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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