Favourite recording(s)—LPs or songs—of 2016, and why?
– Scott Woods
- Felice Brothers, “Aerosol Ball,” from Life in the Dark—because it doesn’t care how it comes out.
- Kaleo, “Way Down We Go“—because you can’t tell what it is.
- Rhianna, “Needed Me,” from Anti—because it can make you squirm.
- Fantastic Negrito, Last Days of Oakland—because it’s a concept album that sounds like a found object.
- Mekons, “Fear and Beer,” on YouTube or from Existentialism—because it addressed a concrete public event without embarrassment at how much they cared that it didn’t come out the way they wanted it to. Just to be slick, you could say “because it addressed a concrete public event without flinching,” but what makes this hit so hard is that flinching is what it’s made out of.
What do you think of Tennessee Ernie Ford? Is he worth pursuing past “16 Tons”?
– Robert Fiore
Except for some TV in the ’50s I don’t know anymore. But isn’t “16 Tons” enough? Don’t you believe every contradictory, murderous, suicidal word?
Given all your thinking and writing on (1) the glorious early-60’s Chantels/Crystals/Shangri-La’s tradition of girl groups making impossibly impassioned music within a male-dominated studio system and (2) the glorious mid-70’s Slits/Poly Styrene/Lora Logic tradition of girls making a hideous squawl for the pure pleasure of it, have you ever given attention to the Tammys’ “Egyptian Shumba”? Because if that isn’t the missing link between the two, I reckon there must not be one.
The women in Kleenex and Liliput and the Slits would have loved this. Even the band is on their wavelength or vice versa. It’s off kilter and absolutely original and they do sound like Lou Christie more than anyone else. Thanks for this. I never heard them at the time and that makes sense but I’m so glad to hear them now.
Do you think that Bob Dylan deserved to win the Nobel?
– Francisco Uribe
I’m a Philip Roth person myself. But I couldn’t be happier. I thought it would be a good occasion for Dylan to come up with something like his MusiCares speech, whether he attended or not, and in miniature he did.
Will you be reviewing Robbie Robertson’s memoir? If so, can you tell us where to expect the review? If not, can you give us your impressions of the book? I thought it presented a vivid picture of Robertson’s formative years (more vivid than the sections on the Band) and convincingly and subtly rebutted Helm’s account of the Band’s problems and fracture. However, the book has neither the lyricism nor depth of Robertson’s best songs—it has too many clichés (phrases like “musical odyssey”) and over-relies on amusing anecdotes.
I’ve written a piece on Testimony for the New York Review of Books, which should be out before too long.
As a longtime fan of early Peter Green, what do you make of his post-Fleetwood Mac album The End of the Game? It was widely disparaged upon release; Lester Bangs said it sounded like a “wah-wah demonstration record,” and another critic suggested Green had “lost his marbles.” A few dissenters heard parallels to free jazz and post-Bitches Brew Miles Davis. Today, much of it (especially the first half of the title track) sounds like a man fighting for his life.
– Tom McCourt
I love In the Skies, from nine years later. Green finds the real deep blues in his own way, as no one else ever did—not that he matches “Love That Burns,” not that anyone could. I once read that the lead parts were really by the credited rhythm guitarist Snowy White. I hope not.
I had a dream last night and you were in it and I was in it with you. We were in a roadside diner. It was nestled in the redwoods. It looked like something out of Twin Peaks.
We were talking about music, art, movies. There was a group of us there—you, your wife, me some other friends. At some point you mentioned this opportunity you had to curate at a museum/art center university and it would be a unique opportunity. You would program across all art forms—music performances, visual arts, theater, dance, and anything else you could think of. It was pretty exciting but you weren’t sure your would do it. During this discussion into the diner walks Julian Assange. He’s got some big bodyguards with him and a whole entourage. He kind of takes over the diner, talking loudly about himself. His great heroism and sacrifice and his dedication to the truth. Everyone in the diner was really uncomfortable but we all kept quiet, though I could tell you were really angry. After he left we were all relieved and continued our previous discussion but I could tell you were seething. Eventually you stood up and said “I’m gonna go and talk to Assange” and left quickly on foot. Everyone was kind of shocked and we turned to your wife and asked if she thought we should do something and if you were going to be alright. She replied “Greil can take care of himself.” Then I woke up.
Anyway my questions:
Did you find Assange? What did you say to him? Did you make it out alive?
P.S. Did you take that job?
So good to hear from you.
I had the same dream at the same time, but mine went on a little longer. I caught up with him and said, “Mr. Assange, why do look like a cloning experiment that never finished?”
Two about California crime:
1) Did you know Richard Gaikowski, who wrote for Good Times in 1969 and has been proposed (idiotically) as a Zodiac suspect?
2) Can you post your review of Who Killed George Jackson here?
– Devin McKinney
I don’t know Gaikowski, but hope Scott will be able to post the George Jackson piece soon.
This (Radio Garden) is a pretty marvelous thing online—would love to hear your thoughts
– Scott Woods
It is. I could spend the rest of my life (at least all day) on it. Down the rabbit hole. What have you found?
My own acquisition of the live ’66 Zim/Hawks box (that it’s the same set list, over and over and over with subtle tweaks and wild asides so far apart you can’t see one standing next to another, gives the thing that gratifying edge of Dylanesque perversity) has spurred me into an in-depth chronological revisitation of his whole canon. Your work on the subject over time really does make for an ideal roadmap; you’ve had a sixth sense for the story right from back when it stopped being a pop legend and started being a human riddle (’70).
My question is: when Dylan aced a one-line response to your Like a Rolling Stone volume, something to the effect of “you only scratched the surface”, do you think that was his utterly in-character way of telling you, “alright, Greil, you got me?”
– Ryan Maffei
It was the fall of 1997; he was actually talking about Invisible Republic (since re-titled The Old, Weird America), which had come out that spring. I took it simply as great compliment: it meant he’d read the book and understood its limitations. I knew exactly what he meant, and had already known it: as he would write so eloquently in Chronicles, there is no bottom to old American music, no end; every time a door opens you’re in a new country where they speak a different language.
I am digging When That Rough God Goes Riding so much I felt compelled to let you know. Reading it is almost as good as listening to Van sing. In fact I listen to a song you describe before I read that chapter and then again after. Wow…nirvana.
Van Morrison has a way of touching my soul with just a few words. In fact, lately I can only listen to one song at a time. I have to pause and let the effect sink in before I move on. Example: I just put on “A Night In S.F.” disk 2. After Georgie Fame does his thing Van belts out “It Fills You Up” with a voice so big and deep that it swallows me whole. I have to stop and recover. Thank you so much for helping me enjoy this incredible artist even more. Love you writing also. I re-read your books often and always get something new from them each time. Kind of like listening to Van. You two have something in common. Thanks.
I’m thrilled to hear it. Thank you.
I’ve enjoyed your writing on Nick Cave’s “Tupelo” and “Stagger Lee.” Are there any other songs by him that have caught your imagination? Have you ever seen him live?
– Andrew MacDonald
I’m a narrow fan, but all the way when I’m there. His number with PJ Harvey. His openness. I haven’t seen him.
Do you have any favorite David Allan Coe songs? Where do you think he stands in the pantheon of American singer-songwriters? Also, what do you make of his recent string of bad luck, such as IRS trouble and getting beaten up in that casino?
Bad luck? Why not evil motherfucker? Oh, he’s not really a racist, a would-be lyncher—Kid Rock likes him! Don’t worry about him—in a year or so he’ll be receiving a National Humanities medal in the White House, just like that kike Bob Dylan before him.
If memory serves, all of your comments on the late Leonard Cohen that I’ve seen have been fairly harsh, though not quite on the Lucinda Williams level. Have you ever found anything praiseworthy in his work?
I think the reason I like Leonard Cohen better on movie soundtracks—McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Natural Born Killers, Pump Up the Volume most memorably for me—is that there the music is orchestrating the actions of people, and if they’re good, and here they are (Julie Christie, Shelley Duvall, Warren Beatty, Christian Slater, Samantha Mathis, Woody Harrelson, Juliet Lewis), they draw us in, and we care about what they’re doing and why, we worry about them, we feel protective toward them—in other words, in the movies there’s a dimension of humanness, of vulnerability and jeopardy, that is attached to the music, a dimension that I find completely absent from Cohen’s music on its own. To me it was more than half a century of someone looking down from his tower of song on everyone else. Randy Newman put it best, long ago, introducing his song “Suzanne” onstage in San Francisco: “This isn’t Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne.’ It’s on a somewhat lower moral plane, actually.”
Aside from a short 1987 Real Life Rock entry for Ballot Result, released two years after D. Boon died and the band ended, you haven’t written much about the Minutemen, although you mentioned you liked them. To me, their music—as a sound, as an idea, as essential recordings (Double Nickles on the Dime, especially), as a chapter in the story, or a whole story unto itself—is one of a kind, and if there is a rock and roll spirit that should be lived up to (to borrow from your “Treasure Island” introduction), this is a band that did. Do you have any thoughts about them?
I agree with you. I don’t know why I haven’t really written about them. The time will come, I hope.
Have you ever read, or attempted to read, Finnegans Wake? There’s a reference to Joyce in Lipstick Traces (“where communication itself is in question”) that I assume is about FW—any thoughts?
– Scott Woods
I tried, briefly. I had better luck with Ulysses. But the one that does it for me (no odd choice) is “The Dead.”
What are your favorite Bob Dylan songs not by Bob Dylan? Not cover versions of or by, but songs written by others in the manner of Bob Dylan. I think I’d go for “Who Knows Where the Time Goes.”
– Robert Fiore
Or “Eve of Destruction”…
The times feel loaded with uncertainty and unease, and I´ve found a perfect soundtrack for all this disarray in Lou Reed´s New York; “There Is No Time” feels like a perfect song for getting out of bed and trying to make a difference in one’s life in late 2016. I read your interview with him on The Raven: Could you share anything special you remember about meeting Lou?
– Daniel Vega
Along with the Raven interview, I met Lou Reed a few times socially, with Laurie Anderson, who I knew better. He was always unfriendly, but he had no reason not to be. At least he didn’t put me on an album as he did with John Rockwell and Robert Christgau. One music writer I know he respected and trusted was Anthony DeCurtis.
In regards to your answer to the following (scroll down): 11/10/16 I had to ask—what’s your take on Hillary’s loss?
Why is there no mention of the fact (both in your answer and the media in general) that a lot of people are scared shitless and are desperate for change—any change—at all? That many people that voted for Trump voted for Obama in the past and turned their back on the Democratic Party? (Bernie Sanders’s words, not mine.)
To quote Dylan “A man’s gonna do what he has to do when he’s got a hungry mouth to feed.” That explains it more than anything to me…and just so you know, I didn’t vote for either one of them.
I’m sorry…I just had to get that off my chest! Back to music.
People are scared shitless—of what? Of who? Of what and who Trump scared them with.
Have you seen Masked and Anonymous (I’m sure you have), and what did you think of it?
Aside from the saintliness surrounding Dylan’s wooden Jack Fate character, it’s great. The directing is wonderfully all over the place, willing to try anything, the casting fabulous—it seems as if anyone on earth was up for this—and the music, especially the foreign and extra-especially Italian versions of Dylan songs stunning. It’s hilarious—rock critic Jeff Bridges’s rant about Hendrix’s verson of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is priceless—and don’t forget Dylan wrote the script. The side-of-the-frame references to Whitman, Blind Lemon Jefferson, the minstrel shows, and countless more, could not be more apt or subtle. I feel like I can remember the entire movie.
[Note: GM reviewed the movie in Interview.]
Do I receive a proper impression that you haven’t written a lot (or at all) about Zeppelin? If so, why’s that? If it escaped my attention, can you recommend your piece on subject?
I’ve always been far more of a Robert Plant fan than a Led Zeppelin fan. I love “Battle of Evermore” more than anything else, and not just for Sandy Denny. For me Plant’s B-side “Far Post” is paradise. I should have written more—or just about anything—but I didn’t.
1. Don’t think I’ve seen you ever mention Bryan Ferry’s “I Thought,” the closing cut from 2002’s Frantic. Does it do anything for you?
2. Since we’re playing Jukebox Jury, do you ever recall hearing this song by Nu Shooz (“Should I Say Yes“) from the late ’80s (it was a minor hit, reached #41)? Anything at all?
– Scott Woods
“I Thought” is lovely but it doesn’t go anywhere, doesn’t even meander—except for very distant harmonica here and there it’s too static for me. Nu Shooz—I like little girl voices but they have to have some conviction behind them.
I am currently at CD 27 in the Dylan Live 66 box.
Have you ever spent time with Rhino’s 2007 box set Love Is The Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets 1965-1970?
[Please see: The Terror of Utopia, 08/07]
I’m not sure I’ve heard this long studio version [of “Alabama Bound”] before. It doesn’t touch the longer performance at their last show, two or three years after they broke up. Here it is, on the Great Highway in San Francisco—the only version worth hearing.
1. Are there any writers on American politics at the moment that you would recommend? 2. Apart from Patriotic Gore, do you have any favorite books about Lincoln?
Gail Collins in the New York Times may help keep you sane. Jonathan Chait in New York magazine often gets inside the outer propaganda for the real propaganda. But new voices are going to have to emerge.
There are countless good or interesting books on Lincoln. I have great affection for an old and early biography by Lord Charnwood.
Back in the 80’s I had Todd Gitlin for a professor in an unforgettable American History course. Seems like his thinking was influential in (at least) Mystery Train. True? What historians might you recommend to read to further understand U.S. history and, yes, this latest election?
– Marc Murdock
Mystery Train came out of what I listened to and what I read in the 1960s and early ’70s. Todd Gitlin did not figure there—I don’t think I read a word by him. The books behind (and I hope inside) mine were Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, Melville’s The Confidence Man and Moby Dick, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America, Lincoln’s speeches, John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity,” Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel, Pauline Kael’s I Lost it at the Movies, Edmund Wilson’s Night Thoughts in Paris and his Patriotic Gore, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
As for this election, look at the chapter on Lincoln and “The Passion for Distinction” in Patriotic Gore. Wilson takes up a now famous, then (1953, I think—originally, he was reviewing the just published collected works of Lincoln) unremarked upon 1838 lecture the 29 year old state legislator gave to the Springfield Young Men’s Lyceum, a self-improvement club. He talked about how America was invulnerable from without and absolutely vulnerable from within, how democracy and the idea of a republic were fragile, and could be destroyed by a figure who cared only for fame and glory and power—and if such a person could not achieve those things by building up, as, Lincoln said, the founding fathers had done, then he would do so by tearing down. Wilson thought Lincoln was actually describing himself. I don’t think so—unless the id was really roaming that night. But he was certainly thinking of Buzz Windrip in Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, Charles Lindbergh in Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, and Donald Trump.
In 1975 you contributed liner notes to two double albums, The Basement Tapes and Chronicle, the former eventually blossoming into the terminal Invisible Republic. Any chance of the latter growing into something of similar scope, if not import? A longstanding inequity would thereby be rectified, for even with you, Ellen Willis, and Robert Christgau all being on record as certified partisans, Fogerty s achievements remain grossly underappreciated. What is more, in the course of my keen reading of your work over the years, I got the distinct impression that a Creedence reference would have been apposite more frequently than mere chance would account for.
– Tomislav Brlek
God knows John Fogerty deserves a serious book. In a way, Mystery Train is my attempt to write that book—Creedence is barely mentioned, but those songs are all over it and all through it. I learned to hear Hank Williams and Lead Belly by hearing Creedence. I once went to a high-school dance at El Cerrito High School, and have always believed the band playing must have been the Golliwogs, or whatever they were calling themselves when we were all teenagers in the Bay Area. I could only write a book about “Up Around the Bend” by not writing about it.
Has anyone written a 33 1/3 book about any of their albums? I don’t think so. Why don’t you?
What are your thoughts on Piero Scaruffi (if any)? His article on the Beatles may be ludicrous, but do you think it has any merit at all as an alternative to the one-dimensional praise heaped upon them by so many?
– Oliver Hollander
Tell me more.
One of the greatest pieces on the Greil Marcus site—and it always seems to be ranked high in page views—is the obituary for Former President George W. Bush.
Would it be possible for you to write a similar fake obituary for President-elect Donald Trump? It would make lots of your readers and fans very happy.
