* Ask Greil (current)


Ask Greil Archives: 2016; 2017; 2018; 2019


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5/25/20
You teach, don’t you?
     Your answer is not acceptable. [see response to Michael, 5/14/20]
– Richard

Yes, and I once gave a history department commencement address on the atrocities of substituting wish for fact called “Myth and Misquotation.” I’m not going to quote Whitman at you. But in my heart I don’t believe, video evidence to the contrary, that what I wrote didn’t happen.


5/25/20
Just a word about Cavettgate, since it keeps coming up here. I’ve watched the show and the substance is exactly as you describe it: two pompous blowhards debating art interrupted by the only true artist on the set. You just turned it into a play. It’s funnier and more dramatic than the original, sure, but it’s the difference between reading Inherit the Wind and reading transcripts of the Monkey Trial. Well, Mystery Train is better than Inherit the Wind, but you get my drift.
– CB


5/25/20
You said in your May 14 Ask Greil, “Both Levon and Robbie tell their stories and make their claims in their own books. You can decide whose account rings true and whose doesn’t.” Surely you’ve read both books and have a more informed opinion than most. Can you please tell us how you feel about Levon’s accusations of treachery on Robbie’s part?
– Jay

Why do you think it’s up to me (or anyone) to settle an ethical and personal dilemma that stretched over decades? I was friendly with Robbie and had only a couple of brief conversations with Levon. I know what unresolved bitterness can do to a relationship, especially when the grudge is held from only one side. I am biased. So you shouldn’t want to know what I think.


5/25/20
What was your opinion of Bruce Springsteen’s Western Stars CD? I just watched the HBO documentary on it.
– hugh

I had trouble playing it more than once.


5/25/20
You did not like Dylan’s Infidels. The question surrounding that record has always been “what if he delivered a record more true to the performance he played on Letterman with the Plugz?” [Watch “Jokerman” and “Don’t Start Me Talkin’“]
     This week, Daniel Romano partly answered that question by re-recording the whole record in that style.
     If you closed your eyes, and pretended this was the record Dylan released in 1983, would you feel the same way about it?
     (Let’s also pretend this would NOT negate the session outtake “Blind Willie McTell,” and keep that song “as is”).
– Howard

I think the question surrounding the record is the poor, one dimensional songs and the hectoring, whining way in which they’re delivered—altogether of a piece with the sermons Dylan had been giving at his shows in the previous years, except they were more musical and occasionally funny. I don’t think this album marks a break with his explicitly Christianist music at all. It’s the same stuff dressed up in secular clothes. Go to Wikipedia and you’ll see the Rolling Stone review, which was typical, quoted all over: return to form, best since Blood on the Tracks—the same verbiage Rolling Stone writers and others would trot out again and again for all the eighties albums, until finally the reviews contained apologies: This is the real comeback, not like the other one, maybe we sort of overstated that one, but trust me—
     The Letterman performance of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talkin’” came across because it’s a far better song than any Dylan had been releasing. There’s something there for someone to play, to sing, and Dylan sang it like a great shout of liberation, from himself. But the Infidels outtake “Julius and Ethel” is formally done in the same rushed, smash-and-grab Plugs manner, and it’s still hideous.
     As for “Blind Willie McTell,” the track left off the album is a big, over-orchestrated, over done, lumbering dead elephant of a recording. The version rescued for the first Bootleg Series set, just Dylan at the piano and Mark Knopfler on guitar, is self evidently a run-through, an attempt to find the song, not anything meant for an actual commercial album. That it exists is a miracle. Otherwise the songs are to blame, and the singing the bleat of someone trying to convince himself he means what he’s saying, that the music he’s making is worth anyone’s time.


5/25/20
Since without your writing I might never have heard his otherworldly music, how intriguing is it to learn of a newly-discovered, third photo of blues singer Robert Johnson? It will adorn the cover of his sister Annye Anderson’s upcoming book, Brother Robert: Growing Up with Robert Johnson.
     Unlike the previous two, this one almost looks like it was taken yesterday. His beauty is never more evident.
     Annye recalled it was taken at “a make-your-own-photo place on Beale Street, near Hernando … right next door to Pee Wee’s, the bar where Mr. Handy wrote his blues.”
     Long distance information, give me Memphis, Tennessee.
– Johnny Savage

I prefer the mythic, spooky cigarette photo. But the book is so interesting and compelling the new photo is just lagniappe.


5/25/20
Not really a question but just letting you know about another Robert Johnson photo that has come to light…
– Terry

And the book is fascinating.


5/25/20
Not a question, but an article from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette on the I.C. Houserockers 2nd album which Greil has expressed a fondness for.
     Enjoy.
– Joseph

Thanks. I’ve been in touch with Joe [Grushecky] about the reissue. The demos are interesting, especially “Hypnotized” but the album as released still soars. The bar songs and “Blondie” are unique.


5/25/20
Your take on Bob Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul” in the April 2020 Real Life Rock column did not disappoint, although that suggestion regarding a 1998 Vincent Salandria speech was actually just tongue-in-cheek.
     That said, while there’s no question Bob’s #1 hit makes plain his interest in decades of credible research on the events of November ’63, it’s just part of what gives his epic such resonance.
     I was somewhat struck by your not venturing into why Dylan recorded “Murder Most Foul,” and especially why he chose to share it out of the blue in the midst of a global pandemic.
     Or is it self-evident?
– Johnny Savage

I have no idea what his (or anyone’s) motive might be. I have read—or sort of read past—so much on this song that is essentially imaginary gossip without finding anything on the experience of listening to it that I wonder if the writers’ motive wasn’t to kill the song before it had a chance to to raise any question they couldn’t answer with the flick of a switch: in other words, by turning it off.


