Ask Greil (current)


In which readers ask Greil Marcus questions and he answers them. To submit your own question, email, and use the subject line, “Ask Greil.” (Alternatively, you can use the submission form at the bottom of this page.)

See also the 2016 version (now archived) of Ask Greil.

The story of “Minglewood Blues” and its variants is mingled (pun intended) with mystery and ambiguity. What are your thoughts/speculations about this song?
– Rich Soni

It’s a deep song with such a tangled history. Cannon’s Jug Stompers of Memphis made it in 1927, a song about not letting women rule their men. When harmonica player Noah Lewis of the Jug Stompers cut “New Minglewood Blues” in 1930 it couldn’t have been more different. The meandering, hesitating rhythm of the first version was now brighter, quicker, and it opened with a 19th century brag as tough as any in the language: “I was born in the desert, raised in a lion’s den.” When, thirty-seven years later—which is not like the distance between 1980 and today, but a line from one world to another, the two separated by the chasms of the Great Depression and the Second World War—the one time Menlo Park jug band the Grateful Dead took it up as “New, New Minglewood Blues,” the vocal was fourth hand and unconvincing (it sounds like Bob Weir, who went to Menlo-Atherton High School two years behind me, and he sounds like he’s saying “I was born in Modesto”), the guitar playing fun, but ultimately it was a throwaway. It didn’t have to be that way—at the same time or earlier, in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band in Cambridge, Geoff Muldaur was singing the Lewis version. I saw him do it in 1997 at a Harry Smith celebration at UCLA; when he opened his mouth for the first line it sounded like a tiger leaping out of his throat. I’d like to hear PJ Harvey take it up. Or Eleanor Friedberger.

I just realized that of all my favorite groups, George Clinton and P-Funk might be the one you’ve written the least about; I’m only aware of a passing compliment paid to The Electric Spanking of War Babies. Any thoughts or opinions about the rest of their work?
– Phil Dyess-Nugent

I saw a Mothership show. I was more taken with Parliament. But really, I never got past “Maggot Brain”—something Peter Green would have given a leg to have played. It all made sense when I read what George Clinton supposedly told Eddie Hazel before they cut it: “Play it like like your mother just died.”

What is your opinion of the TV mini series airing on CMT, Sun Records? Any thoughts on the music or the story so far?
– Hugh Grissett

I like the way Sam Phillips is portrayed as a hipster and Marion Keisker as a stone fox. If they keep the focus on them more than Elvis Johnny Cash Jerry Lee it might work. But it already kind of pales against the news that Leonardo DiCaprio has bought film rights to Peter Guralnick’s biography of Phillips and plans to play Phillips himself. And he’d be fabulous.

I’m curious about your oft-stated antipathy towards tribute albums. Is your objection to them based on some broader philosophical objection to them as a genre? Or do you never miss a chance to remind the reader that tribute albums are terrible just because it’s your impression that, due to an unhappy coincidence, all these albums are terrible?
– Phil Dyess-Nugent

Not to get into explaining a joke—but tribute albums are usually terrible, not to mention made from the worst motives (quick money for no work, giving people who don’t deserve it exposure on the back of somebody with a bigger name) with the stray gems both proving the point and allowing an escape from the prison of the concept. They’re sitting ducks that sometimes bite back.

You’ve written of your affection for “Good Lovin'” and “Carry Me Back.” Were you a fan of the Rascals at the time? Did their story, sound, or success (three Number One singles) in this fruitful 1966-1969 pop era stand out as different—or difference making? Does it seem any more interesting now?
– RL

“Good Lovin'” was a ferocious shock on the radio. They were a fun band until they got embarrassed with themselves and dropped the ‘Young.’ They still sound fresh.

As a long-time Berkeley resident and UCB alumnus, what did you think of the recent controversy/unrest occasioned by the invitation to Milo Yiannopoulos?
– revelator60

I’m a Free Speech Movement person. Stopping someone from speaking is an attack on democracy. A hundred Berkeley professors signed a letter in favor of the glamorous thug being banned from speaking; more FSM people signed one saying he, like anyone, had a right to speak and advocate on public property, which the University is—that was what the Free Speech Movement was all about. There is nothing wrong with picketing a talk, or even going inside and shouting a question—but trying to stop a speaker, shouting a speaker down, harassing those who want to hear him or her, let alone attempting to terrorize the event itself shows weakness, fear, cowardice, self-righteousness, and contempt for the only values that have saved this country, and might still. During FSM, the administration often claimed the demonstrators were so-called outside agitators, not students, Communists. That wasn’t true, but it seems to be in this case: a well-organized group of masked anarchists afraid to say who they are and what they have to say happy to destroy the campus and any small business without a guard. They have made their presence felt in the East Bay in Black Lives Matter demonstrations and more—essentially turning political protest into its own Trump rally. Quite clearly they could care less that all they have done, aside from smearing real political act and speech, is make Milo look good—to the point that Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor under Clinton and a professor at the UC School of Business, wondered if Yiannopolous hired them himself.