– Pvt. Duane Doberman
Too soon. Right now I’m waiting for him to die before taking office.
I was recently reading your article on Altamont, where you described the toxic energy of that day defined by its crowd, which had been “ugly, selfish, [and] territorialist, throughout the day. People held their space. They made no room for anyone.”
I’ve attended several contemporary music festivals, and I have experienced crowds at them all that can be best described using your exact language above.
Have you attended any of the major music festivals now running, and if so, what has your experience at them been?
– Nathan Gelman
I haven’t been to any since Altamont.
I had to ask—what’s your take on Hillary’s loss? Explanations so far have included working class revolt against globalism, pervasive racism/sexism, her being a poor candidate, imbalanced press coverage, and FBI/Russian/Wikileaks interference. Which do you regard as the most likely?
It was in fact so close—Hillary won the popular vote, which, while by not as much as Al Gore, is not how it’s supposed to go—that any number of factors could have been determinative. Comey. People not liking Hillary. Trump being easier to listen to. My choice: granting legitimacy to racists, misogynists, xenophobes, homophobes (though there is no evidence Trump has anything against gay people or trans people, as opposed to black people, Hispanics, Jews, and women), and anyone else who hates what he’s afraid of. All of the things that to respectable opinion were disqualifying—attacking a Latino heritage judge, a Muslim family, John McCain, grabbing ’em by the pussy, Get him out of here!—were for Trump followers top ten hits. He gained with those things. He solidified his base. Second: not paying taxes, grab ’em by the pussy, anything else you can mention—to so many people watching, that is utopia. To be able to do anything and get away with it! I can’t, but if I vote for him, I’m like him, aren’t I?
Do you have any idea why Basement Tapes/Cutting Edge/Live 66 waited until this late in the Bootleg Series cycle? If it had been me making the choices they would have been done first.
– Robert Fiore
And if all this stuff had come out in 1991 it would have swamped—discredited in advance—anything he might have done from then on.
I´ve been listening obsessively to Silk Degrees by Boz Scaggs and, to a lesser extent, the first album of Christopher Cross. Can you complete the trinity for me, do you know of another album of the time that could live beside those two, considering their late-night textures, polished production and unequaled soulfulness?
– Daniel Vega
You want me to complete the third circle of hell?
Many years ago I remember you referring to the 1965-66 period of Bob Dylan as “the great undocumented period of Dylan’s career.” Now with all the box sets that have come out and are about to come out—Cutting Edge and Live 66 shows—sometimes it seems like too much of a good thing. What do you think?
Not at all. And we can add The Basement Tapes Complete. I think The Cutting Edge especially is a treasure trove. I’m 15 CDs in to the Live ’66 box (which unlike The Cutting Edge, which takes up more room than an oversize dictionary, is compact and unpretentious, though longer than it needs to be—some CDs only have five or six songs on them) and the surprises, odd asides, and variations in performance keep it going (though most often the sound is boxed, with highs erased—you can find far brighter, deeper sound of many important performances on bootlegs). All of this speaks for Dylan’s own confidence in his music over the last twenty years or so—he’s not in danger of being overshadowed by his own past.
You wrote extensive liner notes in the ’70s for an anthology by the late Bobby Vee that was never released in the U.S. Any chance of seeing them posted on GreilMarcus.net?
– Craig Zeller
Was released in U.S. as part of UA and Greg Shaw Legendary Masters series (also Jan and Dean and Ricky Nelson) but liner notes a good idea.
For Ellen Willis, Dave Marsh, Robert Christgau, and Lester Bangs, dancing was a natural response to rock and roll and an essential part of their critical listening experience and enjoyment of the music. They wrote about dancing often, but I don’t recall any emphasis of it in your writing. Did/do you like to dance? If so, are there any songs you love just because they move your body, or do you need the heart to be moved as well?
I don’t dance.
In 1976, you wrote that Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks “moved with a rock beat and a rock feel,” which surprised me, and I wonder if you’ve ever grappled with whether other artists or works were rock and roll vs. non-rock—not just a folk/country/jazz/blues distinction but something, maybe, that essentially falls short of rock (like “Sugar Shack”)—and does it matter? Is Neil Diamond rock? Paul Simon?
It was just a way of taking the music away from descriptions that were being applied to it—folk-jazz or the like. It was also a way of saying that the boundaries of what could be described as rock, or rock ‘n’ roll, were unstable, expanding, being redefined all the time.
Neil Diamond is absolutely rock when he is—“Solitary Man” is as much rock as “Splish Splash” or “He Will Break Your Heart,” “Cracklin’ Rosie” as much as “For What It’s Worth” or “Mirror Ball”—just making the comparisons up as I go along, which is to say substitute anything.
Paul Simon was rock after Tom Wilson put electric instruments on “The Sound of Silence.” Not so sure about anything else. Except “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” for attitude and carrying it through.
If you’re willing to reveal, I’m curious how you work as a writer. Do you keep a disciplined writing schedule or write mostly when you feel like writing (or when you have a specific assignment)? Has writing gotten easier or more difficult for you as you’ve gotten older? I recall you said about at least one of your recent books, The Doors I think, that it was quite fast and easy out of the gate. Does the opposite ever occur—when the words just won’t come? Can (do) you write with music or TV (etc.) on in the background?
No writer’s practice, routine, regimen, habit necessarily works for any other. Walter Benjamin wrote copiously about how you had to have your penciled sharpened, not just sharp but, you know, really sharpened… and what he was saying was that he had to have his pencils sharpened. Even if he didn’t use them. He also said that a certain distracting noise was helpful—I read that after having spent years listening over and over to Firesign Theatre and Monty Python records while writing Lipstick Traces. You find what works for you. And in a certain way how one writer writes is nobody’s business.
“Writer’s block is for amateurs,” Tom Bissell once said at a writer’s workshop at 826 Valencia when he was asked about what happens when words don’t come. It struck me at the time as a cruel thing to say to a teenager, but in the same instant I knew he was right, even if I’d never thought the thought.
There is no such thing—not in real life—as wanting to be a writer. Writers write. Nothing else, recognition, readers, a living, friendships, comes with the ticket.
Wondering if you saw Elvis and Nixon and what you thought. I liked Elvis Meets Nixon (on Showtime years ago) more, as it had a bit of humor to it. This one was darker in general. As unusual as the whole thing was, and as much as they can turn the both of them into punch lines, I don’t know how many times they can make a movie about a guy who, in the end, just wanted a badge for his collection (according to Elvis: What Happened anyway.)
I didn’t see either movie. I did read the book that the convicted Watergate conspirator published. Reading Elvis’s letter to Nixon is enough.
I am puzzled by one of the top Youtube searches of “Like a Rolling Stone” published 2 Feb 2013. Who is that? It’s not Bob Dylan.
I don’t know who it is. It’s not Robyn Hitchcock (I hope). It may be the worst cover of the song ever. Even worse than the one by the sons of Dean Martin et al. that came out in 1965 or ’66. But the guy is having a lot of fun.
You’ve often praised the Byrds’ early work. Gene Clark was a major contributor to what they achieved. But I don’t recall you ever referencing his work post-“Eight Miles High.” Do you think Clark recorded anything of note after that?
All I recall—very unfair—is a song about DMT. So it didn’t register with me.
What is your opinion of British producer, Joe Meek? Any favorite songs you can recommend?
– Hugh Grissett
Joe Meek is a great story. “Telstar” is a great record.
What do you think of M.I.A.’s music.
M.I.A. is more story than sound.
Not sure if you saw it but Starship’s “We Built This City” was recently cited somewhere as the “worst rock and roll song of all-time.” Do you agree? If not, can you tell us what song does hold such an honor for you?
I go for Jimmy Gilmer’s “Sugar Shack” or Journey’s “Lights,” but it’s a close call. And “Lights” and “We Built This City” are almost the same song. Both are about San Francisco and both almost make me regret I was born there.
Do you have any thoughts on the work of Bonnie Raitt and Los Lobos?
– Steve Canson
They both had some good songs. But they were and are both more noble ideas than musicians who made a difference. At the heart of their music is a deep core of boredom.
Is the influx of wealth threatening or changing the essential nature of San Francisco and the Bay Area? More positively, do you see it increasing patronage of the arts?
– Robert Fiore
The idea of art patrons in a democracy is pernicious. Of course what’s happening in the Bay Area is destructive—and partly because so many of the people dropping in with millions of dollars to do whatever occurs to them will be gone before you turn your head.
What is your view of the Beatles new CD release Live at the Hollywood Bowl? Could you please give us a mini review of Ed Ward’s new book The History of Rock and Roll, 1920-1963 Volume 1?
– Hugh Grissett
Haven’t heard Beatles. If you follow Ed Ward’s pop history episodes on Fresh Air you’ll know how good the book is.
Should I spend my money on McKenzie Wark’s The Beach Beneath the Street?
Lots of inside who’s who.
Do you see any musician of the younger generation, about which in 40 years still will be written, similar as today about Bob Dylan, Elvis or The Beatles?
– Harry Leimer
No way to know.
i have been reading Nik Cohn’s Rock From the Beginning. I enjoyed his analysis of Del Shannon and Gene Pitney. What is your opinion of their music and what are some of your favorite songs of theirs?
– hugh c grissett
Nik is right with everything he says about them. They were both wonderful. For Shannon, “Runaway,” especially as redone for the TV series Crime Story. I have great affection for Pitney’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” but the killer is “Every Breath I Take,” produced by Phil Spector, early on.
Did Sandy Darlington attend any of Dylan’s Nov. 1979 all-gospel shows at the Warfield? If so, what do you recall about his reaction?
– Scott Marshall
Sandy was not there.
Have you gotten into Dion’s 1965 recordings produced by Tom Wilson, made a few months after Wilson and Dylan cut “Like A Rolling Stone”? Some appeared on the 1969 Columbia LP Wonder Where I’m Bound, while others—maybe the best of them: “Tomorrow Won’t Bring the Rain” (a 1965 single), the unissued “My Love,” and the revelatory original mix of “I Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound” without strings—were released on the 1997 2-CD set The Road I’m On. If so, what are your thoughts?
For me, not that time so much as “Abraham, Martin and John,” the Spector album, then disappearing into devotional music—I think he found his second voice, his second musical life, with the blues albums of the last few years, starting with Son of Skip James—can you imagine the nerve it took to put a record with that title out? And he lived up to it.
One more Top Ten Albums question: the Rubber Soul that you include on your list from 1978 is the “USA version” rather than the official U.K. release. I’d love to hear why you picked the American version of this album over the British.
The songs flow. The UK version has “Drive My Car,” which is a nothing song with a clunky rhythm that makes what is really a song-cycle into an ordinary bunch of tracks.
Can you tell us the story behind your 1987 Top Ten Albums list? The obvious theme is English punk and the music it opened up, but also conspicuous is the absence of any selection from your 1978 list—suggesting (or demonstrating), as you later wrote in Lipstick Traces, that “punk immediately discredited the music that preceded it.” The appearance is stark and the tone seems reclusive, defiant. Did this reflect where you were at this time—as a listener, writer, and American?
Whenever I’m asked to make up these kinds of lists, I fool around with them, and never list the same records twice. The idea is reductive; why take it seriously? I first did it at the beginning of my book, Rock & Roll Will Stand, and that was 1969. I once did it with all Jan and Dean records. That might have been the best.
At the risk of flogging a dead horse… You’ve written so much and so well about “Gimme Shelter” already and have been fielding a number of questions here recently about Let it Bleed, but was there anything particularly memorable about the first time you heard “Gimme Shelter”? Was its greatness apparent immediately? Was it surprising to hear a woman in the mix? Did you first hear it on the radio?
– Scott Woods
As the records editor at Rolling Stone, I had an advance copy of Let It Bleed, and assigned the album to myself. We’d been told that the “Mary Clayton” credited on “Gimmie Shelter”—who I remembered as Merry Clayton, for the good original 1963 California hit version of “The Shoop Shoop Song” aka “It’s in His Kiss,” the so-named poor 1964 national hit version by Betty Everett—was really Bonnie Bramlett, and so the illustration for the review showed a picture of Bramlett singing into a mike next to a picture of Mick and Keith singing face to face in a studio, thus doing our part to erase Merry Clayton’s unbelievable contribution—which makes the song, which, in her own words for what she was trying to do, as she recounts that night in Morgan Neville’s film 20 Feet from Stardom, blows it away. But I knew from the first time I played it that “Gimmie Shelter” (as they misspell it, “Gimmie”) was beyond anything the Rolling Stones had ever done—and so, in a different way, was “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” now incomprehensibly borne into a new life as Donald Trump’s theme song. I was thrilled to hear a woman’s voice—first matching Jagger, then overwhelming him—and thrilled that he knew that’s what the song needed. I backed off in the piece I wrote, following the section on “Gimmie Shelter” with “The Stones have never done anything better,” rather than “This is the best they’ve ever done”—but a step back was probably more effective.
The song wasn’t that special, live at Oakland in the fall of 1969 near the beginning of their US tour. But it was the creation and the end of the world at Altamont, where I heard it lying face down in the dirt on the hill I was climbing on the way back to my car, leaving while they were still playing, because it was just too horrible to stay. But I stayed to listen to that.
Lately I have been listening to ’40s and ’50s music. Two artists that I enjoy are Big Joe Turner and Ella Mae Morse. Could you share with us your opinion of their music?
– Hugh C. Grissett
Big Joe Turner was a giant with a great sense of humor. See his page in Rock Dreams. Morse is a blank spot for me.
I was listening recently to Let it Bleed and did some browsing to read what was written about it and Google led me to your original review of the album in Rolling Stone (December 27, 1969) and I have a couple of questions: 1) Do you still believe the cover is ‘crummy’ and 2) in retrospect were you being a bit tough in calling Robert Brown John ‘inflated’?
For my $2 worth I think the cover is great… an integral part of a great album… still love playing it… especially my vinyl version… and I think the cover is a big part of the whole experience.
Yes and no.
Your recently posted 1978 Top Ten Albums list began with Let It Bleed, which brings up some questions: (1) In your 1977 piece about Altamont, which took place the same week as Let It Bleed’s release, you wrote that, for the following year, you “stopped listening to rock and roll.” Did that include Let It Bleed? If so, when did you finally get into the album, and did you feel you missed being part of its musical and cultural pop moment? (2) In Mystery Train you wrote that you preferred the Stones’ live 1969 versions of “Love In Vain” and “Midnight Rambler” to the studio Let It Bleed versions, which you called “stiff” and “weak.” Did you still feel that way when you made the 1978 list? Is it still true, or do you now feel that all of Let It Bleed holds together?
I reviewed Let It Bleed in Rolling Stone just before Altamont—a version of that piece opens my book Ranters and Crowd Pleasers aka In the Fascist Bathroom. I listened to it down to the bottom then. And yes, I feel the same about the live and studio versions of “Midnight Rambler” and “Love in Vain.” The album holds together—as well as any ever has—it’s all of a piece, and the punch line comes at the end.
I wonder if you can give me some insight into something that has mystified me for years. What is it out of all the records Neil Young has made that makes “Heart of Gold” his biggest hit? Usually even if I don’t like a record I can see what makes it a hit, but this has me baffled. It’s a dirge. “I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold” is a lame image. The line “It’s these expressions I never hear that keep me searching for a heart of gold” doesn’t appear to me to have a meaning, and I still have no idea what the expressions are. But not only was it a huge hit, but nobody seems to be surprised. I remember a folksinger named George Gerdes sang a parody about what a sellout it was (the lines “I’m from Ontario/I’ve been to Buffalo” stick in my mind), but I don’t even see what’s being sold out. Do you know?
– Robert Fiore
It’s sentimental easy listening.
Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Any comments? Rankings?
I don’t rank. I was disappointed by Ride the High Country after reading about it for years, but would like to see it again. Aside from Dylan Pat Garrett was a dud for me—except in Heaven’s Gate I think Kris Kristofferson is a dud as an actor. Alfredo Garcia is one of a kind—hypnotic, fatalistic, cruel, hard to take, impossible to forget. I’m not sure why you’re leaving out Straw Dogs, which is horribly uncompromised—the most convincing movie Dustin Hoffman ever made, and the most out of his unbearable cute zone. But I could watch The Wild Bunch anytime, anywhere. The last time I saw it was at a revival at the Castro in San Francisco, which always has a raucous film lover’s crowd. The farther the movie went toward the finale, the quieter the theater became. Everyone had seen it before, but memory couldn’t enclose the experience of seeing it again.
