* Ask Greil (current)

Ask Greil Archives: 2016; 2017; 2018; 2019

In which readers ask Greil Marcus questions and he answers them. To submit your own question, email admin@greilmarcus.net, and use the subject line, “Ask Greil.”

Alternatively, you can submit a question using the ‘Ask Greil’ Submission Form.

I am astonished by yesterday’s left-field, Elm Street drop from Bob Dylan. Epic, spooky, hilarious, sage, inexplicable, karmic? Perhaps he ran into this speech by lawyer Vincent Salandria, given in Dallas on Friday, November 20, 1998.

I’m goin’ to Woodstock, it’s the Aquarian Age
Then I’ll go to Altamont and sit near the stage
Put your head out the window, let the good times roll
There’s a party going on behind the Grassy Knoll
Stack up the bricks, pour the cement
Don’t say Dallas don’t love you, Mr. President
Put your foot in the tank and then step on the gas
Try to make it to the triple underpass

– Johnny Savage

Hi. I had the privilege of attending your keynote address at the World of Bob Dylan Symposium last June in Tulsa. First, thank you for talking about the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, an event I had never heard about. Secondly, will you be publishing or making available your talk on the blues and Bob Dylan. And, finally, what do you think of “Murder Most Foul”?
– Ron Wall
My talk will be part of the book Sean Latham has edited drawing on work presented at the conference.
     I like the way “Deep in a Dream” and a hundred other things become part of the story.

[Greil also notes: “I’ll be writing about it in my RLR Top 10 column in the LA Review of Books in late April—as the most recent installment went up today.”]

You may remember I interviewed you in your living room in 1994—I was visiting Tippet animation studios at the time from Australia and we discussed Lipstick Traces. I remember mentioning to you the 1958 BBC version of Quatermass and the Pit, which of course you don’t discuss in the book, but the 1967 Hammer Horror remake in Technicolor.
     Question: have you seen the 1958 BBC miniseries since?
– David Cox

In the same way that I think the Steve Martin Pennies from Heaven is far superior to the BBC original, I’ve always found the TV Quatermass originals hollow compared to the film versions of Five Million Years to Earth and The Creeping Unknown, which I saw on TV when I was a kid and still bothers me.

I just watched the original television version of Quatermass and the Pit, and I was struck by the parallels with the current pandemic: The Minister decides to accept the army officer’s theory that the thing in the pit is a German wartime propaganda ploy because it is the explanation that presents the least trouble, and in order to bolster the normality of the situation opens the site to the public, exposing thousands to the Martian Racial Suicide Machine. Clearly Donald Trump made a huge bet on the coronavirus being far less severe than the people with knowledge were saying. The reasons are obvious: However unlikely, this is the only scenario in which he “wins.” He can continue coasting into reelection on an expanding economy, it’s the one that requires the least effort from him, and he winds up looking smarter than everyone else. The other outcomes are a full-scale animal dieback or mitigation strategies that are deeply painful. The current policy is a radical version of the conservative self-reliance ethic: The sole function of the federal government is the care and feeding of The Economy and sealing the borders, and human welfare is none of the federal government’s concern. It’s as if you complained to the mayor that your roof was leaking. The administration slogan might as well be “What Are We Supposed to Do About It?” The President is like, “Gee, that’s tough. There’s this malaria cure I read about on Newsmax, maybe you could try that.” Where I live it’s in that strange sitzkrieg state where you’ve barred all the doors, and though you yourself haven’t seen any of the rabid bears yet, the Forest Rangers are terrified.
– Robert Fiore

I don’t think Trump made a bet on the virus. Other than the possibilities of draining emergency bills for his business, or his daughter’s, or Kushner’s, or cancelling the election or delegating it to state legislatures, I don’t think he gives a damn. He’s invulnerable; as far as he’s concerned, he will never die. After all, didn’t his doctor, who he’s still trying to put in charge of selling off the VA to his Mar-a-Lago buddies, say that if he’d had a better diet he’d live to be 200? So next year he’s going to think about cutting down on the steaks. Or something. This is not important. Everybody—else—dies.

I got the new Folio Mystery Train edition today (which is so gorgeous I want to hug it or something) rather hoping to find something about Charlie Rich & Randy Newman in the updated Notes & Discographies—no luck, so do you have any thoughts on Charlie’s version of “Marie”?
– Mark Hagen

I suppose I didn’t comment (as I could have in previous editions) because it seems so insubstantial—it doesn’t feel sincere on Rich’s part and I don’t think it adds anything to the song. There is a lot new in the book on the recent Robert Johnson bio, the recent Elvis docs, Robbie Robertson’s autobio, and more.

Regarding the Folio Society edition of Mystery Train:
1) Did you have any hand in choosing the images for this edition?
2) What do you think the images add to the stories you are telling?
3) Looking through this edition got me to thinking about Lipstick Traces and Dead Elvis. Is it correct to say that those two books were conceived with visuals in mind? I can’t imagine either of them without.
– Scott Woods

I left it entirely up to them. When I saw the result I asked if they could add the opening Dorothea Lange two page spread and the Walker Evans/young Elvis pairing in the Elvis Notes section. Also asked that they replace a sort of corny period photo of black entertainers with the Panthers against the wall. As you can see they did all that. That Woodstock photo of all the local types is too much. I wonder where that came from.
     I’m not sure how much they add. The book was written very much not to need images—while Dead Elvis was always conceived as an art book/collage book. With Lipstick it was a matter of the pleasures of the quest—wow! Look at this!—and Harvard was totally behind it, even hiring my friend Robin Cembalest from Artforum as photo researcher. She is a lot of the reason the illustrations are a full parallel to the writing.

—> More info, including ordering information, about the Folio edition of Mystery Train.

I was a little taken aback, in Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus, to read what seemed like a gratuitous swipe at John Prine:

“And when the lights are low, we might cop to the likelihood that Bob’s original contribution to the LP, ‘Wallflower,’ shows that he has absorbed his John Prine influences very well, and has succeeded in writing and whining a tune that could by no stretch of the imagination have the slightest effect on anybody.”

Is that your bottom line on John Prine? I seem to remember some very admiring words you wrote on “The Great Compromise.”
– Edward

Sure. Any song combining a titanic national event with private life is a heroic, not to mention funny, accomplishment. But “Sam Stone” and “Hello in There,” template for so much that followed, tearjerkers that make the singer seem sensitive, were what I was talking about. And that was, what, 78 years ago? That’s not all he’s done since and I wasn’t putting him down in advance.
[see Greil’s Village Voice review of Prine’s Common Sense, incl. “The Great Compromise”]

Where can I read an excerpt from your new book [Under the Red White and Blue]? I would like to know more about it before I order it.
– hugh grissett

There are no excerpts planned at the moment, but this early notice from Kirkus Reviews will give you a good sense of it.