5/14/20
Any current thoughts on Little Richard you’d like to share? It feels like a giant tree has fallen without hardly being noticed.
– hugh grissett

His obituary was on the front page of the New York Times, which has since run two subsequent features. I wouldn’t call that not being noticed. There was a long piece in the New Yorker by the editor. Testimonials from Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and most importantly Jerry Lee Lewis.
     I remember sitting in on a TA section for a lecture class I was teaching at the New School in the early 2010s. Thirty or so students had broken into small groups, and I overheard one woman say, with great delight and authority, of the 19-20 year-olds around her, “Or course, we all love Richard, but don’t you think Otis…”—she didn’t even have to use full names for people to know what she was talking about. I thought, it’s generations after Little Richard ripped it up, tore a hole in history, or just made a bunch of hit singles in the fifties, and to these people he’s still lingua franca, part of the context of their lives. I think the tree fell in the forest and everybody heard it, and those who didn’t understand the sound said, “What’s that?” and someone put on “Ready Teddy.” That last verse, when the band cuts out, is so pure I can hardly stand it.


5/14/20
Greil, thank you for your thoughtful reply [05/13], though I must say I find it a bit sad. We live in a time where facts and truth no longer matter. This is dangerous and the fact that a journalist and critic of your renown seems so cavalier is troubling and dare I say a bit Trumpian.
– Michael

There’s a difference, though. He has power and I don’t.


5/14/20
Further to the Deborah Chesler story, I’m wondering if you’ve ever encountered the “Spontaneous Lunacy” blog, which talks about “It’s Too Soon to Know” here.
     It’s a fascinating website—the author has some strongly-held, if debatable, opinions, such as that rock & roll began in September of 1947, not a month earlier or later—but he also exhibits a lot of scholarship and some interesting insights into the sociology of the post-war black community and its effect on popular music.
– Elliot Silverman

I appreciate your sending these essays, but for me they fall into the Life’s Too Short category—the writing is unreadably ornamented and flat, so I never got to the arguments.


5/14/20
I’d like to ask you about hip-hop. You wrote about rap early (“That’s the Joint” and “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel”). Over the years you’ve had things to say about artists pro (Geto Boys, Eminem) and con (Public Enemy). In “Ask Greil” you’ve praised albums by Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar. But you don’t write about hip-hop often and it rarely appears in your column. Do you listen to it much? Or is it like jazz where it doesn’t really speak to you but the occasional record catches your ear? And do you still like “That’s the Joint “?
– CB

I still like “That’s the Joint.” I don’t know what has kept me away. Part of it has been revulsion at the fetishization of wealth, drug addiction, and sexual abuse, both in songs and the street-cred buzz that sells music as much as the music does. There’s also hatred of oversouling in what for some reason is called R&B—which is not hip hop but sometimes bleeds over. There’s just not finding that much in Usher or Drake or having to take them for granted as world-historical figures whose memory will endure forever. I think Kanye West is brilliant in so many ways but when it comes to his albums it’s just too much work to keep up with the all the different versions and revisions—which is worth it, so I end up feeling derelict.


5/14/20
I’ve recently finished Paul Gorman’s exhaustive, enthralling purview of The Life and Times of Malcolm McLaren—firstly, have you read the text, and if so, what are your overall thoughts?
     To me, Gorman’s account reads in many ways as an attempt to demystify the entrenched characterization of McLaren as scheming svengali; instead, emphasizing his seemingly unparalleled prescience in regards to anticipating cultural trends (as well as willingness to take ‘artistic risks’), and skill in juxtaposing the ‘new and old’ to create works irreducible to both. I was particularly struck by the range of his engagements across music and fashion: from the sexually subversive punk couture he designed alongside Vivienne Westwood, to his central role in the interventionist punk ploys with the Pistols; to his influence in popularizing hip-hop culture—and world music more broadly—with Duck Rock, and his later dalliances with everything from opera, to voguing, chip-tune, and pornography. As I see it, these—frequently pioneering—engagements across cultural and ethnic bounds suggest his singularity within the realm of pop culture.
     In comparison to his contemporaries however, his career and influence as an artist (in his own right) still seems somewhat under-acknowledged in critical circles; Gorman largely puts this down to his role of ‘embezzler’ (of course, a caricature he himself played upon in the ‘swindle,’ and indeed in succeeding endeavours), which haunted his post-Pistols career—the media, at least in the UK, gratuitously framed him as a relentless exploiter of those around him in the dogged pursuit of realizing his ‘cash from chaos’ credo.
Presently, I’m re-reading your seminal Lipstick Traces, and realize you address to some extent his legacy as ‘manager’ (or ‘mismanager’, as he put it) of the Pistols. However, at this point in time—almost exactly a decade after his untimely passing—I’m curious as to your abiding thoughts of McLaren and his legacy in the present? In turn, would you consider him, as Paul Morley has boldly suggested, as the heir to Warhol?
     Admittedly, in our contemporary climate, several of his pursuits haven’t aged too well (to put it mildly); in particular, the blatantly provocative designs of SEX and Seditionaries (the ‘Cambridge Rapist’ and ’Smoking Boy’ designs) come to mind, as well as his attempts to market Bow Wow Wow as a vehicle of teenage/under-age sexual fantasy, as epitomized in the infamous Manet homage. Finally, what are your thoughts on the possibility of reconciling these not unproblematic aspects of his creative output with the seemingly apparent significance of his oeuvre?
Many thanks.
James F. Anderson

I only heard of the book yesterday so I haven’t seen it, let alone read it.
     Malcolm was a hero of mine, because I knew how much poorer my life would have been if he hadn’t done what he did, whatever that was. I first met him in 1988, at a panel at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, and we fell into talking like old friends. He wore very glamorous clothes and was with Lauren Hutton. I saw him a number of times over the years. I remember particularly one night in New York, at a small dinner party held for him to show a stunning film made up of distortions of French cinema and TV advertisements going back to the 19th century, the way Lou Reed greeted him. Lou was always cold to me, which seemed to me his basic way of dealing with people; toward Malcolm he overflowed with affection and respect. He died much too young. I’ve been lucky to have maintained a friendship with Young Kim, who was with him for a long time. He had so much more to do.


5/14/20
What are your opinions on Bob Dylan’s 3 latest song releases?
– hugh grissett

Thus is just the sort of thing I write my Real Life Rock Top 10 column in the Los Angeles Review of Books for. So I don’t want to shortstop what I might say there here. I do appreciate “Hello Mary Lou” in the new “False Prophet”—to see what Dylan had to say about Ricky Nelson in Chronicles, and then watch Prom Night II: Hello Mary Lou, even if the title is a tease to exploit the familiar: the Mary Lou song that plays is Ronnie Hawkins’s, not RN’s.