In the 1980s Ernie K-Doe had a legendary radio show on WWOZ in New Orleans, featuring R&B oldies that sounded (to this young white listener) as if they had never been heard outside the black community. One of K-Doe’s favorites was the Falcons’ “I Found A Love,” which, even against his obscure playlist, stood out to me as strange, radical, and unmatched—the rickety beat, the shimmering, distorted guitar, the dirgeful sax, and the shivering, blistering vocals of Wilson Pickett, who by the end sounds like he’s singing headlong into a violent storm that finally swallows the performance. I know the song made your “Treasure Island” by way of the 1967 LP The Best of Wilson Pickett, but do you have any thoughts to express about this particular record?
It’s completely unique. I’ve always loved doo-wop, but this both takes the form to a limit and breaks the rules. The vocal gets deeper with each stanza, the bassman doesn’t seem to notice—but where did that high, Leslie-toned blues guitar come from, going its own way all the way through, as if it walked in from another side and said, I can do something here… Plus Wilson Pickett pauses to talk about the Midnight Hour.
Do you think that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone?
RE: “City Recommends: That you check out page 31 of the May issue of Creem magazine for a picture of Olivia Newton-John that will knock your eyes out and possibly even make you change your mind about her music.”
Just curious. Did it change your mind about her music? If so, I’d love to hear more.
– John R.
The picture of her pop-eyes put her on top of my Good People chart and I started paying more attention. When “You’re the One That I Want” came out pic and song were the one that I want wanted.
Speaking of the Robert Draper book [below], was that an accurate portrayal of working at Rolling Stone?
– Scott Woods
Yes, and far better than Robert Sam Anson’s Gone Crazy and Back Again, or for that matter Jim DeRogatis’s insanely bigoted and resentful Lester Bangs book. But the truest account of Rolling Stone, what it felt like, what it was about, is in a forgotten (if ever known) novel by one Robert Stuart Nathan, published in 1981, called Rising Higher. Michael Lydon seems to have been his main source, but that doesn’t explain how Nathan got the essentials so right.
Is there any musical act you’d characterize as shtick that you enjoy?
– Robert Fiore
In Robert Draper’s Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History, you are quoted as saying, “There’s no question that Rolling Stone didn’t have a clue about disco. It was just something everybody hoped would go away.” Care to elaborate? What was it about disco that confused or offended critics at Rolling Stone? What were your own personal feelings at the time about the music and the culture? (I’m aware that you included a few disco songs in your Stranded discography, though it’s not a genre you have written about or even mentioned very often.) Did you ever care for any records by Chic?
Disco seemed mechanical, soulless, all production, assembly-line, anonymous—the usual objections. Nobody wanted to write about it. That’s to say writers and editors were too white and too straight, like me. My all-time disco favorite, assuming Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” doesn’t really count, or for that matter George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby,” is Vicki Sue Robinson’s “Turn the Beat Around.”
I never did care about Chic.
Also on the Tom Waits subject, do you find the Captain Beefheart shtick any more agreeable than the beatnik schtick?
– Robert Fiore
I don’t think Captain Beefheart was shtick.
What is your opinion of the Rhino doo wop box sets (released 1993, 1996 & 2000)? If you decided to update your “Treasure Island” discography to include CD-era reissues and collections (but still stopping the music at 1979), would you be tempted to include them, especially the first two?
The discography doesn’t work if collections are included.
re Van Morrison, 8/1/16
You wrote of [A Night In San Francisco] being a “transcendently raceless” Minstrel Show, of it being a culmination of a mediocre period, when he became a “seeker” and would not refuse an audience that insisted on understanding everything.
Speaking of Van: he sung about Tennessee Williams—are there any playwrights that have interested you as much as, say, Twain has? To me, Eugene O’Neill and Williams have the cathartic fearlessness of great rock’n’roll. But rock catharsis tends to be in escaping that room (“say goodbye wonder why for Madame George”) that playwrights like Williams and O’Neill come back to and stay in and confront until the bitter end. I guess John Lennon relived trauma, and Bruce Springsteen and Van have sung about their fathers. It’s hard to imagine most rockers singing about their parents, though, or even imaginatively creating characters and basing songs on their parents. It’s the road instead of the room that is the landscape.
I really haven’t seen enough theater, classic or otherwise, to say, but David Mamet reminds me of Bob Dylan and Randy Newman.
re Tom Waits, 8/1/16
I think G.M. is missing a crucial distinction between the songs T. Waits writes and the way he sings them. Melodies like “Blind Love,” “Time,” and “Downtown Train” just to name a few have shown themselves to be attractive enough for several singers from outside rock to cover. And several other songs don’t rely on the shtick, like “The Heart of Saturday Night” and “The Long Way Home.” And Wait’s shtick, unlike Bukowski’s, pays respectful homage to gruff-voiced others whose place in the American Jazz & Pop pantheon is very solid, to say the least, like Louis Armstrong & Howlin Wolf. Waits’ shtick may destroy the possibility of G.M.. appreciating the songs—but that doesn’t destroy the songs themselves—as opposed to Waits’ performance of them—or the incontestable fact that Waits has created a fairly large body of work that has influenced many musicians. Waits’ orchestrations—the instrumentation on many, if not most of his songs, stands in stark and intelligent opposition to much of the guitar-based tediousness of much post ’50s rock—and restores the missing roll that is too often ignored.
– Dave Rubin
[Not responded to]
1. What is your current favourite TV show?
2. To your knowledge, has Bill Clinton ever read or responded to Double Trouble? Do you know if it’s in the Clinton library?
3. Can you name a highlight and a low-light of the 2016 Republican and Democratic conventions?
1. I’m most engrossed by Ray Donovan and The Night Of. But the best show on TV, the one that makes me laugh out loud and shake my head in disbelief, that is quick on the eye and the ear, that like a piece of music so great you can’t imagine how it was made, is Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
2. I’ve had a couple of letters from Bill Clinton, in response to a letter I sent him about his Oklahoma City bombing speech and to the Elvis ’68 Comeback Special DVD set with my notes I sent him, but have no idea if he saw Double Trouble—let alone the later editions with the November 2000 piece I wrote for the Guardian imagining his future under a Gore presidency and a Bush presidency. About those letters, though—the first I sent both to the White House and through a friend of his. The one to the White House elicited a form letter thanking me for my support, which was hardly the gist of what I wrote. The letter passed through the friend brought a thoughtful and direct reply. I sent the DVD through the friend too.
3. I liked Al Franken.
You’ve made several passing references over the years to Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool sessions. Have you ever written, or might you someday write, an essay focusing on what you hear in them? If not, why not?
I gave a talk on the Birth of the Cool—the sessions and the idea of cool—at the Kunsthaus in Zurich in 1997 in connection with their show of an American painting called “Birth o the Cool.” It was published in the short-lived San Francisco magazine Speak in 1999. At Berkeley I co-teach a class on 1948 and a lecture on the Birth of the Cool sessions is part of that.
What songs capture Bruce Springsteen as you understand him?
– Brad Fackler
That’s not an easy question, because along with startling emotional and narrative precision, and a gift for melody and orchestration that take what might be limited material and add almost inexplicable dimension to it, there is also guff, grandiosity, and mechanical songwriting. So I’d rather limit it to what songs capture what makes Bruce Bruce and not a version of someone else (or what songs he captures). So, one one side, “Nebraska.” On the other, “Land of Hope and Dreams.”
Can you provide context for your statement “absurd negation that wants no consequences,” as you were quoted by Ben Ratliff in the New York Times on July 8, 2016 (“Dada Was Born 100 Years Ago. So What?“)?
“The smart, discursive and yappy Zurich-Dada manifestoes were creative expressions of anger in a safe space. They implied that all manifestoes were meaningless. They suggested a mode of criticism with a built-in self-destruct button: ‘absurd negation that wants no consequences,’ as the cultural critic Greil Marcus put it.”
– Don Porter
The context (not to be unreasonable) is my book Lipstick Traces. The meaning is that dada—and dadaists, and dada art—wanted action, and didn’t care what the consequences might be.
You’ve wrote of Van Morrison’s A Night In San Francisco being like a Minstrel Show. I never understood what it was about the performances that led you to that description. When I hear or see clips or old sheet music of Minstrel Show performers, Bert Williams notwithstanding, I think of mockery and derision; I don’t hear that in that album, I hear a lot of love.
There was in truth a lot of love—and jealousy—in minstrelsy. That’s why Eric Lott called his book on minstrelsy and the American working class Love and Theft, and why Bob Dylan titled his album, which works something like a minstrel show in terms of the songs and what they cast back to, Love and Theft, implictly crediting Lott’s book. As for Van Morrison—I’m not sure where or when I wrote that—if you can remind me I can look at the context and with luck figure out what I meant. In the meantime—the huge augmented re-release of It’s Too Late To Stop Now is fabulous—especially the show at the Troubador.
You’ve written vividly about James Ensor. What other painters do you like? Any favorite museums to wander around?
As Jonathan Richman said of Van Gough, “The baddest painter since Jan Vermeer”—so Vermeer above all. You can stop in front of one painting—anything at the Frick in New York, say—and stay in that pool of light all day. But to name one—Hieronymous Bosch, Gerhard Richter—is only to exclude someone else. I love Christopher Wool’s word paintings but I like his graffiti paintings more. I could go on.
Best museums to wander around in? Maybe the Thyssen in Madrid. I’ve only been there once, but everything was a surprise.
Any plans to see Desert Trip, the October concert with Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Roger Waters, and the Who? Would you have guessed 40 years ago that such an event would be possible?
No. Yes. But what’s Roger Waters doing there?
What is your opinion of Tom Waits’s body of work? I recently heard his versions of “Shenandoah” and “Goodnight Irene” and I loved both of them.
– hugh c grissett
Those are both great, because the melodies are so rich—little melodies ride on the main melodies. They take Waits away from his vocal shtick because he respects the songs, might be intimidated by all the singers who’ve tried to ride them before, wants to see where they can take him. But I don’t find that often, most often I can’t get past the act, so I don’t have a sense of his body of work, unless in the negative, as in I’m not sure there is one. Then again, I could never get past Bukowski’s shtick either.
Never in the history of art!
One of my favorite pieces of your writing was the intro to Mystery Train describing Little Richard’s appearance on the Dick Cavett Show. The show now legally streams in its entirety.
It was a little disappointing to see that it was not exactly as you described, but I’ll say I love your memory of the show better than the reality seen here. I doubt you could’ve re-watched it again for the writing of Mystery Train—there wasn’t the kind of video access in those days—so the discrepancies are understandable, however I would be interested in your own feelings upon re-watching the episode.
Here’s the story. We were living in a house where every room was open to every other. I was trying to work on written work for my Ph.d orals and my wife and mother in law were watching Dick Cavett in another room. From a distance it was the most irritating noise imaginable. I went in to see what it was and they filled me in. I kept going in and out and they kept catching me up until finally I stood there and watched. I thought it was all horrible but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Some ex Rolling Stone people (like me) were working on a dummy issue of a new magazine called Flash and asked if I’d contribute something, so I spent the next month reconstructing the program for the page. It ran in what never actually became Flash. Later I used it as the beginning for my first piece for Creem, the very long “Rock-a-Hula Clarified.” Two years later, as my first book, Mystery Train, was coming into focus, I rewrote it for a kickoff.
I’m much too afraid to watch it right now to see what I might have gotten wrong—or worse, made up. But thanks so much for sending the link. Do you know what’s strange, more than 45 years later? All those people are still alive!*
* All but Erich Segal.
What do you think of Aimee Mann’s body of work?
– Bill Boyd
Condescending, flat, narcissistic—Why doesn’t everyone understand I’m the real Bob Dylan?
Okay, I’ll bite (and will no doubt feel stupid afterward): what is the “terrible error” you refer to (below—07/27) in the Beatles essay?
Also, not sure how to frame a question around this, but I’ve always been interested in the fact that you pulled off that essay without a single mention of “Hey Jude.” I bring this up not because I’m particularly attached to the song, but because it is always portrayed (in Beatles docs and so forth) as such a critical part of the story. It was also, according to Fred Bronson, their most successful single, #1 for 9 weeks, etc. I feel certain that no similar critical roundup today, in Rolling Stone Press or any other name publisher, would allow for such an omission. So I guess it’s some kind of critical coup. Did this ever come up with your editor? Was it a deliberate omission to take the piss?
– Scott Woods
In the first edition, I have John and Paul meeting in 1955, “before either had heard of Elvis Presley,” rather than in 1957.
I never liked “Hey Jude,” never thought it was of any consequence compared to any track on Meet the Beatles or Rubber Soul. “My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Yer Blues,” “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “God,” “I’m Looking Through You,” “Ticket to Ride”—those are the Beatles.
You’re the first person who’s ever mentioned it as something I left out. It never occurred to me to mention it.
1) Do you recall what you and your music friends thought of Satanic Majesties Request at the time? As someone who discovered the record only ten years ago (I’m 45), I think it is a great, albeit quirky, record, and have never understood why it is never mentioned in the same breath as other classic Stones records. Is it because it panders to the clichés of Sgt. Pepper (which I am much less fond of)?
2) I have read somewhere that your first published review in Rolling Stone was of Magic Bus by the Who. Did you previously have reviews published anywhere else, for instance in a high school or university paper?
3) As a contributor are you comfortable saying what is your favorite essay in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll (the volume edited by Jim Miller from 1979)?
– Paul Stewart
1) Satanic Majesties got a devastatingly harsh review in Rolling Stone by Jon Landau, at the time the most authoritative critic working—and maybe ever. He said the band had gone psychedelic without any idea of what they were doing—and why were they even bothering when their own music was so much better than anything traveling under the misbegotten name? The review was so complete Charlie Watts actually wrote a letter to the editor hoping “to do better next time.” My friends and I had great fun with the record. In my first book, Rock ‘n’ Roll Will Stand, which I edited—pieces by myself and many friends from Berkeley, published in 1969—the late Sandy Darlington, the first rock critic for the San Francisco Express-Times, the best underground newspaper there ever was, celebrated the album as “music for pirates,” especially loving the way Mick and Keith sung in their real, English accents, introducing a note of colonialism into the pirate theme (the piece was called “The Stones Under the Banyans”).
2) My Rolling Stone review of The Who on Tour in 1968 was my first published piece anywhere.
3) What made the original edition of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll work was not the excellence of individual essays, fine as so many were, but its synchronicity, the way the pieces were edited to bounce off of each other, talk to each other, so that it could seem as if musicians, not critics or historians, were constructing the history that was at issue. That said, I’ll be obnoxious and pick my own Beatles entry, even despite a terrible error right at the start.
Donald Trump: white elephant or termite?
He may look like a white elephant, but he’s pure termite. In Manny Farber’s words, there is no brain, no goal beyond feeding itself (in this case the ego, not the stomach): “it feels its way through walls of particularization, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement.”
What is your overall view of Lloyd Cole’s and Matthew Sweet’s music? Could not find your reviews of their albums on the web.
I have nothing to say about either.
You were quite critical of Mad Men in your 2008 review, suggesting that “the premise isn’t sustaining.” I believe that was season 2. Did you stick with the show until the end, and how did your feelings on it evolve? (And did any of the pop music in the series matter to you?)
– Daniel B
I was wrong. I watched every episode more than once, as soon as they came out. The music—the intro songs, the credit songs—was consistently provocative, surprising, often jumping an episode away from its apparent direction. Nothing as stunning as the combination of “Every Breath You Take” by the Police and “The Peter Gunn Theme” on The Sopranos, but what is?
Matthew Weiner once told me he wanted to close one episode with Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” but changed his mind when the proprietors came back with a $500,000 fee.
1) I’ve always been curious about the fact that you originally titled your review of Nebraska in New West magazine (Nov 1982) “Born in the U.S.A.” Were you aware at the time that Springsteen had already recorded a version of a song called “Born in the U.S.A.”? Just a weird coincidence? Also wondering why you later changed it to “Badlands” when it showed up in Ranters and Crowd Pleasers?
2) I know you are the sort of critic who does not get close to a lot of musicians, but in your experience, do the musicians you have gotten friendly with tend to be fans, or at least readers, of rock criticism—your own work as well as the work of some of your peers? My sense, from a very far distance, is that people like Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Kim Gordon, et al., are, or have been, voracious readers of the rock press (Kim Gordon of course has even written about pop music).