One question—not the ruling question, but no one seems to have asked—is why the Campus Republicans invited a racist woman-hater to speak in the first place. They answer can only be that they find what he says thrilling and who he is the kind of person they’d like to be. That’s worse than anything he might have to say.

Like many readers, I’m fascinated with your “Treasure Island” discography, especially since you later revealed that Knopf editor Robert Gottlieb required you to “consider his suggested additions and changes” to the list. We know you lamented the Stevie Wonder concession, and you’ve indicated that David Bowie is also in that company. Are you willing to identify and discuss other entries that were compromises? Or is this a mystery that should be left alone?
– Randy

I still have Bob Gottlieb’s handwritten notes in tiny script. At least five pages of them. That’s for him to publish!

Saw this [link] in the New York Times and wondered if “Absolutely Sweet Marie” might allude to this righteous scofflaw, just the kind of heroine to stick in Dylan’s memory.
– Laura Leivick

I’d never heard of her, but I’d say the likelihood of this being a Dylan reference is about absolute. She is just the sort of person who would have been a Greenwich Village legend, just the sort of thing Dylan was picking up a mile a minute in 1961 and ’62. It’s wonderful how songs write history.

Not a question, just a quick correction to [Greil’s] 1/27 answer [below] on bassists.

Robbie Shakespeare played bass on “Concrete Jungle,” not Aston Barrett. (To be fair, Barrett is credited rightfully as the bassist on that album, but for that particular track only, it was Robbie Shakespeare.)
– JR

Thanks for the correction.

Of all the periods of music you’ve lived through, which excited you the most?
– Robert Fiore

1964: the Beatles! Five in the Top Ten? Can this be real? The world is tilting off its axis. Why not all ten?

Mr. Marcus –

I have read most of your unique and analytical tomes, and many of your reviews/columns/essays/pearls over the years. Thank you for adding such depth to my thought process.

I am troubled by artists that continue playing their old tunes, without creating any new resonating material. Creating something fresh could equate to huge expenses vs. limited return due to the streaming impact; touring at a highly-marked up price equates to a much larger chunk of revenue. However, what may be missing in that financial equation is why one initially fell in love with music—to think or feel or act or become part of something much larger than oneself in an honest way, which feels more like a rip-off if one is asked to pay $300 for a ticket.

Do you have issues with acts that should retire, or do you feel it is a craft and trade like any other, and if one needs to work, one does what one can, especially if the demand is still there?
– Randy, aka “one”

It’s simple: it’s what most people are paying for. Rick Nelson addressed all the philosophical ramifications in “Garden Party.” It won’t change your mind and shouldn’t but it makes sense of the situation.

Do you think that Jimi Hendrix’s music has worn well? Do you still feel compelled to listen frequently?
– RL

It has. Are You Experienced still carries the full charge of someone seizing his own voice for the first time. Close to half a century has not compromised the daring, delight, subtlety and force of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” or “Machine Gun,” while the permanent playlisting of “All Along the Watchtower” hasn’t lessened its momentum of surprise. And “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” is a true contribution to the blues: something that wasn’t there before and now always will be.

So I just finished Robbie Robertson’s autobiography. I’ll leave opinions on it to others. However, when I go back and compare it to that autobiographical track he wrote about The Band’s history, “This is Where I Get Off” from his last CD, I am still left wondering one thing. At the very end of the song, the lyrics go:

This is where I get off
This ain’t where I belong
Somebody done me wrong, along the way…

I can’t figure out who he is referencing about doing him wrong. The book never brings up such a thought. I really don’t think it could be any of the Band members (including Levon), and his relationship with Albert Grossman didn’t seem contentious. He says David Geffen and him are square, and Geffen did produce his first solo CD. So as any good murder mystery would go: Who done it? Thx.
– M. Freeman

– I would think the junkies in the Band. To me, he says that in almost so many words: Levon LIED to me!

