerald seemed to be moving in an exciting direction with The Last Tycoon. I wonder if you agree to any extent.
I always go back to The Great Gatsby (and the Baz Luhrmann movie) and Tender Is the Night. The Beautiful And Damned has the most horrifying writing about alcoholic dementia I’ve ever come across but I don’t know if I’ll read it again. The Far Side of Paradise seems to me a trifle—“Not Real Fitzgerald,” as Ross Macdonald said. I’ve never been able to get through The Last Tycoon. The stories can be diverting but I don’t care. There are riches in the letters.
They both should have lived longer. Hemingway would presumably disagree about himself. You can call A Moveable Feast a fraud. You can also call it music.
Just curious—do you know anything about the HBO doc coming up called Elvis Presley: The Searcher?
– Lou Pecci
I was interviewed for it but otherwise know nothing. Andrew Solt is involved and he’s good.
Two questions at the price of one:
1. What was your favorite Twin Peaks moment of 2017?
2. I know you’re an admirer of Lana Del Ray, and I can understand that completely—especially when listening to “Young and Beautiful.” But can you honestly claim her albums to be completely satisfying? I mean, they all have a great (or at least good) track or two on them, but the rest is always a bit of bore.
– Simo Sakki
1. Laura Palmer reappearing in the last episode.
2. Lana Del Rey albums are atmospheres. I don’t find any seams or breaks. I don’t necessarily even find myself listening to songs, but to clouds passing.
Do you enjoy the act of writing? Is it a pleasure from the first word, or drudgery and dread until the subject gathers momentum? Do you go through stages of boredom and exhilaration on a book, or does it tend to be a smooth sail? You’ve talked about how difficult it was to write Lipstick Traces; was the composition of other books unique in other ways?
– Devin McKinney
It’s never been the same. When I started, writing for Rolling Stone in 1968 and 1969, it was all so exciting—the magazine, its mission, banging something out and seeing it in print two weeks later, the openness of the pages, for that matter my editing a good part of it—everything seemed easy. I don’t remember struggling over anything. The Self Portrait review was a sprint—all fun.
Aside from one odd afternoon when I wrote 20 stream of consciousness pages that I cut up into the Harmonica Frank chapter and the Epilogue, writing Mystery Train was a miserable struggle. Two years of doing nothing else and it made me hate writing and myself, until the end, when it all seemed to float down in one grace note, staying up all night finishing the Band chapter, falling asleep on a couch about 4 AM, waking up to realize it was done.
I was writing Lipstick Traces jumping all over the place, until I realized that unless I went at it pretty much chronologically I could never keep straight what I’d said and what I hadn’t, where the ground was prepared and where it was still a swamp. It took nine years from start to finish, but I had done most of the research in the first three years—and it’s a research book, in libraries at Berkeley, the great treasure trove, Amsterdam, Paris, finding Gil Wolman and Michèle Bernstein and Alexander Trocci, letting them talk, convincing them to give me documents that, at the time, were collected absolutely nowhere. When I reached the last chapter—the title chapter—everything somehow went into suspension. I didn’t understand how I could get so much—everything I hadn’t said, all the stories I hadn’t told—into one chapter. I remember saying to my wife, “I’ve been stuck in Paris in 1952 for three years and I can’t get out.” “There are worse places to be,” she said, and somehow that opened everything up. It was a calculated book—there are all sorts of allusions planted in the first two or three hundred pages that don’t pay off until one or two hundred pages later. And I’d realized that writing a book as I had the first time was a mistake—I had to write elsewhere, away from the book, throughout, and Artforum and the Village Voice were the real places of revivification for that.
This is well out of left field, but I’m curious: are you at all a fan of Hitchcock?
I’m a fan of Hitchcock movies—too much at once is like feeling your own puppet strings.
When I first saw Psycho and that rocking chair turned around you could have scraped me off the ceiling of the theater. The day after seeing The Birds my best friend and I drove up the coast from Menlo Park to Bodega Bay in attempt to find all the locations that were used (we did).