– Daniel B
1) Magazine and newspaper writers don’t usually write their own headlines, editors and designers do. I didn’t like the original title of the piece so I changed it when I had he chance, which I did throughout Ranters and Crowd Pleasers.
2) I don’t know if the few musicians I’ve become friends with have any special interest in criticism, but they’re all thinking people, always questioning the world and themselves. I wish I was as acute as they’ve been.
Re, Elvis Costello: Good to hear there’s no bad blood there. Still, he did seem a bit miffed by the infamous “Elvis Costello Repents!” “headline,” nonetheless. Granted, the onus for that particular “insult” was purely on RS‘s editors’ shoulders. So, do I have a question here? I guess I just found it interesting that he would mention RS while never referring to you as anything other than “some professor.” Am I mistaken in seeing that as an insult hurled your way? I mean, we are talking about Elvis Costello here after all.
– John Sot
No. We’re friendly.
Have you ever been interested in theology? If so, were there any particular movements or theologians (or anythings) that you were drawn to?
No. History of Religious Ideas, Eliade.
Can we ever expect you to comment on the relatively recent Elvis Costello autobio? If not, why not? Not particularly looking to stir shit up here, just wondering what you made of his “Rolling Stone sent over some professor to interview me” comment(s)?
– John Sot
I read that part, haven’t read the book yet. EC says that was a joke between us, given that (a) I’m not a professor and (b) no one was “sent over” by Rolling Stone—he came to my house and we talked and played records for six hours.
Do you have any observations to make about John LeCarre’s post-Cold War novels? Have any post-Cold War spy novelists distinguished themselves, do you think?
– Robert Fiore
I loved The Night Manager—on TV. That’s certainly post-war. But I haven’t read the book. How about pre-Cold War? That’s where Eric Ambler did his work, on the eve of WWII—Mask of Dimitrios, Background to Danger, Cause for Alarm—and those are the best ever. Along with the ultimate cold war mystery, Joseph Hone’s The Sixth Directorate. You can find it if you look.
1. What record do you consider to be Scotty Moore’s greatest performance?
2. Can you share any information with us about Ed Ward’s upcoming book The History of Rock and Roll 1920-1963?
– hugh grissett sr
1. The second solo in “Hound Dog.” You hear rock & roll guitar playing invented.
2. That’s for Ed to say.
Had Melville received widespread acclaim upon the publication of The Whale; or, Moby Dick in 1851; how significantly, do you imagine it may have impacted the style and essence of his writing? Who may Melville have become?
– Nick Emmert
He probably would have had to write a sequel to Moby-Dick.
“Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” is often notoriously branded the Achilles heel of Blood on the Tracks. I’ve contemplated, if contrary to popular belief, it could be Dylan’s most personally revealing song on the album in disguise.
I’m curious to know your interpretation, is “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” the one flawed, loose end of Blood on the Tracks or rather a misunderstood masterpiece purposely designed to confound and provoke our dismissal?
– Nick Emmert
I think it’s a lot of fun. It could have been called “Tangled Up in Blue,” since it’s completely untangleable. Wendy Lesser wrote about it wonderfully in The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad.
Any thoughts on the Pet Shop Boys’ “West End Girls”? It’s one of those songs that has never left the radio (it feels like as big a hit to me in 2016 as it did in 1986), and I’ve never seen you mention it.
– Scott Woods
Funny you should ask. That’s perhaps the one Pet Shop Boys hit that never meant a thing to me. I was slayed, seduced, swept away by “Rent,” and after that you couldn’t tear me away from their records. But “West End Girls” has never sounded like anything at all to me.
Are you still a fan of Absolutely Free by the Mothers of Invention (which is in your Stranded discography)? Or for that matter, anything by Zappa/Mothers? Zappa’s name shows up in your writing not very frequently, but you’ve generally cited him in a favourable light when he has. Any thoughts on the man, or his work?
– Scott Woods
I still love that album—the cheap conceit, the complete realization, especially in the apotheosis of “American Drinks and Goes Home.” It’s a joke, and a great one—like the Ruben and the Jets album—not, you know, Trout Mask Replica, but it doesn’t have to be. Captain Beefheart was one of Zappa’s collection of freaks, like the GTOs and Larry Fischer, and I think Zappa always resented the critical attention Beefheart had from the first, and that he, Zappa, only received when he began to cultivate his own cult. So I’ve never been a follower, a devotee, just a small fan from afar.
I noticed that you use the phrase “dead language” sometimes in your texts. Metaphorically of course. However, sometimes I am not sure what you mean. Example from When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listen to Van Morrison”
“But with Dylan’s band locked into a hand-clapping beat, a wail that lifted “crying” out of “Crying like an orphan in the sun” only gave the word an instant’s flight. Even against Chrissie Hynde’s high, keening shouts on the title of the phrase at the end of every verse the singalong crowd’s insistence that the song not only couldn’t but shouldn’t speak anything other than a dead language ruled.”
Does “dead language” mean that the crowd forced the band to play Them’s version so that it could not be sung in another way? Or what do you mean when you the “dead language” metaphorically?
Yes. I’m trying to say that the demand is that someone speak exactly as he or she did before, and mean exactly the same thing.
Were you surprised at the pop success of the Rolling Stones in the mid-sixties? Given the subject matter—and, of course, the way it is carried by Jagger’s singing and the band’s music—is it hard to believe that “Satisfaction” and “Paint It, Black” hit Number One and that “Mother’s Little Helper” and, especially, “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?” made the Top Ten in 1965-1966? Could the Stones get away with things no other band could?
This is a really interesting question. As you’re suggesting, the Rolling Stones—and Andrew Loog Oldham, who as their manager was a brilliant publicist—set up a context, their own pop world, where breaking rules and hiding forbidden messages in plain sight were the currency. But what that really did, I think, was create a situation in which it was less the Rolling Stones against the limits that the world at large meant to put on their music (or anything else) than a matter of the band against its own limits, in terms of how it could sound, what it could say, how, finally, the sound could say everything. And that’s what they found with “Gimmie Shelter,” the way it sets itself up for an explosion the Rolling Stones themselves could never quite set off—which is why they brought in Merry Clayton, who grasped what the song needed, and found it: “I’m going to blow them out of the room”—and with the expanding, never-ending final choruses of the London Bach Choir in “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
What do you think of Robert Christgau’s favorite band Wussy?
Not sure what the claim is or what it means—favorite band now? Ever? The Ass Ponys broke my heart over and over, with “Follow You Down” and “Kung Fu Incident” (I never even watched it, think David Carradine is a born joke). Wussy is a good band, but for me they’ve never gotten their feet off the ground.
Have you read Ben Ratliff’s book, Every Song Ever? He expresses some interesting ideas across a wide spectrum of music.
– hugh grissett sr
1) Is it important for you to work at something in order to reap full enjoyment of it? Meaning, if you listen to an album you’ve never heard before but aren’t immediately compelled by what you hear, will you continue listening to it?
2) Can you give an example of an artist, in any field (music, literature, etc.) whose work you love but who you’ve never been able to write about in a way that is satisfying to you? (Or maybe you haven’t even tried because the prospect was so daunting?)
1) No. Often I hear something once, or half of something, in a store, on the radio, in a movie, and the end of a TV show, a track on an album, and it locks in—I know it as if I’ve been listening to it for years, and I might spend hours or days or longer trying to find out what it is. I might write about it ten years later, or never.
2) I know I’m never going to get at what makes Bob Dylan’s “Ain’t Talkin'” so rich. I’ve tried, I’ll keep trying, but I’ll never get there.
I was listening to a Fairport Convention record, and taking notice of Richard Thompson, and I wondered, who do you think was the best instrumentalist in a folk rock band?
– Robert Fiore
I really can’t think in terms of “best,” which the more narrowly the line is drawn seems utterly pointless. Let’s say it was Richard Thompson. Would that tell us anything about how Fairport Convention, the group, created music whose parts you could never separate?
It’s gratifying to see how many people have found great interest in your Stranded survey, a truly virtuosic performance, worthy of the years and works and places it celebrated. I can’t believe it only took a couple of weeks to compose. Also gratifying was to see that you would add certain Lou Reed works to an updated list. I suspect the Reed achievement has a future. Which records beyond Ecstasy would you include?
– Billy Hawkins
Nothing after Ecstasy. “Like a Possum” is probably my favorite, just like “Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze” is sometimes my favorite Neil Young.
Are you much interested in Andy Warhol, his art or his ideas about art, culture, etc? Have your ideas about Warhol evolved much since he first became a public figure of note in the sixties?
No. And no.
In your 1986 interview with Phil Dellio, you indicated that the “state of radio” was dull in the late 1960s (among other periods), even though many artists you love were making great hits: Rolling Stones, CCR, Sly & the Family Stone, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, post-comeback Elvis, and an evolving Motown. I assume you could also hear the Band, Neil Young, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, Fairport Convention, Traffic, Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, The White Album, Electric Ladyland, “Loan Me A Dime,” etc., on FM stations (although I wasn’t alive to know). Can you elaborate to help us understand what you meant and what it was like?
No, I can’t. As you say, there was great stuff everywhere. I must have meant the early sixties, when Top 40 got so grey, so beige, as one DJ put it one night, that I switched to a Sinatra station—at least the DJs were alive. That lasted about a year, and then Motown really began to make itself felt.
Are there any comics or graphic novels that have meant much to you?
Uncle Scrooge. Forever. Barnaby. At times. Uncle Sam. Whenever I think of it. And The Silver Surfer.
Are you a fan of Jim Reeves’s music? I love “He’ll Have to Go,” “4 walls,” and several others.
– hugh grissett sr.
A blank spot for me.
I clearly overstate my case in the following in which I respond to the seemingly ironic injustice of honoring of the Diamonds’ version of “Little Darlin’” and not the version by the Gladiolas. Am interested in your reaction.
Sorry. I’m pissed off again. This has got to stop or else I’ll only have time for angry rants. I just sat down to do some Italian to be greeted by JVC’s e-mail regarding Tom Hanks’ father, the Diamonds and the song, “Little Darlin’.” It immediately brought to mind something I had just read in Greil Marcus’s The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs. I feel I must channel our old departed classmate Paul Clisura, who introduced me to Rock n Roll—a name, by the way, that comes from a visual description of the sex act itself, the two-humped camel, rocking and a rolling. Paul, I would imagine, would not in anyway want to honor the Diamonds. Additionally, the interesting and likely little known back story of the Diamonds and “Little Darlin’” links wonderfully to what George has recently written and Marcus earlier confirmed about a song being interpreted and recognized in diverse ways over the years. As Marcus indicates below, the Diamonds were not rockers, making it even more curious that in the e-mail piece John forwarded they are now being honored as one of the Founding groups of Rock. That that honoring takes place on a program hosted my Pat Boone provides another Clisura-channeled back story below. But first, the Diamonds.
Marcus indicates that the Diamonds were in reality “a Canadian glee club combo” who generally disdained rock and considered rock performers as cretins as did Frank Sinatra at one time and probably still does, hiding that disdain in the afterlife. Anyway, the Diamonds decided to savagely MOCK rock ‘n’ roll and the largely black number of doo-wop groups in this song. That is sooooooo obvious when you see the smug looks and condescending choreography in the videos, especially the earlier one. Marcus then tells us that much to the Diamonds’ surprise, “Little Darlin” went viral before that term was even invented and they now have become rock n roll “legends.” WTF. I will try to hunt down the “Gladiolas” version of “Little Darling” to honor that version and them rather than the Diamonds in the future. I suspect—but do not know—that the Gladiolas were black. That really doesn’t matter much but if they are/were it just adds to my anger of the recognition of the Diamonds. Here’s the passage from Marcus:
“In 1957, as the Gladiolas, they [Maurice Wiliams and the Zodiacs, a South Carolina doo-wop group] recorded “Little Darlin’” (a song the Canadian glee-club combo the Diamonds, whose EPs included the likes of “Oh Wisconsin!” found so cretinous they redid it as a parody of rock ‘n’ roll, only to see it hit the charts as the real thing).” (p. 16).
Pat Boone? To some of my early friends, surely Clisura, he was not even known as just “Pat Boone” but rather as “Pat Shithead Boone.” He was this God-fearing, too clean cut white boy who made millions through Rock without ever embracing the gritty soul of Rock. He would re-record black musicians’ original versions of Rock songs, especially Little Richard’s songs, safely smooth all the authentic hard edges, purify the lyrics, and then deliver HIS songs to white America as this new and hip and cool and doggone sweet and nice and safe “rock AND roll.” “Shithead” once or more even introduced his stolen-from-Fats Domino song, “Ain’t That A Shame” on national TV with words something like, “Here’s my latest hit, moving up the charts, “Isn’t That A Shame.” As I recall, he soon only somewhat authentically switched to “ain’t “ in the song’s lyrics. Thanks, Shithead. I’ve never been able to track the following down but I hope and pray it is true. I once either heard the following at an early Rock show (The Brooklyn Paramount??) in the 1950s or, less likely, on a recording of Little Richard singing his hit, “Tutti Frutti”—still another that Saint Pat stole and purified. At that show or on that recording, Little Richard ends the song NOT with the usual, “Awop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom!” but rather, “Awop bop a loo bop, I’m not Pat Boone.” That would be justice. What the above proves, I guess, is that Rock was never really black music but, as is so typical in the USA, green music.
All this said, a confession: As a good Catholic white boy in the 50s, the purification of Rock by Boone and others made it more acceptable to guys like me. Still, I wish I had Clisura’s Rock n Roll balls to have come to it more on my own and without the purifying.
Sorry for my anger and my profanity. Now off the soapbox and back to Italian.
– John Massaro
There’s a lovely moment in American Hot Wax where a member of the street doo-wop combo hears “Little Darlin'” on the radio and says, “Stole it from the Gladiolas…”
Robert Christgau wrote, “Some people think live albums capture the essence of rock and roll; I don’t even think live shows do.” Though I would not deny the potential for greatness, even transcendence, in a concert performance, I dispute the claim that rock is essentially a “live” music, and I can’t understand the dismissive attitude that studio-made records matter less—that they are merely a sketch (or reminder) of the music rock artists make on stage. What do you think about Christgau’s point? Is there an interesting debate here? How do you constructively compare rock’s impact on stage vs. on records in your experience?
No record listening has ever matched what I’ve heard and felt at shows. Live albums are almost irrelevant (there are so many exceptions). But it’s pointless to worry about what’s essential and what’s not. There is no need for rules here.
There are increasing cries of “fascism!” regarding the possibility of a Donald Trump presidency, and I’m wondering if you think this is a useful and accurate characterization, at least based on what we are being led to believe a Trump presidency would actually look like.
I think it’s less a matter of policy—though mass deportations would require suspension or abrogation of civil liberties and the affirmation of or acquiescence to rule by decree—than the encouragement of violence by supporters against opponents that suggests an acting out of Mussolinism. On a national scale with executive resources that would be fascist. Read Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, but remember that Sanders supporters have lately tapped into the same strain and their candidate has responded with a condemnation of violence that translates as “Go for it.”
Hoping you can settle an argument. I told a friend the other day that you once wrote an essay extolling the virtues of Vanessa Williams’s “Save the Best for Last.” My friend didn’t believe it. Problem is, I can’t prove it as I see no mention of it on this site or for that matter via Google. Please tell me I didn’t dream this? Is this still a song you admire?
It was in a February issue of Interview magazine—for Valentine’s Day. I loved the record then and love it now.
I’m getting ready to re-read Mystery Train, and I have the first edition and the most recent revised version. I know the appendix is where most of the revision is, and there was something added to the Randy Newman section, but where else is there revised material?
– Robert Fiore
All through the Notes and Discographies, but especially in sections on the Band, Sly Stone, and there and in a new preface, Robert Johnson.
At what point did stereo in rock and roll become meaningful to you—as something more than an afterthought or gimmick, as something that was now essentially part of the music? Also, did you dislike the stark stereo separation of early Beatles albums (including Rubber Soul and Revolver) at the time, does it bother you now, and would you welcome a modern, naturally balanced stereo remix? Or is this a clunker of a question because mono is your default choice across the board?
