I read your book Mystery Train many years ago and it has been largely responsible for me spending big chunks of my spare time over the last 25 years listening to and researching the Stagger Lee ballad and thinking/theorizing about its meaning. I’ve come to believe that a good number of African Americans may have envisioned the fight over the Stetson as symbolic of the black struggle for freedom, and I’m curious about your thoughts on this possibility. Below are some of the basics of my thinking on the subject.
The historical event which inspired the ballad—Lee “Stag” Shelton’s shooting and killing William Lyons in a St. Louis bar in 1895—took place during a time when, according to Cecil Brown’s book Stagolee Shot Billy, the Stetson was a symbol for African Americans of masculinity, power, and status. In other words, it was symbolic of manhood for African Americans, and it held that symbolism at a time when they were denied their manhood—and freedom—by white America. Since the Stetson served as a symbol of manhood, at least some African Americans and possibly many may have viewed the fight over it between Stagger Lee and Billy as representing the fight for black manhood, and, by extension, the black struggle for freedom and equality.
Shelton and Lyons were both black, so it could be asked, How could a fight between two black men come to symbolize the fight for black freedom—wouldn’t one of them have had to have been white? One possible explanation is that the symbolism may not have developed until some time after the ballad was created and the history behind it had faded away. Another possibility is that as the ballad spread to other parts of the country, the history behind it would not have been known in those other locations, thereby allowing the singers of the ballad and their audiences to imagine the racial identities of Stagger Lee and Billy as they saw fit.
Certain aspects of the ballad—for example, Stagger Lee’s reputation for being exceptionally “bad”—fit well with the idea that black people envisioned Stagger Lee as black and Billy as white. During the days of Jim Crow, the baddest thing a black man could do was challenge or fight a white man, especially a white bully or a white authority figure such as a lawman. Also, Stagger Lee’s execution by hanging may have influenced African Americans to imagine Billy as being white. Executions were not normally carried out in the Jim Crow south as punishment for homicides involving one black person killing another black person. The killer would typically have been sent to prison, not executed.
Another possibility of how a fight between two black men could have come to symbolize the fight for black freedom is that Lyons may have occupied the role of a black surrogate for the white power structure—possibly through his occupation. A St. Louis newspaper account of the murder said that he worked as a levee hand, but, considering that he came from a relatively well to do family and was the brother-in-law of Henry Bridgewater, one of the wealthiest black men in St. Louis, it seems unlikely that he would have done the dangerous and backbreaking work involved in constructing and repairing levees. He had a reputation for being a bully, so possibly he worked as an enforcer, as black “muscle” for keeping the black laborers in line and diverting their anger away from the white bosses. Lyons may have been the St. Louis equivalent to Mississippi’s brutal black “shack bullies” and hired guns which Alan Lomax wrote about in The Land Where the Blues Began.
If you’re interested in more of my thoughts on this subject, see my article titled Stagolee and John Henry: Two Black Freedom Songs? which has just recently appeared in the African American Folklorist.
– Jim Hauser
I think I know what you’re talking about and have tried to cover some of your territory in editions of Mystery Train up to this year. I’ve developed a lecture on John Henry that again touches on some of your themes—though along with Dylan’s “Blowin in the Wind” analogy Colson Whitehead’s “John Henry Days” is the deepest dive.
Once a ballad goes into the world by its very nature it becomes its own language that different people speak with different accents. There will never be any end to this.
Though I would suggest you give more weight, in direct pursuit of Stag as freedom fighter, to Cecil Brown’s research into the very clearly black Stagolee and Billy as representing warring factions among the Missouri black electorate regarding which would most help the black community.
Do you know anything about a Bob Dylan song titled “Church With No Upstairs”? The Dylan fan website “Searching for a Gem” says you’ve heard it, although I don’t know where they got that info from.
This song is a bit of a mystery. It was copyrighted as part of the Dwarf Music catalog in 1988 which would mean it’s from the years 1965-67, although no recording under this title has ever surfaced. It could just be an alternate title for another song.
I heard about it around the time the Basement Tapes surfaced, maybe before, but as far as I know there is no such song.
Been swimming with Under the Red White and Blue, awestruck, since June. The 4th chapter “Reading the Book” for me is like Arthur Green’s translations of Nachman of Bratzlav’s stories, with stories, within stories. Wheels in wheels. There are passages that I mean to underline, and when I look back for them, they seem to have dissolved. It’s me, not the book, but this chapter swirls.
I love pages 74 and 75 fixing the 1919 series, World War I yet unnamed.
For one thing, this chapter especially has led to my reading Gatsby to have been so effected as to feel much much different, vivid. Another thought as this page seems to read: if the book is anchored to the community memory of the fixing of the World Series, my friend, who reads you, a professor of English, challenges Gatsby altogether. Because of among other dimensions, the Jewish person who did the fix. I wonder about that.
Above all thank you. Also for Phil Spector’s Christmas Album. No less than Fitzgerald, a treasure.
– Alan Berg
You may be the only person who read that chapter as I hoped it would be read.
Thank you for putting it into such good words.
Myself, I’d rather imagine the moral revisionist version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” than listen to it:
Well he’s bad bad Virgil Caine
Baddest man on the Danville train!
He knows exactly what he’s doin’
He’s meaner than John Calhoun!
There was a version of this with a closer rhyme for “Calhoun” but (a) I want to respect the boundaries of Ask Greil, (b) the imaginary Wokist singing the song would not use the word, (C) it required moving the “meaner” line to the three spot, which is cheating, and (d) the dirty version actually didn’t land that well musically. Of course, rhyming “doin'” with “Calhoun” is also cheating, but not cheating as badly as rhyming “Kong” and “dog” (Well he’s bad bad Jim Croce/Bad as any songwriter could be/He don’t care ’bout no songwriting rules/He could not have written “Don’t Be Cruel”!).
I seem to have gotten off the subject.
Consider who Virgil Caine is. He works on the railroad, which means that, if Buster Keaton does mislead us in The General, he would have been discouraged from joining the forces. He may be collecting the psychological wage, but the only thing he’s got out of the war personally is a glimpse of Robert E. Lee. Then he suddenly finds himself the subject of a war waged against a civilian population, which may impair his objectivity. Now there is an actual song of the Civil War era that is all a Wokist could desire. It’s said to have been a favorite of the Galvanized Yankees, the Confederate veterans who were recruited to fight the Indian Wars:
Oh, I’m a good old Rebel, and that’s what I am
And for this Land of Freedom I do not give a damn
I’m glad we fought against it, I only wisht we’d won
And I don’t want a pardon for anything I’ve done
And so on in that vein. John Hiatt once tried to repurpose it as an anti-Reagan song, which I found ill-advised.
The thing you have to remember about these rituals where the artist is brought up before the Regiment to have his insignia torn off, his sword broken and be consigned to the wilderness to abide in his disgrace like Chuck Connors in Branded is that they are not going to be looked back at on a case-by-case basis but in their entirety. It won’t be Robbie Robertson, it will be Robbie Robertson and William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and John Muir and Robert Crumb and the Rolling Stones and Lenny Bruce and essentially a Hall of Fame, and will be judged accordingly.
Now, Uncle Dave Macon, the redneck Fats Waller. I should be a bit less miffed about his snubbing on the Harry Smith B-Sides considering I have “I’m the Child to Fight” on two other CDs. It’s obvious that the decision to bowdlerize was made after the packaging had been printed, so it was not the original intent. Where the Harry Smith anthology was carefully selected the selection of the B-Sides is entirely arbitrary. As released it asks the interesting question “What was on the other side of those records?” and then loses its nerve when the answer is “derogatory racial humor.” Though it’s ripe as a brown banana, Bill and Belle Reed’s “You Shall be Free” is a bit of a loss in that (1) you don’t get to hear Belle Reed sing, and (2) it is the larval version of “Oh, Monah”, which became a pop song. (The liner notes make the case that it was won over to the cause of social justice by Woody Guthrie, to which you want to reply, “Nice try.”) “You Shall Be Free” illustrates that whenever you hear racially off-color song, you can be sure that it has a far worse version in its ancestry. While it contains no racist language unless you include English, “Oh, Monah” does manage to imply that even the most respectable member of the Black community will steal livestock. I’m just now realizing that “I thought I heard a chicken sneeze” isn’t nonsense verse. This version will only offend those who understand Polish.
Which brings us back to Uncle Dave. Having not begun his musical career until he was in his fifties, Uncle Dave was in a sense his own ancestor. Fifteen years back you could have the complete Uncle Dave in the deluxe Bear Family version or the popular priced JSP, and what you learn is that considerable part of his repertoire consisted of the unadulterated rhymes-with-Calhoun song. He must have used the Famous Prince of Racial Epithets more frequently and fluently than anyone in popular music before the advent of hiphop, to the point where he actually pauses at the beginning of one record to apologize for it. The Bear Family version can be had for face but only directly from the label, and the remaining copies of the JSP are in the hands of the gougers, possibly for that reason.
– Robert Fiore
I sort of feel about Dave Macon as I do about Phil Spector.
As for Woody Guthrie cleansing the “Free” song, let’s not forget the unspeakable lynching in his hometown, about which he did not sing. Family ties. And I could be wrong, but I thought Virgil Cane worked on the Danville Train AS a Confederate soldier.
GM 12/30 addition
I always thought of it as Virgin Cane. And that “I worked on the Danville train” meant as a soldier, not a workman. You’re probably right. But “I only wish we’d won” is absolutely not in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” I don’t see the war as a war on the civilian population. Union soldiers requisitioned provisions and took over people’s houses, but the non-fighting population was not taken out and shot, burned out of their houses or torched to death in their churches. I think you could play the Band next to Rhiannon Giddens’s “At the Purchaser’s Option” and they’d accept each other as comrades.
Dave Macon transcends.
I first saw Van Morrison at Fillmore East, many times since. He’s one of the greatest. But do you have any thoughts or opinions of the COVID flack that’s now over him regarding the shows he gave, the recent songs he’s put out, and the statements he’s made? I have trouble separating my esteem for him from the controversy that has been sparked.
– Vincent Viaggio
This is not a moral advice column. It depends on if and how the music sets up conflicts within you. My affection for Phil Spector’s records is not different than it was before he was sentenced to prison for the murder of a young woman (which I don’t think he committed—I think she shot herself, maybe at his casual, sadistic urging). I can listen to Eric Clapton records I love without necessarily thinking about his celebration of Enoch Powell. The world of art is filled with racists, anti-semites, misogynists, pedophiles, and anything else you might name. If Van Morrison came out as a holocaust denier I do think all of the songs and performances I so love by him would sound different, and I might never listen to him again: not because, as a moral matter, I wouldn’t, but because, as a matter of response, I couldn’t.
Put on some Van Morrison. Something long. Just let it play. See if it’s still part of you, or if you have to turn it off.
A very last-minute request: Greil Marcus’s Top 10 Rock ‘n’ Roll era Christmas Songs.
Thanks and Happy Holidaze.
– Joe O.
You send me one.
Too late, but here ya go:
“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” Darlene Love – Love’s greatest moment, and one of Spector’s.
“Merry Christmas Baby” Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers – Honorable mention to Otis Redding and Bruce’s versions.
“White Christmas” The Drifters – My wife still gets mad when I play this.
“Please Come Home for Christmas” Dion – For some reason Don Henley thought he could cover this.
“Santa Claus is Back in Town” Elvis Presley – Santa in a big black Cadillac…what could be more Elvis that that?
“This Christmas” – Donny Hathaway. Always loved the opening horns.
“Little St. Nick” – Santa trades in his Cadillac for the Little Deuce Coupe.
“Nothing but a Child” Steve Earle – lovely harmony with Maria McKee.
“The Bells of St. Mary” Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans – Hal Blaine!
“Santa Got Run Over by My Chevy” Manic Hispanics – Hopefully Elmo and Patsy were collateral damage.
We’d overlap all over the place—“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is so world-changing it even sounded perfect every year on Letterman. The Drifters’ “White Christmas” can come off like the most absolute black attack on white culture, but Irving Berlin loved it. I didn’t know the Manic Hispanics. One of many I’d add: the Sonics’ “Don’t Believe in Christmas” because Santa didn’t bring nothing, nothing, nothing!
I’ve been listening to the Elvis 4-CD-box set From Elvis in Nashville for a few days now. There are only a few things I do really like here (“I really don’t want to know” for example). For me it is still a big mystery what happened after the great Elvis year 1969. Is there a turning point? Were the second Las Vegas shows already one too many? Was the return to Nashville a surrender? Is it simply the difference between the sixties and the seventies? Or should we not even look at it all from the retrospective?
All the best for 2021. Best regards from Nuremberg, Germany.
– Mario Alexander Weber
I listened to it, only once, which was all I could manage. It was only because I’d requested it that I kept going after the second disc. The songs seem flabby. The singing is florid when it isn’t simply generating its own cliches. The backing band is supposedly playing something called “country soul”—country soul or soul country was Ray Charles, Joe Tex, Charlie Rich, not this slack beat mush with lots of dobros. Maybe it was the Nashville atmosphere. But Elvis made powerful, funny, unique, deep soul records after this—if not whole albums, let alone whole sessions, then moments here and there when it all fit as it wouldn’t have for anyone else. This somehow reminds me of an old full page ad in Rolling Stone showing bunch of guys in some kind of high-walled wooden tub, sloshing around, kind of overweight and dopey looking, and what they’re selling: “I like to kick back with Cuervo and grapefruit.”
Do you agree that the Rolling Stones’s “Angie” expresses genuine emotion—not necessarily about ending a relationship, but about growing up and leaving childhood behind—and is not merely sentimental?
But, Mick Jagger’s actual whispering (about whispering) is self-indulgent and one of the worst production decisions in the history of rock music?
– Howard Schwartz
What happens in the second question is of a piece with the first: no, I don’t agree. Or I don’t hear it. I’m glad you do.
I want to ask about your friend Paul Nelson. I take it he was a kind of taste-leader among the rock writers, an early adapter of Dylan’s electric revanche (he’d known Dylan since Minneapolis days), and an important editor, at RS, until the early eighties. Do you ever return to the bands/acts he championed, whether it be Koerner, Glover & Ray, whom he produced, or the ones he scouted for Mercury, the Dolls, or Blue Ash, or Ian Matthews? There was something very fine in Nelson’s attention to music I’m forever trying to make sense of, so I’m curious whether, like me, you hear certain sounds through him, or if—like many, after all—you make of his tastes that he was something of a mandarin. I’m fascinated by his sympathy for music made from the middle of the country, though once Springsteen hit big questions of the Great American band seemed to have gotten settled.
I’m not sure what you’re asking. I could go on about my time with Paul, what a singular person he was, how he was—and I was no intimate friend, though we trusted each other—the loneliest person I ever knew. He loved Warren Zevon, Jackson Browne, Philip Marlowe, Ross Macdonald, Rod Stewart—the Rod Stewart of “Gasoline Alley,” of “Country Comfort,” which though it did me in too what I played over and over was “Cut Across Shorty.” The Rod Stewart of “Mandolin Wind.” He was, or maybe imagined himself to be, a hard-boiled sentimentalist. He didn’t always trust himself as a writer—I had to turn down a piece once because all he did was quote lyrics, he wasn’t up to putting what he felt into his own words.
What’s the middle of the country? Warren Zevon grew up in the San Joaquin Valley in California—believe me, that’s as middle of the country as anything in Kansas. Or Hibbing. Or Warren.
Have you heard Elvis Costello’s new album, Hey Clockface? Though it’s gotten quite a bit of press coverage (mostly interviews), there have been substantially fewer published reviews compared to Look Now, not to mention his prior albums. A shame because except for a couple of experiments that don’t seem to work to me, the rest of it feels like his best album in quite a while, probably since The Delivery Man. That may not be a popular opinion and maybe I’ll be alone in believing that, but I hope more listeners can enjoy it as I have.
– Jacob R
I’ve just started to listen. It’s insinuating, and opening up like a Byrds album—where with each new one I’d be disappointed and keep playing and in a week or two I’d have fallen in love with the songs. Here with every next track I’m aware of how much is there that I’m not hearing and hoping I’ll hear it the next time.
I enjoyed your book on The Manchurian Candidate immensely. I was particularly struck by the passages involving seeing the film in re-release at the Castro. It is my favorite film and had a profound impact on me personally from the time I first saw it in a Film appreciation class at College of Marin in 1979
I experienced (from the audience at the Castro) what you described in the scene in which Raymond kills his father in-law and wife. At this point, I think the audience have begun to root for Raymond. With Josie he has shown a side of himself that is “loveable” and their love for each other is palpable. She was his salvation and for a brief time the arc of the film fades and we perhaps see a happy ending for Josie and Raymond.
The scene in the Jordan house brings that all crashing down. A few in the audience tittered a bit when Senator Jordan fell to the floor and the milk spilled. When we hear Josie’s voice, an ever so brief moment of dread (I think we’d forgotten Josie had gone to her father’s and what Raymond’s instructions were when seen at the scene of a crime). Then her death (gasps and “oh my Gods” from the audience) and the death of any hope for Raymond. It was not so much a reaction to the violence, but it was as if some sort of universal law had been broken, that a monumental wrong had been done. “No, that can’t have happened!” He steps over her and out into the street his face wet with tears. In the book, he gets into a car and even Chunjin pities him and knocks him out with a gun butt to bring him temporary escape.
Later, when Marco unlocks Raymond’s memory, Raymond comes to the point of remembering what he did to Josie and says, “and after that, I…” Unfathomable grief. No strength to comprehend what he had done.
Anyway, seldom do I get to share these thoughts. Thanks again for giving Manchurian a well-deserved analysis.
– David Gonzalez
It doesn’t wear out, it doesn’t fade. No matter how many times you see it, you half believe certain things will turn out differently. When they don’t, they remain unacceptable. As a tragedy it’s worse than Oedipus Rex—Oedipus didn’t kill his mother.
Please explain, though, how the people of North Korea have in any sense of the word “won” as a result of the American election.
That was an arrogant, thoughtless, shitty thing to say.
– j.h.[see below, 11/13]
I hope j.h. isn’t so arrogant, thoughtless and shitty that he/she won’t apologize for completely misreading Greil’s earlier post. j.h. apparently thought Greil meant the authoritarian nightmare that defines North Korea and not its people, even though Greil’s post took the time to differentiate the two and to clarify what was being stated.
Your essay review of Robert Johnson books in NYRB is truly excellent. The book by Johnson’s step-sister sounds well worth reading, but what would you say is the best book out there on Johnson’s life?
I could just say, read or at least keep handy Up Jumped the Devil while reading Brother Robert for soul, but any answer depends on what we mean by “Johnson’s life.” If you mean inner life, what he thought, his state of mind as he wrote or performed, his sense of life and his sense of death, how he laughed, his worst thoughts in the middle of the night, one has to go elsewhere, into imaginative writing. The first person to really try that was the late Alan Greenberg, with his 1983 published screenplay Love in Vain, the most recent edition of which has a foreword by Martin Scorsese and an introduction by the late Stanley Crouch. (Alan tried for decades to get it made—by Scorsese and any number of others, at one point with Keith Richards as producer, at another with some dubious characters from the UAE supposedly providing the money, with wild casting ideas ranging from Little Richard as Johnson and Bob Dylan as Charley Patton.) But Walter Mosley probably dived the deepest with his 1995 novel RL’s Dream, where a one-time traveling companion recalls him many decades later. I recently reread it, for the New York Review piece, and realized that while I thought it was strong before, I hadn’t realized how immediate, defining, and tortured various events in Johnson’s life Mosley invents really were. I think it’s a great book, and probably gets closer to what this person felt, what his fears were, what his ambition was, than any else. But no one, as far as I know, has ever tried to write in Johnson’s own voice, and that’s what I’d like to read. The best book on Johnson is yet to be written.
Even the suggestion of Robert Johnson reading “Cane” makes my head swirl. I’ve sometimes wondered if Dylan’s famous “ghost of electricity…” line was transmuted from Toomer’s “Her Lips are Copper Wire” as I mentioned in my notes when performing Toomer’s poem last year.
– Frank Hudson
It could be. Sometimes it seems as if he’s read everything. In one version of “Visions of Johanna,” he sings “The Ghost of electricity breathes in the bones of her face,” if that makes any difference. I wonder how the song would have traveled if he’d stayed with that.
I love your stepping-on-the-line-of-atonality orchestration and reading of “Her Lips are Copper Wire.” That’s a line Dylan could have written, or borrowed. But your version gives a true sense of the way words tumble over each other in search of the next one.
I would say that it’s no more the artist’s first duty to survive than it is anyone else’s. According to evolutionary theory the survival instinct is basic, and at least for humans outlives the childbearing imperative, at least until the very end or in extremis, when death seems either right or necessary (species instinct, to make room for others?). It’s the artist’s duty to create, or do something else and stop thinking of him or herself as an artist. That’s the artist’s instinct. Someone like Bruce Conner, or the Marquis de Sade in Phil Kaufman’s Quill—lock him up, strip him naked, take away his paper and his pens—he’ll still write even if he has to use his own shit. Blood would have been too obvious.
I am sure you’re aware that in your book, The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs, you stated that Joy Division sang “Transmission” on the Granada Reports. They performed the song “Shadowplay.”
– Richard Sellers
That’s right. I’m describing the same event in the movie Control, where the actors portraying Joy Division play “Transmission” presumably because it’s so much stronger visually and in every other way.
Workingman’s Blues (fragment) by Robert Gilbert (a member of Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Blucher’s circle in Berlin and Paris:
“Not a penny in my pocket, Just my number for the dole.
My clothes they got holes The sun peeks through.
While the other man is in his house where he is part human, part mouse,
I stand in wonder permanent with the doorknob in my hand.”
(from Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt, For Love of The World).
– Alan Berg
It’s “The doorknob in my hand” that takes it away from cliché and makes you wonder.
I have been told that you wrote a perceptive piece about Robert Fripp around the release of Exposure. Is this true?
– Lowe Sutherland
The only piece I wrote about Robert Fripp was in New West in 1979, collected in my book “Ranters & Crowd Pleasers aka In the Fascist Bathroom as “From 1979, Remove 7, Add Zero to 9, Then Wait.”
It’s a wondrous and wonderful thing that a woman of colour will be the Vice-President of the United States; and, just maybe, Joe Biden’s presidency will surpass expectations.
Please explain, though, how the people of North Korea have in any sense of the word “won” as a result of the American election. [see below, 11/13]
That was an arrogant, thoughtless, shitty thing to say.
Why thoughtless? The people of North Korea, like the people of any other country, will be better for having a serious person in the White House rather than someone who recognizes no one as human other than himself.
Here in the UK I’ve listened in the past few weeks to several reasonable sounding Republicans (Scaramucci being one example) who oppose Trump yet go on to describe themselves as being in the “Reaganite tradition of the party.” From afar I have no such benign memories of that era, have they misunderstood the old cowboy or has the party moved far further to the right in the last 40 years?
– Paul Ashbridge
Reaganite means “In the mold of the all-knowing master.” And no income taxes for the rich. And contempt for the poor. And loathing for minorities of all kinds. In that sense the party has not moved farther to the right—all of that characterized Trump’s original agenda. The difference is that in 1980 the GOP was at least nominally a democratic party—that is, not contemptuous of all fundamental norms of democratic governance. The Trump party is not even nominally democratic. Their position is that only the Republican Party is legitimate and that any other party is an existential falsehood—thus the GOP mandate to only refer to the Democratic Party as the Democrat Party, an entity that does not exist, the nomenclature meant to sever the name of the party from the value it has named itself for. The Republican party today is an organization whose purpose is to attain and maintain power by all possible means, for the purpose of destroying the legitimacy of democratic institutions and their replacement by corporate governance.
The differences between Reagan and Trump, though, are profound. Reagan was a serious person who really did want to change to world and in many ways succeeded. Trump cares about nothing but himself and his own fortune and his ability to make his way through the world in state of absolute deference. Trump knows nothing but that his instincts are always right. Reagan was much closer to the Reagan portrayed by Phil Hartman in the 1986 Saturday Night Live skit “Mastermind.”
A little about election night 2016 and 2020. A couple of nights before the Election Day 2016 I stopped by a Halal delicatessen where I am a regular. The storekeeper at the register said, “Trump is going to win, isn’t he?” As I was still living in a Princeton Election Consortium fool’s paradise at the time I thought he was nuts, but time would show the wiser. What was really strange was how cheerful he seemed to be about it. It was on the tip of my tongue to say, “You know he hates Muslims, right?”, but I refrained. They’re Bengalis, and maybe he figured the hate was all aimed at Arabs.
Anyway, four years later, they had a Biden/Harris poster in their window, and on the night of the election itself they’d kept the place closed with boards over the windows. As it happened there was no ruckus in our neighborhood.
What I’d been doing there on the Sunday before Election Day 2016 was buying something to eat while, in a patriotic mood, I watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. On that horrible, horrible Tuesday following, I thought what a good thing it was I’d watched it then, because it was going to be a long time before I felt like seeing it again. I did not in fact watch it again until November 7, 2020. Striking the degree to which it is actually about fascism.
– Robert Fiore
Reminds me of going to a shoe repair shop run by two Mexican immigrants on Election Day 1980. They asked me who I voted for. I asked them. “We didn’t want to waste our votes,” one said. “We voted for the winner!” I’ve thought of that moment every four years since.
As the initial euphoria wears off, we’re left with the fact that the McConnell-led GOP will likely maintain its stranglehold on the Senate (although they’re too busy indulging their lord and master’s spite and venality to celebrate much); the nearly half of the electorate who voted for fascism now have one more thing to be angry about; and the other half have cast their lot with a less-than-inspiring middle-of-the-roader (or, as a headline from The Onion put it: “Jubilant Reaction To Trump Defeat Quickly Soured By News Of Biden Win”).
Trump lost, which is a very, very good thing. But did anyone actually win?
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won. If you can hold the image of a woman who is not white as the Vice-President of the United States without at least a shiver of wonder then there’ll never be a win worth recognizing. The country won: it has a chance. The world—not the collection of neo and pseudo and would be and already are a fascist leaders—in India, Brazil, Russia, Hungary, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and those lying in wait in England, France, Germany—but the people who live there—won.
The winning we’re presumably talking about seems to be confused with what unserious reporters report on in a presidential year: the horse race. You cross the finish line ahead of the other horse or horses, you win. This isn’t like that. Winning means the chance to actually run a race, on a dangerously muddy track, with people jealous you won seeding the track with land mines.
Biden proved himself. I would have thought the same a year ago. I thought he’d be out of the race before Iowa—two runs before had shown that he was an awful candidate. I bet on Amy. But Biden became a better candidate, and more importantly, communicated that he could be a real president—which, ultimately, was what made him a better candidate. Now, as he said himself when Rahm Emanuel said, “You’re the dog that caught the car”: “Ain’t it the truth.”
I was just writing something about how we need to help my state flip the Senate (which we really need to do) when it occurred to me. I’m writing about politics and it doesn’t seem hopeless. Feels like I just had cancer surgery and I wonder if it’s going to take but I get to wonder. Did you get anything similar?
– kevin bicknell
I go from moments of shocked wonder, tearing up when Kamala and Biden walked onto the stage Saturday night, to complete numbness.
How are you feeling right now about the viability of Republicans overturning election results and installing Trump for a second term? I’ve been trying to come around to thinking the absurdity of the premises and shenanigans (the latest involving the Texas Lt. Gov. offering millions in cash prizes for anyone who can turn up cases of voter fraud) will get nowhere—that there are still enough safeguards in place to ultimately ensure a transfer of power (“peaceful” transfer? not at all hopeful on that front). On the other hand, we know who we’re dealing with, and I’m concerned that many key Trump opponents are being a little blasé on the issue. Any thoughts?
– scott woods
It’s making me very uncomfortable. Trump plainly wants to use the military. He will have to illegally remove a lot of people to do that, and it might not work. But he is facing unpredictable legal and financial jeopardy if he is no longer president. He will do anything. The only question is whether enough people will follow his orders. This is not a done deal.
Speaking of The Sopranos, I have a couple of questions for you:
1. I hear a lot of people say that they think the show was better in its earlier seasons, and got weaker towards the end. I don’t remember feeling that way about it. For instance, the whole run of episodes where Tony is in a coma dreaming that he’s Kevin Finnerty, that’s as memorable and strong to me as anything else in the show, and that was season 6. What do you think?
2. Do you have an opinion about what happened in the final scene? I find the Master of Sopranos argument (https://masterofsopranos.wordpress.com/the-sopranos-definitive-explanation-of-the-end/) convincing, but my own theory is that Tony was shot in the head in that diner booth as punishment for selecting Journey on the jukebox.
I like your idea, but I think that bullet would have had David Chase’s name on it.
I have no idea how to read that last scene. As for the last episodes being not up to the first, the finale aside, for me the episode, “Live Free or Die,” Vito on the run and finding a gay utopia in New Hampshire, Little Tony and his girlfriend in the SUV with “It’s All Right Ma” on the box—was the best of all.
Hello again. Before I go any further, I want to thank you for answering some of my previous questions. I really do appreciate you taking the time to answer them. I especially loved what you said about the Mamas & The Papas and “Twelve-Thirty.”
My question to you this time around is, do you have any advice for up-and-coming poets? Especially for poets who write about rock’n’roll? I ask you this because I am a poet, and I write rock’n’roll poems. If you want to hear a representative sample of my poems, here’s one, called “The Mutant Blues.” Do you have any thoughts about what makes a poem resonate with you? Or thoughts about the relationship between rock ‘n’ roll and poetry? Are there any writers (poets or prose-writers) whose work you think I (or any other poets) should read for inspiration? (I feel I should say here that your own writing has inspired me a great deal. I first read Mystery Train when I was fifteen, and I keep coming back to it over and over again. Every time I read it, there’s a new line that jumps out at me and reverberates in my mind. Right now, it’s “When new roles break down and there is nothing with which to replace them, old roles, ghosts, come rushing in to fill up the vacuum”, from your chapter on Sly Stone and Staggerlee. That line haunts me, both because it sounds so suggestive, and because it sounds so true. I think that you write like a poet, even though you’re a prose-writer.)
I’d love to hear what you think of “The Mutant Blues.” And thanks again for running the “Ask Greil” column.
– Elizabeth Hann
The only advice I can give writers is to write. And don’t think of yourself as “wanting to be a writer” or “wanting to be a poet”—language is thought, language is action, language is reality, and what that language signifies is that one wants a certain status by attaining a certain title. It’s meaningless. Poets write poetry—they can’t help it, they can’t not. Writers write, even if they have no access to any readers—they recreate themselves as their own true audience, thrilled, bored, hooting, drawing their breath at a line.
There are a lot of people who have written great rock ‘n’ roll poems, or poems that lifted off from rock ‘n’ roll. But all of them, I think, recognize and see it as their mission to capture the way rock ‘n’ roll moves us—moves us in unexpected ways, exposes ourselves to ourselves, sometime—often, always?—far out of proportion to what seems to be at issue, to the corny melody, the pro forma lyric, the pleading-flattering singing. If you are writing poetry about or from rock ‘n’ roll you can never close yourself off from what moves you—even if you think it goes against all your, you know, values. Which is to say your own constructed sense of cool, which I don’t mean to dismiss for a minute. You must interrogate yourself. Suppose that, in a situation you could not have anticipated—on the streets on the Saturday Biden’s victory was announced—you find yourself moved to tears by people singing a song you objectively hate—“Na Na Hey Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” say—you write a poem out of that.
I think of the, for shorthand, rock ‘n’ roll poetry that has most stayed with me—Joyce Carol Oates’s “Waiting on Elvis,” Tracy K. Smith’s “Alternate Take: Levon Helm,” just about anything in David Wojahn’s collection of Elvis poems in his Mystery Train, Michael Robbins’s Alien vs. Predator. What unites them? Not the really deep piety of Wojahn, the wild free-associating hilarity of Robbins, the perfect sense of occasion in Oates, the way Smith identifies, to herself, Helm as her muse. They are all different from each other. They see and hear and value different things. “I could write about that,” one says about something one of the others wrote about, and they say, “I could never write about that,” too. What they all share is the ability to be surprised by the nature and the intensity of what hits them, and the need to try to put it into words.
What songs did you turn to, or at least think of, when the news of Biden’s win came in? On Saturday morning, when I unexpectedly saw the news when I turned to ABC to check the score of the West Virginia/Texas game, I began thinking of the Impressions’ “This Is My Country.” When I woke up Sunday morning, I had Ella Fitzgerald’s version of “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead” going through my mind. All the time, though, I heard a voice I couldn’t quite recognize, singing a song I couldn’t quite hear. The incoherence and resentment I knew, though, because they’d been assaulting me for five years. It finally came to me: Randy Newman’s “Uncle Bob’s Midnight Blues.” That’s Trump—or at least I hope it will be: alone at 3 a.m. in his Mar a Lago tower, or, better yet, in some rented place in no-extradition Morocco, the last belly dancer gone home, the blue pills useless, the booze gone, there sits Trump, singing, “Are you against me, too?” and “We love you,” with equal venom, to no one, forever.
– Bill Wolfe
“Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead” was it for me too. Just popped into my head while people on the street were singing “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.”
A second viewing of The Irishman led to thoughts that 1. “Murder Most Foul” follows a similar view of the assassination; 2. That the litany of songs in “MMF” is like the score of The Irishman—in depth, and in contexts of the roll-out, as well as the specific songs themselves; 3. that the section of The Irishman, the last third or half, that shows Hoffa’s murder, is actually a retelling of the Kennedy murder, with Sherran (DeNiro) not as Oswald, but as Ruby; 4. What was the Joey sequence doing in the movie other than to honor Bob? That points me to the possibility of a dialogue between Bob and Scorsese and Robbie. Now here’s the thing: about two hours in, Russel goes off on the phrase “it is what it is.” This film was released around the time Trump started using that phrase. Connected? Thanks, as always.
Well, really, I think Joey Gallo is there to honor The Irishman’s claim that he killed every famous assassinated person east of the Mississippi since World War II. And “It is what it is” is just another way of saying don’t blame me, that seems as if it’s been around forever even if it hasn’t.
The best thing about the movie is the only thing in it that’s underplayed: Harvey Keitel.
Thank you and Conrad for the heads up on MAD Mocks Music. Just ordered. Reminded me of the album the magazine put out, MAD “Twists” Rock ‘n’ Roll, as well as Jack E. Leonard’s Rock and Roll Music for Kids over Sixteen. And, of course, Stan Freberg’s parodies. Can you recommend any other great parody albums of rock ‘n’ roll?