You’ve mentioned in at least a couple places that your 1969 Rolling Stone review of Let it Bleed—something I felt compelled to re-read recently, perhaps for reasons too obvious to point out—was a turning point for you as a critic, when, to quote yourself, you “became whatever it is I’ve turned out to be.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by that? What made it a singular moment for you?
– Scott Woods

I was able to recognize that something epochal was happening on this album and in the times, and that it had to do with sensing or apprehending that the formal end of an era was also a true demarcation point, and that the band was able to write it out and get it down, and so was I. The David Bailey book fell in my lap and it was clear the book and the record were telling the same story, even if Let it Bleed understood how frightening the story was and Goodbye Baby and Amen didn’t. But imagine this story if they hadn’t called up Merry Clayton when she already had her hair up in curlers and said, “We’ve got this song that needs something…”

I would like to know what you think and fear I am not up to the conversational/critical expectation.
     I have been returning of late with much wonder and bafflement to the music of my early adulthood. The music that I was most fond of at the time has diminished significantly in power except in terms of its nostalgic value (which for better or worse has not been a traditionally high value for me). I know the stories of Nebraska to the point where the songs are more like punchlines to fondly remembered jokes than they are the epiphanies they once were.
     The Blasters, X, Rank and File, Green On Red, Dream Syndicate, The Replacements, The Minutemen, and dozens of other similar and dissimilar bands appeared to me as the sound of an America that I had very partially experienced (I am Canadian but had travelled in what we call “the States”). Much of these sounds held a resonance and a mystique to me, the potential freedom in being a friendly down and outer, but they did not challenge my sensibilities and nor did they draft them. They were the soundtrack to a life that was already forming and not offering me a script—unlike my earlier experiences of Bob Dylan and Lou Reed which I acknowledge were as much parents as attractive older siblings.
     Which brings me to the Meat Puppets. I admired them when I was young in that way that silently states I know they are supposed to be cool but I cannot hear it. At the time I was most impressed by their oddness, their seemingly unwilled eccentricity—who at this age, coming out of hardcore, writes songs like this and plays their instruments in this way (country Minutemen), out this way? It was an America that I could not imagine.
     Now that I am older I am relentlessly drawn to the Meat Puppets of 1983 to 1987 or so (I also cannot get my fill of Eleventh Dream Day for similar reasons). They no longer sound strange to me, perhaps their sound fits me more in my early fifties than it did at nineteen, but they still sound different. They sound like an America that I have still not seen, it is not a tourist destination, nor something you are invited to, it is a place only to end up in, but it is a place that I like to believe exists—gentle anger matched with a cheerful pessimism about offered possibilities and an independent spirit that is worried about its freedom (“And if you see it closer, then the finer points will show, not too much more, too much more”).
     The question is what does your silence about the Meat Puppets say? I am hoping for more than that you knew that were supposed to be cool but you could not hear it. Of course, I will also be tickled with whatever you offer.
     Mostly, thank you for all your great work. You have been a good brother.
– David P.

The Meat Puppets, or one of them, brought so much to Nirvana: a grounding, a knowledge. But on their own for me they came up short, or they were off somehow—off the road that, maybe, was really theirs. That was my impression—but now I’ll go back and see if, or more likely how, I was wrong.

What was your opinion of the film Yesterday starring Himesh Patel? I really liked it, it had me pulling out my Beatles CDs. For me, it was a feel good experience. I am considering buying the soundtrack CD.
– hugh grissett

It sounded creepy to me so I didn’t see it. On the other hand, I expected Across the Universe to be incredibly sappy, and it sort of is, but it also has Evan Rachel Wood, who can only be so sappy.

It occurred to me that the new Dylan musical Girl From The North Country might in some way, perhaps most in mood, be connected to his teacher B.J. Rolfzen’s The Spring of My Life.
     I haven’t seen the show, but the clips I saw of the British production suggested this to me. Any thoughts?
– Alan Berg

I liked the show far more than I expected to, because the music and singing, once past the piety of the first numbers, were so imaginative and convincing, often adding dimensions of community to what were originally offered as individual performances. But as a musical it’s more a comedy than anything else, despite attempts at tragic plot pockets. There’s no recognition of the kind of misery that’s Rolfzen’s real subject—the cruelty and mania that extreme poverty or the fear of the poor fosters as a sadistic version of the good.
     And I continue to be baffled by the play’s exclusion of Jewish characters, despite the long standing Jewish presence in Duluth, or its close with an image of the Cross. Maybe it’s because this show is not about northern Minnesota, the Great Depression, or even the songs. It’s about how to create a lively and surprising musical that may evaporate as soon as it’s over.
[see G.M.’s original notes on Girl From… in Ask Greil, 9/1/19]

You once wrote a review of Unfree Associations, a great book of poems by Michael Covino, which led me to an equally great short story collection (The Off-Season) and then to a wonderful shaggy-dog Hollywood novel (The Negative). And then… nothing. I can’t even find his presence on the web. Do you know what happened to him?
– kevin bicknell

I know just how you feel. Not long ago I searched as well and came up empty.
     Last I heard, and it was a long time ago, he’d left the East Bay for Los Angeles. There may have been something about a screenplay or another novel. But other than pieces he published in the East Bay Express before Unfree Associations, what you’ve seen is what I’ve seen.

What song do you want played at your funeral, long long time from now? (Dibs on “Is That All There Is?”).
– jalacy holiday

Walking in: Fleetwood Mac, “Love that Burns”
Walking out: Van Morrison, “Sweet Thing”

Thanks again for your keen assessment of Quatermass and the Pit, aka Five Million Years to Earth. I was wondering if you ever watched any of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass films to compare/contrast. That’s The Quatermass Xperiment aka The Creeping Unknown (1955, remade in 2005 with David Tennant); Quatermass II aka Enemy From Space (1957); and Quatermass aka The Quatermass Conclusion or Quatermass IV (1979).
     And so long as I’m on movies, did you ever catch the film version of Philip Roth’s Indignation (2016), and/or the two films covering Elvis’ trip to the White House? That’s Elvis Meets Nixon (1997) and Elvis & Nixon (2016).
– Andrew Hamlin

I saw Indignation and really didn’t like it. I wasn’t crazy about the book. I will someday devote the time and peace of mind to the Kneale films. All I know of them is the late Mark Fisher’s piece on them and it’s a lot.