Are there any particular bassists you admire for their contribution to music? Do you have any favs in particular?
– Dann Alexander

Richard Davis on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. Charlie McCoy on Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. Aston Barrett on the Wailers’ “Concrete Jungle.” James Jamerson on Motown. Keith Richards on “Sympathy for the Devil.”

Do you think T.M. Christian is going to review another album in 2017?
– Joseph Wasser

Wow. I haven’t heard from him in years. Maybe the next Lucinda Williams album, There But for Fortune, songs celebrating the best of all the singers she’s loved who ever died, with cool samples from each.

I never liked Pink Floyd’s music—it feels cold and sounds boring—and regarding the (David Gilmour-era) band as an idea I stand with Johnny Rotten: I Hate Pink Floyd. Further, although I can understand the band’s appeal to the rock audience they cultivated in the 1970s, I cannot comprehend the megaplatinum success of The Wall, which to me is the sound of rock’s corpse, or at least a horrible betrayal.

You would make my day if you would just confirm my feelings, tell me to go listen to X-Ray Spex and then everything will be OK and we can move on—but seriously, I would love your honest thoughts about Pink Floyd and how you hear and place them.
– Randy

I liked “See Emily Play,” the song “Wish You Were Here,” and that album cover. As someone else once said, “Millionaires telling children ‘We don’t need no education’!” And Roger Waters is an anti-Semite.

Did you attend the Modern Lovers show at the Long Branch Saloon in 1972 or see the original band (Richman/Harrison/Brooks/Robinson/sometimes Felice) live at any time? If so, what were your thoughts?
– Bill Alderson

I was at the Longbranch show, which I wrote about in Lipstick Traces. I was there with two critics from New York, one of whom said, in the middle of the set, “We could make this band.” Aside from that being ridiculous, it was the most obnoxious thing I’d ever heard a rock critic say. And he’d begun the night by saying that nobody cared about rock ‘n’ roll anymore, all anybody cared about was politics, so he wasn’t going to write about it anymore.

I’ve had one personal encounter with Jonathan Richman, which came many years ago when he called me up to ask if I knew what kind of amp Scotty Moore used on Elvis’s Sun Sessions.

What are the key issues for music criticism in 2017?
– Dennis McDaniel

I can’t speak for anyone but myself. For me, what’s crucial is not to write about music, or anything else, without a sense of tyranny surrounding any attempt at communication, expression, or free speech of any sort.

While having another read through Lipstick Traces I was surprised to see you describing The Slits official releases as “crummy” compared to the John Peel radio sessions. I know you have high regard for Viv Albertine’s book and wonder if you have taken another listen to Cut recently—I maintain it’s a classic of both that and any other era.
– Paul Ashbridge

I may have been harsh, but I don’t know anything on any of their official albums, other than a few moments on their Peel Sessions, that comes close to speaking the same language as the Y label official bootleg.

I remember with pleasure attending Bill Graham’s Day On The Green concerts at Oakland Coliseum. (I was too young to ever see a show at the Fillmore.) I was curious as to your experiences with Graham, and your thoughts on the man.
– Bill Boyd

I had various encounters with Bill Graham, beyond going to shows at the Fillmore and Winterland and everywhere else from 1966 on. The first came at a conference on rock ‘n’ roll held at Mills College in, I think, 1967. Panelists included Graham, Phil Spector (who attacked Graham for not supporting Lenny Bruce when Bruce performed at the Fillmore), Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane, and more. During a break, while I was asking Phil Spector why it was impossible to find his Christmas album, and he handed me a business card, told me to write what I wanted on it and send it back, and he’d send me anything—spector-marcus—which he did, my wife asked Bill Graham why he’d started charging at the coat room at the Fillmore. He exploded at her, screaming, threatening her, calling her words I don’t feel like repeating. Two years later, when I was the music columnist for the San Francisco Express-Times, I wrote a piece about the Band’s debut shows at Winterland, and Bill sent me a fan letter. Some years after that, I was working on an extremely elaborate AIDS benefit in a building on the San Francisco waterfront, that opened with a very complex candle-lit entrance. A fire marshal buttonholed everyone he could find claiming a fire risk (unlikely, as the candles were positioned over water), saying he was going to shut the place down. I saw Bill across the room, asked the marshal to wait, went up to Bill and said, You’ve had to deal with this for years (when the Fillmore opened Graham had to battle the city weekly to keep it open), can you handle this? And he did.