Anything by Journey or Limp Bizkit. I did love Stan Freberg when I was a kid; I wonder what I’d think now. But I can still hear Tom Lehrer’s wonderfully open sardonicism just by thinking his name. That stands up. He’s 92; he just put his songs in the public domain, thus ensuring he’ll die a mensch.
I bet you’ve never been so happy to be wrong. Congratulations, from the UK, for the removing of that malignant tumor from the White House. What went so right? Was Biden just the perfect everyman to counter Trump’s overt and grotesque evil? Or was it more to do with successful campaigning and grassroots movements capitalizing on the demographic shifts in key battleground states, by heroes such as Stacey Abrams? Or was it something else that an outsider like myself can’t quite see from the news coverage?
– Oliver Hollander
No, I’ve never been. I wrote what I wrote out of rational calculation, but also as a negative jinx. Maybe that’s the reason. Or maybe just enough people were too disgusted with that monstrous parody of a human being that they said, I’ve had enough, and that’s enough for me to go do what I have to do, even though I’d rather pretend it wasn’t happening at all. It was very close.
You’ve often expressed admiration for the splendors of everyday American speech, including its more obscene variants. Have you seen this video of Michael Rapaport cussing out soon-to-be-ex-President Trump? It’s not exactly everyday speech since Rapaport is a professional actor, but I can’t imagine it coming from any country other than ours, or from any city other than N.Y.C.
Thanks for this. Shakespeare couldn’t have said it better. Especially the part about the sons and the daughter and the dauphin.
A few years back, you recommended the collected comic strips of Great Pop Things for a questioner interested in rock histories. Well, I got around to reading it, and found it rather enlightening. Soon after, I picked up the June issue of Mad Magazine. Although they are no longer creating a lot of new content for Mad, they are putting out compendiums around certain themes. The focus of the issue was Mad Mocks Music. Having just finished Great Pop Things, the issue really resonated with me. I’ve been a lifelong fan of Mad Magazine and found this issue to be a particularly funny, truthful, and satirical look at the history of rock and roll. It called out the allure and foolishness of the personalities, commercialization, and fandom of rock and roll. It made me wonder, in general, of your opinion of Mad Magazine.
– Conrad Cordova
Mad magazine was a great thrill when I was growing up. I bought every issue as soon as I was old enough to develop a sense of irony, by the age of eight or so. Only later did I discover Mad paperbacks, with the original long parodies of Dragnet and the like (though it took me many more years to catch the reference of “How’s your mom, Ed?”). Long after that I found the bound volumes of the original issues, with their parodies of beats and hipsters. They were sharp, they played rough, they were really funny. I always found it embarrassing to look at Alfred E. Neuman on the cover, though. I think if you went through the magazine at least through the early ’60s you’d have as good a chronicle of the times as you could find anywhere. The feature on winning the Cold War through Madison Avenue tells you more than a lot of respectable histories could, or would.
Could you please post the syllabus for the 2017 class “America, Song By Song”?
– Alice Payton
American Studies 10: Introduction to American Studies
Spring 2017 | University of California, Berkeley
America, Song by Song
Class Meetings: Tu-Th, 12:30-2, 180 Tan Hall
Section 102: Th 10-11, 141 Giannini Hall
Section 103: M 12-1, 250 Sutardja Dai Hall
Course Description: This course uses American songs to explore history, politics, literature,
culture, architecture, race relations, economics, folklore, and popular culture. By focusing on the soundscapes of folk and popular music, we will uncover how songs and performances write the nation.
Required Books: All books are available for purchase at Eastwind Books of Berkeley, 2066 University Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94704.
1. Octavia Butler, Bloodchild and Other Stories (Seven Stories Press, 2005)
2. Frederick Kohner, Gidget (Berkley, 2001)
3. Greil Marcus, Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations (The William E. Massey Sr.
Lectures in the History of American Civilization) (Harvard University Press, 2015)
4. David Margolick, Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song (Harper Perennial, 2001)
5. Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press, 2014)
6. Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus (eds.), The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love, and Liberty in the American Ballad (W.W. Norton and Company, 2005)
**Additional required readings for some weeks are available through the class bCourses site.
Course Requirements: See section syllabus.
Disability Accommodations: Students with disabilities that affect their ability to participate fully in class or to meet all course requirements are encouraged to notify the professor so that appropriate accommodations can be arranged. Further information is available from the Disabled Students’ Program website at http://dsp.berkeley.edu.
Technology in the classroom: Unless you have a formal, DSP-sanctioned accommodation that requires it, the use of computing devices (laptops, iPads, iPhones, etc.) is forbidden. They are temptations to students who use them to divert their attention elsewhere besides the educational task at hand, distractions to students who do not use them, and less effective as tools for assimilating information presented in class than old-fashioned note-taking and attention-paying.
1/19 Songs as historical, social, cultural, political, documents
Reading: Marcus and Wilentz (eds.), The Rose and the Briar, pp. 1-17, 35-49, and 69-80 (Eastwind)
Begin Marcus, Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations (Eastwind)
1/24 “Battle Hymn of the Republic”
Reading: Marcus and Wilentz (eds.), The Rose and the Briar, pp. 81-89
John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis (eds.), excerpts from The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song that Marches On, (bCourses)
1/26 “Lift Every Voice and Sing”
Reading: Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” (bCourses)
W.E.B. Du Bois, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” and “Of the Dawn of Freedom,” from The Souls of Black Folk (bCourses)
Ernest E. Lyon, “An open letter to the author of the Negro national anthem, 1927” (bCourses)
1/31 “Strange Fruit”
Reading: Margolick, Strange Fruit (Eastwind)
Finish Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations
2/2 “John Henry”
2/7, 2/9 A Seat at the Table
Reading: Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Eastwind)
Derek Walcott, “Love After Love” (bCourses)
Langston Hughes, “I, Too” (bCourses)
Zora Neale Hurston, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” (bCourses)
Transcript of “The Negro’s Role in American Culture,” radio broadcast in Negro Digest (March 1962): 81-98 (bCourses)
James Baldwin, “The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American” from Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (bCourses)
2/14, 2/16 War Songs
Reading: Annegret Fauser, excerpts from Sounds of War (bCourses)
Viewing: Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
2/21 Teen Tragedy & Coffin Songs
Reading: John C. Thrush and George S. Faulus, “The Concept of Death in Popular
Music: A Social Psychological Perspective,” Popular Music and Society, 6.3 (1979): 219-
Marcus and Wilentz (eds.), The Rose and the Briar, pp. 149-174
Viewing: Rebel without a Cause (1955)
*** Take-home midterm due in class***
2/23 “It’s Too Soon to Know”
2/28 Birth of Cool
3/2 Midterm Reports: Discussion & Summary
3/7 Holiday Songs
Reading: Jody Rosen, excerpts from White Christmas: The Story of an American Song (bCourses)
3/9 Selling the Revolution
Viewing: The Big Chill (1983)
3/14, 3/16 Surf Songs and Surfer Girls
Reading: Kohner, Gidget
3/21 Murder Ballads
3/23 Money / Money Changes Everything
Week Eleven Spring Recess
4/6 Rose and Briar
Reading: Dery, Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose (bCourses)
Opal Palmer Adisa, “The Living Roots” (bCourses)
Octavia Butler, excerpts (bCourses)
Butler, “Amnesty” and “The Book of Martha” in Bloodchild and Other Stories (Eastwind)
4/13 Afrofuturism and clipping.
Reading: Butler, Bloodchild and Other Stories
Reading: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” (bCourses)
Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” (bCourses)
Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise” (bCourses)
Assata Shakur, “Affirmation (I believe in living.)” (bCourses)
Kiese Laymon, “Da Art of Storytellin’ (a Prequel)” (bCourses)
bell hooks, “Moving Beyond Pain” (bCourses)
4/20 Three Songs…
Reading: Re-read Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations
4/25 Student Presentations
4/27 Concluding Remarks
Final Exam: Thursday, May 11 from 3-6pm, location TBA. Bring a green book!
Back in August you said Trump had a 75% chance of winning based on voter suppression, among other things. In September, you said the race was veering towards Trump (and when the race goes to the right, it never veers back). Now with one week to go—what is your prediction? I can’t take comfort in the polls (see: 2016), but I do think record-setting early voting has to be good for Biden/Harris.
My prediction is in my [forthcoming] Oct 30 Real Life Rock column in the Los Angeles Review of Books. I hope I’m wrong.
There are certain songs that contain none of the qualities that I seek in music, but I find myself loving them anyway. The Fifth Estate’s version of “Ding Dong! the Witch Is Dead.” “We Go Together” from the Grease soundtrack. These songs have a peppy, syrupy sweet glee that I usually despise in music, but I listen to them over and over. “Your Wildest Dreams” by The Moody Blues could confidently stand next to “We Built This City” in the pantheon of Corniest Songs of All Time, with it’s sappy lyrics and synthesizer riff that sounds like it came out of an 80’s perfume commercial, but I am irresistibly drawn toward it. What songs do you love despite yourself?
I don’t believe in the ideology of guilty pleasures, which means liking something you’re not supposed to like. Or for that matter guilty refusal—hating what you’re supposed to hate. I hate “We Built This City” and “Don’t Stop Believin’” not because it’s cool in the court of my own self-esteem but because my whole being was repelled from the start and has never responded differently. It’s like Trump saying “Crooked Hillary” or “Sleepy Joe” and depriving either or both of their humanity and taking obvious pleasure in doing it. They’re all violations of any moral order. I do like “Your Wildest Dreams,” though.
Hi Greil. I’m a John Cale fan, but I think you must hear something in Vintage Violence that I don’t. When I listen to it, which is rarely, I hear a nice enough, probably undernoticed album that is kinda bouncy and conventional to represent what Cale does best. What made you pick it for your Stranded discography over darker, grimmer and, in my view, far more compelling albums like Fear, Slow Dazzle, or the US-only compilation Guts? If you’re gonna compare an album to Astral Weeks, you should at least be able to name one memorable track from it. Can you?
– Edward Hutchinson
“Cleo,” “Big White Cloud,” “Gideon’s Bible,” “Please” especially—but it’s less this or that song than a matter of a unitary texture, attitude, mood, and most of all touch: a light touch, which had not exactly been Cale’s signature before. When I wrote about it again for an Interview column in 2000, when there was a (uselessly) augmented re-release, I realized how completely its esthetic—or rewriting, both of pop music and Cale’s own place in it—was bubblegum, with a little ye-ye on top. Maybe that’s what still doesn’t fit: this fearsome avant-garde avatar standing shoulder to shoulder with the 1910 Fruitgum Company to sing songs of self-destruction and fate. To me, and others said the same thing at the time, like Astral Weeks or John Wesley Harding, or any Cat Power album, Vintage Violence can strike you as a a record no one else would have made—including, if the spark hadn’t stung, the person who did.
Just watched Town Without Pity—a bit dated, but Kirk Douglas is great in it, and the song by Gene Pitney still has, in its way, a nice dark vibe to it.
It hit me later that it was mentioned in Masked and Anonymous (the Dylan/Jeff Bridges interview scene) as that place (I’m paraphrasing) where “they lock you up for something you haven’t even thought about doing.” If I were a gambler I’d bet Dylan wrote that line, and probably likes the tune.
Any thoughts on the flick, the tune, and Gene Pitney in general?
Gene Pitney was on the radio at the same time as Del Shannon. I always associated them for a certain bitterness, resentment, fury, a sense that the world wasn’t fair, a stoic fatalism. There was Shannon in Pitney’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and Pitney in Shannon’s “Stranger in Town.” I appreciated Pitney, was glad he was there in the night as my high school cruising friend and I drove up and down the Peninsula, but I jumped when Shannon came on.
And for all that I never really heard Gene Pitney until 1977, when Warner Bros. released the double LP Phil Spector’s Greatest Hits (with a BACK TO MONO slogan for an album full of stereo) with early productions mixed in with the later Philles hits. There was this hesitating, stutter-beat, expanding, moonshot of a record, Pitney’s “Every Breath I Take,” which made every breath he did take feel like the last, and worth it for a song this good. And then in 1986 Del Shannon’s own remake of “Runaway” for the theme song of the great series Crime Story, which sounded tougher, wilder, cooler than the original, and not an oldie for a second.
Del Shannon didn’t make it to 60. Gene Pitney, six years younger, didn’t make 70. And there’s so much more to say about what they did.
Thank you for your vivid response to my Philip Roth question a couple of weeks ago. It’s amusing to hear that he talked about the film adaptations of his books; unfortunately just about all of them have been lousy—after all, how can you capture on-screen the discursive voice of Nathan Zuckerman, for instance?—up until the recent Plot Against America miniseries, which I thought was excellent. Also, though, there’s the 1983 Ghost Writer TV adaptation for “American Playhouse” that Roth wrote himself. Ever seen it?
Something else in your reply caught my attention: the idea of giving David Chase a Nobel Prize in Literature. I know you were being semihumorous, but it’s actually not a bad idea. The Sopranos revolutionized TV, the most prevalent pop-culture medium, and essentially ushered in a whole new age of storytelling that only continues to develop. It also seems to me that it was a deeply “rock-and-roll” TV show, both in attitude and in terms of the huge influence of rock music on Chase himself. I’m curious—what have Chase and The Sopranos meant to you?
P.S. I happened to find you referenced in a short story I read today, “Deep Cut” by Andrew Martin, from his new collection, Cool for America. This is a teenager at a hardcore punk concert once the band begins to play: “For about five seconds, I felt the pure exhilaration promised by a thousand Greil Marcus columns. Then I turned and caught an elbow in the face…”
– Cary Gitter
I didn’t know about the TV adaptation of Ghost Writer. I didn’t like the book at all, so I may have forgotten I knew about it. Thanks for sending it. I agree about The Plot Against America, though John Turturro’s southern accent was ridiculous—and I know from Alabama Jews with southern accents, even if I never knew my Alabama-born-and-raised grandmother. It had a much tougher and scarier ending than the book.
I wasn’t being tongue in cheek about David Chase. I think The Sopranos is a staggering achievement. And for my wife and myself it was a life saver. It appeared when she was under treatment for cancer and it gave us something to look forward to every week and then relive through the week—we watched almost every episode three times—until the next one appeared. Years later we took a DVD of one early season with us on a quiet vacation and each moment was as alive as it was the first time around. You can feel the joy of creation when you watch that show, people working over their heads, knowing how good what they’re doing is, knowing they can get away with anything if they can think of what it is.
And thanks for telling me about Andrew Martin and Deep Cut. I’ll be looking.
Any thoughts on the Fugs or the writings of Ed Sanders? They seem to intersect with the world of Harry Smith and pre-punk rumblings.
– Slum Goddess
They certainly do intersect—Harry Smith has production credit on the first Fugs album, though what that means I have no idea. To me the Fugs were like the folk version of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention—I mean the Dark Holler, Kentucky version. They were wonderful fun—my favorite was always “Nothing”—even after they got to Warner Brothers.
Ed Sanders, who I’ve never met, is impossible to dislike as a writer, or a poet—I mean, calling a homemade publication “FUCK YOU—A Magazine of the Arts” is poetry to me. The Family sucks you deeply into the Manson horror story, letting you get close to why it remains unique, even if Jeffery MacDonald did his best to reenact it with this own family, and why there is a way that the concepts of parole and rehabilitation don’t compute when put up against what those people who remain in prison did, even when both would-be Ford assassins, Squeaky Fromme and Sarah Jane Moore, were released. Don’t ever forget that the pleasure of killing is a buried but inherent human faculty—why do you think all those people joined ISIS: they wanted permission to kill people—that’s part of what you leave The Family with, shaking with fear. Though I’m sort of sorry he never wrote his authorized history of the Eagles—I can’t imagine what that would have been. I love the beginning of Tales of Beatnik Glory—running down the history of a single spot in Greenwich Village as an eternal cauldron of esoteric foment, to use Marianne Faithfull’s phrase, back to the 18th century— but gave up on it after one or ten too many sex brags.
I liked what you wrote about the John Mellencamp/Lou Reed video, but that “Lacy Peterson smile” comment sent me to Google Images… Did you mean the Laci Peterson who was (maybe) murdered by her husband? I don’t see it—Peterson’s smile was posed and forced; Mellencamp’s percussionist’s smile was anything but. An Andre 3000 smile is more like it.
– steve o’neill
Yes, I got the last letter wrong, but no, I’ll go with the Laci Peterson smile. We saw so many pictures of her after her disappearance, Scott Peterson’s arrest and trial and after, that it didn’t seem forced or for that matter terrified. It looked like the deepest expression of a personality, and probably part of the reason her husband killed her.
I was listening to Chronicle this morning and wondered why, to my mind, the story of Creedence Clearwater Revival has been studied, retold and mythologized to a much lesser degree than the stories of many other bands. Next to John Fogerty’s memoir, I believe there’s only one book about CCR, compared to about ten thousand about The Beatles. This is especially baffling to me as their story really has it all—mega success, musical brilliance, cultural significance, fighting, tragedy, destiny, all on an epical scale. And it’s not that they’ve faded from memory either, with their music still being incredibly vibrant and alive, and Trump misusing “Fortunate Son” for his rallies right up to now. Do you have an explanation?
– Johannes (Munich, Germany)
I think there are a number of reasons why Creedence has not ascended into heaven. First, they were always derided by musicians, especially Bay Area musicians, who loved to say “Anybody can play that shit.” They were never accepted as part of the San Francisco Scene, partly because they were from what was considered a capital of nowhere, El Cerrito (I went to a high school dance there, from Menlo Park, in about 1962—I was stunned to see bars on all the windows, in this very middle class, low crime town). As proof that they were never respected, just look through the literature, using the term lightly, and see how many times, to this day, John Fogerty’s name is misspelled. There’s the fact that John has always been rightly distrustful and close-mouthed, except with a very few people, like the late Ralph J. Gleason in Rolling Stone. Then there’s [the fact] that Stu Cook and Doug Clifford were not very interesting people—really, where is the Story of the Band story? Not to mention their forever bouncing around Lake Tahoe as Creedence Clearwater Revisited.
Sure, anybody could play that shit. And write those obvious songs. They just couldn’t be bothered. Even if merely one song, not one of the hits, can put so many celebrated bands to shame. For me, “Lodi.” Drive through it sometime. Or a hundred other Valley towns that look and feel exactly like it, and see if he didn’t capture it all, right down to the smudge on the saucer for your coffee cup in the diner on main street.
[Greil’s review of Chronicle.]
Hey there Greil. My name is Bryan Hembree. I wrote a song called “Tulsa 1921.” You played and mentioned the song in the introduction of your keynote address at the Bob Dylan Symposium in Tulsa last year.
I wasn’t in Tulsa that night, but what a surprise to get texts from many friends that were there to hear your talk. I am honored that you included the song. Thanks for tuning in to it.
I am hopeful that your keynote will be published at some point. I look forward to reading it.
– Bryan Hembree
It’s wonderful to hear from you. Because “The World of Bob Dylan” conference was in Tulsa I played the irresistible and overwhelming performance video of “Tulsa 1921” to start a talk on Dylan and the blues, arguing that even if there weren’t many or any blues songs about the massacre, that event went into every blues song that came after it, saying, if you’re a black American, anything you have can be taken away at any time. If you know what I mean, I was shocked but not surprised that so many of the 500 people who attended were hearing about 1921 for the first time. My talk along with the other talks and papers from the conference will be published next year in a book edited by Sean Latham and published by Cambridge University Press, I assume under the same title as the conference. The text of my talk says “PLAY ‘TULSA 1921′” and I hope more people do. I thank you for your brave work.
In your review of the collection Love Is the Song We Sing, you mentioned it had something by the Frantics, some of whom later became part of Moby Grape. I found both sides of their single, “Human Monkey”/”Someday,” on YouTube. The B-side is good, if still fairly conventional, but the A-side is something different. Notwithstanding some finger-pointing in the lyrics, which suggests a desire to do nothing more daring than promote civic improvement, the overriding sense conveyed in the playing and singing is that these men have already chosen to leave polite society behind and take their chances living in the unmapped territories. (You can find both songs by entering “The Frantics Don Stevenson” in the search engine.)
I also found a complete live recording of Moby Grape at the Fillmore in late 1966. The sound is rough, but the music is thrilling. “Fall On You” is a man throwing handfuls of razor blades high into the air because he wants to see the sun reflect off of them, and because he’s dared himself that he can dodge all of them when they fall back down. (There’s a laugh from one of the guys at the end that proves this must be true.) Plus, you get to hear Bill Graham introducing the band as “a great bunch of juvenile delinquents.” Here’s the link.
– Bill Wolfe
To me the Frantics just aren’t there. They needed the 47 guitars of Moby Grape to fly. Or smash against the wall. I hadn’t heard the Fillmore performance, as opposed to the night at the Avalon Ballroom that you can also find on CD bootlegs or on the set of MG live performances that appeared on YouTube a few years ago that I can’t find now. There, “Dark Magic” is an inexorable unfolding epic—it feels like a crime that it ends, and here it’s as if they don’t trust the song, it’s filigreed, prettied out, never finds its own voice. On this night the epic is “Changes.” It shows how this band could go anywhere with anything.
A few friends and I were discussing songs that we’d like played at our funerals. The responses ranged from somber to joyful, to some combination thereof (The New York Philharmonic playing “I Think We’re Alone Now”). Any thoughts or requests? (And if Democracy were to die, what would you like playing at its funeral?)
I’m dragged helplessly back to Jo Beth Williams playing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” on the church organ in The Big Chill… but I could never top the Philharmonic and Tommy James, except maybe Al Green singing “Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love).”
For me I’ll take Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words Blues.”
For the country, I thought of John Lee Hooker, “John Henry,” Jon Langford, “Lost in America,” or Martina McBride, “Independence Day.” But I’ll go with Mahalia Jackson shouting “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin,” and from that point on his speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. Play it over and over until the cops come and smash whatever it’s being played on.
Regarding your recently posted Top 40 albums of all-time, I assumed this was a joke—
Bill Clinton Jam Session–The Pres Blows
—but googling it, I see it’s a real thing. Are you just taking the piss? What in your opinion makes it good enough for inclusion on such a list?
– Gordon Tewes
It was a fun idea. I liked Bill Clinton. And it’s not bad. And I don’t take the lists seriously.
Have you watched the recently surfaced video of Lou Reed and John Mellencamp performing together in a small Bloomington club in 1997, and if so what do you make of it? It initially seems like an unlikely pairing to me, but less odd after listening to the show.
Also, what do you make of the ongoing revival of cassette culture, which sees something like the Reed/Mellencamp show with blown-out audio recorded on a camcorder released in an edition of 100?
Wow. Thank you for sending this. So much to say about it. You can feel the great burden that lifted off John Mellencamp when he went back to his real name—you’re watching a free man reveling in his freedom. He’s one of the most endearing performers I’ve ever seen—how can you not root for him in “Small Town”? “Paper in Fire” is like “Casey Jones”—the song is a train and it’s going that fast. It’s a thrill to see Lou Reed looking so handsome, so authoritative, and so modest. There’s always been something heartbreaking about the way Lou Reed says in “Sweet Jane,” “Those were different times,” as if whole lifetime had to be thrown away before he could get to this song. But to me the real stars of this show are the woman in the white tee shirt and the Lacy Peterson smile playing woodblock, maracas, and what looks like a modern washboard, and the audience. Not a single one of those idiot hippie “Whooop!”s, which always sound to me like somebody confirming that the person on stage has at least momentarily proven himself or herself (but it’s always himself) as cool as the whooper—just screaming and hollering and cheering and singing in utter delight.
Any opinion on Rolling Stone‘s new 500 best albums list?
Haven’t seen it. This stuff is too predictable. I imagine U2 will be there somewhere which to me seems ridiculous. I once submitted a greatest singles list for a Billboard poll with “Dead Man’s Curve” as number one. Was it the greatest single ever made? I don’t know. Who cares? It’s one of the thousand, or ten thousand, number one best singles ever made. [Greil’s list here]
Any chance you would consider sharing the 50 albums you selected for the recently published Rolling Stone Top 500 Album list? Christgau’s list was interesting, and I expect yours would be as well. Plus, it would undoubtedly create a strong reader response for the “Ask Greil” section.
All my best,
– Robert Hull
[See 9/27 post.]
Your latest Real Life [Rock] Top 10 brought together a lot of things I’ve been thinking about lately:
Eric Burdon nailed it.
“Philistinism” is the word I was looking for when I heard about Early James’ rewrite of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (even Trump doesn’t change the lyrics of “Rockin’ in the Free World” for his rallies, though he might if he bothered to listen to them… as for the possibility of him using “Masters of War”—your capacity for surprise remains greater than mine).
The exclusion of songs from the Harry Smith collection on the grounds they feature “the N-word” may not sink to philistinism, but the idea that we need to be protected from things people said a century ago (or yesterday) is awfully tiresome.
Mostly though, I was happy to be reminded of “I Heard the Voice of a Pork Chop”, which I first heard on Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour and led into the best radio segue of all time: “I never heard one, but I imagine pork chops have a distinctive voice. Someone I know who had a distinctive voice is Allen Ginsberg…”
What did you think of the new TTRH episode? I don’t give a shit if it was just to sell whiskey, it was what I needed right now.
– steve o’neill
I played half a dozen “Theme Time” shows recently, and found them kind of tiresome—not the reaction I had when I first heard them. The real out-of-nowhere how-could-you-have-lived-without-hearing-this numbers seemed too few, and the veneration over people who weren’t that great, like Jimmy Witherspoon, was no fun.
With the new show, of course 90% of the stuff I’d never heard before, but there were few records I wanted to hear again—and those were of the how-could-you-have-lived quality. The virtue of the show is that will happen for anyone and anyone will have three or four different numbers than I have: Laura Cantrell’s “The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter,” Thin Lizzy’s “Whiskey in the Jar,” which has Phil Lynott’s hoarse Springsteen-like voice at its least affected, just leaping after the song as if it’s a rabbit, and stupendously effective repeating guitar riffs that make you wish that the song would go on forever, that make you feel it has to, and then the Clancy Brothers with Liam Clancy’s unbearably delicate, almost a cappella “The Parting Glass.” I’ve already played them each again.
Of course I can’t wait for the next one.
I turned on TV this morning to see the runner “Harry Smith celebrates 34 years of charity concert.” It was Harry Smith the reporter talking about Farm Aid, of course, but for a second I had and image of an Ur-Woodstock, with Uncle Dave opening and Rabbit Brown singing at sunrise “I’ve seen better days….”. Have you heard Dust to Digital’s Harry Smith B-side set? Will it be fascinating negative space history, or just a weird jumble?
Your opening two sentences say as much about Harry Smith’s place in culture as anything I’ve read. I wrote briefly about the B-sides set, mostly regarding its censoring of performances with the word “nigger” in them, but there’s a lot more to say.
With some trepidation: have you read, and do you have any thoughts on, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility? I’m glad I read it, and it did give me pause and got me to reflect on various things. It was also frustrating in a way that’s hard to pinpoint. Whenever I thought “Yes, but…”, it felt like there was nowhere to go, that everything has been closed off in advance.
– Alan Vint
I haven’t read it. Why should I? Please say more.
Hi Greil. You have expressed yourself on the subject of John Fahey’s writing. On your recommendation, I recently read How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life, and Holy Cow. That is the real shit. But do you have anything to say about his recordings? I have found Of Rivers and Religion and After the Ball enchanting. The rest–uhhmm, background music.
Also: Have you heard about Van Morrison’s latest Covid-related endeavour? And if you haven’t, don’t.
– Edward Hutchinson
I never met John Fahey. I talked to him on the phone for a piece I wrote about him in the San Francisco Express-Times in 1969—one of the first pieces I ever published.
I was always mainly entranced by his album titles, the cracked mirror sense of life in them—mysteries weren’t there to be solved, they were there to be improved on—or made up. I don’t think I really heard his music until I read his book. That chapter about seeing Hank Williams’s last show, and how he and his friends almost died of fright when he did “Alone and Forsaken”—that’s a made up mystery that never happened and I believe every word. And see his essay in the 1997 reissue of the Anthology of American Folk Music, where he argues that gospel music is really the devil’s music.
It’s not fair to expect that people we might admire, or feel have enriched our lives, not be cranks. If Van Morrison puts on an unforgettable show while bracketing it with rants about how… well, let’s go all the way, Covid-19 is really a virus that leads vulnerable or morally weak people to join the Democratic Party and drink the blood of children, I’d be there if I could. I didn’t want to see what a born-again Bob Dylan was going to be, but I went, and it was horrible, until it was over, everyone filed out, and then minutes later there was the sound of someone playing piano back in the hall, a few of us looked in, and there was Dylan singing “Pressing On” to an empty room as if that was the only song that needed to be sung, ever. You can’t hear that in the song as it was eventually released; you can see it all as Christian Bale lets John Doe sing it through his mouth in “I’m Not There.” But—
I knocked on her door
I went into her room
She was sitting on her bed
She gave me a vaccine
I said G-L-O-R-I-A
NO! NO! NO!
I’d want to see that.
As a huge Philip Roth fan (and a great fan of yours), I was fascinated to read in your most recent “Real Life Rock Top 10” that you had dinner with Roth a few times. (I used to work at the 92nd Street Y and stood a few feet from him at the reception after his last public reading, of the haunting cemetery section of “Sabbath’s Theater,” in 2014, but that’s as close as I ever got. Couldn’t work up the nerve to bother him.)
I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about your relationship with Roth and what those dinner conversations were like. I’m also curious about what Roth thought of Bob Dylan and/or the American popular music you’ve written so brilliantly about. I recall a funny moment at the beginning of The Counterlife when a teenager on roller skates drifts by Henry Zuckerman in a Central Park underpass, blasting “Lay, Lady, Lay” on a portable radio, and yells out, “Bring back the sixties, man!” with a raised fist. I know Roth was a classical music lover, but I have no idea what he thought of rock and its corollaries.
It’s also interesting that Dylan won the Nobel Prize that Roth sadly never received.
Anyway, thank you very much.
– Cary Gitter
I did read that when Dylan won the Nobel Prize Roth said that maybe Peter Paul and Mary would be next. As it happens, my wife and I had dinner with him in I think 2013 the day that year’s Literature prize was announced—when the speculation was intense, at least in the US, that he or Joyce Carol Oates would win—and she asked if he had won if he’d still have kept our date. Of course, he said graciously, though that would have been impossible—our table at the now closed Da Silvano would have been upended by photographers if he’d somehow managed to escape the New York Times and all then major networks. But he then went on to say bitterly that no American would ever win it again: “They hate us.” I was later told by someone in a position to know that since Toni Morrison, the only American under consideration had been Dylan, who never came up. What we talked about more than anything else were adaptations of his movies. He was never involved but loved talking about who could or couldn’t play what role or adapt or direct. But he was thrilled that after so many years of neglect after the meaningless botch of Portnoy’s Complaint it seemed like almost everything was coming to the screen. Some conversations were uproarious. Some quiet. He once told me I understood I Married a Communist better than anyone but him and that I couldn’t have been more wrong for thinking Coleman Silk’s use of the word ‘spooks’ in The Human Stain wasn’t altogether innocent. But he referred to what he meant. I said all that mattered was what the story said. We didn’t press it.
Today, my choices would be Don DeLillo, Colson Whitehead, or Peter Schneider. Or maybe David Chase. And my favorite use of rock & roll in a novel is what happens to “Earth Angel” in Letting Go.
Two episodes, quickly:
One, during the summer between middle school and high school, my friend Andy went to a garage sale being held by the mother of his neighborhood’s Teenage Problem Girl. The Girl had apparently run away from home one time too many, and in her latest absence her mother was sending a message by selling off all of Girl’s stuff. Andy paid eighth-grade peanuts for a shoebox bulging with punk and punk-adjacent tapes: Never Mind The Bollocks, that first Ramones, the Repo Man soundtrack, some Circle Jerks, some Exploited, some Pogues, Scratch Acid’s Berserker, and many more. At the time we were all pretty much radio kids, but then the next day Andy brought the box to us like Moses from the mount, and after that none of us ever really went back to Rockville.
Two, in my freshman year of college, a professor for whom I was doing some clerical work decided his cd collection had finally gotten robust enough that he could comfortably ditch the spare tire that was his couple-hundred-strong record collection. He knew I was into records, and asked if I’d like to come pick out whichever ones I wanted before he binned the rest. I felt like cherry-picking in the face of his generosity would be a dick move, so I told him I’d be happy to take the whole mess off his hands. Sifting through it all back in my dorm room, my initial response was disappointment mixed with embarrassment; I’d started the day listening to Scraping Foetus on doo-doo-brown cassette, and by lunchtime had on vinyl nearly complete runs of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, et al. I actually covered the crates with a piece of canvas, lest anyone “cool” came by and start asking hard questions about all these sudden David Bromberg records. I soon got over some of that, and the subsequent listening ended up unfolding my map significantly.
So: I suspect that such cargo-cult methods of musical intake are mostly the province of suburban/semi-rural bumpkins such as myself, and I get the impression from your writings that you’ve been fortunate enough to have experienced a more steady and organic stream of interesting stuff, but I don’t know—not counting deep dives you’ve undertaken voluntarily in the course of enthusiasm or research or whatever, have you ever had to contend with a big bolus of impactful music from without dropped on you all at once?
– James Cavicchia
Until I went to college in 1963, carrying one Bob Dylan album and one Joan Baez—I’d left my Kingston Trio albums and one still thrilling Pete Seeger album—I’d bought it solely because of the other names on the cover: what kind of people could possibly be called Memphis Slim or Big Bill Broonzy?—at home. But real music—rock & roll—had never been records, always the radio. And that changed in 1964 with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones: suddenly, each new album was an event.
I also came from a suburban bubble environment—Menlo-Atherton High School. The only record life analogous to yours came when my wife to be bought me all the Beatles albums through 1965 for my birthday, and when Relic Records, a doo wop reissue label, sent me their entire set of LPs documenting the group harmony and acapella scenes in 20 or 40 different cities. I was intimidated. I never knew where to start. And when years later we moved from a big house to a small house and I had to cut my LPs by two thirds I lost the chance.
Thanks for posting your John Henry Days lecture notes in response to my 9/7/20 question. I commented on your post with a quote from Bob Dylan in which he cited the many times he’d sung “John Henry” as eventually leading him to write the first line of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” I guess you could say that when that “dollar bill” changes hands, it can become brilliantly transformed if it passes through Dylan’s or any other great songwriter’s hands.
Do you think that Dylan will ever record and release “John Henry”? I’d love to hear his interpretation of it. There’s so much in that song. He could go so many ways with it that he could record a whole John Henry-themed album. (You might even be able to put one together with songs he has already recorded.)