Read your comparison of Five Million Years to Earth with The Sex Pistols last concert, and then found out Jose Mojica Marins (“Coffin Joe”) of Brazil recently died. He might not have crossed your radar; wore a top hat, had long nails, and created horror movies smack dab in the middle of the Brazil fascist dictatorship. His movies treated women much too violently for my taste, but I had to give him props for even attempting to make a horror film in the middle of a Catholic sponsored regime. Have you discussed the horror genre in detail elsewhere? You could consider The Manchurian Candidate political horror I guess, and the Quartermass films are to me a more sci-fi/horror mix. But I don’t recall you going into the horror genre itself anywhere… Were all those slasher flicks from the ’80s, for instance, part of the problem or an outgrowth of an underlying society anger at itself (or at least the women in it)? Does our tastes in what scare us tell us something about us?
– Ian

I’m not really a horror movie fan. When Joe Bob Briggs published his book on horror and slasher movies ages ago, he was so convincing about his faves that I went out and rented all of them—I Spit on Your Grave (really overwhelmingly relentless), The Evil Dead (nothing), Texas Chainsaw Massacre (great, but somehow already generating its own clichés). There are some—Night of the Living Dead and all of Romero’s follow ups, Psycho, the first Halloween, They Live—but all in all I stay away because I know I’m probably going to feel empty at the end. That’s not a judgment—just taste.

I watched a YouTube interview you had in Rome, Italy and thoroughly enjoyed it. Regarding Bob Dylan. Question: would you consider teaching a screenwriting class?
– Gail

I don’t know anything about screenwriting, even if I’ve written or co-written a couple: “Jungle Music” and This Is It: The Marin County Shootout with the late Michael Goodwin.

After watching Plant, Page & Marcus, the interview on a French TV channel—truly “unintelligible at all speeds”—on your website, I wonder how you relate to the translations of your books. Do you correspond with the translators, or have some specific demands on details, such as the cover or design of the publication? Any quality control?
     Ah, I almost forgot. Those interested in Elvis´ sex life—really?—can find some juicy information in Cybill Disobedience (Cybill Sheperd´s autobiography).
– Armando Montesinos

It’s really not unintelligible. Just have to really squint, audibly.
     The language other than English I can handle is French. I do review those translations, especially when my long time-translator and friend Guillaume Godard, dating back to Lipstick Traces, is on the job. I’ve found many errors, some meaningful, in French editions, and often do rewriting. Toru Mitsui was my original Japanese translator, but he was far more than that—for two editions of Mystery Train he comprehensively illustrated the book, more metaphorically than literally, though he also added countless informational footnotes and back sections identifying people and fixing historical events. I ask translators to always make contact about the smallest question, but usually they don’t—an exception being the 2019 Russian edition of Lipstick Traces, where I worked very closely with the translator, Alexander Imnyashov, the editor in chief, and the art director. So in most languages I’m at the mercy of the publishing gods, or devils.

In the airport, Billie Eilish’s new single “Everything I Wanted” started playing. It was a transcendent moment. I hadn’t heard it in a big, populated place like that, dripping in like IV fluid—and it made me feel exposed at first, because it had only been in my headphones for months, hidden from everyone. It’s a song about someone imagining killing themselves in a dream. What made it so special was that it fit right in even while it was suicidal. No one I saw hearing it in passing seemed to be changing visibly, but I wondered if like me everyone going to their gate or buying their coffee secretly knew but could not dare show that it was about the opposite of helping you get to your gate, even as it distantly sounded like every other song. Billie’s voice seemed inside my head even more in this public place, which made me hear the song as not a private confession but a public plea, coming down like a deus ex machina god begging us to wake up from a nightmare. And still the song blended so well into the movement of people getting on and off planes.
     I’m interested in any moment you have loved a song and then heard it in a weird place in the background that made you stop in your tracks and totally rethink what it or that place meant to you.
– JR

I’ve had that experience many times, always with a sense of bewildered delight: how could something so perfect actually happen? Sometimes it can happen alone, as when “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” first came on the car radio and I had to pull over because it was too compellingly distracting to drive to, and imagining countless other people doing the same thing at the same time. There was that day when I pulled into a friend’s driveway as he in his car, another friend in his, and I in mine all had our radios playing “There Goes My Baby,” which never sounded more tragic and heroic as it did that unrepeatable day. I wrote about one such moment in Like a Rolling Stone—at Longhi’s, when at some Bloody Mary breakfast joint in Hawaii the song was playing dimly in the background. At some point I looked around and saw
that everyone had stopped—stopped eating, drinking, talking, looking for a waiter. Everyone was listening.

I was wondering if you noticed that HBO will soon start airing a TV adaptation of The Plot Against America? There’s a trailer here:
     Thanks in part to your writing about it in The Shape of Things to Come, the book had been near the top of my intending-to-read list, but then after the 2016 election, it seemed like the story had come true and I wasn’t sure if I could take it. I’ve never read any of Roth’s other work. What would be the next thing you’d recommend to start with?
– stephenmp

Portnoy’s Complaint, I Married a Communist, The Great American Novel. All radically different, written at, during and up against very different times, and all impossible to imagine being written or even fantasized by anyone else.

When Andy Gill died a couple weeks ago I went back to read some of what you wrote about Go4, including your feature-length Rolling Stone profile of Go4, Lora Logic, the Raincoats et al. (“It’s Fab. It’s Passionate. It’s Wild. It’s Intelligent!”) Three questions:
1) Was it difficult to convince your editor at Rolling Stone to give you so many words devoted to what was, at the time, incredibly obscure music? Was there resistance within the ranks of the publication to covering bands who, for the most part, didn’t even have records out in the U.S.?
2) Did you ever receive any feedback on that piece from the artists involved?
3) In regards to Andy Gill, I consider him one of the true innovators on his instrument. There are hundreds of great guitarists in rock and roll, but maybe a dozen or so who really changed our perception of what the guitar was capable of (I’d certainly never heard anything like that before). Any thoughts?
– Terry

People have very skewed ideas about Rolling Stone, as of 1980—when I went to the UK to write about the Gang of Four, Lora Logic, and the Raincoats—or at any other time, as some cold corporate bureaucracy with backward ideas. I was a staff writer. In the fall of 1979 someone came to see me and handed me records he’d found in London—the Gang of Four’s Entertainment!, Lora’s Virgin EP with “Wake Up,” and the Raincoats—I can’t remember if their first album or just the “Fairytale in the Supermarket” single. I was entranced, fascinated. I read interviews with them in NME—they sounded like interesting people. I wanted to meet them. Jann said, go. I went. I came back with a story, Rolling Stone had brilliant portraits made—the full page of Lora in her kitchen with her sax is still framed on my wall—and ran with it. There wasn’t the slightest doubt, resistance, nothing but surprise and delight.
     They were interesting people. I kept in touch with Lora off and on over the decades, through her conversion to Hari Krishna (which was on the horizon when I met her—she invited me to her mass wedding), stray recordings with Poly Styrene and on her own, and wrote liner notes for the Kill Rock Stars reissue of her work. I’ve seen Gina Birch of the Raincoats here and there, and wrote notes for a Raincoats live album. But the Gang of Four—at least Jon, Andy, and Hugo—I lost contact with Dave Allen after he left the band—became true friends. I trusted them and I think they trusted me. Last year, I encouraged Jon and Hugo to take part in the MoPop Pop Conference in Seattle—they brought the house down, with a fantastic tag-team stand up comedy routine on what it means for a band to break up (the theme of the conference was death) and also brought Dave Allen into town (he lives not far away) for the event, a DJ session at a local club (the Gang of 3), and we had a celebratory reunion dinner afterward.
     Andy’s approach to guitar—and to what a band could be—was unique. I read in the obituaries about his debt to Wilko Johnson and his influence on others but to me he was incomparable, and no other guitarists had the patience, the reserve, and the confidence to play in a way that, at its best, could seem to make no conventional rhythmic sense while at the same time communicating a complex and shifting argument about the dislocation of everyday life. Onstage, by his demeanor and physical presence, he could embody confusion, bravery, and life or death struggle all at once. And I love the way he just goes ahead and clears his throat in “Anthrax.”