I don’t know the silents. I’m drawn to the movies that are fun before and after they’re anything else—Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur, Thirty-Nine Steps, Strangers on a Train (how could Farley Granger, or anyone, prefer wax model Ruth Roman over Laura Elliott?
he was a stiff–she was too alive). And then there’s Vertigo. I’ve seen it half a dozen times. When I think back on it, it doesn’t pull me in, doesn’t hover. But as it unfolds, it’s so terrible, so confusing—his anticipating of David Lynch’s Lost Highway.
And I love the scene in Hitchcock when Anthony Hopkins’s Hitchock stands in the theater lobby listening to an audience respond to Psycho for the first time, on tip toes anticipating when the screams will come, orchestrating them with his hands like a conductor.
For “Treasure Island,” you wrote that you selected records according to a purposeful discipline, omitting many “first rate LPs,” and “going farther only when a definite shift in style or themes demanded it.”
Which is why it’s surprising that Otis Redding’s five-year career is represented by five albums. It could be argued that Redding “arrived with a style and never really changed it”—at least not obviously, or dramatically, the way the Beatles, Stones, Dylan, and Van Morrison did—or, more accurately, that he didn’t shift his style or themes five times in five years.
For the record, I fully agree that Redding’s music is great enough to deserve all this inclusion. But do you feel you may have made an exception to your rule for Otis Redding? (I’ve always suspected that, maybe, you find Redding’s music difficult to write about at length, and this was your way of seizing the opportunity this discography format provided. But that’s just a guess.)
I sort of forgot about my rules as I went along because I was having so much fun. As for the Otis Redding albums, there may not be any formal change in style, but each one (and others) seem to me completely singular, communicating a different stance, a different way of seeing and being in the world. It’s not that they’re all good. They’re different.
With the success of the Broadway play Hamilton I got to thinking how few films there are about the Founding Fathers. I’m a sucker for 1776 (my mom took me to see the show when I was a kid in the ’70s). I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch Jefferson in Paris (for Merchant-Ivory I’ll stick with The Remains of the Day). And I know there was a miniseries starring Barry Bostwick back in the ’80s based on James Flexner’s biography of Washington. That one bypassed me. But going back to the studio era in Hollywood I can’t think of any offhand. Any idea why Hollywood shied away from such an interesting group of people? Aren’t Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson at least as interesting as Louis Pasteur and Woodrow Wilson?
– Steve Canson
It’s very odd. I drew a blank. There must be some terrible silent Paul Revere melodrama, but… I asked the film historian David Thomson for help. He drew nearly as big a blank as I did, coming up with not much more than D. W. Griffith’s not very inspiring 1924 America and the 2008 HBO series on John Adams (Paul Giamatti, who you’d think would be a natural for Ben Franklin).
Hi, this is a loyal reader of books by Herman Melville and you, from China. After I finished reading the Chinese Edition of The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs, I strongly believe that you have fulfilled your objective: writing rock ’n’ roll history in a brand new language. These days, I feel increasingly that Mystery Train for rock criticism is like Moby Dick for the history of American literature. I am curious what you think about Melville, especially later classics like Bartleby, the Scrivener, Billy Budd, Sailor and also “Clarel,” the epic poem that tries to challenge The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer.
There is a record I recommend called Balls Under the Red Flag (红旗下的蛋), by Chinese rock musician Cui Jia. In my opinion, it is Sly & Family Stone’s Riot of Chinese rock. You can hear this album on itunes：https://itunes.apple.com/cn/album/紅旗下的蛋/630398417?l=en
By “Sailor,” I assume you mean “John Marr and Other Sailors,” which begins with the most haunting depiction of American emptiness—the way the land doesn’t know you, doesn’t recognize you, doesn’t listen to you—I know. I haven’t read “Clarel.” Bartleby is a touchstone, and so is Israel Potter. But of Melville’s later work, the book I keep coming back to—not opening it, just mentally wandering through it—is The Confidence Man.
I’ll listen to Balls Under the Red Flag. Many thanks for that and everything else.
