While it’s a certainty that I’d read some of your writing previously, I don’t think I started actively registering the name “Greil Marcus” until I read it in Greg Tate’s Flyboy In The Buttermilk in earliest college. He gave you a shout-out at the start of a piece whose format was, I figured out well after the fact, modelled on Real Life Rock.
His work was hugely important to at least three different versions of me, and his passing is a great loss.
Were you and he close at all?
– James Cavicchia
I didn’t meet Greg until 2000 at a symposium at Princeton organized by Daphne Brooks, and knew him only to say hello to. I was actively reading him in the Village Voice from his start there. For a time he seemed to be styling himself as an acolyte of the supposed critical theorist Fredric Jameson. I wrote him encouraging him not to tie his ship to people who had less to say than he did, let alone—unlike him, and like Jameson—had no interest in finding novel ways to say it, and apparently he appreciated that. I was sick to my stomach when I heard that he had died.
Hi Greil (no one strings sentences together better than you; such poetry in your pieces).
Do you remember when Martin Luther King Jr. came out against the Vietnam War (April 4th, 1967—one year to the day before his murder). Wondering what your thoughts were.
– Mike Selby
I do remember. He made it seem like an inevitable step on the ladder of his philosophy—as he might have put it. I also thought, as did many other people, that King was a politician as well as a philosopher, that he had probably put his foot on that step many times before taking the next one—because of what it would mean for him, for the Civil Rights movement, to make an enemy out of Lyndon Johnson—never mind J. Edgar Hoover. Some people were saying, stay in your lane, a.k.a. keep your eyes on the prize. Other people were saying what took you so long? I was thinking, as were people around me, I know what took you so long—and it may be too late for what you’ve done to make a difference.
re: “I’m interested in the new version [of West Side Story] because Tony Kushner wrote the script.” [12/8]
You won’t be able to understand 40% of Kushner’s “script” if you don’t speak Spanish. There are no English subtitles for these parts, a fact LaSalle egregiously omits from his review.
LaSalle is a toady.
That would seem worth mentioning. But Mick is a toady to who? He’s the most invisibly intellectual critic in any field I know. He can craft subtle yet comprehensive arguments about film conventions rooted in social analysis that sound like ordinary talk, people sitting in front of their TV saying, “Why’d he do that?’” and he explaining why, in a way that makes the other people feel both smarter and more interested than they were in the first place. And he can do it in a sentence or a paragraph.
Any thoughts on the Replacements (Paul Westerberg)? To me, they are the Great Lost American Rock Band, but that might be because I was in college from 1984 to 1988.
– Jim Rafferty
They wrote good songs—though my favorite album is The Shit Hits the Fans, which is mainly covers. It’s noisy. They don’t care. They take requests. They love their audience and show contempt for it too.
All in all there was something too endearing about the music and too self conscious about any words coming out of anyone’s mouth, as if the group was put together from the “How to Start an Indie Band” handbook before it was even written. There was a scene then and there. They might have been the most loved among the groups that played together and tried to top each other. I was moved and transported by Husker Du, Babes in Toyland, and Soul Asylum. Not the Repeers, which nobody called them (the too hip ‘Mats,’ which always set my teeth on edge, was from the “How to Give Your Band a Secret Name” chapter),though I always felt sad when I caught a snatch of Paul playing guitar for SNL breaks. Leave that to G.E. Smith.
Not so much a question as a comment concerning “Brown Sugar.” Been a fan of the Stones since the late ’60s. I never thought the song was about slavery or that it was particularly racist. It seems to me that the song is mostly about interracial sex. “Brown Sugar, how come you taste so good/Brown sugar/just like a young girl should.” That’s just the kind of “shocking” thing that was the Stones stock in trade during that time period.
The song isn’t ‘about’ slavery, because no realized music is ‘about’ any single thing. But “sold in the market,” “scarred old slaver,” and “hear him whip the women” so root the song that when the line “I know what I like” comes up at the end it sounds less like the Big Bopper slavering over a teenage girl or a white rock star with a black girlfriend in 1970 than Mick playing a sex tourist in South Carolina in 1845.
Loved your Van book.
Question for you is: Dylan and Van to some extent seem influenced by their respective first wives and new age ideas (look at their stuff, it’s in there, even if not readily apparent). Do you have any thoughts as to whether they would have been more pure, better, and their great material [would’ve lasted] longer if they had resisted these influences?
I confess I don’t understand this at all. I spent an afternoon in 1970 with VM and Janet Planet, and other than her name she was a down to earth California person seemingly uninterested in influencing anyone about anything.
In the past you’ve described Devin McKinney’s book Magic Circles as the best book on the Beatles. How well do you think it holds up against books about the Beatles that have been written since, such as Rob Sheffield’s Dreaming the Beatles?
Also, how do you think Robby Krieger’s autobiography holds up against John Densmore’s, which I understand is a particular favorite of yours?
– Ben Merliss
Rob Sheffield’s is the best book on the Beatles since Devin’s, but it’s not close (nor does it try to get there—it’s from a completely different perspective). No one has approached the Beatles story and their music with as much empathy, generosity of spirit, and a deep sense of awe cut with knowledge, judgement, and research.
I was excited to see Robby Kreiger’s book and found it close to unreadable. It’s not a book. Densmore’s is.
Have you written (or have any thoughts to share here) about Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways, or about Dylan’s recent tour, which, following his exceptionally emotionally potent fall 2019 shows, really struck me as in some ways unlike anything I’ve seen him do in the 33 years I’ve been going to his shows.
– Eric Greene
I’ve written at some length about Rough and Rowdy Ways in my Real Life Rock Top 10 columns. I haven’t written about the current tour as it hasn’t been where I am. I did include a trenchant item on the tour from Jann Wenner in my November column. The rough YouTube videos I’ve seen of shows, all of which have been greeted with worshipful reviews, haven’t been impressive—but those are rough YouTube videos and it’s not being there.
Long-time admirer of your work; in fact it’s probably true to say there’s few American artists from Skip James to Lana Del Rey that I’ve not discovered through your writing. But my question today really relates to my own work: I’m a librarian for a local history library in Leeds, U.K., and have recently been cataloguing your piece on Delta 5 from In the Fascist Bathroom, which includes some really vibrant accounts of Leeds in the ’70s. Given [that] 1970s Leeds is a particular interest of mine, and I know you’ve also written some great stuff about Gang of Four and The Mekons, I was interested in your own memories of that period: did you spend much time in Leeds while those bands were active? Do you have any thoughts about why those bands emerged from that specific time and place?
I’ve never been to Leeds. In 1980 I came to the UK to write a story for Rolling Stone on Gang of Four, Lora Logic, the Raincoats, and Rough Trade, as a result of someone coming by my house a few months before with LL’s “Wake Up” 12″ and the first albums by the Raincoats and Gang of Four. I spent four days traveling around the UK with Gang of Four, one night with the Raincoats, and on my last night there saw an endless procession of bands at the Roundhouse including Gang of Four and the Mekons, who made no impression on me other than that there were a lot of people onstage and they all seemed to have the same last name. Jon King and Hugo Burnham remain good friends. I’m still in touch with Lora. I got to know the Mekons only later. I’m friendly with everyone, but Jon Langford and Sally Timms are very good friends and collaborators. I haven’t been in touch with any of the Delta 5 but remember Ros Allen and Julz Sale as especially vibrant people. All in all, with talk with everyone, as I’ve said before it was like being back in graduate school for the excitement and passion of the talk, about everything.
This all came out of the radical culture in and around the university, which included everything from gay bars to the film society. It came out of opposition to the rise of the National Front and the British movement, whose members trashed left wing student bars and tried to break up shows. Women in Delta 5 were chased down the street with shouts of “Communist witch,” which you have to admit is just the sort of thing you’d print up for a t shirt. The sense of modern art—and in its protean, repeating form, the collage—affected every form of art and discourse: Hugo used to say Gang of Four’s aesthetic was rooted in Godard’s use of split screens in Numero Deux. And a special center of this ferment was the Leeds art department, the effect of which spread out and touched people who were never directly part of it. This meant making art and studying art history, and the center of that ferment was T.J. Clark, the Marxist art historian (he’d already published Image of the People on Courbet and The Absolute Bourgeois on Baudelaire; he would go on to The Painting of Modern Life, Farewell to an Idea, and many other books), who in the sixties had been a member of the Situationist International. He’s a great teacher; he sparks people. He sparked a lot of people there.
Really, Jon Langford and Hugo and Jon King and Ros and more should get together and talk out a book on that time and place.
Do you have any thoughts on the recent passing of Stephen Sondheim? I’m not a great fan of musicals but I’ve long regarded West Side Story as some kind of masterpiece with a verve and wit equal to but distinct from the rock’n’roll music of the era.
– Paul Ashbridge
I find his kind of expository song unbearable. West Side Story ( the movie) left me cold, as Pauline Kael’s demolition of it did not. I’m interested in the new version because Tony Kushner wrote the script.
Was curious about your reaction to whatever you’ve seen of the new Beatles film.
I’ll admit I’m a poor purist, but I just never liked Let It Be, or Abbey Road, either, actually, even when they were new and I was supposed to.
And have you ever written much about the Raveonettes? Big favorite of mine.
– Derek Murphy
I haven’t seen Get Back yet. Too busy watching all five seasons of Pinky Blinders and now The Landscapers. That after having been suckered in by all the glowing critical publicity for such slipknot movies as The Power of the Dog and Passing. I hope it’s as good as Todd Haynes’s Velvet Underground movie.
At the time, everyone seemed to be listening to a pretty ragged bootleg titled Get Back rather than Let It Be, which really was a horrible botch, the first sign that Phil Spector had no idea what he was doing and didn’t care. And that Abbey Road sounded fake, soulless, as if they were all playing roles instead of making songs and making music. There were just too many stupid or weak numbers and they were all over the place, from “Oh Darling!” to “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun.” There’s no point in going into “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”—which I once witnessed being sung by Jessica Mitford, which actually came off better than it did on the record: she brought a sneering aristocratic bloodlust to it. I liked “Golden Slumbers” and “The End” and they still have wit. But over the years I think “I Want You” has grown and grown, like a tree.
I wrote about the Raveonettes—I always loved the name, a combination of Buddy Holly and the Ronettes, isn’t it?—in Real Life Rock columns. They were a hard-hitting band. A film noir band.
[See the Raveonettes here and here.]
Since you read a lot about music, I assume you know the work of the late Mark Fisher. (He quotes you in the unpublished intro to “Acid Communism.” Probably elsewhere.) One thing he said that has stuck with me is the sense that there is little new and shocking (good or bad) in pop music. “Just because something is current doesn’t mean it is new.” This popped back into my head as I recently read the opening section of Lipstick Traces.
This idea appeals to me. Watching Get Back, and listening to Beatles music with my kids, some of it still sounds “new” somehow. Even when they break into “Besame Mucho” or “Danny Boy.” Newer than Drake, newer than Olivia Rodrigo, whatever. Recently, as my daughter cued up Taylor Swift, I asked for the next song in the queue to be “Bustin’ Loose” by Chuck Brown, because… because I need hope! In that song, not top tier to many, I’m sure, Brown sounds like he’s a moment away from being released into a better future. The B-52’s used to make me feel that way, as did Sly and the Family Stone, the Beatles, of course, but all sorts of music.
Or is this merely nostalgia? Did “Driver’s License” or “Peaches” smack teenagers in the face the way “She Blinded Me With Science” or, maybe better, “Fascination” and Jean-Michel Jarre or the Dead Kennedys sounded to me? I don’t hear the negation of the past in pop music now; it feels like I’m scrolling through Instagram. When I hear pop music now, I think about demographics and logarithms.
– Patrick W
Certain songs, recordings, performances, hit me as miracles. I don’t understand how they could have been made, how the thousands of choices between notes, spaces, words, inflections, could have been worked out (as they are in, say, Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” or the Rolling Stones’ “Gimmie Shelter”)—it seems beyond the human mind—or, when there is just a sketch, an impulse, how it could have happened. Every time you hear it, whatever it is, that sense of impossibility arrives, and you feel like you’re hearing it for the first time. Because you are. The song arrives as an event, something that could never have been predicted, and you fall into that spirit.
This isn’t, to me, the same as something being new, or something formally old being more new than something that is, you know, new. It’s beyond that.
I have never been as impressed, or just drawn in, by Mark Fisher as I know I’m supposed to be. He had great ambition but I often get the feeling that he’s flailing, that he’s out of his depth, that he can’t bring his ideas, or his will to describe the world, into focus, can make it hold still. I think a heavy reliance on Marcuse is not a good idea, because, not to make a pun, really, compared to Adorno at his best, as in Minima Moralia, or Benjamin all over the place, he’s pretty one-dimensional. He makes strong arguments and when you’ve come to the end of them, they’re over. He doesn’t open up, he closes, and I get the feeling that that is what Fisher wanted to do, too.
Who are the best journalists working today, outside of music?
– Mr. Cool
I don’t rank. I like Linda Greenhouse for arguments, Tom Friedman for being one step ahead, Jonathan Chait for passion, Scott Ostler for humor with a rattlesnake bite, Bruce Jenkins for knowing what he’s talking about, Masha Gessen for getting inside the inside, Mick LaSalle for making movies more interesting and complex than even the people making them realize, Steve Erickson whenever he raises his head.
I’m trying to find an overall reason why some singers ring true for you (Bryan Ferry, Doc Boggs) and others (Bruce Cockburn, Gillian Welch, etc.) don’t. Is it simply their acting ability—their ability to connect with the song so the song sings them rather than them singing the song? Detail, desire, mystery? And that connection doesn’t have to do with biography, but with artistry?
– Andy Callis
follow-up: I should have put “Rocket Launcher” instead of Bruce Cockburn. And maybe used Stan Rogers (rings true) and Pete Seeger (rings false) as examples.
I don’t think biography has anything to do with it. I don’t know anything about Bruce Cockburn or Gillian Welch’s lives and I don’t care. I once read a biography of Bryan Ferry and another joint biography of Roxy Music when I was hoping to write a never-started book on Ferry (UK publisher: “Nobody cares.” US publisher [English]: “Nobody knows who he is. And isn’t he a spiv?”), and found his life story so boring I never got past 100 pages in either. As I’ve said before, imagination is the test and empathy is the judge, and I’m not the only one to hear that, feel that, in Dock Boggs and Bryan Ferry and so overwhelmingly in Stan Rogers’s “Northwest Passage”—to think that you’re simply caught up in the romantic swirl of history and martyrdom only to find out the song is also about some poor guy pretending that leaving his wife would be a great adventure into the unknown?
I thought I’d weigh in on Bob Ryan’s comment to you about my Bruce Cockburn question, and your reply to him.
For the record, I certainly did not send my inquiry to you for any sort of benediction on your part! I ask you about artists I like because I genuinely love this forum you’ve provided that allows me to do so, and I enjoy every response you give to all the questions I’ve asked, whether I agree with your answers or not. The fact you take the time out of what I am sure is a fairly busy schedule to seriously consider all these questions from your fans has provided me with a lot of interesting food for thought (as all your writing does).
Regarding your answer to me about Bruce Cockburn, I definitely see where you’re coming from. Protest songs are hard to get right without either (as you said) breast beating righteousness or vague, let’s-all-get-along sentiments (to paraphrase a Rob Sheffield review of a Lenny Kravitz song of the latter stripe, God will not save humanity just because another rocker managed to rhyme “life” with “strife”). I generally prefer Cockburn’s non-political writing, but I admire how he didn’t mince words regarding his feelings of rage and impotence at the state of the world (compare this to Paul Simon’s silence on apartheid in the same decade). But your argument for why you don’t care for it is convincing.
Now that that’s (hopefully) cleared up, I have an unrelated question. I just finished your book on The Doors (which I thoroughly enjoyed), and have to ask what would your desert island box set be: The Doors’ Boot Yer Butt!! or Richard Pryor’s And It’s Deep, Too!?
– James L.
That’s really hard. I’ve listened to both over and over. But Pryor is great background for writing. So I’d have to go with Mr. R.
As requested, a Leonard Cohen moment with the snap of that line from “Idiot Wind”
– steve o’neill
Def LC at his best.
I love both Dylan and Cohen, but I’m fine with your disdain for the latter; he’s not to everyone’s taste. But since you asked for “a moment in all of Cohen’s career that has a trace of the snap of ‘I can’t help it, if I’m lucky,'” from “Idiot Wind,” I thought I’d offer this up from “Take This Longing,” off 1974’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony, probably aimed at Nico, who rejected both Bob and Leonard: “You’re faithful to the better man/I’m afraid that he left…”
Speaking of his Bobness, what did you think of his cover of “Brown Sugar” on his fall, 2002 tour? (If you haven’t heard it, shame on you, but it’s here to hear.) One bit of context: this was shortly after a biography came out revealing he’d been married to and had a child with Carol Dennis, one of his backup singers and a Black woman; not sure if that’s relevant, but maybe you have some thoughts.
Ok. No more questions about Leonard Cohen. Or no more answers.
Yes, Dylan’s “Brown Sugar.” He was married to two black women, both his back up singers. Maybe one of them suggested it. Interesting video (I’d only heard it): same floor as in “Shadow Kingdom.” I’m glad he left out the “whip the women” line.
In one author’s bio or another you indicated that you’d been at the Beatles’ last concert, at Candlestick Park on August 29, 1966. Why have you never written anything about it? Was it that unmemorable an experience?
– Devin McKinney
Unmemorable would be the last word I’d think of. It was unforgettable, for what it was and because it turned out to be the last time.
I’d seen them at the Cow Palace the year before. I don’t remember why I didn’t go to their first show in San Francisco, in 1964, but when 1965 came around I went with friends. One, who’d been there the year before, said, “You aren’t going to believe how you’re going to feel.” That was an understatement. It was a traditional San Francisco arena show, with endless opening acts—I remember Sounds Incorporated being so boring I wished I could pass out—when you’re waiting for the end of the world, anything can be boring, but Cannibal and the Headhunters were hot. Then after a while the Beatles came on and at some point in the middle of the second song I realized I was standing on my chair—a rickety folding chair—and screaming. I had no memory of how I got up there. It was as if some Beatle-force had lifted me up and set me down. I stayed there for the rest of the show. I remember only one number out of the noise: “I’m Down.” It was the most exciting thing I’d ever heard. We counted—thirteen girls made it onto the stage during the number.
1966 at Candlestick Park, an open air baseball stadium rather than an enclosed exhibition space—the Cow Palace is called that because it was built for livestock exhibitions—they’d drive cattle through the streets of San Francisco to build up interest—and far larger, was less tense, more self-conscious. The Beatles were a lot farther away—around center field. We had close in seats but were still much more distant than the worst seats in the Cow Palace. What I remember most vividly: my wife speculating that John was sleeping with Ronnie—the Ronettes were the second opening act, after the Remains, who made no impression at all. The four girls behind us having a serious discussion of who they’d scream for and when (they settled on George). Musically it was somewhat like it didn’t happen, because they were so removed, as if in a bubble—all that green space around them. But there was one more moment: the Beatles crossing the field, carrying their instruments, on the way to the stage. There was more reality in that walk than in anything that came off the stage.
Sometimes there is a smugness about you that is amusing/annoying. Fans of yours, or at least readers of your column, present their favorites to you to see whether you will bless them or not. Like James L. recently presented his artist Bruce Cockburn to you with a description designed to highlight the aspects of Cockburn’s career that might appeal to you. You dismissed a very talented artists’ 50 years of quality work by stating how the level of Bruce’s contribution to the “revenge fantasy market” in one song was too dramatic for you. The truth is that the “breast beating righteousness” of Cockburn’s “Rocket Launcher” came from him witnessing atrocities firsthand. He wasn’t manufacturing outrage for the sake of selling a song. Also, songs like that are a small percentage of Cockburn’s output.
Since I’m supposed to Ask Greil something, here are some questions. How often do you initially dislike something and then actually change your mind? Or is it just disqualified forever? Do you feel that, as a critic, that you have to evaluate everything you take in?
– Bob Ryan
I don’t mean to be smug. I don’t feel that way, and certainly not about Bruce Cockburn. But really, if people are doing what you say, people presenting objects of worship for blessing, that’s creepy. I hope that’s not it.
I focused on “Rocket Launcher” because it’s the most distinctive thing, for me, Cockburn has done, and distinctive in a way that rubbed me wrong, that had it’s own creepiness. And appeals to experience (“witnessing atrocities firsthand”) is worthless. It’s not where an artist has been, it’s what he or she can bring back.