5/14/20
Do you think Levon Helm’s book This Wheel’s On Fire was embellished by the publishers to make his so-called feud with Robbie Robertson worse than it really was or do you think Levon had a legitimate gripe?
– David M Ahlers

On a tour promoting the book, in an interview in the San Francisco Chronicle, Levon said, when asked about the bitter portrayal of Robbie Robertson, that that was a phony controversy the publisher wanted to juice up sales. I’m not aware that Levon ever said anything similar at any other time. His resentment and disgust toward Robbie, to the point that near the end of his life he wouldn’t even mention the name “the Band,” was, to my incomplete knowledge, consistent and unbroken.
     Both Levon and Robbie tell their stories and make their claims in their own books. You can decide whose account rings true and whose doesn’t.


5/13/20
Greil, Mystery Train has been a constant in my life—read first when I was 20, shared with my daughters and still on my desk at 62.
     Have quoted the opening exchange between Little Richard and John Simon—“In the whole history of Art…”—more times than I can remember.
     When Little Richard died I decided to see if I could find that show and enjoy that moment. When I did I was sorely disappointed to find out that the exchange that you so vividly recounted really never happened. Though your opening was kinda sorta true to the moment your “verbatim” quotes as dramatic as they were did not happen. Am I missing something and if not why in the world did you make it up?
     I have been a journalist for 40 years and have held your work up as a gold standard. Your book and that opening has shaped how I look at art and popular culture and to find out that it was not true was a sad moment.
– Michael

We lived in a house where every room was open to every other. I was trying to finish written work for my Ph.D. orals, and my wife and her mother were watching Dick Cavett. I kept coming in to see what the odd tones of voice were, went back to my desk, back to the TV, finally sat down and watched it, but it was all in pieces. I scribbled a lot of notes. Then some friends who’d been fired from Rolling Stone and were trying to start a new magazine called Flash asked me for a piece for a dummy issue. I spent a week writing up the show—or making it up; I certainly didn’t think so, but there was no On Demand, no YouTube—and gave it to them. Flash never happened (though the dummy made news for its cover story: an interview with Groucho Marx where he called for the assassination of Richard Nixon), but I used the piece to open my first, long article for Creem in 1971, “Rock-a-Hula, Clarified.” When I began Mystery Train, I thought it still had more life in it, so I used it again.
     Over the years, as the Cavett shows, and everything else in the history of Western Civilization, has come online, people have said that what I described had errors, was wrong, though not that it never happened and was completely invented. I’ve never taken the easy steps to watch the thing myself. In part I don’t want to face my crimes. In part I really don’t care. I always did like the line in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but I was always of two minds about it: John Wayne shoots Lee Marvin, James Stewart gets the credit and goes on to a life of renown, Wayne become a forgotten drunk. The newspaper publisher always knew, but “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” There’s something nauseating about that, but something has always pulled me in that direction.


5/13/20
Just a quick note because I’m sure you’d want to set the record straight here. It was Charles O’Brien not Armond White who spoke to the emptiness of Graceland. (Armond had no problems with Graceland and has praised it relatively recently.) O’Brien’s No! to Simon, which was fair but just (to use his terms) was only the first taste of what was great in his 1989 piece, “At Ease in Azania.” It included evocations of the political resonance of music made by Aretha, the Stones and on Sounds of Soweto (not to be confused with Indestructible Beat of Soweto). O’Brien was ahead of every writer when it came to thinking through ’60s pop and politics. His way of grasping the moment of that moment has been assimilated into conventional wisdom but he got there first so…
     BTW, as you may recall, you were deeply responsive to Charlie’s piece back in 1989. (You nodded to it in the Voice and you felt Charlie again after 9/11 and when he wrote on No Direction Home a few years later.)
     It’s pretty easy to see how you mixed up Charlie and Armond. Armond also had a piece in the same obscure 1989 journal where you first read O’Brien’s piece. And Armond’s contrarian voice was fresh too. They both went on to write in the same journals—The City Sun and the First Of the Month and generally shared a comradely relationship for years, which I think you knew about vaguely.
     Armond went hard right around 2007-8 and then became a Trumpist. Couldn’t shake his hand now if I ran into him. O’Brien has been silent for a few years (though this editor keeps trying)…
     Here’s a link to an online post of Charlie’s piece on Graceland/pop politics [note: link might not work–ed.]. I’ll cut and paste the 2009 intro below, though it’s a little out of time now. You could feel O’Brien’s influence all over the commentary after Aretha’s death—I’m thinking just now of laudations of “Freedom!” in “Think”—though most writers didn’t know they were hearing with his ear…

Charles O’Brien’s “At Ease in Azania” was originally printed 20 years ago in an obscure (and now defunct) journal. It will be reprinted this fall in the next volume of First of the Year. O’Brien’s piece begins with Paul Simon’s Graceland but it rock and rolls back to the ’60s before returning to the Motherland to show how pop music may “exist in its time justly.”
     When Bongani Madondo—South Africa’s liveliest pop writer—heard we were thinking of reprinting it in First of the Year, he testified in favor:
     “I made 50 photocopies of O’Brien’s piece and distributed ‘em to this informal arts and politics journalism course/workshop I often run for young guns on the come in this field I toil in. And they all go bonkers about his analysis and knowledge of music. To read in a book form will be quite cool.”
     While “At Ease in Azania” got more play in South Africa than back in the USA, influential American music writers picked up on O’Brien’s insights. You can detect the essay’s effect in writing done over the last generation on bebop, Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke, and the Rolling Stones. But it’s past time for O’Brien’s piece—the first he ever published—to openly shape discourse about pop life and politics.

– Benj D.
[no response]


5/13/20
I have been searching for years for an essay you wrote celebrating the culture of America and early rock n roll and its novelty and its lack of seriousness as opposed to European pretentiousness—it’s not in Rock and Roll Will Stand, I came across it on a book in a library of essays on rock ‘n roll in the ’80s, was it from Creem days? I have searched the archive but still haven’t found it; could you add to the archive please thank you for all your writing it’s a constant delight. Yours,
john gibson

As that’s a theme I’ve been pursuing as long as I’ve been writing, I’d need more specifics to be able to pinpoint it. Not “Rock-a-hula Clarified”?