– Jim Hauser
I don’t know of any recording of “John Henry” by Bob Dylan, either from a recording session or a party or home or hotel room recording early in his career. I sort of agree that given his wonderful line about that and “Blowin’ in the Wind” he ought to record it, some way, somehow. But who knows. I love what you say about Colson Whitehead and the dollar bill of the folk song changing from the one to the other.
I’d suggest sending a request to the Theme Time Radio Hour, presuming there is one, for an all-John Henry show.
Whether the music is in the background or you are listening to review music, how do you listen to music? Do you prefer vinyl, a cd or steaming? If streaming I hope it is a smart toaster.
– James Proctor
If it’s in the physical background it’s CDs or LPs if that’s where the music I have is. Otherwise if I don’t have access to a turntable it’s desk speakers and CDs or streaming only, and it’s really foreground music. There’s no longer a radio station in the Bay Area that plays anything I want to hear other than KALX, the UC station. In Minneapolis it’s the Current.
I was wondering if you ever listen to background music while writing as a way to stay focused and if so, what? I’m a grad student with a heavy writing load and I need repetitive sounds in the background so that I don’t get distracted. One of my go-tos is Dick Slessig Combo’s “Wichita Lineman.” At just over 43 minutes, it carries me through. I’ve tried Eno’s Discreet Music, Spacemen 3’s Dreamweapon and some others. Can you recommend anything else that I can add to my list? Thanks.
All the time. Sometimes, as right now, writing a Real Life Rock Top 10 column, I might play a song for two hours straight—it’s Frank Stokes’s “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” from 1928, from the American Epic set. Yesterday, writing the first chapter of a new book, it was Bob Dylan’s “Ain’t Talkin'” as he did it on election night in 2008. But in the nine years I was writing Lipstick Traces it was Monty Python and Firesign Theatre records, over and over, for the distraction, just to take the edge off the intimidation of writing. I wasn’t listening, just putting them on as background noise, and I heard something new every time, and sometimes a sentence would pop right onto the page from what I heard. But it just depends on what works for you. The Dick Slessig “Wichita Lineman” is a trance, like everything they do; writing is a trance too.
Given your antipathy of President Trump, combined with your writings on Rock Icons, do you ever ask yourself if Trump had ever become a Rock Star what you might have thought of him, or vice versa if some Rock Icons had become President, how they would have behaved?
You have written a book on Jim Morrison. I wonder what you might be writing about him if he had gone into politics and got to the White House?
Whatever one might think of Trump as either a human being or his policies the fact is he does walk it like he talks it without any fear. In professional politics that type of authenticity is rare.
Most politicians may start off with good intentions, but they quickly become virtue-signaling careerists. Walking it like you talk it is also surprisingly rare among most rock front men or women after they have made it big. They have tended to lose their nerve very easily and play safe.
Trump is 74. How many Rock Icons from the past who did not die young have managed to keep both their authenticity and their audience past the age of 30 never mind 74?
– Simon Wolf
I haven’t thought about it, even if Jim Morrison did say the Doors were “erotic politicians.” Maybe you should ask Kanye West—I’m sure he’s thought long and hard about it. In 1982 there was an intriguing story by Harold Waldrop called “Ike at the Mike.” The premise was that Dwight D. Eisenhower followed his first love, jazz, while Elvis Presley went into politics. Now he’s a senator from Mississippi thinking about a presidential run while sitting in a nightclub where Ike’s band is playing, both of them thinking about what might have been. It seems like a great premise, but the story doesn’t come off—nothing was convincing.
Bill Clinton clearly knew he didn’t have the talent for a music career and that he did for politics. You can kind of see Johnny Cash as a senator from Tennessee—except that his politics were really too far left. AOC might have an album in her. I think of Vivien Westwood as Margaret Thatcher—which probably inspired a short story by Mark Sinker where Thatcher is actually an early member of the Velvet Underground. We could go on—
Holding their credibility past 30? Too many to count. Not dead yet pretty much does it. If they had it before—which means if they could create it and communicate it—they’ll keep it. If they didn’t have it but only seemed to, time will strip them naked.
I’m wondering if you are familiar with or indeed had any interaction with the late writer and filmmaker Peter Wollen? I have often wondered about overlaps between your work, particularly around shared interests in Situationism and the intersections between popular culture and Theory.
I can only answer this by saying nothing or being blunt. I wouldn’t have said anything while Peter was alive. That would have somehow seemed unfair, to say unkind things when he couldn’t respond but wasn’t dead. If that makes any sense.
I knew Peter only through my involvement over two years with the exhibition “on the Passage of a few people through a rather brief moment in time: The Situationist International, 1957-1972.” It was the idea of Peter and the curator Mark Francis, who now works for the Gogosian galleries. They took it to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, which brought in the film scholar Tom Levin and me, who collaborated with the ICA curator Elisabeth Sussman. It opened in 1989 at the Musée national de l’art moderne in Paris and at the ICA in London, in designs overseen by Peter and Mark, and then in Boston, where Tom and I and the London designers Nigel Coates and Christopher Egret more or less kidnapped the show and restaged it before Peter and Mark arrived for the opening.
My sense was that unlike Mark, who was always open to new ideas and seemed genuinely entranced by the material we were working with, Peter, who had been dismissive of the situationists in their, and his, time, as—from perspective of the organized New Left—mindless and unserious adventurers, or at best mindless and unserious provocateurs, now wanted to take a kind of ownership over the intellectual and political legacy of the group. He seemed to me proprietary, opportunistic, and cold—just as, I came to think, he had positioned himself as a self-titled feminist film scholar because of his first marriage to the scholar Laura Mulvey, whose best known theoretical work was that of what she called the male gaze. I came away from the experience very dubious about working with Peter again, not that the occasion arose; I’ve had the chance to work with Mark a number of times since.
Peter fell into dementia not long after that, and spent his last many years in a care facility. His life was effectively cut very short, so there’s no way of knowing what he might have had to say from a longer view. He didn’t deserve that, or anything but an honest and conscious presence when faced with the end of life.
Have you ever considered writing a book about Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour Show, with your commentary on the show and the songs he chose to play?
– hugh grissett
Sure. Right from the start.There’s definitely a book there—but I’m not sure what it would be about. What’s the theme of Theme Time Radio? It’s there, and I hope someone finds it. Maybe Dylan: Chronicles Volume 2: On the Air.
“Want to go farther?”
Does Rose Kennedy own a black dress?
The first part of your answer is a little unclear as there are, lest we forget, two actual women rapping on this song. If you’re talking about Cardi B, I don’t disagree with you on shtick v. style. She raps like an “I HEART NY” paperweight (R.I.P. Milton Glaser) that someone’s moving with their hand. I like Megan Thee Stallion better, but this one’s still very much not for me.
To the second part of your answer, my finer-grain objection (not counting the faint suspicion that Pauline Kael may be serving here as something of a female human shield, but anyway) is that it presumes a woman couldn’t possibly want to look like that, and that if she does, her want must necessarily be a reflection of and a capitulation to the desires of men. This reduction of actual people to sociology is, again, something you’ve rebuked so elegantly in the past (“…He didn’t say if Sonny Terry was in it.”), so it’s disheartening to see it here.
My broader objection is that it takes a certain kind of gall to reduce a female performer to just some boobs you don’t like and then give her the bill for embodying the ideals of shitty men.
In a side note: I’ll give the benefit of the doubt and assume that you were responding to the video’s overall spectacle and ostentatious deployment of wealth, but I also would suggest that if in the future you ever find yourself in mixed company being asked to answer for having maybe inadvertently portrayed a black woman as a certain kind of grotesque, you leave out the Michael Jackson/Elephant Man part.
– James Cavicchia
I don’t really disagree with anything you’re saying, and I back off on your point about reducing people to sociology—I don’t read what I wrote that way, but if anyone can it wasn’t written right. But I think I’m coming from a different point of view, a more impatient one, a state of being fed up. Your line about the paperweight is beyond perfect, because no one else would ever have thought of it.
[re “WAP” see 9/2]
You once lamented that Neko Case seemed to be getting reviewed for her hair. More recently, you rightly shut down someone dismissing Tom Paxton’s Annie as “a crazy bitch.”
So: While I certainly understand bad moods, and I’ve been reading Real Life Rock long enough to know that women’s breasts are an ongoing concern, I’m not sure why out of all the many (MANY) substantive reasons to dislike “WAP” you’d choose to air one that’s so shitty, objectifying, and retrograde.
I don’t really have a question here, but man, that was ugly.
– James Cavicchia
There’s a a flatness in her raps that’s too typical of major stars who have a shtick rather than style. Is that better?
Pauline Kael once wrote that the Jayne Mansfield who appears on the cover of Hollywood Babylon didn’t look like an actual woman, but some parody of a woman dreamed up by a man who hated women. That’s what I see when I see a picture of Stormy Daniels. That’s what I see in the “WAP” video. It reminds me of Michael Jackson trying to buy the Elephant Man. Want to go farther?
Thanks for the first two answers [re: “WAP”]; they provided a genuine laugh when I needed it.
I’ve been involved professionally in Democratic politics for 25 years, and I unhappily agree with your assessment.
“Yea” does sound like “Hang Out,” though.
– Derek Murphy
Let’s hope we’re both wrong. About that, not that.
I read your reprint discussing Brian Jones and ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ that had the H.P. Lovecraft quote. That made me wonder what you thought of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I thought it was a pretty good read, allowing for the fact you lose some dimension in the translation. But I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why it was still censored when it did come out in the ’60s. Rhetorically, I wonder what it’d be like to have Stalin like your stuff, but still suppress it, or refuse to allow you to leave the country.
Stalin knew that, as a stable genius, he could divine the shadings and subtleties in a work, but others less gifted could not, and therefore had to be protected from ideas and images that might confuse them.
In The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs, you write that “John Henry” is “a symbolic unsinging of any and every lynching of a black person, an affirmation of the power of a single African-American to deny and defeat the white power set against him.” I’ve been researching and writing about “John Henry” for seven years, and you are the only white writer I’ve come across who has recognized that it’s a black freedom song. Would you like to comment further on the ballad along that line?
– Jim Hauser
[Greil’s 2014 lecture, “The Old Weird America: Music as Democratic Speech–From the Commonplace Song to Bob Dylan” contains more on “John Henry,” and will be posted on this site.]
I think the great weasel word of our time is “problematic”, meaning “I have a problem with you and it’s incumbent on you to solve it.”
– Robert Fiore
Yes—and “narrative,” which is supposed to mean “story.” It actually means false story: a set of propositions and illustrations constructed for the sole reason of getting people to believe something that the person promulgating the account thinks will be to his or her benefit. Put that in the devil’s dictionary.
1) In the documentary, Monty Python: Almost the Truth, and in this article, He’s not the king of rock and roll, he’s a very naughty boy…: Punching Up 2018 : Chortle : The UK Comedy Guide, Eric Idle says he found out from some of the Memphis Mafia and Linda Thompson that Elvis Presley was a huge Monty Python fan. Elvis saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail almost 30 times and would perform and quote Python sketches. What did you think when you heard of these worlds colliding?
2) In a recent Ask Greil you stated, “The only person who could cover Sam Cooke was Rod Stewart.” While I agree, in general, what about: Richard Manuel and the Band’s version of “A Change is Going to Come” on Moondog Matinee (previously praised by you in Mystery Train), “Win Your Love” by the Persuasions on Chirpin’ (not mentioned in your review of the album), Aretha Franklin’s “A Change is Going to Come” on I Never Loved a Man… and Harrison Ford’s “Wonderful World” in Witness?
3) On a recent “Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast,” guest Mac Davis talks about watching Laugh In with Elvis at Graceland. Elvis said, “You know what I want to do? There is this long shot of a guy in a yellow raincoat on a tricycle pedaling away from the camera in that jerky speed. He then turns around, with his head bowed, and pedals right up to the camera. He throws off his hoodie and it’s me. I look into the camera and say, ‘Sock it to me, baby!'” Davis told him, “Oh man, that would be great! You should do it!” Elvis said, “The Colonel won’t let me.”
– Erik Nelson
1) All I can say is, Of course! I haven’t watched …and the Holy Grail 30 times but I’ve listened to the soundtrack hundreds of times. I can imagine a Python scene where, deep in the background, Elvis just walks through, like Alfred Hitchcock in one of his movies.
2) Sure, I was overstating. There’s Otis Redding’s “Shake.” There’s Al Green singing “A Change Is Gonna Come” in many situations, though probably none stronger than this, later in his career–Anyone singing this song has to break your heart and make you believe, and Al Green does that, until the end, when he just kills. There’s what Booker T and the MGs do behind Otis Redding on the same song. But none of the people you mention, or others I can think of, come close to Stewart’s “Twisting the Night Away,” not even his “Bring It On Home to Me.”
And if I remember Witness accurately, the version of the song that Harrison Ford says is “really great” that comes on the radio in the garage is sort of presented as if it’s the original, but it’s not Sam Cooke. It’s a pallid doesn’t-really-sound-like-him substitute. Probably because the real thing cost too much. A producer once told me about an episode in one of the more memorable series of the last 20 years that he wanted to close with the real “A Change Is Gonna Come.” The price was $500,000.
3) Oh, the Colonel might have let him. For all the tea in China.
In June, my family and I drove across the country to clean out my wife’s parents’ house in upstate New York. (We saw more guns than masks.)
My wife and I wanted to listen to Rough and Rowdy Ways, but about halfway through “My Own Version of You,” the kids got sick of Dylan and we got sick of their Dylan impressions, so we turned it off and agreed on Norman Fucking Rockwell. Fair enough.
A few days later, we told our 10-year-old daughter to clean out a third-floor closet, in which she found a tape recorder and a box of old mix-tapes that my wife, her siblings, and their friends had made in the ’80s and ’90s. When she liked (or didn’t like) a particular song, she’d use the Shazam app on her iPod to identify it.
At one point, I heard laughter coming from upstairs, and I went to investigate. “What’s so funny,” I asked. “One of these tapes has Bob Dylan on it,” she said. “Your favorite,” I said, and she showed me the iPod, which had identified the song as “My Own Version of You.” Obviously, this was impossible, so I asked her to play the song. It was They Might Be Giants’ version of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” I would’ve thrown myself out the window, but the possibility of the attic having turned into the basement seemed all too real.
No question here. Just to say: I worry far less about Cavett-gate than I do about Shazam.
– Graham Foust
If that proves anything, it’s that not even Bob Dylan can redeem that awful song. Which They Might Be Giants do as colorlessly as they do everything else.
Ever notice that “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread” sounds a lot like “Let It All Hang Out”?
Also, any thoughts on “WAP”? No one I know admits to liking it, but it’s at No. 2 right now and I’m one of the reasons why.
– Derek Murphy
2. I think breast implants are gross.
3. I’m in a bad mood today. The race has shifted to Trump and in a presidential race when the electorate goes right it doesn’t go back.
I always heard “He wasn’t really where it was at” as Dylan being a hipster’s hipster (his go-to sarcasm at the time if Don’t Look Back is typical), using the phrase fully aware of the deadness of the language. Otherwise it wouldn’t stand out, not just in the song but in anything he was writing at the time. Thoughts?
– Kevin Bicknell
It sounds to me like a lazy line.
Alex Ross described his book Wagnerism as a book for and about people with mixed feelings about Richard Wagner.
Are there any good examples of similarly conflicted/ambivalent criticism about pop and rock that you can think of?
This started with Norman Podhoretz’s notorious 1963 Commentary essay “My Negro Problem—and Ours,” which is demagogic in its title and goes from there. It spawned a whole genre of “My Something Problem, and Ours” (or “Yours”) pieces—a quick look brings up a recent “My Black Crime Problem, and…”; “My Tarantino Problem, and…”; “My Flannery O’Connor Problem, and…” Alex Ross’s book will probably get a review titled “My Alex Ross Problem, and…” I’ve never gotten past the dishonesty of the titles to read any of them.
Most people are much smaller-minded than Alex Ross, taking on one of the most controversial figures in Western cultural history, and not just because his legacy was taken up by the Nazis: Nietzsche could have written a book called “My Wagner Problem—and Ours,” and for that matter, with “Nietzsche contra Wagner” in 1889, he did. Which is why I’ll read Alex’s book: I have no idea what he’s going to say, but I know his work well enough to know he isn’t setting up a statue just so he’ll look good knocking it down.
So now “Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song” has people thinking torch singers and music venues… sure, and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” is about a weather forecast.
Like an old poetry professor of mine used to say: “It’s a fucking metaphor!”
– jalacy holiday
Metaphors are play.
The Beatles’ “Help” is a landmark in popular music. I prefer “Help Me” by Sonny Boy Williamson. The atmospherics are breathtaking. And I do not recall a Beatles lyric superior to: “Bring me my night shirt. Put on your morning gown. Darlin’ I no ways feel tired. But I feel like lying down” (and I am a huge Beatles fan).
Your Treasure Island list has always interested me in that you commonly selected performers’ records that were not their big hits. Poppy Family, “That’s Where I Went Wrong” rather than “Which Way You Goin’ Billy.” Shocking Blue, “Never Marry a Railroad Man” rather than “Venus.” Was this intentional?
– Harry Clark
I like the Beatles’ “Help” much better than Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me.” That sounds standard; you can kind of hear him say he’s sung this song before, or a dozen ones like it. Long before John Lennon talked in interviews about how desperate he was when he wrote “Help,” you could hear it. It was a very catchy pop song and I always wondered why he sounded like he meant every word, why he seemed almost to be reaching through the speakers, asking you to come in and join him, to help him. It was number one and it didn’t exactly fit on the radio.
I liked “That’s Where I Went Wrong.” “Which Way You Goin’ Billy” never even registered for me. “Venus” is an exceptionally professional piece of work and as unfeeling as a stone. “Never Marry a Railroad Man” was scary and sounded off, didn’t ever come to rest. It would be decades before someone pointed out to me that it came out of Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground”—though the band later recorded a more direct version of that, with a bit of “St. Louis Blues” thrown in. I just liked the records. I wasn’t trying to be cooler than the hits.
Not a Question But a Poem (About Greil—And About Us)
Greil Marcus –
What he hears in a song-
So different than what we hear.
As new & unexpected as a great riff
On a familiar melody.
An archaeologist, a futurist and an empiricist
Walk into a Dive Bar with an Undercover Paradigm
The shredded avalanche becomes an accordion of references
A Conceptual construction site that shimmers like a belly dancer moves
We are dazzled & toss coins
Into his Jukebox of Books, Essays & Reviews
So much to Dance to
To see & listen to
Could he really be only one person?
Maybe he’s a committee,
A cultural Congress that meets in secret
To preserve the victories of the Revolution
A singer, a musician learns not
To imitate the Giants
In order not to be swallowed by the Whale
The Rock & Roll Anxiety of Influence
Does he have much to teach us?
Yes – Emphatically yes –
He discovers and describes
Terrain we didn’t know existed
But we must make the journey
On our own with what we have
We can’t expect to see what he describes
I don’t think he’d want us to say that we did.
– Dave Rubin
A couple of years ago you seemed to take Kanye West’s embrace of Trumpism, and Trump, with fairly good humor—sure, he’s a weirdo, but he did give us the “Famous” video. Now that (as you’ve mentioned) the Trump campaign is using voter suppression and whatever other legal and illegal means they can think of to tip the odds in favor of re-election, what do you think of Kanye’s pledge to run for president (a prospect that Republicans seem to be actively encouraging)? The Democrats already have their work cut out for them—do you think West could actually siphon off enough votes to act as a spoiler, which may be his goal? (Robert Christgau recently suggested that West “deserves to be stowed in a mental hospital, period—preferably a public one in, say, West Virginia.” I have problems with the idea that mental health care should be punitive, but I take his point.)
– steve o’neill
What he’s doing is neither illegal or insane. It was obvious from the first moment that this was a Trump ploy to strip black male votes away from Biden-Harris. West, like many others, loves proximity to power and in a personalized administration access to actually make things happen, including pardons for whoever he might deem worthy. Who knows, there could be a cabinet post or ambassadorship coming. He’s the Jill Stein of this year—that nice progressive Russia-backed stooge who allowed white women to be righteous in their fear of or distaste for Hillary. Wisconsin, Michigan, PA, and Florida—10,000 Kanye votes in any of them could be the difference.
Excuse my language, but the scenario in the full version of the “Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song” is this:
A. The man sits in a music venue listening to a woman he has broken up with sing a heartrending song imploring her to renew the relationship. By the weary, fatalistic tone in which he addresses his acquaintance, he has sat through this performance a number of times, and this time he is going to break down, acquiesce and renew the romance.
B. Two weeks later, she’s going to unceremoniously dump him again, and announce the event in front of anybody else who happens to be in the venue with a breakup song.
C. Evidently this cycle has repeated itself at least once, and by implication several times. He seems to imply that it will continue into the future.
Now, I ask you, who is the irrational party in this scenario, and who is the victim? One possible reason he has to sit still for this is that he is the bartender.
I don’t really see how this could be referring to Annie Ross because as far as I know, Annie Ross did not compose her own material, did not sing songs about the most intimate details of her personal life, and was more of a rhythm singer than a torch singer. Not to mention it would be tantamount to slander.
– Robert Fiore
I like the idea of the bartender. I know who Annie Ross was. I was thinking of attitude, not genre.
Tom Paxton could be subtle, but his best songs had an undercurrent of slickness that gave the listener a way out. This is a very organized song. “Cracklin’ Rosie” can go anywhere once it begins. This could have been called “The Circle Song.”
—And I might add, in the truncated version of the song, there is no strong indication of who the wronged party might be, and what the man seems to be saying is, “I can’t give you what you want, but it I will stand and bear witness to your suffering. That at least I owe you.”
– Robert Fiore
Why it might be better.
Curious about what is your favorite slang, and how and when you used it (particularly while at Cal).
I’m left somewhat blank. I’m not much of a slang person. Most of it sounds contrived to me, and I’ve tried to avoid helplessly or mindlessly incorporating meaningless or meaning-killing terms into what I say or write—though I’d bet if I went through some of my early pieces from 1968 and 1969 I’d find a lot that would embarrass me now. But it grates on me–the one moment in “Like a Rolling Stone” that rings false is the slang moment, “He really wasn’t where it’s at.”
Actually used slang: expressions that were common in Deutsch Hall, where I lived as a freshman, probably passed down for generations, like “Hold the ‘vator!” as in elevator. I never see a closing elevator without thinking of that phrase. The only slang usage I can think of that I really liked was the so emphasis of the early 2000s, as in I am so not ready to look at his face again. That seemed like new but real speech to me and I liked using it. I don’t know where it went.
Thought you might enjoy this new piece about fellow writer (and co-conspirator) Stanley Booth: Feast of Booths, Part Two—Broken Hearts to Celebrate.
Stanley’s health is poor, but he remains (as always) a force of nature.
– Brian Kennedy
Many thanks for sending this, which I’m sure I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. That’s the Stanley I’ve known, and I’ve known no one like him. My wife and I have never forgotten the night he took us to Brady and Lil’s barbeque place in Memphis, which featured the dubious dish of barbequed spaghetti. Of course we had to try it, just to make sure it was as terrible as it sounded. And then we had to try it again.
Did you listen to Obama’s Instagram playlist? I just learned about it. Also, did you know what Hebrew year it was when you were growing up? I never did, nor my Hebrew name. Well, good Yom Tov.
– Reference [?]
It has real consistency: MOR goo. Except for OutKast’s “Liberation” and Chet Baker’s “Let’s Get Lost.” I have trouble believing anyone actually listens to Jennifer Hudson. I liked how Billie Eilish said what she said tonight: she was completely convincing that she meant every word even more than she could say. But “My Future” is by the numbers. Billy Porter is a preener. Jason Isbell publicizes a lot better than he does anything else. The Wailers “Could You Be Loved” could be by a thousand other people, and was, and has been.
Given that he could have picked what I’d say are six better numbers from the Dylan album, I do want to know what he finds in “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” so I’ll play that at least five times tomorrow.
As a Californian, do you have any thoughts on Kamala Harris? It would seem she has a very realistic chance to end up as president.
– Alan Vint
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I’m very patriotic to the Bay Area, so I’d like her even if I didn’t. I liked her Biden take down about “That little girl was me” because when she was being bused to Thousand Oaks Elementary in Berkeley I was living two blocks from there.
As a senator, she’s been the closest to Al Franken in questioning dubious people. As a speaker, she can seem programmed. As a DA, she defeated a very so-called progressive Democrat who was too progressive—that is, he didn’t prosecute a lot of people who belonged in jail. As AG, in California that’s traditionally been a stepping stone office, usually to governor. So she used that office as it’s been traditionally used—while making alliances with other AGs in group actions, which didn’t get her publicity but were effective.
Over the last few days, some polls show very dramatic tightening, with one poll showing Minnesota tied (which it probably has been all along—Hillary barely carried it) and CNN showing the national race effectively tied. Given what’s happened over the last two weeks, that either means Trump’s amplifying lunacy strategy—promising a third term, attacking immigrants as animals, endorsing QAnon—is working, that people are finding Biden the Man Who Isn’t There, or perhaps most likely are scared to death of a black woman. If that’s so, Kamala has her work cut out for her to present herself as someone people can imagine as president. And I’m not sure the Biden people, who will be running her campaign, will know how to do that.
At the moment I would say Trump has a 75% chance of winning. Before the sabotage of the Post Office, I figured the voter suppression would add 3 to 4 points to Trump’s legitimate position, but now I’d guess 7 to 10. And that’s a huge amount.
Apropos of the discussion of cover versions vs. originals, to me the real standout of the Bob Dylan Another Self Portrait set (though I don’t believe you take any special note of it in your liner notes) is “Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song (Called Take Me Back Again)”. As performed by Dylan it’s an unsolved mystery song along the lines of “Ode to Billy Joe”, where the protagonist, though he’s unwilling or incapable of giving this Annie the affection and companionship she yearns for, nevertheless feels compelled to return to the nightclub where she performs her torch song for him week after week, to abide in this purgatory of his own heartlessness or trauma over the unforgivable thing that passed between them. I became curious about the original, which was by Tom Paxton, so I looked it up, and found there’s another verse that Dylan doesn’t perform: “It isn’t Annie’s only tune/The other I’ll be hearing soon,/Next week, tomorrow, or today;/She sings it when she goes away”. This ending brings you to what the writer M. John Harrison once called “The dead spot of ordinariness at the heart of every mystery.” The protagonist is revealed as an innocent man at the mercy of a crazy bitch, and the song is a king of folkie nothing. I tend the think the reason it never made the album was that without the last verse it really doesn’t make any sense, though maybe it’s just that others weren’t taken with it as I was.
Everyone can hear a song in their own way, but I’d say “the protagonist is revealed as an innocent man at the mercy of a crazy bitch” indicates you may be playing your own song inside of anyone else’s. Your words are ugly, but not in any version of the song I can hear.
Tom Paxton is a subtle writer at his best, and he’s at his best here. The song reminds me, in every way, melody, words, tone, of Neil Diamond’s “Cracklin’ Rosie”—it’s a song about a guy hung up on a woman who hasn’t given him a second thought in years, if she even ever knew he existed—maybe he’s thinking about Annie Ross, who he saw sing in a club once and could never get out of his mind—so he’s drinking himself into dreamland. But it if you’re looking for a song to make sense, “Annie’s going to sing her song, called ‘Take Me Back Again'”—that makes complete sense: you don’t have to hear any more, the story begins and ends. So Dylan doesn’t have to sing any more than that.
In your ‘70s essay on rock death and survival, you spoke of fiction that glorified “vaguely neurotic, white, middle-class characters.” For me, that means Woody Allen, but always wondered who you meant.
– Derek Walker
Woody Allen characters to me are defiantly, proudly, insistently self-definingly neurotic. It becomes shtick, as at the end of Annie Hall when Allen goes into his afraid-of-lobsters routine with a post-Diane Keaton girlfriend and she doesn’t play along—you realize it’s just a routine he pulls to get women into bed.
I was thinking of John Updike most of all, but also Walker Percy, post-Portnoy Philip Roth, except for The Great American Novel, post Catch 22 Joseph Heller—and as a template, Richard Yates’s 1962 Revolutionary Road, probably the most overrated postwar American novel. Garbage in garbage out: the movie had completely convincing performances by Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, and Zoe Kazan and it was still bullshit.
I was pleased to see your shout-out to H.P. Lovecraft recently. I first discovered Lovecraft when I was about 13 or 14, and have continued to read him through the ensuing decades. Despite all his obvious flaws (poor plot construction, purple prose, nonexistent characterization, not to mention the horrific racism that’s apparent in his stories and the antisemitism that’s not that hard to uncover), I continue to find his works uniquely powerful.
I don’t recall your having written about him before. Anything you want to share about his work?
– Elliot Silverman
This is all I ever wrote about, or from, H. P. Lovecraft.
Death permeates the world of rock and roll because it’s a risky business. It’s risky to be a star, to be treated like one, to act like one. It used to be fashionable to speculate on all the incredible things Bob Dylan might do if he lived past thirty—even old-timer Alan Lomax said something of the sort, I remember—and of course Bob Dylan will most likely outlive us all, not that I look forward to dying before he does, but can you think of anyone you’d rather grow old with, even at a distance?
Brian Jones didn’t live past thirty—he died at twenty-six, at the bottom of his swimming pool, probably swallowing some water, too stoned to catch his breath and come up for air. Jones has a lot of company: Sam Cooke, shot in the stomach; Holly, Valens, Richardson, dead in a plane crash; Eddie Cochran, auto accident; Brian Epstein, pills and booze; Frankie Lymon, heroin; and of course, Otis Redding, whose death was probably the most tragic of all. The deaths of these men, boys some of them, affected me powerfully—I can remember that — but I woke up to hear that Brian Jones was dead and not more than a ripple of sorrow passed through the room. It was time for it, there was just nothing left for him to do. Become a Rolling Stone and die.
Jones’ death, like Sam Cooke’s, was not spectacular, but sordid; Jones had been in and out of court and jail on drug busts for a couple of years, and I doubt if anyone really believed the official explanation of his departure from the Stones—“He wanted to make his own music.” Sure, but I doubt if it was the kind of music one makes with guitars. How does one come down from the status of a Rolling Stone? The news of Jones’ death seemed as inevitable as a body count. There was no way to deal with it.
It was not dealt with at all. The Stones’ new single, “Honky Tonk Women,” one of their best, certainly the best thing going on any radio, had just been released, and hours after Jones’ picture hit the front page of the paper—“Death of an Idol”—a DJ was rapping: “Well that’s the new single by the Stones gonna be their biggest in a long time looks like ol’ Brian Jones really missed out on this one too bad.”
When the Stones started out in 1962 it was Jones, Jagger and Richards who were the real fanatics, who knew they’d make it and pushed until they did; bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts were a bit skeptical, nursing their secret hopes but not really believing in the band the way the other three did. Jones’ contribution to the Stones wasn’t musical, not really, though he was a fine musician, versatile, kneeling down on dulcimer or zither or whatever it was on “Lady Jane,” Jones the sensual guitarist, sitting back with his harmonica, his organ, his piano, harpischord, bells, whatever was lying around, whatever sounded right at the time.
Jones was perhaps more of a Rolling Stone than any of the others. What the Stones as a group sang about, what Jagger and Richard wrote about, Jones did, and he did it right out in public, and he got caught, and he looked the part. Paternity suits even in the early days, dope busts, pink suits, chartreuse suits, the bell of yellow hair and the impish grin, even the red and yellow stripes he wore that made Mick Jagger look like he was wearing Salvation Army leftovers—that was Brian Jones. A true rake. He wasn’t acting out the Stones’ music, he just happened to be the Stones’ music, and that was one reason why you know the Stones always mean it, why you know they aren’t sitting around thinking up clever ideas that might make a good song — it was always valid and Jones was the reason, part of the reason, why “the red ’round your eyes shows that you ain’t a child” wasn’t an idea, wasn’t “hey, let’s write a song about methedrine,” but was fact, rough fact, rake’s fact.
A few years ago there were a lot of songs written and a lot of questions asked about such things as “Who Killed Davey Moore” and “Who Killed Norma Jean” and so on. The answer, of course, was “everybody,” and it seems rather a pallid, stupid answer right now, because those questions and their common answer enforced the kind of guilt one could assuage by making a contribution to the United Crusade or the City of Hope. Cheap guilt and cheap salvation. A metaphysical cry for spare change—spare some of your soul, we’re taking up a collection for good ol’ Brian Jones.
I hope the Stones don’t respond that way. I really hope they don’t show up at Jones’ funeral in black suits and grey ties. In a way, Jones’ death shows us and maybe Mick Jagger himself that the Stones weren’t kidding when they sang “Sympathy for the Devil.” “I lay traps for troubadors who get killed before they reach Bombay. Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name. But what’s confusing you is just the nature of my game.” As H. P. Lovecraft wrote in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,
I say to you againe, do not call
up Any that you cannot put downe;
by the which I meane, Any that
can in turn call up somewhat against
you, whereby your powerfullest de-
vices may not be of use.
The Rolling Stones call up whatever they can use, and it’s no worry whether or not it can be “put down” later on. “Sympathy for the Devil” turns out to be the epitaph of Brian Jones as surely as if he’d written it himself and left it lying by that pool as a suicide note. Jones didn’t commit suicide because he wasn’t any Ernest Hemingway sitting around thinking up new ways to prove his manhood. You can’t come down from being a Rolling Stone. No way down, and one way out.
It happens. Traps for troubadors, and sometimes one doesn’t stumble into them but goes looking for them. We grow up with death. Brian Jones, R.I.P.
Hi, somewhere you noted that you make mixtapes (I guess it’d be playlists now) of related music, etc., when working on a new book. Were any of these commercially available besides the one for Lipstick Traces? I really like that comp and would be interested in hearing others. Any chance of your putting them up on Spotify or somewhere?
Other than Lipstick I think I have them for Invisible Republic/Old Weird America, The Manchurian Candidate, The Rose and the Briar (on Columbia) Like a Rolling Stone, The Shape of Things to Come, When that Rough God Goes Riding, The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs, and Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations. Often involve pieces taken from movies, TV shows, YouTube, or very obscure tapes.
[Note: We will start posting some of Greil’s book playlists on this site.]
I saw a feature recently on the film director David Lean where it said he was so upset by the reviews by Americans Film Critics such as Pauline Kael of his film Ryan’s Daughter that he gave up trying to make movies for over a decade. Everybody I know who has seen Ryan’s Daughter regards it as a very moving film which leaves one wondering whether there were underlying issues why a critic would write a malicious review of such a film .
As someone who was a UK teenage reader of the NME in the 1970s I recall extremely callous reviews of pop artists based on issues other than their work. Apart from obvious examples of a critic viciously slamming an artist because they did not like them on a personal level there were also examples like one critic Paul Morley writing a hit job on Peter Gabriel simply because another critic he did not get on with, Nick Kent, had written a positive review of Gabriel.
