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Ask Greil Archives: 2016; 2017; 2018; 2019; 2020

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At the end of a troubling week I settled down yesterday morning to listen to the historian David Olusoga’s selections for Desert Island Discs and noted that among the particularly fine records was Geeshie Wiley’s remarkable “Last Kind Words,” which I know is a particular favourite of yours.
     I will spare you the hoary old question of naming your favourite pieces of music, perhaps you may wish to nominate your favourite book and luxury item to take to the island if you were to be chosen as a castaway? (David’s choices were George Orwell’s diaries and a Slide Guitar)
– Paul Ashbridge

A bunch of Ross Macdonald novels and a picture of my wife.

1) Have you seen the German series Babylon Berlin on Netflix? It is really up your alley (and down your street). It’s an ambitious noir set in Berlin during the Weimar Republic (1929). The characters are complex and the plot is enthralling. The first episode sets up the story and is a little slow, but the second episode moves like a house on fire. Several plot threads advance during an elaborate musical number at a flapper club at the end of the episode. At the end of the first season, I questioned an old, black bluesman in a house of ill repute in Berlin in 1929. But, then there is a glorious musical number early in the second season that literally made my jaw drop and stop questioning the excellent use of music in the series.
2) Has Rod Stewart released anything of worth, in your opinion, in the last thirty years? Thank you.
– Erik Nelson

I love that show, and I know from research on Weimar street battles between fascists and communists that I did for Lipstick Traces that it is terrifyingly accurate in terms of public violence and private conspiracy behind almost every scene. The conflicts of the characters—with each other inside themselves—become more focused and more interesting as the episodes go on. Bryan Ferry is precise, performing as a washed up nostalgia act who somehow captures the moment—the moment in history. The combination of the dull looking Volker Bruch and the can’t-look-away Liv Lisa Fries is brilliant, especially because scene by scene she’s one more step ahead of him. And history is writing the script: it can only get worse.
     I’m sure Rod Stewart has done work worth noticing in the last thirty years, and it’s not his fault I didn’t notice. I did think his talking with Dan Rather about how I’m dead was pretty memorable, at least for me.1/12/20
I’ve long been a fan of your writing. I’m not sure whether or not my mind is playing tricks on me, but was Lipstick Traces ever put on the stage as a show? I seem to remember a fairly extraordinary on-stage version, one of the best pieces of theater I’ve ever seen. Did this actually happen and, if so, was there any recorded version?
     Thank you and Happy New Year.
– Toni Hart

I’m a little at sea as to the nature of your memory. There was—or is—such a play, and it’s stunning. I wonder where you saw it. Here’s the story.
     Kirk Lynn and Shawn Sides and Lana Lesley and others formed a theater group in Austin, Texas, in 1995, called the Rude Mechanicals (pre-Shakespearean term for roving actors)—now called the Rude Mechs. Kirk and Shawn decided they wanted to adapt my book Lipstick Traces. Emily Forland, now my agent, then working with the late Wendy Weil, had gone to school with Kirk and vouched for him. I said go ahead, tear it up and put it back together, I want nothing to do with it—I’ll answer factual questions, but that’s all. It’s a 500-page book and I wanted to see what someone else made of it. So they went to work. Kirk wrote it, Shawn devised it, and they premiered a 45-minute version at a fringe theater festival in New York in 1999. My friend John Rockwell went. He called from backstage as soon as it was over. “It’s to die for,” he said.
     When it had its official premiere in Austin a month later, my wife and I flew out to see it. I was shocked. It was playful, it was fast, it was a 75-minute cut up of a book that was already a kind of cut up (one commentator said I’d obviously shuffled all the paragraphs around at random on my computer, but I wrote it on a typewriter). I felt more gratified than I had when the book was published. I went up to Shawn, hardly believing what I’d seen, and told her, “You staged the book I wanted to write.” There had always been a certain spirit missing in the book—Shawn and everyone else put it back. It was a revelation. I learned things I had never been able to grasp. I’d never quite understood what happened in the Cabaret Voltaire—the participants would speak of being possessed by spirits, but they couldn’t quite make it happen in their writing. Watching the Rude Mechs, I understood what happened. I saw it. With dances the Rude Mechs didn’t get out of performance studies but made up themselves.
     The Rude Mechs staged it again in 2000 and a New York producer named Melanie Joseph came to see it and decided she wanted to stage it in New York. In 2001 it opened at the Foundry Theater: even faster, more inventive, more blink-and-you’ll-miss it than before. Lana Lesley as Dr. Narrator and Jason Liebrecht as Johnny Rotten kept their original roles from Austin, but Melanie brought in the downtown New York actors David Greenspan as Malcolm McLaren and James Urbaniak as Guy Debord (and Hugo Ball and Steve Jones), with Ean Sheehy as John of Lyden, Tristan Tzara, and Michel Mourre, and T. Ryder Smith as a leaping Richard Huelsenbeck. On opening night I saw Laurie Anderson and Debbie Harry sitting together; I didn’t notice Malcolm McLaren. The next morning I got a call from—I thought—David Greenspan pretending to be Malcolm McLaren—his performance was so precise and alive the real Malcolm McLaren became a spectre in his presence. “I want to bring this play to London,” David said. Except it wasn’t David, it was Malcolm. “And I’m going to play myself!”
     That never happened, but the play ran for six weeks in New York. Later it had runs in Seattle and Los Angeles, and in Columbus and Minneapolis. It was staged at a festival in Austria. Later the Rude Mechs licensed it to another theater group in Chicago—their version I didn’t see. Last year Lana Lesley produced a graphic-novel version of the play—not the book—as Rude Mech’s Lipstick Traces, published by 53rd State Press. If you want it all brought back—or for those who never saw it—it will bring you very close.
     The Rude Mechs remain an innovative group and the core of it is intact. They’re the most wonderful people.