4/28/20
In your book The Dustbin Of History, “The Deborah Chessler Story” holds special fascination for me. If I’d ever had kids, I would’ve read it to them as a bedtime story. What started you writing it? Were you already aware of her role with the Orioles before you conducted the interviews, or did uncovering the story surprise you as much as reading it surprised me?
– Jim Cavender

Your comparing my piece to a bedtime story for kids is the best compliment it’s ever received. That piece came out better than I could have ever wished for: because of the role my mother’s mother played in my childhood, I’ve always been drawn to older Jewish women, whether I knew them (a grade school teacher and Holocaust refugee named Hannah Bergas) or not (Hannah Arendt), and Deborah Chessler was part of that. But for me it goes deeper. The first time I can remember hearing “It’s Too Soon to Know” was in the late ’60s, on the first volume of Atlantic Records’ four-LP reissue series The History of Rhythm & Blues—and I was instantly captivated by it, fascinated, wondering where it came from, what it was. It never lost its allure, though over the next several years I almost never heard or read about it. But it was always a mystery, one that it never occurred to me to try and solve or even look into—I liked the ethereal, out-of-the-ether feeling of it, and didn’t want to bring it down to earth. I had no memory of hearing it at the time, in 1948, when I was three, though we had a housekeeper who would have had it on the radio, and even at two years old different versions of the 1947 hit hit hit “Open the Door Richard” were burned into my brain like cancers.
     I knew bits and pieces about the Orioles and Deborah Chessler from I don’t know where—I wrote about the song and her partnership in Lipstick Traces, in 1989, and because I had no good reference to turn to got a lot of details wrong. It was always in the back of my mind. Then in 1992 Jim Dawson and Steve Propes published a book called What Was the First Rock ‘n’ Roll Record? and “It’s Too Soon to Know” was one of many they covered—and that chapter had quotes from an interview they’d done with Deborah Chessler. My reaction was stupid and thrilled: Wow! She’s alive? Maybe I could talk to her? I wrote Propes, who’d been so helpful to me years before with tapes of early Sly Stone recordings, and he gave me her phone number. I called, we talked, she was completely open and eager to tell her story. I talked it over with Anthony DeCurtis at Rolling Stone, who liked the idea, and then flew out to Miami and spent two days with Shirley Reingold and her husband Paul Reingold, who despite not meeting Shirley until after her Orioles years were over knew every detail of her life with them and was as enthusiastic as she was about passing them on. We talked and talked, about everything from racism and anti-semitism to Ella Fitzgerald to her horrible first husband and her beloved mother. She played me a heartbreaking tape-letter Sonny Til had sent her not long before he died. It was a thrill for me to call up Barry Levinson or Jerry Leiber to talk about “It’s Too Soon to Know,” and to find its echoes in so many places—if Going All the Way with Rose McGowan’s scene scored to “It’s Too Soon to Know” had been there, I would have written about that.
     Shirley mentioned that before we met she’d been in touch for some time with a Michael Horowitz, who wanted to write a screenplay about her life—somehow the project never came off, and I never looked into it. But after my piece was published, there was movie interest, and Winona Ryder’s production company took an option on it—because as Michael Horowitz’s daughter, Ryder knew all about the story. I had one phone meeting with the would-be producers, who asked me who I thought should play Deborah Chessler—because Ryder herself was obviously “too old,” even if she’d taken the option to play the part. I remember being appalled both by the idea and the person’s dismissive tone of voice: this would have been at the latest 1998 or so, when Ryder would have been in her late twenties. But of course that never happened. Shirley had her heart set on it, too.

Hear Greil discuss Deborah Chessler and the Orioles on NPR’s Fresh Air (March 4, 1996)


4/28/20
I am an NYC-based writer working on a biography of Wendy O. Williams from The Plasmatics, to be published by UK-based New Haven Publishing.
     What are your thoughts on Wendy and/or The Plasmatics? I can’t help but think there’s some correlation between Wendy’s destructive performances and the (situationist?) definition of nihilism you cited in Lipstick Traces containing the phrase “No more coats…no more home.”
– Robin Eisgrau

I don’t have thoughts, but you do, and you should run with them.


4/28/20
Regarding how long America will continue to exist: assuming the country doesn’t suddenly crumble into the sea, and nobody renames it (much as Trump might like to), how will we know when it’s ceased to be? Which begs the question, how do we know it already hasn’t?
– steve o’neill

Just as people in Hawaii and Greenwich Village have been saying “You’re too late, it’s all ruined now” forever (I’m sure that’s the first thing Hawaiians said to Captain Cook when he first came ashore), people have played around with the idea of the end of the country almost from the start: a thing made up can be unmade. Lincoln went all in in 1838 in a speech warning of a demagogue who, finding that ‘the game’ of nation-making had been ‘caught,’ would seek fame and glory not in building up but in ‘tearing down.’ In The Ghost Writer Philip Roth all too casually tosses off a reference to New England as the place “where America was born and long ago ceased to be” as if it’s just another as-everybody-knows. It could be already gone. It will be gone if there’s an election this year that Trump loses, declares fraudulent and void, refuses to leave office, the Supreme Court stands down, Trump calls on his supporters to surround the White House with automatic weapons as a 10,000-strong People’s Army, they do, and as with the Bundys the military backs off another Waco and everyone puts it behind themselves and moves on, because as Dr Brix put it yesterday it’s not helpful when people keep talking about something that happened last Thursday.
     People will tell you America ended when JFK was killed. It felt that way at the time, and that event as I and others unwillingly carry it still sends that message. Others will say it ended with the New Deal and that they are carrying on the fight to wipe that out and bring America back and that they’re only four years away from winning, which of course means for other people four years from the end.
     What makes you think I know? What do you think? Maybe it’s that as long as it’s worth arguing whether America exists—or if outside of a few speeches and half a dozen pieces of paper it ever did—it will.