In your pieces about paleoanthropology, you’ve made the points (I’m paraphrasing here) that every published finding is only tentative (e.g., “oldest” doesn’t mean first, it means only “oldest we’ve found so far”) and that new findings often don’t confirm existing theories, but overturn them (in the sense of “everything you know is wrong”).
     Given all of that, are there any recent books on paleoanthropology you would recommend? Or are all of them out of date before they’re published?
– Elliot Silverman

I haven’t kept up on books, mainly because when moving from a big to a small house nine years ago I removed most of my fascinatingly redundant library. But I do keep up with discoveries, often through news stories in the New York Times that alert me to scholarly articles in Nature, Science, and other journals, and they continue to open up the greater story, which is not that nobody knows anything, but that what one presumes to know must always be premised as quicksand.
     Dating is being constantly revised and challenged. It’s exact until it isn’t. As a foundation of early cultural research and human development Europe was researched far more extensively than other places, and didn’t have tropical decay to deal with, but this is now being remedied, to the point that the location of the first known representational art is shifting from Europe to Asia and Indonesia. That’s startling, but given the trend lines of discoveries and recently constructed histories, not a shock. What is a shock is the recent research into the dispersal of Neandertal genes into African populations, where, as far as one knows, there were no Neandertals, suggests an upside down model of human history: that a group or groups of modern humans left Africa for Europe perhaps 200,000 years ago, interbred with Neandertals, and then disappeared from the fossil and cultural record in Europe until perhaps 40,000 years ago, which could mean that most moderns were genetically replaced by Neandertals, or exterminated, or driven out, but that in any case some if not all Neandertal-moderns generations returned to Africa, abandoning Europe, and interbred with modern Africans, thus dispersing Neandertal genes. That is the exact opposite of the theory, seemingly overwhelmingly documented, of Neandertal replacement or extermination following the 40,000 BP migration of modern Africans to Europe.
     The more the world knows, the more questions there are. And no absolute answers.

Further reading:
—>Lost and Found: Ice Age Art (1979)
—>Ice Age Dances for the Eighties (1980)

1. Do you have thoughts on Billie Eilish, esp. “Bad Guy”?
2. Asked before, but curious now in post-impeachment 2020 primary season: how do you respond to Glenn Greenwald’s relentless attack on Democrats (and his alliance with Tucker Carlson and Fox), in which he suggests that the DNC and Clintonites are the real “bad guys”?
– Derek Murphy

Given her bedroom legend, I have trouble putting that together with her overwhelmingly professional voice, in terms of tone, delivery, pacing, timbre.
     When I read Glenn Greenwald in Salon in the late 1990s-early 2000s, which was the last time I read him—and his dispatches were so long I more read in him than really read him—I recognized the signs of journalistic paranoia. Constant over-referencing of the tiniest facts or least central arguments, in the I know you won’t believe me but you have to look at these sources! Continual quoting at great length of This is really what they said! Constant self-quoting, as if to wrap the reader in the fact that It’s all one story! Reflexively assuming victim status when criticized: Who’s really behind this?
     Given his tag-team with Tucker Carlson and his involvement with Edward Snowden, I wouldn’t say he, like Snowden, is working with Russia. Nor would I say that journalists’ rights groups that may be backing or financing or legally defending Greenwald are Russian fronts. I don’t know enough. That doesn’t stop me wondering.

To paraphrase the Penthouse Forum, I never thought I’d be writing about Elvis’ sex life, but my interpretation of Peter Guralnick’s writing on Elvis’ relationships is that the circumstances of his access demanded that he carefully craft the language to be respectful of Priscilla. Charlie Rose’s interview with Ann-Margret likewise is revealing, but not for what she says.
– Adam R

You might be right. But there are some gamy details.

This really makes palpable Greil’s take. [see Jan 2020 RLR]
(I would add to Greil’s argument: the high piping organ sounds ascend vertically while the camera moves horizontally across Umberto’s Clam House restaurant. This is textbook Eisenstein filmmaking dynamics, the kind that we tend to take for granted in Scorsese films, because of his often subtle mastery, especially with sound/image juxtapositions.
– Jonah Ross

The vertical/horizontal analysis brings out so much.

Hi Greil,
I run an independent bookstore. The bookselling world has been rocked this month with the bizarre conflagration around Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt. I haven’t read the book, but many of my colleagues and a dozen bestselling authors raved about it pre-publication—before tripping over themselves to backpedal when the Latinx community spoke out against the book and Cummins’ 40-city tour. (Her publisher canceled the remainder of the tour last week). It pained me to watch this unfold each day, especially since so many stores like mine were deprived of the opportunity for not only sales but an honest and open discussion about the immigration crisis and the role of art and culture in addressing it.
     I think every side botched this. The publishers were hubristic and shortsighted to advertise it as “the next Grapes of Wrath.” The nastiest protesters and Twitter trolls were suppressing free speech when they threatened violence against bookstores.
     Once more at the heart of this is the question of cultural appropriation. In your critical opinion, where is the line between appropriation and… well, culture? Isn’t cultural appropriation what Elvis did? Clapton? Gershwin? Hell, Steinbeck himself wasn’t an Okie, but can you argue that he was wrong to write about it? I absolutely support the #OwnVoices movement and a greater readership for Latinx and indigenous authors, but are we headed toward a culture where writing “what you know” is all that’s allowed?
     When I lived in the Mississippi Delta, I used to hear a popular legend about cultural appropriation. The story goes that before the levees, during some cosmic 19th century flood, a double bass washed up with other debris on a sharecropper farm. Did it float up from New Orleans? Down from Memphis? The farmers, who sang field hollers all day, picked it up and started to pluck it and strum it and beat on it. They played it like a banjo or a diddley-bow. They slid knives and bottles over it. By the time W. C. Handy showed up thirty years later, they were playing The Blues. It’s a fantastic and ridiculous story, but so is any origin myth. Without cross-pollination like this, what’s left of culture?
– Steve I