When I was asked to write liner notes for the Bob Dylan Mono collection, which I assumed only covered the acoustic albums through Another Side—who needed stereo for those, who’d buy it?—I was shocked to see Highway 61 Revisited as part of the set—who’d buy a mono copy of that? (Even if, sometimes, I like the mono single of “Like a Rolling Stone” more than the album stereo.) Then I looked at my shelf—I had bought a mono copy and never replaced it. Strange.
I am not a mono fetishist, except when it comes to 50s-60s singles made for mono and distorted by stereo remixes, or even original stereo. I’d only play Phil Spector records in mono (which makes the “Back to Mono” buttons included with the one double-album Spector reissue doubly absurd, since the whole thing was in stereo)—which means the original singles. I think the first time stereo truly mattered to me was with Rubber Soul—when friends and I discovered that you could turn off the vocal track on “I’m Looking Through You” and simply revel in the interplay of the drums and acoustic guitar, just as you can do with Prince’s “When You Were Mine”—if you turn off the vocal in your head.
Whatever happened to Michael Goodwin? I’ve long admired Double Feature, the strange interview/film script you co-wrote with him, and liked his book on Coppola and his work with Les Blank. But it’s been decades since I’ve seen anything from him. Is he still writing?
– Gary Mairs
Most recent work I know of—you’ll notice he has changed his name to reflect his second marriage.
You have said in interviews that you do not like to write about yourself, that you do not think you’ve had an interesting life. But some of your most engaging, vivid, and thrilling writing describes your personal response to a piece of music in the context of your experience, whether as a critic present in a cultural moment or as a fan listening to the car radio. You seem to share this perspective with us openly and comfortably, without self-conscious reservation, and we are richer for it. These responses, these connections, as you have observed, are events equal to the art—they bring art to life. They also make a great, compelling narrative: one can hardly read your Mystery Train account of first hearing “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” without wanting a hundred more stories like it. Have you ever thought about collecting stories of your meaningful encounters with records, shaped by the arc of your life experience? Is this an autobiography—one where you are not really the subject—you might consider?
It’s situational. So often the context of listening—the when and the where—brings out aspects of a piece of music that both open it up and make me think—or rather send me off onto dust storms of metaphors that demand to be written down, somehow. Often it’s a matter of emotional or physical vulnerability. I remember one day when I had been working for hours and hours, without getting up (on what I don’t remember), and by nighttime I had to go out to get something to eat. I decided to drive five miles or so into Oakland where I knew there was a great taco truck. On the way there, far more drained than I realized, I heard a long remix of Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” on the radio, and during the course of the recording it seemed to grow stronger and stronger, to encompass all possibilities of music, speech, existence—it sounded that great. I didn’t want it to end and it kind of didn’t—it seemed to last half an hour, and finished only as I pulled up to the truck. The tacos, $1 for 2, seemed like the best food I’d ever had. I’ve never been able to hear “White Wedding” the way I heard it then, but I’m convinced that it was a special version that in fact I’ve only heard once—that everything I heard in those undefended moments was really there.
You see? These are just ordinary experiences that everyone has. That’s why I write about them, from them. They aren’t meant to say anything in particular about myself. They aren’t clues or confessionals. And I don’t want to put my own life in my writing. I find few things more irritating than writers, especially columnists, who continually reference their (always wise and wry) spouses and their (always brilliant) children and the priceless things they say, usually referring to them by their first names, as if the reader knows these people (and can be expected to care that they exist).
When asked why she didn’t write an autobiography, Pauline Kael said, “I think I have.” All her reviews together told the story of her life, she meant. I don’t think that was true, and I don’t know that if she had written a conventional autobiography, it would have enriched one’s experience reading her reviews. Yes, there are hints of deep, dramatic stories in some of her pieces—Last Tango in Paris—and moments when she rips a page out of her own life and puts the uncongealed blood on the page—Shoeshine. And those moments say more by barely saying anything.
Which artists disappointed you the most? Which pleasantly surprised you the most?
I saw Bryan Ferry last year. He really wasn’t very good. But he didn’t disappoint me. He didn’t owe me anything. He put a lot into his performance, but it simply wasn’t there that night. And that’s how I feel about it. I was appalled by Neil Young’s endorsement of Ronald Reagan, but I wasn’t disappointed. He too didn’t owe it to me to live up to whatever fantasies I might have about him. I confronted him about it the one time we talked—it was a notably cruel, callous statement. “That sounds like something I’d say,” he said. And that—what he said, the unapologetic and unaggressive way he said it—was a nice surprise.
I’ve seen the term ‘anonymous’ come up in your writing in regards to punk singers. Could you expand on what you meant by that? Are you suggesting there’s something nondescript about them? And while on the topic, does the Sleater-Kinney song “Anonymous” speak to your ideas about this in any way?
– Bill M
I mean that the voice sounds like it could be anyone’s, that there’s no narcissism, special pleading, look-at-me in it. It’s different from sounds like anybody else—faceless, colorless. To me, the Sleater-Kinney song is something else—about someone who doesn’t want to be seen, doesn’t want to be heard.
Around 1991, Robert Christgau wrote that James Brown was the greatest rocker of all-time, and in 2007 that he was “the greatest musician of the rock era.” Beyond this, Brown—despite pioneering black music for a generation and creating the rhythmic world we live in, and his 1967–1970 period (revealed later through CD collections), when he made rock music with a startling physical intensity and hardness—seems to occupy a critical blind spot. He always rates high, but few writers seem to be willing, or know how, to talk about his music, to include it fully in the conversation, to sense a depth in his work. Can this be attributed to his limited broad appeal (the historical number-one charting R&B artist, he cracked the Pop Top 5 just once), or to the fact that Brown made mostly shoddy albums in an album era? Or is it because Brown’s medium, or métier, was often pure music (“the rare artist who improves with length,” Christgau wrote) and not songs, thus making it difficult to contextualize him among other giants—not just Elvis-Beatles-Stones-Dylan but Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Sly Stone, Al Green, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, Motown, and girl groups (not to mention the Sex Pistols)? As a listener, have you grappled with James Brown’s music? Your piece about Keith Moon as a musician, an original who seized possibilities in the music that no one heard before, was so insightful; is that an approach you might take with James Brown? Speaking with the benefit of today’s perspective—especially now that CD-era collections have definitively reshaped his body of recordings—how do you fix James Brown’s place in the story of rock & roll?
I’m the wrong person to ask. I’ve never gotten inside James Brown’s music. There are people who have. RJ Smith with The One. Jonathan Lethem with his 2010 Rolling Stone piece, “Being James Brown.” There are a lot of people who are even blanker spots for me: Radiohead, Bjork, most of David Bowie (to me, “Space Oddity” defines un-soul music), countless more.
Expanding on the Metcalf article question (below), how long do you think this “Worst Generation”/Boomer baiting business is going to last?
– Robert Fiore
Until the last dog dies. Not my problem: I was born a year too soon. Not after the war, during it.
If you allowed yourself to include some great non-single album tracks from LPs that otherwise wouldn’t make your Treasure Island list, which would you choose?
I could never have made a chart at all if I’d included album tracks. I’d still be there.
I recently read Haruki Murakami’s second novel, Pinball 1973. There is a passage in the book that to me feels like pure rock n roll poetry and made me think of your great column, RLR. Here it is on page 80:
On any given day, something can come along and steal our hearts. It may be any old thing: a rosebud, a lost cap, a favorite sweater from childhood, an old Gene Pitney record. A miscellany of trivia with no home to call their own. Lingering for two or three days, that something soon disappears, returning to the darkness. There are wells, deep wells, dug in our hearts. Birds fly over them.
Any thoughts on Murakami who has referenced pop music in his novels throughout his career?
– Al Santoro
That’s great. Even better, though, if he’d said “new Gene Pitney record.”
When I was a kid in the ’70s, I learned about rock, and how to think about rock, from you, Robert Christgau, Dave Marsh, and Lester Bangs—there were other great critics of course, but you guys were the most important for me.
Today I can learn more about rock from a thousand books and a million websites, full of wonderful histories, discographies, and reviews of new releases. And I still read (and reread) the great critics of my childhood. But from whom today should I be learning more about how to think about rock?
– Henry Bemporad
Read Pitchfork Review. Read novels by Dana Spiotta and Mary Gaitskill. Read Vanessa Grigoriadis in New York magazine or Rolling Stone.
Any thoughts or recommendations regarding the Grateful Dead? I’m curious partly because of the inclusion of their then-unreleased Live at the Pyramids in the Stranded discography and the accompanying blurb (“Who knows what it’ll sound like: the concept is staggering.”); I’ve always wondered if that was meant as your way of saying that there was something about them that you thought was essential to the history of rock and roll, but it wasn’t necessarily their music.
– Phil Dyess-Nugent
I pretty much gave up on the Dead after a night at the Fillmore, where Quicksilver Messenger Service opened and closed with their version of “In the Midnight Hour,” then the Dead did their set and closed with “In the Midnight Hour,” then the Jefferson Airplane finished and closed with their version of “In the Midnight Hour,” and then all three bands took the stage together and played “In the Midnight Hour.” Well, it was really later, when they’d become something more than a cult band: a nation unto themselves. It was hard for me to relate: I grew up in Palo Alto and Menlo Park, where the Dead were from, gone to grade school with Bill Kreutzman (and high school with Bob Weir, though he was two years behind me and I didn’t know him). Jerry Garcia was my sister’s guitar teacher. I had friends who ended up as part of the same grass and LSD scene around Ken Kesey as the Dead did. My older daughter summed it all up for me when she was about 10, in 1979 or so, when, seeing the flood of Deadheads all over Berkeley for the Dead’s annual Greek Theatre shows, wondered why all the female Deadheads seemed to be carrying babies—“Is that part of the uniform?” Though I like their first album and there are live album moments here and there, it wasn’t for me. But the idea of the band at the pyramids was wonderful. Apparently the performance wasn’t, since everything else has come out, but as far as I know this hasn’t.
Raymond Chandler vs. Gene Chandler?
The boatman in Farewell, My Lovely really should have introduced himself to Philip Marlowe by saying, “Most people call me Red, my my friends call me Duke of Earl.” And Gene Chandler really should have written a song called “The Big Sleep.”
I just read this article by Steven Metcalf, and am wondering about your take on it—not so much his analysis of Donald Trump as some kind of archetypal baby boomer, but his description of “the pseudo-war at Berkeley” as a media event rooted in “campus bad faith over Vietnam.” I think I remember a 1979 book review in which you described the David Lodge novel Changing Places as containing (I’m quoting from memory, and hope I’m not too far off) the most emotionally accurate writing you’d seen about People’s Park. What writing have you seen since then about that time and place that you’d recommend, for someone who missed it?
– Phil Dyess-Nugent
The Metcalf piece is so garbled in terms of facts of what happened when, and so distorted in terms of who did what and why, that it’s hard to address. He’s right about who went into the Army and Vietnam and who didn’t. I knew people who were in Vietnam, but I didn’t know a single person who didn’t want to go and did (though some had to go to Canada, and Metcalf is typically messy on deferments—grad school, like marriage, got you out of the draft until it didn’t). But the thesis is not only wrong, it seems to me entirely made up.
People did not think or refer to what went on at Berkeley—some of it deep and novel, like the Free Speech Movement in 1964, some of it phony and meretricious, especially from 1968 on—as war, or a war, and didn’t think of themselves as soldiers or warriors. They referred to themselves as patriots. The idea that student protest was an inversion of guilt over not going to Vietnam is ludicrous—and Vietnam was not an issue people were contesting in 1964, when the Free Speech Movment took on Clark Kerr. People fought against the war because they thought it was evil, because they didn’t want to kill Vietnamese, and didn’t want other Americans to die, and didn’t want to die themselves.
The real argument here is that the New Deal spoiled America rotten and if we’d only let the Free Market rule and force people to, you know, pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, or, as Donald Trump has said even he doesn’t favor, die in the streets, we’d make America great again.
As for Changing Places, everything else I’ve read aside from Ron Loewinsohn’s Magnetic Fields, which is just barely to the point if at all, seems sentimental and self-flattering. Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue is neither but it’s really another story altogether.
Were you a fan of the original Lynyrd Skynyrd during the band’s time, or did the plane crash cause you to pay more attention to their music?
I liked their music on the radio. But Street Survivor was their one great album.
What do you think of Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There and Velvet Goldmine, two rock movies that seem to show the influence of your critical approach (and that both happened to come out during brief periods when the RLR column was between homes)?
– Phil Dyess-Nugent
There is a reference to Lipstick Traces in Velvet Goldmine—an album title. The Riddle section of I’m Not There was based partly on the last chapter of Invisible Republic (as I discovered to my shock and delight when I saw the movie) and also partly on Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip. Neither of which has anything to do with what I think of the movies. I saw Velvet Goldmine again a few weeks ago; it has real soul, especially Christian Bale. But it’s not remotely as inventive and unpredictable, while never losing sight of where it needs to go, where the film wants to go, as Safe or I’m Not There. I’m Not There is someone working with the kind of confidence and freedom most artists never even discover, let alone use. Proof: Cate Blanchett’s Dylan and David Cross’s Allen Ginsberg dancing around a statue of Jesus on the cross and shouting, “Do your early stuff!”
I’m a lifelong New Orleanian who grew up immersed in New Orleans rhythm & blues records (made between “The Fat Man” and the mid-sixties, mostly), and I can never get enough. To borrow an idea of yours, I hear a world in this sound where something new can reveal itself again and again. I’ve always appreciated your ability as a listener to capture this world—the uniqueness, the strange rhythms, the smiling insouciance, the wild hilarity (I’m thinking not only of the entries in “Treasure Island” but also your notes on The Band’s Rock of Ages)—and I wonder: what does New Orleans music mean to you; how did these records come across to you as a West Coast youth; and do you think one day you, as a listener and lover of records (and stories, and connections), might explore it further in your critical writing?
New Orleans really is a world unto itself. It has its own, self-referential history, food, folklore, religion, music, accent—sounds like Brooklyn, came from the Italians at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries? When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 my wife and I knew we had to get out of the country, if only for a week, and since we couldn’t do that, she thought of New Orleans: “As far away from the United States as you can get without actually leaving it.” We’d never been there, but she was right.
When I first heard Fats Domino and Huey “Piano” Smith and Bobby Marchan or for that matter Jimmy Clanton, I didn’t know they were from New Orleans and didn’t care. I didn’t know Little Richard made “Tutti Frutti” there. It comes down to a sense of humor, a wink. There are many people who have, can, and will tell the story, as a story, better than me, but it’s lifeblood. I love trying to trace the second-line riff: Dat dahhhh, Dat dahhh—the opening notes of Rabbit Brown’s “James Alley Blues,” Shirley and Lee’s “Let the Good Times Roll,” Allen Toussaint’s charts for the Band’s version of Chuck Willis’s “(I Don’t Want to) (Hang Up My Rock ‘n’ Roll Shoes”)—not really, but I can’t remember where the parentheses go.
I recently finished watching True Detective’s first season, and felt shocked by the nihilism exhibited by Matthew McConaughey’s character—with, of course, the revulsion towards that shown by Woody Harrelson’s character. I had not felt such overwhelming nihilism in popular culture since Slava Tsukerman’s Liquid Sky film from 1982 (assuming that counts as popular culture). These remind me that you’ve referred to Trump as riding a “current of nihilism,” and invoked nihilism going at least as far back as 1980s Republicans.
At the risk of cramming eight questions into one: Your thoughts on the TV show and the film? How does nihilism flourish in American culture, which holds out the redemption of Christianity in one hand and the escape of hedonism in the other? How does American nihilism (True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto, born and raised in southern Louisiana), differ from Eastern European nihilism (Tsukerman, from the former Soviet Union by way of Israel)? How does 1980s Republican nihilism different from contemporary Republican nihilism? Would the differing forms of nihilism recognize one another?
– Andrew Hamlin
There are two traditions here. European nihilism is a rich and paradoxical line of intellectual inquiry, taking in Nietzsche, Heidegger, existentialism, as well as the painting of Francis Bacon. It broke out in action as Nazism and the Red Army Faction. Beneath it is the sense, or suspicion, that (as explored directly in Eric Ambler‘s pre-World War II spy novels) Europe is not civilized, but savage, and that the massacre of one group of people by another is the most deeply characteristic European fact.