I remain struck by something you said on the radio after Prince’s passing: that “When Doves Cry,” deservedly praised for its lack of bassline, could have actually been even better if the keyboard that enters 8 bars in was removed (not, however, the frantic synth solo at the end). Now every time I hear the whole song I keep trying to hear that version, and whenever for a second or two I can strip it down in my head, the absence of the added triads becomes raw and terrifying. Do any other great or not so great recordings jump out and make you go, “oh I bet they could’ve gotten away with that not there?” Where there’s some hidden version inside that’s even better with less?
Yes. Take away the corny and sometimes (depending on your mood) truly annoying gypsy violin on Astral Weeks. And please get rid of that soulless disco singer at the end of Pet Sop Boys otherwise miraculous “Go West.”
I’m disappointed if you’re right. I always thought the crescendo at the end of “When Doves Cry” was Wendy playing violin.
Like most kids growing up in the 1970s, I (mainly) listened to LP’s one side at a time. It was a function of the technology. The record ended and you either flipped it over or (more likely) put on something else. So the other day I was listening to side 1 of Van Morrison’s Moondance. After “Into the Mystic” I switched to side 2 of Fleetwood Mac’s self titled masterpiece (“Say You Love Me” etc…). All this on my iPhone. Old habits die hard. Do you listen to older music this way? And do artists today even think in terms of “sides”?
– Steve Canson
If I’m playing LPs, I might get stuck on one side and play it over and over. I remember I had that problem with Born to Run—it took me about a day to turn it over. Most often I go to an LP for just one song—knowing I could do the same online, but I like to hear the room fill up. I have good Bose computer speakers on my desk but Monitor Audio bookshelf speakers in the back of the room. From 1969 to 2011 I had Voice of the Theatre speakers in the living room—I could nearly blow out the neighborhood with those.
re: “songs that were recorded with deep, full, every breath you take ambient sound seem diminished—that’s what bothers me.” [1/23] I got used to the lo-fi on disc 6, and the music is so fascinating that it is worth the effort—but everything else sounds good to me. Which specific recordings seem diminished to you?
– David McClure
The pieces with bad sound have their own murky charm. But on Garth Hudson’s original so-called Safety Tape of the dozen or so performances included on the acetates sent to various people for them to cover (from Peter Paul and Mary to The Rolling Stones), which was stored in Neil Young’s vault, the sound is absolute atmosphere. And second and third generation dubs of the acetates and even the first as-such Basement Tape bootlegs had that vivid, tactile feeling of an event taking place. Somehow that has been lost.
Mark E. Smith died today [01/24]. You ever write anything about The Fall? Any thoughts? My search on this site for ‘The Fall’ brought back way more results than I’m able to sift through.
– Scott Creney
This is the first time the name Mark E. Smith has come from my fingers. No animus. Never made the connection.
Would you still choose Eat A Peach to stand for the Allman Brothers Band in your discography, or have you since found a better representation? The band was clearly peaking here, but I mainly ask because half of it is occupied by 33:41 of “Mountain Jam,” which, for all its otherworldly guitar moments, seems too sprawling to keep your attention (although I make no assumptions about that). And I find the 9:05 “Les Brers in A Minor” dull.
I also wonder how Brothers and Sisters has grown on you. To me it sounds like renewal, a band bravely pulling out from wreckage, and finding exactly what it needed—especially Chuck Leavell’s piano pouring over like cool water, washing everything clean.
I see your point, and Brothers and Sisters has “Pony Boy.” But Eat a Peach has “Blue Sky,” which is all the reason anyone needs to draw another breath. Plus “Little Martha,” which is just another never-ending smile.
I’ve been listening to “Delia’s Gone” by Johnny Cash for my whole life. Bob Dylan’s 1993 recording of “Delia” told a bit more of the story, but I’d never been that clear how the two quite different songs were related. After reading this on the weekend, I listened to Dylan’s version again, then Cash’s (I mean his 1962 original, not the 1994 American Recordings version). What had struck me, as a child, listening to Johnny Cash sing this, was a toughness in the song as he described how many times he shot his lover down; a man imprisoned for a crime he clearly committed, but haunted as he sleeps; visited on the chain gang by Delia’s spirit. Within the world of the song, it seems as if he will die in prison—doomed to never be pardoned by the woman he killed. I’ve since looked into the story and have realized that that’s not what happened at all. The grim story of Delia Green, a 14 year-old girl shot in the groin at Christmas by her boyfriend—armed with wounded pride, sexual embarrassment and a pistol—is one that no song can romanticize.