1. How would you compare your feelings in January 1980 about Reagan coming into power with your feelings now about Trump coming into power?
2. Do you think that music as a way to mobilize people or at least voice a common discontent will play a role in the coming months and years?
– Terry

When Reagan was elected I was so depressed I lost a year of work. On the other hand, the rage, disgust, loathing, and anger I felt at the dismantling of the republic I trusted and the country I believed in drove the book I had just started working on, even if, at the same time, in terms of thinking and writing, l left the country, and the present, working my way back through the tangles of the European avant-garde, through the 20th century and, by the end of the book, past France, England, Germany, and Italy, to the Levant in the 12th century.

With Trump, where the dangers may be far deeper—because of the foundation of destruction that Reagan built and that Republicans have been maintaining and extending ever since—a black cloud falls on me every few days or so, but in a way that it sometimes takes me half a day to realize why I’m moving in slow motion. It hasn’t gotten in the way of writing. I am not sanguine that things will be so bad so quickly that the country will rise up as one, that representatives will realize they’ll be thrown out of office if they kill Medicare and Social Security, and this will all be over in four years, or less if Trump is impeached for obvious constitutional violations, if not treason itself, and much of his cabinet sent to jail for self-dealing, bribery, and theft, as the New York Times editorial page so blithely assumes. Impeached by who? This congress? Prosecuted by who? This attorney general?

Trump has created a government that on paper is only steps away from realizing the dream of generations—the repeal not merely of Obamacare—the name of which trivializes it, as if it’s merely one man’s vanity project, not national policy, part of the republic—but of the New Deal and everything that flowed from it, the repeal of any notion of the Federal government playing an affirmative role in national life, “to protect the general welfare”: the repeal, in essence, of 20th century democracy. That means Social Security, the FAA, the Food and Drug Administration, the Center for Disease Control, the National Weather Service, and countless other institutions of American life. It means the dismantling of laws and institutions against discrimination of any and all kinds, to the point, perhaps, of allowing states and municipalities to re-institute de jure racial segregation along with the abolition of abortion rights, the abrogation rights of women to legal equality with men, and the criminalization of homosexuality (none of that sounds that far away for me; that was the America I grew up in). It means the junking of the national highway system, a New Deal successor under Dwight Eisenhower, in favor of selling it off to private companies. It means the abolition of Medicare, the most important New Deal successor program, and Medicaid, the Head Start, food stamps, and a thousand other programs. Oh, pundits say, all of that will hurt so called red state voters, Trump voters, right where they live, and they’ll be outraged! No they won’t. They voted for this. They voted for Trump—not out of some narrow sense of what pundits call their own interests, by which is meant their own narrowly defined economic interests, but because Trump embodied the kind of country they wanted to live in and the kind of people they wanted to think they are—and they will support him again. Many people on Medicaid and so many other linked government programs don’t vote, and merely cutting a lifeline won’t lead many of such people to vote. That is at the heart of American electoral history.

What I find scariest is something that Rudolph Giuliani said at the Republican National Convention, seemingly in a moment of out-of-body mania in the midst of an hysterical speech: “This is the last election!” You could hear it in the moment as meaning, if it meant anything, that if the Democratic Party won it would render all future elections meaningless, from a Republican standpoint, because they would, by institutional buttressing of demographic change, lose them. But it means something different now.

The Republican prospect of erasing the New Deal—a regulatory state with a commitment to the general welfare of the citizenry—reminds me of the fall, or the erasure, of the Soviet Union. Suddenly the USSR ceased to exist and membership in the Communist party was made illegal, and what filled the gap of regulation, exploitation, and oppression was organized crime. The result in the USA could be the same, because the destruction of New Deal institutions will mean that the gap in the governance of everyday activities will fall into the hands of unregulated corporations, and unregulated corporation are a form of organized crime. Much is made of Trump having no core beliefs beyond a faith in his own sacredness, no comment to any set of principles other than the various elements of his own vanity, and so on. That’s an illusion. His whole life, from childhood on, has been a matter of absolute hostility to any authority, agency, or law that in any way impinges on his ability to do exactly as he pleases and make as much money as possible. Franklin Roosevelt put it squarely at his great campaign rally in Madison Square Garden on October 31, 1936, in a speech so powerful that, listening to it today you can feel the words echoing across the roof of the hall like shots: “Government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob.” That is precisely the future Trump believes in. That is what Making America Great means.What can music do? Robert Christgau put it well in 1969: “In the worst of times music is a promise that times are meant to be better.” That is not as easy a promise to make, let alone keep—to stay true to—as it might seem. In the next year we’ll find out who can make that promise, and who can’t, who cares, and who doesn’t.