As for changing my mind—sure. I dismissed Fleetwood Mac, the first album with Buckingham and Nicks, in a review when it came out (I said the band wasn’t improved by “two uninteresting Americans”), and by the time Rumours came around apologized in print (I admit if I’d known at the time that we went to the same high school I would have been a lot nicer). But what bothers me more is when I’m convinced there’s more to something than I’m hearing (the Purple Rain soundtrack, for example), keep playing it, over the years, and never find it.
I was recently listening to “Remember Who You Are,” one of the few bits of post-Fresh Sly Stone that I still find compelling. Hearing the abridged way he sings “remember” on his share of the choruses—letting the end of the word fizzle where he previously would have made it bloom and curl—is like seeing the sun have to use a handrail.
Anyway, somewhere in there it occurred to me that the Sly Stone thread has not been one I’ve seen you pick up often in recent years, compared to that of, say, Robert Johnson (I know the Stagger Lee thing has been ongoing, but that’s kinda something different).
Where do you think Sly Stone echoes today, if you think he does? Are he and his music and his particular strain of democracy still made real anywhere you’ve seen, or is he now mostly just a checked name—one of the proverbial “aging index cards”—for bland polymaths like Questlove and mod cons like St. Vincent?
Every few years I get snookered by some interview where some band talks with seeming earnestness about Sly and then I hear the actual thing and it turns out to all just be French for “We got a Maestro Rhythm King and also moved our vocal microphones in very very close.” Please help.
– James Cavicchia
When you make a record that’s so different even you may not grasp just how different it is, the world will fail to take notice, or celebrate it without listening to it, and you’ll spend the rest of your life wondering what it was, where it came from, how you did it, but not where it went, because the more you yourself listen to it, in your own mind or on a machine, you’ll be aware of how much of what you meant to get onto that record remains in you, something you can feel and glimpse for an instant and then find as inaccessible as if it were locked away in a library that burned down years ago. In that sense such works are inimitable, and anyone who says they “tried to follow the trail Sly marked out” is a fraud. You only have to watch Summer of Soul, and what the Family Stone do with “Everyday People,” to realize they’re making an art, speaking a language, altogether different from anyone else there, with the exception of people in the audience.
But if someone says, “We were inspired by Sly. From the records he made, we started to realize that we were selling ourselves short. And we didn’t trust our audience. We made a bet that we could write songs that didn’t make sense until we played them. As David Thomas says, we understood that music rarely achieves reality, becomes an event, outside of rehearsals, that chance is more important than composition, and that to get that spirit onto a stage, or into a recording studio, is almost impossible and the only thing worth reaching for”—if they say that, then they did listen, and realized that to claim to be, as they say, influenced by Sly was to belittle him and make fools of themselves. Why should the world even take notice of the so called influence of an interesting person on people less interesting?
Your comments on Kara Walker’s “Brown Sugar” (11/26) compelled me to ask your thoughts on Chris Rock’s take (which figured in a panel discussion back at the first Pop Conference); and Little Richard’s. Rock flips the script, crowning himself with the same license Jagger claimed. Little Richard mows it straight down the line, throwing any question of whether anything should be changed under his mower.
Do you find anything of Walker in either? Why or why not?
– Andrew Hamlin
I’d never heard of either and I kind of wish I still hadn’t. With Chris Rock I did what I never do. I listen to the words to drown out the horrible singing. But I could only stand about a verse. Little Richard was worse. Hearing a black personality sing that in full embrace is ugly. Is the need to fill out an album or get some kind of hit worth it? Well, maybe he just liked the song, you could say. Not if the instrumentation was so crummy—on both.
Kara Walker was Darlene Love compared to either. As far as I can tell there’s no mention of her performance on the internet, let alone anything of the video. Strange. She’s not the self-censoring type.
I hope you won’t mind if I ask to continue the subject of “Brown Sugar” just a bit longer. I always liked it, but I didn’t even try to understand many of the words for the first bunch of years that I heard it. In fact, as a teenager, I think I might’ve assumed that brown sugar was a drug reference, and didn’t give it any further thought. What I always liked were the guitars, and the overall energy of it.
As time went on, I did eventually learn the lyrics, but I didn’t leap to the conclusion that it was celebrating or promoting racism and sexism. Instead, I thought of the bit from the Randy Newman chapter in Mystery Train, where you wrote a parody of bad advertising copy, saying about Mick Jagger that “his songs are loud, brutal, and mean, containing feelings you like to pretend you do not have, recollections you would like to forget, and temptations that up until now you have wisely avoided.” I thought of “Brown Sugar” as something holding a mirror up to us, showing us something awful about our history, with the apparent glee giving it an extra kick.
Reading your words about it now, as well as the ones from your 1971 review, has me questioning all of this, although I’m still puzzling over the part from that review where you wrote “Their role-playing allows us to see a certain reality and its rejection, in a parody of their own familiar posturings and of our own new sensitivities.”
Pondering all this led me back to Stanley Booth’s The True Adventures of The Rolling Stones. Jagger told Booth about the song when it was still just an idea (“No words yet, but a few words in my head—called ‘Brown Sugar’—about a woman who screws one of her black servants. I started to call it ‘Black Pussy’ but I decided that was too direct, too nitty-gritty”). Booth is there as they record the song in Muscle Shoals, and is there when they play it live at Altamont. He writes this about it:
“It was a song of sadism, savagery, race hate/love, a song of redemption, a song that accepted the fear of night, blackness, chaos, the unknown—the fear that the mad-eyed Norsemen, transplanted from Odin-drunk mead halls to California desert, were still seeking mad-eyed to escape.”
Maybe I’m just doing a lot of contortions here because I don’t want to stop enjoying the song. I’m not seeking moral advice, but just wondering if you have any other thoughts about all of this.
I love Stanley Booth’s writing, that book, and Stanley himself, but I think you can see ‘HELP!’ peeking out between the lines of your quote: he doesn’t know what to say or how to say it or even what he thinks. As was maybe the case with me, in Creem, too.
I like the saxophone solo. Mick loved the fact that Bobby Keyes had played with Buddy Holly. It took me decades to read or hear that your mama was was a tent show queen as opposed to whatever I thought it was. But maybe the real comparison is “Sail Away.” Jagger could always say that the celebration in the way that he sings the first verse is ironic, whatever that would mean. Randy Newman couldn’t. “Sail Away” is not ironic. It’s a seduction—the music is just as irresistible as it is in “Brown Sugar”—and far more dangerous.
It is strange that you dislike Leonard Cohen but you like Dylans song “Idiot Wind,” which could have come off Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate album that came out four years before. I doubt most listeners could tell the difference.
You find me a moment in all of Cohen’s career that has a trace of the snap of “I can’t help it, if I’m lucky” in “Idiot Wind” and I’ll grant you that Cohen is still older than Bob Dylan.
What do you think about the book Renegades: Born in the USA? Is it absurd, consequential, coincidental that rock’n’roll ends up in the White House?
– Kolt Gerrag
It’s great that any real music ends up in the White House. Barack Obama singing “Sweet Home Chicago” at the White House will probably never be topped. But I haven’t looked at Renegades. Maybe there are revelations there, or pithy comments or wisecracks that sound like blues, but I’ll probably never find out. Should they have called it Born to Run, which would now carry at least a double meaning? Or done it as an unplugged segment on some local school board channel and have it go viral—a phrase that is not so easy to use anymore, now that we know what it really means?
What do you make of the furore surrounding the Stones’ decision to drop “Brown Sugar” from their current tour? Is “BS” a song about R&B’s historic roots in slavery and violence? Or is it getting off on the material—a vicarious kick from the exploitation of Black people? Keith commented: “I’m trying to figure out with the sisters quite where the beef is. Didn’t they understand this was a song about the horrors of slavery?” Will the sisters get back to him? Or is a puritanical pressure group censoring the Stones with negligible support from the fans?
– Mick Gold
Usually Keith Richards doesn’t cut corners to protect himself or anyone else, but if “Brown Sugar” is really about the horrors of slavery then Uncle Tom’s Cabin is really about why it wasn’t so bad. When the song came out, I wrote a tortured piece on Sticky Fingers and hearing the song on the radio: “‘Brown Sugar’ was racist, sexist, it threw me and a lot of other people and it took the fun out of hearing it just as if the Stones had done ‘The Ballad of the Green Berets” and meant it. The music went flat as the theme of the song subverted its sound.”
But I was also interested in hearing Jagger talk about how the album version subverted the punch of the single mix. I didn’t turn it off. But I’ve never listened to it without ambivalence. For that matter I’m surprised they were still playing it long enough to finally have to confront what it is.
Never without ambivalence until, some years ago, I saw a now suppressed video of the artist Kara Walker performing the song at the Whitney Museum against a backdrop of a shifting mural of her own slavery silhouettes, a lot of which depict white masters raping and torturing black boys and girls and men and women, to the point that while you can always tell the black figures from the white, you can’t always untangle motives, desires, emotions—what’s really happening. Walker sang the song—never mind her motives, this is how it came across—without irony. As pure glee. Because, it seemed, she liked it. It was the karaoke of her dreams.
Hi, don’t really have a question, just thought you might want to know (if you don’t already) that you and Lipstick Traces are mentioned a few times in Kelefa Sanneh’s recent book Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres.
Thanks. I did see that Very gratifying. K. and I are old acquaintances—we met maybe 15 years ago and I’ve followed his work since. With this book—with my (and it’s the right
cliché) old school perspective—I thought ‘Major Labels’ meant record companies not genres.
After reading your mention of the film Tomorrow [9/28] I decided to check it out. My first thoughts while watching were that Billy Bob Thorton must have surely based Karl Childers from his own Sling Blade film on Jackson Fentry, played by Robert Duvall. A later check revealed that Robert Duvall played the part of Karl Childers father in the Sling Blade film.
– ROCKMAN (Australia)
They’re so close.
As one of your Canadian fans, I’m often interested when you comment on some of our homegrown artists, whether you care for them (Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot) or you don’t (Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen). However, I haven’t seen you ever mention one in particular: Bruce Cockburn.
Although he only brushed the American top 40 once in 1979 with the song “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” he’s had a long and interesting career since the early ’70s: first as a jazzy, Mississippi John Hurt-inspired singer/songwriter and guitarist (“Going To The Country,” “Up On This Hillside”, “Feet Fall On The Road”), then as a fiery, leftist political rocker in the ’80s (“If I Had A Rocket Launcher,” “The Trouble With Normal,” “Lovers In A Dangerous Time”), before turning back to a rootsier sound from the ’90s onward (“Pacing The Cage”, Anything Anytime Anywhere”, “The Last Night Of The World”).
Have you ever heard any of his music, and if so have you ever written about it?
– James L.
I think it was the breast beating righteousness of “If I Had a Rocket Launcher”—and there was something too sophisticated, too high-end in the revenge fantasy market about the rocket launcher as opposed to, say, a grenade—that put me off and made everything else seem perhaps more generic than it is. Jackson Browne’s Lives in the Balance was part of the same tear-your-hair-out Reagan era and for me it rang true just where Cockburn didn’t.
A few weeks ago Joyce Carol Oates, after the predictable Twitter backlash, apologized for suggesting that the use of “they” as a singular pronoun would never catch on and clarified that she wasn’t anti-trans and was probably too old to have an opinion on anything anyway. More recently, Robert Christgau, while quoting from Joshua Clover’s book Roadrunner, noted Clover’s use of the “regrettable singular ‘they'” (Christgau hasn’t apologized yet, so far as I know).
I use the singular “they” in conversation all the time, and I think Demi Lovato should be referred to by whatever pronoun they prefer (prefers?). Still, a prose construction like Clover’s “There is a music lover but not a professional musician. They are adjacent to the radio” just sounds off to me. What do you think? (We’ll leave ending a sentence with a preposition for another day).
– steve o’neill
“Adjacent to the radio” is what sounds off to me. I have no idea what it means. The radio is next to you? You are ambivalent about listening to it or having your music played on it?
“They” is certainly better than referring to some one as “he/she” or intersex. It’s not up to a writer to categorize people. That doesn’t mean a writer has to adapt every neologism adopted and made mandatory by—who? In recent books Mary Gaitskill and Percival Everett have pushed back against Black/white with Black/White. One thing: if you have to apologize or complain about a usage you’re employing, find another way to say what you want to say
Apologies if this has been covered here by you before, but what are your thoughts on Tyler Mahan Coe’s Cocaine & Rhinestones podcast? I think it is profound and wonderful, and it has changed my life in certain ways. I also am leery of Coe, personally. He seems like a real jerk on social media platforms. But, I guess that could be a reflection on covering Rock or Country stars. So many of them are jerks who do great work, as well. Thanks. Maybe I’ll see you at Duende or the Fox on Sunday, for the Elvis Costello show?
– michael spitler
I don’t know it. And though it’s painful, we can’t make EC.
Wondering if you’ve ever seen this. This cartoon used to air in the early nineties on Fox, and my wife and I found ourselves waking up early on Saturday mornings to catch it. It often parodied movies that had to be head-scratchers to the target audience of Saturday morning TV (Eekpocalypse Now and The Incredible Lightness Of Being Eek come to mind). Something this irreverent had to be written by a fan (too many spot-on details!), and while it appeared too late for inclusion in Dead Elvis, the central premise that of-course-he-faked-his-death would’ve made it a shoo-in.
– Jim Cavender
Elvis quoting Nixon? Too much. Thank you—all new to me. I love seeing Elvis two feet tall.
The wonderful, random metrics of the Web suggested your 1975 Village Voice article “Elvis Presley: Philosopher King“. It’s a book in one definitive article.
I was born in Texas, raised in New England and live in Nova Scotia. It’s 2021 and Ray of Halifax drives a chrome Smart Car dressed as the King for parties. I was 7 when Elvis died. But his weird legacy appears in every corner of the planet, very much like your article.
Thanks for this and your kind words. Elvis sightings are fewer than they used to be but when they surface they hit. Like the “Play ‘Mystery Train’” in “Murder Most Foul” or Eek! the Cat.
Dwight Yoakam’s 2016 LP Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars ends with a cover of “Purple Rain.” Have you heard it? The song bears many repeated listening and feels germane to conversations you started way back yonder. It was apparently recorded on a whim when news of Prince’s death came into the studio, and it feels like an inverse to the Big Boom B-side, wherein bluegrass comes back to reverse what Elvis did. Am I reading too much into it, or is it that powerful?
– Matt Fraza
As immediate posthumous funeral speeches go that’s up there with Roxy Music’s “Jealous Guy” for John Lennon. I never liked “Purple Rain,” not really. For me Prince was the spare, open rhythms and stark impacts of Dirty Mind, which onstage could blow up to arena size without the songs losing their always visible outlines. The Purple Rain music sounded smeared and pumped up. But this opens the song up, lets it breathe, lets you feel it as something that might have actually happened between two people. It’s that drama within Prince’s music that I hear Yoakam enacting, more than the Elvis-bluegrass story. Which isn’t to say that isn’t there. There’s a lot to hear.
Twice, I have noticed unflattering remarks here about John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy, released November 1980. It seems that the album’s ‘grade curve’ has sloped downward for some 40 years now, after initial praise. Of course, anyone old enough will recall that at least some reviews that appeared in the year-long wake of December 8 of 1980 (or re-reviews) can be called suspect if only due to being written with a tear in the author’s eye.
Since then, including in your comments, I have seen Double Fantasy knocked to the canvas. And others who do the same usually do so with a similar complaint: That the album made ‘John Lennon’ a synonym for ‘housewife.’ Other complaints—of course not found here by any means—were often uglier, condemning Yoko for being born Asian and daring to stand next to a white man, let alone sing along with a famous one. These people also blame her husband for letting her do it.
I deplore the latter, racist view but understand the former, more benign one. And I respect any serious listener’s right to argue it. I have a different perspective, though, and maybe I am not alone in it. Let’s see.
I was 15 years old when Double Fantasy arrived, and it sounded like an exemplar, one of those records or books or films that could show a teenager how life as an adult might work. Mid-teens, you often hear ‘get ready to take life seriously.’ No surprise, rock music wasn’t much help for that. David Lee Roth’s grinning descriptions of sultry women, shiny cars, and experiences the listener would surely never have, were okay for laughs. But once a record or story gives you some useful information for growing up, you might just mine for more.
Double Fantasy depicts an urbanite well-to-do couple with a child who want to celebrate all that, while confessing how fragile their relationship could be. This is something that a young person might want to understand, don’t you think? The record worked that way for me, anyway. Later albums by John Hiatt and others followed suit, offering tastes of what could be around the corner depending on which way you turn coming out of college.
And the Yoko songs? Useful in a similar way. I didn’t know any Asian women at the time or any serious artists. Here was both. I didn’t need to drop the needle on her tunes over and over, but I didn’t hit fast-forward either. Some of her songs were spiky, and her pitch sometimes uncomfortable. But her ‘spiky’ was another’s “Rock Lobster.” And her pitch is an Asian pitch, neither right nor wrong, just different. The stories in her songs were just as good as John’s in this case. Maybe there were too many refrigerator magnets in both writer’s lyrics. But while those may be bland, they are still real, at least for many.
We may all like the idea of John Lennon always wearing that leather jacket. But leather jackets wear out, or they just don’t fit after a while. I saw value in his wearing an apron too. Double Fantasy is my favorite Beatles sidebar record, and always will be, I suppose.
So put yourself in the sneakers you wore at 15. Was there an artist, writer, or filmmaker that then depicted adult domesticity in a meaningful way?
– Glenn Burris
I wrote about Double Fantasy before John Lennon was murdered. We had a listening party. When the first lines, “We have grown, we have grown,” came on, everybody groaned. There was no room for listeners in this song.
There’s at least one person in the world for every song. Or zillions: to me “Dont Stop Believin’” is not the worst song on earth only because there are other Journey songs, but half the world has taken it to heart. That Double Fantasy spoke to you at 15 is wonderful. I can’t say that at 15 I had any interest in finding out about adult life, and had I known more, it wouldn’t have been two millionaire one time heroin addicts I’d look to. Not that “Cold Turkey” isn’t a great recording, and a great PSA. The Velvet Underground‘s “Heroin” can make addiction feel heroic. I don’t think “Cold Turkey” does. If for that one person in the world, it could.
Hi from France. Up to you, who killed Gérard Lebovici, Guy Debord’s publisher? Any idea?
I wonder what you think about Taylor Swift.
– Patrick Walsh
I like her politics. I liked “Shake it Off” until about the seventh time I heard it when all I could hear were the hooks programmed into it every seven seconds. She uses her money in such a generous manner it makes you wonder if there is any limit to it. I imagine she will be around and making music long after I’m around to hear it. She might take roles on the stage, but not in the movies.
You were editing Rolling Stone‘s record reviews when J.R. Young was contributing his short-stories-as-reviews, including the haunting one about Woodstock. Young went out of sight a long time ago, though there’s a lot about him here. What do you remember about J.R. Young? Did you edit him closely? Any idea what became of him?
– Devin McKinney
When the first J.R. review came in, on Ten Years After, I didn’t get it. He was imagining people talking about in the way swept away fans would. I thought it was him going over the top in a regular review and had him cut parts I thought took away from the credibility of the piece. I never messed with him again. I never met him. I knew nothing about him. Once when I needed to get in touch with him about a piece and had no contact information I put a line in the Rolling Stone letters page reading “J.R. Young, please call your uncle Greil Marcus” (he did).
I don’t remember him in Creem but I could be wrong. I had an email for him some years ago and we got back in touch. I wrote him after you asked. So far I haven’t heard back. If I do I’ll follow up.
I was intrigued about the widely disseminated remarks about the Rolling Stones. The “blues cover bands” business seems like a conclusion he came to in 1964 and never bothered to revise, but the part about “I think our net was cast a bit wider than theirs”—I’m a Beatles partisan but I don’t [think] that’s really true. It seems to me that the Stones traveled in areas of human experience that I would not go to. The Stones always seemed to me to have a kind of meanness about them, or at least a tendency to see things more in terms of conflict. If all life were a schoolyard, the Beatles would be the sort of clique which, while they wouldn’t invite you in, would be nice to people, whereas the Stones would be the sort of clique who’d make cutting remarks about your your taste in clothes. The fundamental difference between the two bands though was that the Beatles seemed to like women in a way the Stones did not. I’m not speaking of sexual attraction obviously, but I get the distinct impression that once they’d gotten their satisfaction the Stones preferred male company. The Beatles broke up early because they all found women they liked more than they liked each other. The Stones do not break up with band members, they bury them.
