* Ask Greil (current)


Ask Greil Archives: 2016; 2017; 2018; 2019


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

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


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.