The first thing I learned about the novel was from Larzer Ziff, a professor of English at Berkeley in the 1960s, when I was a student there. He said a novelist has to be able to imagine himself or herself into any situation: that of a different time, place, gender, age, political sympathies, aesthetic affinities, anything. I took that to heart and it’s always opened books for me, and closed others—I have little patience for transparently autobiographical fiction, which in most cases I take as a fraud. And this goes fully with a nearly absolutist commitment to free speech—when one speaks in public, under one’s own name.
     So while I haven’t read American Dirt and don’t intend to, I find calls for this book, or any others, or any painting, film, poem, or any other matter of argument and expression considered cultural theft, misappropriation, colonialist, imperialist, or whatever, to be withdrawn, banned, even destroyed—which has happened too many times to credit–to be absurd, fascist, repulsive, anti-democratic, disgusting, and stupid. People should write what they want. Others can criticize. Writers can respond (though usually they should keep their mouths shut).

The Oscars are upon us again. I’m not interested in them, but I am interested in knowing what you consider the best films of 2019 to have been.
– revelator60

As I’ve said before, this column, which I love for its conversation, isn’t for reviewing, dropping peremptory opinions, let alone making best-of lists. That said, the most surprising, unflinching, relentlessly sustained movie I saw in the vast field of Irish-Once-Upon-Ford-vs.-Bomb-White-Elephants was Uncut Gems.

[re: Ask Greil 2/3/20]
Dead Elvis mentions Elvis Presley having sex with black girls as a teenager, whereas most females he dated claim to not have had sex with Elvis and according to Priscilla she only had sexual intercourse with him once or twice. I read Dead Elvis shortly after it was published but recently read about this claim in several internet articles and wonder if you have this from first hand accounts. What exact info do you have on this?
– Manfred Bouma
I was told this by several people in Memphis who knew him as a teenager.

“Who knew him as a teenager”—not evidence, not proof, nada.
– Richard Cusick

That’s true. They didn’t name names, either. The idea that he was asexual or sex-phobic, though, is absurd. Read Peter Guralnick on his early tours.

I enjoyed your recent comments on NPR about the 40th anniversary of London Calling. At the time of its release, I was a teenager, and fortunate enough to know someone who bought the record. Played for me in a basement rec room, I was lost in it from the first side. A world of concepts and sounds just pouring through the windows. When it was over, all I could say was “play it again.” I’ve never been without a copy since. Like Blonde On Blonde, the White Album, Songs In The Key Of Life, or Sign O’ The Times, those double records just seemed like the extra push, the gamble for artists already ahead in the game who decided to leave more chips on the table for the next roll than they might otherwise. The risk being that if this thing is boring, it will be REALLY boring. You know, like Chicago VII. But that’s just preamble. What I wonder about is not London Calling, but ‘The Clash,’ as in the name itself and how great that is. The onomatopoeia of it is only the start of how well it clicks. That moniker always seemed dead-on perfect, not just for the band, but for their time of greatest glory. I can’t think of a better match. Maybe Flamin’ Groovies is its equal, or The Minutemen. But those perfectly sell the bands, not reflect the atmosphere of the age and the music. So, does the band make the name, or can it be the other way around? Is a catchy name just something that can kick start a band, but then they have to live up to it? Who made great music and had a crummy brand? Who was the opposite? Are there any names you find perfect, or hate, or just think wholly inappropriate? Who the hell thought Imagine Dragons was a good idea for anything but a Disney cartoon? I’ve never listened to them, but those guys seem to be working overtime. So, like they say… What’s in a name?
– Glenn Burris

I always thought the Vacant Lot was the all-time dumbest name—I made it up, or thought I did—and then there it was. But really—the Flamin (or Flamin’ or Flaming) Groovies is beyond bad: it’s embarrassing to say or even think. Cyril Jordan once told me that was the idea: contradiction. Horrible name, great music. Figure that out.

Dead Elvis mentions Elvis Presley having sex with black girls as a teenager, whereas most females he dated claim to not have had sex with Elvis and according to Priscilla she only had sexual intercourse with him once or twice. I read Dead Elvis shortly after it was published but recently read about this claim in several internet articles and wonder if you have this from first hand accounts. What exact info do you have on this?
– Manfred Bouma

I was told this by several people in Memphis who knew him as a teenager.

I was going to write back that Ishmael Reed is well-represented in audiobooks except for Mumbo Jumbo, but I checked Audible just to confirm and it came out on audio 11 days ago as I speak. (It was cheap, too.) Audiobooks go into the oddest corners. Barry N. Malzberg, a science fiction writer who hated the space program, was most prolific in the 1970s, and wrote as if his teeth hurt him all the time, has had just about all his novels out on audio, including a series of Don Pendleton-style murder porn books he wrote under a pseudonym and the plain old sex novels he published under his own. Hardboiled paperback originals are very well represented, including the entire Chester Himes Harlem Detectives series, a ton of Peter Rabe, Donald Westlake both as himself and Richard Stark, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, James M. Cain, Richard S. Prather, Dashiell Hammett’s novels but not his short stories, Chandler very spottily due to arcane rights issues I suppose, and one each of Joseph Latimer and Lionel White. The Sixth Directorate by Joseph Hone is out on audiobook. I have the damnedest time concentrating on reading these days, so I actually listen to more books than I read, but then I’ve always loved the spoken word, even when you had to get it on vinyl on Caedmon Records. I can particularly recommend Ron Butler reading V.S. Naipaul’s Trinidad stories, Anton Lesser reading Charles Dickens, and Jim Norton reading James Joyce and Flann O’Brien. The definition of audiobook tragedy is a writer you love falling into the hands of a reader you can’t stand.
– Robert Fiore

Only leads me to thinking of how good it would be to have Lincoln reading Grant’s Memoirs, or Walter Winchell reading Murder, Inc. or Rosa The Duchess of Duke Street Lewis reading Bleak House

You recently wondered if there’s an audiobook version of Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (there is, eight-and-a-half hours, read by David Sadzin), which made me wonder: have you ever heard the radio-play adaptation done by The ZBS Foundation in the early ’80s? I heard it a long time ago and remember thinking it was fun but, at two and half hours, way too short.
– Phil Dyess-Nugent

Didn’t know about it but I like the idea of the format even if this didn’t work.