– Robert L Fiore
The Rolling Stones claimed more territory. John Lennon could have written “Gimmie Shelter” but he didn’t. Bob Dylan could have written “Street Fighting Man” but he didn’t.
At least Paul didn’t say the Rolling Stones were a Beatles cover band.
I’d like to re-frame my question from before [10/1] by asking it again, only this time on the Beach Boys alone instead of with the additional general surf rock angle.
– Ben Merliss
Not any book by one of them. I don’t like the histories and bios. So despite the awful, defensive, now-generic title, Tom Smucker’s Why the Beach Boys Matter. He’s such a fan I once gave him a copy of Surfin’ on, if I remember correctly, the original X label. Which I bought when it came out, but in an oldies shop in Oakland about 1971.
Thank you for your thoughtful reply [7/26] to my fantasy about a British version of Mystery Train. My only regret is that now I wish I could read that book! (Not that I’d ever want to give up Lipstick Traces.)
You once wrote that John Lennon’s singing in the last moments of “God,” on the 1970 John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album, might be the finest in all of rock. I wonder how you feel about the album now. “God” sounds monumental, maybe as much because of Billy Preston’s piano as Lennon’s voice, but “Isolation” sounds like it could have been written last year. The lines “The sun will never disappear/But the world may not have many years” are particularly painful to hear now.
I think that the work Lennon did on his own for a year or so, from late 1969 through 1970—Plastic Ono Band, “Cold Turkey,” “Instant Karma!”—feels very much of a piece, and different than anything he did later. All of it still sounds impressive to me: bleak, brittle, and ominous in the way that the best post-punk bands would be. “Cold Turkey” could almost fit onto Wanna Buy a Bridge? “Instant Karma!” sounds genuinely apocalyptic. Most remarkable of all: None of it sounds at all like the Beatles. Lennon really did leave that world behind for one very long moment.
But the stuff Lennon did after that, from the Imagine album until the end, doesn’t have that sound or that spirit; either he turned his back on it, or it left him. For that matter, despite the best efforts of Yoko Ono to repackage Lennon’s small body of solo work every decade or so, the culture seems to be leaving Lennon behind; the Beatles seem eternally present, but I feel as if I run into someone who wants to have the “You know John Lennon was kind of a bad guy, right?” conversation at least once a year. (Sometimes I agree with them and sometimes I want to respond: As opposed to who? Keith Moon? Brian Jones? Even David Bowie?)
– Justyn Dillingham
The feeling that John Lennon was in a kind of retreat is probably true, and as you say the music after Plastic Ono Band (despite the primal screaming in place of choruses and endings, irreducible) and Imagine. The words to the title song felt dopey at the time but the melody is seductive. “Jealous Guy” is both slick and soul music and great craft (Bryan Ferry’s tribute is the latter two and not the former), “Gimme Some Truth” is a blast of good hot air, and “How Can You Sleep,” which is really unforgivable in its moral superiority—that business about ‘straights’—though Paul had no trouble putting it behind them—is hot. But after that—“Whatever Gets You Through the Night,” that ’70s cliché, is beneath him, and Double Fantasy was embarrassing the day it came out—listening to people talk about how wonderful their marriage is is squirmy in the way it condescends to the rest of the world—and I would bet unplayed since. There’s been no good movie anywhere close to Martin Scorsese’s Living in the Material World, which makes a real world out of George’s post-Beatle life (cannot omit the best one-song tribute album ever, the Lynne Petty PRINCE!! “While My Guitar Gently Weeps“), or the magnificent In My Life: The Brian Epstein Story by the late Debbie Geller (with Anthony Wall)—otherwise just a lot of very long and unreadable books (the best book is Lennon Remembers). Yoko’s professional widowhood hasn’t helped. Today I ran across an ad for a Lennon repackage that pictured him “as he’d look today”—withered like a dead tree.
Which means his rediscovery is down the road.
Why no Real Life Rock top 10 column for September 2021? Are you ok Mr. Marcus? I hope you and your family are well!
– hugh grissett
Thanks for asking. No problem: just too much work from other directions and a lack of stuff I wanted to write about. As the first wilful break since 2008 I thought I deserved it.
Wondering if you’re planning to read the new Franzen, since it evidently contains allusions to Robert Johnson.
I’m also wondering if you have any thoughts about why our culture seems to have crowned him the great novelist of our time. I find much of his work repellent (that long-ago review of Colson Whitehead; the contempt for ordinary readers evident in his remarks about the people who’d be drawn to his book after it became an Oprah’s Book Club pick; the mean-spiritedness of most of The Corrections), but beyond that, even when I read work of his that I find tolerable, like Freedom, I just don’t understand why so many people seem to see unmistakable signs of greatness there. (After Freedom came out, there was an nplusone symposium on the book that was positively embarrassing—Benjamin Kunkel talking about Franzen’s mysterious appearances in Kunkel’s dreams, Marco Roth saying Freedom is every bit the equal of Middlemarch, Keith Gessen finding a sequence where a guy swallows his wedding ring and then digs it out of his own excrement to be the culmination of the history of the novel, somehow…)
There are so many great writers around—Whitehead, Murakami, Percival Everett, Geoff Dyer, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Lethem would be on my list—people who, in my view, bring so much more to the table than Franzen does in terms of humor, humanity, willingness to experiment, interest in understanding our political situation, interest in exploring the mysteries of life and death. What social algorithm somehow brought Franzen to the fore?
– Cyrus Robertson
I’ll probably read it, because I like to keep up with how Robert Johnson appears in fiction. He’s all through Lewis Nordan’s “Wolf Whistle,” his novel about the Emmett Till lynching, though to no effect on the book and telling you nothing about Johnson. There’s a paragraph on Johnson in Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel “Rodham” that does both.
I have to admit that Jonathan Franzen being taken seriously as a novelist has always baffled me. It’s a rule of thumb that if there’s a profile in the New York Times Magazine of someone who’s about to break out, get that hit long denied, come into their own, on the verge, and so on—I think of pieces on Aimee Mann, Lucinda Williams, Jason Isabel, and many more–and you don’t know about this person and their always unique and exactly the same struggles with their art, an ungrateful media, and an uncaring public (but that’s about to change!), once you decide to see what you’ve been missing you’re going to find the subject is far less interesting than he or she has been made out to be. That was my first exposure to Franzen’s novels, with a worshipful insider-to-outsider piece in 2001, for The Corrections.
I read it because I was told I was mentioned in it. I appreciated having my name spelled right. Other than that I found it a slog, tedious and pointless. I wasn’t interested in the characters, didn’t care what happened to them, and could see the strings pulling them this way and that all too easily. For some reason I don’t recall I then read Freedom,
which I found as repugnant a book as I’ve read in years. Again, everything is a set up, the characters, the plot, the arc, the redemptive ending—but while again it was less writing than puppeteering, the tone of the thing made me ill.
Franzen’s mode is to introduce characters that the reader (and he) can feel superior to—can follow with contempt, enjoying their stupidity, boorishness, rube-like sub-humanity—and then make the reader feel enlightened, and glowing for overcoming their own condescension, as the characters turn out to be, despite their flaws, truly fine moral citizens, better, in fact, than the people around them, if not you, the reader, because now you’re on their side and deserve the blessings they’re receiving. In Freedom he starts out with a portrait of Minnesota as a backward joke and anybody dumb enough to live there as a cretinous slob. It goes on like that. And on. But then the story begins a turn, and to bring the couple at the center of it all back again Franzen brings on a sexual liberator for the man and then after giving him nirvana, which, having experienced, he can give up, kills her off and brings back the wife. That poor woman, who was actually interesting, despite barely being allowed a personality or motives—well, every happy ending has collateral damage, doesn’t it?
You don’t have to compare Franzen to contemporaries to find him wanting. He’s a present-day Updike, who himself was vastly over-rated throughout his career—the book world wants, and thinks it needs, a white, male, non-Jewish writer they can consider great, because that makes those who inhabit those quarters feel great too. Remember the hilariously embarrassing celebrations over Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain? A literary novel (that is, a novel that uses words people don’t) that’s a best-seller! Our lives have meaning! The masses are being lifted up! The Great American Novel lives and will forever! Except it was third rate and skin-crawling to read, with its bizarrely elevated language: I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get his descriptive of a vagina as a “bewhiskered notch” out of my head as long as I live. Franzen caught, or was handed, that brass ring.
I’m just starting Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle. I thought the excerpt in the New Yorker was flat and going through the motions, but the novel itself starts off with building detail, like a song arrangement expanding outward, and already I want to know who everyone is and what they’re going to do. To compare Franzen to Whitehead, or Rachel Kushner, or Mailer or Roth or Joyce Carol Oates, is a joke. A really bad joke.
Wondered if you’ve ever reviewed or written at length about the White Album, not well received in 1968 by quite a few but now considered a classic by quite a few.
You could probably strike off a quarter of the songs without losing much, but I bet the question of which quarter would start many arguments.
At the very least, I think it offers far more verve and fun than Sgt. Pepper, although it’s also the first record where you could hear the band audibly disintegrating.
– Derek Murphy
I don’t recall it being ill received, except maybe by Mike Jahn in the New York Times, about whose review Jann Wenner so memorably wrote, “Either he is deaf or he is evil.” Jann also said one thing this Beatles album said was “They may no longer be the Beatles.” For me it was a treasure chest. “Yer Blues” is still the top but there are a dozen more. It wouldn’t be what it is with one song less. Maybe ten more.
What in your opinion are the best writings/books/documentaries etc. on The Beach Boys and/or surf rock in general (including your own)?
– Ben Merliss
Dean Torrence, Surf City: The Jan & Dean Story.
You refer to Faulkner in your work, but you haven’t (at least to my knowledge) written about any of his work in depth the way you have with Moby-Dick and The Great Gatsby. What books of his have meant the most to you? Have you read the later books like the Snopes trilogy? And after spending the summer rereading him myself, here’s a fun literary drinking game: read Faulkner and every time he uses the word “myriad” do a shot. Buy a big bottle.
The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom! and the story “Barn Burning.” The story “Tomorrow” is not on that level but the movie with Robert Duvall as a primitive American is as ghostly a film as you’ll ever see and by many miles the best movie made from anything by Faulkner, though I do like his character in the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink.
At least he knows there’s no ‘the’ in front of myriad. And it sounds like a first name one of his characters could have carried around.
On the heels of your noting Mailer’s embrace of “the whole Hemingway panorama, alcohol, boxing, bull-fighting,” I’m eager to learn your thoughts on the Hemingway documentary from Lynn Novick and Ken Burns. I took it in the other week. Hardly shocked to learn how he “bought his public image” (not in the film; but a sad summary of Vicious, from Rotten). Surprised how genderfucking went much deeper, much further, than simply being dressed as a girl by his mother. Found relief in the agreement, from those onscreen sages, that the early short stories (at least), puncture macho to stab at the bare bones of life, death, abortion, infidelity, and the tribulations of trying to be decent to your kids.
– Andrew Hamlin
I didn’t expect to be drawn into the Burns Hemingway series. I thought I knew what I wanted to know. But I found it overwhelmingly interesting, not obvious, the work of a devoted fan who took nothing for granted. I was sorry when it was over, both because I would have liked Hemingway to live longer and that Ken would have just kept going.
I always thought the short stories were his best work, but the film so sparked me that when I saw a copy of the original Modern Library edition, with a great cover, at a bookstore, I took it home because I knew I’d reread it straight off. I was stunned at how good it was: clean, clear, like the light Hemingway is always describing, a truly new story that hadn’t been told and no one else was telling. Even the bullfighting material was fascinating, like listening to a car collector who knows what he’s talking about.
The disappointment was going immediately to Philip Kaufman’s Hemingway and Gelhorn, which I remembered as both deep and wonderfully detailed. It was dead in the water, except for Nicole Kidman—not really enough of her—and a few scenes of action journalism, such as the killing newsreel footage in the Shanghai train station. I couldn’t get past Clive Owens’s big, sloppy performance as Hemingway, all the clichés in one blubbery body, and the creepy way men much older than the Hemingway character kept calling him “Papa” like all the slaves in some silent-movie plantation epic calling the son of the owner “massa.”
I’ve spent the past six months or so re-reading the New Literary History of America book you co-edited. Today, I noticed there were no entries for the years 1918-19, during which time the US (as you may have heard) was in the grips of a deadly flu pandemic. My question is this: If you could go back and choose any writer to compose a piece about the 1918 flu pandemic, who would it be?
My father, born 1917 in San Jose, who at one was taken in by his maternal grandmother who kept him isolated and saved his life. He would have read the history and then related it as a personal, local, national and world crisis—a cruel end, or continuation, of the war.
This is a quote from Carl (Not the Beach Boy) Wilson in Slate that really reflects a certain contemporary worldview, which I think deserves an answer from someone who’s in a position to answer it: “What must it have been like, I wondered, to be a books critic during the time that Norman Mailer was regarded as one of the most important American writers? Here was a guy who, over the course of three decades, helped radically transform the practice of non-fiction, co-founded the culturally indispensable Village Voice, and led a charismatic, compelling public life. He was also a macho egomaniac, who wrote massively screwed-up things about race and feminism, was obnoxious and pugnacious, and, oh yes, was convicted of stabbing one of his six wives with a pen-knife in a drunken brawl. Now imagine being a newspaper book critic in the mid-1970s assigned to write about the new Norman Mailer book. You’d want to say, ‘Do we really have to give that son of a bitch the time of day, again?’ But then again, that book might turn out to be The Executioner’s Song, the nonfiction novel that Joan Didion called ‘astonishing,’ which helped reshape the debate over capital punishment in its time.”
– Robert Fiore
This is shallow? Thoughtless? Fucked up? It’s all of that in a lot of ways. What Wilson really means is, “What would it have been like to be a book critic in the 1970s (or whenever) with present-day mores”—in other words, the present is always more advanced (as if advanced were an unquestionable value) than the past and the living are superior to the dead. In Mailer’s time lots of people asked the questions Wilson seemingly wants asked and said, in essence, “Never trust the teller, trust the tale.” Yes, An American Dream is a sick, boasting, disgusting book, and also cuts to the bone, as it means to do. So does Why Are We in Vietnam? which reads like it could have been written in an afternoon and is as determined an attempt to get under the American skin as the time produced (and don’t worry about not reading 800 page books—compared to the great novels of the time they’re comic books, and said what great novels weren’t supposed to). It’s telling, at least to me, that Wilson puts a New York Jew who worked all his life to be shameless, because that, he thought, was the route to Freudian self-knowledge, and from there to art, against the judgment of a paragon of WASP rectitude who doesn’t recognize her own snobbery, literary, personally, and professionally, but if Joan Didion thinks maybe Mailer is not completely worthless, maybe we shouldn’t erase him out of hand (though we probably should). What’s even worse is the way Wilson balances his big question—should we consign this pig to the memory hole?—on the teeter-totter of social good, i.e., apparently, according to Didion, The Executioner’s Song “helped reshape the debate over capital punishment in its time,” which is, first, all made up and absurd, and, second, terrible literary criticism. The first part of the book, “Western Voices,” is a tone poem about the west as a place where the American mind has regressed to an almost primitive state of superstition and repression. It could be his masterpiece of empathy and self-erasure: Mailer recognizes that this story is not about him and absents himself from it absolutely. It’s the second part, the tedious and padded “Eastern Voices,” where the question of capital punishment is raised, and so what? See the TV movie, directed by Lawrence Schiller, a hack sensationalist journalist (whose research and notes Mailer bought and based his book on), with Tommy Lee Jones in an early role as Gary Gilmore and a stunning Rosanna Arquette as Nicole Baker, where the question really doesn’t come up either.
I think critics should say what they think. I’m not going near another Woody Allen movie, haven’t for years, but I don’t think it’s my or anyone’s business, or intellectually interesting, to tell other people to do the same. Wilson is asking, should honest critics refuse to consider Mailer, because he was a bad guy, if in the sum of a life he was, or did bad things, unlike other people we know, or rather, one knows—as opposed to saying, honestly, here’s what I think.
Mailer spent his life trying to go too far and by doing so get to where he had never been and from which he might not get back. He embraced the whole Hemingway panorama, alcohol, boxing, bull-fighting, and both loved it and knew it was a shtick and that anyone could see without looking that it was just a cover for a repressed homosexual and got there first with the second to last line of “The Time of Her Time,” which he thought was as good a short story as “The Dead” and it might be. Going too far: it’s easier said than done. Mailer got closer with The Deer Park than The Naked and the Dead. He wrote trash for money to make his alimony and child support for his thirteen ex-wives and forty-two children—Marilyn and “The Soul of Graffiti.” He took on the political life of his time as if it were both the ultimate seduction and a personal affront—The Armies of the Night is the great book, but Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Advertisements for Myself, and Presidential Papers were revelatory then and they’re shocking now—who is writing today with that kind of heedless engagement, stupidity, revelation, boundary crossing? “We are burning the body of Jesus Christ in Vietnam.” What does that mean, coming from an atheist Jew, or an American, or anyone? Just what it says. There’s a passage on the assassination of Bobby Kennedy when Mailer at once says that when he heard about it he was with “a witch”—a woman who seduced him into cheating on his wife—which hit me as criminally sexist and self-absolving then, a real window into a sick soul—and that he would have cut off his arm to save Kennedy’s life, and made me believe it. To dive into why both those things could be true is criticism. Asking if it’s cool to cancel a man who is not around to speak for himself—as he surely would—is something else.
Greil: During the early days of Rolling Stone, I’m wondering what your thoughts were on the blues controversy in the Letters section between Ralph Gleason and Mike Bloomfield. Have they changed over the years, and if they have, how so?
Ed Ward’s book on Bloomfield, which I just read after Ed’s death, brought the issue back to me.
– Dave Rubin
I remember that exchange well. I reread the pieces, but certain phrases had never left me.
Ralph Gleason, the gray eminence of Rolling Stone, in just its tenth issue, laid into Mike Bloomfield for wanting to sound black, for wanting to be black: “Stop This Shuck, Mike Bloomfield.” A jazz writer going back to the thirties, Ralph adopted a pure hipster pose in his piece. He’d seen it all before: “The whole history of American music stands there to testify that it won’t rub off. Hundreds of thousands of civil rights groupies, YCL girls from the ’40s, [I love that touch in retrospect: how many Rolling Stone readers in 1968 knew what YCL meant? I didn’t, but it sounded exotic], jazz fans and band chicks have tried it, and somehow or other it simply does not rub off.” Mike was a Jewish boy from Chicago who would never escape his Bar Mitzvah. He was chicken soup, not barbeque, not matter how much of it he ate. “Originality is the key,” Ralph ended.
I remember reading it and thinking it was both wrong and right. Bloomfield never sounded black playing guitar on the first cut of the first album by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Nick Gravenites’s “Born in Chicago.” He sounded like somebody absolutely alive with energy, the chance to make a record, to be heard, and also like a musician who knew what he was doing, whose notes had their own personality. Butterfield didn’t sound black, either; he sounded like an Irishman who knew his way around and from where and how he lived it didn’t take any thought to know that a blues band was the best way to get what he had to say across. But Ralph was mostly writing about Bloomfield’s band Electric Flag, which he’d formed with Gravenites and Buddy Miles, and while the first track, a version of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor,” just sang with invention and excitement, the rest sank with the second band, with a crowd of black and white musicians auditioning for Stax Records. It didn’t come off. It wasn’t a crime; anyone can make a bad record. But the band didn’t survive Ralph Gleason’s attack and its own flatness. They made another album, but Bloomfield wasn’t on it.
Still, it struck me that Ralph was looking for a target. His argument was that the San Francisco Sound bands—the Jefferson Airplane et al.—weren’t trying to sound like what they weren’t. They were well-off middle class people and that was fine. It was better: they were playing their own soul.
Nick Gravenites hit back in the next issue. It was clear he wasn’t a writer. He sometimes seemed to be grasping for sentences. But he was inflamed, and as smart as anyone, and all that came through. He said, yes, Bloomfield’s father was a millionaire. His family couldn’t accept that their son was only interested in black music, and therefore black musicians, who could teach him to play what he heard, and not at all in the family business. Gravenites didn’t cite his own song, his own singing, his own playing. He said that, originality, if that was what it was, was well and good, as far as it went, but if it didn’t go anywhere, it was worthless. The San Francisco Sound bands? Like Mike Bloomfield, he wasn’t impressed: “Come on, Ralph, say it. Pigpen can’t sing his way out of a paper bag. There’s a Turkish-born Greek dishwasher in a Greek restaurant in Boston that can sing circles around Grace Slick.” (I doubted it then and I doubt it now.) He ended with a left and a right: “Originality is not the key, Ralph. Original shit is no different than un-original shit, Ralph. It’s shit.”