American nihilism is another story. It has to do with emptiness and scale. As the frontier moved west from the late 17th century on—to western Massachusetts and New York, to Ohio, to Kansas, into Georgia, Arkansas, Texas—the blankness of the country became overwhelming. As people repeatedly discovered and created America, all values were erased. If they were later revived, a cultural memory of times and places when there were no lines between good and bad and right and wrong not only persisted, it became a central national myth: part of what we mean when we use the word freedom.
Its expression is not treatises but murder. Ahab is the first complete American nihilist. In his steps are the junkies in Larry Clark’s Tulsa, Jim Jones, David Koresh, William Munny as he’s described early in Unforgiven, and Ted Cruz. They all saw, or see, themselves as heroes—the last honest man, each of them.
It always seemed to me that the significance of the ending of Huckleberry Finn was Huck and Jim, to whom life has become very real and very earnest, learning that Tom Sawyer, who they had initially assumed had a superior understanding of the world, was actually a fraud to whom life was nothing but a child’s game. One thing Huck realizes through this discovery is that Tom was never going to light out for the territories, though you can imagine him getting killed in the war on the wrong side. Am I reading something into it that’s not there?
– Robert Fiore
The epigraph to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn famously reads: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” So it could be Twain was just stuck for an ending and came up with one that came close to sabotaging everything that had come before it. But if you’re reading into the book and coming away with something that isn’t there—whatever that means, really—then you have a lot of company. As in most of the writers and critics who’ve argued about the book for well over a hundred years.
I often turn toward your work as explorations and understanding of an artist, their work, and their legacy. Will you be releasing a current statement about Prince? I think a lot of people would be interested in your thoughts.
– Marc Freeman
I’m thinking about a piece on “When You Were Mine” and the Beatles “I’m Looking Through You.” I was in Minneapolis from Thursday on and it was touching and inspiring to see the whole place acknowledging one fact.
The 1981 Real Life Rock column just posted brings up the question, what was the most mistreated opening act you’ve ever seen? Some of the people who opened for the Clash should have gotten combat pay. You mention Grandmaster Flash, I think they had Lee Dorsey on one tour, and there was a Jamaican performer whose name I’m afraid I’ve forgotten who was having such a hard time that Strummer and Jones joined him onstage to provide moral support.
– Robert Fiore
I cant recall seeing an opening act subjected to abuse. Audiences in the Bay Area tend not to exercise fascist tendencies.
With the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, it seems like every year there’s some ongoing controversy (this time around, Steve Miller’s comments and N.W.A. vs. Kiss). What is your opinion regarding this institution? What place does it hold in an official history of rock ‘n’ roll—in a narrative that’s constantly shifting?
– Borneo Jimmy
I know this: regardless of what we may think of the white boys club, its myopia, its kitschiness, or the way they are really scraping the bottom of the barrel with Cheap Trick and Deep Purple to avoid the Shangri-Las, the Adverts, X-Ray Spex, the Mekons, the Chiffons—are the Shirelles in? How could they not be?—not to mention keeping NWA out as if they had to wait politely by the door like children or dogs, being in there means everything to the performers. It makes them think they did something good with their lives, and that they won’t be forgotten. That’s a lot.
Are there any mash-ups (sometimes called bootlegs) that have caught your fancy? I’ve grown jaded about them—often nothing more than a half-clever mix of two songs with similar tempos but no context. But I had a compilation of the “best ever” mashups about 10 years ago, and the only one that continues to stick out was “A Stroke of Genie-us”—a mesh of Christina Aguilera’s vocals of “Genie in a Bottle” and The Strokes’ “Hard to Explain.” Aguilera’s song suddenly had the tension it needed all along. That’s all I got, and I’m hoping I could find more.
They’re almost always fun the first time you hear one. Often they sound revelatory, making you think you never understood the greatness or idiocy of a song before. But once you get the joke or the argument that’s it.
My favorite: on The Sopranos, Sting’s “Every Breath You Take” with the “Theme from Peter Gunn.”
Dear Greil, are you sitting on an unpublished obit for Bobby “Blue” Bland, and if not, whose do you recommend?
– Tim Riley
I’m not. I don’t know what to recommend.
At the end of Double Trouble, you speculated about what would happen to Bill Clinton after he left the White House. His reputation seemed to stay strong during the Bush years, but his legacy is complicated by doubts about some of his major accomplishments (welfare reform, the 1994 crime bill). All these years later, do you still find Clinton as intriguing as ever? Will he be remembered as a great president, or has Obama eclipsed him?
I don’t know if I think he was a great president. I think the courage and fortitude he showed in the first half of 1994 when Republicans, who had never accepted his legitimacy, tried to force him from office, are the sign of a great person.
To go into the details of good and bad would take many hundreds if not 1000s of words. I think presidents set the country’s tone. I think Clinton signaled a far more inclusive America when he took office and left behind a far more open, unsettled, accepting place when he departed.
Having seen the term “cult” (referring to artist and/or audience) show up in some of your reviews from quite a while back (Good Old Boys,”for example), I’m curious to know your current sense of the meaning or relevance of the term to criticism.
I won’t be coy: my own experience with the word “cult” is that it is used to describe artists a particular critic doesn’t like. (Much as one’s own religion is a “religion;” others belong to a “cult”.) But it seemed to matter to you, in writing about Randy Newman, an artist that you had admired. Has it, in your view, remained a meaningful critical term?
– Vic Perry
This is fraught and contradictory. A real answer would be 10,000 words and still not conclusive. I don’t always think of cult as a reference to something as negative, but it does always carry a negative connotation—when I use it, even if I don’t want to mean it that way, but in some manner do anyway. See what I mean about fraught and contradictory?
The simplest way to address this is to say that regarding a performer and his or her audience, what we’re dealing with is a combination that is entirely self-referential—the artist has built a world and fans want to live in it. That’s to say that the outside world ceases to exist—or, to the degree that the world outside the (say) Leonard Cohen cult is meaningless, except to the degree that it fails to realize the greatness and all-knowingness of the artist.
I’m not just talking about someone with a small and faithful following, but, as you imply, people who have made artists into something like gods, which gives such people access to the truth that is unavailable to the rest of us. Because we’re so dumb.
I’ve been reading The Invisible Republic, and in the chapter “Time is Longer Than Rope,” you talk about the ‘mask’ in relation to old American culture and the song “Lo and Behold.” Could you roughly explain what you mean by ‘mask’ in this context? I hate to pester, and I’ve been fascinated by the book and the Basement Tapes but I just can’t get my head around this reference.
– Freddo F
At the most basic level, it means to hide emotion, to never commit yourself by your expression, voice, words, or body language, to a situation. Especially not to show enjoyment, delight, surprise. But then it becomes a kind of visual language, where the poker face is the ultimate American face: Clint Eastwood, squinting, because the sun—the excessive brightness of life—is in his eyes. Who knows what he’s really thinking?
Give or take Kleenex/Liliput and Pussy Riot, is there any music from non-English-speaking countries that moves you? (Asking this out of curiosity and not any rock-critics-overvalue-lyrics agenda, in case that needs saying.)
I could name songs here and there. But there’s a world of music—not world music—out there I don’t know and have never gotten near. I don’t even respond to the Cajun music on The Anthology of American Folk Music. I am provincial. But I never get tired of old and new music from corners of the American south that at once seem like the most American places there are and foreign countries.
Would you name and discuss some tracks you love by rock artists whose work you otherwise hate?
There is nothing by Journey, Lucinda Williams, or Jimmy Gilmore that I’d ever want to hear again.
Are there any entries on your “Treasure Island” list that have faded for you in the years since then? Records you wouldn’t include if you were writing it today?
– Charles Bromley
No. Just so many I’d add.
In the 1995 preface to Stranded, you wrote that the editor-in-chief instructed you to “add two more Stevie Wonder records” to your “Treasure Island” discography. I love Stevie Wonder’s 1967-1977 hits, but to me even his best albums sound uneven and self-indulgent. (Innervisions reminds me of What’s Going On—despite the universal acclaim, I think the great stuff’s on the singles.) Does this align with what you meant when you added that “it still bothers” you that you gave in to the request? Can you elaborate?
I wasn’t a big Stevie Wonder fan. I didn’t want to add any more Stevie Wonder records.
[editor’s note: see post-script to 04/04/16 q. from Randy]
Which rare, bootlegged, or never-issued recordings would you pick first to see immediate official release, for any reason—to rectify poor sound quality, to have it finally reach an artist’s audience, to fill historical gaps, etc. These could be individual cuts (I imagine Van Morrison’s “Caledonia Soul Music” might rank high), studio sessions, live shows, or anything in between.
You’ve got it. “Caledonia Soul Music” would be at the top of the list. Then maybe from the Rolling Stones 1969 tour, both LIVEr Than You’ll Ever Be (Oakland) and We Never Got It On Until Detroit.
If you were to come up with a syllabus for a class on film criticism, what would be on it?
– Z Dickson
David Thomson, A.O. Scott, Pauline Kael, James Agee, Manny Farber, Robert Polito (Hollywood and God), Howard Hampton (Born in Flames), Libby Gelman-Waxner (If You Ask Me).
Who do you think was a more significant figure in his particular sphere, David Bowie or Merle Haggard?
– Robert Fiore
I can’t really see the interest in the notion of importance within a sphere, not that I know what that means. More interesting to me would be what the two thought of each other, if they did.
A sort of followup to some of the recent questions sent in about the terms “rock” and “rock ‘n’ roll.” Several years ago in your rockcritics.com exchange from 2002, you wrote: “I stopped using the term ‘rock & roll’ to apply to anything contemporary years ago, because it seemed to have been completely emptied of meaning. If anything, by 1993 or so the term seemed to refer only to a certain style of playing, i.e., rockabilly. In other words, ‘rock & roll’ had been reduced to the same level of meaning, or un-meaning, as it had long had in the UK.” (In the same answer, you note that you adapted the term “pop music,” which you also admitted was merely “functional” at best, and “aggressively meaningless.”)
It’s interesting to me, then, that you titled your 2014 book The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs; a lot of interviewers and reviewers focused on the idea of “ten songs,” i.e., “how can one possibly sum up the music in ten songs?” But I’m equally interested in how/why you landed back on “rock & roll.” Also (maybe most important of all): why “rock ‘n’ roll,” and not “rock & roll” or “rock and roll”?
– Scott Woods
A lot of reasons. I think there really is such a thing as rock ‘n’ roll, and Ice Cube defines it in an interview in the New York Times today, talking about N.W.A.’s induction into the Rock Hall (and how he looked forward to hearing what such 2016 bottom-of-the-barrel inductees Cheap Trick, Chicago, etc. had done, since he couldn’t care less—I mean, if N.W.A. is not rock ‘n’ roll, those people don’t even deserve to know how to spell it):
NYT: Gene Simmons, of Kiss, said a few years ago that rappers didn’t belong in the Hall of Fame, because they don’t play guitar or sing.
Ice Cube: I respect Gene Simmons, but I think he’s wrong on this, because rock ’n’ roll is not an instrument and it’s not singing. Rock ‘n’ roll is a spirit. N.W.A is probably more rock ‘n’ roll than a lot of the people that he thinks belong there over hip-hop. We had the same spirit as punk rock, the same as the blues.
I knew always that “Shake Some Action” would be the first song of the book, because from the first time I heard it and every time afterward I knew, this is it, this is the definition of rock ‘n’ roll, everything it ever wanted to be and sometimes is. It defines the sound, and every other element, because before rock ‘n’ roll, there was no such sound as this. Ever. And given that, I wanted to try to take the word back, for its own story.
And as far as spelling it goes, everything else is just shorthand. And the apostrophes have to be pointed in the right, which is to say the left, direction.
Speaking of 1968 or thereabouts, I recently read Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and was wondering what you thought in particular of the title essay, and of “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” as hardboiled writing. As a secondary question, one of the subplots of the “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” piece was Didion’s unsuccessful attempt to make contact with writer and underground journalist Chester Anderson (I think someone once wrote that the New Journalism was a story about not getting the story). Did you know Chester Anderson?
– Robert Fiore
Aside from Play It As It Lays, I never found Didion believable. She plays up her California roots as if they amount to a blessing from God to speak truth to the world. “I am haunted by the Donner Party.” I doubt it. I don’t know about Chester Anderson, but Didion’s “Waiting for Morrison,” which John Densmore of the Doors has said is the most accurate piece written about the band, is the epitome of the “How I Didn’t Get the Story Story.”
Which bands took the longest to really come across to you as great, and why? I recall you once mentioned the Velvet Underground. Are there others?
I didn’t get the Sex Pistols until their third single. It took “Pretty Vacant,” which Johnny Rotten hated because he thought it sounded like the Beatles, to let me hear “Anarchy in the UK” and “God Save the Queen.”
04/08/16: And it always took forever for a new Byrds album to sound like anything to me.
Do you have any recommendations for biographies of Richard Nixon?
Nixon Agonistes by Gary Wills.
Do you have an opinion on Bob Dylan’s “Red River Shore” that you would like to share with us? I loved it. I thought it was one of his best, with a great story, good vocal, and lovely musical arrangement.
What I wrote about “Red River Shore” for a review of the Tell Tale Signs bootleg series set for the Barnes and Noble Review. It’s the most haunting song there. Based on an old ballad, and so deep you can imagine the old song was waiting for this version all along.
“A performance that at first seems flat reveals layers; a singer missing the cues in his own words turns out to be after something else entirely. The music here won’t be heard the first time around.
“For just that reason, there is little point in saying that “Red River Shore,” despite the tragedy of its story, is as open as the plains, the only limit to what it can say a matter whether you can see from one end of its Kansas to the other. After a few listenings, it might seem too sweet, not the tragedy it means to be at all.”
How would you best describe the difference between “rock and roll” and “rock”? What do we mean when we purposely use one term instead of the other? It seems the consensus is rock and roll became rock when the Beatles reinvented the music and expanded it toward new forms, but is it more complex than that? Are there strictly musical factors, like the introduction of the electric bass in the sound, say? Is there a first “rock” record?
“Rock” was a locution people took up to say their music was more sophisticated and advanced than that old, crass, working class rock & roll of the ’50s and the pre-Beatles ’60s, which in this formulation were still the ’50s, never mind Motown. But if you asked the people who were playing this post-Beatles, Dylan-influenced, Warhol-blessed new art music what they were doing, they’d say, “Well, in rock & roll, the point is to…”
Rock and Roll has endured so many final nails in so many coffins, but the other day I overheard a yuppie say, “Well he’s made all of this week’s quotas but now I really need him to be Rock Star.” Was this The Moment the Music Died?
– Kevin Bicknell
No, it was when our soldiers in Iraq made “Let’s rock & roll” into a synonym for “Let’s kill people.”
Since the subject of Vinyl came up, how about the TV show? Does not seem to have cracked your top 10, though it does feature an intriguing mystery: If this character is supposed to be so tuned in to the True Spirit of Rock ‘n Roll, why is everything he does a sell out? I mean, that could be the point, but the show seems a bit too earnest and obvious for that.
– Robert Fiore
There are countless things wrong with the show. As you say, Ritchie’s constant harping on the Truth, the Real Spirit, the Authentic, is stupidly written and sounds absurdly forced, despite the fact that in terms of character development—his knowledge of and feel for country blues, the way his sense of discovery of rock & roll in the ’50s has never left him—it has grounding. Ritchie’s coke routine and James Jagger’s one expression got tiresome halfway through their first hours. The Nasty Bits sounds like the name of a punk band led by Tony Blair. That moustache one of the record men wears is the most irritating thing on earth. But there is a deep sense of the music at play all through the show. The way avatars from Howlin’ Wolf to Buddy Holly just appear, holograms somewhere between flesh and ghost. The subtleties of the background music, which are like a treasure hunt. The way two weeks ago an entire show was built, in terms of performance, soundtrack, and plot—even an argument about what pop music is and can be—around “Rave On” and “Life on Mars.”
I wouldn’t miss it.
Do you find that “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” has worn well? I’ve been stirred by the beauty of its music and the passion of Levon’s performance since the release of The Band. But as it becomes increasingly clear how many Americans continue to wish the Civil War had gone the other way, I find myself less able to celebrate work that appears to romanticize a “lost cause” that deserved to be well and truly lost. A failing of mine?