Did you ever consider when reviewing a record the possible psychological effect of a malicious review on a sensitive or young artist?
– Simon, Manchester UK
I’ve seen David Lean say that, and I was baffled. Pauline’s review specifically must have raised up his own self doubt over an inflated and empty spectacle, especially compared to the astringency of his pictures that people watch again and again. But you’re asking about what you’re calling callous reviews, and I’m not sure what that is. Judging (or condemning) something because you disapprove of the director’s morals (the way to address Woody Allen movies is not to plumb them for defenses of his acts and statements but to ignore them) or some other private reason is merely dishonest, toward the work and one’s readers. But a critic owes nothing to the presumed innocence of an artist’s motives or intentions. The work under consideration doesn’t get to start on first base. Speaking only for myself, I always want to live, to be drawn into, to be swept up by, anything I take up, and sometimes I can tell from the first sentence or the first twenty seconds of a movie or a record that an atrocity is already underway. I have conflicted responses to Patti Smith’s work, but I know she can always surprise me, so I wasn’t happy that I couldn’t finish the first page of Just Kids for the preening self-congratulation.
Some of the pieces I’ve found most satisfying both to write and in retrospect have been my most eviscerating: on Albert Goldman’s Elvis book and David Hadju’s book on Richard Farina and Bob Dylan. I don’t think those, or other wipeouts by other writers, are hateful, personally invested, or about anything outside the works themselves. I think they and the authors were treated with complete fairness for the dishonest works they created. Some, including the authors, might inexplicably disagree. But is that callous? Sure, if you think it’s the critic’s responsibility to consider an artist’s feelings. But criticism is not therapy. Otherwise the artist would rightfully pay the critic.
I’m curious to know if you’ve ever taken a listen to John Mayer’s 2012 album Born and Raised? It’s noted that his feel and sound is borrowed from and inspired by Dylan, Neil Young, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and The Band.
If you have, could you share and point me to a few records that maybe would help me a further understanding of where it’s coming from? I’d love to fall down the rabbit hole.
– Andrew Garcia
It’s not a record that’s ever drawn me in, so I don’t really have anything to say about it.
Thanks to Robert Mitchell (07/30) for hipping me to the Sparks Of Rhythm’s original (and drastically different) version of “Handy Man.” The YouTube clip I clicked on showed the label for the promo 45, and the songwriting credit Charles Merenstein jumped out at me—could he be related to Lewis Merenstein, producer of Astral Weeks and Moondance and many others (and, according to some sources, recording engineer on The Stooges)? Turns out that Charles was Lewis’ uncle; furthermore, Apollo Records owner Bess Berman (née Merenstein) was his aunt. Small world and all that.
– Charles Olver
I’d never heard the Sparks of Rhythm version At the least it’s an oddity—giving the lead to the bassman. But Jimmy Jones’s hit still sounds glorious to me. I really believe he can fix broken hearts, or for that matter your transmission. And the two records are so different you can’t even call Jones’s a cover. He tore the whole thing down and built it up again.
Gotta ask, when you said, “H.P. Lovecraft and landlines to the contrary, digging up culture you didn’t know was there is usually for the better,” were you referring to the author or the band?
Author. Though the band wasn’t bad.
I much prefer the Gladiolas’ “Little Darlin'” to the Diamonds’ version, even though I’m Canadian. But I like Dr. Hook’s version of “Only Sixteen” more than Sam Cooke’s. Does this make me a bad person?
– jalacy holiday
Definitely. The only person who could cover Sam Cooke was Rod Stewart.
It’s been fifty years since the release of Jesse Winchester’s debut album. Any thoughts on it in 2020? Is it a work you’ve revisited often? “Mississippi You’re on My Mind” still gives me goosebumps.
Listening now, it’s hard not to hear Jim Croce rather than Jesse Winchester, and to hear a self-consciousness and a self-pity that Croce didn’t have. I also hear, from about the same time, James Talley’s album Got No Bread, No Milk, Money, But We Sure Got a Lot of Love, which despite its self-pitying and not believable title (think of what Bob Dylan’s Hollis Brown did when he got no bread, no milk, and no money), has worn far better.
In a recent Ask Greil you said, “I don’t think Pauline [Kael] liked gratuitous violence and I do.” What draws you to gratuitous violence in movies? And is there a correlative in music itself, i.e., a piece of music you are drawn to that feels gratuitously violent?
– Scott Woods
I was going to say “a highly refined aesthetic sensibility” but I really have no idea.
John Shaw is a friend of yours, I guess, so I’m sure he’s a good guy, but for me his attitude epitomizes the sophistry inherent in the backlash to the Harper’s letter. “You can’t oppose transsexual people’s rights and believe in freedom of speech,” Shaw writes, “because no speech is more fundamental than the right to assert your own identity.” That argument eats itself—isn’t stating an opinion, even one as repugnant as opposing rights for transsexuals, asserting one’s own identity? More narrowly, Rachel Dolezal was, as she saw it, asserting her own identity; is challenging that assertion anti-free speech?
And really now, is there a weaker way of making your case than prefacing an argument with “Several people have speculated…”? (D. Trump: “A lot of people are saying…”)
When and why, do you think, so many on the left became so afraid of free speech?
The Communist Party, maybe particularly in the US, where it never had the legitimacy it had in Europe or even Latin America in the first half of the 20th century, was militant about suppressing what was called politically incorrect speech—or, what it was not called, heresy. The idea of a “line”—a set answer to any question, and the idea of deviation, which is to say straying from the line, not even rejecting or outwardly contradicting it—was central. People were under what was called discipline—your can find particularly cutting and painful illustrations in Jonathan Lethem’s novel Dissident Gardens.
This was something the non-Communist left inherited, sometimes, so to speak, against its will. Again, it had to do with feeling as if the official government was at war with those who, as those in the Civil Rights and then Anti-War movements saw it, were trying to make, lead, or convince the country to live up to its own promises. As those movements splintered into a kind of personalism, or sectarianism, people began to imitate the self-criticism sessions of the Red Guards during the Chinese cultural revolution, where people gathered in small groups to define and enforce a puritanical righteousness. In these situations, doubt was banished, especially speaking one’s own self-doubt. One person might use his or her level of righteous enlightenment to correct, or pulverize, someone else in the group. (I’ve always wondered about the similarity of writers’ workshops gauntlets and leftist self-criticism sessions.)
The degrees of sometime invisible and often changing lines on how to speak of, refer to, defend, speak for, and define trans-gender people are infinitesimal and are thus a perfect ground for condemning someone for crossing a line—an inevitable and natural pun.
I remember vividly a moment when someone on the left said something unspeakable, and I’ve always wondered what the motive was: to shake up the public dialogue, make people question their own self-righteousness, or just say the wrong thing in public, for the release, the liberation, the cruelty, the irresponsibility? That was Norman Mailer, in his persona of Aquarius, probably in Armies of the Night, saying, “He was tired of blacks and their problems.” I was shocked and appalled by what he said, and in a lot of ways I still am—as the appalling video of a man standing in a small, Arkansas town, a Klan haven, with a “BLACK LIVES MATTER” sign recording the response he received from people driving by shows—and this is more than fifty years after after Mailer wrote (he also said, to revolution talk from students, “We will be fighting all our lives”)——no one can legitimately grant themselves that luxury. But I know what he meant. Maybe he meant “don’t ever give yourself that luxury.”
The internet is a swamp of self-righteousness, superiority, condescension—and that’s just in the more benign, but still killing, corners. In a situation not that far from what Kara Walker faced several years ago over her silhouette depictions of blacks and whites during slavery, I have a friend, a professor, who posted his opinion about a controversial situation on Facebook. That has led to an apparently organized campaign to shun him, silence him, and get him fired. I’m not sure I agree with what he said, but the only decent response from anyone would have been to say, You’re wrong, and here’s why—maybe philosophically, maybe I’ve been in the shoes of the people you’re talking about—walk a mile in my shoes, and then maybe I’ll listen to you. But decency is not the currency. What is is a state of mind where power trumps all values, and if you have a chance to exercise power over someone else, you run with it as fast and hard as you can. On the left, the internet is now a version of the stocks.
I recently received a refund from a corona-scotched Yves Tumor concert here in Chicago. The last show of theirs I went to was astonishingly loud, and not that numbing, stun-volume, shut-down kind of loud, either—it was instead, insinuating and magnificent, torquing and transformative. I left the show with one less layer of atoms, but all kinds of new ideas. It was great.
What’s the loudest good show you’ve been to?
– James Cavicchia
The loudest show we ever attended was the Who in San Francisco at the Civic Auditorium in 1972. We were in the front row, directly in front of the enormous speakers. My wife was pregnant and we draped coats over her stomach to protect the fetus. For the first years of her life our second daughter was terrified of loud noises.
I can’t recall the loudest show I loved. As Robert Palmer wrote in The Church of the Sonic Guitar, there comes a point when volume changes the guitar into a completely different instrument. The whole world becomes a spiral of inaudible feedback, and you are lost in another world. In other words, in so many shows, clubs, concerts, but usually clubs, usually post-punk bands in the early 1980s, the volume reached such a peak that you no longer heard it as volume at all, just nirvana.
I’m wondering if Greil is aware of the viral “Most Mysterious Song on the Internet” (if not, the tl;dr is there is an unidentified song recorded off the radio in Germany in 1984 and there is an online community trying to identify it—see the Rolling Stone article from 24 Sep 2019 or this subreddit).
With that in mind, what are Greil’s thoughts on this new digital generation of internet users rediscovering vinyl, cassette culture, and punk/post-punk/new wave music through the course of this search and what does that mean for music in general?
Also, I feel like I also have to ask his opinion on the song specifically. Do any bands come to mind?
I would bet money this is a self-generating version of a conspiracy theory. Conceptually there can be no such thing as the most mysterious song on the internet anymore than there ran be any such thing as the most recognized song on the internet (oh, I know, it’s “Don’t Stop Believin'”).
H.P. Lovecraft and landlines to the contrary, digging up culture you didn’t know was there is usually for the better.
Hello Mr. Marcus, first time writing.
Tonight I re-read “Punk” from the Rolling Stone Illustrated History for the first time in years. I lost my old copy of the book year ago. It is as I remembered it—in my opinion, your best. I won’t go into all the reasons why. I’ll just say, Thank you.
Thanks in turn.
I’ve been thinking about the links between Billy “The Kid” Emerson’s “If Loving Is Believing” and the new Bob Dylan song “False Prophet.” I first heard the Emerson song in the mid-70s, when I bought a bunch of European reproductions of Sun singles – the only way you could hear Sun’s back catalog 50 years ago. When I heard “If Loving Is Believing” in 1974, it struck me as a slowed-down predecessor of the power chords that the Kinks would use in “All Day And All Of The Night,” and which were soon stripped to their bare minimum in the Who’s “I Can’t Explain.” I liked the flip side, “No Teasing Around,” better, and it struck me as the clear predecessor of Jackie Wilson’s “Doggin’ Around.”
Had either Ray Davies or Pete Townsend heard that Sun B-side in 1964? Not impossible, although it seems pretty unlikely. Had Lena Agee, credited with writing “Doggin’ Around,” heard “No Teasing Around”? Does it matter? Music doesn’t move in nice straight lines. Independent discovery is a thing. Of course, so is plagiarism, and so are sketchy but legal copyright claims.
It didn’t happen often, but sometimes cover records were better than (i.e., performances I’d rather listen to than) the originals. The Diamonds’ version of “Little Darlin’” was better than the Gladiolas’. Elvis’ version of “Hound Dog” was better than Big Mama Thornton’s (and Freddy & The Bellboys’). The Rolling Stones’ version of “Not Fade Away” is better than Buddy Holly’s, and their version of “She Said Yeah” is better than Larry Williams’. The Tokens’ version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was – I won’t say better, but more enjoyable to my ears – than Solomon Linda’s “Mbube.”
The Weavers’ version of “Wimoweh” was classic elephant art, complete with Gordon Jenkins’ big band arrangement. But “Mbube” itself strikes me as termite art, worming its way against all odds from 1939 apartheid South Africa into the American Top Ten. And not just once, but three times, in three different decades, by the Weavers, Tokens, and Robert John.
Apart from seasonal perennials like “White Christmas,” there aren’t many other songs that reached the Top 10 in three different decades.
Solomon Linda should have gotten credited and paid, but his song achieved something that few others, who had many more advantages, did. Cutting to the chase, I used JOEL WHITBURN’S TOP POP SINGLES 1955-1999, just eyeballing the list of song titles in the index, and referring back to WHITBURN’S POP MEMORIES if an older title looked promising.
As best I can tell, there were four 20th century songs made the American Top 10 in at least three different versions in at least three different decades. They are:
• Mbube (Wimoweh, The Lion Sleeps Tonight) – Solomon Linda’s Evening Birds in 1939 (didn’t chart in America), Weavers (as “Wimoweh,” #6) in 1952, Tokens (#1) in 1961, Robert John (#3) in 1972
• It’s Now Or Never (O Solo Mio) – Emilio DeGorgoza (#1) in 1908, Enrico Caruso (#3) in 1916, Elvis Presley (#1) in 1960, John Schneider (#14) in 1981.
• Loco Motion – Little Eva (#1) in 1962, Grand Funk (#1) in 1974, and Kylie Minogue (#3) in 1988.
• Sukiyaki – Kyu Sakamoto (#1) in 1963, A Taste Of Honey (#3) in 1981, and 4:PM (#8) in 1995.
I would have guessed Tin Pan Alley songs like “Stardust,” “Blue Moon,” and “Deep Purple” might have elbowed their way into three or more Top 10 hits, or maybe “Yesterday” or “Something.” But no, at least not during the rock & roll era. Instead, three of those four multi-decade perennials were adapted from foreign hits, and the other was a Brill Building classic.
And because I have time on my hands, and since anything worth doing is worth overdoing, here are the runner-ups, excluding the many instances of multiple versions of the same song charting at once, which was pretty common before the 1960s, the biggest repeat hits (at least two Top 10 hits in two different decades) were:
• Are You Lonesome Tonight – Vaughan De Leath (#4) in 1927, Blue Barron (#19) in 1950, Jaye P. Morgan (#65) in 1959, Elvis (#1) in 1960, Dodie Stevens (#60, as “Yes, I’m Lonesome Tonight” answer song) in 1961, Donny Osmond (#14) in 1974 – four decades, but only two top 10s.
• Blue Moon – Glen Gray (#1) and Benny Goodman (#2) in 1935, Mel Torme (#20) and Billy Eckstine (#21) in 1949, Elvis (#55) in 1956, and the Marcels (#1) in 1961.
• Breaking Up Is Hard To Do – Neil Sedaka (#1) in 1962, Lenny Welch (#34) in 1970, using the arrangement that Sedaka used for his comeback, Partridge Family (#28), in 1972, and Neil Sedaka again (#8) in 1976.
• Crying – Roy Orbison (#2) in 1962, Jay & The Americans (#25) in 1966, and Don MacLean (#5) in 1981.
• Daddy’s Home – Shep & The Limelights (#2) in 1961, Jermaine Jackson (#9) in 1973, and Cliff Richard (#23) in 1982.
• Dedicated To The One I Love – Shirelles (#83) in 1959 and (#3) in 1961, Mamas & The Papas (#3) in 1967, Bernadette Peters (#65) in 1981.
• Deep Purple – Larry Clinton (#1) in 1939, Paul Weston (#19) in 1949, Billy Ward & The Dominoes (#20) in 1957, Nino Tempo & April Stevens (#1) in 1963, and Donny & Marie Osmond (#14) in 1976.
• Do You Love Me – Contours (#3) in 1962, Dave Clark Five (# 11) in 1964, and the Contours again (#11) in 1988.
• Do You Want To Dance – Bobby Freeman (#5) in 1958, Beach Boys (#12) in 1965, and Bette Midler (#17) in 1973.
• Don’t Be Cruel – Elvis Presley (#1) in 1956, Bill Black’s Combo (#11) in 1960, and Cheap Trick (#4) in 1988.
• Fever – Little Willie John (#24) in 1956, Peggy Lee (#8) in 1958, McCoys (#7) in 1965, Rita Coolidge (#76) in 1973.
• Go Away Little Girl – Steve Lawrence (#1) in 1963, Donny Osmond (#1) in 1971.
• Handy Man – Jimmy Jones (#2) in 1960, Del Shannon (#20) in 1964, James Taylor (#4) in 1977. (If you haven’t heard the Sparks of Rhythm 1956 original, check it out.)
• Heat Wave – Martha & The Vandellas (#4) in 1963 and Linda Ronstadt (#5) in 1975.
• Hooked On A Feeling – B.J. Thomas (#5) in 1969, Blue Swede (#1) in 1973.
• House Of The Rising Sun – Animals (#1) in 1964, and Frijid Pink (#7) in 1970.
• Hurt So Bad – Anthony & The Imperials (#10) in 1965, Lettermen (#12) in 1969, Linda Ronstadt (#8) in 1980.
• I Hear You Knocking – Gale Storm (#2) in 1955, Fats Domino (#67) in 1961, and Dave Edmunds (#4) in 1971.
• I’m Leaving It Up To You – Dale & Grace (#1) in 1963, Donny & Marie Osmond (#4) in 1974.
• Silhouettes – Rays (#3) in 1957, Herman’s Hermits (#5) in 1965.
• Smoke Gets In Your Eyes – Paul Whiteman (#1) in 1934, Platters (#1) in 1959.
• Stagger Lee (and variant spellings) – Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians (#14) in 1924, Lloyd Price (#1) in 1959), Wilson Pickett (#22) in 1967, Tommy Roe (#25) in 1971.
• Stand By Me – Ben E. King (#4) in 1961, John Lennon (#20) in 1975, Ben E. King again (#9) in 1986.
• Tea For Two – Marion Harris (#1) in 1925, Ipana Troubadors (#15) in 1930, Tommy Dorsey (#2) in 1958), Nino Tempo & April Stevens (#56) in 1964.
• The Twist – Chubby Checker (#1 twice) in 1960 and 1962, and the Fat Boys with Chubby Checker (#16) in 1988.
• Unchained Melody – Les Baxter (#1) in 1955, Righteous Brothers (#4) in 1965, and the Righteous Brothers again (#13) in 1990.
• Volare – Domenico Modugno (#1, as Nel Blu Di Pinto Di Blu) in 1958. Bobby Rydell (#4) in 1960, Al Martino (#33) in 1975.
• The Way You Do The Things You Do – Temptations (#11) in 1964, Rita Coolidge (#20) in 1978, Hall & Oates (#20) in 1985, UB40 (#6) in 1990.
• When A Man Loves A Woman – Percy Sledge (#1) in 1966, Bette Midler (#35) in 1980, Michael Bolton (#1) in 1991.
• White Silver Sands – Don Rondo (#7) in 1957, Bill Black Combo (#9) in 1960.
• Why Do Fools Fall In Love – Teenagers feat. Frankie Lymon (#6) in 1956, Diana Ross (#7) in 1981.
• Wonderful World – Sam Cooke (#12) in 1960, Herman’s Hermits (#4) in 1965, Art Garfunkel, with James Taylor & Paul Simon (#17) in 1978.
• You’re All I Need To Get By – Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell (#7) in 1968, Aretha Franklin (#19) in 1971, and Method Man (featuring Mary J. Blige) (#3) in 1995.
– Robert Mitchell
I like the Diamonds version better too.
Two questions about Robert Johnson:
Literally for decades, every time I listen to “They’re Red Hot,” I hear what sounds to me like a second singer joining in with Johnson. I have never seen a hint of this in anything written about the song. Am I just hearing things?
I have seen a lot of speculation on the internet about what the phrase “Dust My Broom” means. Being a lawyer, I have always known (or assumed I knew) what it meant—the singer is giving up a rented room (“Quit the best gal I’ve been lovin’ and my friends can have my room”), and residential leases in the United States have always included a requirement that a departing tenant leave the premises “broom clean.” (I’ve found references to that lease term going back to 1902.)
Now, you may say that any room Robert Johnson rented didn’t come with a written lease, and that if it did, he never read it. Both quite likely true. But elsewhere, Johnson shows a familiarity with the terminology of real estate law (“she’s got a mortgage on my body and a lien on my soul”), so I have always understood the song to be saying that he’s going to sweep out his room before leaving.
– Elliot Silverman
There’s no suggestion in any writing I have seen of a second vocalist, or any evidence that anyone other than Robert Johnson contributed to his recordings. The situation might be that Johnson was able to set up such an rich and in a positive sense unstable complex of sound in any given recording, there often seems to be more than one person responsible. Musicians from those contemporary with Johnson and working today have reacted to different recordings with, “There’s no way that’s only one person playing on this record.” People said the same thing about Jimi Hendrix.
In Up Jumped the Devil, Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow, after noting “dust my broom” as understandable as “being unhappy with your cheating girlfriend and packing up,” go on, rather typically, to try to reduce the meaning of a song to a single idea, regarding the supposed use of the broom in hoodoo practice—you use the broom and magic powder dust to sweep your room of evil spirits, in the same way that today one might sweep one’s room electronically to rid it of any wiretaps or other electronic bugs.
But what’s really going on is a question of the improvisational flair of American speech—its jazz. No, while the singer is clearly vacating his room, so, as in the commonplace line, any friend can have it, he’s not talking about getting his cleaning deposit back by sweeping it so it’s neat and clean for the landlord’s next rental. This is talk: I’m getting out of here. Eat my dust.
That’s how I hear it. It’s speed. Conforth and Wardlow hear Leroy Carr’s “I Believe I’ll Make a Change.” I hear the Beach Boys’ “I Get Around.”
The stalest question an interviewer can ask is “who were your influences?” I always wish the follow-up question would be, “How did you free yourself from them?” I have taken to heart your distinction between influence and inspiration, which I think is an extremely important insight that I’ve never encountered outside of this forum.
Influence-mongering at its worst can be used to say: X influenced Y—therefore Y’s work should be viewed as derivative & his or her importance as an artist should be re-evaluated, with the strong implication that it should be taken down a peg—or two or more.
Taken to an extreme it can lead to absurdities—especially when the claim of influence is unsubstantiated.
What artists, musicians, writers have been overshadowed in the literature that surrounds them by obsessive, relentless interest in their “influences,” almost to the exclusion of a fresh response to their own work… Or am I overestimating the “influence” that interviewers have on scholars, and real critics?
– Dave Rubin
As my friend and sometime collaborator Langdon Winner put it in his first book, The Whale and the Reactor, on technology and nature, “giants are standing on my shoulders”—and he had to find a way to shrug them off. That’s true in any writing.
Situationist writing is enormously seductive. Debord and others could cast a spell. They worked hard to do it. When I was beginning Lipstick Traces after several years of down-the-rabbit-hole research, I realized I had to find a way to do damage to the subjects I’d fallen in love with—not make way for them, not introduce them, but wrestle them, as if anything they said was a con—especially when I thought it was revelatory. I had to escape their influence to honor them.
It used to be that when I felt my writing growing stale or clotted, I’d read Lester Bangs and Hemingway. It was like undergoing a comprehensive clean-out. It would be self-promoting and cheap—self- promotion and self-congratulation are qualities that will make me stop reading anyone, and both are always cheap—to claim either as influences. Substitute teachers I never forgot, maybe.
Have you read Larry Birnbaum’s book, Before Elvis? I have read it, and it alerted me to many great recordings in the years prior to Elvis’s emergence. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the roots of rock and roll music. Would you care to share your opinion of the book?
I didn’t know of the book. I looked it up, and while it’s not fair to judge a book by its Google summary, I’m dubious. I believe—I think, it’s not just a matter of faith—that as Levon Helm and Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan and Jim Dickinson and any number of other people have stated, there really were times “when there was no such thing as rock ‘n’ roll”—that for all of its precursors and direct ancestors something new actually did come into the world.
Nick Tosches wrote what might be a comparable book many years ago, Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Dark and Wild Years Before Elvis. The stories he told were thrilling. You couldn’t wait to hear what he was talking about. And the records almost never paid off. Certainly there was rock ‘n’ roll before Elvis: Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man,” recorded in 1949, is that new thing under the sun. Rock ‘n’ roll was created or discovered for the first time many times, in many places, by many people, in the years between 1948 and 1954—without any one person necessarily being aware of what anyone else was doing. But you go back before that and you’re listening to something else—and before 1954 those rock ‘n’ roll records were heard as oddities, as stray cats, not as part of the same new language, which is what happened when “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and “Maybellene” and “Tutti Frutti” where heard at the same time, all talking to each other.
I hope this message finds you well. I have been following the controversy over The Letter with some interest. My first response was incredulity at its apparent “both sides do it” tenor. Colin Kaepernick leapt immediately to mind, and then… James Weldon Johnson. An NAACP leader who wrote the lyrics for “The Negro National Anthem” and whose work influenced the poetry of T. S. Eliot, the fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the songwriting of Irving Berlin and subsequent Broadway history, he isn’t nearly as well known as the white artists he influenced. His relative obscurity indicates that “silencing” takes many forms, and the institutional racism that keeps (the racist) Fitzgerald and (the racist) Eliot at the center of the curriculum, and (the anti-racist, more historically important, more widely accomplished, and, in my opinion, more literarily brilliant) Johnson at the margin hits me as much more powerful silencing than the free speech that objects to, shames, and seeks to isolate the producers of reactionary and bigoted speech.
And while I am curious about your thoughts about the relationship between institutional racism, the white-centrism of our educational system, and freedom of speech—questions that go much, much deeper than my paragraph indicates (as you know!)—that’s not my main question. You said in another Ask Greil column that it did not occur to you to vet the other signatories to the Harper’s letter. I presume that you know that some of the signatories—JK Rowling and Jesse Singal—polemicize against transsexual people’s rights. You can’t oppose transsexual people’s rights and believe in freedom of speech, because no speech is more fundamental than the right to assert your own identity. Since the letter appeared, some transsexual people have objected to the letter, and one apologized for having signed it. They have been met with obloquy, and Emily VanDerWerff has been met with death threats, rape threats, and invitations to commit suicide. Emily VanDerWerff sensibly points out about Singal and other anti-trans-rights signatories, “They do not believe in free speech. They believe in free speech for them.” Several people have speculated that anti-trans polemicists will use the letter as cover for future anti-trans polemics, and some have even speculated that this piling on against trans-rights activists may have even been a goal for some of the signers. And I do wonder what you think about this constellation of consequences to the letter.
In much debate, particularly online, people proceed while giving the impression that they do not trust the good intentions of the other interlocutor[s]; in this instance, I believe that distrust of the intentions and “free speech integrity” of anti-trans polemicists is warranted. Knowing you, your work, and the history of our interactions, any implication that I don’t trust your good intentions would upset me. Thanks for your work and all, take care, and stay well, please, in this crazy, stressful, distressing time.
– John Shaw
Dear John–as always, good to hear from you.
What you say about James Weldon Johnson is in a few lines a deep dive, as all of your re-seeings of American life are. But though the word “silencing” might connect his erasure with voices you hear being under attack in the Harper’s letter, I think it’s a completely separate question. I don’t think Johnson and Rowling have anything to do with each other.
As I’ve explained, I read the letter that was proposed to me as something various people were being invited to sign. As the letter reflected values and beliefs I’ve not only inherited but tried to pursue, I wanted to sign it, but there was language in it—matters of emphasis—that I couldn’t sign onto, and I suggested two changes, which were made. Apparently any number of other people also suggested changes to the original letter. I knew that the person who invited me to sign was likely to be contacting any number of people with whom I’m not, to put it mildly, in sympathy, as my friend’s politics and perspectives are different from mine, but the letter seemed to make it clear they would not include the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos. I was not going to get into the self-righteous position of asking people to take someone else’s name off a list as a condition of my joining it. Yes, there are people on the list I wouldn’t want to sit down with. I’m sure there are people on the list who feel the same way about me.
I may be a shallow or uncritical reader, but I didn’t hear any anti-trans dog whistles in the letter that apparently other people did. After looking it up, I thought Emily Vanderwerff’s Vox letter was not worth taking seriously because what was presented as coming from her heart was a buzzword: that a Vox colleague’s name was on the letter made her feel “slightly less safe.” How? Why? She’d have to pass him in the office? He’d have to pass her in the office? That blew up, and she was attacked as any black or female or trans or Jewish or we could go on person will be on the internet—there are hordes of evil people out there, the same people we’re now seeing in videos of people refusing to wear masks in stores, who would shrivel up and die if they couldn’t hate. J.K. Rowling has voiced sympathy for, as she put it, a lesbian who didn’t want to have sex with trans women with penises, and she too was attacked, as “a bitch and a cunt.” But how does what Rowling wrote silence anyone? How does criticism of anyone deprive that person of the right to speak? Yes, we can say that puts them in danger—they have been identified as part of a group others despise, and might even try to directly harm. It is a hideous fact of the internet that this is the fate of anyone who speaks out on anything. As a white male I’m far more protected than many other people, but I don’t believe that means for me to speak by definition leads to the deprivation of speech by others.
The current buzzword for the letter is THEY BELIEVE IN FREE SPEECH–FOR THEM. That’s certainly true. I do believe in free speech for me. I don’t see how that leads to not believing in free speech for anybody else.
I didn’t believe in the use of violence to keep Milo Y. from speaking on the Berkeley campus, or the threats of violence that kept Ben Shapiro from speaking there—matters that cost Berkeley hundreds of thousands of dollars it didn’t have. Someone hateful shows up to speak—picket it, argue against it, but the person speaks—let him hang himself or herself. HATE SPEECH IS NOT FREE SPEECH—another buzzword, which means a word or a thought devoid of thought on the part of the person using it—well, actually, it is. France and Germany—not to mention Russia, Egypt, Pakistan, or a hundred other countries—have their laws and their values. The United States has its own as well. That’s why Antonin Scalia voted in favor of the right to burn the flag.
If I were more famous or more on people’s minds than I am, some people—not you—might take the trouble to attack me as a fascist who believes in a state religion and worse. When the decision Scalia joined came down, my daughters went out and got me a little American flag so I could exercise my free speech rights and burn it. I never could. I don’t like to see it done. It makes me feel slightly less safe. It does. Such is life might be a cheap thing to say, but it doesn’t have to be—not as Bob Dylan sings the words in “Key West.” I am trying to say that the way he sings it.
Hi Greil, all this talk of The Letter is very important of course, but I have to admit I assumed at first that it was going to be a discussion of “The Letter” by the Box Tops. I can’t find much reference to the different careers of Alex Chilton in your work. Any thoughts on the man, and his early singles?
– Jack P
One of my favorite responses to the whole brouhaha went on and on in an interesting way and then boom, at the end, no comment, a Boxtops video.
I liked “The Letter” like all sentient beings, but not their first album, and was never captivated by Big Star, unlike apparently all other sentient beings.
What is some of the better writing about music and politics—and by extension, intention and irony?
I’m reading Timothy White’s biography of Bob Marley, where he talks about how many of the songs can be understood as parables of Rastafarian folklore—or, alternately, as nothing of the sort (to an Anglo listener).
This makes me think of all the political art—Marley, Rage Against the Machine—that ends up on a dorm room poster. Is this Adorno territory? Anyone more recent, maybe midway between Mark Fisher and Thomas Frank?
I don’t know what you mean about intention and irony. The most interesting book I’ve read about music and—not politics, but the political dimension of life—is Agnès Gayraud’s Dialectic of Pop, which is definitely Adorno territory. It’s brave, questioning, and alive on every page. Her music is good, too.
One of the more curious summations in the Stranded discography is from Justin Hines and the Dominoes “Jezebel”: “Buddy Holly’s shade surfaced after his death in many forms. This still-waters-run deep reggae group was one of the more unlikely.”
I’ve listened to this record over-under-sideways-down, and I can’t get to the Holly connection. Your Village Voice review from 12/27/76 doesn’t mention Holly either. Can you shed some light?
– Joseph Ollio
Making up that discography required the most concise and even gnostic commentary when possible. Here I meant the quiet, reflective quality that distinguished so many Holly recordings: “Raining in My Heart,” “Crying, Waiting, Hoping,” even, inside the big beat, “Maybe Baby.”
Hi Prof. Marcus—thanks again for a great noir course last year. So which was worse—the ’50s or today?
p.s. Been reading more Jim Thompson. Really like The Getaway and A Hell of A Woman (“Did you ever think about jobs?”).
I went from 5 to 15 in the fifties. I was aware of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, gradually. I remember the day the Rosenbergs were executed because it was my eighth birthday–I was with my father, visiting a judge in Philadelphia, the paper was on his desk with a screaming headline. “Who are they?” I asked. But then I went to a Quaker school that had teachers who’d been fired from other jobs for their politics, and one day I went through my father’s library and tried to hide all the books I thought the FBI would use as evidence against him if they ever raided our house.
But I loved the ’50s. We lived on the San Francisco Peninsula, first in Palo Alto, then in Menlo Park, old, small towns, not yet the center of the universe (though there was a first sign of Silicon Valley in a cold, modernist building across from my high school: SRI, the Stanford Research Institute, which was supposed to have something to do with computers). Except for the Quaker School, Peninsula School, which went back to the ’30s, and was housed in a Victorian mansion built in the 1880s, my schools were built in the ’50s. I could go anywhere on my bike. I played sports. I listened to the radio. I read books. In 1960 I was thrilled by John F. Kennedy, though my father wanted Chester Bowles to run—a name that has not made it to the present, but an honorable one then.
So I wasn’t conscious, or only barely so. The world wasn’t my responsibility. I hadn’t made it, or failed to. Now I have, and there’s no sense that I’m not complicit in the worst film noir ever made that we’re living through, no way I can pretend, well, hey, it’s not my fault. Now there is no escape from any day, and in the ’50s escape was just walking out the door under blue skies and taking off.
As a lifelong fan of your work I was extremely disappointed to see your name on the Harper’s letter, as were several other people I’ve talked to about it. Some of the criticisms of the letter have admittedly been shallow, like the idea that it is unbecoming for Greil Marcus (and Dahlia Lithwick and a few other leftists) to co-sign with David Frum, Bari Weiss, David Brooks, et al. The wider the spectrum after all, the more legitimacy such letters carry. (On the other hand, JK Rowling… That one gives me pause. Did it not fucking hurt a little to wake up and find out you were sharing forums with a transphobe?) Also, too many people complaining about the letter are not addressing the letter but rather what they perceive as people’s motives for signing the letter.