If, in 1961, Woody Guthrie had been in the hospital in, say, Chicago, would Bob Dylan have gone to New York at that time? How would Dylan’s career and music have been different had his early post-Minnesota years been spent in Chicago?
– Dave Rubin

There was a lot going on in Chicago at that time. Dylan would have gravitated to the Old Town School of Folk Music, where he would have quickly developed contacts that would have taken him to New York. Nothing very important would have changed.

I recently saw The Roots in Boston and came away stunned at their versatility and virtuosity. I’d love to know what other current bands you put in their league.
– Steve Varnum

Given their camaraderie, multiplicity, unpredictability, and a world class record geek as chief showboat, plus their unmatched visibility, which allows them to release odd records—their wonderful John Legend album—almost invisibly, they’re in a league of one.

I have been listening to the song “Long Black Veil.” Three great versions by the Band, Johnny Cash, Lefty Frizzell. Any preference? “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”—three great versions, Hank Williams, B.J. Thomas, Al Green. Any preference?
– Hugh Grissett

The Band; Al Green.

Do you think Buddy Holly is a little underrated when it comes to his contribution to rock n roll? He wrote his own songs and was one of the first to have the now typical rock band (guitar/bass/drums and sometimes a 2nd guitar). Elvis couldn’t write a song. Chuck Berry could write but didn’t have his own band (although it’s hard to beat Johnnie Johnson and Willie Dixon). Even his glasses were an inspiration. He’s obviously one of the all time greats but doesn’t seem to get the recognition some of the other greats from the ’50s do these days.
– Bill Alderson

Buddy Holly is anything but underrated—he was part of the first class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with Elvis, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Little Richard, James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmie Rodgers, Jimmy Yancey, Robert Johnson, Alan Freed, and Sam Phillips—all of whom lived and contributed (as Phil Spector would put it) past their 22nd birthdays, as Holly didn’t. For someone whose career had already traced an arc—when Holly died his career was waning, he was broke, and his dream was his own record label, his own art complex, with himself as president, talent scout, manager, and artist, recording with Mahalia Jackson and Ray Charles—Holly has been the subject of one critical study and two biographies, one of them excellent, one knockout feature film, and actors have played him in others. He’s not underrated by me: two of the first pieces I ever published, in Rolling Stone and Who Put the Bomp, were about Holly, and I’ve written about him in one way or another ever since.

A case can be made that, given the brevity of his career and, as Nik Cohn put it in his Holly section of Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, the first good book on rock and roll, from 1969, the “neopolitan flowerpots” of his more treacly records—as a complete phony who nevertheless scored hits, Cohn honors Holly as “founder of a noble tradition”—Holly is overrated. If he’d have been black, he likely would not hold the place that he does today—what if Sam Cooke, the performer and entrepreneur who is Holly’s closest artistic kin, had died after “You Send Me”? His death not only made him a romantic, never-forgotten figure—the drama! the wipeout! the day the music died!—it spared him from failure, compromise, for all we know ending up under the finger of the mob. I don’t think so: the home recordings he made in the weeks before he died, from “Peggy Sue Got Married,” “Crying, Waiting, Hoping,” and more, all but promise music ready to hit a new world head on, to the point that it would have been Holly, not Johnny Cash, accompanying Bob Dylan on Nashville Skyline.

What did you think of the Grateful Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie” as a response to Altamont?
– Robert Fiore

Nice song. Brilliant evasion. Total bullshit.

Dear Greil Marcus,
What sound system(s) do you use? Still listening to vinyl? Even tapes?
All the best for 2017!
Greetings from Nuremberg,
– Mario

I use Bose computer speakers and a stereo set with a 50-year-old McIntosh amp and a six year old Harman Kardon turntable and a Nakamichi cassette deck. I used to have Voice of the Theatre speakers, but since moving to a small house use Audio Monitor bookshelf speakers.

What are your thoughts on Bob Neuwirth’s solo albums? How much of an influence do you think he had on Bob Dylan’s personality in the ’60s?
– Bill Alderson

Bob Neuwirth was a confidant. Tonto to Dylan’s Lone Ranger, or Pancho to the Cisco Kid, though sometimes the roles might have been reversed. What Dylan says about him in Chronicles is right. We’ve become friendly over the last ten years or so. I wouldn’t say more, though there’s a hilarious performance of “Come See” by him on the Arhoolie 50th Anniversary Celebration Hear Me Howlin’ set released 5 years ago.

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