Though R. Crumb once called it “one of the most IRRITATING pop hits of all time. Words cannot do justice to how much I HATE that song”—it moves me as much, pulls me into its stories, as fully as it ever has, and the anger Levon Helm put into the song at The Last Waltz, which had never been there before, it still an echo. I think the song makes no claim at all for the “Lost Cause”—the phrase white southern historians came up with in their successful effort, at least through the 1960s, to win the war in terms of shaping the common understanding of American history. I think there is in fact a sense in both the words and the way Helm sings them on The Band that the cause was false, that the south had to lose—it’s there in “You take what you need and you leave the rest,” as opposed to “the Yankees stripped our land bare,” say. I understand what you’re saying, and a friend once told me of his experience sitting around with a bunch of southern friends singing the song as if it were a Confederate battle song, but that’s what happens when you put something out into the world: you lose control over it, and people do with it what they will. I will never forget seeing John Britton, the abortion doctor in Florida who was later shot to death, facing a line of protesters outside his clinic with a boombox playing “I Won’t Back Down,” or hearing David Duke using the same song as his theme music.
To me, X-Ray Spex’s complete April 2, 1977 set at the Roxy London and February 1978 BBC session (both released on the 2006 Castle 2-CD anthology) sound more essential than most of Germfree Adoloscents, which (although it included some early singles) was released after the band’s moment had passed. Have you heard these recordings, and what are your thoughts?
That’s the set I have—Let’s Submerge. Both the official album and the Roxy show are milestones, one of a kind explosions, moments that make their own time and place. Germfree Adolescents contains chaos—maybe more as an idea than a fact, but the possibility is there. At the Roxy it’s the whole subject. And the difference is in the saxophone players: Rudi Thompson on the album, Lora Logic on the stage.
Do you enjoy listening to big band and jazz music? If so, could you share with us a couple of your favorite songs?
Miles Davis, soundtrack to Ascenseur pout l’échafuad, soundtrack to Louis Malle’s first movie, composed while watching a rough cut of the film (1958), the two live versions of “Move” on The Complete Birth of the Cool (1948), A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1970).
1. What is your opinion on the resurgence of vinyl? Out here in the hinterlands (Texas), vinyl makes up 60% or more of the stock of independent music stores, with some stores exclusively vinyl.
2. Did you ever see Bubba Ho-Tep and, if so, what did you think of it?
– Erik Nelson
1. The warmth, the wholeness people rightly claimed for vinyl when CDs appeared no longer means anything. First, CDs now have much better-calibrated sound: no more percussion overwhelming everything else (early Rolling Stones CDs sounded like a bag of sand was dropped on the stage every time Charlie Watts hit the snare). But second—and all that matters—is that a digital recording is going to sound like a digital recording no matter if it’s pressed into an Edison cylinder. The warmth and fullness was in analog recording, and unless someone goes back to that then vinyl is just an affectation, or a good deal for people who like handling larger objects and reading liner notes without squinting. Unless we’re talking about old records—vinyl from before CDs. That’s another story.
2. I always meant to and never did. Tell me about it.
Have you considered writing a book about Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour show? I think that would be a great idea for a book, commenting and giving your opinion about the songs he played and their connections to Dylan’s own music. I think you would do a brilliant job!
I really should not write any more books about Bob Dylan. Robert Polito is working on one about Dylan’s second career—from the 1990s on—and that might be the place.
What do you think of the modern Brian Wilson stereo mixes of the Beach Boys’ mid-Sixties stuff?
Haven’t heard them, doubt I will. You can’t improve on “I Get Around” or the single mix of “Be True to Your School.”
What is your favorite electric guitar solo and why?
Duane Allman, all through Boz Scaggs’s version of “Loan Me a Dime.” You can hear his first solo as a recreation of country blues, his second as R&B, and the last as what rock ‘n’ roll always reached for and this day got it.
What do you think of Hamilton, the musical?
– Charles Bromley
Here’s what I wrote in my last Real Life Rock Top 10 column for the Barnes and Noble Review, from January:
Hamilton, book, music, and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, directed by Thomas Kail, Richard Rodgers Theatre (New York). “Go, man, go”—it’s a shout out of the hubbub, and, watching, you might find yourself experiencing a sense of double consciousness. In your first mind, the intelligence, speed, and glee of the voices, and the magnetism of the actors, especially Daveed Diggs doubling as Jefferson and Layfayette, is so complete you forget that most of the actors are black or Hispanic, that their language is hip-hop. This is how they had to talk, you can think: this is what the whole revolutionary crew should have said. And then you realize that if the same play were put on in its time, or even fifty years later—let’s say a blackface minstrel show with black actors blacking up, as African-Americans did after the Civil War—most of these people would have been slaves. So the hammer comes down. This is the absolutely marginalized fantasizing their way into the history that excluded them. And still does.
I was pretty sure it was all going to fall flat with me, but I was lifted up by the first number and never came down. I wanted to go right back in and see it again. It’s enormously complex, with most actors playing dual or multiple roles, and bringing it off: it’s not just a theatrical feat to have the same actor play Jefferson—physically, Diggs is a perfect Jefferson—and Lafayette, it’s conceptually stunning every time the switch is made. The scene where all the actors gather around Hamilton after he’s been exposed in a sex scandal crowing “Never gonna be president now! Never gonna be president now!” like some kind of Founding Fathers playground tease brings them all down to earth but also makes them irresistible—can’t we all go out for a drink after the show?
Thus far, the most popular piece on this site is your George W. Bush obituary from Nov 2004 (unless you really did manage to write it in October 2018). (Second most popular is your Rolling Stone Illustrated History essay on the Beatles.) I have no idea where readers of this piece are coming from or how they are arriving here—Google searches, I presume. In any case, I’m interested in how or why the piece came about, and did you encounter any resistance to it, either from editors or from readers? What strikes me most about this obituary is its non-hysterical (or not-satirical, is maybe what I mean to say) tone.
– Scott Woods
Not only was there no resistance from editors, it was the City Pages editor, Steve Perry, who asked me to do it. It was his idea. It was my idea to make it as sober and neutral as possible—note that it’s published in the made up “Policy Review,” not Salon or Slate or the like.
Every time there’s a major terror attack and we see the usual reaction here one of the first things in my mind is that line you quote from Norman Mailer about how the worst American promise is the promise of an unearned freedom from dread. Where exactly does that quote come from, and could you give the exact wording?
– Robert Fiore
The lines below—
From Nixon’s Maxims: Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke of the four freedoms. There is only one freedom looked for by the American voter who votes for Nixon—it is freedom from dread.
—are from Mailer’s 1972 St. George and the Godfather, but it’s not what I quoted and not where I found the lines I did quote. I’m not sure where that would be. Most likely the 1968 Miami and the Siege of Chicago, and if not there, in the 1968 Armies of the Night.
One of the shortest, punchiest entries in the anthology Real Life Rock: the Complete Top Ten Columns is about The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. This is a huge work of accessible scholarship that attempts to explain almost the entire compass of Southern life and make a case for exceptionalism. Spinning off the review that came before it, the Real Life comment was: “Speaking of imposters…” Who exactly were the imposters? The editors, their contributors, or was the approach itself not what it claimed to be?
Any chance you could elaborate?
– Chris Bourke
The editors and their doubly parochial, myopic notion of what southern culture might be and how to talk about it.
Someone puts a gun to your head (or offers you a million dollars) and says, “give me a sequel to Mystery Train with six new chapters on six different artists.” Who do you choose?
I did my best with The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs. Different format, not all American, but for a long time it’s seemed to me that the subject for biography in music is the song, not the singer.
A couple weeks ago, an essay made the rounds asking if the album review was dead because everything is easily available on-demand. In the Spotify age, do you think music criticism still has relevance? And, while I’m at it, are there any young, new rock/music writers you enjoy reading?
– M. Milner
The album review has been dead since it turned into a judgment on how a given release would affect a performer’s career. The reviews in the New York Times are often enticing and I’ve never followed up without being completely disappointed.
I am always finding writers I don’t know in The Pitchfork Review. And that was before I started writing for Pitchfork.
If you had to pick one great little known record from the 1960s,what would it be and why? I loved your ’50s choice, “Rang Tang Ding Dong” by the the Cellos, listened to it after your comment.
The Small Faces’ Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake. Not exactly obscure, as it was a big hit in the UK, but certainly seems forgotten. Why? It’s so funny.
But there are a million.
Re: I Preferred the War: Have you seen Richard Thomas play a Reagan-era FBI chieftain on The Americans?
– Kevin Bicknell
Yes. He still seems kind of depressed, as if he’s still carrying an invisible John-Boy monkey on his back—invisible, but everyone can see it.
If you had to recommend one great little known record of the 1950s, what would it be, and why?
“Rang Tang Ding Dong (I Am the Japanese Sandman)’ by the Cellos, in 1957, on Apollo. Because in its complete and gleeful absurdity it captures the urge to freedom in early rock & roll, the sense that you not only could but had to say anything. And it’s both a parody of pre-rock “Lucky Strike Hit Parade” cotton candy like “Mr. Sandman” and a study of rock & roll itself—about doo wop—with the highlight coming when the bass singer interrupts: “All you guys get to say the big things, all I get to say is—Ah he goes rang tang ding dong…”
Do you have an opinion on “Same Old Love,” Selena Gomez’s hit from last year? I find both the song and the music video remarkably clear and abstract.
Would like to hear more about clear and abstract.
What do you think about later Sonic Youth? You were very enthusiastic about their early work, but you haven’t written much pro or con since.
– Charles Bromley
They never made a bad record. Maybe Kim Gordon never went as far as “Shaking Hell,” but her sense of humor got better.
Whom do you consider as the greatest record producer of the 1950s?
There was no such title in the ’50s. It was A&R man, maybe label boss, but really what people called themselves were record men. That could mean anything: signing talent, writing or rewriting (and stealing) songs, assembling back up musicians, paying people, not paying people, running the studio, making things happen in the studio. There were so many—Leonard and Phil Chess of Chess in Chicago. Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler of Atlantic in New York (that’s them singing on the chorus of the Drifters’ “Money Honey”!). Dootsie Williams of Dootone and Art Rupe of Specialty in Los Angeles. Bobby Robinson of Fire in Harlem. But really—game over before it begins. No one came close to Sam Phillips, in Memphis, reaching back to find the modern world.
Lincoln is someone who surfaces again and again in your work, so I’m curious if you saw the 2012 Spielberg film, and (if so) what you thought about it.
The opening is bad enough to put anyone off from whatever follows: the supplicant black boys gazing up at the not-yet-Great Emancipator as if he were already a monument. Spielberg just can’t help himself when there’s the possibility of a cute little boy to shove into the plot, and adorable Tad just about dissolves the story in sugar water. But I can’t imagine anyone now or then pulling this off better than Daniel Day-Lewis—Bob Dylan once said the British were good at saying marvelous but not so hot with raunchy, but DDL can say ain’t as if it’s no surprise to him—and the scene where Sally Field’s Mary Todd is freaking out because she thinks her husband doesn’t have tickets to the theater and he says, “They’ll let us in” is perfect. As are Tommy Lee Jones and S. Epatha Merkerson.
The Stones, for me, defined ‘rock ‘n’ roll’s’ attitude and edgy, sleazy antics while managing to be incredibly popular in the 60’s and 70’s. It seems now that mainstream popular music is bereft of any gobs or sweat. Do you have to search for more ‘underground,’ independent artists and labels to find the keepers of that rock ‘n’ roll flame? (I emphasize ‘rock ‘n’ roll’)
– Fred F
The Beatles could be endlessly imitated in a fecund way: start out trying to play “Ticket to Ride” or “In My Life” and you might end up as Oasis. Bob Dylan could be imitated by half the people who picked up a guitar or a harmonica in the last nearly 60 years, but not so productively: Loudon Wainwright’s “Talking New Bob Dylan“—
Yeah, I got a deal and so did John Prine
Steve Forbert and Springsteen, all in a line
They were lookin’ for you, signin’ up others
We were new Bob Dylans, your dumb ass kid brothers
Well, we still get together every week at Bruce’s house
Why, he’s got quite a spread I tell ya, it’s a twelve step program
—says all too much. But the Rolling Stones were one of a kind. They can’t even imitate themselves. And neither can anyone else. If you want to hear where the Rolling Stones lived, listen to the end rolling-wheel guitar rave up at the end of “Around and Around.” To the grace of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” The way Mick Jagger says “You’re to blame!” as if he’s just discovered how to get out of anything at the end of “Sympathy for the Devil.”
How did you feel about being a cameo in The Corrections?
– Charles Bromley
Let’s put it this way. I did a double-take when I read it, and am glad he spelled my name right. If I’d known I was there I probably wouldn’t have been as mean as I was about Franzen’s piece on Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days in my Real Life Rock Top 10 column. Which is to say I might have been somewhat dishonest. So I’m glad I didn’t know.
Do you listen to classical music? If so, what are a few of your favorite pieces?
No. I regret it. It’s a great blind spot.
1- What do you make of the fact that Donald Trump has been closing his rallies with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”?
I heard the beginning passages from the London Bach Choir in the background as John McGraw told a mike in his face that “Next time we might have to kill him”—and it was the most nauseating moment of the campaign so far. I’m not sure why. Maybe the car crash between the beauty and the ugliness, the ugliness drowning the beauty out.2- Do you have an all-time favorite visual artist?
It could be whatever catches my eye in a given situation, but if it’s a question of making trouble to get somewhere to see something he’s done, Jan (“The baddest painter since”—Jonathan Richman) Vermeer. I can stand in that light for hours.
Who do you feel more ill will towards now, Reagan or Nixon? I’d say Reagan, but it might be because Nixon got his comeuppance.
– Robert Fiore
I was raised in a Nixon-hating California family. His Senate campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas—“The Pink Lady,” as he red-baited her—was family lore. Watergate was scary but more than anything thrilling. My friend Sean Wilentz, an historian of American democracy with as long and deep a view as anyone, once said to me, “We didn’t deserve Lincoln, and we didn’t deserve Nixon”—meaning someone that good, and someone that evil.
For all that Nixon did to traduce our democracy, though, my loathing for Reagan goes much farther. Nixon did many bad things—the Christmas bombing of Hanoi, the invasion of Cambodia, the murder of countless Vietnamese, setting the stage for the Khmer Rouge, debasing our political culture, COINTELPRO, the Hughes program, the enemies list, “If the president does it, that means it’s not illegal”—and many good things, including inviting Duke Ellington to the White House. But Reagan changed our political language and the terms of the debate. He was a smart man who knew what he wanted and how to get it. (Phil Hartman’s SNL portrayal of him as a tireless political genius behind his mask of bumbling imbecility is the best biography of him we have.) He removed many things from the public sphere and added many more. His influence—not just rote Republican worship—is greater today than it was when he was president. People cannot even think of him as he really was—in the words of the great political critic Walter Karp, a “vile tyrant”—which leads to Hillary Clinton saying, out of nowhere anyone has ever actually lived, that Reagan and Nancy Reagan started the national conversation on AIDS, which is like saying I won the Civil War.
Plus, I remember Reagan as governor of California all too well. As president, he seemed like a genial ideologue, trying to do his best. As governor he was cruel, hateful, contemptuous. See his last movie role, as a murderer and a crime boss in Don Siegel’s 1964 The Killers, for a glimpse of who he really was. Plus you get to see him shot to death by Lee Marvin.
When you and Bob Christgau disagree, does it ever get ugly? Are there topics or artists that you two have chosen not to bring up because of what will result? When I see vast gulfs in your assessments—just to pick one out of the air, John Mellencamp’s Trouble No More (you were right)—can I assume one of you talked the other into listening to it, and a snit was recorded for posterity?
Also, when you guys see Tosches or Meltzer in public, is it awkward? Do you speak? It seems you and Bob are inclined to be a bit more civil.
I’m not going to get into anything personal, though I don’t know what you’re getting at with Nick Tosches. I’ve never run across him without our having things to say to each other.
Given how portable and “on demand” music currently is I’m curious to know if you still listen to the car radio? What’s the most recent great song you heard in your car?
I still do. And it was Kim Wilde’s “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” yesterday. I always shudder over what she does to “else”—“Let me find somebody el-el-ellllllllllllllse.” That moment is rock ‘n’ roll if anything is.