I was on Gravenites’s side then and I am now. Ralph, who I dearly loved, who taught me so much about music and about patriotism and about life, was trying to shut someone up. Nick, who I’ve never met (his finest hour as a singer is on Big Brother and the Holding Company’s first without-Janis Joplin album, Be a Brother), wanted to hear what people had to say. Ralph died in 1975. Bloomfield died in 1981. Gravenites is 82.
“People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” — James Baldwin
9/22/69: The Band LP released.
“There goes Robert E. Lee.”
Fifty years later…9/8/21, Robert E. Lee statue taken down.
There goes Robert E. Lee.
“He said yeah whiskey gets ’em and whiskey gets many
But listen son nothin’ kills people like greed
I said huh and I turned to him and he was a cowboy
Bout fifty years old in a big western hat.”
—Tom T. Hall
– Jeff Makos
Only about a thousand to go.
Greil, somewhere in a Q&A you said that, given the chance to add to the Stranded list, you’d include Elvis Costello’s “Every Day I Write the Book.” I see no point in trying to list my favorite Elvis C. songs, but that would certainly be among them. Is there anything more you can say about why you’d include it?
– Edward Hutchinson
Because my wife is always quoting it, because from then to now it’s what I do. But really, I’d add “I Want You” and “Sleep of the Just.”
[Aforementioned Stranded post-script..]
You wrote that the imaginary Doors LP No would be seen as a great example of LA Noir. Didn’t The Doors already write one of the great LA Noir LPs in real life, Waiting For The Sun?
I used to argue that this was a great unrecognized concept album, but now I think it might be the soundtrack to a great Sixties Neo-Noir.
Jim walks into a bar. He says Hello and hits on a woman; he talks about a place where another woman he knows lives; he recites some poetry; he has a few drinks; talks about the seasons changing; gets righteous about politics for a while; drinks some more; starts singing some Spanish song he’s heard; he gets everyone chanting; he sings a friend’s song; then leaves to go off with “some friends.”
This last part, waiting for some friends, is a fact running throughout the song like the guys “drilling in the wall” in Dylan’s “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts.” Who are they? Where are they going? Are they revolutionaries? Are they heavy dopers or just losers, to quote Neil Young’s “Tired Eyes”? Are they the three Doors with Jim on the LP cover, after the nighttime deal has gone down, now waiting in the sunrise?
Whatever, this Doors Neo-Noir sure beats “Celebration of the Lizard.”
Listening again to this album with your frame around it gives it a floor and a series of echoes it never had before for me. I can hear what you’re getting at in the hazy arrangements, the way doors seem to open and close in the middle of songs, the sense of hesitation and uncertainty in the rhythms. Thanks for rewriting this.
Don’t worry, I won’t try to change your mind about the Ramones. Noted in passing, though: Joey Ramone’s real name was Jeffrey Ross Hyman. Any chance you’re a distant relative?
– Andrew Hamlin
No. The Hymans are all over the place. My grandfather Samuel Hyman was born in Honolulu, served as a marshal after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, but while there were Hymans scattered all over the Pacific and California in the late 19th and early 20th century, few were actually related.
Are you aware of a new book on the Band (specifically the version from the ’80s and early ’90s) by Joe Forno Jr. called Levon’s Man: Woodstock, The Death of Richard Manuel, and My Decade Managing the Band? There is a passage on pages 73-74 referencing you: “On Father’s Day in 1985, I gave him [Richard Manuel] Greil Marcus’s book Mystery Train, which contained a lengthy section on the importance of the Band in American music. Marcus wrote that Richard’s version of Bobby Blue Bland’s ‘Share Your Love’ was better than the original. Surprisingly, Richard had never heard of the book and he was glowing the rest of the day when he found what Greil Marcus had written about him.”
I’ve read the book and found it gripping for the continual constant details on people and situations. Other people remember events he covers differently. But it’s not like any other book on the Band.
You seem to be quoting Garth [Hudson] verbatim in your Invisible Republic passage on “Even If it’s a Pig II,” and your description of the music is pretty specific: have you heard the tape? How can I? Any notion as to why it wasn’t included on the Complete Basement Tapes?
– David Upham
Garth Hudson told me about the sessions and copied the tapes for me when I went to visit him in 1995 while researching Invisible Republic aka The Old Weird America. Parts of the first night appeared as separate tracks on the five-CD bootleg set The Genuine Basement Tapes, which formed the basis for that book. The second session has, as far as I know, never been bootlegged (though who knows). Garth copied it for me on the assumption that I would not disseminate it, and I never have.
I don’t know why it wasn’t included on The Complete Basement Tapes, other than that that set was by Bob Dylan and the Band, and Dylan wasn’t involved. The Band numbers from the 1975 Columbia release of the Basement Tapes aren’t included either.
Favourite Charlie Watts moment, if you had to pick just one?
What do you think he brought to the Stones and to rock and roll?
– James Carson
As Woody Allen apparently once said, Charlie Watts proved that, among other things, “Ninety percent of life is showing up.” Or as Watts put it on the 25th anniversary of the start of the band, “five years of excitement and twenty years of hanging around.” Listen to “Goin’ Home.” There’s a story that when at the recording session for the rather indifferent song the band had rehearsed reached the formal end of the song, Watts got up from his kit and made to leave while Keith kept playing and the rest of the band came in behind him, and that someone called to Watts, get back here, and he did. Maybe you can hear that in the tentative, maybe overdubbed beats at that transition point. But as the session goes on, everyone playing more quietly and then more loudly, but with such modesty, such restraint, seeking the true song that’s there that no one had heard before, what Watts is doing with the tom toms and snare is as fully writing the song as Richards or Jagger.
Favorite moment? No single one. As in David Chase’s rock ‘n’ roll movie, Not Fade Away, where the singer in the would-be LA band breaks through with “Tell Me,” from the band’s first album, which as much as the way the band looked on the cover or Andrew Loog Oldham’s liner notes (“The Rolling Stones are more than just a group—they are a way if life”) was a proof of how extreme the band was (it was over four minutes long, unheard of for a pop group—for that matter, there was a song on the album under two minutes, which was just as odd), there’s a rumor that Charlie Watts might be at a party the guys might be able to get into, and as they get there there’s a glimpse of the back of the head of someone surrounded by a tight group of other people, leaving, and it might really be him—that so completely captures the sense of wherever a member of the Rolling Stones might be at any given moment from 1964 to 1969, if it was at least marginally in public, on the stage, in a club, in a private club, on the street, in a car whose windows you could see through, was the center of the universe.
And the same sensation is caught even more completely with Michael Covino’s poem “Charlie Watts: Madrid Mexico City Montevideo,” from his 1982 book Unfree Associations, about the way pop culture leads or forces us to see the world all at once, a poem that begins with a line of nine words and declines relentlessly to lines of one, “Malibu/Bianca/going/seen/who/yet/in/at.”
Or Ode a High Flying Bird, Watts’s comic book biography of Charlie Parker, about an actual bird who likes “bad seed” which I found in London in 1966.
Or Between the Buttons. Especially “Miss Amanada Jones.”
In your reply re: the death of Don Everly, you write: “And now of the first class in the Rock Hall there’s only one left, who most would have bet on to go first. As someone once said, cockroaches and Keith Richard will outlive the human race.” Just to clarify (in case anyone reading might think the first sentence refers to Keith), you’re talking about hell-raiser, piano-burner, and probable wife-murderer Jerry Lee Lewis, and no, I doubt anyone who had a first-RRHOF-class dead pool going would have bet on him as Last Man Standing, either. All killer, no filler, indeed.
I’m guessing Charlie Watts is hitting you even harder. I’ve always presumed that if Watts went before any of the other remaining members, that would be the end of the Rolling Stones; very sorry that we’re going to be finding out so soon.
– Harold Wexler
The Rolling Stones will go on as long as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and maybe just Jagger, are still able to perform, even in wheelchairs as a chamber group, playing “Lady Jane” and “Play with Fire” as well as they ever did.
About titles—you always seem to nail them. Mystery Train seems inevitable, but Phonograph Blues deserves its own book… And if “Elvis Costello Repents” was just meant as a placeholder even your throwaways are keepers.
Old Weird America seems inevitable too—were you pissed when your publisher balked at it?
Are titles something you agonize over much? Do you now have second thoughts about any of your book titles? Finally, what are some of your favorite titles by other writers? (I’m thinking in terms of music books, but feel free to stretch out).
– steve o’neill
I’ve always thought the ideal title is no more than four syllables. That’s worked for me, but they’re hard to find. Mystery Train. Lipstick Traces. Double Trouble (with a subtitle made up by the assistant to the book’s editor).
I do believe that since the publisher has to sell the book, and unless you’re a celebrity author books sell on titles and covers, I have to leave that to them, as long as it’s not something I couldn’t live with. It didn’t bother me that the US and UK publishers rejected The Old Weird America. I wrote up a list of twenty alternative titles in less than a hour and they both picked Invisible Republic. Then every review of the book featured a pull quote or a title with “The Old Weird America” in it. I wasn’t unhappy that Doubleday rejected In the Fascist Bathroom because Ranters and Crowd Pleasers was also a good title, and while Jamie Reid’s original cover design of a fascist bathroom was stunning so was the cover Doubleday came up with. But books sell on… a year later I was on a book tour in Germany for Lipstick Traces with my German publisher, Niko Hansen, a warm and generous and savvy person. I was carrying the UK edition of In the Fascist Bathroom with the Reid cover. “What’s that?” he said. “That’s the collection of pieces on punk you already rejected,” I said. “Can I have it overnight?” he said. The next day he brought it back, saying, “We’ll publish this.” I said, “Oh, so you reread it?” “I didn’t read it,” he said, holding up the book and pointing to the cover. “I can sell this.”
I wanted to call Like a Rolling Stone “In the Air”—that’s what I thought the book was about, how the song made its own atmosphere and then took up permanent residence in the atmosphere everyone breathed. Too abstract. So Sean Wilentz named it, title and subtitle, during a cab ride to see Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager, who, when we got to his office, handed us galleys of Dylan’s Chronicles. I paged through it, terrified that my already finished book was going to have to open up to take into account all the brilliant insider things Dylan would be saying about the song—but I could tell within minutes that it wasn’t even mentioned.
Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations was a nothing title thought up for a three-part lecture series—the title wasn’t going to attract or deter anyone from showing up. But it’s a real nothing as a book title. The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs is good because it clearly describes the book it titles. The Shape of Things to Come works because it both is and isn’t what the book is about, and because it let me name a book for a record by a group that never existed. I wanted to call The Doors “Listening to the Doors,” but for some reason I forget the publisher insisted on The Doors and the subtitle of “A Lifetime of Listening to Five Wild Years.” “That’s such a cliche,” I said—“‘Wild.'” “What about ‘Five Mean Years’?” my editor said. And that was perfect
Who knows what it comes down to? Originally it was Lipstick Traces—A Secret History of a Time That Passed—the main title because it was about glamorous movements in history that barely left a trace, the subtitle taken from Robie Macauley’s forgotten novel A Secret History of Time to Come. Harvard took it to the sales people who said everyone would ask what it was about, since on its face it signified nothing, and they hated having to explain what books were about (and in this case that to explain what the book was about I had to write it). So I came up with “A Secret History of a Time That Passed” as the main title, which the Harvard publicist so liked she refused to admit that it was being called something else until it was almost too late. Then “The Sex Pistols Make History.” Then they had a meeting and informed me the book was going to be called “A Secret History of the 20th Century.” I said the book is Lipstick Traces and that was what I wanted to call it. So they called up various bookstores in Cambridge and said they had a book called Lipstick Traces and what did they think? And everyone said, “Great title. What’s it about?”—as if they really wanted to know. And that was it.
Define “full of shit.”
– Jonathan Ryshpan
Talking through your hat. It doesn’t just mean spouting untruths (things the people speaking think are true but are demonstrably false, such as Trump lawyers, anti-vaxxers and the person who apparently accused Bob Dylan of child molestation, which could be true, and her numerous encounters with aliens, which cannot be), but speaking forcefully while not caring whether what you’re saying is true or not.
In 2017, not long after Hillary Clinton’s defeat, at a funeral, I found myself sitting next to a woman in her twenties who said, to the person on her other side, that she wasn’t sorry Hillary lost because she was “so corrupt.” I apologized for interrupting her, but asked, “How is she corrupt?” “Everything. Everyone knows she is.” I asked who everyone were. “Everyone who knows anything.” I asked in what way Hillary was corrupt. “Oh, everything.” I asked if she knew, for example, of instances in which Hillary took bribes to influence American foreign policy while she was secretary of state, for further example to kill an investigation or to launch another. I asked if she knew of instances in which Hillary was subject to blackmail. I asked if she spoke at conferences sponsored by various corporations or lobbying groups after secretly arranging for untrackable campaign contributions, or if she knew of Hillary accepting campaign funds from foreign governments or other entities. “Probably all of that stuff,” she said. I asked if she knew of anything specifically. She said she could get it if she tried. I said, “You really have no idea what you’re talking about, do you?” Which was my polite way of saying she was full of shit.
Any thoughts on the recent passing of Don Everly? The Everly Brothers are one of my favorites, love their music.
– hugh grissett
A lot of thoughts. It was gratifying to read RJ Smith’s obituary in the LA Times, which had love and respect where everything else I read was perfunctory: he noted that when Chuck Berry was asked about a song he wished he’d written, he said “Wake Up Little Susie.” That song tortured me at the time: how would you get out of that? Somehow “Ebony Eyes” always gets to me, especially in memory. They were a true rock n roll band. And now of the first class in the Rock Hall there’s only one left, who most would have bet on to go first. As someone once said, cockroaches and Keith Richard will outlive the human race.
Who in the history of rock & roll was more full of shit than Lou Reed? Anybody?
– Michael Robbins
Eric Clapton? Lucinda Williams? Patti LaBelle? Jerry Garcia? John Lydon? Ryan Adams? Beyoncé?
I could go on…
Gene Simmons. Kanye…
Myself. Robert Christgau. Dave Marsh. Ellen Sander. Nick Tosches (but he made you want to eat it)…
Greil has discussed the book Who Killed George Jackson and the issue raised in it regarding the identity of the woman who accompanied Stephen Bingham into San Quentin. I know her identity. Does he still want to know?
– Ruth Gravitt
I’m not interested in a specific identity, but I am interested in who, whatever her name, she actually was. Who she was working with or for, why she was never indicted, her life before and after the San Quentin visit. There are theories that she used Stephen Bingham as a dupe, that they worked together, that she was working for the police or the FBI, and anything else one might think up. That’s the story.
You’ve spoken of songs you wanted to go on forever and songs you wanted to hear over and over again, and you’ve also had good things to say about Daft Punk, Dick Slessig, et al., so I’m wondering whether there’s any actively repetitive music you listen to regularly.
By “actively repetitive” I guess I mean music—like, I don’t know, techno or afrobeat or drone or other better examples I’m not thinking of right now—where the repetition is a big part of the point; as opposed to some blues or some Dylan or whatever, where the repetition in the music serves mostly as a foundation for the variations in the writing or the singing.
If you’d rather: What’s an example of a song that you have literally played over and over, end to end? I used to have a job downtown for which my daily end commute, from the train doors to the office doors, was exactly five “50ft Queenie”s long. “Heyyyy…”
– James Cavicchia
(p.s. Confidential to dean—8/14: Your song might be Eddy Howard’s “Why Is Your Dog Following Me?”)
I’ve played dozens if not hundreds of songs over and over. That’s how I listen.
I once played Robert Plant’s “Far Post” for at least four hours. Most recently, I’ve found that I can’t listen to “Murder Most Foul”—or, really, listen and watch via one of the unauthorized video versions in YouTube—less than three times back to back. But the killer has always been th’ faith healers’ “everything, all at once, forever,” which, counting the body of the performance, 12 minutes of silence, and a seven minute coda, is almost 40 minutes long—and if you can listen to all of that once you just can’t NOT play it again. And again. To see if it’s still light out. If you haven’t died and gone to limbo. If you can still talk.
Your 11/13/20 list of countries with fascist leaders in waiting who didn’t win after Joe Biden’s election presciently left one off. It’s only been a short while, but do you think the Afghan people are tired of winning yet?
Also, I think maybe you (and Biden, though probably not Rahm Emanuel) missed the punchline of the old joke about the dog that chases cars: what’s he gonna do if he ever catches one?
A really tasteless rejoinder comes to mind to the dog with car joke. Somewhat more flatly, in this case the dog will eat it.
Not a question, but part of many questions. By the extraordinary Professor Jonathan I Israel.
“The reliability of these passages (autobiographical passages from Spinoza’s Treatise on the Improvement of Understanding) is sometimes questioned because they rhetorically echo well-known passages from antiquity. But while, to enliven his writing, Spinoza often utilized unacknowledged quotes from ancient Roman texts, he was too serious and to the point to permit fictions to intrude if remote or irrelevant to what he wished to say. Indubitably, we should take these autobiographical passages literally, especially as they pertinently fit the actual facts of the situation…”
(Jonathan I. Israel, Revolutionary Jews From Spinoza to Marx. P.47)
– Alan Berg
A lovely quotation. A good lesson. A better corrective to small minds. If, as I assume, you’re referring to Bob Dylan’s Chronicles—though what you say would do as well for Guy Debord’s Panegyric—then the progression you suggest is right: Revolutionary Jews—From Spinoza to Marx to Dylan.
I recently read Willie Winfield’s obituary and was surprised to learn that the Harptones never had a national hit. Maybe this was biz-related rather than the public hearing and not responding.
Anyway, I thought he had a lovely voice and it’s nice to see someone from that era make it to 91.
Do the Harptones do anything for you?
– Ed Lynch
I think they were a little early for a national doo-wop hit—“A Sunday Kind of Love,” their signature song, was 1953, before the Penguins’ “Earth Angel.” They didn’t really travel outside of New York and New Jersey. Willie Winfield’s high, smooth voice may have seemed more old than new—Tommy Edwards brought a similar tone to “It’s All in the Game” in 1957, but it had a rock ‘n’ roll underpinning that the Harptones might have lacked—just as Edwards’s original 1951 version now sounds clueless even for that time. But if you want to hear the Harptones—or anyway, Winfield–come out from under time and space, see if you can find Love Needs the Harptones, from 1982, on CBS. Ambient Sound reassembled or brought back five 1950s/60s doo-wop groups—the Harptones, the Capris, the Jive Five, the Mystics, Randy and the Rainbows—for a sampler album called Everything Old Is New Again. The results were wonderful, especially for the Jive Five. And it resulted in a complete Harptones album, with “Love Needs a Heart” the highlight (you can hear it on YouTube; of the twelve numbers, eight had the word “love” or “heart” in their titles).
Love your take on the holy grail of RnR.
Now that a few years have passed since David Bowie’s passing, where will his years of music land on the story of RnR?
What do you think of Blackstar without the weight of his loss so heavily intertwined with it’s release 5 yrs on? Thank you
– Lisa D
Except for Hunky Dory and Pinups David Bowie was just too arch for me: to me, Space Oddity has never been anything but a bad pun. I liked many of his hits from “Heroes” to “Modern Love” to “Young Americans,” threw up over his 1920s cosmopolitan proto-Nazi gigolo act, liked him as Andy Warhol—but they were too close for comfort. I suppose he will occupy a lot of historical space because as many people were charmed by him as were intimidated. But a few minutes of Bryan Ferry will always mean more to me, and take up more space in my history of the music than a lifetime of David Bowie.
A few weeks ago, before starting Paul Morley’s Words and Music, I listened to Alvin Lucier’s “I Am Sitting in a Room.” I didn’t know quite what to expect and the experience blew me away. I almost don’t want to listen to it again because I want the thoughts and feelings I had from that first time to remain fixed. This is a bit unusual for me, but then again, Lucier’s piece was unusual to me and its impact caught me off guard. Also unusual is Morley’s storytelling in Words and Music, which I’m still reading. I was curious if you can recall your first time hearing it and if it’s a piece you’ve returned to through the years. Thanks!
This was new to me, but I’ve heard and loved many similar pieces. In this case, I can’t stand the sententious, something-very-important-is-about-to-happen tone of Lucier’s voice. I did sort of like the way the first distortions reminded me of Roger Daltrey’s stuttering in “My Generation,” but not for 45 minutes.
Growing up in the late ’50s/early ’60s there was a song about a man and women who broke up but her dog still always followed him around. The main chorus was “why is your doggie still following me?” Do you remember this song, and if so what was the name and who sang it?