Since you asked for suggestions after your Film Noir syllabus [see 10/14/19 entry], it has long seemed to me that though the postwar era gets the most attention, there’s a more genuine sense of desperation in the books and movies of the ’30s. However disillusioned it might have been, postwar Noir (I personally prefer the old-fashioned term hardboiled, but that battle was lost long ago) was coming from a people who had emerged from the war victorious, with their fortunes restored. The spirit of the 1930s was of being on a runaway wagon down a steep hill with an impenetrable fog below—you knew there was a crash coming but you didn’t know when. My beautiful theory was somewhat undermined by the ugly fact that several of the books I had particularly associated with the ’30s—The Deadly Percheron, Nightmare Alley and The Screaming Mimi (Fredric Brown)—were actually published after the war, the last one in 1949, which is really stretching it. The setup of Percheron seems to me the perfect encapsulation of the runaway wagon: In the twinkling of an eye the comfortable bourgeois professional is stripped of his life, livelihood and identity, and when he gets out of the madhouse he looks in the mirror and finds his face has been altered beyond recognition. Like the D-Day scenes in Saving Private Ryan, everything that comes after is an anticlimax. I don’t think it can be denied that the carny/spiritualist milieu of Nightmare Alley is of the ’30s. In The Screaming Mimi a drunk pulls himself together to pursue his dream woman in peril, only to have the pursuit send him right back to the bottle, an encapsulation of depression, recovery and depression again.
     So anyway the suggestion would be to compare the literature of Desperation before World War II and the literature of Disillusion that came after. One hinge between the eras might be Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake. This was about as directly as he ever portrayed the White Knight vs. the Black Night, and there seems to be a certain expectation that the war might ennoble the world. I’m thinking about the scene (I don’t if I’m remembering this correctly, and I want to maintain my forgetfulness for when I reread it) where the Bad Cop is going to do some mischief to Marlowe that requires there be two policemen in the car, and the Bad Cop’s henchman stops the car in the middle of the road and says “I’m not doing this anymore,” and walks away, and when the Bad Cop threatens him he says “I report for induction next week. You can’t do a thing to me.” Of course, you know how that worked out (see Screaming Mimi above), though that scene may well be a foreshadowing of Chandler’s decision to walk away from Hollywood. Another book from wartime you might consider is If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes, about a defense worker who suddenly finds himself incapable of practicing the groveling survival tactics the white world requires of him, and the terrible consequences that ensue.
     While the cynical view of the Nuremberg Trials is that it was a matter of the victors judging the vanquished, in reality there was a Nuremberg process that took place in popular entertainment and the culture at large, and this is the most interesting aspect of postwar Noir. If accurately viewed the Civil Rights Era was entire 20th century, and the demarcation is not pre- and post-Civil Rights but Civil Rights pre- and post-Nuremberg. (My admittedly glib way of saying this is that it took Hitler to give racism a bad name in this country, and you have to wonder if this is a spell that could wear off.) To me the essence of post-Nuremberg Noir isn’t any thriller, but in the westerns directed in the ’50s by Anthony Mann (an observation I realize is not original with me). The thesis of an Anthony Mann western is that the west was won by psychopaths, and the protagonist is an erstwhile idealist who now just wants to kill somebody. I will say of the classic noir In a Lonely Place is the most un-Hollywood movie ever made in the studio system. The idea that a person might be so incurably violent that he’s too dangerous to associate with even if he didn’t kill anyone this time is about as far away from the American therapeutic ideal as you can get.
– Robert Fiore

If the overwhelming engine of film noir is the presence of the returning veteran—filled with a sense of right and wrong, shocked to find that after helping to wipe the fascism from the face of the earth that it might be alive and well in the USA, damaged, a grenade with the pin pulled—there’s also an attempt to fight off the ’30s, to affirm that this is a new world, less black and white than gray, with its own terrors, its own abilities, its own knowledge. There doesn’t seem to be a Great War hangover in ’30s fiction and film, and I don’t think there really is in the late ’40s and ’50s. The War and the end of the Depression and the death of FDR truly drew a line, as if the past was cut off and jettisoned.
     That said, the thirties could almost be the subject of the purest of all film noir pictures, Detour. The Depression is the weather in this movie. It hangs over the mood, the tone, the gestures, the way the dialogue is spoken: the expectation of defeat, the barely hidden belief that that’s all these people deserve.

I don’t know if you have witnessed the horror that is the Jay Sekulow Band, featuring one of Trump’s lawyers AND the former singers for Kansas and Head East. It’s all on Youtube. But it has me thinking about “Heartland Rock” and politics. Of course, “Classic Rock” is for white men of a certain age, which lines up nicely with Trump’s base. But where does that leave Bob Seger’s best stuff, the John Mellencamp of Scarecrow, and what about Springsteen’s Nebraska? Do you think that Heartland Rock reads differently now, looking back from Trumplandia?
– Patrick Walsh

What I think is that all such attempts to round up people and corral them into actually non-existent enclosures is anti-intellectual, anti-music, and an insult to whoever we might pretend to be talking about. Classic Rock is just a marketing tool. Heartland Rock is probably already a registered brand. It pains me that the second volume of Ed Ward’s superb projected-to-be-three-volume history of rock ‘n’ roll had to be sub-titled The Beatles, the Stones, and the Rise of Classic Rock. It’s just another way to count people up and dismiss them. The use of genres to discuss anything is the antithesis of criticism. It’s like when John Lennon was asked who had most inspired him. He said, “Chuck Berry.” The interviewer said, “Anyone contemporary?” John said, “Is he dead?”

Do you ever go audiobook fishing? That’s when you periodically do a search of your audiobook seller for books that haven’t come out on audio yet, in hopes that someone has come out with it. One book I’ve been fishlessly audiobook fishing for for years is Snowblind by Robert Sabbag, and the other day I got a bite. It came out at the end of last October. I bring this to your attention because (a) I first heard about it from your review and (b) you have referred to listening to audiobooks at least occasionally. [GM’s review of Snowblind.]
– Robert Fiore

Other than Henry Rollins’s reading of my The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs, I’ve actually listened to only one audiobook, back in the dark ages: Philip Roth’s The Human Stain on 14 cassettes as read by Arliss Howard (and Debra Winger). I made it my album of the year. I listened on vacation in the car—it was so compelling, often we kept driving past our destination because we weren’t able to break off listening. As of now my wife but especially two daughters are near constant audio readers.
     I’m amazed that forgotten titles are getting the kind of new life you describe. Robert Sabbag was one of the best modern detective story writers in Snowblind—that the hard boiled voice in the book has now been turned to the ear is wonderful. I wonder if there’s an audio book for Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo—that would be a challenge I’d love to hear.