4/28/20
She finally caught up to her voice.
– Jonah Ross
On Saturday Night Live last night with Brad Pitt introducing: it was stunning. She may never have gone up against a song as good as “Wish You Were Here,” and both the time and the delicacy she gave the tune whisked it away from Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett and made it timeless, which is to say it could have been written yesterday, about right now. And when people hear it twenty years from now it will sound like their time, too.
     I’ve always liked her. I like the way she pushes people’s buttons with that why-is-this-such-a-big-deal smile on her face. In 2013 I taught a seminar on criticism at the New School and for two weeks straight all anybody wanted to talk about was the “Wrecking Ball” video and whether it was art or crime, backwards or the truth, funny or insulting, good or evil, and whether it was sort of sexy or, you know, really sexy. I couldn’t get over how much fun she was having and how she put that across before anything else.

[note: video may be unavailable in some countries.]


4/28/20
Some more good Lucinda Williams material:
     “I always wanted to be able to write really good topical songs like ‘Masters of War’ or ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’,” she says, invoking two Bob Dylan protest classics. “And it’s hard. I find it much easier to write an unrequited love song than to write about what’s wrong with the system and how we’re getting screwed.”
     “I remember my dad saying that in the world of poetry, you don’t really get respect as a writer until you’re in your 60s at least. Age is irrelevant in that world,” Williams said. “My art is going to continue.”
– George

She’s incorrigible. Along with Lilian Hellman and Anne Lamott she long ago mastered the trick of self-deprecation as self-celebration along with her I-ain’t-no plain folks shtick but here the pomposity that’s always been her bedrock shows through: “My art will continue.” Pin another medal on her chest.
     Not to mention that “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is not a topical song.


4/24/20
If you had to guess, for how long do you think the United States of America will continue to exist?
– Nick

If the sky, which we look upon, should tumble and fall
And the mountains, should crumble to the sea…
… which may already be happening, both as everyday life and as government and national sense of self. The virus may leave the country in such a state of deprivation and confusion that it will accept anything. I don’t know that the country could survive another four years of a Trump presidency, a Republican senate, and a Republican-majority Supreme Court—which after four more years of Trump and a Republican senate might be 9-0 for Trumpism—and the Supreme Court will, by ignoring all voting rights or voter suppression questions, to the point of Klan-style violence if that’s what it takes—what William F. Buckley called for when it looked as if southern blacks might get the right to vote—help make this happen.
     The crucial thing to remember is that the contemporary Republican party is not a democratic party: it has no respect for democratic values, laws, or institutions. It favors either a punitive, exclusionary authoritarian government centered on a president ruling by decree, or a government so weak that any true government would be by corporations, which would lease or own national institutions from the VA to the Post Office to the Defense Department. And there is a solid 42% floor of the American electorate committed to the same thing—at least as long as it’s Trump selling it. As I’ve said before, I think it’s dubious that at any time in our history more than 65% of the country has been made up of people committed to democracy—at any time, a substantial part of the country wants and has always wanted a ruler, someone to relieve the citizen of his or her burden of choice.


4/24/20
Writing for National Review, Armond White really has become Dylan’s John Bircher, finding evidence of communist infiltration in the unlikeliest of places (my favourite is his assertion that the decision to change the name of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film to Best International Film “obliges Academy voters to march to the faint melody of the Communist Party anthem ‘The Internationale'”). White finds more pernicious examples of the red menace in popular music, particularly that produced by progressive “Millennials” (his preferred slur), but also in the “childish griping” and “leftist jingoism” of Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young.
     Apparently he sees some rays of hope, though. In an extremely odd recent article on the Rolling Stones’ performance of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” on the One World: Together at Home fundraiser, White claims that “Jagger managed to get primetime recognition alongside Lady Gaga, Beyonce, and other Millennial acts on the progressive bandwagon while also shouting out to President Trump,” who uses the song at his campaign rallies. Trump, White goes on, let the song “speak the basic wisdom of an electorate that had moved past the false claims of political partisanship and beheld a fresh candidate whose perspective answered their frustrations… His shrewd choice of that Rolling Stones theme discredited rock-star tantrums and also forced Jagger to realize the song’s enormous cultural application.”
     Watching the One World version of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, I don’t see any sign of relinquishment or reclamation of the song or even, as White has it, “straddling the fence as Jagger always has”; just a lousy performance of a great song. What do you make of all this?
– steve o’neill

It’s hard to make your way through an argument by an always acerbic critic (White on Paul Simon’s Graceland, and how he had the right to say anything about South Africa except what he did say: “Nothing”), who as a cultist has maintained his intolerance and flair but can no longer think—every question has already been answered. White’s Trump is the TGE of Trump-speak—that acronym standing for what in the fall of 2016 seemed like a particularly insane Twitter screed for what the writer named Trump God Emperor, and is now taken seriously. He’s a King Midas in all realms, from money to ideas, who can do no wrong, who turns everything he touches into gold, and who takes ownership of anything simply by associating himself with it (his business practice: when refusing to pay contractors for work they’d done, he’d tell them that merely being able to say they had done work for him would be worth far more than any mere fee). In this case, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”—and this is a truly invulnerable argument: you can’t really argue against it because it makes no sense—can’t be “re-appropriated” because Trump has definitively “defined it.” And by choosing the song for the One World show—White is right in comparing it to “We Are the World,” but also wrong because, as a cultist, he can’t make distinctions: while “We Are the World” was at bottom colonialist, redefining African famine from something that killed people to something that made rich people feel bad, One World makes the illusionary but not absurd claim that “We’re all in it together,” and while musically “We Are the World” was a horror in which everyone sounded like a self-parody, in One World there were a slew of real highlights, from health care workers dancing to the Roots’ “Safety Dance” to Lizzo’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” to the Triple Keith Urban version of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love”—Jagger somehow blows a Bronx cheer to the whole project by landing on what is now a Trump song to throw in their faces. In other words, because Trump played and still plays “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” at his rallies, he is now the author of the song, and the Rolling Stones can’t play it without not merely referring to him but endorsing him (sure, they objected, but it wasn’t serious, just a matter of “playing both sides of the fence”—really, when you accuse someone of a moral crime, not only supporting Trump but secretly endorsing him, you ought to offer something to chew on, not just your own air).
     You could as easily—far more easily—read the use of the number as (1) a big deal epic of a song that can remake any time in its own images, or, if you want to get secretive about it, (2) a message to One World, those who were taking part and those who were watching: “You might find, you get what you need.”
     Which brings up the actual performance, which was weird beyond weird. Keith Richards, looking almost unrecognizably bald and fat, holding his guitar as if he had no idea what it was, Charlie Watts playing invisible drums like a catatonic space alien, an invisible man or woman playing organ, and Ron Wood mugging through the whole song as if he were Johnny Thunders, which made it a solo performance by Mick Jagger, which was ok.