But then, there’s the letter. I’ve read it three times. Nothing objectionable on its face, but also just: NOTHING. Free-speech platitudes and deep concern over… what? There are hints of incidents that (presumably) illustrate what the beefs are–“institutional leaders…delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments”—but the thing lacks teeth, to put it mildly. Who delivered which hasty punishment, to whom, and why? Is it an attack on “cancel culture?” If so, why is such an attack warranted, and anyway, what is meant by cancel culture? Is it related in any way to “comeuppance culture”?
So, my question: I see that you’ve mentioned in the “Ask Greil” forum HOW you came to be involved, but I’m curious to know WHY? Why did you sign it, what were you trying to address here and why do you think it matters?
– Allen Perez
You’re right that the letter is not—or not written as–a call to the barricades. But the negative response from any number of people and intellectual neighborhoods seems to bear out the weight of its content. And maybe response is the wrong word—a lot of what I’ve seen seems to come from a single source, as if people were quoting from talking points, though that may more damningly reveal the inability of some people to actually think when confronted with something they don’t like.
As a teacher or a writer I haven’t experienced any elements of cancelling or shaming. As far as I know I haven’t been marginalized or denied assignments on the basis of my demographics or something I’ve said or written, publicly or privately. In courses at Berkeley or the New School, I have presented objectionable or disturbing material. In a class on Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days, I have always asked TAs to work with me in a round robin reading from the book’s prologue, which is made up of excerpts from letters folklorists in the 1920s received in response to ads placed asking for information about the real John Henry, and some of them used the word “nigger.” The excerpts fell where they did; when there was a TA unwilling to say the word out loud, I took that spot. I always prefaced this by telling the class that the next few minutes would contain material that might rightly offend people or make them uncomfortable, and that they were welcome to leave briefly; I did the same regarding the projection of graphic images of a 1930s lynching. No one ever left and no one ever complained. That was at the New School (2006-2014) and Cal (off and on from 2000 to 2019). The matter that affected me, if not personally, was, as John Oliver would put it, the thing of people informing relatives or acquaintances or colleagues that they would no longer have anything to do with them until they could show that they had risen to a level of enlightenment comparable to the person cutting them, and in a broader sense, the whole mantra of Speaking Truth to Power, as if it’s a natural law that anything a less powerful person says to someone more powerful is the truth—as opposed to the truth as that person understands it, assuming that person is acting in good faith, as opposed to self-promotion or self-congratulation. It didn’t strike me, as some people have said, that I was doing anything in any way brave or risky by signing the letter. I was curious about what company I might be in, but it never occurred to me to ask or vet who that might be. The person who invited me to take part is more conservative than I am, and also someone I trust. As I’ve said, there are a very few people on the list whose work I don’t respect or like personally (as I’m sure I am for other people who signed), and many who I feel humbled sharing a page with.
But what has really confirmed for me that the letter was not empty or even anodyne, and that it was necessary, have been the emails about it I’ve received, often from people I rarely hear from, saying how relieved and gratified they were by the letter, how necessary it was, how important it is to those who are daily up against the forces the letter criticizes. These people have clearly had to push back against, or back off from, or shut up, or change their professions, or found themselves attacked for who they are, where they live, what they do, where they came from, or how they look and talk, by people animated by the tendencies described in the letter. Maybe they didn’t have the nerve to speak out as the letter did. Maybe they didn’t have a forum. When people say they appreciate it when it seems other people are speaking for them that means they are living in a state of disempowerment, and the confusions it brings—maybe I did do that, whatever it is—and don’t know what to do.
Hi Greil. This isn’t a question. It’s a thank-you note I decided to write when I saw your name on the Harper’s letter.
I’ve been engaged with cancel culture for a few years, in an online support group for sexual assault survivors that’s part of an international organization whose main activities are raising awareness, connecting survivors with essential services, and crafting legal strategies to hold perpetrators accountable. Horrific stories get shared in this group. As a result, the defensive mentality is harsh. Essentially, everyone from Ryan Adams to Roman Polanski should be burned at the stake, all traces of their creativity should be cleansed from the planet, and any material produced by anyone that triggers any sexual assault survivor, anywhere for any reason until the end of time, should be completely suppressed. Any argument I try to make against this mentality earns me the epithet of “rape apologist” and worse.
It seems to me that zealotry is spawned by revolution and also feeds on it. Right now in the US, the rapidly expanding zealotry of cancel culture is being spawned by a social justice reckoning, long overdue, that is feeding on both a rage and a history of powerlessness that run very deep. The revolutions exemplified by MeToo and BLM have sparked this particular form of zealotry; the rage and history behind them are its primary motivators. They are not its primary enablers, though.
Without a societal bent toward anti-intellectualism, cancel culture would have no cache. Without a conflation of justice with revenge, people who promote cancel culture wouldn’t think it’s desirable to silence others the way they feel they have been silenced. And without the failure of educational and cultural institutions to teach the difference between believing something and enshrining that belief as public policy, the slippery of cancel culture could not be seen as remedial.
I believe, as do your fellow signees, that cancel culture is essentially anti-democratic. I also believe that it is, politically, highly dangerous. For now it seems to be a popular/populist manifestation whose targets vary according to whatever the outrage du jour happens to be (as the letter points out). What worries me is how the process will be leveraged and then focused by entities that have already made clear their intentions to cancel the republic in favor of some sort of plutocratic, autocratic dystopian nightmare (the kind of state once called “Orwellian,” but with a twenty-first century Christofascist flavor).
The pendulum of history swings, I know. But right now it looks more to me like a guillotine.
Thanks for reading this. Please stay well and safe. Sending best wishes to you and your loved ones.
– Kay Alexander
This is the kind of response—though far more eloquent and thought-out than most—I’ve found sparked by the joint letter. It shows how people are living out what the letter addresses not in any high-profile media controversies, but as ordinary, everyday life. If the letter needed to be justified, this does it. You don’t need to agree with the person speaking here; you just have to walk a few steps in her shoes.
In the “Presliad” chapter of Mystery Train, you quote the “16 coaches long” couplet from Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train,” and then posit, “To understand the strangeness of those lines, we have to go back to the place where Parker and Phillips found them: back to the Carter Family’s ‘Worried Man Blues’…” I’ve often wondered what source you relied on for such an unequivocal statement. And over the years, solely crediting the Carter’s “Worried Man Blues” has been accepted by many, including Dave Marsh and Nick Tosches. Yet, the “16 coaches” couplet dates back much earlier in the African American songster/blues tradition. One of the stanzas Walter Prescott Webb collected from Floyd Canada in 1916 is “16 coaches long.” Blind Lemon Jefferson (albeit it “18 coaches long”), Furry Lewis, and Peg Leg Howell & Jim Hill all waxed recordings with similar lines prior to the Carter’s in 1930. Isn’t it just as likely, then, that Junior Parker was sampling this shared lyric pool, too? Unaware of “Worried Man Blues” (did Lesley Riddle similarly bring this one to A.P. Carter’s attention?). Also remember that Sam Phillips only added his name as co-writer on Presley’s version (I am familiar with Phillips’ assertion that he insisted that the number of coaches be 16). So… your thoughts are much appreciated.
– Joe Specht
One reply might be that you know a lot more now than I did then. Certainly the sixteen coaches image—and it’s so much more than an image, it blends in with the parallel image of sixteen horses, which go down their own paths, with Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “two white horses” in “See that My Grave Is Kept Clean” and Bob Dylan’s “six white horses” in “Absolutely Sweet Marie.” It was a folk lyric phrase that, as you show, traveled back centuries, probably to the Greeks.
But I was working from the idea of the worried man as much as from the sixteen coaches. The whole notion of mystery as a fact of life, of supernatural or simply unexplainable, irrational forces, is what the Carter Family song is about—and I didn’t realize, until this moment, that the story of the man who lies down by the river and wakes up in chains is a metaphor for kidnapping and enslavement, that is, one half of the American story—and it’s that that powers “Mystery Train” as Junior Parker sings it, and as Elvis goes up against it. And the worried man was a descriptor shared by whites and blacks, shifting back and forth between blues singers and the likes of the Carters and the Stonemans—as in Bertha Lee and Charley Patton’s “Mind Reader Blues.”
There’s no end to these stories, and only glimpses of beginnings. Thanks for writing.
I finally heard the Dolly Parton album A Real Live Dolly on Spotify 45 years after first reading about it in Mystery Train. But I’m confused. “Bloody Bones” which you described as being “a ditty about orphans who burn down their orphanage” was just a story about Dolly’s mother scaring her kids into bed with boogieman stories. Was there originally a song there that didn’t make it to Spotify?
I do make mistakes. I was confusing it with “Evening Shade” on the My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy album. I was so besotted with both albums I got them mixed up. I could still listen to “My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy,” either version, forever. Not to mention “Down from Dover,” which is pretty much the guy who got the singer pregnant burning down the orphanage before the baby is even born.
Question out of left field—I watched the Scorsese film The King of Comedy the other night for the first time in ages—and I loved it. I remember in the past I was so-so about it, but it knocks me out now.
Where you ever a fan of this film? Most of the reviews at the time of release were scathing, and outside of Ray Charles doing “Come Rain and Come Shine” it’s not your usual Scorsese/Robertson soundtrack.
I’ve always thought it was one of Scorsese’s best—along with Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Departed—and one of the most penetrating and disturbing movies of the last many decades, speaking the same language of failure and fantasy as Melvin and Howard. It’s also a horror movie, on the same level as Eyes without a Face, Halloween, and Psycho—each about an obsessive, possessed person, and with no supernatural elements at all. It’s so creepy I have trouble watching it, or sometimes thinking about it, or wondering what kind of person Robert De Niro must be to have been willing to take on such a role at all. But there are dozens of moments from the movie that invade my thoughts at any time: Rupert running through the TV office, him sitting in his own basement studio and interviewing himself, the way his girlfriend picks up an object from a table in the house of the Jerry Lewis character—which is one of the great meta-roles in film history. The autograph coven. Jerry Lewis eating dinner by himself. The contempt he throws at Sandra Bernhard as he walks out. It’s a movie in perfect pitch. You can’t get out from under it.
Thank you for signing the “Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” Of course it has already generated a heated backlash on Twitter, mostly consisting of ad hominem toward the signers (which I hope you have managed to avoid).
Were you surprised/amused/appalled/etc. at the names of the other signers? How were you approached to sign?
Is there anything you would have added to the letter—and is there anything you’d like to say about the reactions to it?
I was asked to sign the letter by a friend and colleague. I had problems with some of the language and suggested two changes, which were made—from what I’ve read any number of people did the same. It never occurred to me to ask who else might be signing. Knowing the person who asked me, I figured there would be some people on it who I didn’t like personally or didn’t respect intellectually, and there were, though they weren’t remotely anyone I might have guessed, and I’m sure I fall into those categories for other people who signed it.
From what I’ve seen the outrage the letter seems to have provoked is stagy, and the argument against it from a script. No one has said anything negative to me directly—just the opposite.
Are you familiar with The Townsmen’s version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”? Its awesome, a mix of garage rock and doo wop. According to YouTube, it’s a 1967 recording by a band from Canada. Honorable mention, The Trashmen’s version of the Little Eva song, “Keep Your Hands Off My Baby.”
– hugh grissett
I hear a guy who fantasizes being in the Beach Boys but can’t turn himself loose from the elocution lessons his parents made him take because an uncle said it’d help him get a better job. I do like the way under all the lead and chorus singing the band is playing “Louie Louie.”
I confess I’ve had problems listening to the song—whether the Weavers’ “Wimoweh” or the Tokens’ or anyone else’s “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”—ever since reading Rian Malan’s Rolling Stone story of where it came from—South African Solomon Lindo’s “Mtube,” a hit there in 1939, and what the sainted Pete Seeger did with it. “I have always left money up to other people,” said the man who, using the name Paul Campbell as a front, took the copyright.
I just saw the Pauline Kael doc What She Said, which you had a number of moments in. While I enjoyed it, I was disappointed that there was no mention of her extreme distaste of Clint Eastwood (especially the Dirty Harry films) and Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, both of which she called “fascist.”
Both of them responded by saying she was “full of shit” —this despite Peckinpah being a friend of hers (not so with Eastwood, the opposite in fact).
I have the reviews of all those films in a book of hers, and they are interesting to read, even though I don’t entirely agree with them (not that it matters! lol). Just curious if you had any memories of this stuff back then, and why you think there was no mention of these things… it was a bit of a big deal, supposedly.
I never quite understood what Pauline meant about Straw Dogs as “a fascist work of art.” I do remember Peckinpah’s complaint that Susan George’s second rape was anal rape, saying that “Rear entry doesn’t mean anal—doesn’t she know anything about sex?” when it’s obvious that the second rape is meant to be more of a violation, i.e., exactly what she saw.
I’ve liked Clint Eastwood ever since I lost count of how many people he killed as D. H. Lawrence’s American in Where Eagles Dare. I don’t think Pauline liked gratuitous violence and I do. But the first Clint Eastwood auteur movie I saw was The Gauntlet. After reading, from Pauline and others, what a hopelessly incompetent director he was, I was still shocked by how inept, ham-handed, clumsy, and half-blind the direction was—and yet the movie worked, it hurt, it was thrilling, it held your heart in your mouth.
Why have people been talking about the death of rock ‘n’ roll seemingly for as long as it has existed? I can think of no other genre that is so preoccupied with the death of itself.
– Luke Cross
I’ve wondered about this myself—ever since 1958, when it became clear that the biggest song of the year, the one you couldn’t not hear, was Debbie Reynolds’s “Tammy,” which made me think, “Wow, I thought our generation had really embraced something new and different, that we were living in a different world, but look—we’re all just like our parents, what we really like is the same backward soul-killing stuff that people have been listening to forever.” Luckily I was wrong, at the least in the long run. But I think the kind of inner moral panic over the death of rock, which you can hear in the defensiveness or defiance of Little Richard’s “All Around the World,” Danny and the Juniors’ “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay,” and especially the Showmen’s “It Will Stand”—which was supposed to be [more or less was? — ed.] the title of my first book, in 1969, the same worry in the title that it wouldn’t—goes to the fact that the appearance of the music was such an out of nowhere from Mars if not Jupiter shock, and that it was so perfect, record by record so complete in itself, that it felt like an illusion. Nothing this strange, this good, could be true; nothing this good could last. It had to be a trick.
Your LARB piece on the new Dylan LP was very fine; would doubt there’s anything better written on the subject right now. After reading it, a couple of lines from Robert Lowell’s ‘Fishnet’ came to mind; they seem fitting here:
” Poets die adolescents, their beat embalms them,
the archetypal voices sing offkey; ”
– Mackenzie Clark
I like the “archetypal voices sing off-key,” but the “die adolescents” strikes me as saying that artists are all products of arrested development, with whatever it is that they create, for the rest of their lives, a diversion of sexual energy and questions of sexual identity. Which doesn’t seem to me to be, you know, true, though maybe it was for Lowell.
Thanks for your kind words about the Dylan album. I lived with it for two weeks before writing about it, and I knew that wasn’t enough time. It’ll be changing shape on me for a long time: I played it yesterday and it felt like one complete song.
My friend James P. Girard passed away this morning [June 8], at 75. My original purpose here was to ask that you post your 1976 Rolling Stone review of his first novella—Changing All Those Changes—online, but I see you’ve already done that [link], so this is now a thank you letter. Shortly after the review was published, Jim wrote me that it was the most significant event in the life of his book, up to and including its publication.
You and Jim shared one interesting bit of biography. Both of your biological fathers died during WWII before you were born. Jim’s father died in a hot air balloon accident at a military base in Oregon a few months before Jim was born in 1944.
Jim and I talked a lot about music, and I thought I’d share one comment he made that has stuck with me over the years. It was part of a discussion of what we called “the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame mentality,” which I would summarize as “only heroes need apply.” Jim and I agreed that what we thought of as minor songs (Jim specifically mentioned “This Time” by Troy Shondell) and even songs most of us have never heard of (he’d just run across “Space Mice,” by Walter Brennan) were an unglamorous but essential part of a healthy rock and roll ecosystem. Those records were what proved, in the words of Danny & The Juniors, that rock and roll was here to stay.
That wasn’t to say that there was no hierarchy. We just felt that it was a mistake to focus solely on the top of the pyramid. We believed that if there was going to be a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, then every last street corner doo-wop group, every last garage band, every last payola-taking disc jockey, and every last kid who spent their lunch money on records ought to be in it, at least symbolically. Otherwise, it’s just another venue for the cool kids to lord it over the rest of us.
If there’s anything here you want to respond to, fine. Otherwise, just thanks again for a review that made my friend happy.
– Robert Mitchell
“This time we’re really breaking up—” I know just what you mean about Troy Shondell. It’s a piece of imitative fluff and it goes right to the heart—maybe because of that beginning, beginning with the end, as if you really don’t have to listen to more than ten seconds of the thing. The real Hall is where all the people left out are living.
I think of Jim’s book often, and over the many years since it was published have gone back to it many times, just picking it up, reading a few pages, being pulled right back into its milieu. Very few people have ever caught the feeling of heroic purposelessness of adolescent life better than he did. Or maybe Troy Shondell. I’m so touched that something I wrote touched Jim as well.
This is not my actual question, and apologies to Robert Fiore, but the LBJ-shaped spirit of American obscenity compels me to wonder whether if on some level, stated concerns over erasure or hauntology notwithstanding, the real elephant in the valley here is The Land O Lakes Boob Thing.
Anyway, my actual question is: Have you ever written about the Moses-as-Elvis concert scene in Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo? I’ve read a few things of yours on Reed, and more than a few on Elvis, but don’t recall this particular intersection coming up, and it sure seems like something that would have.
(Speaking of which, for your Elvis files if it’s not there already: In the course of checking a bunch of indexes pursuant to the above, I saw the name of Vernon Reid, which reminded me of years ago watching the bizarrely named 1989 International Rock Awards, wherein Living Colour was awarded a Presley-shaped statuette for Newcomer Of The Year. Each of the four members gave a brief acceptance speech, with drummer Will
Calhoun last and maybe best: “I just want to make a small note about this evening’s presentation: This award could have easily been called The Bo Diddley…The Jimi…or the Chuck Berry…But I’d like to say–to the voters and to all the other people–thanks for the little Elvis anyway.” It’s said not without some humor, but his ultimate
bemusement with white people and their Elvises is as layered as the day is long. It starts at about 4:40. at
– James Cavicchia
Well—I’m still trying to find the new Land O’ Lakes box. I did hear on the radio this morning the Lt. Governor of Minnesota talking about why the image of the subservient Native woman shouldn’t be used to sell anything.
I’ve always gotten confused by the Moses section of Mumbo Jumbo. I’ve read—on the back of at least one edition—that it was a jape on Dylan going electric but I’ve never been able to make it come out that way.
As for Vernon Reid, I always liked Living Colour’s “Elvis Is Dead.” And it definitely should have been a Bo they gave him—he was on Ed Sullivan before Elvis and outraged Ed more than Elvis ever did—and believe me, Elvis was trying.
In the otherwise sturdy Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties Ian MacDonald writes about “Glass Onion”:
“To the extent that they were invoked by the aleatory philosophy of derangement associated with the Sixties counterculture, obsessions such as those which beset Charles Manson, and later Lennon’s assassin Mark Chapman, were inevitable. As prominent advocates of the free-associating state of mind, the Beatles attracted more crackpot fixations than anyone apart from Dylan. While, at the time, they may have seemed enough like harmless fun for Lennon to make them the subject of the present sneeringly sarcastic song, in the end they returned to kill him.”
Is MacDonald saying Lennon had it coming? Somehow was partially responsible for his own assassination? I’m at a loss.
– Steve Canson
This is ridiculous, disgusting, and stupid. Among other things. It’s extrapolation that misses the moon and spins off to Pluto, which according to current scientific speculation may not exist. I never liked the book myself.
On 8/7/18 when you were questioned in “Ask Greil” about critics rating records, you wrote “I think rankings compromise criticism and I regret taking part in that with The Rolling Stone Record Guide.” And yet, you are a fan of Robert Christgau’s writing and even provided a rave blurb on his eighties consumer guide book. And don’t all critics ultimately produce value judgments in one form or another?
– Bill T
All critics don’t produce what you call value judgments. Manny Farber made a whole critical language out of writing about movies for what they were, how they worked, how the film itself so to speak thought, had its own mind—how after certain premises of character, story, lighting, speech, scene framing, and more were established, that created boundaries that would either in a sense naturally contain the movie, with the movie saying to the people supposedly making it, No, you can’t do that!—or the director, actors, lighting director, and so on would have to say to each other or to him or herself, We’ve got to break this prison of expectations, we’ve got to take the movie back from itself. I think this sort of approach can and is followed in all fields of criticism, where the writer doesn’t care whether something is good or bad, let alone how it ranks on some all-time scale of goodness and badness, but is drawn in by how interesting something is—how it provokes in him or her a response that she or he doesn’t understand, and so sets out understand it. As I’ve said probably too many times, and the argument is hardly original with me, criticism is an analysis of one’s own response to the object of criticism.
Which brings up the question of Bob Christgau’s (on-going) Consumer Guide. While he does use letter grades—and long ago abandoned the sparks for some of his best writing, the D or E grade records—what he does bears no relationship to the five star systems used in Mojo, Rolling Stone, or other places. Each item, no matter how short, is contextualized, draws in or is given its own frame of reference, so that nothing is considered in isolation. It’s all part of a great critical conversation in which the record talks to the critic, the critic talks to the record, and with the critic as the invisible hand orchestrating the conversation, each record talks to every other one.
Lately I have been enjoying Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk album. While it is certainly a departure from the sound they had perfected on Rumours and their self-titled album, to me it is not quite as weird and experimental as many critics make it seem. Could you define what was so shocking about Tusk at the time it was released?
– Gerry Mander
What was so shocking was that a band, after a decade changing members, music, countries, brings in two kids from the Bay Area suburbs and suddenly takes over the airwaves, sells 400 million albums, becomes rich, buys houses in LA, and then because everyone else was too busy discovering what Laurel Canyon and the tunnels beneath it were all about, Lindsey Buckingham, suddenly in love with the Sex Pistols Clash Rezillos Buzzcocks Slits, found that his real music had been locked behind a door he hadn’t even known existed and decided to open the door and let the music out. He turned the band upside down and punk came out. He was as thrilled as anyone. People like me wrote; he made music. In the process he risked everything the band had piled up with its two previous albums: he made music the radio wouldn’t play. Bent, twisted, discordant, distorted, and sure, the Sex Pistols never had the USC Marching Band on a single, but you know they would have jumped at the chance.
I remember when the album came out all too well. On one station after another, the DJ would say: “Fleetwood Mac! The new album! It’s called Tusk! It’s the band like you never heard it before!” And then they’d play something from Rumours. Billboard had the “Tusk” single as Top 10—that may have been advance orders but it wasn’t airplay.
I wonder if, all those years later, that wasn’t part of the reason the rest of the crew kicked Lindsey out.
I had an insight about Putin and Trump I wanted to try on you. The major theme of Putin’s rule is the restoration of national greatness, and this has been the key to the support he has in Russia. National greatness has always been Russia’s reason for being, its perceived destiny, but historically it has been repeatedly frustrated in achieving it. In this regard, the US is to Putin what Obama is to Trump. It is the despised rival that humbled the USSR and makes Russia seem small. There is no way for Russia as it is to rival US power the way the USSR did. The only way for Russia to rise is for the US to fall. Donald Trump was God’s gift to Putin. Putin had this counterintelligence capability that could nudge an election a point or two, and in Trump, Putin had a fool who only needed a little nudge. No one on Earth could have done so much to undermine the US its place in the world as Trump has. No bribery or blackmail could have convinced anyone to do as much wholesale damage to the US as Trump has done. If someone were doing this for bribery/blackmail reasons they would try to do as little as they could get away with, they’d try to bargain the treachery payment down. My assumption about the Russia investigation was that if Trump knew enough to insulate himself from the Mafia he knew enough to insulate himself from Russia, and he’d only be caught colluding by doing something incredibly stupid, which in that regard he didn’t do. I knew if that Trump Tower meeting was the worst thing the investigation had it wasn’t going to be much. As it worked out Putin didn’t have to lift a finger once Trump was in. When Putin looks at Donald Trump he’s got to feel like Uncle Scrooge swimming in his Money Bin.
– Robert Fiore
I agree that the Trump Tower meeting was Three Stooges material—but beyond that is a thick, rotting foundation of coordination and cooperation, where at the least Russia provided the Trump campaign with intelligence and the Trump campaign indicated where disinformation might best be targeted. I think that what happened from the start of the administration—the immediate, across the board, unrelenting campaign to demean, discredit, and dismantle all the agencies of national intelligence—the FBI, the CIA, the State Department—shows the work of a Putin agent and a traitor. What could possibly more completely fulfill all the goals of Russian intelligence than to have the global field cleared, and any investigative apparatus disabled? Trump, in the Oval Office, with Russian officials: “Ok, first step, I got rid of Comey. You’re going to be so tired of winning you won’t believe it.”
Why? As I’ve argued before, on the basis of debt financing by Russian oligarchs, who at a high financial level function as Putin fronts, and Deutsche Bank, which is a Russian money laundering operation, Putin owns the Trump Organization, which is in effect a front for itself: withdraw Russian financing and it collapses. Trump would sooner start a nuclear war with North Korea, or for that matter Canada, than let that happen.
I’d love to be proven a paranoid crank. But I have friends with real experience in intelligence who see matters similarly.
re: Rockman’s question (6/3/20) & your RLR-T10 entry on “False Prophet”:
I’m aware this is a debate that’s been going on since Love & Theft and the battle lines seem to be drawn. But in this case I want to share a few thoughts:
You wrote that you wonder where people find the time to research obscure “supposedly everybody-knows” recordings like Billy Emerson’s. But this recording is not as obscure as it may seem. My son was with me the morning after “False Prophet” was released when I played it for the first time. We both couldn’t believe our ears, instantly recognizing “If Lovin’ Is Believing.” It’s one of the wonders of the internet and YouTube playlists that a 16-year-old in Germany can develop a deep love and appreciation for American R&B-recordings from the ’40s and ’50s, as my son did. And as this recording by Billy Emerson is quite original and unusual, it has been “rediscovered” by now (even though it was an unsuccessful B-side back then). For instance it is featured on the first volume of the fine Early Black Rock’n’Roll compilations Jonathan Fischer did for the Trikont label.
My son thought this is a funny idea by Dylan to do this mash-up. Until I informed him that Dylan released this as “Words and music by Bob Dylan”.
Likewise was my reaction when I learned back in 2001 that the opening track from Love & Theft (which blew me away at first listen, especially the guitars played by Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton) was a copy of “Uncle John’s Bongo” (all the guitar riffs were already there).
“False Prophet” started the usual discussion among Dylan fans, most people making the point that you don’t get Dylan (or popular music or art) if you think he overstepped a line here (for instance here, with a very informed reply by Fred Bals below).
I think collage (and working with quotes and references) as an art form and way of working in popular music (composing or writing lyrics) is exciting and enriching. And Dylan is exceptionally good at it—it’s been his main technique in the last 20 years (no matter if he is writing, composing, painting or doing Nobel speeches). And he is influential in this, so that in the meantime other highly regarded songwriters (e.g. Gillian Welch) have adopted this technique.
A prime example is the Love & Theft closing track you mentioned in your entry. The way he worked “Lonesome Road” (and some other stuff) into “Sugar Baby” is awesome. The sources are clear—but he created something new and stunning by combining these pieces.
But lifting the complete, unaltered arrangement from a recording he loves and claiming it as his own is a different case, I think. In the case of Billy Emerson’s recording, there is also the disturbing aspect of the long tradition of white artists taking over musical ideas from African-American composers (without reference, respect or royalties).
I know what Dylan himself said the few times in interviews he’s been asked about these accusations. And I’m not talking about the “folk tradition” or the countless examples of using melodies, musical ideas or lines from movies or poems and creating something even better, and more impressive (and different) with it.
I wonder if you think (as Dylan himself obviously does) that he can take whatever he wants, as his status enables him to do so? Because obviously no artist of lesser status could get away with this. And do you think that the way he recorded “False Prophet” is comparable to the way he composed “Sugar Baby”?
I can’t argue. This has bothered me as far back as Self Portrait. I’d much prefer that Dylan function as a historian, giving people a sense of their own history, with credits such as “sampled from” or “inspired by” or “taken from,” if not “Words traditional and by Bob Dylan, arrangement from Gene Austin’s 1928 ‘The Lonesome Road.'” But as I read what the records do and say, Dylan may see himself as more of a medium—or as someone whose devotion to, and mastery, and seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of American folk and pop music make him, in effect, the inheritor of all of it, granting him the right to do with it as he pleases—like Sean Connery in The Man Who Would Be King, who, as an Indian colony layabout and schemer ends up recognized by an Afghan tribe that for millennia has guarded the treasure of Alexander if recognized as Alexander in the flesh and who is thus given the right to take the entire cave of gold, rubies, diamonds, and emeralds straight to the Bank of Bombay if he so chooses. If not me, who? you can imagine him thinking. In a certain way, I did write these songs—after all, they wrote me.
Or, as Dylan said to Mikal Gilmore in 1985, “If you copy somebody—and there’s nothing wrong with that—the top rule should be to go back and copy the guy that was there first. It’s like all the people who copied me over the years, too many of them just got me, they didn’t get what I got.”
I had assumed you would have noticed the changes in the Land O Lakes butter box. The company decided it was going to discontinue the use of the Fair Indian Maiden who used to be their symbol (the kneeling woman, as you say), but instead of coming up with a whole new design, they kept exactly the same woodland scene except that there’s no one there to offer us nature’s bounty. It’s an image that evokes far more than they could have intended. Rather than removing a source of ill will, it’s a haunting evocation of removal.
– Robert Fiore
I’ve been looking on line—the physical lines at Safeway are too long to stand in to check this—and all I’ve found are variations on the kneeling woman image. So I don’t know what you’re referring to.
I haven’t seen you comment on Cam Cobb’s book about Moby Grape, What’s Big and Purple and Lives in the Ocean? Cobb is not a deep or startling critic, but he gets some things right. For instance, his description of Skip Spence’s Oar shows that he’s listened hard and thought a long time about this one-of-a-kind record. He also presents a well-imagined alternate track listing for Wow that would have made that confused album more focused and coherent. (Although blurriness and incoherence may have been the point of it, in a sense.) Cobb’s best achievement is in his ability to convey the atmosphere of particular places in their defining moments, even if those moments may be mostly lost to time: the Ark in the summer of 1966, the Matrix in the winter of 1966/67, Granite Creek in 1971, the last of which comes across as nothing so much as the Hole in the Wall Gang’s final hide-out, just before the law caught up to them. (There’s also the night when the band signs its death pact with Matthew Katz; Neil Young happened to be in the room and he told the band they’d just wrecked themselves.) Among the band members, Jerry Miller is an old pirate laughing at his own tall tales, most of them about how he got his eye patch or his peg leg, while Don Stevenson comes across as a total mensch. (This is reinforced by his most recent album, Busking in the Subway; it’s best song, “Regret,” starts with a line that surely must come from a lost Twain story: “Wish I had a dime/For every dollar I spent,” which I guess makes the Grape maybe the band most likely to have stepped out of a Twain novel—a disreputable but likable band hiding out somewhere on the Mississippi that saves Huck and Jim from a rip current, but steals their grub.)
The most interesting thing about Cobb’s book, finally, is simply the fact that it exists—that in the second decade of the 21st century a writer chose to spend years doing research and conducting interviews and writing a book, and that a publisher then decided to publish that book—a book about a band that half a century earlier had made a debut album that didn’t quite make them big.
– Bill Wolfe
I did write about that, in the July 26, 2018 Village Voice installment of my Real Life Rock column, along with a Gang of Four book:
3–4. Jim Dooley, Red Set: A History of Gang of Four (Repeater), and Cam Cobb, What’s Big and Purple and Lives in the Ocean? The Moby Grape Story (Jawbone): The Dooley takes up 432 pages, features no less than three pictures of the author posing with his subjects, two of the shots so dark the figures could be almost anybody, and no index. It’s interesting. The Cobb is an A+ production. Not only is there an index, the sixteen pages of well-printed black-and-white and color illustrations are balanced in an excellent design. It’s also stupefying. Cobb imagines Moby Grape bassist Bob Mosley rising, along with the other members of the once-great, now-fallen band—the finest band to emerge from the San Francisco Sound, only to implode the night of the release party for its first album in 1967—to fly to New York for a reunion session four years later: Four years that feel like forty. It’s first-class:
He nods at the bartender.
“What’ll it be?” the bartender asks.
“Any kind. I don’t care.”
The bartender removes a bottle, opens it, and pours the beer into a glass.
“Here,” he says, handing the glass to the man with blond hair.
The traveler raises his glass. ‘Thanks,” he says, before taking a gulp.
There’s a brief silence.
“I’m John Smith,” the bartender says, holding out his hand.
“Bob Mosley,” the traveler replies.
“Is this your first time heading to New York?” the bartender asks…
When ordering the new Robert Johnson book you endorsed, I noticed there now seems to be an expanding library of books on Johnson. I first read about him in your Mystery Train. I later read Peter Guralnick’s Searching for Robert Johnson and Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta. Are any of the newer books on Johnson worth reading? Thanks for any help you can give me in sorting through them.
The late Alan Greenberg’s unproduced screenplay Love in Vain, first published as a book in 1983 and most recently with a foreword by Martin Scorsese and an introduction by Stanley Crouch, is a complete thrill. I like Patricia R. Schroeder’s Robert Johnson: Mythmaking and Contemporary American Culture from 2004, and Mizzo and J.M. Dupont’s all-but-on-fire graphic novel Love in Vain—Robert Johnson, 1911-1938, from 2014. My review of Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow’s Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson, the self-presented definitive biography from last year, ran in the June 2019 Real Life Rock, along with comment on a Netflix documentary that came out about the same time:
3 & 4. Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow, Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson (Chicago Review Press) and Remastered: Devil at the Crossroads—A Robert Johnson Story, directed by Brian Oakes (Netflix). Robert Johnson, 1911-38; as the title of the 1961 album that introduced the 29 songs he recorded in 1936 and 1937 to the world put it, “King of the Delta Blues Singers.” He has travelled down to our time with the legend that he sold his soul to the devil for the right to outplay anyone who was ever born. Despite their devil-mongering title, the longtime blues researchers Conforth and Wardlow claim to have settled the matter against the underworld—and you don’t have to believe a ghost of the story to be appalled by what they’ve done to it. Ignoring the testimony of the blues scholar Mack McCormick (1930-2015) and the blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield (1943-81) that the tale of Johnson’s deal with the devil was a widely shared and dispersed story going back to the 1940s, Conforth and Wardlow source the claim solely to the blues critic (at the start, that was his beat at Rolling Stone), researcher, and record producer Pete Welding (1935-95), and his quote from Johnson’s older compatriot Son House: “He sold his soul to the devil in exchange for learning to play like that.” In a cowardly manner, not naming Welding but unmistakably fixing him, the authors imply that he both plagiarized his supposed interview with House, and made up House’s supposed statement out of whole cloth. Running the previously impossible trick of proving a negative, Conforth and Wardlow insist that House never said any such thing—because, as one reader of the book who has himself weighed in on Johnson over the years puts it, “Well—he just couldn’t.” That the book is marred by all kinds of errors, some of them merely sloppy, some of them stupefying—stating that Johnson’s 1990 Complete Recordings “has sold more than fifty million copies in the United States alone,” which, as a two-CD set, would make it by far the best-selling album in history, not to mention amounting to one copy for nearly every sixth American, including infants, undocumented immigrants, and racists who would never let an object with the face of a black person on its cover into their houses—makes it difficult to trust any given particular in the vast and humbling trove of biographical information the authors have assembled, let alone this.