I like trawling through old Pazz & Jop articles, looking for acclaimed albums that don’t get much attention anymore. I just get curious as to why that is and to see if their merits do remain even if they seem forgotten by later listeners. This week I came across Rickie Lee Jones’s “Pirates” which was #5 on the P&J poll. It just crept on to your ballot with the minimum of five points. Beyond that, I haven’t been able to find anything you’ve written on Rickie Lee Jones in general. Do you still remember this album or listen to any of her music? (FWIW I tried Pirates, and to me it sounds like the type of follow-up album someone would make with the confidence and freedom gained from an enormously successful debut, for reasons good and bad. The worst parts sound pretentious, but at its she sounds bold and free, empowered to try something new. When she didn’t have anything interesting to say, it fell flat, but when she did, it soared.)
– Matt

For me there was always something condescending in her music.

I certainly respect your disinclination to use this venue as a forum for reviewing songs you’ve never heard before, but a recent double-sided single by Head On (which a friend forwarded via BandCamp), should at least be brought to your attention. Both sides are available on Youtube.
– Scott Woods

I think the “GM” is a total masterpiece. Obviously one of the greatest records ever made. I can’t stop playing it. I’m not sure I will ever play anything else again.

Any comments on your experience of hearing the Beatles’ “Rain” when it was first issued in 1966 (flip side of “Paperback Writer”)? In my estimation, the greatest studio pop rock creation. In a funny way, that to which The Who aspired—insanely creative battle of vocals, bass, guitar and, most of all, drums in delirious abandon but also in a ridiculously engaging song structure. Thank heavens George Martin was there to enable the genius to actuate. I was three at the time, so oblivious. I cannot imagine what it was like to hear it in real time. Today, with the improvement of sound equipment, it is like a missive of pure artistic power from another galaxy. (And I am not even that big a Beatles fan.)
– Harry L. Clark

To me it was a kind of shock—when you were used to the Beatles leading, a step ahead in imagination and daring, here they were so clearly trying to catch up with the likes of the Byrds’s “Eight Miles High” and so much like it. It sounded like they didn’t know what to do with themselves, as if they’d lost their voice.

I studied the “Gone With The Wind: Seventeen” column, and was intrigued to see that it featured several paragraphs at the end, not shown in the edit which appeared in Ranters and Crowd Pleasers, aka In the Fascist Bathroom. Do you recall why you left those out for the book?
     “Nothing like this, one might write, could have happened in a small French village in 1508,” you wrote in one of those deleted lines. I won’t argue, but I’ll fall back, admittedly simply, on that exhortation Sly Stone threw out in Woodstock: Most of us need approval. No idea if he threw that line into every show in 1969, but it’s always stuck with me. I only wish I was one of the few who didn’t need approval. And “approval” might line up with “sanctioned by an agency of representation.”Of course, now I can’t think about Woodstock without thinking of Charlton Heston watching it in The Omega Man, from 1971—all alone mid-day in Los Angeles, the daylight hours his only refuge from mutant vampires. He makes time for the movie. And he sardonically reflects how the nameless hippie’s conditional tense lost its conditional. The worst-case scenario dropped.
– Andrew Hamlin

I left out the ending of the original Artforum version in Ranters and Crowd Pleasers because I thought it was obnoxious of me, if not completely fascist, to tell people what songs they should like and how they should feel.

Not only is Pete Townshend’s solo in the original version of “The Kids Are Alright,” but that section of the song is a pivotal moment in rock history, via the whole band. It sounds like the ending of a live song. (General chaos, guitar, bass, drums.) But then it turns on a dime back to clean pop perfection worthy of The Brill Building. Noise meets music. Noise harnesses music, music returns with the power of noise. (Or the afterlife of noise, which still lives in the listener as they hear the return to music, reinventing both.) This is the ground on which The Velvet Underground & Sonic Youth & so many other bands pitched their tents. Thoughts on the Pete Townshend-Lou Reed duets?
– Jonah Ross

About that solo—I discovered it only after I found a British copy of the first Who album. I’d known and loved the song on the American release—where the solo was cut. It was a revelation, a chilling thrill. I think Lindsey Buckingham’s solo in Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” is the only analogue—that cut up, abstract sense of what rock ‘n’ roll actually is. And then, in 1980, for Rolling Stone, when I asked Townshend why it had been omitted from the US album, he denied that the solo had ever existed. Later, I heard that a few days after our interview in Oakland, he told another interviewer, who asked about our conversation, that the person who interviewed him had not been me—that Rolling Stone had sent an imposter. “I know Greil Marcus,” he was supposed to have said. We had never met, and never have since, which is too bad, because I’d like to ask him again.

I know the entire catalogue of X. The album that I still appreciate most is an outsider: See How We Are (1987). What do you think about this LP?
– Mario Alexander Weber

It’s lovely, it’s heartbreaking—trying to hold on to that first glimpse of something new from ten years before, knowing it’s not there. Any album with “4th of July” and nothing else would still be forever.

Given the fact that Mother Jones reports and the Wall Street Journal reports that Trump assassinated Soleimani to distract from impeachment, should the cabinet, if they were not sycophants, vote to remove Trump from office for incompetence and violating the Constitution?
     This all seems so academic in a world gone mad a la Dr. Strangelove?
It’s become so much more depressing to think that Americans without much protest, would again send young men and women to their deaths, not to mention innocent Iranian civilians, for political gain, not that it hasn’t been done before, but this seems biblical and Revelation-sounding!
– SeanH

Assuming that what’s at issue is political calculation rather than mere pique (Trump getting nothing from killing the purported leader of the Islamic State—which I’d think is hardly certain) what transpired can hardly be called incompetent. Assuming it was based on an assessment, however arrived at, that an Iranian response would be minimal, if not mere show, which it was, then it was super competent. And the chips all fell Trump’s way: Iran shooting down a passenger plane wipes out any moral authority its government might have asserted, and puts the onus entirely on their action in the region, not Trump’s violation of international and US law. And to be honest, in terms of legal predicate, that is, any violations being completely ignored by everyone, this goes back to the Obama assassination of Bin Laden, with similar associated deaths of people in the vicinity.
     On the other hand, Trump could invite Joe Biden to the White House to apologize and then have him shot in the Rose Garden and his cabinet wouldn’t vote to remove him, and various other Republicans would argue that it was a matter of national security, since Democrats are by definition traitors, or that it was a legitimate if novel way around campaign finance laws, which the majority of the Supreme Court considers unconstitutional on their face—which is to say that in a political context the assassination of one’s opponents can be considered a proper exercise of free speech.