As an adult in 2018, in a world where violence against women is no longer something that we can really just put down to a generic historical storytelling convention, I couldn’t quite believe that I’d ever been attracted by the tale of a man who shot a woman—twice—and was asking the listener for some kind of sympathy. “Hard to watch her suffer, but with the second shot she died”? Really? A day or so later I was mulling over the notion that Cash was singing in character; that he was too astute a performer to make things so morally simple or questionable. And then I got to thinking: what do we make of murder ballads now? I used to think they were as old as the hills, folk tales to tell our children; then, one day, as I played my young daughter “Down In the Willow Garden,” she started asking why I was playing her a song which contained lines such as “I drew a sabre through her/It was a bloody night (knife?)/I threw her in the river/Which was a dreadful sight.” I couldn’t really answer her then, and I certainly can’t now. My parents played me “Delia’s Gone”; I played my daughter “Down In The Willow Garden,” but it seems like a time to ask new questions of ourselves, and of these stories. Do you find songs like this problematic to listen to now?
– Lucas Hare
I know just what you mean. I’ve never been able to listen to Johnny Cash’s versions of “Delia” because they’re just too brutal, bloodthirsty, and satisfied. It’s like listening to the “Folsom Prison” line “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” and then having the singer spend a minute or so telling you exactly how the person died and how cool it was to watch and taunt and kick him as he drew his last breath.
It depends, though. “Omie Wise” is a song about unrelieved evil and deception, but there’s a motive there—it’s about something real. The version of “On the Banks of the Ohio”—another “I threw her in the river” ballad—by the Blue Sky Boys is both more horrible and somehow more human than other variants because they present the killer as such an utter zombie, and the woman he kills as vibrant and alive, that it’s she who becomes the protagonist, even if she’s also the victim.
If you really want to play your daughter, or anyone, murder ballads, rather than letting her find them, or not, for herself, you might say that for some reason brutal and often spur-of-the-moment murders are a central theme in folk songs of all nations. And then play her “Love Henry” from Dylan’s World Gone Wrong—the album with his “Delia”—or the version titled “Henry Lee” by Dick Justice, the first track on Anthology of American Folk Music, which is about a woman killing a faithless lover by throwing him down a well, to make it clear that the tradition has room for anyone.
What did you think of the Basement Tapes Complete package? It is a tragedy that the sound quality of some of the performances cannot be resurrected to a reasonable level. With decent sound, performances like “King of France” would likely be among a small handful of my favorite Dylan recordings. So weird. So intriguing.
How could Dylan have not included a single Basement song that he’d just written on John Wesley Harding? A great album, but his letting a song like “Going to Acapulco” remain in obscurity is mind bending.
– Harry Clark
The bad sound on the songs with bad sound doesn’t bother me. The sound on the songs that were recorded with deep, full, every breath you take ambient sound seem diminished—that’s what bothers me. But to have it all, including those two versions of “Ain’t No More Cane”—that’s what counts.
As for not including Basement songs on John Wesley Harding—JWH songs were written separately, I’d think as a group, for a unified album, and in a different mode. Did you ever notice that the Basement songs are built around choruses—that’s where the energy in them is—and the JWH songs don’t have choruses?
RL (1/8/18) posed an interesting question about marriage.
It seems to me that if you choose someone who loves you more than you love them (the balance is rarely equal), and you can reciprocate that love, you will be on the right track.
Olivia Harrison’s comment about long marriages is like the warning, “Don’t want to get pregnant? Then don’t have sex.”
I don’t understand the concept of loving someone who loves you more than you love him/her. Love isn’t measurable, it’s consuming. If someone loves you ‘more’ than you ‘love’ him/her, you don’t love that person, you find that person need-filling in some manner. Appealing. Convenient.
Conversely, you may love someone who responds with pathological obsession. That’s not love either. It’s mental illness. But while Heathcliff and Cathy may love each other differently—they’re different people—you can’t say one loves the other more.