It’s an epic labor of devotion to facts large and small—and that, harvested especially from interviews with Johnson’s contemporaries (many of them, going back to 1967, conducted by Wardlow), is where the value of the book lies, to the point that one can imagine the loudness of the dismissal of the deal-with-the-devil as most of all a commercial hook. Detail upon detail of family life, love affairs, marriages, education both formal and in the blues, apprenticeship, musical partnerships, travel, hoodoo practice, composition, recording, popularity, career pursuit (it’s wonderful to read that while passing through New York, Johnson tried to get on the national CBS radio showcase Major Bowes Amateur Hour—and that “Frank Sinatra originally appeared on the show as part of the Hoboken Four quartet in 1935”), craft, money, and death does demystify the always mystified and for that matter self-mystifying artist in an accumulatingly powerful and valuable way. But while Conforth and Wardlow can explain Johnson’s music, they can’t convey anything of its novelty or daring—of the shock, on the part of people in Johnson’s time or ever since, of encountering the music. The prose rarely rises above lumpiness: “Robert’s rambling had become both his main way of traveling from one job to the next and his way to satisfy the need to just ‘get up and go.’” There is more than a hint of a certain animus, or distaste, for the way Johnson lived his life: “They frolicked,” the authors write, describing a single Mississippi night, “until Robert went home with one of the women or collapsed drunk on the floor,” which means they have no idea what Johnson actually did that night—he could have stayed up reading Walt Whitman. They find nothing more gratifying than being able to reduce art to biography: for the meaning of “Dead Shrimp Blues,” recorded in San Antonio in 1936, “it might not be necessary to look any further” than the fact that San Antonio was a good place to eat shrimp. And even that kind of reduction leads to a greater reductionism: that of the essential hollowness in the sensibility that is brought to bear in what is finally a charmless book. “One can,” they say of “Hellhound on My Trail,” “sense a certain angst in this song. It’s not a happy piece.” To which the world shakes its head in awe: Really? I never thought of that!
For all of its self-presentation as an exercise in exploitation, the Remastered documentary, with animated sequences of the devil granting Johnson his powers and, of all people, Bruce Conforth as the principal walk-through narrator, may ultimately be more sophisticated about the old story, which, I think, no one ever really believed, but which has taken so many so far. “It’s a metaphor,” says Keb’ Mo’, “for a person to go ahead and become who they are.”
Have you seen anything lately that’s spookier than the Vanishing American version of the Land O Lakes butter box? It’s as if the trapper from Shenandoah had finally kidnapped the poor girl. Or like something from Airstrip One: “There has never been an Indian mascot on the Land O Lakes butter box.” I imagine the ghost of Andy Warhol kicking himself for not thinking of it himself. Me, when I was buying butter, I always bought the one with the moose.
– Robert Fiore
The kneeling woman? Or something else?
Thought you might be interested to know that the music/riff of Dylan’s False Prophet is borrowed from Billy “The Kid” Emerson’s “If Loving Is Believing” that was cut at Billy’s first recording session—Sun Recording Studio, 11 January 1954.
I wrote about this in the May number of my Real Life Rock Top 10 column in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Under the 25th amendment, section 4 I interpret that Congress can remove the president. I don’t think it will happen but it is possible. I am at a loss for words. I hope it’s the end of his presidency, I can’t believe the US military would kill civilians.
Why would the joint chiefs allow it?
– Sean H
It’s not up to the joint chiefs. He can fire them all and replace them with his caddies. Hamilton, Madison, Adams, Washington, and the rest considered human beings as creatures capable of noble conduct but drawn to iniquity, so they tried to construct a self correcting machine to protect the inherent rights of all people and to protect the people from the machine—the government.
Like Lincoln, who made the same argument in 1838, they knew that a self correcting machine was like a perpetual motion machine. It could only run for so long. When it stopped there would be several choices: pretend that it was still running; try to fix it; smash it, enslave the people, and take the money. But did they ever believe it would really happen—that door number one wouldn’t always be the one chosen? That a given cabal could break down door number four?
You have to realize that Republicans as currently constituted are not democrats. They have contempt for democracy. One can imagine them bringing suit to re-establish democracy as it existed at the start of the republic: that on the grounds of originalism states are free to restrict the franchise to property-owning white males—or that since, as Antonin Scalia took such accurate pleasure pointing out, the constitution says nothing about voters choosing the president, state legislatures are free to choose their members of the Electoral College as they see fit. There are at least three votes for that on the Supreme Court, most likely four, likely five.
You will not see more Republicans in Congress than you can count on your fingers to oppose this—because they would have pushed it themselves if they thought they could get away with it. As they have pushed it, and made it happen: voter suppression activities of all kinds—and there are many—are merely a polite version.
Bill Clinton was once asked how Democrats could win general elections when Republicans had so relentlessly practiced effective disenfranchisement. “We have to win more votes than they can steal,” he said. That means November, if it happens, is the only gear in the machine that hasn’t been greased, broken, or removed. And what he said is more true now than at any time since the Republicans traded Reconstruction—the black vote—for the presidency in 1876.
You teach, don’t you?
Your answer is not acceptable. [see response to Michael, 5/14/20]
Yes, and I once gave a history department commencement address on the atrocities of substituting wish for fact called “Myth and Misquotation.” I’m not going to quote Whitman at you. But in my heart I don’t believe, video evidence to the contrary, that what I wrote didn’t happen.
Just a word about Cavettgate, since it keeps coming up here. I’ve watched the show and the substance is exactly as you describe it: two pompous blowhards debating art interrupted by the only true artist on the set. You just turned it into a play. It’s funnier and more dramatic than the original, sure, but it’s the difference between reading Inherit the Wind and reading transcripts of the Monkey Trial. Well, Mystery Train is better than Inherit the Wind, but you get my drift.
You said in your May 14 Ask Greil, “Both Levon and Robbie tell their stories and make their claims in their own books. You can decide whose account rings true and whose doesn’t.” Surely you’ve read both books and have a more informed opinion than most. Can you please tell us how you feel about Levon’s accusations of treachery on Robbie’s part?
Why do you think it’s up to me (or anyone) to settle an ethical and personal dilemma that stretched over decades? I was friendly with Robbie and had only a couple of brief conversations with Levon. I know what unresolved bitterness can do to a relationship, especially when the grudge is held from only one side. I am biased. So you shouldn’t want to know what I think.
What was your opinion of Bruce Springsteen’s Western Stars CD? I just watched the HBO documentary on it.
I had trouble playing it more than once.
You did not like Dylan’s Infidels. The question surrounding that record has always been “what if he delivered a record more true to the performance he played on Letterman with the Plugz?” [Watch “Jokerman” and “Don’t Start Me Talkin’“]
This week, Daniel Romano partly answered that question by re-recording the whole record in that style.
If you closed your eyes, and pretended this was the record Dylan released in 1983, would you feel the same way about it?
(Let’s also pretend this would NOT negate the session outtake “Blind Willie McTell,” and keep that song “as is”).
I think the question surrounding the record is the poor, one dimensional songs and the hectoring, whining way in which they’re delivered—altogether of a piece with the sermons Dylan had been giving at his shows in the previous years, except they were more musical and occasionally funny. I don’t think this album marks a break with his explicitly Christianist music at all. It’s the same stuff dressed up in secular clothes. Go to Wikipedia and you’ll see the Rolling Stone review, which was typical, quoted all over: return to form, best since Blood on the Tracks—the same verbiage Rolling Stone writers and others would trot out again and again for all the eighties albums, until finally the reviews contained apologies: This is the real comeback, not like the other one, maybe we sort of overstated that one, but trust me—
The Letterman performance of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talkin’” came across because it’s a far better song than any Dylan had been releasing. There’s something there for someone to play, to sing, and Dylan sang it like a great shout of liberation, from himself. But the Infidels outtake “Julius and Ethel” is formally done in the same rushed, smash-and-grab Plugs manner, and it’s still hideous.
As for “Blind Willie McTell,” the track left off the album is a big, over-orchestrated, over done, lumbering dead elephant of a recording. The version rescued for the first Bootleg Series set, just Dylan at the piano and Mark Knopfler on guitar, is self evidently a run-through, an attempt to find the song, not anything meant for an actual commercial album. That it exists is a miracle. Otherwise the songs are to blame, and the singing the bleat of someone trying to convince himself he means what he’s saying, that the music he’s making is worth anyone’s time.
Since without your writing I might never have heard his otherworldly music, how intriguing is it to learn of a newly-discovered, third photo of blues singer Robert Johnson? It will adorn the cover of his sister Annye Anderson’s upcoming book, Brother Robert: Growing Up with Robert Johnson.
Unlike the previous two, this one almost looks like it was taken yesterday. His beauty is never more evident.
Annye recalled it was taken at “a make-your-own-photo place on Beale Street, near Hernando … right next door to Pee Wee’s, the bar where Mr. Handy wrote his blues.”
Long distance information, give me Memphis, Tennessee.
– Johnny Savage
I prefer the mythic, spooky cigarette photo. But the book is so interesting and compelling the new photo is just lagniappe.
Not really a question but just letting you know about another Robert Johnson photo that has come to light…
And the book is fascinating.
Not a question, but an article from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette on the I.C. Houserockers 2nd album which Greil has expressed a fondness for.
Thanks. I’ve been in touch with Joe [Grushecky] about the reissue. The demos are interesting, especially “Hypnotized” but the album as released still soars. The bar songs and “Blondie” are unique.
Your take on Bob Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul” in the April 2020 Real Life Rock column did not disappoint, although that suggestion regarding a 1998 Vincent Salandria speech was actually just tongue-in-cheek.
That said, while there’s no question Bob’s #1 hit makes plain his interest in decades of credible research on the events of November ’63, it’s just part of what gives his epic such resonance.
I was somewhat struck by your not venturing into why Dylan recorded “Murder Most Foul,” and especially why he chose to share it out of the blue in the midst of a global pandemic.
Or is it self-evident?
– Johnny Savage
I have no idea what his (or anyone’s) motive might be. I have read—or sort of read past—so much on this song that is essentially imaginary gossip without finding anything on the experience of listening to it that I wonder if the writers’ motive wasn’t to kill the song before it had a chance to to raise any question they couldn’t answer with the flick of a switch: in other words, by turning it off.
Any current thoughts on Little Richard you’d like to share? It feels like a giant tree has fallen without hardly being noticed.
– hugh grissett
His obituary was on the front page of the New York Times, which has since run two subsequent features. I wouldn’t call that not being noticed. There was a long piece in the New Yorker by the editor. Testimonials from Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and most importantly Jerry Lee Lewis.
I remember sitting in on a TA section for a lecture class I was teaching at the New School in the early 2010s. Thirty or so students had broken into small groups, and I overheard one woman say, with great delight and authority, of the 19-20 year-olds around her, “Or course, we all love Richard, but don’t you think Otis…”—she didn’t even have to use full names for people to know what she was talking about. I thought, it’s generations after Little Richard ripped it up, tore a hole in history, or just made a bunch of hit singles in the fifties, and to these people he’s still lingua franca, part of the context of their lives. I think the tree fell in the forest and everybody heard it, and those who didn’t understand the sound said, “What’s that?” and someone put on “Ready Teddy.” That last verse, when the band cuts out, is so pure I can hardly stand it.
Greil, thank you for your thoughtful reply [05/13], though I must say I find it a bit sad. We live in a time where facts and truth no longer matter. This is dangerous and the fact that a journalist and critic of your renown seems so cavalier is troubling and dare I say a bit Trumpian.
There’s a difference, though. He has power and I don’t.
Further to the Deborah Chesler story, I’m wondering if you’ve ever encountered the “Spontaneous Lunacy” blog, which talks about “It’s Too Soon to Know” here.
It’s a fascinating website—the author has some strongly-held, if debatable, opinions, such as that rock & roll began in September of 1947, not a month earlier or later—but he also exhibits a lot of scholarship and some interesting insights into the sociology of the post-war black community and its effect on popular music.
– Elliot Silverman
I appreciate your sending these essays, but for me they fall into the Life’s Too Short category—the writing is unreadably ornamented and flat, so I never got to the arguments.
I’d like to ask you about hip-hop. You wrote about rap early (“That’s the Joint” and “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel”). Over the years you’ve had things to say about artists pro (Geto Boys, Eminem) and con (Public Enemy). In “Ask Greil” you’ve praised albums by Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar. But you don’t write about hip-hop often and it rarely appears in your column. Do you listen to it much? Or is it like jazz where it doesn’t really speak to you but the occasional record catches your ear? And do you still like “That’s the Joint “?
I still like “That’s the Joint.” I don’t know what has kept me away. Part of it has been revulsion at the fetishization of wealth, drug addiction, and sexual abuse, both in songs and the street-cred buzz that sells music as much as the music does. There’s also hatred of oversouling in what for some reason is called R&B—which is not hip hop but sometimes bleeds over. There’s just not finding that much in Usher or Drake or having to take them for granted as world-historical figures whose memory will endure forever. I think Kanye West is brilliant in so many ways but when it comes to his albums it’s just too much work to keep up with the all the different versions and revisions—which is worth it, so I end up feeling derelict.
I’ve recently finished Paul Gorman’s exhaustive, enthralling purview of The Life and Times of Malcolm McLaren—firstly, have you read the text, and if so, what are your overall thoughts?
To me, Gorman’s account reads in many ways as an attempt to demystify the entrenched characterization of McLaren as scheming svengali; instead, emphasizing his seemingly unparalleled prescience in regards to anticipating cultural trends (as well as willingness to take ‘artistic risks’), and skill in juxtaposing the ‘new and old’ to create works irreducible to both. I was particularly struck by the range of his engagements across music and fashion: from the sexually subversive punk couture he designed alongside Vivienne Westwood, to his central role in the interventionist punk ploys with the Pistols; to his influence in popularizing hip-hop culture—and world music more broadly—with Duck Rock, and his later dalliances with everything from opera, to voguing, chip-tune, and pornography. As I see it, these—frequently pioneering—engagements across cultural and ethnic bounds suggest his singularity within the realm of pop culture.
In comparison to his contemporaries however, his career and influence as an artist (in his own right) still seems somewhat under-acknowledged in critical circles; Gorman largely puts this down to his role of ‘embezzler’ (of course, a caricature he himself played upon in the ‘swindle,’ and indeed in succeeding endeavours), which haunted his post-Pistols career—the media, at least in the UK, gratuitously framed him as a relentless exploiter of those around him in the dogged pursuit of realizing his ‘cash from chaos’ credo.
Presently, I’m re-reading your seminal Lipstick Traces, and realize you address to some extent his legacy as ‘manager’ (or ‘mismanager’, as he put it) of the Pistols. However, at this point in time—almost exactly a decade after his untimely passing—I’m curious as to your abiding thoughts of McLaren and his legacy in the present? In turn, would you consider him, as Paul Morley has boldly suggested, as the heir to Warhol?
Admittedly, in our contemporary climate, several of his pursuits haven’t aged too well (to put it mildly); in particular, the blatantly provocative designs of SEX and Seditionaries (the ‘Cambridge Rapist’ and ’Smoking Boy’ designs) come to mind, as well as his attempts to market Bow Wow Wow as a vehicle of teenage/under-age sexual fantasy, as epitomized in the infamous Manet homage. Finally, what are your thoughts on the possibility of reconciling these not unproblematic aspects of his creative output with the seemingly apparent significance of his oeuvre?
James F. Anderson
I only heard of the book yesterday so I haven’t seen it, let alone read it.
Malcolm was a hero of mine, because I knew how much poorer my life would have been if he hadn’t done what he did, whatever that was. I first met him in 1988, at a panel at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, and we fell into talking like old friends. He wore very glamorous clothes and was with Lauren Hutton. I saw him a number of times over the years. I remember particularly one night in New York, at a small dinner party held for him to show a stunning film made up of distortions of French cinema and TV advertisements going back to the 19th century, the way Lou Reed greeted him. Lou was always cold to me, which seemed to me his basic way of dealing with people; toward Malcolm he overflowed with affection and respect. He died much too young. I’ve been lucky to have maintained a friendship with Young Kim, who was with him for a long time. He had so much more to do.
What are your opinions on Bob Dylan’s 3 latest song releases?
– hugh grissett
Thus is just the sort of thing I write my Real Life Rock Top 10 column in the Los Angeles Review of Books for. So I don’t want to shortstop what I might say there here. I do appreciate “Hello Mary Lou” in the new “False Prophet”—to see what Dylan had to say about Ricky Nelson in Chronicles, and then watch Prom Night II: Hello Mary Lou, even if the title is a tease to exploit the familiar: the Mary Lou song that plays is Ronnie Hawkins’s, not RN’s.
Do you think Levon Helm’s book This Wheel’s On Fire was embellished by the publishers to make his so-called feud with Robbie Robertson worse than it really was or do you think Levon had a legitimate gripe?
– David M Ahlers
On a tour promoting the book, in an interview in the San Francisco Chronicle, Levon said, when asked about the bitter portrayal of Robbie Robertson, that that was a phony controversy the publisher wanted to juice up sales. I’m not aware that Levon ever said anything similar at any other time. His resentment and disgust toward Robbie, to the point that near the end of his life he wouldn’t even mention the name “the Band,” was, to my incomplete knowledge, consistent and unbroken.
Both Levon and Robbie tell their stories and make their claims in their own books. You can decide whose account rings true and whose doesn’t.
Greil, Mystery Train has been a constant in my life—read first when I was 20, shared with my daughters and still on my desk at 62.
Have quoted the opening exchange between Little Richard and John Simon—“In the whole history of Art…”—more times than I can remember.
When Little Richard died I decided to see if I could find that show and enjoy that moment. When I did I was sorely disappointed to find out that the exchange that you so vividly recounted really never happened. Though your opening was kinda sorta true to the moment your “verbatim” quotes as dramatic as they were did not happen. Am I missing something and if not why in the world did you make it up?
I have been a journalist for 40 years and have held your work up as a gold standard. Your book and that opening has shaped how I look at art and popular culture and to find out that it was not true was a sad moment.
We lived in a house where every room was open to every other. I was trying to finish written work for my Ph.D. orals, and my wife and her mother were watching Dick Cavett. I kept coming in to see what the odd tones of voice were, went back to my desk, back to the TV, finally sat down and watched it, but it was all in pieces. I scribbled a lot of notes. Then some friends who’d been fired from Rolling Stone and were trying to start a new magazine called Flash asked me for a piece for a dummy issue. I spent a week writing up the show—or making it up; I certainly didn’t think so, but there was no On Demand, no YouTube—and gave it to them. Flash never happened (though the dummy made news for its cover story: an interview with Groucho Marx where he called for the assassination of Richard Nixon), but I used the piece to open my first, long article for Creem in 1971, “Rock-a-Hula, Clarified.” When I began Mystery Train, I thought it still had more life in it, so I used it again.
Over the years, as the Cavett shows, and everything else in the history of Western Civilization, has come online, people have said that what I described had errors, was wrong, though not that it never happened and was completely invented. I’ve never taken the easy steps to watch the thing myself. In part I don’t want to face my crimes. In part I really don’t care. I always did like the line in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but I was always of two minds about it: John Wayne shoots Lee Marvin, James Stewart gets the credit and goes on to a life of renown, Wayne become a forgotten drunk. The newspaper publisher always knew, but “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” There’s something nauseating about that, but something has always pulled me in that direction.
Just a quick note because I’m sure you’d want to set the record straight here. It was Charles O’Brien not Armond White who spoke to the emptiness of Graceland. (Armond had no problems with Graceland and has praised it relatively recently.) O’Brien’s No! to Simon, which was fair but just (to use his terms) was only the first taste of what was great in his 1989 piece, “At Ease in Azania.” It included evocations of the political resonance of music made by Aretha, the Stones and on Sounds of Soweto (not to be confused with Indestructible Beat of Soweto). O’Brien was ahead of every writer when it came to thinking through ’60s pop and politics. His way of grasping the moment of that moment has been assimilated into conventional wisdom but he got there first so…
BTW, as you may recall, you were deeply responsive to Charlie’s piece back in 1989. (You nodded to it in the Voice and you felt Charlie again after 9/11 and when he wrote on No Direction Home a few years later.)
It’s pretty easy to see how you mixed up Charlie and Armond. Armond also had a piece in the same obscure 1989 journal where you first read O’Brien’s piece. And Armond’s contrarian voice was fresh too. They both went on to write in the same journals—The City Sun and the First Of the Month and generally shared a comradely relationship for years, which I think you knew about vaguely.
Armond went hard right around 2007-8 and then became a Trumpist. Couldn’t shake his hand now if I ran into him. O’Brien has been silent for a few years (though this editor keeps trying)…
Here’s a link to an online post of Charlie’s piece on Graceland/pop politics [note: link might not work–ed.]. I’ll cut and paste the 2009 intro below, though it’s a little out of time now. You could feel O’Brien’s influence all over the commentary after Aretha’s death—I’m thinking just now of laudations of “Freedom!” in “Think”—though most writers didn’t know they were hearing with his ear…
Charles O’Brien’s “At Ease in Azania” was originally printed 20 years ago in an obscure (and now defunct) journal. It will be reprinted this fall in the next volume of First of the Year. O’Brien’s piece begins with Paul Simon’s Graceland but it rock and rolls back to the ’60s before returning to the Motherland to show how pop music may “exist in its time justly.”
When Bongani Madondo—South Africa’s liveliest pop writer—heard we were thinking of reprinting it in First of the Year, he testified in favor:
“I made 50 photocopies of O’Brien’s piece and distributed ‘em to this informal arts and politics journalism course/workshop I often run for young guns on the come in this field I toil in. And they all go bonkers about his analysis and knowledge of music. To read in a book form will be quite cool.”
While “At Ease in Azania” got more play in South Africa than back in the USA, influential American music writers picked up on O’Brien’s insights. You can detect the essay’s effect in writing done over the last generation on bebop, Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke, and the Rolling Stones. But it’s past time for O’Brien’s piece—the first he ever published—to openly shape discourse about pop life and politics.
– Benj D.
I have been searching for years for an essay you wrote celebrating the culture of America and early rock n roll and its novelty and its lack of seriousness as opposed to European pretentiousness—it’s not in Rock and Roll Will Stand, I came across it on a book in a library of essays on rock ‘n roll in the ’80s, was it from Creem days? I have searched the archive but still haven’t found it; could you add to the archive please thank you for all your writing it’s a constant delight. Yours,
As that’s a theme I’ve been pursuing as long as I’ve been writing, I’d need more specifics to be able to pinpoint it. Not “Rock-a-hula Clarified”?
In your book The Dustbin Of History, “The Deborah Chessler Story” holds special fascination for me. If I’d ever had kids, I would’ve read it to them as a bedtime story. What started you writing it? Were you already aware of her role with the Orioles before you conducted the interviews, or did uncovering the story surprise you as much as reading it surprised me?
– Jim Cavender
Your comparing my piece to a bedtime story for kids is the best compliment it’s ever received. That piece came out better than I could have ever wished for: because of the role my mother’s mother played in my childhood, I’ve always been drawn to older Jewish women, whether I knew them (a grade school teacher and Holocaust refugee named Hannah Bergas) or not (Hannah Arendt), and Deborah Chessler was part of that. But for me it goes deeper. The first time I can remember hearing “It’s Too Soon to Know” was in the late ’60s, on the first volume of Atlantic Records’ four-LP reissue series The History of Rhythm & Blues—and I was instantly captivated by it, fascinated, wondering where it came from, what it was. It never lost its allure, though over the next several years I almost never heard or read about it. But it was always a mystery, one that it never occurred to me to try and solve or even look into—I liked the ethereal, out-of-the-ether feeling of it, and didn’t want to bring it down to earth. I had no memory of hearing it at the time, in 1948, when I was three, though we had a housekeeper who would have had it on the radio, and even at two years old different versions of the 1947 hit hit hit “Open the Door Richard” were burned into my brain like cancers.
I knew bits and pieces about the Orioles and Deborah Chessler from I don’t know where—I wrote about the song and her partnership in Lipstick Traces, in 1989, and because I had no good reference to turn to got a lot of details wrong. It was always in the back of my mind. Then in 1992 Jim Dawson and Steve Propes published a book called What Was the First Rock ‘n’ Roll Record? and “It’s Too Soon to Know” was one of many they covered—and that chapter had quotes from an interview they’d done with Deborah Chessler. My reaction was stupid and thrilled: Wow! She’s alive? Maybe I could talk to her? I wrote Propes, who’d been so helpful to me years before with tapes of early Sly Stone recordings, and he gave me her phone number. I called, we talked, she was completely open and eager to tell her story. I talked it over with Anthony DeCurtis at Rolling Stone, who liked the idea, and then flew out to Miami and spent two days with Shirley Reingold and her husband Paul Reingold, who despite not meeting Shirley until after her Orioles years were over knew every detail of her life with them and was as enthusiastic as she was about passing them on. We talked and talked, about everything from racism and anti-semitism to Ella Fitzgerald to her horrible first husband and her beloved mother. She played me a heartbreaking tape-letter Sonny Til had sent her not long before he died. It was a thrill for me to call up Barry Levinson or Jerry Leiber to talk about “It’s Too Soon to Know,” and to find its echoes in so many places—if Going All the Way with Rose McGowan’s scene scored to “It’s Too Soon to Know” had been there, I would have written about that.
Shirley mentioned that before we met she’d been in touch for some time with a Michael Horowitz, who wanted to write a screenplay about her life—somehow the project never came off, and I never looked into it. But after my piece was published, there was movie interest, and Winona Ryder’s production company took an option on it—because as Michael Horowitz’s daughter, Ryder knew all about the story. I had one phone meeting with the would-be producers, who asked me who I thought should play Deborah Chessler—because Ryder herself was obviously “too old,” even if she’d taken the option to play the part. I remember being appalled both by the idea and the person’s dismissive tone of voice: this would have been at the latest 1998 or so, when Ryder would have been in her late twenties. But of course that never happened. Shirley had her heart set on it, too.
Hear Greil discuss Deborah Chessler and the Orioles on NPR’s Fresh Air (March 4, 1996)
I am an NYC-based writer working on a biography of Wendy O. Williams from The Plasmatics, to be published by UK-based New Haven Publishing.
What are your thoughts on Wendy and/or The Plasmatics? I can’t help but think there’s some correlation between Wendy’s destructive performances and the (situationist?) definition of nihilism you cited in Lipstick Traces containing the phrase “No more coats…no more home.”
– Robin Eisgrau
I don’t have thoughts, but you do, and you should run with them.
Regarding how long America will continue to exist: assuming the country doesn’t suddenly crumble into the sea, and nobody renames it (much as Trump might like to), how will we know when it’s ceased to be? Which begs the question, how do we know it already hasn’t?
– steve o’neill
Just as people in Hawaii and Greenwich Village have been saying “You’re too late, it’s all ruined now” forever (I’m sure that’s the first thing Hawaiians said to Captain Cook when he first came ashore), people have played around with the idea of the end of the country almost from the start: a thing made up can be unmade. Lincoln went all in in 1838 in a speech warning of a demagogue who, finding that ‘the game’ of nation-making had been ‘caught,’ would seek fame and glory not in building up but in ‘tearing down.’ In The Ghost Writer Philip Roth all too casually tosses off a reference to New England as the place “where America was born and long ago ceased to be” as if it’s just another as-everybody-knows. It could be already gone. It will be gone if there’s an election this year that Trump loses, declares fraudulent and void, refuses to leave office, the Supreme Court stands down, Trump calls on his supporters to surround the White House with automatic weapons as a 10,000-strong People’s Army, they do, and as with the Bundys the military backs off another Waco and everyone puts it behind themselves and moves on, because as Dr Brix put it yesterday it’s not helpful when people keep talking about something that happened last Thursday.
People will tell you America ended when JFK was killed. It felt that way at the time, and that event as I and others unwillingly carry it still sends that message. Others will say it ended with the New Deal and that they are carrying on the fight to wipe that out and bring America back and that they’re only four years away from winning, which of course means for other people four years from the end.
What makes you think I know? What do you think? Maybe it’s that as long as it’s worth arguing whether America exists—or if outside of a few speeches and half a dozen pieces of paper it ever did—it will.
She finally caught up to her voice.
– Jonah RossOn Saturday Night Live last night with Brad Pitt introducing: it was stunning. She may never have gone up against a song as good as “Wish You Were Here,” and both the time and the delicacy she gave the tune whisked it away from Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett and made it timeless, which is to say it could have been written yesterday, about right now. And when people hear it twenty years from now it will sound like their time, too.
I’ve always liked her. I like the way she pushes people’s buttons with that why-is-this-such-a-big-deal smile on her face. In 2013 I taught a seminar on criticism at the New School and for two weeks straight all anybody wanted to talk about was the “Wrecking Ball” video and whether it was art or crime, backwards or the truth, funny or insulting, good or evil, and whether it was sort of sexy or, you know, really sexy. I couldn’t get over how much fun she was having and how she put that across before anything else.
[note: video may be unavailable in some countries.]
Some more good Lucinda Williams material:
“I always wanted to be able to write really good topical songs like ‘Masters of War’ or ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’,” she says, invoking two Bob Dylan protest classics. “And it’s hard. I find it much easier to write an unrequited love song than to write about what’s wrong with the system and how we’re getting screwed.”
“I remember my dad saying that in the world of poetry, you don’t really get respect as a writer until you’re in your 60s at least. Age is irrelevant in that world,” Williams said. “My art is going to continue.”
She’s incorrigible. Along with Lilian Hellman and Anne Lamott she long ago mastered the trick of self-deprecation as self-celebration along with her I-ain’t-no plain folks shtick but here the pomposity that’s always been her bedrock shows through: “My art will continue.” Pin another medal on her chest.
Not to mention that “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is not a topical song.
If you had to guess, for how long do you think the United States of America will continue to exist?
If the sky, which we look upon, should tumble and fall
And the mountains, should crumble to the sea…
… which may already be happening, both as everyday life and as government and national sense of self. The virus may leave the country in such a state of deprivation and confusion that it will accept anything. I don’t know that the country could survive another four years of a Trump presidency, a Republican senate, and a Republican-majority Supreme Court—which after four more years of Trump and a Republican senate might be 9-0 for Trumpism—and the Supreme Court will, by ignoring all voting rights or voter suppression questions, to the point of Klan-style violence if that’s what it takes—what William F. Buckley called for when it looked as if southern blacks might get the right to vote—help make this happen.
The crucial thing to remember is that the contemporary Republican party is not a democratic party: it has no respect for democratic values, laws, or institutions. It favors either a punitive, exclusionary authoritarian government centered on a president ruling by decree, or a government so weak that any true government would be by corporations, which would lease or own national institutions from the VA to the Post Office to the Defense Department. And there is a solid 42% floor of the American electorate committed to the same thing—at least as long as it’s Trump selling it. As I’ve said before, I think it’s dubious that at any time in our history more than 65% of the country has been made up of people committed to democracy—at any time, a substantial part of the country wants and has always wanted a ruler, someone to relieve the citizen of his or her burden of choice.
Writing for National Review, Armond White really has become Dylan’s John Bircher, finding evidence of communist infiltration in the unlikeliest of places (my favourite is his assertion that the decision to change the name of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film to Best International Film “obliges Academy voters to march to the faint melody of the Communist Party anthem ‘The Internationale'”). White finds more pernicious examples of the red menace in popular music, particularly that produced by progressive “Millennials” (his preferred slur), but also in the “childish griping” and “leftist jingoism” of Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young.
Apparently he sees some rays of hope, though. In an extremely odd recent article on the Rolling Stones’ performance of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” on the One World: Together at Home fundraiser, White claims that “Jagger managed to get primetime recognition alongside Lady Gaga, Beyonce, and other Millennial acts on the progressive bandwagon while also shouting out to President Trump,” who uses the song at his campaign rallies. Trump, White goes on, let the song “speak the basic wisdom of an electorate that had moved past the false claims of political partisanship and beheld a fresh candidate whose perspective answered their frustrations… His shrewd choice of that Rolling Stones theme discredited rock-star tantrums and also forced Jagger to realize the song’s enormous cultural application.”
Watching the One World version of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, I don’t see any sign of relinquishment or reclamation of the song or even, as White has it, “straddling the fence as Jagger always has”; just a lousy performance of a great song. What do you make of all this?
– steve o’neill
It’s hard to make your way through an argument by an always acerbic critic (White on Paul Simon’s Graceland, and how he had the right to say anything about South Africa except what he did say: “Nothing”), who as a cultist has maintained his intolerance and flair but can no longer think—every question has already been answered. White’s Trump is the TGE of Trump-speak—that acronym standing for what in the fall of 2016 seemed like a particularly insane Twitter screed for what the writer named Trump God Emperor, and is now taken seriously. He’s a King Midas in all realms, from money to ideas, who can do no wrong, who turns everything he touches into gold, and who takes ownership of anything simply by associating himself with it (his business practice: when refusing to pay contractors for work they’d done, he’d tell them that merely being able to say they had done work for him would be worth far more than any mere fee). In this case, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”—and this is a truly invulnerable argument: you can’t really argue against it because it makes no sense—can’t be “re-appropriated” because Trump has definitively “defined it.” And by choosing the song for the One World show—White is right in comparing it to “We Are the World,” but also wrong because, as a cultist, he can’t make distinctions: while “We Are the World” was at bottom colonialist, redefining African famine from something that killed people to something that made rich people feel bad, One World makes the illusionary but not absurd claim that “We’re all in it together,” and while musically “We Are the World” was a horror in which everyone sounded like a self-parody, in One World there were a slew of real highlights, from health care workers dancing to the Roots’ “Safety Dance” to Lizzo’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” to the Triple Keith Urban version of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love”—Jagger somehow blows a Bronx cheer to the whole project by landing on what is now a Trump song to throw in their faces. In other words, because Trump played and still plays “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” at his rallies, he is now the author of the song, and the Rolling Stones can’t play it without not merely referring to him but endorsing him (sure, they objected, but it wasn’t serious, just a matter of “playing both sides of the fence”—really, when you accuse someone of a moral crime, not only supporting Trump but secretly endorsing him, you ought to offer something to chew on, not just your own air).