Thanks (it’s been driving me crazy).
It would drive me crazy too, but I don’t think I ever heard it. It sounds like a standard country song motif. George Jones? Ernest Tubb?
What are some of your favorite books about rock ‘n’ roll? Also, are there any great ones out there that many fans might not know about?
– Jim Hauser
I can’t use this site to prepare lists, but here are five I’ve written about.
Assuming lots of folks want your thoughts on Summer of Soul, but allow me to join the chorus. I found it another American secret history. The Irishman proclaimed “Forget where the bodies are buried—I pulled the trigger.” Summer of Soul proclaims: “Woodstock, Manson, Moon Shot—we were the fourth leg on the table, but nobody even noticed the wobble.”
– Andrew Hamlin
The crowd is wonderful to watch. But there’s something soul-killing about B.B. King and the Chambers Brothers being forced to play to a soul beat as if they were being forced to wear a new line of clothes.
Chandler was educated in England at Dulwich College, arriving just as student PG Wodehouse was leaving. It’s quite possible they were taught by the same composition teacher. Which of course is fun speculation though utterly meaningless.
– Lang Thompson
The great film writer David Thomson went there too.
Jonathan Taplin told you the second album by the Band is his favorite—mine too, and maybe not just by the Band. I got it when I was nine or ten (bought it for a dollar from a classmate who I found out later lifted it from his sister’s collection, that’s neither here nor there though).
At first my favorite songs were “Dixie” because I’d heard it so many times, “Rag Mama Rag” and “Cripple Creek” because they were funny and dirty, and “When You Awake.” I keep going back to it and finding new things—“Rocking Chair” takes on predictable weight 50 years gone, but when I listened to “Unfaithful Servant” again recently it was a revelation. Maybe I’ll learn to love “King Harvest” someday.
You write about music you first heard as an adolescent or an adult—how different do you think it would sound if you’d grown up with it, the way I did with The Band? Ever wish that you had?
– steve o’neill
I was eleven when I first heard Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and, on into the next couple of years, the Monotones, Dion and the Belmonts, and hundreds more. I loved it. I had a buried and unvoiced suspicion that there was more there than anyone was admitting. It wasn’t until oldies became a concept that I began to understand how great, deep, and profound it all was. It was riding with my best friend and my father driving from Menlo Park to Santa Cruz and the radio was doing an oldies weekend and playing all this stuff from at most four years before and we’re reacting as if we’d never heard them before and in terms of critical contexting we hadn’t.
So if I’d heard The Band at that age and loved it I wouldn’t have really heard it until I’d gone through American Studies at Cal and could understand what a big story it was part of, so it could bring emotion to Lincoln’s speeches and his speeches could bring emotion to the songs. Lucky for me I’d already done that when the album came out. We have our different stories. Neither more valid than the other. What it comes down to is the album created and will continue to create common ground.
My copy of Mystery Train is not accessible for me to double-check this but I’m pretty sure you had very little use for Fresh, Sly Stone’s follow up to Riot (with the possible exception of the Doris Day cover?). I’ve always loved Fresh if only for its rhythmic and vocal excursions. “If You Want Me to Stay” is no “Family Affair” (though it has one of the all-time great bass lines), and the LP overall is nothing like the zeitgeist-shifter that was Riot, not that it, or anything else, could be. But it’s still the work of a great artist making a great sound, and even in its casualness it sounds like nobody else.
Do you hear anything in Fresh you didn’t hear at the time? (Or have you even bothered trying?)
God knows compared to what followed it’s first class. But Sly had set the bar too high, and nothing less than an album of Marcus Garvey speeches overdubbed by the “Five” Royales was going to reach it. So it’s always sounded tired, going through the motions to me—except for “Que Sera, Sera,” which was just too weird to credit.
Mainly: It doesn’t seem like you’ve written much about James Brown–does his stuff connect with you?
Secondarily, I saw something about the New Pornographers doing twenty-year shows celebrating Mass Romantic, and knowing how much you adore media anniversaries, I wanted to take the occasion to ask: Don’t you think “Letter From An Occupant,” as bulletproof as it is, is also twenty, maybe thirty seconds too long? Like maybe it leans on the doorbell just a little? I’ve been re-listening to it a bunch lately, and even though it’s still an absolute wonder, I’m still fully satisfied when it ends, which is of course its own kind of dissatisfaction. At four minutes I’m overjoyed to let it in. I feel like at three and a third it’d break through the fucking window.
– James Cavicchia
I never immersed in the James Brown pool. I think I could never really connect with his rhythm—which for the rest of the world was the true story.
Maybe you’re right about “Occupant.” I’ve always wanted it to go on forever. It’s a miracle and I’ve never questioned anything about it. After the terrorist attacks in 2001 it was the only thing I could listen to for weeks.
A few weeks ago here, you wrote about Jan & Dean: “They made unforgettably inventive records that were inspiring, hilarious, fun, and, at least twice, as great as rock & roll needs to be.”
This immediately made me think of another artist ignored by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame whom your words could equally apply to: Gary U.S. Bonds. And while, like you, I don’t look for justice or any sort of meaning from the Rock Hall, there’s something about Bonds that has me rooting especially for him to be honored and remembered.
Does anything in the universe sound like a 1961 Gary U.S. Bonds 45? In “Treasure Island,” you wrote that “Bonds supposedly used the sound of jets taking off to give his clattering singles more density.” I thought I might ask you where you heard that, but really, it doesn’t matter—it sounds like it has to be true.
I enjoyed his early ’80s Bruce Springsteen-produced comeback, too. Last year on the radio I heard for the first time “Jole Blon” (with Springsteen singing duet), a single that slipped past me in 1981—I hadn’t felt such happiness at an older musical discovery in so many years. It’s full of joy, friendship, and affection.
But my favorite Bonds track is “I Wanna Holler,” supposedly recorded around the time of “Quarter to Three” but not released until it landed on the B-side of the 1987 reissue 45 of “New Orleans.” I don’t know if you’ve heard it, but it’s a universe all its own—when it’s playing, I think: this is as great as rock & roll needs to be.
There’s something a little stiff and confining in the rhythm that keeps me from saying yes to it. I believe in close enough for rock ‘n’ roll but for me this isn’t close enough.
The album I listened to most last year was an album that seemed to have nothing to do with last year: Fairport Convention’s What We Did On Our Holidays. I think your long essay on them captures what drew me to them: the mystery and menace, and the sense of a deep and unknowable history in their sound. After reading it, I found myself wondering what a British version of Mystery Train would look like.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting you (or anyone) write such a book. But I wish I could catch a glimpse of the table of contents. Fairport Convention would be there, of course, as the only conceivable British answer to The Band, just as The Beatles are the only possible answer to Elvis. Mystery Train itself already features Ray Davies as a kind of distant brother to Randy Newman. But who else would be there? Robert Johnson is a sui generis figure even among American musicians. There’s no British equivalent of Sly Stone. And I suspect that all of their Harmonica Franks lived and died in the days of Oliver Cromwell. What do you think?
– Justyn Dillingham
This is not a simple question. Mystery Train (I first thought of calling it Phonograph Blues, then I wrote the last section and knew the book had named itself) was based on two premises: explore rock ‘n’ roll as American culture, and write about people who either hadn’t much been written about or, to me, hadn’t been written about well. Obviously Elvis had been written about endlessly, but I didn’t think anyone had even mapped the surface, let alone tried to get under it. That’s why Bob Dylan was not there—I was completely inspired and intimidated by the first edition of Michael Gray’s Song and Dance Man, and was sure I’d be wasting my time, not to mention everyone else’s, if I tried to step onto that turf. In fact I almost gave up on my book after reading that.
A British or UK or Great Britain or English/Scots/Irish version would have taken the same knowledge of, feel for, and commitment to a civilization, society, and polity that I tried to bring to Mystery Train and which sustained me while writing it. I’m not sure I wouldn’t be able to draw on that—then or now. It would come with the territory or it wouldn’t. But it would be about rock ‘n’ roll as British culture, not just a selection of critical profiles. And counting the ultra-traditionalist folk singer Anne Briggs as a punk—which is how her contemporaries saw her—it would be all punk: Sex Pistols, Gang of Four, X-ray Spex, Raincoats, Au Pairs, maybe Marianne Faithfull, and honorary Bryan Ferry. I think you could find British culture right there. And I could have started right away. A couple of months after Mystery Train was published, Johnny Rotten auditioned for the Sex Pistols.
I am a long time reader of your writings (Rolling Stone, bought Mystery Train 46 years ago, etc.etc) and I have a copy of Invisible Republic (now The Old Weird America). I was looking at reviews of The Old Weird America to try and discern how much additional information there might be in that edition of the book (the newest edition of which I believe was published when Dylan turned 70—10 years ago). One reviewer mentioned that maybe there would be another newer edition since the 2014 release of the 6 CD box The Complete Basement Tapes (and also with Dylan turning 80 this year). Will there be another newer expanded edition of The Old Weird America? (I am considering purchasing the book—even though I already have Invisible Republic—for what is reportedly a fair bit of more info in the discography etc, but would wait if there was going to be yet another newer expanded edition).
– B Evans
The 2011 edition does have some updated material regarding the basement tapes—and a cover with photos from 1967 that were a coup at the time, plus a note on the transit of “the old weird America” phrase—but nothing like the revision I’d like to do to take in the basement tapes Complete release—and a few more. I asked the publisher about that at the time and was told no. Maybe some day someone else will want to do it.
July 3rd marked 50 years since Doors frontman Jim Morrison died. Despite their relatively short recording career of six albums, the Doors legacy ranks right up there with the other ’60s immortals. But no matter if the career arc is lengthy like Dylan or the Stones or relatively brief like Jimi or Janis, the greatness usually falls around the period of ’65-’72 and no one usually refers to anything the artist did thereafter, Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks being a notable exception. Is this fair? I’d like to think the Doors, like the Stones, would have made a couple more great LPs with Jim, had he lived, before finally ceding the late ’70s to punk and disco, only to return, somehow, into a nostalgia laced ’80s-’90s comeback. As author of a Doors book I greatly enjoy, A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years, I’d welcome your thoughts on what an older Jim Morrison might have created.
– Jim Stacho
Given what was actually going on in JM’s life when he died, I think it would be most likely that he would be drawn more and more deeply into the Paris heroin culture. He would disavow music and write, publish, and perform poetry. He would have either become a good poet, and after
Pamela Courson’s overdose would have pulled himself out of addiction. Today he would be a Bitcoin raja—unless, as is more likely, his poetry never rose above Byronic doggerel, and he returned to LA to put the Doors back together. After two poor, increasingly jazz-oriented albums and half-full shows, they would make “No,” which people from Johnny Rotten to Exene Cervenka would cite as their primary inspiration and which years later Quentin Tarantino would adapt as “the only real example of LA noir since Chinatown.” Today the Doors, as a trio, would play two or three shows a year in LA clubs or bars, and always unannounced.
I totally agree with you that the Shangri-Las’ absence from the Rock Hall of Fame is a terrible injustice. However, there is one book about them that I am aware of, the 33 1/3 book on their Greatest Hits album.
They deserve better.
Emmitt Till was found in the Tallahatchie River. Does that add to our discussion of what Billie Joe (Christmas?) threw off the bridge, and why Dylan felt “Clothesline Saga” was a response?
– Alan Berg
I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me at the time, but for years now I’ve been convinced that throwing anything off the Tallahatchie Bridge is a symbolic re-enactment of the lynching of Emmett Till—just as the early-teen Woody in I’m Not There being thrown into a river was the same. And given how thoughtful and probing anyone who could have written “Ode to Billy Joe” must have been, I have trouble believing Bobby Gentry didn’t think of it as she wrote.
I agree with what you have to say about the self-presentation of Laura Nyro. Self-hagiography. But imagine she only wrote those early songs and never sang a word. Same problem? I hesitate—the song craft is just so great. On the other hand one might say, well, that’s another problem (or perhaps a version of the first one) the preciousness of the song-crafter. I admit to being divided, but I suspect you won’t be moved.
I don’t want to be unpleasant. But in the scale of things I don’t think I can devote what’s left of my time as a sentient being to thinking about Laura Nyro.
Do Jan & Dean merit induction in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? I would say yes, using the following point/counterpart: The Dave Clark 5 are in. If the DC5 belong, then so do Jan & Dean. To be sure, neither act seems like a “slam dunk,” but I would argue Jan & Dean singles such as “Surf City” and “Dead Man’s Curve” were better records than any the DC5 ever made, and have outstripped the DC5 in public memory and cultural impact. Via Jan Berry, Jan & Dean were also likely the more innovative act in terms of record production, etc. The omission of Jan & Dean from the R&R Hall of Fame is a curious case.
– Birgit Fouts
Like the Shangri-Las, Jan and Dean were unique. They made unforgettably inventive records that were inspiring, hilarious, fun, and, at least twice, as great as rock ‘n roll needs to be. The Dave Clark Five were the definition of mediocrity, and everybody knew it at the time, including, I’d bet, the Dave Clark Five.
Looking for justice from the Rock Hall is like looking for the moon at the bottom of the sea. I can’t remember if Jan and Dean have ever even been nominated, by the special nominating committee, let alone voted in by all the people who, however they’re selected, vote. I know the Shangri-Las haven’t been. Shadow Morton and at least two of the group are dead. Lead singer Mary Weiss Stokes is still alive. I know what it would mean to her for the group to be recognized, and how much she resents that it hasn’t been.
For the Shangri-Las, there is no book, no movie, but there is the weirdly titled collection Myrmidons of Melodrama. For Jan and Dean, justice can be found in Joel Selvin’s Hollywood Eden, which tells the inside story of what was always right in plain sight, and Dean Torrance’s Surf City, which despite the fact that it was copy-edited by a blind and illiterate schizophrenic, is in its way as good as any book ever written about rock n roll. And in the TV movie Dead Man’s Curve, the Jan and Dean MTV Behind the Music episode, and the original circa 1971 Jan and Dean Legendary Masters collection, which came with a concordance matching each Jan and Dean single to the car and girlfriend either had at the time of its release. It’s interesting to see how often, as time goes by, they overlap.
I just finished Chaos by Tom O’Neill, which led me (along with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) to check out the whole Charles Manson affair, which I was never interested in.
The thing that really knocked me down was Neil Young on You Tube saying he tried to get Reprise Records interested in him, i.e., trying to help him get a record contract.
If that doesn’t put a hole in the late 1960s rock scene, I don’t know what does. Maybe you had to be there?
I could be wrong, but I don’t think Neil Young has ever disavowed his attraction to Manson. It’s certainly there in “Revolution Blues” (done best by the Waco Brothers) and “Mansion on the Hill.” It wasn’t just Dennis Wilson. Terry Melcher was ready to sign Manson to his mother’s label; when Manson came to the house, Doris Day took one look at him, and ended that. But take a look at Charlie Says [Mary Harron]. It says enough.
In one of your replies, you used the phrase “a self-selected elect, the avant-garde under whatever name it might take at whatever time,” and that got me thinking about how we often don’t realize where the real vanguard is until years later. In the fifties, the “self-selected elect” might have been portions of the film making industry or beat poets, but over time we came to see that the real action was among frantic truck drivers in the deep South, black teens on urban street corners, and so forth. In the seventies, the singer-songwriter community thought of itself as the center of the artistic universe, but we now see the early hip hop scene in the Bronx as the real thing. Do you ever find yourself reevaluating some of your previous judgments because of later discoveries? And, do you care to hazard a guess as to where the current vanguard may be (and does it even involve music)?
– Jim Cavender
I used to think the beats were a waste of time, despite Allen Ginsberg’s “America,” which I always loved. I got so tired of reading people saying how On the Road changed their lives I was determined never to read it myself. When I finally did, ten years or so ago—the unrevised scroll edition–I was shocked at how good it was. I realized that the beats were really doing something unique and irreducible—starting in about 1948 and for a couple of years after that. Despite the incense burning over grand turning points in the fifties–and early performances of “Howl” in Berkeley in the fifties, which are so funny and exciting—I think most of what came after was publicity, and all in all a footnote. Of course the ripples of the rocks they threw in the lake go on forever—the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the great beat movie. But by the time they went public Little Richard and Elvis were telling a different story, a real story. At least in retrospect—and possibly at the time—people thought of the milieu around Sam Phillips’s Sun Studios as a true bohemia—“Like Paris in the twenties,” as Jim Dickinson called it—in other words, a classic, self-conscious avant-garde.
You may have discussed this in the past, but since I’m a recent discoverer of “Ask Greil”, here goes: I wonder if you have any thoughts on the writings of Peter Guralnick.
One thing that strikes me about him is the way he inserts himself and his emotional reactions at length into stories that are nominally about other people. Rather than making me want to say, “Move over, you’re mucking up the narrative”, I’m sort of charmed by it. I find myself rooting for him as he tells two parallel tales, one about the endless ramifications of American music, and the other about his grappling with what it means for him personally. It seems like a rare instance where a non-fiction author’s giving his ego free rein over a huge amount of factual source material clarifies, rather than confuses, the result. I say this as: (a) a social scientist (anthropology) who was trained to be cautious about ego effects on writing, and (b) someone who hasn’t read any alternate versions of the stories he tells.
Since Guralnick’s more a chronicler of music history and less an interpreter of individual musical moments like yourself, I’m curious about your perspective on what’s he done.
– Gerald Lombardi (Tokyo, Japan)
I’ve written about Peter’s work in a piece on his Lost Highway, collected in my Dead Elvis, and on Careless Love, collected in my Double Trouble, where I talk about our very different approaches. Peter is more of a novelist, to put it mildly, than I am, and his entering into some of his work is like another character in the story. It doesn’t strike me as an intrusion, let alone in any sense vain. In critical terms, you could say that as a character in his own portrayal of others he’s the reader’s stand in—asking what the reader would like to ask, going where the reader realizes he or she wouldn’t know to go.
With the Sam Phillips book, there are different issues–Peter doesn’t enter as an investigating guide, he is a part of the story, and not a dramatic or faux-fictional character. He once wrote of first talking with Phillips, or at least early on, and how Phillips was speaking to, if not from, the role Peter and others had imagined he had played in changing the world: to put it well, that Peter and others had helped Sam understand who he was and what he did, to put it less well, that he was playing to that imagining, playing with a fixed deck. Either way is kind of thrilling to me.
Recently in his newsletter, Robert Christgau reprinted his old Joy of Cooking review. A band he got into, he said, with a “nudge” from you—and indeed it topped both your ballots in the first (or zeroth?) Pazz Jop Poll. But by the time of your Stranded discography, Joy of Cooking was nowhere to be found, and aside from a couple of mentions early on, they haven’t come up in your writings since. Have they held up for you? Did you like any of their later work? Were they a lot of fun to see live? I listened to the album after reading Christgau’s review and liked it fine. But it certainly wouldn’t be my favorite album of 1971. And when I put on Tracey Nelson after them, she kind of blew them out of the water.
Their albums were fresh air when they appeared, but the tradition takes shape without them. They were thrilling live: fast, unpredictable funny, an over the shoulder goodbye look cool.
Greetings from Australia and thank you so much for being open to questions—if only other authors were as broad-minded. I see that way back in 1999, Rob Shields cited your superb summary in 1989 of what Lefebvre meant by “moments”—“tiny epiphanies… in which the absolute possibilities and temporal limits of anyone’s existence were revealed.”
Two questions for you. First: do you agree that Lefebvre’s moments revolve around failure? The Paris Commune, Paris ’68, and we could add in Occupy and much more—all political failures. Lefebvre also seems to have been incapable of love himself, at least in the sense that Christ, for example, is widely understood as having meant. His personal selfishness was after all legendary—as you know even Guy Debord broke with him over his treatment of women. So, failure on both counts. It would seem that some kind of analysis is required to modify these ‘moments’ to render them both successful and ethical. My personal preference would be to subsume them into Garaudy or Schaff’s concept of subjectivity, but there may be many other routes forward. What do you think, after more than three decades?
Second, and more generally, how do you view Lefebvre now? Do you think that his Marxist humanism is worth saving, as Christian Fuchs (and I) would say it is, albeit that much needs reforming. Do you have any views about in particular his concepts of ‘cities’ and ‘space’, in view of how real estate has come to dominate our lives even more than it did in the last century? And are you still as convinced as you were back in 1989 that Lefebvre has much to offer us, even today, despite his intellectual odyssey and his evident human failings? Politically correct after all he was not. One might mention ESG as a threat to capitalism, even…?