4/24/20
This is a strange request but we are living strange times, aren’t we? I am a journalist who writes about flamenco in Spain. I want to ask you something for a friend: our story is long and full of music, I’m sure you will enjoy it, but I know you are a a busy man.
     Could you tell me which record you listened to over and over again when you were 54 years old? Which song overwhelmed you in a way you didn’t expect? Why? It’s a personal question both ways: I want to give your answer to my friend who I can’t see on his 54th birthday due to confinement. He loves your job, me too.
     Please, excuse if this bothers you and above all, excuse for this rusty English.
– Silvia Cruz

I was 54 in 1999. I was caught up by Trailer Bride’s Whine de Lune, Macy Gray’s On How Life Is, Bryan Ferry’s As Time Goes By—which, when I first heard it, sounded like nothing but after overhearing it in a restaurant in London felt like the truest sound he’d ever make—Alison Krauss’s Forget About It, and a Fleetwood Mac bootleg called Shrine ’69, a live show in Los Angeles. But I played the Mekons’ Journey to the End of the Night and Warren Zevon’s Life’ll Kill Ya over and over and over, and Snakefarm’s Songs from My Funeral more than that.


4/24/20
At the risk of belaboring the point—How can you let Xi Jinping off the hook as the moral progenitor? After all LBJ, Bush had a lot more checks and balances to deal with—& even if I consider the elections of Bush & Trump to be fraudulent, there are very good reasons to suspect that the installation of Xi Jinping was monumentally less democratic…
     And so is it right to violate the first and last commandment of “the sociological sublime” and judge a dictatorship by the standards of idealized Democracy—as we should judge America by? I say yes—because the world is too “virally” (literally) connected not to. Your right to smoke ends when you blow it into my face—as John Stuart Mill might describe the issue, as the analogy for the existence of these wet market/live animal market breeding grounds.
     And who allows the existence of these wet markets/live animal markets to continue?
     As one of the greatest exponents since Whitman of the penetration of Democracy into all areas of Life (especially music & thought), I would hope that you see Xi Jinping as the moral—that is to say immoral—progenitor of what we are undergoing now.
– Paul M

I don’t hold myself up as a world-historical judge, and can’t be held to it. I think of a comic strip from around 1980, a “Whatever happened to” about various punk figures, and the panel for Johnny Rotten: “Today: paints in isolation. ‘It all went horribly wrong,’ he says. ‘I used up all my hate.'” Like almost anyone, I only have so much outrage, disgust, anger, and hate, and without having made any kind of decision about it, it’s sparked by what’s close to home, and that’s where I direct it. Tiananmen Square cut me to the heart, but like a lynching in the north in the 20th century, in China it never happened, and for me that door closed.


4/24/20
The May 1971 Van Morrison live recording at Pacific High Recording Studio is breathtaking. He takes Friday’s Child, an OK Them-era song, and makes it monumental. Have you ever written about this tape?
– Harry Clark

It was also an LP bootleg—I still have two copies—and before that at KSAN radio broadcast. I write about it all through my book When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison. “Caledonia Soul Music” and “Just Like a Woman” are mountains, but you’re right “Friday’s Child”—for extremes, momentum, a charge over a cliff when he reaches the choruses—is the one. Even if it does feature the worst saxophone solo in history, which at the time I didn’t realize was probably by Van himself.


4/17/20
Those “the meaning behind…” explications that songwriters sometimes provide don’t usually affect how I hear a song, but John Prine’s comments on “The Great Compromise” threw me for a loop: “…America was this girl you used to take to the drive-in movies. And then when you went to get some popcorn, she turned around and screwed some guy in a foreign sports car. I really love America. I just don’t know how to get there anymore.”
     Do you still know how to get there? Is it worth the trip?
– steve o’neill

I agree with you on not listening to people tell you what they’re doing, just like D. H. Lawrence does. That explanation trivializes the song and is much too poetically wistful. What I always liked about the song was the weariness and self-amusement—the way he says he knows the joke’s on him—in Prine’s voice when he sang “I was a victim… of the Great Compromise,” as if it’s inevitable for an American to find one’s private life read back as the whole history of the country, and vice versa. How to get there? Listen to Jelly Roll Morton’s “Mamie’s Blues,” watch The Searchers, read Democracy in America.


4/17/20
I’m just finishing up the latest season of Babylon Berlin. The depiction of the German film industry led me to finally start reading my copy of Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler (which, of course, is leading me to fill in gaps in my early German film viewing; thanks, YouTube). But the show also makes me realize I don’t know enough about German history between the wars. I’ve read Friedrich’s Before the Deluge, but can you recommend any other books on the period, particularly the cultural side?
     I also need to get back to Phillip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther books. I’ve only read the original trilogy. I didn’t realize just how many more there are in the series until reading your comments. Have you read any of the Babylon Berlin books? Do they measure up to Kerr’s or the TV series?
     p.s. Does the image of the glasses in Die Strasse remind you of the TJ Eckleburg sign in The Great Gatsby? Was that movie shown in the US at the time? Wonder if Fitzgerald saw it.
– Mark Sullivan

I’m not nearly as well read on this period as I ought to be, aside from rise-of-the-Nazis narratives in Hitler books, or the likes of Lucy Dawidowicz’s The War Against the Jews, and Richard Huelsenbeck’s Berlin dada publications. The book I’ve found most suggestive is Klaus Theweleit’s 1987 Male Fantasies, Vol. 1: Women, Floods, Bodies, History—where fascism is rooted in a fear and hatred of women and the feminine in men. Reading it is explosive.
     Bernie Gunther really ought to be at least a shadow character in Babylon Berlin, lurking around the edges, slipping notes to Gereon Rath. Once he got past the original Berlin noir series, Philip Kerr began to follow Gunther’s story into the fifties and after, but with a double time frame, one narrative in the past connecting to another in the novel’s present (after the war in Argentina, in Cuba, in the south of France)—in The Quiet Flame, Gunther, wanted for war crimes, is in Buenos Aires in 1950, but the story connects back to a murder investigation in Berlin in 1932. The last two books—with the final one posthumous—are terribly disappointing, but overall Kerr was able to sustain the character far longer than anyone, probably including Kerr, could have imagined. One about a lost love, If the Dead Rise Not, is wrenchingly painful—no, you almost cry out at the end, it can’t end this way!