First of all, thank you for (unknowingly) adding so much to my musical re-awakening this year: Ten Songs (“Shake Some Action” has left me permanently shattered) and Like A Rolling Stone (apparently I need Bob Dylan now more than I did 50 years ago) were great and I look forward to getting to Mystery Train and others this year. This will be rambling but it’s been a crazy day, so here goes.
     I received 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die from my 18-year old nephew (an old music soul partial to the blues) for Christmas and decided to hit and make notes on the whole thing. Today was Queen, but more importantly, United Sacred Harp Musical Association. Tonight—by the sheerest, weirdest coincidence—I was catching up on Real Life Rock Top 10 for December and read the entry on Tony Conrad. Down the Wiki, Google, AllMusic rabbit hole—so far down I can’t comment on anything at this point. On top of all that, the Recordings’ “After That” selection is the Hilliard Ensemble and in looking through their catalog, I find that they have recorded several albums of Carlo Gesualdo’s music—he’s an ancestor of mine and that explains a lot.
     Can you recommend more directly relevant follow-ups to United Sacred Harp Musical Association? My rock, classical, and jazz directions are clear but American folk music is unknown territory for me.
     Again, I can’t even begin to thank you enough. Happy New Year!
– Vicki

Look for “Powerhouse for God: Sacred Speech, Chant and Song in an Appalachian Baptist Church,” an album released by University of North Carolina Press in 1982 as a soundtrack to the book of the same name by Jeff Todd Titon. You can find it on Spotify or for $8.99 as an mp3 on Amazon—sites have the original LP going to $300. It’s an extraordinarily alive, pulsing, thrilling account of climbing the ladder of belief. Especially “Altar Prayer.”

Where can I read an excerpt from Grail Marcus’s new book?
– hugh grissett

To my knowledge there is no new book by anyone of that name. I do have a new book coming out April 28, but so far no excepts have been published and none are scheduled. If that changes news will be on the site.

Bad sleep habits have lately been giving me a chance to revisit two books I read when they first came out and found, except in moments, somewhat flat: Jessica Hopper’s The First Collection Of Criticism By A Living Female Rock Critic and Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. This time around they’re maybe a little better than I remember, but ultimately still leaden with a feeling of having been built from the outside in—long on external fact and informed recollection and short on individualized burn. The eccentric and personal too often and too quickly get funneled into The Truth.
     At some point I started thinking about how both Hopper and Abdurraqib seem to have come up through the DIY/emo scene, with its devoted communities and dedicated outlets, and I began questioning whether the rounded, defused air I get from both books might be due to their security with an audience. Not saying every piece was written for emo kids, only that every piece feels like it was written with the absolute knowledge that it would be read. Very little in either book feels precarious, like something I might have missed had things gone a little differently. There’s an inevitability, a satisfaction, and with those, a limit. I guess it boils down to what feels like a lack of tension.
     I don’t know whether any of my late-night conjecture is right, and I’m not asking you to defend either book (I know you’ve written favorably about both of them), but it got me wondering how much you think about tension in your own writing, and where you might locate it. As an outside observer who’s read a fair amount of your work, I see the tension therein mostly between a need for answers and a fundamental disbelief that answers matter in any real way. When you deploy scholarship, it feels less like an end in and of itself and more like a way to burn off what is known in order to more quickly get to the unknown. The flat stuff starts with a question and ends with the facts, which only sounds good. Yours does the opposite, and ends up being far more energizing. It is the critic’s disbelief as well as the lover’s: “Yeah, okay, got it, but still—how can it possibly be like this?” The similarly marvelous Dave Hickey does a version of this same thing.
     Is the tension/dissatisfaction in your work something you’re conscious of or think about at all? Do you think it’s important?
– James Cavicchia

I’m not going to be maneuvered into criticizing honest colleagues, even if I weren’t friendly with both. I’ll just say I think for both their best books are their most recent: Jessica’s Night Moves and Hanif’s A Fortune for Your Disaster. Which is not to say their previous books aren’t signal contributions to the question of whether one’s response to music can or should be disentangled from one’s life.

You have always expressed your preference for the British configurations of the Beatles’ first four LPs, and I don’t know anyone who disagrees. (I’m sure you prefer the U.K. Help! too, since the Capitol version is half non-band movie music.)
     My question is: when and how were you exposed to these UK versions? I assumed that American record buyers came to know the early Beatles only through the Capitol albums. Was that true for you? Did you originally fall in love with the U.S. versions? More specifically, did your later discovery of the U.K. LPs rewrite or reshape the story of the early Beatles for you?
     Or—did you have access to the British LPs from the beginning?
– Randy

There was a record store in Berkeley that sometimes had the UK albums. Friends would sometimes bring them back. I got the UK Rubber Soul. I liked the US version better.
     What I recall most vividly was finding the Rolling Stones’ Aftermath (God, what an ominous title!) in London in June 1966 and bringing back half a dozen copies to give away—and that great, great album is much more what it is as it appeared in the U.K. than it was here. Even the lighter feel of the sleeve had more incandescent, contingent drama. I’ve never gotten the falling-away feel of how Mick sings “Escalation fears… Oh yes, we will find out” out of my head. It was 1966, and even running down Carnaby Street, at that moment the center of the universe, those fears were real and everywhere. To find them acknowledged, answered, and affirmed on a Rolling Stones album was a sign of a just and common cause. And then there was “Going Home.”

I recently saw the documentary What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael. As a high-school kid in the mid-70s I would go to the local library to read the Village Voice and Pauline Kael in the New Yorker. I liked her energy, style, and authority. I think the first time I disagreed with her was after I saw Clockwork Orange for the first time in the early 80’s and had the experience of a movie staying with me for days and then read her negative review from a decade earlier. Re-reading it now among other objections she didn’t like that he didn’t follow Burgess’s moral: “Alex the sadist is as mechanized a creature as Alex the good.” I think Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange gives some of that but questions it as well. Like Springsteen’s Johnny 99 said: “…it was more than all this that put that gun in my hand”. I would have loved to have heard a discussion between Lynch, Scorsese, and Kael on Kubrick’s movies. One nugget from her 1972 review is this beautifully accidental foreshadowing: “Stanley Kubrick has assumed the deformed, self-righteous perspective of a vicious young punk who says, ‘Everything’s rotten. Why shouldn’t I do what I want? They’re worse than I am.'” Anarchy in the UK indeed!
     I’ve heard Kael rarely saw a movie more than once. Based on what I got from the documentary I imagine the movies she did watch more than once were ones she liked. As far as you know, would she watch a movie again if she didn’t like it the first time? Would you?
– George Gawartin

That’s what she said. There’s no question she had a cinematic memory, able to hold and call up scenes, lines, shots that would escape people who had seen the movie in question a dozen times. It’s hard for me to imagine her not seeing a movie she loved again, or again and again, purely for pleasure—which for Pauline would include intellectual pleasure. On the other hand, Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson would talk about seeing a movie hundreds of times in the course of analyzing or teaching it (see the recent New York Review of Books piece on the new anthology, Manny Farber: Paintings and Writings), and I find it hard to imagine anyone with that much patience.
     My favorite movie is The Manchurian Candidate. I have every moment memorized, and yet whenever I see it I’m shocked all over again, and in a hundred different instances. Yet in nearly 60 years I’ve probably seen it no more than 20 times. So who knows? People are different.