All the very best,
– Julian Roche
Regarding moments and failure—Michèle Bernstein for a situationist exhibition created a whole series of mockups depicting all the great revolutionary defeats as victories. If it’s true that moments and defeats are twinned, it’s because when one commits oneself deeply to something, be it a love affair, a protest, a mass action, someone glimpsed on the street for a second and never seen again—they leave that person bereft, stranded, aware of what was lost or never grasped at all. It leaves the person forever unsatisfied, because the good was sighted, felt, even lived out, solitary or as part of a group or cohort, and then it slipped away, leaving the person wondering if his or her whole life has been some sort of self-delusion, or a trick played by the world on the gullible. And that’s true even of successful revolutionary moments, such as the Free Speech Movement—even if it formally wins, achieves its goals, routs the enemy from the field, the spirit that made it happen recedes, can never be recaptured or recreated. So one focuses on those moments: there is where it happened. There is where I understood what could happen. And so you feel, not necessarily think, that what really matters in life is not achievement, honors, riches, lasting love, the respect of others, or whatever success or victory is made of, but tiny moments against which all of that means nothing.
In terms of L’s Marxist humanism, or whatever you want to call it—taking The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and the lodestone or modern discourse, which I think is really what he did—anyone who can write as well as he did, with such daring and flair and playfulness in the language and syntax—will always matter. Work on that level is art, and art can always inspire, and imbue the theoretical questions raised with a spirit of adventure—intellectual, revolutionary, aesthetic.
I’ve just finished The Rose and the Briar. What a great book! Like the best kind of writing (to my mind), it draws from so many different ideas and ultimately shows how they’re all related. I did have one question. How could you neglect “Phantom 309”??
– Jennifer Dinger
The same way we ignored Stan Rogers’s soul-crushing “Northwest Passage.” Ignorance, stupidity—but mainly, asking writers to write about whatever they wanted. And we had to squeeze the concept. Is “Come Sunday” really a ballad? OK, Stanley, make your case.
I’ve been watching (not all in one sitting of course) the video of you and your panel of rock critics using Dave Marsh as an excuse to talk about yourselves and dear god what a train wreck. I enjoyed what you, specifically, had to say about Creem, but what was up with the Blair Witch camera? And all the credit Marsh deserves for his charity work notwithstanding, watching you play Ed McMahon to his Jerry Lewis was disconcerting to say the least.
I did love seeing the rapier-wit Dean of Rock Critics (“chris cow,” as the Zoom subtitles would have it) bumble through his script read like a gibbering chimp, though.
And what was Greg Tate talking about with that Dave/Springsteen “recognition of self” comment? Does Zoom just make your brains fall out your ears?
Absolutely. I’m never good in these round tables.
To explain what I was saying [5/25] in mono v. stereo reissues, perhaps I was just swallowing the hype on this, but the way mono reissues have been pushed was “everybody put all their attention and effort into the mono version and the stereo mix was an afterthought because not many people had stereo gear.” That’s certainly the basis on which the Beatles Mono Box was promoted, and more recently the Rolling Stones mono collection. I might be misremembering this, but my recollection from the Buffalo Springfield reissue was that the stereo mix was something the producer put together without the band’s input. If you tell me the Who Sell Out mono version was a bargain basement deal (the Who being sold out as it were), I believe you.
– Robert Fiore
I don’t know who did what and why. If it sounds right then I’d say the stereo is legit. Stereo became a thing—in Playboy product reports and standards and hype, which was the test in the early-mid sixties. It was developed to replicate the real symphony experience. At first it was simple—put this here and that there. To the point where the vocal was on one track and the instrumentation on the other. And that could be wonderful. I’m not sure if the stereo mix has been changed, but when Rubber Soul came out one of the great thrills was to turn off the vocal track and just listen to it as an instrumental. The interplay, the simpatico, the deep affinities made it a thing in itself. We wondered—why not put it out that way?
No question for Mr Marcus, I just wanted to pass along a Dylan Twitter thread from 2 days ago I think he’ll will enjoy…
– rich tidwell
I think this quite hilarious. Especially the woman who ‘performs as’ St. Vincent Price.’
Hello Mr. Marcus,
I am a French researcher, and I want to know more about covers in the ’60s or ’70s. For instance, Bob Dylan’s songs or Beatles’ were massively covered: did other artists ask for their permissions? Or they just paid royalties? Do you know if some artists can refuse others to cover their songs? Merci, as we said in France.
Laws vary. There is generally a right of first release, which the owner of the song can surrender (if I recall correctly the Byrds [Roger McGuinn] released their versions of “American Girl” before Tom Petty). Normally one licenses on a standard automatic manner from the relevant music company and either accepts terms stated or negotiates.
Your description of the dystopian political scenarios in Masked and Anonymous in the Like a Rolling Stone book is depressing me as I reread it today, realizing how distressingly close it is to current reality.
That’s so because you can imagine them all saying, let’s push this a little farther… Just substitute Russians for Nigerians or whoever they are and its right there. Trump’s project: sell the country, take the profit, buy southern Florida, live happily ever after.
Have you ever tried writing a novel? Has it ever been an ambition of yours to do so?
– Madelaine Lange
Not at all. I’ve fooled around in fiction inventing biographies for Skip James, Robert Johnson, and Geeshie Wiley, and had great fun and satisfaction doing it—getting everything right in terms of context, making up the rest. I did something similar before the 2000 election with twin pieces imagining Bill Clinton’s future if Bush were to win or Gore. Art Spiegelman once presented me with a series of comix panels done for RAW—without any explicit ID, following Princess Caroline of Monaco after she escapes following Grace Kelly’s death and her adventures with sex, terrorism, and punk, and asked me to write captions for them, and that turned into a very mini novel, all cued to someone else’s work. But as I’ve said here before, I think criticism at its best is a form of fiction, and that is still kicking.
The reissue trend of the last my goodness has it been ten years now has been mono versions of records of the ’60s, and mostly it’s been at least a new sound of something familiar. I was wondering, are there any mono versions that you’ve found particularly superfluous or disappointing compared to the stereo? What brings it to mind is the new Deluxe Edition of The Who Sell Out (which if they’d been on their game would have been called The Who Sell Out Sells Out, or better still Jaguar Presents The Who Sell Out Sells Out). I would have thought that mono has been more true to what Radio Caroline sounded like, but I didn’t listen to it more than a couple of times. The stereo mix just seems to surround you, with the dynamics of each performer bouncing off each other, while the mono just sits there like a lump in the middle of the room. The other time I had that feeling was with the reissue of the first Buffalo Springfield album, where they had enough room to put both versions on one disc. Whoever it was that did the stereo mix on that was like a matchmaker in one of those societies that has arranged marriages who has a better idea of which young people will be suited to each other than the young people have.
– Robert Fiore
Stuff recorded in mono should be heard in mono (Phil’s last words). One of the worst features of the ’70s as the most embarrassing decade was so-called enhanced aka fake stereo that ruined the entire Chess catalogue and much else. But what you’re talking about makes no sense to me. In the ’60s albums were recorded in stereo and released in essentially fake mono for a dollar less because they were supposedly cheaper to produce. When I was asked to write liner notes for a Dylan Mono Box I was shocked to find Dylan mono went as far as Highway 61 Revisited. Who would buy an album defined by its expansive sound in mono, I thought. Then I looked at my own records and found that I had: $2.99 not $3.99.
I really enjoyed watching you, Paul Morley, Ann Powers, Sean Latham and Laura Barton the other night; especially to see the mutual admiration that was subtly expressed by you all. Are there any Dylan authors or new books on the man that you particularly admire?
– Lucas Hare
Timothy Hampton’s Bob Dylan’s Poetics: How the Songs Work—terrible main title, I think they may be reversed for the paperback. From 2019. Replays the songs—and Hampton can write about music technically in a way that someone who can’t score, like me, can not only follow but see through. He has a great sense of humor. He could have called his book Making the Songs New.
Found the Dave Marsh discussion interesting and revealing. He does seem easier to admire than like, though that’s just my opinion from afar.
s curious why he considered Lipstick Traces a sort of apostasy or betrayal. Did he think the subject matter was too removed from the immediate concerns of Americans living under Reagan?
– Derek Murphy
Because America was under the thumb of Ronald Reagan and the fight was here—America was the subject, and I was deserting the field. I don’t altogether disagree. But an obsession had developed and I had to pursue it. And it might have been a flight from the burdens and disappointments of democracy—a fascination with a self-selected elect, the avant-garde under whatever name it might take at whatever time. But as an obsession I had to pursue it and I was lucky to have the chance.
Great Bob [turned] 80 on May 24. Apart from music, what is his legend made of? Which are the elements that interpret his legacy all these years as in a never ending narrative?
– Dimitris (Greece)
I can’t, on this forum, address questions about the meaning of life, which is what questions as broadly ontological as these amount to, not that I could address them in any other forum.
Writing in the immediate wash of the loss of your colleague, Ed Ward. I hope ‘colleague’ is still a good word. It seems that term gets degraded every time a congressman uses it to describe their opposite number.
I adored Ward’s writing. In particular the description that made me a fan: The opening statement in his Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll chapter on The Band. I don’t have the book in front of me to quote it perfectly, but he described a town where he once lived, in rural Ohio. There, his two second-floor apartment windows faced different views – one of the small town, and the other of the adjoining countryside. It was an absorbing piece of folk art, rendered by words in place of paint. On first read, I could picture the scene perfectly. I saw a young man sitting squarely in the wide arc between the corner windows in his bedroom in a cheap antique chair. Ed had quickly drawn the reader into his own space and asked if they had ever been in a place like that. Why? So that he could equate The Band to that scene. He wrote that the group had their legs on both sides of the line between the two vistas and could move between the two casually. Or words to that effect; I can only recall the gist of it. But among the things that I learned from Ed’s work might be that a gist of an idea can be indelible.
Condolences on his loss, and I wonder, naturally, if you have a passage shelved in your mind that is owed to Ed Ward.
– Glenn Burris
[Note: this was the first of three inquiries received about Ed Ward, who died on May 3rd.]
That paragraph is as luminous as anything on Music from Big Pink. I read it again and thought, it’s a good thing that hadn’t been written when I was writing about the Band for Mystery Train. Because if it had I might not have bothered.
I talked for a long time Tuesday to David Browne of Rolling Stone, who was writing an obituary for Ed—when he first e-mailed about talking, I hadn’t heard of Ed’s death but figured that must have been the reason. I finally focused on his chapter on the “5” Royales for Stranded—as, first, music writing at its very highest, and then, at the end, after Ed’s shocking “I made all of that up” after taking the reader through the story of the forgotten but now absolutely alive rock ‘n’ roll band. It was as if he’d given the reader a great gift and then snatched it away—until you realized that the gift was unkillable precisely because he had made it up: it was fiction, and if it made you believe then it was true. And then after that, a manifesto in the form of a diatribe, on the falsity of culture writing, the killing ghetto of rock criticism, the shrinking of American culture, his place in the scheme of things or why there wasn’t one and never would be. I remember another contributor to the book asking, when he saw the finished work, why I hadn’t cut that last section—it was self-indulgent, who cared, it was a bad way to end the book (I knew, when I first read it, that nothing should or could follow it). It’s Ed, I said. I gave everyone a chance to write a length about something they cared about and he did, no less than Lester Bangs did, which is why his piece closed the book. I wish more people had had the nerve.
You did a radio show at KALX Berkeley shortly after Elvis died; I still have a cassette of that great show where you played “Long Black Limousine,” “Jesus Mentioned,” and more. I cannot find or remember one of the songs that went “1 2 3 4, Dr. Nick can I have some more? 5 6 7 8, oh too late, the King of RocknRoll is dead Bye Bye.” Do you know that song from so far back in the Time Machine? Thanks for all you do.
– Mike McAlister
I have it somewhere, but it’d take me forever to find it. But I think it’s right up there with “Breathe For Me, Presley,” which is also by someone I can’t remember. [Charlie Burton?] I wish I had a tape of that show. I thought it might be on Elvis’ Greatest Shit! but I misremembered—that’s all real Elvis recordings, like “No Room to Rumba in a Sports Car” and an outtake of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” where Elvis blows a line and lets out with “Shiiiiiiiitttttt—“
Have you ever considered bringing all of your Beatles writing, together and solo, into a single volume? I find everything you write about them to be stirring, the pieces may be brief, often in Ask Greil, or longer, as in Ten Songs.
Not like any other writing on them. Deep, deep!
Thanks for the vote of confidence, but… there are so many Beatle books. And I’m not sure the world needs another one after Devin McKinney’s Magic Circles. That said, nothing scared me as much as taking on the Beatle chapter in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. I was so stranded I put Lester Bangs’s piece on the British Invasion first, just so I wouldn’t have to set the stage. That’s one piece I wouldn’t take back, even if there was a horrible error right at the start.
Stay safe in Portland.
I have been a huge fan for decades, and I hate for my first submission here to be in the form of a correction, but here we are: your reply on April 14 to the question of whether you were a fan of SCTV (“…especially Michael Richards as Reagan and what they did with Katherine Harris after the 2000 election”) seems to be conflating several different comedy series, from different eras. The Michael Richards reference is almost certainly about Fridays, ABC’s late ’70s/early ’80s response to SNL; and both SCTV and Fridays were long gone by the time comedy shows were making fun of Katherine Harris, so I presume the latter reference is actually about MAD-TV, the longtime FOX Saturday-night mainstay.
– Harold Wexler
You’re right about Fridays. I thought Harris was the same show. Maybe I never saw SCTV at all. Which show had Oxy Rush Limbaugh talking about his new marriage and still no sex but he wasn’t going to push it?
Hola, have you seen this?
Did you ever have a live Dead experience to thrill you to the marrow?
Great site, hope you are well.
I hadn’t seen it. What strikes me about it is how completely Jerry Garcia sounds like anyone who went to Menlo-Atherton High, which is not surprising since we grew up in the same place at pretty much the same time, as did the rest of the band—I knew Bill Kreutzman in grade school and Bob Weir, who I didn’t know, was two years behind me in high school.
I did have a live Dead experience. Not at one of their shows, though I saw them a lot in 1966 and 1967. Listening to “Cold Rain and Snow” on Vintage Dead.
What do you think of Bob Dylan’s Christmas Album? I told the Dylanology fan group it was crap. And added, where’s Greil Marcus when you need him?
So someone posted a link to you.
– Graham Smillie
It’s actually the one Bob Dylan album I haven’t listened to. I heard one number on the radio and that was enough. I used to go around town singing Christmas carols too, but I wouldn’t want to listen to a record of it.
Have you read Joel Selvin’s new book Hollywood Eden? If so, what is your opinion of it?
– hugh grissett
If you have any interest in that time and place, you’ll love it. It’s hard-boiled, funny, and between the lines a study of how hustle and trash sometimes turn into art.
[Greil wrote more about Selvin’s book in his latest Real Life Rock.]
1) Here’s a link to a short youtube video of Phil Proctor talking about the origins of the Firesign Theater that I found informative and entertaining. I like when Proctor makes a Fred Willard joke and they cut to Willard in the audience.
2) You have written of Saturday Night Live several times over the years. Were you a fan of SCTV?
– Erik Nelson
I loved SCTV. Especially Michael Richards as Reagan and what they did with Katherine Harris after the 2000 election. They often exposed SNL as cowardly and backward—especially during that time, which was generally embarrassing for SNL anyway.
I’ve been reading you my entire life and had the pleasure of seeing you at the Chicago Humanities Festival. On 3/25 you asked, “Has Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain” ever been used on a soundtrack? What movie could possibly stand up to it?” The song in its entirety plays over a sexually explicit three-way in Gaspar Noe’s Love. Unfortunately, Love was shot in 3-D, so you will be missing a dimension if you stream it. Do you think the scene stands up to the music or just feeds off its power? Maggot Brain is also the title of a twenty-minute short about a record collector whose vinyl of the titular album goes missing, setting him off on an obsessive quest to recover it. Here is a link in case you are interested.
– Robert Puccinelli
Thanks so much for this. I’m not sure I could take Gaspar Noe even to hear what he did with “Maggot Brain”—well, I watched a few scenes from Love, and know I won’t—but I loved the Maggot Brain movie. It reminded me of that skin-crawling record-filing scene in Diner. I could see too much of myself and a lot of other people I know in both. Also: you’re terrific in this.
I’ve been reading your 1979 Beatles piece, and my question arises from your recent answer here about Sgt. Pepper, and from an earlier one where you wrote that you were always a John person, but that you have since “certainly changed your mind about Paul”—and that you later realized “if you weren’t a Paul person, how much you missed.” The main idea of my question to you is: Did we miss more than we thought?
I think of the middle period from A Hard Day’s Night through Revolver and even into Sgt. Pepper as distinctive—after the band really found themselves as songwriters and collaborators, but before they began their obvious disintegration.
In this period, John and Paul were both brilliant. John’s songs are often better, though, and they dominate the albums. And I have no doubt that John’s toughness often saved Paul from excessive sweetness, softness, and whimsy. However, now I wonder if, during this time, the overall guiding spirit and musical vision the Beatles were creating in—ebullient, incandescent, effortlessly and incomparably tuneful, adventurous and inventive yet instantly and universally accessible—were mostly Paul’s.
I can only point to superficial supporting evidence. Before this period, John’s musical vision was mostly spare, original rock and roll. After this period, I’ll use your words: “John was already cultivating his rebellion and his anger.” On the other hand, Paul’s direction seemed consistent throughout—“pure pop for all people” (to borrow a Paul phrase of yours)—and from mid-1964 through 1967, John’s music was passing through Paul’s prism, not the other way around.
In other words, to me it seems that Paul’s “All My Loving,” “You Won’t See Me,” “I’m Looking Through You,” “We Can Work It Out,” “Here, There, and Everywhere,” “Good Day Sunshine,” “For No One,” “Penny Lane,” and “Lovely Rita” could have happened without John. But John’s “Eight Days A Week,” “I Should Have Known Better,” “It’s Only Love,” “Girl,” “In My Life,” “Day Tripper,” and “And Your Bird Can Sing” (and maybe even “Strawberry Fields Forever”) could not have happened without Paul.
I’m not stating this as some kind of bold claim or insight. It’s really just a thought, barely more than a suspicion in hindsight. But what do you think? With Paul, especially during this middle period, did we miss more than we thought?
I’m not sure [what] the line between apparent or even documented John and Paul songs is (And how can it be documented? John would often say, when someone questioned something about a song, “Well, that was a Paul line”). “I’m Down” seems like an absolute John song, in this meta-world, but Paul sings it. “A Day in the Life” has John verses and a Paul bridge—if you want to put it that way. But John had a lot of trouble finding how many holes they needed to fill the Albert Hall. He may have thought of it. Paul may have. I’m sure George Martin told everyone he did. Do you really think they weren’t throwing ideas at each other, even if both came in with their fragments to start?
What I meant about changing my mind about Paul was that I thought he was, compared to John, shallow. Hearing him interviewed over the years since the Beatles ended, especially in Anthony Wall’s (movie) and Debbie Geller’s (book) The Brian Epstein Story, I know that was a stupid thing to think. So I missed paying attention to him when I could have. I missed not taking what he said about his first solo album, in the press kit that came with it, where he disparaged the Beatles, more seriously. I don’t think I, or other people, necessarily missed anything in the songs. You heard them, they came across, did you care about authorship?
They were a group. “Things We Said Today” may be their first art song. It’s credited to John and Paul. But it feels like George’s “Don’t Bother Me.”
Given its intersection between the civil war and punk influenced rock&roll, I’m curious if you’ve ever heard Titus andronicus’ The Monitor?
Yes. Of course I was attracted by the overweening ambition and arrogance of taking this on and offering songs like “A More Perfect Union” and “Richard II.” But I didn’t hear it happening beyond the titles.
I know you’re not a fan of Sgt. Pepper (I love your line in the Stranded discography that “Sgt. Pepper was a Day-Glo tombstone for its time”). My problem with it has always been the Lennon songs. Save for “A Day in the Life”, the Lennon songs are mediocre (at best). I view Sgt. Pepper in a similar vein to Citizen Kane. Kane is a remarkable debut from Orson Welles and needs to be seen but it’s not his best film (see Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil, or even The Trial). Ambersons moves me in a way Kane never does. Rubber Soul moves me in a way Sgt. Pepper never does. This is a long-winded way of asking: leaving aside the Yellow Submarine soundtrack, is Sgt. Pepper your least favorite Beatles album?