4/17/20
I’ve just completed L.A. Quartet by James Ellroy. As a longtime reader of Hammet, Cain, Chandler and Macdonald I find Ellroy hysterical and bracing and totally compelling, making everyone else seem faintly quaint.
     Chandler said Hammett took crime away from the amateurs and gave it back to the pros who actually did it but Ellroy really gives you the visceral feel for the total corruption of the entire social structure. Your thoughts?
– Toby Cogswell

“Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes,” Raymond Chandler wrote in The Simple Art of Murder, as opposed to the British country house puzzle mystery that made him faintly sick. You could go too far in the other direction: “Murder,” he also wrote, “which is a frustration of the individual and hence a frustration of the race, may have and in fact has, a good deal of sociological implication. But it has been going on too long for it to be news. If the mystery novel is at all realistic (which it very seldom is) it is written in a certain spirit of detachment; otherwise nobody but a psychopath would want to write it or read it.”
     The James Ellroy novels that drew me to him went right up to this line, if not a little past it, especially the mid-1980s novels Blood on the Moon, Because the Night, and Suicide Hill. They were shorter than the big LA history novels and focused on cops and fetishistic serial killers; once you started you could keep reading just to see if Ellroy could go farther. The id seemed to be running wild and the writer was like a cop, chasing it down, locking it up, finding out it had escaped, chasing after it again. That was the Ellroy I wrote about in California magazine when what little commentary Ellroy got was in half-paragraph summaries in current mystery wrap up columns. I met him about this time, at a very low-rent bookstore reading, and he mentioned he’d just signed a three-book million dollar contract with Knopf, and I thought, “Uh-oh”—that meant the books would have to be longer (long books sell much better than short books), be more self-consciously important, and Say Something, all of which they did. The first, his Black Dahlia book, was horribly contrived and unconvincing—here’s a real life LA murder far more gruesome than anything Ellroy had come up with in his own gruesome books and it came off lifeless and about as contrived as the mysteries Chandler was writing against. L.A. Confidential was a strong book but the movie was better, and after that the books for me lost their shape and I stopped reading.
     Part of what seemed contrived was the oblivion of absolute corruption posited as the basis for the fiction—a version of Chandler’s “just to provide a corpse,” the corpse in this case being modern life as such. While it’s true that in Chandler there’s often a white knight—a DA, or a cop, who remembers why he got into the game in the first place and can still live up to himself—for a believable account of the “total corruption of the social structure,” nothing has ever touched Hammett’s 1929 Red Harvest, which means not only a reaping of blood but the elimination of leftists in a mining town—a place named Personville, which everybody calls Poisonville, which came out of Hammett’s work as a union busting Pinkerton agent in Butte, Montana, and helped turn him into a Communist.


4/17/20
On the subject of the fate of book literacy, my sneaking suspicion is that humanity has perfected hieroglyphics and is in the process of reverting to them. The important thing I believe is not to be intimidated by numbers. You must keep in mind that with a population that couldn’t have exceeded 350,000 classic Athens created a civilization that became a cheat book for every civilization to follow. Even a reality show needs someone to write the continuity. An optimistic possibility that if the book-learned do indeed have an influence beyond their numbers, they will come to see themselves as an interest group and cheat like bastards to have the world turn their way. An interesting factor here is the uncanny creative impotence of conservative-minded people, which had a chapter in The New Literary History of America, I believe. My potted theory on that is that modern conservativism has severed itself from its aristocratic roots.
     My less optimistic theory is that in the oligarchy of the rich Trump is laying the foundation for (I write this as he is about to fire seven Inspector Generals at once and freeze all Freedom of Information Act requests), the book-learned will become the equivalent of a Court Jew in an Isaac Bashevis Singer story. This oligarchy I imagine to be something like Samurai Movie Japan, where each individual must align himself with a corporate feudal lord. Judging by my devices I expect that my Daimyo will be Amazon.
– Robert Fiore

I’ve never understood conservative ideas as ideas. There’s only so much you can do with a philosophy that combines I get to keep everything I can get my hands on with Ed McMahon You May Already Be a Millionaire wrapped in God.

4/7/20
What are your feelings on the numbers [below] that suggest this country has completely stopped reading? I think this, more than anything else, is the most salient difference between generations today. And without reading, you can’t really have the capacity for critical thinking. As one of my literary heroes (I bugged you right and left until you sat with me at the Cafe Med on Telegraph to talk about Lipstick Traces, which you did; a great moment in my life), this must resonate with you very deeply. Please tell me your thoughts.

A survey by the Jenkins Group, an independent publishing services firm, has shown that millions of Americans never read another book after leaving school.
–33 percent of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
–42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college.
–80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.
–70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.
–57 percent of new books are not read to completion.

– Jeff Larsen
It’s my sense that these numbers wouldn’t have been much different since TV became ubiquitous in the early or mid- fifties, if not long before. It’s also true that trash fiction, self-help, diet, and conspiracy-minded non-fiction (and where does ‘Dianetics’ go?) far outsell literary fiction or seriously written non-fiction, and that’s been true since at least the 1830s. And do these surveys include the likes of audio books, Kindle, and reading books on phones, practices that may have increased book readership? I’m suspicious of the argument that changes in technology alter behavior in essential as opposed to habitual ways, or that the American character has fundamentally changed since the Jackson era. Racism has not increased because of Trump, it’s been legitimized and empowered. As I’ve said here before, I don’t think more than 65% of the country, ever, has respected democracy or the sentiments and arguments of the Declaration of Independence, as opposed to preferring no government, which since the late 19th century meant or would mean corporate government, or a punitive autocracy. Critical thinking will always be a minority tendency.
     I’d love to be wrong.