I’m afraid you just might be right that fans at Dylan shows are the rudest anywhere. It’s not only out of reverence for the Legend to the exclusion of everyone else, either—I saw him in Seoul in 2010 (his first and to date only Korean show). He was great. And somewhere behind me a group of asshole ex-pats had paid a hundred bucks a ticket to scream “Judas!” after every song. Who does that?
– Steve O’Neill
Dylan fans, obviously.
Funny you should say “I wouldn’t do [Stranded] again, unless I could do it with the original people.” It struck me while rereading Stranded recently that in a sense The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in 10 Songs is a one man version of Stranded.
– Robert Fiore
No, no. For Stranded it really is one album for the rest of your life, or until you’re rescued. And with more than one the “But what about this and how could you forget that?” would drive you crazy.
Have you any plans to write a big piece on Lana Del Rey? I think she still does not get the words her music deserves, from her first album onward to the great Lust For Life, I would love to read a big piece by you on her work.
– Peter Lloyd
She’s hard to write about. I was planning/hoping to do a long, full essay as part of a book I just finished but to write about one song somehow cuts out any others—her work is all of a piece and each piece is a thing in itself.
I’m a repeat customer who forgot last time to ask your opinion of Van Morrison’s 1971 Pacific High boot. It was recorded at the height of his powers, but the performances are a bit cautious when compared to what’s happening on It’s Too Late to Stop Now, where VM seems to deny all limits.
– Derek Murphy
I wrote about a number of performances from this night in my When That Rough God Goes Riding book—“Just Like a Woman” and “Friday’s Child.” I treasured the bootleg, wore out three copies. Tentative? Those screams, that rhythmic slam at the ends of lines, the feeling of a bottled up explosion just about to blow the cork, and when it does, you feel it’s all back in the bottle and ready to shatter all over again. It’s the one.
Have you read Joel Selvin’s book about Altamont? I found it to be pretty comprehensive, though Selvin isn’t exactly a compelling stylist. I noticed that you’re listed in his acknowledgements. Also, do you have anything to say about Altamont other than the stuff you’ve written in the past?
After reading Lipstick Traces I became very interested in Situationism. On another website where my username is “Guy Debord” I was asked this question and answered as best i could, but I’d be interested in your answer since you know so much more on the topic than I: what does Situationism have to offer in the age of Trump?
Joel interviewed me for his Altamont book and my comments are there.
The situationists hated the term “situationism,” thinking the word implied they had, or were, an ideology, a fixed set of ideas and prescriptions, an unchanging scrim through which to view the world, when what they had, and valued, was an attitude: a critical spirit, in which anything, including any so-called situationist idea, was open to question and up for grabs. Your question make me think of one of their favorite sayings: “The true revolutionary knows how to wait.”
Thanks for the great Dylan “Louie Louie” link and commentary in your latest Real Life Top 10; I hope it makes it into the next edition of Mystery Train (was it really a Live Aid rehearsal though? I thought he hooked up with Petty after that… Farm Aid maybe?).
No real connection here (other than YouTube) but have you seen Jesse Winchester’s performance of “Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding” on Elvis Costello’s Spectacle? Just an unexpected knockout, and the audience! Thank god he wasn’t opening for Dylan.
– Steve O’Neill
That column was snakebit. There were so many errors when it first appeared—and this was one (how many more are there?) that wasn’t cut. My fault: I knew it was Farm Aid, confirmed it, discussed it with editor, made a late change—and it comes out like this?
The Jesse Winchester I didn’t know and find unbearable. You just can’t do any kind of shamalama with that kind of self-reflecting sensitivity and piety.
Lately I have been listening to the Rhino series of compilations called Nuggets. I ran across a song called “White Bird” by It’s a Beautiful Day. Do you like that song? Do you have an opinion of the Rhino Nuggets releases that you could share with us? Any Nuggets tracks that you would recommend? I think “White Bird” is one of the most underrated ’60s tracks I have heard.
– hugh c grissett
I didn’t know the series had departed so completely from Lenny Kaye’s original Nuggets concept of trash garage one- or no-hit wonders.