– Steve Canson
I think my least favorite Beatles albums are The Beatles’ Second Album and Something New. The group was so wonderful that the cheesiness of the album titles and covers really took away from absolutely tremendous songs, one after the other, just making everything else on the radio except Smokey Robinson sound stupid. As far as music goes, today I have a lot more affection and respect for Abbey Road than Let It Be—full of throwaways (“Dig a Pony”) and lugubrious white elephants (“The Long and Winding Road”). Rubber Soul, the American version, is their best album, but it’s not fair to compare other Beatle albums to it—it would be anyone’s best album. Start with the endless puns in the title, and the basic claim, that it was soul music, which they made good on, and then the cover, which managed to be threatening and welcoming at the same time. And the songs—come on! “I’m Looking Through You” was almost a throwaway on that album—it’s just a rhythm exercise, though between, say, Apollo and Diana.
Sgt. Pepper has it’s own kind of soul—the joy of experiment and invention. We’re kings of the world and we can do anything! The songs may be novelties, but the fun in “Lovely Rita” is still there, it wasn’t just of the moment. “She’s Leaving Home” is still painful. “Getting Better” is still hard as nails. And as for John’s songs—“A Day in the Life,” which dwarfs everything else, would be anyone else’s best record, is John and Paul.
As for Citizen Kane, you’re right to compare it to Sgt. Pepper—it has that same we-can-try-anything-and-get-away-with-it drive. And except for the battle scenes, and John Gielgud walking through the, what, hundred-foot-high rooms of the castle, in Chimes at Midnight, I don’t think Welles ever matched it.
Once again songs in movies. One of my favorites. What do you think about “Surfin’ Bird” in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket?
– Kolt Gerrag
“Surfin’ Bird” in anything is perfect. Just like the late Godfrey Cambridge should have played every dramatic role ever written.
Which pop song is Judith Butler?
– Kolt Gerrag
By Judith Butler? Her cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U.” About Judith Butler? “Surfin’ Bird.”
I do not recall you commenting on Neil Young/Crazy Horse Zuma. Tonight’s the Night is a powerful statement. But Zuma has more consistent songwriting, and is the purest Neil. Paul Nelson was on target: “Blood on the Tracks with more blood and more tracks.” Plainly his best album.
– Harry Clark
Well, sure. It’s never done it for me, and with someone who’s been making records with his own name on them since, what, 1968, 1969, unless he’s been buying them himself, best is meaningless. It’s your his best album. I’d take the Dead Man soundtrack any day. And go out with Way Down in the Rust Bucket. But what about “I’m the Ocean”? The second and third solos in “Cowgirl in the Sand”? The first five tracks of Americana? Who says you have to choose and rank?
Am I crazy or is Danielle Haim channeling Levon Helm here? I watched it a few times fascinated without quite knowing why before the comparison struck me, probably because it’s not an association I would’ve made with this particular band.
– Daniel L.
She’s got the hunched shoulders. I’ve never believed a note of their music. All concept, no cattle.
Have you seen BANG: The Bert Berns Story? It convinces me that the stories about shady music business hustlers and con men told by Nik Cohn in Rock From the Beginning were, if anything, too polite. The fight between Berns and Jerry Wexler, in which Wexler enlisted the Mob-connected Morris Levy to threaten Berns, only to have Berns trump Wexler by sending the acting head of one of New York’s Five Families to threaten Wexler, was astonishing and scary. For records as fine as “Cry, Baby” to emerge out of this setting seems like a miracle.
– Bill Wolfe
I’ve seen the film, which has incandescent scenes of music making—but not matching what Joel Selvin does on the page in his book on Berns, Here Comes the Night—which will also tell you more about high stakes Mob music wars than you can find anywhere else.
This is fantastic. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Mick Taylor playing records and commenting upon them in Danish radio in March 1970. You can see and hear Exile on Main Street coming round the corner.
On a not so related note: On the evening of the release of Chemtrails Over the Country Club, any second thoughts on NFR by Lana Del Rey? While it contains some of her greatest songs, I do think it is leaning into becoming more of a brilliant Lizzie Grant record rather than a Lana del Rey record. The sense of vertigo and falling from previous albums is gradually being replaced by a more traditional singer-songwriter approach.
I don’t hear that. One friend said [of Chemtrails] she’s concluded melody is not for serious people. I don’t hear that either. I think the commitment to abstraction and drift continues as the foundation of her view of the world. Accents and points of inflection will change. Some rhythms will not work. But there’s no one else around who could have come up with the aesthetic of “Yosemite,” let alone turned an idea into something you can actually listen to.
I’m a high school English teacher, and I love the way your essays attempt to unravel (or sometimes playfully tangle!) the “Mobius strips” of history, politics, film, and music. I teach The History of RnR in 10 Songs in one of my classes, and I couldn’t help but notice your reference to various Sopranos sequences as moments of cultural touchstone— including that book (A.J. hearing Dylan for the first time) and your Great Gatsby treatise (Vito coming to terms with his closeted homosexuality). It piques my curiosity: are there any other moments in great television or film that stand out to you, in which a classic tune is evoked to capture subtexts/ turning points of American history? Don Draper hearing “Tomorrow Never Knows”? Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” as a soundtrack to urban + blue collar betrayal in The Wire? Or any particular Scorsese moment? I am always impressed (and stirred!) by movie and TV auters savvily using a song to really punctuate their theme(s)—and not just in trite or predictable ways, vis a vis “Sympathy for the Devil” in every suspense thriller!
Thank you for always sparking new insights into my reading, listening, and viewing habits.
There are too many to even begin to think about—it’s something I’ve written about in my Real Life Rock column forever. Right now you make me think of The Maytals’ “Pressure Drop” in In the Name of the Father and Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing” in The Five-Year Engagement. Not exactly a song, but the best music video without music: the first Hitler-in-his-bunker Kiss Army routine (in Downfall). And making me wonder: has Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain” ever been used on a soundtrack? What movie could possibly stand up to it? Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse? Michael Hanake’s The White Ribbon, or as crawl music for his The Piano Teacher, if he could make the credits roll for ten minutes?
Now, you must admit that the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust at the Capitol is history. I mean, 1978, I was in—well I wasn’t in high school anymore that year but I had a sister who was. What could that have been compensation for? Was it the year they closed the last segregated water fountain or something? The natural replacement stares us so hard in the face that we might overlook it: Elvis. Imagine him in the rotunda cocking that sneer at all those powdered wig boys, a triumph of democracy: “Well what do you know ’bout that? Baby, let’s play house.” The other name that jumped out at me from a list of Tennessee figures is Aretha Franklin: more ecumenical, more gravitas.
The American Studies question I have for you is, besides civil rights figures, what sort of historical figures could represent the South in its entirety? It’s a puzzle to me. This all led me to wonder who California had sent I saw it was Ronald Reagan—it’d take a war to shift him—and goodness me Father Serra. I mean, I don’t swing with anti-colonialists but I’d let them have that one. He’s not even American, and I think we’ve got enough troubles of our own without answering for Spain. Who would represent California? I’m thinking John Muir but people are being pissy about him now. If it were for me alone I’d say Ambrose Bierce.
– Robert Fiore
The south in its entirety. I’m not sure I know enough about the south to answer. Not that would stop me or anyone. But whoever it is would have to embody not just the-contradictions-of-the-south—black white rich poor democracy dictatorship law lynch law and on and on. I suppose Kentucky doesn’t quite count, so that rules out Lincoln. Fictional characters are tempting but I think a cheat. Nathan Bedford Forrest was a mentor to Samuel Stacker Lee, whose name was taken by Lee Shelton of St. Louis, the real Stagger Lee—but that’s as far as any ambiguity enters the story of the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. As a statue in the Capitol he’s not history, he’s propaganda, if not terrorism. But who could represent the south? Every time I think of a name, there’s a no–too parochial, narrow, limited, modern, male. So two possibilities:
– Huey Long
– Zora Neale Hurston and William Faulkner, together
Regarding “I do believe that real artists know things other people don’t and that their art is a matter of trying to communicate those things”… Do you get definite senses of what–for examples—Robert Johnson, Sly Stone, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, and/or Cat Power know, and try to put across? Or is “things” something less
And speaking of two above, any thoughts on the new Young live set, and/or the Stones’ bewildering online song dump?
– Andrew Hamlin
It’s not something that can be named, certainly not by me. You could ask them. They might know what you’re talking about. They might have a specific answer.
In fact, Sly Stone did answer the question. Asked why he formed the Family and what he hoped to accomplish, he said that by creating a band of men and women, black and white, he would be creating an image of harmony that could be communicated to other people, and the music they played would dramatize that.
Haven’t heard Neil Young, haven’t heard the Rolling Stones.
(This is not really a question for Ask Greil, but feel free to post if you like.)
I’m sure you have already found this, but in case not—we now have good quality audio of Van Morrison’s “Caledonia Soul Music” out in the world. Better late than never.
This is unbelievable. I’ve listened to this hundreds of times since it was first broadcast on KSAN in 1970, and on the bootlegs of that long night—“Just Like a Woman,” “Friday’s Child,” on an on. It never occurred to me that there was a parallel universe out there where perfect versions of things you love—maybe even other people?—exist. But this is just that. Wow. Thank you.
What is your opinion of the recently released on PBS Murray the K’s It’s What’s Happening, Baby! TV special? I thought it was great for fans of 1960s pop music.
– hugh grissett
I could never stand Mr. Fifth Beatle. DJ as used car salesman.
Not long ago, Rolling Stone revised its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. I know you disdain ranking lists such as this, especially when they are so vast, but what really I want to ask you about is their new choice for Number One: Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.
I don’t like the album. I tried many times, because I love Marvin Gaye’s music up to and even after that time. And I do love the album’s three hit singles, but beyond that, I don’t hear a single interesting moment. And I don’t think three great singles make a great album. If that were true, you could just as easily place United, his first album with Tammi Terrell, in the top spot, as far as I’m concerned.
Not to mention the blandness of the accompanying writing, which you would expect to make a compelling case for the music on the album, and what makes it great—not just great, but the greatest ever made. Nope, it’s mostly about the album’s context and its influence. Or it just flatly states facts: “‘Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)’ is a taut ode to the environment; ‘Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)’ takes on drug addiction.”
This is really bad.
(And There’s A Riot Goin’ On is now at Number 82. But never mind.)
So, what’s going on here? What are your thoughts? Why is this album here? What is this telling us? And why can’t anyone convince me that they actually think it’s great?
It’s a good, moderate, consensus choice that makes people feel like they’re on the right side (honor the dead, respect the environment) and that nobody ever listens to. There’s more of Marvin Gaye in Hanif Abdurraqib’s A Fortune for Your Disaster than there is in or on What’s Going On. Give me “Can I Get a Witness,” “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” “Let’s Get it On,” “Sexual Healing,” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
I know you’re a fan of Nik Cohn’s I Am the Greatest Says Johnny Angelo. I’ve only been able to find passing references to it in your reviews of other books (like Cohn’s King Death), but I seem to remember reading your comments comparing the two editions of the novel. Am I remembering correctly? In any case, I’ve managed to track down both versions (the Penguin paperback and the Savoy reprint of the original version). Flipping through, the differences seem pretty significant. Which would you recommend reading? One, the other or both?
I’ve only read the original version. I didn’t know there was a revision. And don’t know why one would revise a novel. To correct factual errors? There are no facts in the book.
Greil—in your Yoko Ono response [2/26], you said something you’ve written before: that artists know things the rest of us don’t. I’ve never really agreed with this. To me, they have the talent and imagination to express those things, to give voice to them, but we know them too, that’s why we respond to their work. There are so many strange lines in Dylan’s mid-’60s work that I understand immediately, although I couldn’t begin to explain what they mean. He can. Or maybe he doesn’t need to, he wrote them.
– Alan Vint
Maybe another way of saying that artists know things others don’t is that they see thing differently—which is a real reduction of what I mean, but maybe more acceptable. Which why it isn’t what I mean. Maybe a more psychologically accurate way to say it would be that artists think they know things others don’t, and are driven to try to say what that is. And there could be many motives in that, beyond the edification of humankind. Think of Robert Johnson (as I seem to do all the time these days). He could play the guitar in ways that others couldn’t. He could weave his voice into his guitar playing in ways that produced an impression of the uncanny: what is this feeling, how can he do that, where am I, the world doesn’t feel exactly as it did a minute ago, an element of unreality, or super-reality, has just been introduced. There is a secret language being spoken that while I myself can’t speak it I can understand, in some aspect of my being, every gesture, note, word, sigh, stop, fall, and close. And why might Johnson want to tell the world what he knows and, he feels, no one else does, to make his secret knowledge public? Hobbes argued that the motive behind the creation of Greek philosophy was to seduce more boys than the other guy—which is to say that the most base or selfish motives can lie behind the highest creation. For Johnson—maybe just to show the other guys up and get more women, which amounts to the very same thing. For Jonathan Edwards, the purpose of philosophy was to affirm “the beauty of the world.” Those are the words he used—not “The Beauty of God’s Creation.” He introduced a certain element of hedonism, or even paganism, into the idea. Maybe Johnson’s motive was also to affirm the beauty, the order, of the world, especially when, in his lyrics, he says that the world is disordered and he doesn’t understand why it is as it is, and refuses to accept it. But really, what the artist knows is not determinate. It’s the will to tell.
On 1/12/21, I asked what you thought of the new remix of “The Shape I’m In.” You said “I hate the ‘Shape I’m In’ remix. Everything separate, cleaned up, antiseptic. No sweat. Or blood or tears or anything else.”
But you wrote a glowing review of the remixed Stage Fright in Real Life Rock Top 10. Now I’m not accusing, I like when people are honest about their opinions changing. I just wonder what changed your opinion. Or maybe you like the rest of the album, but not that track in particular?
I heard that one track online as a preview and thought it sounded washed. Playing the new version of the album as a whole it didn’t feel that way at all.
Hi Greil. I’m writing an article about Bobby Patterson, whose song “The Trial of Mary Maguire” you selected for the Rose & The Briar album for Ugly Things magazine.
Can I ask why you chose that song and if you have any thoughts on Bobby’s music?
– David Michael Holzer
The album is the soundtrack to a book of the same name where different writers write about different ballads. Ed Ward wrote about “The Trial of Mary Maguire” so it had to be there. Ed chose it, not me. To everyone’s benefit. You should talk to him. He lives in Austin, Texas.
What did you think of the box set they put out on Elvis’s 1969 Vegas shows? I have always had a soft spot for that period; once you get past the occasional Vegas trappings in the arrangements, he’s really rocking out at times.
Good monologues and great James Burton guitar solos as well.
I listened to it all, and the repetition, not just of the performances but of the stories told, is too much of a good thing.
Have you ever written anything about Yoko Ono? I confess it wasn’t until after punk (post-punk really) that her music became something I could actually hear, but aside from loving a whole lot of music by her (she steals Double Fantasy right from under John’s nose) I think she’s someone who genuinely changed people’s ears and ideas of what singing could be. After x-Ray Spex, the B-52s, Lora Logic etc. there’s nothing “unlistenable” about her.
The first time I encountered Yoko Ono I either didn’t catch or wasn’t told her name—it was a showing of her film Bottoms in a UC extension class on dada and Fluxus my wife and I took in about 1966. Since it had no sound the instructor had people in the class improvise a soundtrack—that may have been part of Yoko Ono’s instructions for showing the film. We had great fun shouting at the movie and each other.
Otherwise I have not been on the bandwagon. In terms of writing about her—well, I wrote an appalled piece on Double Fantasy that came out just before John Lennon’s murder. Later I was even more appalled by Yoko’s statement that her and John’s heroin use was a matter of them “taking it in celebration of ourselves as artists”—after decades I can still recall her exact disgusting words. I do believe that real artists know things other people don’t and that their art is a matter of trying to communicate those things. But to me Yoko Ono’s corollary has always been that artists, like herself, are better than other people. That’s what her comments on heroin said to me. After that I never wanted to listen to her—to hear what else she might have to say.
It’s just like realizing that after his Barcelona movie I never wanted to see another minute of anything with Woody Allen’s fingerprints on it, and hated myself for watching his moronic recreation of Paris in the ’20s. But again, isn’t the real message of most of his movies that he’s better than other people? “The heart wants what it wants” was his justification for seducing the sister of his daughter, who he said wasn’t really her sister anyway because she was adopted. He could use the same words for the accusation that he molested his daughter and then say the hell with it, couldn’t he?
Dylan Crossing The Rubicon. I read that the Rubicon was the river where military people had to lay down their weapons, leave their soldiers behind, they were going to enter the Republic of Rome. If so, then what Bob is talking about between “Crossing the Rubicon,” “Key West,” and “Murder Most Foul”? Stuff we wouldn’t believe, I suspect.
– Alan Berg
I think here it just functions as a catchphrase.
I always thought the lyric was “and I serve(d) on the Danville Train.” So I took it as him serving as a confederate soldier. Of course in Joan Baez’s butchering Stoneman’s Cavalry becomes “So Much Cavalry” which, because she is subverting an actual historic event, makes it inexcusable.
– Steven Johnson
Well, to me it’s that “so much cavalry” is not something anyone would ever say. But it’s been fifty years, and since that word-art-historical crime Joan Baez has almost certainly done things far worse. So have I, and probably you.
I searched for Neil Young’s 1992 appearance on PBS’s Centerstage after reading a feature you wrote for Spin (January 1994). I found several videotaped copies uploaded online, but to my surprise they ran for nearly two hours uninterrupted whereas the PBS broadcast was reportedly an hour. Have you seen the entire two-hour show?
Here’s one link, but there may be others of better quality—this one fits the whole show in one upload.
I never liked “Harvest Moon” all that much—it had some good songs but it dragged in places and felt tepid overall. But hearing Young perform 9 of its 10 songs here was a different experience. Every song gets across better, and he gives them a context where they actually gain some resonance (like placing the sentimental “One of These Days” right after “Tonight’s the Night” and before that “The Needle And The Damage Done”). He openly admits to playing without ‘a list,’ and what unfolds is whatever comes to mind or whatever suits his mood.
I liked this so much, I went back to the 2010 Archives album “Dreamin’ Man: Live ’92” which was basically a live compilation of every Harvest Moon song. (“Natural Beauty” was even taken from the Centerstage show.) I thought I had missed its charm but it didn’t seem that way at all. I noticed most of the songs were done in bigger venues—theaters with more agitated crowds, unlike Centerstage which was filmed in a quieter and more intimate studio. The difference may have impacted the performance, but the one cut they did take from Centerstage was also doused in echo to match the other recordings.
– Jacob R
This is not the Neil Young I’ve followed. For me it all happens in the tangles of the strings. “Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze.” “Dead Man.” “Cowgirl in the Sand.” “Arc.” “I’m the Ocean.” “Revolution Blues” (by the Waco Brothers).
After all these years I’m still a bit miffed at your take on Ray Davies in the notes for the Randy Newman chapter. I believe no one has written a better song about their homeland than Ray’s “Victoria.” In the top ten is “Village Green.” What is your selection for the best song written about one’s homeland? (Please, no Woody Guthrie.)
– Tony Capretta
Carl Perkins, “Tennessee.” Or “California Girls.”
I have not been a fan of the remixes of the first two albums by The Band. I gave them many listens and found myself going back to the original mixes. This changed when I heard the new remix of Stage Fright. The Bob Clearmountain mixes are warmer than the original, but the biggest change was the running order. Robbie Robertson said that the new running order was how the album was meant to sound. Once I got used to the new running order, I found the album less disjunct than the original. Have you listened to the remix and what is your opinion is of the album in its new form?
– Scott Anderson
I’ll be writing about that in my next Real Life Rock Top 10 so I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I’ll just say to my shock I’m having the same reaction you are.
Do you have any thoughts on the Springsteen Jeep commercial? Is it too much to hope for that it’ll bring a divided country together, just as the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad ended systemic police brutality? I did get a kick out of this comment on Bruce’s DWI arrest, from a “source close to the music icon”: “I just hope Jeep ends up looking bad in the end.”
– Steve O’Neill
To tell you the truth, it sort of went past me in a gauzy way. I think I was too unhappy over how pathetic Kansas City was to notice much. I thought it was interesting that there weren’t any songs in it.
Are there any female artists you would consider (or have ever considered) writing a book on?
– James Cavicchia
(p.s. When they’re casting the biopic, for mid-period Greil might I suggest Italian dj/producer Donato Dozzy. They’d have to do something about the hair, but otherwise dude’s a ringer.)
I wrote a third of a book on Geeshie Wiley. I wanted there to be a chapter in Mystery Train on Arlene Smith, but didn’t yet understand how you might construct a whole aesthetic portrait out of a few singles by someone most people never heard of. I’d still like to try.
Donato Dozzy is pretty damn close.