You could as easily—far more easily—read the use of the number as (1) a big deal epic of a song that can remake any time in its own images, or, if you want to get secretive about it, (2) a message to One World, those who were taking part and those who were watching: “You might find, you get what you need.”
Which brings up the actual performance, which was weird beyond weird. Keith Richards, looking almost unrecognizably bald and fat, holding his guitar as if he had no idea what it was, Charlie Watts playing invisible drums like a catatonic space alien, an invisible man or woman playing organ, and Ron Wood mugging through the whole song as if he were Johnny Thunders, which made it a solo performance by Mick Jagger, which was ok.
This is a strange request but we are living strange times, aren’t we? I am a journalist who writes about flamenco in Spain. I want to ask you something for a friend: our story is long and full of music, I’m sure you will enjoy it, but I know you are a a busy man.
Could you tell me which record you listened to over and over again when you were 54 years old? Which song overwhelmed you in a way you didn’t expect? Why? It’s a personal question both ways: I want to give your answer to my friend who I can’t see on his 54th birthday due to confinement. He loves your job, me too.
Please, excuse if this bothers you and above all, excuse for this rusty English.
– Silvia Cruz
I was 54 in 1999. I was caught up by Trailer Bride’s Whine de Lune, Macy Gray’s On How Life Is, Bryan Ferry’s As Time Goes By—which, when I first heard it, sounded like nothing but after overhearing it in a restaurant in London felt like the truest sound he’d ever make—Alison Krauss’s Forget About It, and a Fleetwood Mac bootleg called Shrine ’69, a live show in Los Angeles. But I played the Mekons’ Journey to the End of the Night and Warren Zevon’s Life’ll Kill Ya over and over and over, and Snakefarm’s Songs from My Funeral more than that.
At the risk of belaboring the point—How can you let Xi Jinping off the hook as the moral progenitor? After all LBJ, Bush had a lot more checks and balances to deal with—& even if I consider the elections of Bush & Trump to be fraudulent, there are very good reasons to suspect that the installation of Xi Jinping was monumentally less democratic…
And so is it right to violate the first and last commandment of “the sociological sublime” and judge a dictatorship by the standards of idealized Democracy—as we should judge America by? I say yes—because the world is too “virally” (literally) connected not to. Your right to smoke ends when you blow it into my face—as John Stuart Mill might describe the issue, as the analogy for the existence of these wet market/live animal market breeding grounds.
And who allows the existence of these wet markets/live animal markets to continue?
As one of the greatest exponents since Whitman of the penetration of Democracy into all areas of Life (especially music & thought), I would hope that you see Xi Jinping as the moral—that is to say immoral—progenitor of what we are undergoing now.
– Paul M
I don’t hold myself up as a world-historical judge, and can’t be held to it. I think of a comic strip from around 1980, a “Whatever happened to” about various punk figures, and the panel for Johnny Rotten: “Today: paints in isolation. ‘It all went horribly wrong,’ he says. ‘I used up all my hate.'” Like almost anyone, I only have so much outrage, disgust, anger, and hate, and without having made any kind of decision about it, it’s sparked by what’s close to home, and that’s where I direct it. Tiananmen Square cut me to the heart, but like a lynching in the north in the 20th century, in China it never happened, and for me that door closed.
The May 1971 Van Morrison live recording at Pacific High Recording Studio is breathtaking. He takes Friday’s Child, an OK Them-era song, and makes it monumental. Have you ever written about this tape?
– Harry Clark
It was also an LP bootleg—I still have two copies—and before that at KSAN radio broadcast. I write about it all through my book When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison. “Caledonia Soul Music” and “Just Like a Woman” are mountains, but you’re right “Friday’s Child”—for extremes, momentum, a charge over a cliff when he reaches the choruses—is the one. Even if it does feature the worst saxophone solo in history, which at the time I didn’t realize was probably by Van himself.
Those “the meaning behind…” explications that songwriters sometimes provide don’t usually affect how I hear a song, but John Prine’s comments on “The Great Compromise” threw me for a loop: “…America was this girl you used to take to the drive-in movies. And then when you went to get some popcorn, she turned around and screwed some guy in a foreign sports car. I really love America. I just don’t know how to get there anymore.”
Do you still know how to get there? Is it worth the trip?
– steve o’neill
I agree with you on not listening to people tell you what they’re doing, just like D. H. Lawrence does. That explanation trivializes the song and is much too poetically wistful. What I always liked about the song was the weariness and self-amusement—the way he says he knows the joke’s on him—in Prine’s voice when he sang “I was a victim… of the Great Compromise,” as if it’s inevitable for an American to find one’s private life read back as the whole history of the country, and vice versa. How to get there? Listen to Jelly Roll Morton’s “Mamie’s Blues,” watch The Searchers, read Democracy in America.
I’m just finishing up the latest season of Babylon Berlin. The depiction of the German film industry led me to finally start reading my copy of Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler (which, of course, is leading me to fill in gaps in my early German film viewing; thanks, YouTube). But the show also makes me realize I don’t know enough about German history between the wars. I’ve read Friedrich’s Before the Deluge, but can you recommend any other books on the period, particularly the cultural side?
I also need to get back to Phillip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther books. I’ve only read the original trilogy. I didn’t realize just how many more there are in the series until reading your comments. Have you read any of the Babylon Berlin books? Do they measure up to Kerr’s or the TV series?
p.s. Does the image of the glasses in Die Strasse remind you of the TJ Eckleburg sign in The Great Gatsby? Was that movie shown in the US at the time? Wonder if Fitzgerald saw it.
– Mark Sullivan
I’m not nearly as well read on this period as I ought to be, aside from rise-of-the-Nazis narratives in Hitler books, or the likes of Lucy Dawidowicz’s The War Against the Jews, and Richard Huelsenbeck’s Berlin dada publications. The book I’ve found most suggestive is Klaus Theweleit’s 1987 Male Fantasies, Vol. 1: Women, Floods, Bodies, History—where fascism is rooted in a fear and hatred of women and the feminine in men. Reading it is explosive.
Bernie Gunther really ought to be at least a shadow character in Babylon Berlin, lurking around the edges, slipping notes to Gereon Rath. Once he got past the original Berlin noir series, Philip Kerr began to follow Gunther’s story into the fifties and after, but with a double time frame, one narrative in the past connecting to another in the novel’s present (after the war in Argentina, in Cuba, in the south of France)—in The Quiet Flame, Gunther, wanted for war crimes, is in Buenos Aires in 1950, but the story connects back to a murder investigation in Berlin in 1932. The last two books—with the final one posthumous—are terribly disappointing, but overall Kerr was able to sustain the character far longer than anyone, probably including Kerr, could have imagined. One about a lost love, If the Dead Rise Not, is wrenchingly painful—no, you almost cry out at the end, it can’t end this way!
I’ve just completed L.A. Quartet by James Ellroy. As a longtime reader of Hammet, Cain, Chandler and Macdonald I find Ellroy hysterical and bracing and totally compelling, making everyone else seem faintly quaint.
Chandler said Hammett took crime away from the amateurs and gave it back to the pros who actually did it but Ellroy really gives you the visceral feel for the total corruption of the entire social structure. Your thoughts?
– Toby Cogswell
“Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes,” Raymond Chandler wrote in The Simple Art of Murder, as opposed to the British country house puzzle mystery that made him faintly sick. You could go too far in the other direction: “Murder,” he also wrote, “which is a frustration of the individual and hence a frustration of the race, may have and in fact has, a good deal of sociological implication. But it has been going on too long for it to be news. If the mystery novel is at all realistic (which it very seldom is) it is written in a certain spirit of detachment; otherwise nobody but a psychopath would want to write it or read it.”
The James Ellroy novels that drew me to him went right up to this line, if not a little past it, especially the mid-1980s novels Blood on the Moon, Because the Night, and Suicide Hill. They were shorter than the big LA history novels and focused on cops and fetishistic serial killers; once you started you could keep reading just to see if Ellroy could go farther. The id seemed to be running wild and the writer was like a cop, chasing it down, locking it up, finding out it had escaped, chasing after it again. That was the Ellroy I wrote about in California magazine when what little commentary Ellroy got was in half-paragraph summaries in current mystery wrap up columns. I met him about this time, at a very low-rent bookstore reading, and he mentioned he’d just signed a three-book million dollar contract with Knopf, and I thought, “Uh-oh”—that meant the books would have to be longer (long books sell much better than short books), be more self-consciously important, and Say Something, all of which they did. The first, his Black Dahlia book, was horribly contrived and unconvincing—here’s a real life LA murder far more gruesome than anything Ellroy had come up with in his own gruesome books and it came off lifeless and about as contrived as the mysteries Chandler was writing against. L.A. Confidential was a strong book but the movie was better, and after that the books for me lost their shape and I stopped reading.
Part of what seemed contrived was the oblivion of absolute corruption posited as the basis for the fiction—a version of Chandler’s “just to provide a corpse,” the corpse in this case being modern life as such. While it’s true that in Chandler there’s often a white knight—a DA, or a cop, who remembers why he got into the game in the first place and can still live up to himself—for a believable account of the “total corruption of the social structure,” nothing has ever touched Hammett’s 1929 Red Harvest, which means not only a reaping of blood but the elimination of leftists in a mining town—a place named Personville, which everybody calls Poisonville, which came out of Hammett’s work as a union busting Pinkerton agent in Butte, Montana, and helped turn him into a Communist.
On the subject of the fate of book literacy, my sneaking suspicion is that humanity has perfected hieroglyphics and is in the process of reverting to them. The important thing I believe is not to be intimidated by numbers. You must keep in mind that with a population that couldn’t have exceeded 350,000 classic Athens created a civilization that became a cheat book for every civilization to follow. Even a reality show needs someone to write the continuity. An optimistic possibility that if the book-learned do indeed have an influence beyond their numbers, they will come to see themselves as an interest group and cheat like bastards to have the world turn their way. An interesting factor here is the uncanny creative impotence of conservative-minded people, which had a chapter in The New Literary History of America, I believe. My potted theory on that is that modern conservativism has severed itself from its aristocratic roots.
My less optimistic theory is that in the oligarchy of the rich Trump is laying the foundation for (I write this as he is about to fire seven Inspector Generals at once and freeze all Freedom of Information Act requests), the book-learned will become the equivalent of a Court Jew in an Isaac Bashevis Singer story. This oligarchy I imagine to be something like Samurai Movie Japan, where each individual must align himself with a corporate feudal lord. Judging by my devices I expect that my Daimyo will be Amazon.
– Robert Fiore
I’ve never understood conservative ideas as ideas. There’s only so much you can do with a philosophy that combines I get to keep everything I can get my hands on with Ed McMahon You May Already Be a Millionaire wrapped in God.
What are your feelings on the numbers [below] that suggest this country has completely stopped reading? I think this, more than anything else, is the most salient difference between generations today. And without reading, you can’t really have the capacity for critical thinking. As one of my literary heroes (I bugged you right and left until you sat with me at the Cafe Med on Telegraph to talk about Lipstick Traces, which you did; a great moment in my life), this must resonate with you very deeply. Please tell me your thoughts.
A survey by the Jenkins Group, an independent publishing services firm, has shown that millions of Americans never read another book after leaving school.
–33 percent of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
–42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college.
–80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.
–70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.
–57 percent of new books are not read to completion.
– Jeff Larsen
It’s my sense that these numbers wouldn’t have been much different since TV became ubiquitous in the early or mid- fifties, if not long before. It’s also true that trash fiction, self-help, diet, and conspiracy-minded non-fiction (and where does ‘Dianetics’ go?) far outsell literary fiction or seriously written non-fiction, and that’s been true since at least the 1830s. And do these surveys include the likes of audio books, Kindle, and reading books on phones, practices that may have increased book readership? I’m suspicious of the argument that changes in technology alter behavior in essential as opposed to habitual ways, or that the American character has fundamentally changed since the Jackson era. Racism has not increased because of Trump, it’s been legitimized and empowered. As I’ve said here before, I don’t think more than 65% of the country, ever, has respected democracy or the sentiments and arguments of the Declaration of Independence, as opposed to preferring no government, which since the late 19th century meant or would mean corporate government, or a punitive autocracy. Critical thinking will always be a minority tendency.
I’d love to be wrong.
I was very interested to read your recent thoughts on the current Covid-19 crisis. But in response to your claim that the crisis “does not have the moral dimension” of for instance the Vietnam war—No moral dimension to China claiming that the virus is not communicable person to person? No moral dimension to China “disappearing” or silencing doctors who immediately sought to alert the world to the virus’ deadliness? No moral dimension to China lying about numbers? No moral dimension to the president of WHO parroting the Chinese line for far too long (and who still may be)?…
Trump talks like an ignorant, dogmatic drunk on a bar stool, and it’s beyond disgraceful that he’s the President of the United States—and the contortionists who make excuses for his every belch are deeply, intellectually compromised. And America has done terrible things in Vietnam, Iraq and many other places—but that shouldn’t let others off the hook. In this case, China.
– Paul M
I knew that was going to sound crass if not stupid. Of course there are moral dimensions to words spoken and acts committed. I only meant there was not a moral progenitor to the virus (leaving out the semi-official Chinese claim that it was all cooked up in a US government lab, just as AIDS was supposed to have been invented by the CIA). Unlike Vietnam, Bush’s Iraq war, or Trump’s transformation of the presidency into the rule of a second rate mob boss.
Unpopular opinion: I thought “Murder Most Foul” was shockingly bad. Dylan has nothing of interest, nothing that isn’t conventional to say about the Kennedy assassination and its context. There’s something shocking about an artist who had resisted being incorporated into the standard narrative of the ’60s now embracing nostalgia and “loss of innocence” tropes.
“Murder Most Foul” doesn’t even feel like the work of someone who lived through the ’60s, someone like the Dylan who said he sympathized with Oswald, a sentiment that at least approached the assassination from a different perspective. The song feels like the work of someone who watched a few documentaries and sawed off some lines by the yard before he got bored and name-checked the artists on his playlist. Even when Dylan hints at conspiracy theories behind the murder, he’s dutifully limning the conventional picture that has formed over the decades, almost providing a comforting overview. If there was an official position of “Musical Poet Laureate,” this is the dreary product I’d expect, a commemorative deadening of history.
Am I being too harsh? Is there something I’ve missed?
It sounded that way to me at first. Then I played it for an hour with a friend and it began to sound like history as wind, and the emotional complexities of the constructed situation—who is speaking, who or what is being addressed—began to change the song, and it’s still changing. Let’s just say apropos of the hundreds if not thousands of pieces already published on the performance, rushing into print after decoding it, as opposed to letting it play, is a sign the writers are most of all listening to the sound of their own names.
You’ve seen a lot. At a societal level—meaning not something personal, like the death of a parent—is this the worst thing you’ve ever experienced? I’m 58, and it’s not even close.
– alan vint
It depends on what you or I mean by experienced. As a possible double trigger of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which almost killed my father at the age of one, and the Great Depression—as a rationally calculated threat to the future of the country and the world, to the future of my children and grandchildren and my wife and myself, to say nothing of our immediate future, i.e. dropping dead next week or next month, no, nothing is comparable.
But in terms of dread—carrying around at any moment of the day or night the sense that life could not continue as it is and in some sense doesn’t deserve to—in my experience, this does not compare to the depths of American depravities in the Vietnam War or the the attempts to destroy American ideals by the Reagan, George W. Bush, or Trump administrations: for Reagan, I believe, a difference between his ideas of what those ideals are and mine, for Bush, a casual disdain for and congenital inability to comprehend anything outside of his own country club, and for Trump adherence to a foreign power for personal financial gain, which is to say treason.
Regardless of what anyone did or did not do on this crisis, it is a natural disaster and it does not have the moral dimension that for me, in my experience, which is what you’re asking about, defines the worst thing I’ve ever lived with. I’m not saying anyone else should feel or think as I do. I’m not saying, on any level, that I’m right. But there are ways in which for me seeing Trump stand during one of his daily events at the White House and degrade both anyone who is watching and the whole history of this country, its worst along with its best and even its ordinary life, is worse than what as a society and a future we are facing. It makes struggling for a decent future seem like a sucker’s game. That’s what keeps me up at night.
Are you like me, and feel compelled to listen to “Murder Most Foul” again and again? I’ve been letting the song in so it can seep into my brain. Bob Dylan has other songs I’ve had to play on repeat, like “Memphis Blues Again,” “Isis,” “Jokerman,” “Mississippi,” and for some reason, “Went To See the Gypsy.” But this song has the master reaching beyond history and catching another laurel wreath. Have you heard this stuff, can you believe he did it again?
– josh smith
That’s the key to the song—the way it invites, or suggests, that it be played over and over again. What the key is—why and how that happens—might be the real question of the song.
Have your granddaughters expanded your musical horizons?
– Jonah Ross
Yes. With the way they sing songs and commercials with new words.
I am astonished by yesterday’s left-field, Elm Street drop from Bob Dylan. Epic, spooky, hilarious, sage, inexplicable, karmic? Perhaps he ran into this speech by lawyer Vincent Salandria, given in Dallas on Friday, November 20, 1998.
I’m goin’ to Woodstock, it’s the Aquarian Age
Then I’ll go to Altamont and sit near the stage
Put your head out the window, let the good times roll
There’s a party going on behind the Grassy Knoll
Stack up the bricks, pour the cement
Don’t say Dallas don’t love you, Mr. President
Put your foot in the tank and then step on the gas
Try to make it to the triple underpass
– Johnny Savage
Hi. I had the privilege of attending your keynote address at the World of Bob Dylan Symposium last June in Tulsa. First, thank you for talking about the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, an event I had never heard about. Secondly, will you be publishing or making available your talk on the blues and Bob Dylan. And, finally, what do you think of “Murder Most Foul”?
– Ron Wall
My talk will be part of the book Sean Latham has edited drawing on work presented at the conference.
I like the way “Deep in a Dream” and a hundred other things become part of the story.
[Greil also notes: “I’ll be writing about it in my RLR Top 10 column in the LA Review of Books in late April—as the most recent installment went up today.”]
You may remember I interviewed you in your living room in 1994—I was visiting Tippet animation studios at the time from Australia and we discussed Lipstick Traces. I remember mentioning to you the 1958 BBC version of Quatermass and the Pit, which of course you don’t discuss in the book, but the 1967 Hammer Horror remake in Technicolor.
Question: have you seen the 1958 BBC miniseries since?
– David Cox
In the same way that I think the Steve Martin Pennies from Heaven is far superior to the BBC original, I’ve always found the TV Quatermass originals hollow compared to the film versions of Five Million Years to Earth and The Creeping Unknown, which I saw on TV when I was a kid and still bothers me.
I just watched the original television version of Quatermass and the Pit, and I was struck by the parallels with the current pandemic: The Minister decides to accept the army officer’s theory that the thing in the pit is a German wartime propaganda ploy because it is the explanation that presents the least trouble, and in order to bolster the normality of the situation opens the site to the public, exposing thousands to the Martian Racial Suicide Machine. Clearly Donald Trump made a huge bet on the coronavirus being far less severe than the people with knowledge were saying. The reasons are obvious: However unlikely, this is the only scenario in which he “wins.” He can continue coasting into reelection on an expanding economy, it’s the one that requires the least effort from him, and he winds up looking smarter than everyone else. The other outcomes are a full-scale animal dieback or mitigation strategies that are deeply painful. The current policy is a radical version of the conservative self-reliance ethic: The sole function of the federal government is the care and feeding of The Economy and sealing the borders, and human welfare is none of the federal government’s concern. It’s as if you complained to the mayor that your roof was leaking. The administration slogan might as well be “What Are We Supposed to Do About It?” The President is like, “Gee, that’s tough. There’s this malaria cure I read about on Newsmax, maybe you could try that.” Where I live it’s in that strange sitzkrieg state where you’ve barred all the doors, and though you yourself haven’t seen any of the rabid bears yet, the Forest Rangers are terrified.
– Robert Fiore
I don’t think Trump made a bet on the virus. Other than the possibilities of draining emergency bills for his business, or his daughter’s, or Kushner’s, or cancelling the election or delegating it to state legislatures, I don’t think he gives a damn. He’s invulnerable; as far as he’s concerned, he will never die. After all, didn’t his doctor, who he’s still trying to put in charge of selling off the VA to his Mar-a-Lago buddies, say that if he’d had a better diet he’d live to be 200? So next year he’s going to think about cutting down on the steaks. Or something. This is not important. Everybody—else—dies.
I got the new Folio Mystery Train edition today (which is so gorgeous I want to hug it or something) rather hoping to find something about Charlie Rich & Randy Newman in the updated Notes & Discographies—no luck, so do you have any thoughts on Charlie’s version of “Marie”?
– Mark Hagen
I suppose I didn’t comment (as I could have in previous editions) because it seems so insubstantial—it doesn’t feel sincere on Rich’s part and I don’t think it adds anything to the song. There is a lot new in the book on the recent Robert Johnson bio, the recent Elvis docs, Robbie Robertson’s autobio, and more.
Regarding the Folio Society edition of Mystery Train:
1) Did you have any hand in choosing the images for this edition?
2) What do you think the images add to the stories you are telling?
3) Looking through this edition got me to thinking about Lipstick Traces and Dead Elvis. Is it correct to say that those two books were conceived with visuals in mind? I can’t imagine either of them without.
– Scott Woods
I left it entirely up to them. When I saw the result I asked if they could add the opening Dorothea Lange two page spread and the Walker Evans/young Elvis pairing in the Elvis Notes section. Also asked that they replace a sort of corny period photo of black entertainers with the Panthers against the wall. As you can see they did all that. That Woodstock photo of all the local types is too much. I wonder where that came from.
I’m not sure how much they add. The book was written very much not to need images—while Dead Elvis was always conceived as an art book/collage book. With Lipstick it was a matter of the pleasures of the quest—wow! Look at this!—and Harvard was totally behind it, even hiring my friend Robin Cembalest from Artforum as photo researcher. She is a lot of the reason the illustrations are a full parallel to the writing.
I was a little taken aback, in Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus, to read what seemed like a gratuitous swipe at John Prine:
“And when the lights are low, we might cop to the likelihood that Bob’s original contribution to the LP, ‘Wallflower,’ shows that he has absorbed his John Prine influences very well, and has succeeded in writing and whining a tune that could by no stretch of the imagination have the slightest effect on anybody.”
Is that your bottom line on John Prine? I seem to remember some very admiring words you wrote on “The Great Compromise.”
Sure. Any song combining a titanic national event with private life is a heroic, not to mention funny, accomplishment. But “Sam Stone” and “Hello in There,” template for so much that followed, tearjerkers that make the singer seem sensitive, were what I was talking about. And that was, what, 78 years ago? That’s not all he’s done since and I wasn’t putting him down in advance.
[see Greil’s Village Voice review of Prine’s Common Sense, incl. “The Great Compromise”]
Where can I read an excerpt from your new book [Under the Red White and Blue]? I would like to know more about it before I order it.
– hugh grissett
There are no excerpts planned at the moment, but this early notice from Kirkus Reviews will give you a good sense of it.
You’ve mentioned in at least a couple places that your 1969 Rolling Stone review of Let it Bleed—something I felt compelled to re-read recently, perhaps for reasons too obvious to point out—was a turning point for you as a critic, when, to quote yourself, you “became whatever it is I’ve turned out to be.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by that? What made it a singular moment for you?
– Scott Woods
I was able to recognize that something epochal was happening on this album and in the times, and that it had to do with sensing or apprehending that the formal end of an era was also a true demarcation point, and that the band was able to write it out and get it down, and so was I. The David Bailey book fell in my lap and it was clear the book and the record were telling the same story, even if Let it Bleed understood how frightening the story was and Goodbye Baby and Amen didn’t. But imagine this story if they hadn’t called up Merry Clayton when she already had her hair up in curlers and said, “We’ve got this song that needs something…”
I would like to know what you think and fear I am not up to the conversational/critical expectation.
I have been returning of late with much wonder and bafflement to the music of my early adulthood. The music that I was most fond of at the time has diminished significantly in power except in terms of its nostalgic value (which for better or worse has not been a traditionally high value for me). I know the stories of Nebraska to the point where the songs are more like punchlines to fondly remembered jokes than they are the epiphanies they once were.
The Blasters, X, Rank and File, Green On Red, Dream Syndicate, The Replacements, The Minutemen, and dozens of other similar and dissimilar bands appeared to me as the sound of an America that I had very partially experienced (I am Canadian but had travelled in what we call “the States”). Much of these sounds held a resonance and a mystique to me, the potential freedom in being a friendly down and outer, but they did not challenge my sensibilities and nor did they draft them. They were the soundtrack to a life that was already forming and not offering me a script—unlike my earlier experiences of Bob Dylan and Lou Reed which I acknowledge were as much parents as attractive older siblings.
Which brings me to the Meat Puppets. I admired them when I was young in that way that silently states I know they are supposed to be cool but I cannot hear it. At the time I was most impressed by their oddness, their seemingly unwilled eccentricity—who at this age, coming out of hardcore, writes songs like this and plays their instruments in this way (country Minutemen), out this way? It was an America that I could not imagine.
Now that I am older I am relentlessly drawn to the Meat Puppets of 1983 to 1987 or so (I also cannot get my fill of Eleventh Dream Day for similar reasons). They no longer sound strange to me, perhaps their sound fits me more in my early fifties than it did at nineteen, but they still sound different. They sound like an America that I have still not seen, it is not a tourist destination, nor something you are invited to, it is a place only to end up in, but it is a place that I like to believe exists—gentle anger matched with a cheerful pessimism about offered possibilities and an independent spirit that is worried about its freedom (“And if you see it closer, then the finer points will show, not too much more, too much more”).
The question is what does your silence about the Meat Puppets say? I am hoping for more than that you knew that were supposed to be cool but you could not hear it. Of course, I will also be tickled with whatever you offer.
Mostly, thank you for all your great work. You have been a good brother.
– David P.
The Meat Puppets, or one of them, brought so much to Nirvana: a grounding, a knowledge. But on their own for me they came up short, or they were off somehow—off the road that, maybe, was really theirs. That was my impression—but now I’ll go back and see if, or more likely how, I was wrong.
What was your opinion of the film Yesterday starring Himesh Patel? I really liked it, it had me pulling out my Beatles CDs. For me, it was a feel good experience. I am considering buying the soundtrack CD.
– hugh grissett
It sounded creepy to me so I didn’t see it. On the other hand, I expected Across the Universe to be incredibly sappy, and it sort of is, but it also has Evan Rachel Wood, who can only be so sappy.
It occurred to me that the new Dylan musical Girl From The North Country might in some way, perhaps most in mood, be connected to his teacher B.J. Rolfzen’s The Spring of My Life.
I haven’t seen the show, but the clips I saw of the British production suggested this to me. Any thoughts?
– Alan Berg
I liked the show far more than I expected to, because the music and singing, once past the piety of the first numbers, were so imaginative and convincing, often adding dimensions of community to what were originally offered as individual performances. But as a musical it’s more a comedy than anything else, despite attempts at tragic plot pockets. There’s no recognition of the kind of misery that’s Rolfzen’s real subject—the cruelty and mania that extreme poverty or the fear of the poor fosters as a sadistic version of the good.
And I continue to be baffled by the play’s exclusion of Jewish characters, despite the long standing Jewish presence in Duluth, or its close with an image of the Cross. Maybe it’s because this show is not about northern Minnesota, the Great Depression, or even the songs. It’s about how to create a lively and surprising musical that may evaporate as soon as it’s over.
[see G.M.’s original notes on Girl From… in Ask Greil, 9/1/19]
You once wrote a review of Unfree Associations, a great book of poems by Michael Covino, which led me to an equally great short story collection (The Off-Season) and then to a wonderful shaggy-dog Hollywood novel (The Negative). And then… nothing. I can’t even find his presence on the web. Do you know what happened to him?
– kevin bicknell
I know just how you feel. Not long ago I searched as well and came up empty.
Last I heard, and it was a long time ago, he’d left the East Bay for Los Angeles. There may have been something about a screenplay or another novel. But other than pieces he published in the East Bay Express before Unfree Associations, what you’ve seen is what I’ve seen.
What song do you want played at your funeral, long long time from now? (Dibs on “Is That All There Is?”).
– jalacy holiday
Walking in: Fleetwood Mac, “Love that Burns”
Walking out: Van Morrison, “Sweet Thing”
Thanks again for your keen assessment of Quatermass and the Pit, aka Five Million Years to Earth. I was wondering if you ever watched any of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass films to compare/contrast. That’s The Quatermass Xperiment aka The Creeping Unknown (1955, remade in 2005 with David Tennant); Quatermass II aka Enemy From Space (1957); and Quatermass aka The Quatermass Conclusion or Quatermass IV (1979).
And so long as I’m on movies, did you ever catch the film version of Philip Roth’s Indignation (2016), and/or the two films covering Elvis’ trip to the White House? That’s Elvis Meets Nixon (1997) and Elvis & Nixon (2016).
– Andrew Hamlin
I saw Indignation and really didn’t like it. I wasn’t crazy about the book. I will someday devote the time and peace of mind to the Kneale films. All I know of them is the late Mark Fisher’s piece on them and it’s a lot.
Read your comparison of Five Million Years to Earth with The Sex Pistols last concert, and then found out Jose Mojica Marins (“Coffin Joe”) of Brazil recently died. He might not have crossed your radar; wore a top hat, had long nails, and created horror movies smack dab in the middle of the Brazil fascist dictatorship. His movies treated women much too violently for my taste, but I had to give him props for even attempting to make a horror film in the middle of a Catholic sponsored regime. Have you discussed the horror genre in detail elsewhere? You could consider The Manchurian Candidate political horror I guess, and the Quartermass films are to me a more sci-fi/horror mix. But I don’t recall you going into the horror genre itself anywhere… Were all those slasher flicks from the ’80s, for instance, part of the problem or an outgrowth of an underlying society anger at itself (or at least the women in it)? Does our tastes in what scare us tell us something about us?
I’m not really a horror movie fan. When Joe Bob Briggs published his book on horror and slasher movies ages ago, he was so convincing about his faves that I went out and rented all of them—I Spit on Your Grave (really overwhelmingly relentless), The Evil Dead (nothing), Texas Chainsaw Massacre (great, but somehow already generating its own clichés). There are some—Night of the Living Dead and all of Romero’s follow ups, Psycho, the first Halloween, They Live—but all in all I stay away because I know I’m probably going to feel empty at the end. That’s not a judgment—just taste.
I watched a YouTube interview you had in Rome, Italy and thoroughly enjoyed it. Regarding Bob Dylan. Question: would you consider teaching a screenwriting class?
I don’t know anything about screenwriting, even if I’ve written or co-written a couple: “Jungle Music” and This Is It: The Marin County Shootout with the late Michael Goodwin.
After watching Plant, Page & Marcus, the interview on a French TV channel—truly “unintelligible at all speeds”—on your website, I wonder how you relate to the translations of your books. Do you correspond with the translators, or have some specific demands on details, such as the cover or design of the publication? Any quality control?
Ah, I almost forgot. Those interested in Elvis´ sex life—really?—can find some juicy information in Cybill Disobedience (Cybill Sheperd´s autobiography).
– Armando Montesinos
It’s really not unintelligible. Just have to really squint, audibly.
The language other than English I can handle is French. I do review those translations, especially when my long time-translator and friend Guillaume Godard, dating back to Lipstick Traces, is on the job. I’ve found many errors, some meaningful, in French editions, and often do rewriting. Toru Mitsui was my original Japanese translator, but he was far more than that—for two editions of Mystery Train he comprehensively illustrated the book, more metaphorically than literally, though he also added countless informational footnotes and back sections identifying people and fixing historical events. I ask translators to always make contact about the smallest question, but usually they don’t—an exception being the 2019 Russian edition of Lipstick Traces, where I worked very closely with the translator, Alexander Imnyashov, the editor in chief, and the art director. So in most languages I’m at the mercy of the publishing gods, or devils.
In the airport, Billie Eilish’s new single “Everything I Wanted” started playing. It was a transcendent moment. I hadn’t heard it in a big, populated place like that, dripping in like IV fluid—and it made me feel exposed at first, because it had only been in my headphones for months, hidden from everyone. It’s a song about someone imagining killing themselves in a dream. What made it so special was that it fit right in even while it was suicidal. No one I saw hearing it in passing seemed to be changing visibly, but I wondered if like me everyone going to their gate or buying their coffee secretly knew but could not dare show that it was about the opposite of helping you get to your gate, even as it distantly sounded like every other song. Billie’s voice seemed inside my head even more in this public place, which made me hear the song as not a private confession but a public plea, coming down like a deus ex machina god begging us to wake up from a nightmare. And still the song blended so well into the movement of people getting on and off planes.
I’m interested in any moment you have loved a song and then heard it in a weird place in the background that made you stop in your tracks and totally rethink what it or that place meant to you.
I’ve had that experience many times, always with a sense of bewildered delight: how could something so perfect actually happen? Sometimes it can happen alone, as when “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” first came on the car radio and I had to pull over because it was too compellingly distracting to drive to, and imagining countless other people doing the same thing at the same time. There was that day when I pulled into a friend’s driveway as he in his car, another friend in his, and I in mine all had our radios playing “There Goes My Baby,” which never sounded more tragic and heroic as it did that unrepeatable day. I wrote about one such moment in Like a Rolling Stone—at Longhi’s, when at some Bloody Mary breakfast joint in Hawaii the song was playing dimly in the background. At some point I looked around and saw
that everyone had stopped—stopped eating, drinking, talking, looking for a waiter. Everyone was listening.
I was wondering if you noticed that HBO will soon start airing a TV adaptation of The Plot Against America? There’s a trailer here:
Thanks in part to your writing about it in The Shape of Things to Come, the book had been near the top of my intending-to-read list, but then after the 2016 election, it seemed like the story had come true and I wasn’t sure if I could take it. I’ve never read any of Roth’s other work. What would be the next thing you’d recommend to start with?
Portnoy’s Complaint, I Married a Communist, The Great American Novel. All radically different, written at, during and up against very different times, and all impossible to imagine being written or even fantasized by anyone else.