4/7/20
I was very interested to read your recent thoughts on the current Covid-19 crisis. But in response to your claim that the crisis “does not have the moral dimension” of for instance the Vietnam war—No moral dimension to China claiming that the virus is not communicable person to person? No moral dimension to China “disappearing” or silencing doctors who immediately sought to alert the world to the virus’ deadliness? No moral dimension to China lying about numbers? No moral dimension to the president of WHO parroting the Chinese line for far too long (and who still may be)?…
     Trump talks like an ignorant, dogmatic drunk on a bar stool, and it’s beyond disgraceful that he’s the President of the United States—and the contortionists who make excuses for his every belch are deeply, intellectually compromised. And America has done terrible things in Vietnam, Iraq and many other places—but that shouldn’t let others off the hook. In this case, China.
– Paul M

I knew that was going to sound crass if not stupid. Of course there are moral dimensions to words spoken and acts committed. I only meant there was not a moral progenitor to the virus (leaving out the semi-official Chinese claim that it was all cooked up in a US government lab, just as AIDS was supposed to have been invented by the CIA). Unlike Vietnam, Bush’s Iraq war, or Trump’s transformation of the presidency into the rule of a second rate mob boss.


4/7/20
Unpopular opinion: I thought “Murder Most Foul” was shockingly bad. Dylan has nothing of interest, nothing that isn’t conventional to say about the Kennedy assassination and its context. There’s something shocking about an artist who had resisted being incorporated into the standard narrative of the ’60s now embracing nostalgia and “loss of innocence” tropes.
     “Murder Most Foul” doesn’t even feel like the work of someone who lived through the ’60s, someone like the Dylan who said he sympathized with Oswald, a sentiment that at least approached the assassination from a different perspective. The song feels like the work of someone who watched a few documentaries and sawed off some lines by the yard before he got bored and name-checked the artists on his playlist. Even when Dylan hints at conspiracy theories behind the murder, he’s dutifully limning the conventional picture that has formed over the decades, almost providing a comforting overview. If there was an official position of “Musical Poet Laureate,” this is the dreary product I’d expect, a commemorative deadening of history.
     Am I being too harsh? Is there something I’ve missed?
– revelator60

It sounded that way to me at first. Then I played it for an hour with a friend and it began to sound like history as wind, and the emotional complexities of the constructed situation—who is speaking, who or what is being addressed—began to change the song, and it’s still changing. Let’s just say apropos of the hundreds if not thousands of pieces already published on the performance, rushing into print after decoding it, as opposed to letting it play, is a sign the writers are most of all listening to the sound of their own names.


4/2/20
You’ve seen a lot. At a societal level—meaning not something personal, like the death of a parent—is this the worst thing you’ve ever experienced? I’m 58, and it’s not even close.
– alan vint

It depends on what you or I mean by experienced. As a possible double trigger of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which almost killed my father at the age of one, and the Great Depression—as a rationally calculated threat to the future of the country and the world, to the future of my children and grandchildren and my wife and myself, to say nothing of our immediate future, i.e. dropping dead next week or next month, no, nothing is comparable.
     But in terms of dread—carrying around at any moment of the day or night the sense that life could not continue as it is and in some sense doesn’t deserve to—in my experience, this does not compare to the depths of American depravities in the Vietnam War or the the attempts to destroy American ideals by the Reagan, George W. Bush, or Trump administrations: for Reagan, I believe, a difference between his ideas of what those ideals are and mine, for Bush, a casual disdain for and congenital inability to comprehend anything outside of his own country club, and for Trump adherence to a foreign power for personal financial gain, which is to say treason.
     Regardless of what anyone did or did not do on this crisis, it is a natural disaster and it does not have the moral dimension that for me, in my experience, which is what you’re asking about, defines the worst thing I’ve ever lived with. I’m not saying anyone else should feel or think as I do. I’m not saying, on any level, that I’m right. But there are ways in which for me seeing Trump stand during one of his daily events at the White House and degrade both anyone who is watching and the whole history of this country, its worst along with its best and even its ordinary life, is worse than what as a society and a future we are facing. It makes struggling for a decent future seem like a sucker’s game. That’s what keeps me up at night.


4/2/20
Are you like me, and feel compelled to listen to “Murder Most Foul” again and again? I’ve been letting the song in so it can seep into my brain. Bob Dylan has other songs I’ve had to play on repeat, like “Memphis Blues Again,” “Isis,” “Jokerman,” “Mississippi,” and for some reason, “Went To See the Gypsy.” But this song has the master reaching beyond history and catching another laurel wreath. Have you heard this stuff, can you believe he did it again?
– josh smith

That’s the key to the song—the way it invites, or suggests, that it be played over and over again. What the key is—why and how that happens—might be the real question of the song.


4/2/20
Have your granddaughters expanded your musical horizons?
– Jonah Ross

Yes. With the way they sing songs and commercials with new words.



3/27/20
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


3/27/20
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.”]


3/27/20
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.


3/27/20
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.


3/27/20
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.


3/27/20
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.


3/27/20
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”]


3/16/20
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.


3/16/20
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…”


3/16/20
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.


3/16/20
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.


3/9/20
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]


3/9/20
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.


3/9/20
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”


3/9/20
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.


3/9/20
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.


3/9/20
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.


2/22/20
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.


2/22/20
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.


2/22/20
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.


2/12/20
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.”


2/12/20
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)


2/12/20
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.


2/12/20
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.


2/12/20
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.


2/8/20
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).


2/8/20
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.


2/8/20
[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.


2/8/20
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.


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.


2/3/20
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


2/3/20
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.



2/3/20
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.


1/31/20
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?”


1/31/20
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.


1/31/20
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.


01/27/20
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.


01/27/20
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.


01/19/20
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.


01/19/20
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.


01/13/20
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.


01/13/20
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.


01/13/20
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.”


01/13/20
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.


01/13/20
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.


01/06/20
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.”


01/06/20
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.