When I started as Rolling Stone’s Record editor in 1969, my first section included two reviews by Lester Bangs, who had started reviewing there earlier with a piece about the MC5 album Kick Out the Jams, which he panned with a sneering comparison to the Troggs (he later embraced both). One of his pieces was a world-historically prescient manifesto for Captain Beefheart’s now-hallowed Trout Mask Replica (a mask is already a replica—what epistemological swamp are we entering here?). The other was a vicious, absolutist attack on It’s a Beautiful Day’s debut album of the same name, which included “White Bird.” I agreed with Lester that the band, the album, and that song embodied the most inhuman, pompous, superior and I would add Aryan, or Nazi, approach to music to be found anywhere. It’s catchy. I can still hear the whole song in my head. Just like I can hear “Lights” by Journey—aside from Jimmy Gilmer’s “Sugar Shack” and anything by Ja Rule the worst record ever made.
Have you been a Warriors fan all along? It must have been something to have seen them out of contention for so long and then suddenly start walking on water.
– Robert Fiore
We shared season tickets back in the Pleistocine Age of Rick Barry, but were fair-weather fans for a long time when it seemed no one cared and no one knew. Now we have not only a good team but from Green to Kerr a blazingly intelligent and thoughtful and outspoken group of people who we can be proud to say wouldn’t enter the White House with guns at their backs, though LeBron said it better than anyone on the team: “Going to the White House was a great honor before you showed up.”
I finished The Old, Weird America recently and it really invigorated my relationship to music and led me here. I see that you enjoy Lana Del Rey and wanted to know if you had thoughts on the recent lawsuit Radiohead’s attorneys have been pursuing for the similarities between “Get Free” and “Creep.” I find this litigating of melody ‘ownership’ to be ghoulish and can feel it pointedly after absorbing how you were able to describe the worlds that are created when songs and artists are in communication with one another. I suppose money is its own motive but it feels like capitalism feeding on creative tradition.
It’s one thing when it’s so obvious, even if it is, as it was claimed in the George Harrison “My Sweet Lord” vs. the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine,” subconscious plagiarism, as it might have been with Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me” and Tom Petty’s “I Wont Back Down.” Most cases of this sort involve unknown songwriters and screenwriters who claim they sent work to agents or producers and then they turned on the radio or went to the movies and, OMG, that’s me! Radiohead’s “Creep” sounded like a lot of other songs, but really, it’s a creepy song, and if Lana Del Rey really did take off from it, they should be glad to be redeemed.
Hi, long time reader, first time caller. I was just wondering if you had any comments on the Radiohead-Lana Del Rey kerfuffle.
Speaking of Lana Del Rey, I liked your comparison of her to Chandler’s women, but I’ve always seen her persona as more Gilda, a woman struggling to please the conflicting desires of two men. I’m still waiting for her to cover “Put the Blame on Mame,” although she has performed “Why Don’t You Do Right,” associated with Peggy Lee… and Jessica Rabbit, another projection of male desire who is “just drawn that way.”
p.s. — I’d also love to see Todd Haynes redo Gilda from her point of view, instead of the men’s.
I passed on your suggestion to Todd Haynes. Thanks for telling me about Lana Del Rey and “Why Don’t You Do Right.” That’s a scary song, then and now.
I was disappointed that the sequel to your Stranded book [Marooned] was dominated by heavy metal. Perhaps payback for its exclusion in the original book. Any chance you would update/revise your original version? I saw an additional list that you had written and that looked like a great place to start.
– Neil Sidebotham
I wrote a foreword, but had nothing to do with the pieces in the sequel. I think that editor was somewhat contemptuous of the original. There were some superb essays, funny, autobiographical in a non-egotistical way, making clear how deeply music can sustain people when their lives have overturned or hit dead ends.
I started scribbling in the margins of my “Treasure Island” as soon as the book came out, and kept it up for a few years, mostly punk, reggae, and Eliminator, but eventually gave up. I did write a brief “what I’d do now” piece but it was really about how impossible it would be. [See below.]