One of the strangest things I ever saw was when I was looking through some old Rolling Stone magazines, and I saw a rave review of a Bread album by Lester Bangs. Unfortunately, I was looking through the magazines in preparing to throw them away, so I can’t give chapter and verse. Do you have any memory of that at all?
– Robert Fiore
Lester plainly had a thing for Bread. He reviewed their first album, Bread, for Rolling Stone (6 Sept 1969), when I was Records editor there (at that time, Lester was reviewing everything he was sent, which meant up to 20 reviews a week, only a fraction of which I could actually publish). He reviewed Manna for the 13 May 1971 issue, and The Best of Bread for the 24 May 1973 issue. I don’t have time to look them up at the moment—but I can.
Are there any other great record stores you’ve frequented over the years besides Rather Ripped? Are many or any of them still in existence?
A lot. I remember a punk store in Kansas City in 1977, and one on the rue St. Sulpice in Paris about the same time, and others the names of which I can’t remember. But my favorite place since Rather Ripped closed has been Amoeba Music in Berkeley, which since it opened 25 years ago has been a cornucopia—used, new, CDs, vinyl, great DVD section, all forms and styles. The filing is good, the people who work there, sometimes forever, know a lot and seem to love what they do. (The Amoebas in San Francisco and LA are better known and bigger—I’ve never been.) And there is Down Home Music in El Cerrito, which since it opened, at some point lost in the mists of a foggy brain—40 years ago? Longer?—has been a very dangerous place: take neophytes there and they leave deep in debt. An off shoot of Chris Strachwitz’s Arhoolie Records, it has huge sections for blues, R&B, old-time music, country, gospel, rock & roll, folk music in all forms, plus an erratic book section (they almost never carry mine, even though I know everyone there), out of print music magazines, and in the back 78s and 45s. Whenever I go in, I run into stuff I never knew existed.
Can you tell us what your next book will be about?
I have no idea.
You once described the TV movie column you did for City magazine as some of your best writing. Is any of that available online?
– Kevin Bicknell
What I meant were City magazine weekly listings of all movies on TV—in a very primitive cable period. Very short items, 90% of movies I’d never seen. The City magazine TV column I wrote before that will be coming to the site soon—and I hope the other stuff will follow.
Would you care to share any thoughts on “You’re the One That I Want” by John Travolta and Olivia Newton John? It’s my favourite one-shot from the Stranded discography—a song I heard dozens of times when it was a hit but which I didn’t take a second to actually think about until I saw you had listed it.
– Scott Woods
What can I say? It sounds as quick, unlikely, and funny as it did when it appeared. Travolta’s high voice makes it seem as if Olivia is singing all the parts, and she’s never sounded so gleeful, so released. They’re having as much fun as the Beach Boys did on “Barbara Ann.”
Given your Rolling Stone review of Springsteen’s Born To Run, why did you leave the album off your “Treasure Island” playlist a few years later?
Because while at first Darkness on the Edge of Town seemed flat, it didn’t take long for it to overshadow Born to Run, to make it feel like an exorcism of all the themes Springsteen had been pursuing the previous years and the melodrama he’d used to do it. There’s a dead-end, a regret, a facing up in “Racing in the Streets” that’s so much stronger than anything in “Jungleland”—which I love—and that tipped the balance. Plus, I think I wanted one album for Bruce at that moment, not a range of accomplishments. And if I were doing it again today, I don’t know what I’d do. A single Bruce entry: Nebraska? A single Elvis Costello entry: King of America?
The subject of spirituals came up, and the thought has occurred to me recently, do you suppose that was the first African American thing that white America fell in love with at the same time that African Americans were losing interest in it? The banjo might have come before that.
– Robert Fiore
The Fisk Jubilee Singers were the first African-American spiritual group white America—and every other kind of America—fell in love with, and that began in the early 1870s, which was certainly long before black people began losing interest—if black people really ever did. What are you thinking of?
Do you think there’s a realistic chance Donald Trump could become the next President?
Anyone nominated by either the Democratic or Republican party has a chance to win. Each candidate would start with a floor of about 40%, which is to say that within the 20% the candidates have to play with, anything can happen. Trump, like any Republican, would be helped by the voter-suppression laws in place in many swing states run by Republicans. The Democratic nominee could self-combust, be deligitimized by endless and scurrilous attacks, or even, given some unpredictable health, personal, or legal surprise, be forced to leave the race. In a presidential election, Nate Silver will prepare careful and accurate guides to what should happen, what is most likely to happen, but not what will happen: anything can happen. Add to this the disbelief on both sides that Trump could actually win, which energizes his followers and confirms his claims to outsider status, and add to that the fact that in many circles, particularly among better educated and better-off people, and particularly on the coasts, there are plenty of people who are attracted to Trump, who are secretly thrilled by the current of nihilism he is riding and the specter of destruction he embodies, but are keeping their mouths shut.
What is your opinion of the recent PBS American Masters episode, Fats Domino and the Birth of Rock and Roll? Would you share with us your opinion of Rick Colemans book about Fats Domino that the episode was based on?
I haven’t seen the film or read the book but will be looking for the first.
I recall you mentioning somewhere, around the time of Dead Elvis, that a day doesn’t pass by without you thinking about Elvis. Does Elvis still come up everyday? I mean in your life specifically, but (if you feel like taking a shot at such a big question), I’d be interested to know what you think of his whereabouts in the culture at large in 2016.
– Scott Woods
No. He seems to have disappeared.
Follow-up from GM dated 02/27:
Speaking of missing Elvis sightings, I did hear a pretty good interview with Elvis in heaven yesterday, about how great it is to have Dr. Nick up there and finally getting some Quaaludes.
What is your opinion of Larry Birnbaum’s book, Before Elvis. Thank you.
I don’t know it. Tell me more.
You’ve probably written more interestingly about female punk and post-punk bands—from Essential Logic to The Raincoats to Sleater-Kinney—than any other writer I know; would you ever consider writing an entire book about them?
I’d love to read a book about all this—by Carrie Brownstein.
I am a music teacher and have spent a significant part of my career working with inner-city and urban populations. In the last few years I’ve noticed a disconnect between many of my students (who are predominantly African American) and old spiritual as well as blues music. This became none more clear than when I did a lesson on “We Shall Overcome” at an alternative high school for at-risk inner city kids. By the end of my day (6 classes) only three students had heard the song before. I find this shocking and was curious if you had a perspective and/or thoughts on this.
– Patrick Cerria
Right now I’m co-teaching a class on the American post-war, 1946-1952, at Berkeley, to about 80 juniors and seniors. At the first class I asked the students who knew who was president during our period. About six people raised their hands. I asked who knew who Elvis Presley was. About 20 people. Since the cover of the class reader is an Eduardo Paolozzi collage with Lucille Ball at the center, I asked how many people knew who Lucille Ball was. About 40. And when we get to Catcher in the Rye in a few weeks, I can guarantee that almost everyone will have already read it. My wife attends a film history class at Cal—most of the students have never heard of Ingrid Bergman. On the other hand, in a class in criticism I taught at CUNY Graduate Center last fall, there was a reference to Greer Garson in one of the pieces we were reading, so I composed an e mail with a picture of her and a brief note on the kind of roles she was known for. But everyone in the class—ages ranging from early 20s to late 40s—already knew who she was.
Which is simply to say that you can’t and should not expect students to know anything in particular, and especially anything that is particularly important to you. Our job as teachers is to create a context in which a given song can be heard by people who may have never heard anything like it, who don’t know the song’s language, who can’t contextualize it, for whom the song does not, by itself, signify. We have to create the context, make it into a story. Sometimes what works best is to tell a story, create historical context, all the while talking about how this song (or movie, or novel, or image, or person) was both the product of history and actually changed it, made it look different than it ever would have if it had not existed, and then, when you’ve summoned up a certain sense of suspense, play the song.
You can never expect anyone to hear what you hear. Don’t be baffled. Don’t be offended. There’s a lot the students, who are, it may seem, culturally illiterate, know that we don’t, and they’re just as baffled and offended by that as we might be from where we stand.
Today (Feb. 17th), The Clash played their first show in NYC (@ The Palladium) in 1979. Were you there? Any memories?
– Dave Marin
I wasn’t there. I live in the Bay Area.
As a fellow Days Between Stations [Steve Erickson] fan, I wondered if you would plug a few other semi-recent but forgotten novels with massive mojo.
I don’t know that they’re forgotten, as they’re by well-known writers or were nominated for major awards, but they don’t seem to be part of the literary frame of reference, nobody who writes about books seems to have actually read them, and I think about them all the time. Jonathan Lethem’s You Don’t Love Me Yet, the best rock-band novel, even though in the course of the book they barely perform. Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document, about the sixties as a teenage boy’s blessing or curse decades after the fact. People swooned over Lauren Groff’s ginned-up, unbelievable-from-either-side Fates and Furies—or felt they had to, as the incandescent, uncanny Arcadia was ignored. It’s one of the great excavations of hidden American history in fictional form and a story where absolutely nothing is predictable.
Looking back on 30 years of catching the moment in Real Life Rock is there any artist or event you wish you’d paid attention to (or ignored)?
– Kevin Bicknell
Too many to mention or even think about. Rhianna and Kanye West on top.
What are your thoughts about the rise of digitized music to deliver music purchases, and now streaming music services? I’m not asking about “sound quality,” but how you think these technologies have (or haven’t) changed the relationships between artists and their audiences.
– Jeff Lyness
It makes it harder if not impossible for musicians to make a living.
Do you have plans to write a book about doo-wop?
I’d love to read a book on doo-wop by Lenny Kaye. I can’t think of anyone else who could bring the scholar’s knowledge, the fan’s passion, and the musician’s touch to the story. I’ve written about doo-wop in Lipstick Traces, The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs (on “In the Still of the Nite”), and in a long piece on Deborah Chessler and the Orioles, in my book The Dustbin of History, and I know I’ll always find my way back there.
If it’s Sky Saxon versus Question Mark in the wrestling ring, who wins? What about the Spike Drivers vs. the Swingin’ Medallions?
– Robert Hull
Sky Saxon is so much uglier than Rudy Martinez could ever be that any sensible person would bolt the ring before the bell. I remember both of them onstage, and Saxon ran around in circles with such madness it was scary to watch. Stay away.
There were at least eight Medallions and no more than five Spike Drivers. But while “Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love”) is my favorite song, it really can’t stay in the room with “Strange Mysterious Sounds” and “Often I Wonder.” There’s an inner toughness in that music that makes the guy throwing up in his front yard (I know he says he just passed out) seem lazy.
I’d be interested in your views on the U.S. election early primaries, I know you’re a long time Bill Clinton fan and am wondering how you feel about Hillary’s strident challenger Mr Sanders.
I supported Hillary over Barack in 2008. I thought she’d be a better candidate and a better president. I was obviously wrong about the former, and who knows about the latter. Given the disaster of her health plan in 1993, I don’t think she would have gone back to that well right away. She would have been different in foreign policy, though I have no idea how. She might have had a tougher Attorney General than Holder.
I support her now. It’s clear she’s a poor candidate. Far too many people don’t like her and they don’t trust her. Some of that has to do with a congenital inability to answer a question about some pseudo-scandal directly (even a supporter like me had to think, “How dumb do you think we are?” when she explained her e-mail account with the need to talk to her mother about Chelsea’s wedding and how it was a hassle to carry two Blackberrys when obviously she wouldn’t have been carrying any). But by comparison, has any major news item touting the e-mail story—and the New York Times ran daily or daily-multiple stories for weeks and goes back to it at every chance—have they or any major news organization brought up the fact that the George W. Bush administration routinely channeled White House Iraq e-mails and millions more on controversial subjects to the Republican National Committee server, so they would be protected from FOI and the courts, a violation infinitely bigger, more serious, and more corrupt than anything Hillary has been accused of? But a lot more of why people don’t trust Hillary is phony noise kicked up by the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, which existed when she named it and exists now—then it really had a source and a center, Richard Mellon Scaife, now it’s more diffused but no less real—and the New York Times, which is congenitally unable to run a single story on Hillary without a deep dig of some kind, regardless of how harmless the story is otherwise. They still refer to Whitewater, a story they invented, or were fed, as if it ever amounted to anything.
I don’t trust Sanders. I don’t mean he lies or that’s he’s a stooge. I don’t think he’s that serious about his proposals, because they aren’t serious proposals any more than Donald Trump promising to deport 11 million people and build a wall that Mexico will pay for (unless he plans to make a deal with the Zetas to pay for the wall in exchange for our looking the other way at the tunnels they’ll be digging under it) are serious proposals. I do worry that people are building a cult of personality around not Bernie Sanders but some emanation of goodness called Bernie, and that he is cooperating and, worse, loves it. He’s not challenging his audiences, he’s not educating them—he’s flattering them. If you support me, that means you’re good. That is the essence of cult politics, it’s not democracy.
Putting all that to the side, I think he would be a disastrous candidate versus any Republican. He has not yet been subjected to the contempt, slander and ridicule the GOP candidates have routinely dished out to Hillary, which has damaged her as it would anyone. Opposition research has not been dedicated to him so that anything he says can be pseudo-factually discredited, as has been done with Hillary for almost 25 years. The full-fledged and open Red baiting that will be turned on Sanders in a general election has not begun, and the complex publicizing of him as a Jew, both a whispering campaign meant to appeal to the most base anti-semitic fears, jealousies, and perversions, and a more upfront campaign, by surrogates, that he’s not an observant Jew, doesn’t believe in God, doesn’t support Israel as strongly as I—whoever I happens to be—will be ferocious. Barack’s campaign and his presidency have left the country more explicitly and unapologetically racist than it was before his election; Sanders will awake corpses we might have thought were long dead.
So I don’t think he should be the nominee, and I don’t think he will survive, as a candidate, if he is. Clinton, I hope, will get stronger as a candidate, and she’ll be a good president if she gets the chance.
How effective do you think the Four Tops “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” was as a response to “Like a Rolling Stone”? (I understand it was intended as such.)
– Matthew Elmslie
I hadn’t heard that, but it makes sense—and it was around that time that Levi Stubbs developed a notable Bob Dylan vocal tic, stretching out the vowels. Bob Dylan is saying, You’re in trouble, you need to stop and listen, but you’re on your own—Levi Stubbs says I’ll be there to catch you when you fall. Maybe. But I hear it as an expansion of the sound, a response that’s part of the conversation the song began.
Do you intend to update your Stranded music playlist to reflect music released up to 2015?
– Hugh Grissett Sr.
I’ve fantasized about it many times. Around 1985 I think I started taking notes. But I think it would be close to impossible. The music had a certain shape, even borders, in 1979. Since then both punk and hip hop have exploded that in a thousand ways.
I’ve loved your work since the first piece I can recall reading back in the seventies—the Rolling Stone review of Give ‘Em Enough Rope—and I’m always looking for critics in the arts with the same passion, authority and originality I find in your writing. Are there critics in arts writing today that you are passionate about? Are there individual critics that you read regardless of the subject, because you find what they write always interesting, or exciting or surprising?
– Patrick McAvoy
A. O. Scott for movies (or anything else) in the New York Times—he has a serious and hilarious—or seriously hilarious, but not hilariously serious—book just out, combining an old slogan for DuPont Chemical with the most pretentious subtitle in a couple of hundred years: Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. But I taught a graduate seminar on criticism last fall at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York and every week someone came up with something tougher and less predictable than I found in any media.
[Editor’s note: Greil and A.O. Scott are appearing together at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco on February 16.]
You have written (I’m tempted to say swooned) about a few Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry records over the years, and I can’t help but wonder what you thought of the first two Roxy records at the time, and do any particular songs from those first two albums move you today?
– Scott Woods
The first two Roxy Music albums didn’t mean a thing to me. I became a Roxy fan and a Ferry follower with Stranded, especially for the guitar passage in the middle of “Amazona”—an effect that can catapult you out of yourself, and so rare I can only think of two other times when it happens, in Neil Young’s “Over and Over” and the Wailers’ “Concrete Jungle”—the Island remix with Wayne Perkins, not the original Jamaican release. After that I always hear something new, or something that even makes what came before sound different. Of course I went back to the first two albums, but while I can appreciate them in a dozen ways, they still don’t move me.
It has been several years since you submitted a Pazz and Jop ballot. Do you no longer make year end lists or did you just lose interest in Pazz & Jop?
– Chuckie Levitt
I stopped with P & J when and because the Voice fired Bob Christgau.
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