When Andy Gill died a couple weeks ago I went back to read some of what you wrote about Go4, including your feature-length Rolling Stone profile of Go4, Lora Logic, the Raincoats et al. (“It’s Fab. It’s Passionate. It’s Wild. It’s Intelligent!”) Three questions:
1) Was it difficult to convince your editor at Rolling Stone to give you so many words devoted to what was, at the time, incredibly obscure music? Was there resistance within the ranks of the publication to covering bands who, for the most part, didn’t even have records out in the U.S.?
2) Did you ever receive any feedback on that piece from the artists involved?
3) In regards to Andy Gill, I consider him one of the true innovators on his instrument. There are hundreds of great guitarists in rock and roll, but maybe a dozen or so who really changed our perception of what the guitar was capable of (I’d certainly never heard anything like that before). Any thoughts?
People have very skewed ideas about Rolling Stone, as of 1980—when I went to the UK to write about the Gang of Four, Lora Logic, and the Raincoats—or at any other time, as some cold corporate bureaucracy with backward ideas. I was a staff writer. In the fall of 1979 someone came to see me and handed me records he’d found in London—the Gang of Four’s Entertainment!, Lora’s Virgin EP with “Wake Up,” and the Raincoats—I can’t remember if their first album or just the “Fairytale in the Supermarket” single. I was entranced, fascinated. I read interviews with them in NME—they sounded like interesting people. I wanted to meet them. Jann said, go. I went. I came back with a story, Rolling Stone had brilliant portraits made—the full page of Lora in her kitchen with her sax is still framed on my wall—and ran with it. There wasn’t the slightest doubt, resistance, nothing but surprise and delight.
They were interesting people. I kept in touch with Lora off and on over the decades, through her conversion to Hari Krishna (which was on the horizon when I met her—she invited me to her mass wedding), stray recordings with Poly Styrene and on her own, and wrote liner notes for the Kill Rock Stars reissue of her work. I’ve seen Gina Birch of the Raincoats here and there, and wrote notes for a Raincoats live album. But the Gang of Four—at least Jon, Andy, and Hugo—I lost contact with Dave Allen after he left the band—became true friends. I trusted them and I think they trusted me. Last year, I encouraged Jon and Hugo to take part in the MoPop Pop Conference in Seattle—they brought the house down, with a fantastic tag-team stand up comedy routine on what it means for a band to break up (the theme of the conference was death) and also brought Dave Allen into town (he lives not far away) for the event, a DJ session at a local club (the Gang of 3), and we had a celebratory reunion dinner afterward.
Andy’s approach to guitar—and to what a band could be—was unique. I read in the obituaries about his debt to Wilko Johnson and his influence on others but to me he was incomparable, and no other guitarists had the patience, the reserve, and the confidence to play in a way that, at its best, could seem to make no conventional rhythmic sense while at the same time communicating a complex and shifting argument about the dislocation of everyday life. Onstage, by his demeanor and physical presence, he could embody confusion, bravery, and life or death struggle all at once. And I love the way he just goes ahead and clears his throat in “Anthrax.”
In your pieces about paleoanthropology, you’ve made the points (I’m paraphrasing here) that every published finding is only tentative (e.g., “oldest” doesn’t mean first, it means only “oldest we’ve found so far”) and that new findings often don’t confirm existing theories, but overturn them (in the sense of “everything you know is wrong”).
Given all of that, are there any recent books on paleoanthropology you would recommend? Or are all of them out of date before they’re published?
– Elliot Silverman
I haven’t kept up on books, mainly because when moving from a big to a small house nine years ago I removed most of my fascinatingly redundant library. But I do keep up with discoveries, often through news stories in the New York Times that alert me to scholarly articles in Nature, Science, and other journals, and they continue to open up the greater story, which is not that nobody knows anything, but that what one presumes to know must always be premised as quicksand.
Dating is being constantly revised and challenged. It’s exact until it isn’t. As a foundation of early cultural research and human development Europe was researched far more extensively than other places, and didn’t have tropical decay to deal with, but this is now being remedied, to the point that the location of the first known representational art is shifting from Europe to Asia and Indonesia. That’s startling, but given the trend lines of discoveries and recently constructed histories, not a shock. What is a shock is the recent research into the dispersal of Neandertal genes into African populations, where, as far as one knows, there were no Neandertals, suggests an upside down model of human history: that a group or groups of modern humans left Africa for Europe perhaps 200,000 years ago, interbred with Neandertals, and then disappeared from the fossil and cultural record in Europe until perhaps 40,000 years ago, which could mean that most moderns were genetically replaced by Neandertals, or exterminated, or driven out, but that in any case some if not all Neandertal-moderns generations returned to Africa, abandoning Europe, and interbred with modern Africans, thus dispersing Neandertal genes. That is the exact opposite of the theory, seemingly overwhelmingly documented, of Neandertal replacement or extermination following the 40,000 BP migration of modern Africans to Europe.
The more the world knows, the more questions there are. And no absolute answers.
1. Do you have thoughts on Billie Eilish, esp. “Bad Guy”?
2. Asked before, but curious now in post-impeachment 2020 primary season: how do you respond to Glenn Greenwald’s relentless attack on Democrats (and his alliance with Tucker Carlson and Fox), in which he suggests that the DNC and Clintonites are the real “bad guys”?
– Derek Murphy
Given her bedroom legend, I have trouble putting that together with her overwhelmingly professional voice, in terms of tone, delivery, pacing, timbre.
When I read Glenn Greenwald in Salon in the late 1990s-early 2000s, which was the last time I read him—and his dispatches were so long I more read in him than really read him—I recognized the signs of journalistic paranoia. Constant over-referencing of the tiniest facts or least central arguments, in the I know you won’t believe me but you have to look at these sources! Continual quoting at great length of This is really what they said! Constant self-quoting, as if to wrap the reader in the fact that It’s all one story! Reflexively assuming victim status when criticized: Who’s really behind this?
Given his tag-team with Tucker Carlson and his involvement with Edward Snowden, I wouldn’t say he, like Snowden, is working with Russia. Nor would I say that journalists’ rights groups that may be backing or financing or legally defending Greenwald are Russian fronts. I don’t know enough. That doesn’t stop me wondering.
To paraphrase the Penthouse Forum, I never thought I’d be writing about Elvis’ sex life, but my interpretation of Peter Guralnick’s writing on Elvis’ relationships is that the circumstances of his access demanded that he carefully craft the language to be respectful of Priscilla. Charlie Rose’s interview with Ann-Margret likewise is revealing, but not for what she says.
– Adam R
You might be right. But there are some gamy details.
This really makes palpable Greil’s take. [see Jan 2020 RLR]
(I would add to Greil’s argument: the high piping organ sounds ascend vertically while the camera moves horizontally across Umberto’s Clam House restaurant. This is textbook Eisenstein filmmaking dynamics, the kind that we tend to take for granted in Scorsese films, because of his often subtle mastery, especially with sound/image juxtapositions.
– Jonah Ross
The vertical/horizontal analysis brings out so much.
I run an independent bookstore. The bookselling world has been rocked this month with the bizarre conflagration around Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt. I haven’t read the book, but many of my colleagues and a dozen bestselling authors raved about it pre-publication—before tripping over themselves to backpedal when the Latinx community spoke out against the book and Cummins’ 40-city tour. (Her publisher canceled the remainder of the tour last week). It pained me to watch this unfold each day, especially since so many stores like mine were deprived of the opportunity for not only sales but an honest and open discussion about the immigration crisis and the role of art and culture in addressing it.
I think every side botched this. The publishers were hubristic and shortsighted to advertise it as “the next Grapes of Wrath.” The nastiest protesters and Twitter trolls were suppressing free speech when they threatened violence against bookstores.
Once more at the heart of this is the question of cultural appropriation. In your critical opinion, where is the line between appropriation and… well, culture? Isn’t cultural appropriation what Elvis did? Clapton? Gershwin? Hell, Steinbeck himself wasn’t an Okie, but can you argue that he was wrong to write about it? I absolutely support the #OwnVoices movement and a greater readership for Latinx and indigenous authors, but are we headed toward a culture where writing “what you know” is all that’s allowed?
When I lived in the Mississippi Delta, I used to hear a popular legend about cultural appropriation. The story goes that before the levees, during some cosmic 19th century flood, a double bass washed up with other debris on a sharecropper farm. Did it float up from New Orleans? Down from Memphis? The farmers, who sang field hollers all day, picked it up and started to pluck it and strum it and beat on it. They played it like a banjo or a diddley-bow. They slid knives and bottles over it. By the time W. C. Handy showed up thirty years later, they were playing The Blues. It’s a fantastic and ridiculous story, but so is any origin myth. Without cross-pollination like this, what’s left of culture?
– Steve I
The first thing I learned about the novel was from Larzer Ziff, a professor of English at Berkeley in the 1960s, when I was a student there. He said a novelist has to be able to imagine himself or herself into any situation: that of a different time, place, gender, age, political sympathies, aesthetic affinities, anything. I took that to heart and it’s always opened books for me, and closed others—I have little patience for transparently autobiographical fiction, which in most cases I take as a fraud. And this goes fully with a nearly absolutist commitment to free speech—when one speaks in public, under one’s own name.
So while I haven’t read American Dirt and don’t intend to, I find calls for this book, or any others, or any painting, film, poem, or any other matter of argument and expression considered cultural theft, misappropriation, colonialist, imperialist, or whatever, to be withdrawn, banned, even destroyed—which has happened too many times to credit–to be absurd, fascist, repulsive, anti-democratic, disgusting, and stupid. People should write what they want. Others can criticize. Writers can respond (though usually they should keep their mouths shut).
The Oscars are upon us again. I’m not interested in them, but I am interested in knowing what you consider the best films of 2019 to have been.
As I’ve said before, this column, which I love for its conversation, isn’t for reviewing, dropping peremptory opinions, let alone making best-of lists. That said, the most surprising, unflinching, relentlessly sustained movie I saw in the vast field of Irish-Once-Upon-Ford-vs.-Bomb-White-Elephants was Uncut Gems.
[re: Ask Greil 2/3/20]
Dead Elvis mentions Elvis Presley having sex with black girls as a teenager, whereas most females he dated claim to not have had sex with Elvis and according to Priscilla she only had sexual intercourse with him once or twice. I read Dead Elvis shortly after it was published but recently read about this claim in several internet articles and wonder if you have this from first hand accounts. What exact info do you have on this?
– Manfred Bouma
I was told this by several people in Memphis who knew him as a teenager.
“Who knew him as a teenager”—not evidence, not proof, nada.
– Richard Cusick
That’s true. They didn’t name names, either. The idea that he was asexual or sex-phobic, though, is absurd. Read Peter Guralnick on his early tours.
I enjoyed your recent comments on NPR about the 40th anniversary of London Calling. At the time of its release, I was a teenager, and fortunate enough to know someone who bought the record. Played for me in a basement rec room, I was lost in it from the first side. A world of concepts and sounds just pouring through the windows. When it was over, all I could say was “play it again.” I’ve never been without a copy since. Like Blonde On Blonde, the White Album, Songs In The Key Of Life, or Sign O’ The Times, those double records just seemed like the extra push, the gamble for artists already ahead in the game who decided to leave more chips on the table for the next roll than they might otherwise. The risk being that if this thing is boring, it will be REALLY boring. You know, like Chicago VII. But that’s just preamble. What I wonder about is not London Calling, but ‘The Clash,’ as in the name itself and how great that is. The onomatopoeia of it is only the start of how well it clicks. That moniker always seemed dead-on perfect, not just for the band, but for their time of greatest glory. I can’t think of a better match. Maybe Flamin’ Groovies is its equal, or The Minutemen. But those perfectly sell the bands, not reflect the atmosphere of the age and the music. So, does the band make the name, or can it be the other way around? Is a catchy name just something that can kick start a band, but then they have to live up to it? Who made great music and had a crummy brand? Who was the opposite? Are there any names you find perfect, or hate, or just think wholly inappropriate? Who the hell thought Imagine Dragons was a good idea for anything but a Disney cartoon? I’ve never listened to them, but those guys seem to be working overtime. So, like they say… What’s in a name?
– Glenn Burris
I always thought the Vacant Lot was the all-time dumbest name—I made it up, or thought I did—and then there it was. But really—the Flamin (or Flamin’ or Flaming) Groovies is beyond bad: it’s embarrassing to say or even think. Cyril Jordan once told me that was the idea: contradiction. Horrible name, great music. Figure that out.
Dead Elvis mentions Elvis Presley having sex with black girls as a teenager, whereas most females he dated claim to not have had sex with Elvis and according to Priscilla she only had sexual intercourse with him once or twice. I read Dead Elvis shortly after it was published but recently read about this claim in several internet articles and wonder if you have this from first hand accounts. What exact info do you have on this?
– Manfred Bouma
I was told this by several people in Memphis who knew him as a teenager.
I was going to write back that Ishmael Reed is well-represented in audiobooks except for Mumbo Jumbo, but I checked Audible just to confirm and it came out on audio 11 days ago as I speak. (It was cheap, too.) Audiobooks go into the oddest corners. Barry N. Malzberg, a science fiction writer who hated the space program, was most prolific in the 1970s, and wrote as if his teeth hurt him all the time, has had just about all his novels out on audio, including a series of Don Pendleton-style murder porn books he wrote under a pseudonym and the plain old sex novels he published under his own. Hardboiled paperback originals are very well represented, including the entire Chester Himes Harlem Detectives series, a ton of Peter Rabe, Donald Westlake both as himself and Richard Stark, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, James M. Cain, Richard S. Prather, Dashiell Hammett’s novels but not his short stories, Chandler very spottily due to arcane rights issues I suppose, and one each of Joseph Latimer and Lionel White. The Sixth Directorate by Joseph Hone is out on audiobook. I have the damnedest time concentrating on reading these days, so I actually listen to more books than I read, but then I’ve always loved the spoken word, even when you had to get it on vinyl on Caedmon Records. I can particularly recommend Ron Butler reading V.S. Naipaul’s Trinidad stories, Anton Lesser reading Charles Dickens, and Jim Norton reading James Joyce and Flann O’Brien. The definition of audiobook tragedy is a writer you love falling into the hands of a reader you can’t stand.
– Robert Fiore
Only leads me to thinking of how good it would be to have Lincoln reading Grant’s Memoirs, or Walter Winchell reading Murder, Inc. or Rosa The Duchess of Duke Street Lewis reading Bleak House…
You recently wondered if there’s an audiobook version of Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (there is, eight-and-a-half hours, read by David Sadzin), which made me wonder: have you ever heard the radio-play adaptation done by The ZBS Foundation in the early ’80s? I heard it a long time ago and remember thinking it was fun but, at two and half hours, way too short.
– Phil Dyess-Nugent
Didn’t know about it but I like the idea of the format even if this didn’t work.
Since you asked for suggestions after your Film Noir syllabus [see 10/14/19 entry], it has long seemed to me that though the postwar era gets the most attention, there’s a more genuine sense of desperation in the books and movies of the ’30s. However disillusioned it might have been, postwar Noir (I personally prefer the old-fashioned term hardboiled, but that battle was lost long ago) was coming from a people who had emerged from the war victorious, with their fortunes restored. The spirit of the 1930s was of being on a runaway wagon down a steep hill with an impenetrable fog below—you knew there was a crash coming but you didn’t know when. My beautiful theory was somewhat undermined by the ugly fact that several of the books I had particularly associated with the ’30s—The Deadly Percheron, Nightmare Alley and The Screaming Mimi (Fredric Brown)—were actually published after the war, the last one in 1949, which is really stretching it. The setup of Percheron seems to me the perfect encapsulation of the runaway wagon: In the twinkling of an eye the comfortable bourgeois professional is stripped of his life, livelihood and identity, and when he gets out of the madhouse he looks in the mirror and finds his face has been altered beyond recognition. Like the D-Day scenes in Saving Private Ryan, everything that comes after is an anticlimax. I don’t think it can be denied that the carny/spiritualist milieu of Nightmare Alley is of the ’30s. In The Screaming Mimi a drunk pulls himself together to pursue his dream woman in peril, only to have the pursuit send him right back to the bottle, an encapsulation of depression, recovery and depression again.
So anyway the suggestion would be to compare the literature of Desperation before World War II and the literature of Disillusion that came after. One hinge between the eras might be Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake. This was about as directly as he ever portrayed the White Knight vs. the Black Night, and there seems to be a certain expectation that the war might ennoble the world. I’m thinking about the scene (I don’t if I’m remembering this correctly, and I want to maintain my forgetfulness for when I reread it) where the Bad Cop is going to do some mischief to Marlowe that requires there be two policemen in the car, and the Bad Cop’s henchman stops the car in the middle of the road and says “I’m not doing this anymore,” and walks away, and when the Bad Cop threatens him he says “I report for induction next week. You can’t do a thing to me.” Of course, you know how that worked out (see Screaming Mimi above), though that scene may well be a foreshadowing of Chandler’s decision to walk away from Hollywood. Another book from wartime you might consider is If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes, about a defense worker who suddenly finds himself incapable of practicing the groveling survival tactics the white world requires of him, and the terrible consequences that ensue.
While the cynical view of the Nuremberg Trials is that it was a matter of the victors judging the vanquished, in reality there was a Nuremberg process that took place in popular entertainment and the culture at large, and this is the most interesting aspect of postwar Noir. If accurately viewed the Civil Rights Era was entire 20th century, and the demarcation is not pre- and post-Civil Rights but Civil Rights pre- and post-Nuremberg. (My admittedly glib way of saying this is that it took Hitler to give racism a bad name in this country, and you have to wonder if this is a spell that could wear off.) To me the essence of post-Nuremberg Noir isn’t any thriller, but in the westerns directed in the ’50s by Anthony Mann (an observation I realize is not original with me). The thesis of an Anthony Mann western is that the west was won by psychopaths, and the protagonist is an erstwhile idealist who now just wants to kill somebody. I will say of the classic noir In a Lonely Place is the most un-Hollywood movie ever made in the studio system. The idea that a person might be so incurably violent that he’s too dangerous to associate with even if he didn’t kill anyone this time is about as far away from the American therapeutic ideal as you can get.
– Robert Fiore
If the overwhelming engine of film noir is the presence of the returning veteran—filled with a sense of right and wrong, shocked to find that after helping to wipe the fascism from the face of the earth that it might be alive and well in the USA, damaged, a grenade with the pin pulled—there’s also an attempt to fight off the ’30s, to affirm that this is a new world, less black and white than gray, with its own terrors, its own abilities, its own knowledge. There doesn’t seem to be a Great War hangover in ’30s fiction and film, and I don’t think there really is in the late ’40s and ’50s. The War and the end of the Depression and the death of FDR truly drew a line, as if the past was cut off and jettisoned.
That said, the thirties could almost be the subject of the purest of all film noir pictures, Detour. The Depression is the weather in this movie. It hangs over the mood, the tone, the gestures, the way the dialogue is spoken: the expectation of defeat, the barely hidden belief that that’s all these people deserve.
I don’t know if you have witnessed the horror that is the Jay Sekulow Band, featuring one of Trump’s lawyers AND the former singers for Kansas and Head East. It’s all on Youtube. But it has me thinking about “Heartland Rock” and politics. Of course, “Classic Rock” is for white men of a certain age, which lines up nicely with Trump’s base. But where does that leave Bob Seger’s best stuff, the John Mellencamp of Scarecrow, and what about Springsteen’s Nebraska? Do you think that Heartland Rock reads differently now, looking back from Trumplandia?
– Patrick Walsh
What I think is that all such attempts to round up people and corral them into actually non-existent enclosures is anti-intellectual, anti-music, and an insult to whoever we might pretend to be talking about. Classic Rock is just a marketing tool. Heartland Rock is probably already a registered brand. It pains me that the second volume of Ed Ward’s superb projected-to-be-three-volume history of rock ‘n’ roll had to be sub-titled The Beatles, the Stones, and the Rise of Classic Rock. It’s just another way to count people up and dismiss them. The use of genres to discuss anything is the antithesis of criticism. It’s like when John Lennon was asked who had most inspired him. He said, “Chuck Berry.” The interviewer said, “Anyone contemporary?” John said, “Is he dead?”
Do you ever go audiobook fishing? That’s when you periodically do a search of your audiobook seller for books that haven’t come out on audio yet, in hopes that someone has come out with it. One book I’ve been fishlessly audiobook fishing for for years is Snowblind by Robert Sabbag, and the other day I got a bite. It came out at the end of last October. I bring this to your attention because (a) I first heard about it from your review and (b) you have referred to listening to audiobooks at least occasionally. [GM’s review of Snowblind.]
– Robert Fiore
Other than Henry Rollins’s reading of my The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs, I’ve actually listened to only one audiobook, back in the dark ages: Philip Roth’s The Human Stain on 14 cassettes as read by Arliss Howard (and Debra Winger). I made it my album of the year. I listened on vacation in the car—it was so compelling, often we kept driving past our destination because we weren’t able to break off listening. As of now my wife but especially two daughters are near constant audio readers.
I’m amazed that forgotten titles are getting the kind of new life you describe. Robert Sabbag was one of the best modern detective story writers in Snowblind—that the hard boiled voice in the book has now been turned to the ear is wonderful. I wonder if there’s an audio book for Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo—that would be a challenge I’d love to hear.
I like trawling through old Pazz & Jop articles, looking for acclaimed albums that don’t get much attention anymore. I just get curious as to why that is and to see if their merits do remain even if they seem forgotten by later listeners. This week I came across Rickie Lee Jones’s “Pirates” which was #5 on the P&J poll. It just crept on to your ballot with the minimum of five points. Beyond that, I haven’t been able to find anything you’ve written on Rickie Lee Jones in general. Do you still remember this album or listen to any of her music? (FWIW I tried Pirates, and to me it sounds like the type of follow-up album someone would make with the confidence and freedom gained from an enormously successful debut, for reasons good and bad. The worst parts sound pretentious, but at its she sounds bold and free, empowered to try something new. When she didn’t have anything interesting to say, it fell flat, but when she did, it soared.)
For me there was always something condescending in her music.
I certainly respect your disinclination to use this venue as a forum for reviewing songs you’ve never heard before, but a recent double-sided single by Head On (which a friend forwarded via BandCamp), should at least be brought to your attention. Both sides are available on Youtube.
– Scott Woods
I think the “GM” is a total masterpiece. Obviously one of the greatest records ever made. I can’t stop playing it. I’m not sure I will ever play anything else again.
Any comments on your experience of hearing the Beatles’ “Rain” when it was first issued in 1966 (flip side of “Paperback Writer”)? In my estimation, the greatest studio pop rock creation. In a funny way, that to which The Who aspired—insanely creative battle of vocals, bass, guitar and, most of all, drums in delirious abandon but also in a ridiculously engaging song structure. Thank heavens George Martin was there to enable the genius to actuate. I was three at the time, so oblivious. I cannot imagine what it was like to hear it in real time. Today, with the improvement of sound equipment, it is like a missive of pure artistic power from another galaxy. (And I am not even that big a Beatles fan.)
– Harry L. Clark
To me it was a kind of shock—when you were used to the Beatles leading, a step ahead in imagination and daring, here they were so clearly trying to catch up with the likes of the Byrds’s “Eight Miles High” and so much like it. It sounded like they didn’t know what to do with themselves, as if they’d lost their voice.
I studied the “Gone With The Wind: Seventeen” column, and was intrigued to see that it featured several paragraphs at the end, not shown in the edit which appeared in Ranters and Crowd Pleasers, aka In the Fascist Bathroom. Do you recall why you left those out for the book?
“Nothing like this, one might write, could have happened in a small French village in 1508,” you wrote in one of those deleted lines. I won’t argue, but I’ll fall back, admittedly simply, on that exhortation Sly Stone threw out in Woodstock: Most of us need approval. No idea if he threw that line into every show in 1969, but it’s always stuck with me. I only wish I was one of the few who didn’t need approval. And “approval” might line up with “sanctioned by an agency of representation.”Of course, now I can’t think about Woodstock without thinking of Charlton Heston watching it in The Omega Man, from 1971—all alone mid-day in Los Angeles, the daylight hours his only refuge from mutant vampires. He makes time for the movie. And he sardonically reflects how the nameless hippie’s conditional tense lost its conditional. The worst-case scenario dropped.
– Andrew Hamlin
I left out the ending of the original Artforum version in Ranters and Crowd Pleasers because I thought it was obnoxious of me, if not completely fascist, to tell people what songs they should like and how they should feel.
Not only is Pete Townshend’s solo in the original version of “The Kids Are Alright,” but that section of the song is a pivotal moment in rock history, via the whole band. It sounds like the ending of a live song. (General chaos, guitar, bass, drums.) But then it turns on a dime back to clean pop perfection worthy of The Brill Building. Noise meets music. Noise harnesses music, music returns with the power of noise. (Or the afterlife of noise, which still lives in the listener as they hear the return to music, reinventing both.) This is the ground on which The Velvet Underground & Sonic Youth & so many other bands pitched their tents. Thoughts on the Pete Townshend-Lou Reed duets?
– Jonah Ross
About that solo—I discovered it only after I found a British copy of the first Who album. I’d known and loved the song on the American release—where the solo was cut. It was a revelation, a chilling thrill. I think Lindsey Buckingham’s solo in Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” is the only analogue—that cut up, abstract sense of what rock ‘n’ roll actually is. And then, in 1980, for Rolling Stone, when I asked Townshend why it had been omitted from the US album, he denied that the solo had ever existed. Later, I heard that a few days after our interview in Oakland, he told another interviewer, who asked about our conversation, that the person who interviewed him had not been me—that Rolling Stone had sent an imposter. “I know Greil Marcus,” he was supposed to have said. We had never met, and never have since, which is too bad, because I’d like to ask him again.
I know the entire catalogue of X. The album that I still appreciate most is an outsider: See How We Are (1987). What do you think about this LP?
– Mario Alexander Weber
It’s lovely, it’s heartbreaking—trying to hold on to that first glimpse of something new from ten years before, knowing it’s not there. Any album with “4th of July” and nothing else would still be forever.
Given the fact that Mother Jones reports and the Wall Street Journal reports that Trump assassinated Soleimani to distract from impeachment, should the cabinet, if they were not sycophants, vote to remove Trump from office for incompetence and violating the Constitution?
This all seems so academic in a world gone mad a la Dr. Strangelove?
It’s become so much more depressing to think that Americans without much protest, would again send young men and women to their deaths, not to mention innocent Iranian civilians, for political gain, not that it hasn’t been done before, but this seems biblical and Revelation-sounding!
Assuming that what’s at issue is political calculation rather than mere pique (Trump getting nothing from killing the purported leader of the Islamic State—which I’d think is hardly certain) what transpired can hardly be called incompetent. Assuming it was based on an assessment, however arrived at, that an Iranian response would be minimal, if not mere show, which it was, then it was super competent. And the chips all fell Trump’s way: Iran shooting down a passenger plane wipes out any moral authority its government might have asserted, and puts the onus entirely on their action in the region, not Trump’s violation of international and US law. And to be honest, in terms of legal predicate, that is, any violations being completely ignored by everyone, this goes back to the Obama assassination of Bin Laden, with similar associated deaths of people in the vicinity.
On the other hand, Trump could invite Joe Biden to the White House to apologize and then have him shot in the Rose Garden and his cabinet wouldn’t vote to remove him, and various other Republicans would argue that it was a matter of national security, since Democrats are by definition traitors, or that it was a legitimate if novel way around campaign finance laws, which the majority of the Supreme Court considers unconstitutional on their face—which is to say that in a political context the assassination of one’s opponents can be considered a proper exercise of free speech.
First of all, thank you for (unknowingly) adding so much to my musical re-awakening this year: Ten Songs (“Shake Some Action” has left me permanently shattered) and Like A Rolling Stone (apparently I need Bob Dylan now more than I did 50 years ago) were great and I look forward to getting to Mystery Train and others this year. This will be rambling but it’s been a crazy day, so here goes.
I received 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die from my 18-year old nephew (an old music soul partial to the blues) for Christmas and decided to hit and make notes on the whole thing. Today was Queen, but more importantly, United Sacred Harp Musical Association. Tonight—by the sheerest, weirdest coincidence—I was catching up on Real Life Rock Top 10 for December and read the entry on Tony Conrad. Down the Wiki, Google, AllMusic rabbit hole—so far down I can’t comment on anything at this point. On top of all that, the Recordings’ “After That” selection is the Hilliard Ensemble and in looking through their catalog, I find that they have recorded several albums of Carlo Gesualdo’s music—he’s an ancestor of mine and that explains a lot.
Can you recommend more directly relevant follow-ups to United Sacred Harp Musical Association? My rock, classical, and jazz directions are clear but American folk music is unknown territory for me.
Again, I can’t even begin to thank you enough. Happy New Year!
Look for “Powerhouse for God: Sacred Speech, Chant and Song in an Appalachian Baptist Church,” an album released by University of North Carolina Press in 1982 as a soundtrack to the book of the same name by Jeff Todd Titon. You can find it on Spotify or for $8.99 as an mp3 on Amazon—sites have the original LP going to $300. It’s an extraordinarily alive, pulsing, thrilling account of climbing the ladder of belief. Especially “Altar Prayer.”
Where can I read an excerpt from Grail Marcus’s new book?
– hugh grissett
To my knowledge there is no new book by anyone of that name. I do have a new book coming out April 28, but so far no excepts have been published and none are scheduled. If that changes news will be on the site.
Bad sleep habits have lately been giving me a chance to revisit two books I read when they first came out and found, except in moments, somewhat flat: Jessica Hopper’s The First Collection Of Criticism By A Living Female Rock Critic and Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. This time around they’re maybe a little better than I remember, but ultimately still leaden with a feeling of having been built from the outside in—long on external fact and informed recollection and short on individualized burn. The eccentric and personal too often and too quickly get funneled into The Truth.
At some point I started thinking about how both Hopper and Abdurraqib seem to have come up through the DIY/emo scene, with its devoted communities and dedicated outlets, and I began questioning whether the rounded, defused air I get from both books might be due to their security with an audience. Not saying every piece was written for emo kids, only that every piece feels like it was written with the absolute knowledge that it would be read. Very little in either book feels precarious, like something I might have missed had things gone a little differently. There’s an inevitability, a satisfaction, and with those, a limit. I guess it boils down to what feels like a lack of tension.
I don’t know whether any of my late-night conjecture is right, and I’m not asking you to defend either book (I know you’ve written favorably about both of them), but it got me wondering how much you think about tension in your own writing, and where you might locate it. As an outside observer who’s read a fair amount of your work, I see the tension therein mostly between a need for answers and a fundamental disbelief that answers matter in any real way. When you deploy scholarship, it feels less like an end in and of itself and more like a way to burn off what is known in order to more quickly get to the unknown. The flat stuff starts with a question and ends with the facts, which only sounds good. Yours does the opposite, and ends up being far more energizing. It is the critic’s disbelief as well as the lover’s: “Yeah, okay, got it, but still—how can it possibly be like this?” The similarly marvelous Dave Hickey does a version of this same thing.
Is the tension/dissatisfaction in your work something you’re conscious of or think about at all? Do you think it’s important?
– James Cavicchia
I’m not going to be maneuvered into criticizing honest colleagues, even if I weren’t friendly with both. I’ll just say I think for both their best books are their most recent: Jessica’s Night Moves and Hanif’s A Fortune for Your Disaster. Which is not to say their previous books aren’t signal contributions to the question of whether one’s response to music can or should be disentangled from one’s life.
You have always expressed your preference for the British configurations of the Beatles’ first four LPs, and I don’t know anyone who disagrees. (I’m sure you prefer the U.K. Help! too, since the Capitol version is half non-band movie music.)
My question is: when and how were you exposed to these UK versions? I assumed that American record buyers came to know the early Beatles only through the Capitol albums. Was that true for you? Did you originally fall in love with the U.S. versions? More specifically, did your later discovery of the U.K. LPs rewrite or reshape the story of the early Beatles for you?
Or—did you have access to the British LPs from the beginning?
There was a record store in Berkeley that sometimes had the UK albums. Friends would sometimes bring them back. I got the UK Rubber Soul. I liked the US version better.
What I recall most vividly was finding the Rolling Stones’ Aftermath (God, what an ominous title!) in London in June 1966 and bringing back half a dozen copies to give away—and that great, great album is much more what it is as it appeared in the U.K. than it was here. Even the lighter feel of the sleeve had more incandescent, contingent drama. I’ve never gotten the falling-away feel of how Mick sings “Escalation fears… Oh yes, we will find out” out of my head. It was 1966, and even running down Carnaby Street, at that moment the center of the universe, those fears were real and everywhere. To find them acknowledged, answered, and affirmed on a Rolling Stones album was a sign of a just and common cause. And then there was “Going Home.”
I recently saw the documentary What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael. As a high-school kid in the mid-70s I would go to the local library to read the Village Voice and Pauline Kael in the New Yorker. I liked her energy, style, and authority. I think the first time I disagreed with her was after I saw Clockwork Orange for the first time in the early 80’s and had the experience of a movie staying with me for days and then read her negative review from a decade earlier. Re-reading it now among other objections she didn’t like that he didn’t follow Burgess’s moral: “Alex the sadist is as mechanized a creature as Alex the good.” I think Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange gives some of that but questions it as well. Like Springsteen’s Johnny 99 said: “…it was more than all this that put that gun in my hand”. I would have loved to have heard a discussion between Lynch, Scorsese, and Kael on Kubrick’s movies. One nugget from her 1972 review is this beautifully accidental foreshadowing: “Stanley Kubrick has assumed the deformed, self-righteous perspective of a vicious young punk who says, ‘Everything’s rotten. Why shouldn’t I do what I want? They’re worse than I am.'” Anarchy in the UK indeed!
I’ve heard Kael rarely saw a movie more than once. Based on what I got from the documentary I imagine the movies she did watch more than once were ones she liked. As far as you know, would she watch a movie again if she didn’t like it the first time? Would you?
– George Gawartin
That’s what she said. There’s no question she had a cinematic memory, able to hold and call up scenes, lines, shots that would escape people who had seen the movie in question a dozen times. It’s hard for me to imagine her not seeing a movie she loved again, or again and again, purely for pleasure—which for Pauline would include intellectual pleasure. On the other hand, Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson would talk about seeing a movie hundreds of times in the course of analyzing or teaching it (see the recent New York Review of Books piece on the new anthology, Manny Farber: Paintings and Writings), and I find it hard to imagine anyone with that much patience.
My favorite movie is The Manchurian Candidate. I have every moment memorized, and yet whenever I see it I’m shocked all over again, and in a hundred different instances. Yet in nearly 60 years I’ve probably seen it no more than 20 times. So who knows? People are different.
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