I wouldn’t do it again, unless I could do it with the original people, and that can’t be done. It is interesting, and moving, that the new play about Lester Bangs, How to be a Rock Critic, which I saw in New York last weekend, is built around his Stranded essay on Astral Weeks.
Ed. note: replying to a question at rockcritics.com in 2002 about updating the Stranded discography, G.M. wrote the following:
I’ve rarely had as much fun writing as I did in the couple of weeks I took to write the original Stranded Discography. As soon as the book was published in 1979, I started marking up a copy with stuff I’d forgotten or stuff that had come out afterward—and almost immediately quit. With hip-hop, the continuing flood of punk singles and albums, the more obscure corners of Jamaican music—I never made the connection to African music—and then the true explosion of the revision of the history of popular music by means of CDs—the kind of discography I’d played with would have required a whole book, updated every few years at that.
In the margins of that 1979 edition there is, from 1979 or 1980, the Beat, “Twist and Crawl” and “Stand Down Margaret,” the Brains’ “Money Changes Everything” (of course I’d add Cyndi Lauper’s version, along with “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”), London Calling by the Clash, Sam Cooke’s One Night Stand: Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, Essential Logic’s Wake Up, Broken English by Marianne Faithfull, Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, Entertainment! by the Gang of Four, Jefferson Airplane’s 1966 already included “Runnin’ Round This World” crossed out, Shorty Long’s missed 1964 “Devil With a Blue Dress On,” the Mekons’ “Never Been in a Riot” (now I’d add Fear and Whiskey, The Edge of the World, The Mekons Story, and The Curse of the Mekons at the very least), the Melodians’ profound Pre-meditation, a 1979 collection of releases from 1965-72, the Raindrops’ missed 1964 “Let’s go Together,” the Prince Buster Judge Dread series, Sam & Dave’s missed “Hold On I’m Comin’” (dropped and not caught originally, not omitted).
What I’d really missed: most of the Velvet Underground, which didn’t come across for me, perhaps because of West Coast snobbery, until punk had opened it up for me. Most of Pere Ubu before Stranded came out and certainly afterward, until the 1990s, when to me the band made its best music, still continuing through Raygun Suitcase, Story of My Life, Pennsylvania and last year’s Surf’s Up, plus David Thomas’s live Meadville. Much Southern soul that barely got out of the south in the late ’60s or early ’70s (now collected on Down and Out: The Sad Soul of the Deep South). Also much early commercial folk: I’d add the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” and Peter Paul & Mary’s “Don’t Think Twice” and “Too Much of Nothing”–I was much too cool to mention them the first time around.
What I’d add, now, just off the top of my head, ignoring the hundreds or thousands of discs that CD reissue projects would mandate: Grandmaster Flash, “Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” and “The Message,” the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks On Me,” Alphaville’s “Big in Japan” and “Forever Young,” Foreigner’s “Urgent” and the transcendent “I Want to Know What Love Is,” most of the Peter Green Fleetwood Mac’s early music, Heaven’s to Betsy’s singles, Sleater-Kinney’s Call the Doctor and All Hands on the Bad One, Nirvana’s Bleach, Nevermind, and Unplugged in New York, Bob Dylan’s Unplugged and Time Out of Mind, Billy Ocean’s “Slow Train Coming,” “Tenderness” by General Public,” Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, Elvis Costello’s King of America plus the singles “Let Them All Talk,” “Everyday I Write the Book” and “All This Useless Beauty,” the Slits’ 1977 demos collected on the 1980 Once Upon a Time in a Living Room, the soundtrack album to my book Lipstick Traces, Counting Crows’ “Mr. Jones,” Eleventh Dream Day’s Lived to Tell, Madonna’s “Live to Tell,” “Holiday” and especially “Like a Prayer,” Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP, PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love, everything by the Handsome Family, Lou Reed’s Ecstasy (among many great solo albums), Big Sandy’s L.A. doo wop tribute Dedicated to You, Come’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing, Van Morrison’s The Healing Game, Daft Punk’s Homework, Hooverphonic’s A New Stereophonic Sound Spectacular (now I’m looking through old notes), the box of Costello & Nieve 1998 live shows—see what I mean? I could keep this going all day and not come close.
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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