Would it be absolutely insane to consider Orson Welles to have been working like a situationist along the lines of Guy Debord? I’m specifically considering the “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast as a situation, because of the reaction it is said to have produced. Also, in F for Fake Welles addressed some of the anti-image and anti-market themes Debord was interested in. Is it more important to consider the politics of the Situationists and Lettrists when looking at their legacy? Is mythmaking counter to what they, for lack of a better term, “stood for”?
I don’t think it’s odd at all. I think it’s somewhat odd that apparently the only mention of Welles in all the numbers of the situationist journal, from 1958 to 1969, is in a piece on cinema called “Sunset Boulevard,” by Michèle Bernstein, about Welles and Sternberg as masters of the baroque. And I wonder if Welles knew of the situationists; he certainly knew the Lettrists, the Isou lettrists, not Debord and Wolman’s breakaway Lettrist International. For here he is traveling the world as your TV correspondent, interviewing the knights of St. Germain des Prés in 1955:
It’s really interesting. Lucid. And it’s where the situationists came from. I wonder if Debord and Bernstein saw this at the time and sad, Damn! Why wasn’t that us up there?
You have often written about the Puritan origins of American identity and self-definition; Puritanism as the root of several possible binaries and many contradictions. If we take seriously the idea that many Puritan tropes in early America were borrowed from, and in conversation with, what Spanish/Catholic folks were saying back then, would that affect your understanding of the American “spirit”?
– Freddy Dominguez
If you’re saying that the Puritan ethos in New England is rooted in the Spanish Inquisition, as Monty Python puts it, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”
How did the Rolling Stones first come into pop consciousness? With the Beatles it seems that the territory is marked out right from the start, with “She Loves You” and “Please Please Me” and “Twist and Shout.” With the Stones, it seems there’s a couple of years where they’re a kind of purist R&B band, then in 1965 they start releasing what we usually think of as Rolling Stones records. What was their presence before 1965?
[update] An addendum to the previous that just came to me: The famous line is the Beatles wanted to hold your hand and the Stones wanted to pillage your town, but really, in the beginning it was the Beatles wanted to hold your hand and the Stones wanted to play Chuck Berry covers.
– Robert Fiore
I can’t speak for the world. In the UK when they started out they were blues purists and evangelists, and that may have affected their early following—and common denigration by British blues players. But their first single, as you say, was a cover of Chuck Berry’s (not that well known) “Come On,” which after a lot of soul searching about Be True to Your School (of the blues) they judged within their standards of legitimacy. And then they covered the Beatles “I Wanna Be Your Man.” And then they made a commercial for Rice Krispies. Still, they did remain true to their school—they wanted to introduce the US to its own artists, from Muddy Waters to Howlin’ Wolf and more, and they did.
In the US nobody knew about any of their moral struggles or cared. “Not Fade Away”—and really, has anyone really plumbed how and why Buddy Holly was the number one touchstone for the Beatles, the Rolling Stones (Mick Jagger saw him play in the UK), Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, on and on?—was on the radio here. It was an obscure Holly track and sounded completely out of the blue—not that their version wasn’t miles away and a hundred miles an hour faster than the original, to the point where it became its own original. That was in 1964—they were a mid-to-low-high chart band (nothing like “House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals, Gerry and the Pacemakers and Dave Clark Five, let alone the Beatles). Their first album—with the cheesy title England’s Newest Hitmakers (i.e., here today, gone tomorrow) in the US—no title, no words at all, for the David Bailey group portrait in the UK—made a lot of people look. Or stare. No one had ever seen people look as mean, mysterious, threatening, and alluring as those people, whoever and whatever they were, staring out over their shoulders. For me, the sense that they were extreme, rule breaking, something radically different, was in the fact that on the album there was a song under two minutes and a song over three minutes—which for a rock ‘n’ roll group was unheard of—everyone somehow knew that a 45 just wouldn’t play, or something, if the song was 1.56 or 3.04 (when Phil Spector had a record longer than three minutes he just listed it at 2.58 on the label). The killer for me was “Tell Me”—which was even longer on the UK album. And not just me: “Tell Me” is the dramatic hunger in David Chase’s incredibly accurate film Not Fade Away.
The breakthrough—what made them immortal, unchallenged as the Beatles were unchallengeable, their own reality principle, was “Satisfaction.” Not just that it was such a big hit—there were a lot of big hits. It was because the record was so total. It didn’t dominate the radio, it could seem as if it were the radio. It made a connection, created a permanent audience, and captured not just the moment but the street politics of the next ten years. You could see that happening: in 1966 and 1967 Top Forty stations all over the country ran contest polls asking people to vote on The 100 Greatest Songs of All Time (i.e., since 1955) and “Satisfaction” always won.
After that, they had a free field that no one else could occupy. They could leave the field and let it go to seed, they could build ziggurats and hanging gardens and make it the envy of the world. But no one else could so much as walk across it without being sucked into the quicksand.
By the way, that phrase about how the Beatles just wanted to hold your and but the Rolling Stones wanted to pillage your town—attributed for some reason to Hunter Thompson and half a dozen other people—was mine. Meant tongue in cheek—as in that’s the cliché, but it’s nonsense. As with famed rock critic Fredric Jameson writing that the Beatles came from a middle-class background and the Rolling Stones from a working class background, when it was the other way around, because they looked like it. I guess for a semiologist that’s all it takes.
The first article of yours that I read was in Rolling Stone about Dylan’s 1966 tour.
I’m curious about your thoughts on Rough and Rowdy Ways.
Thanks for all of your work. It has helped me see and understand not just music but life.
I wrote about it in the April, May, and June 2020 Real Life Rock Top Ten columns in the Los Angeles Review of Books. I know it will keep coming up.
In an “Ask Greil” reply from 9/11/18 you wrote: “if Trump declares the results of the November [mid-term] election invalid, in whole or in individual states, the Supreme Court would uphold him. Then you’re in a revolutionary situation: action in the streets against government presence and the obedience or refusal of troops to stop it.” None of that happened at the time, but two years on your comments seem pretty prescient, even if things didn’t play out quite how you predicted. Were you surprised at how quickly and summarily the courts, including the Supreme Court, rejected Trump’s claims? Had they upheld them, do you think we would have seen the kind of reaction from the left that we did from the right?
– steve o’neill
With today’s story about Trump’s plan to turn the Justice Department, which had already declared his claims worthless, into his personal hit squad, I don’t think my paranoia about what could have happened has been entirely misplaced. I couldn’t have foreseen the blatancy and ham-handedness of the White House conspiracies. You have to give the people Trump placed on the Supreme Court credit for refusing to hear a single case. But to your real question, no. For the simple reason that what you’re calling the left—which doesn’t really exist (let’s say the left is not Antifa, a few particular BLM groups, but the people who voted for Biden)—isn’t armed, isn’t bent on destruction and murder for its own sake, and is not made up of people for who a death threat is their first response to anything they don’t like.
I certainly thought about what I could and would do if the worst fears were realized. I could march. I could sit down and occupy streets or even highways. It might make sense to march through and occupy all of downtown Oakland, the city where I live, both to protest the destruction of republican governance—a small r governance as it was conceived and which we take as a given—and to forestall or block burning and looting by those who would turn any demonstration into its negation (as, with the protests against the George Floyd killing in Oakland, was spurred by Boogaloo followers who drove to Oakland and killed a Federal building guard in a drive-by shooting in a crime meant to be blamed on demonstrators, just as the mass arson in Minneapolis was literally sparked by a right-wing provocateur). But given where I live, any such actions would be uncontroversial and not very dangerous, if they were dangerous at all, beyond the possibly deadly fact of being part of a crowd. Traveling to Washington to do the same thing, with the city occupied by tens of thousands of Capitol mobsters, would be a very different story—and probably the necessary one. Were that to have happened—and this is horrible to say—it would have been up to the military to refuse civilian orders, take over the city, and reinstate Congress—none of which would have any legal validity. And then the Supreme Court would be working far beyond anything that could be called law. It didn’t happen, but it’s now clear Trump did not let a day after November 7 go by without trying to make it happen.
Your comment that you’ll never listen to All Things Must Pass begs the question of why. The album is overproduced all to hell, but some of the songs, especially the title track, “Run of the Mill,” and “Beware of Darkness,” are as good as anything George wrote. Also, have you heard the Beatles rehearsal of the song–it’s rough and not ready, which probably explains why it was left off “Anthology,” but the staggered background vocals John and Paul add are really tremendous. It makes me long for that next record they never made.
It does sound more like a basement tapes recording than anything else, but I’m still a “Don’t Bother Me” person myself.
At the end of a troubling week I settled down yesterday morning to listen to the historian David Olusoga’s selections for Desert Island Discs and noted that among the particularly fine records was Geeshie Wiley’s remarkable “Last Kind Words,” which I know is a particular favourite of yours.
I will spare you the hoary old question of naming your favourite pieces of music, perhaps you may wish to nominate your favourite book and luxury item to take to the island if you were to be chosen as a castaway? (David’s choices were George Orwell’s diaries and a Slide Guitar)
– Paul Ashbridge
A bunch of Ross Macdonald novels and a picture of my wife.
1) Have you seen the German series Babylon Berlin on Netflix? It is really up your alley (and down your street). It’s an ambitious noir set in Berlin during the Weimar Republic (1929). The characters are complex and the plot is enthralling. The first episode sets up the story and is a little slow, but the second episode moves like a house on fire. Several plot threads advance during an elaborate musical number at a flapper club at the end of the episode. At the end of the first season, I questioned an old, black bluesman in a house of ill repute in Berlin in 1929. But, then there is a glorious musical number early in the second season that literally made my jaw drop and stop questioning the excellent use of music in the series.
2) Has Rod Stewart released anything of worth, in your opinion, in the last thirty years? Thank you.
– Erik Nelson
I love that show, and I know from research on Weimar street battles between fascists and communists that I did for Lipstick Traces that it is terrifyingly accurate in terms of public violence and private conspiracy behind almost every scene. The conflicts of the characters—with each other inside themselves—become more focused and more interesting as the episodes go on. Bryan Ferry is precise, performing as a washed up nostalgia act who somehow captures the moment—the moment in history. The combination of the dull looking Volker Bruch and the can’t-look-away Liv Lisa Fries is brilliant, especially because scene by scene she’s one more step ahead of him. And history is writing the script: it can only get worse.
I’m sure Rod Stewart has done work worth noticing in the last thirty years, and it’s not his fault I didn’t notice. I did think his talking with Dan Rather about how I’m dead was pretty memorable, at least for me.
I’ve long been a fan of your writing. I’m not sure whether or not my mind is playing tricks on me, but was Lipstick Traces ever put on the stage as a show? I seem to remember a fairly extraordinary on-stage version, one of the best pieces of theater I’ve ever seen. Did this actually happen and, if so, was there any recorded version?
Thank you and Happy New Year.
– Toni Hart
I’m a little at sea as to the nature of your memory. There was—or is—such a play, and it’s stunning. I wonder where you saw it. Here’s the story.
Kirk Lynn and Shawn Sides and Lana Lesley and others formed a theater group in Austin, Texas, in 1995, called the Rude Mechanicals (pre-Shakespearean term for roving actors)—now called the Rude Mechs. Kirk and Shawn decided they wanted to adapt my book Lipstick Traces. Emily Forland, now my agent, then working with the late Wendy Weil, had gone to school with Kirk and vouched for him. I said go ahead, tear it up and put it back together, I want nothing to do with it—I’ll answer factual questions, but that’s all. It’s a 500-page book and I wanted to see what someone else made of it. So they went to work. Kirk wrote it, Shawn devised it, and they premiered a 45-minute version at a fringe theater festival in New York in 1999. My friend John Rockwell went. He called from backstage as soon as it was over. “It’s to die for,” he said.
When it had its official premiere in Austin a month later, my wife and I flew out to see it. I was shocked. It was playful, it was fast, it was a 75-minute cut up of a book that was already a kind of cut up (one commentator said I’d obviously shuffled all the paragraphs around at random on my computer, but I wrote it on a typewriter). I felt more gratified than I had when the book was published. I went up to Shawn, hardly believing what I’d seen, and told her, “You staged the book I wanted to write.” There had always been a certain spirit missing in the book—Shawn and everyone else put it back. It was a revelation. I learned things I had never been able to grasp. I’d never quite understood what happened in the Cabaret Voltaire—the participants would speak of being possessed by spirits, but they couldn’t quite make it happen in their writing. Watching the Rude Mechs, I understood what happened. I saw it. With dances the Rude Mechs didn’t get out of performance studies but made up themselves.
The Rude Mechs staged it again in 2000 and a New York producer named Melanie Joseph came to see it and decided she wanted to stage it in New York. In 2001 it opened at the Foundry Theater: even faster, more inventive, more blink-and-you’ll-miss it than before. Lana Lesley as Dr. Narrator and Jason Liebrecht as Johnny Rotten kept their original roles from Austin, but Melanie brought in the downtown New York actors David Greenspan as Malcolm McLaren and James Urbaniak as Guy Debord (and Hugo Ball and Steve Jones), with Ean Sheehy as John of Lyden, Tristan Tzara, and Michel Mourre, and T. Ryder Smith as a leaping Richard Huelsenbeck. On opening night I saw Laurie Anderson and Debbie Harry sitting together; I didn’t notice Malcolm McLaren. The next morning I got a call from—I thought—David Greenspan pretending to be Malcolm McLaren—his performance was so precise and alive the real Malcolm McLaren became a spectre in his presence. “I want to bring this play to London,” David said. Except it wasn’t David, it was Malcolm. “And I’m going to play myself!”
That never happened, but the play ran for six weeks in New York. Later it had runs in Seattle and Los Angeles, and in Columbus and Minneapolis. It was staged at a festival in Austria. Later the Rude Mechs licensed it to another theater group in Chicago—their version I didn’t see. Last year Lana Lesley produced a graphic-novel version of the play—not the book—as Rude Mech’s Lipstick Traces, published by 53rd State Press. If you want it all brought back—or for those who never saw it—it will bring you very close.
The Rude Mechs remain an innovative group and the core of it is intact. They’re the most wonderful people.
The or certainly a question of the hour would be, is decadence something a society recovers from, like a drug addict might clean himself up, or is it something like the debilities of old age, that you can manage but cannot reverse? Surely even if your object is a one-party state, choosing a Donald Trump to be your leader is the very dictionary definition of decadence in a democracy. It’s like voting for Caligula because he and his horse make such a lovely couple. Can you think of a society that fell into a state you might call decadence and then pulled itself together?
– Robert Fiore
Most of the countries in Europe, often sequentially, from the 1870s to the present. Whether any of them exactly “pulled themselves together,” as opposed to having been shocked almost to death and then reconstructed not precisely to their own desires—Germany, France, Poland, Italy, Hungary, and so on after World War 2—is another question. But if there’s one example, so far, of a country that might have done what you’re asking for, it’s Ukraine.
Besides Ruben & the Jets were there any other Frank Zappa albums that you liked?
I loved Absolutely Free. A lot of Zappa’s satire of every aspect of American life and culture is cheap and condescending. For real satire you have to be implicated: you have to have said or done or almost said or done whatever it is you’re trying to humiliate and kill—you have to be in some small part humiliating and killing yourself. You have to be, as the current word has it, complicit in what you’re attacking.
When I was in high school, not that long after Zappa was, four hundred miles south, to show up with brown shoes could get you pushed up against your locker or shoved against the wall. It was a violation of taste and style that was disgusting on its face and threatened everyone around you: What kind of person am I if I’m willing to tolerate such an atrocity? Thus “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It,” and “America Drinks and Goes Home”—you know Zappa played in lounge bars just like that.
The cover of Weasels Ripped My Flesh is a work of genius.
[Read Greil’s Rolling Stone review of Ruben & the Jets, co-written with Jeff Rappaport]
Again, no question here, but while I’m noticing current events echoing in pop culture, it may just be our cable provider but as the Capitol storming is being covered on all the news outlets, the commercial breaks keep showing ads for Russell Crowe’s new movie Unhinged, in which he’s shown breaking down a door on some mad rampage. The word “unhinged” is probably the most frequently used term describing Trump’s current state of mind. “Russell Crowe is genuinely terrifying”, the ads promise, but somehow he comes up short compared to the nearly-identical news footage of the seditionists.
– Jim Cavender
Russell Crowe would make a great Trump. Written I hope by Quentin Tarantino or Tim Burton, not Aaron Sorkin.
When I was a kid, my mom used to play Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker and Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin. Because Louis and Chet both played the trumpet and sang, I thought Billie Holiday did too. When I found out more about her life I remarked maybe she might have been happier if she had just stuck to playing the trumpet for session work. Mom’s jaw dropped to the floor and she quickly corrected me. Then the other day, I was reading in Dave Marsh’s book on 45 singles how the real words to “Surfin’ USA” were “if everybody had an ocean,” instead of “if everybody had a notion.” I was blindsided again, as Marsh also says he was.
Has this ever happened to you? Where you find out something you believed for years was not so and you could almost feel the ground shift under your feet?
There’s a name for it. Mondegreen. It happens to everyone. As in Jimi Hendrix’s not exactly “‘scuse me while I kiss this guy.”
Maybe because I’m from California and surfing was big in my high school, it was always ‘ocean’ not ‘notion.’ And notion is just too abstract and effete for and actual song lyric—unless it’s “Goodnight Irene.”
I’ve always believed that what you heard is what is there. To listen is to compose.
What do you think of the new remixes of “The Shape I’m In” and “All Things Must Pass“?
I hate the “Shape I’m In” remix. Everything separate, cleaned up, antiseptic. No sweat. Or blood or tears or anything else.
But I’m never going to listen to “All Things Must Pass” again.
No question here, just wanted to mention the wondrous irony of watching the storming of the capitol on TV, punching up this website on my Kindle, and being greeted by the Sensations’ “Let Me In.” Nice touch!
– Jim Cavender
It’s a sick thought to imagine how cool it would have been if that gang of thugs had smashed in singing that song. But cool is communist. Cool is all those people who stole the election. So it couldn’t happen. Democracy may be cracking but epistemology lives.
Joe Biden never sounded better. Never sounded so much.
One traitor told a newsperson, “Wait for the inauguration. We’ll be back with guns.” At Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, almost all of the members of the plot to kill him—there was a plan to kill him then and there—were present in the crowd: most of them below, Booth in the reviewing stand above. Right now, everyone is in danger.
Hi Greil, I’m a longtime reader and I was curious about why you’ve rarely if ever written about some of the bands I’ll define loosely as 80s college radio rock: REM, The Smiths, The Cure, The Replacements, etc. A lot of these groups were foundational to my own taste and to many others my age — I was born in 1976 — not to mention hugely influential to a lot of the bands that followed in their wake. Is it that you dislike them or you simply don’t find their work compelling (or something else)? I’m honestly not sure I’ve seen you even mention these groups other than a stray negative comment about REM once. Thanks,
I have written about all those groups, but only in snatches—Real Life Rock Top 10 items or stray comments in pieces about something else. The reason is that except for the Cure I didn’t like listening to them. In different ways I found them boring—Morrissey’s self-absorption (I always wondered why the Smiths’ songs sounded nothing like the film stills on their album covers), the way the Replacements seemed to be playing to critics once so many swooned over them, R.E.M.’s strum ‘n’ whine. But I was completely caught up when I saw the Cure play for what seemed like three hours on their first American tour, at a place called the I-Beam in San Francisco; and I played Seventeen Seconds, mainly for “A Play for Today,” about a thousand times while I was writing Lipstick Traces. I loved and still love their radio hits, especially “Friday I’m in Love.” I liked Robert Smith’s hair and the way so many people tried to sound like him. I always wondered what he really looked like. But “Jumping Someone Else’s Train” is number one. There’s never been a rhythm like that.
I’m wondering if you’ve ever heard this.
I’m impressed by the fact that the band, and especially Mick, can still make this sound like it’s about sex—like Snap, Crackle, and Pop are participants in a menage a trois, and you, the listener, want to be a part of it, or run away, or both at once.
– Bill Wolfe
This has been around for a long time and it’s always a surprise: it sounds like the band. Just like the Nu Grape Twins who made weird and touching records in the late 20s-earlly 30s, odd blues gospel jingles, and maybe their best was the straight commercial “I Got Your Ice Cold Nu Grape.” Really, the Stones should have released this as a single. On their next tour they should open with it. Except they won’t get any royalties. They might even have to license it.
I’ve been reading you for about forty years now, so I feel like Seinfeld going out with Dolores asking this, but what is the correct pronunciation of your first name?
– John Burns