The or certainly a question of the hour would be, is decadence something a society recovers from, like a drug addict might clean himself up, or is it something like the debilities of old age, that you can manage but cannot reverse? Surely even if your object is a one-party state, choosing a Donald Trump to be your leader is the very dictionary definition of decadence in a democracy. It’s like voting for Caligula because he and his horse make such a lovely couple. Can you think of a society that fell into a state you might call decadence and then pulled itself together?
– Robert Fiore

Most of the countries in Europe, often sequentially, from the 1870s to the present. Whether any of them exactly “pulled themselves together,” as opposed to having been shocked almost to death and then reconstructed not precisely to their own desires—Germany, France, Poland, Italy, Hungary, and so on after World War 2—is another question. But if there’s one example, so far, of a country that might have done what you’re asking for, it’s Ukraine.

Besides Ruben & the Jets were there any other Frank Zappa albums that you liked?
– LP

I loved Absolutely Free. A lot of Zappa’s satire of every aspect of American life and culture is cheap and condescending. For real satire you have to be implicated: you have to have said or done or almost said or done whatever it is you’re trying to humiliate and kill—you have to be in some small part humiliating and killing yourself. You have to be, as the current word has it, complicit in what you’re attacking.
     When I was in high school, not that long after Zappa was, four hundred miles south, to show up with brown shoes could get you pushed up against your locker or shoved against the wall. It was a violation of taste and style that was disgusting on its face and threatened everyone around you: What kind of person am I if I’m willing to tolerate such an atrocity? Thus “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It,” and “America Drinks and Goes Home”—you know Zappa played in lounge bars just like that.
     The cover of Weasels Ripped My Flesh is a work of genius.
[Read Greil’s Rolling Stone review of Ruben & the Jets, co-written with Jeff Rappaport]

Again, no question here, but while I’m noticing current events echoing in pop culture, it may just be our cable provider but as the Capitol storming is being covered on all the news outlets, the commercial breaks keep showing ads for Russell Crowe’s new movie Unhinged, in which he’s shown breaking down a door on some mad rampage. The word “unhinged” is probably the most frequently used term describing Trump’s current state of mind. “Russell Crowe is genuinely terrifying”, the ads promise, but somehow he comes up short compared to the nearly-identical news footage of the seditionists.
– Jim Cavender

Russell Crowe would make a great Trump. Written I hope by Quentin Tarantino or Tim Burton, not Aaron Sorkin.

When I was a kid, my mom used to play Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker and Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin. Because Louis and Chet both played the trumpet and sang, I thought Billie Holiday did too. When I found out more about her life I remarked maybe she might have been happier if she had just stuck to playing the trumpet for session work. Mom’s jaw dropped to the floor and she quickly corrected me. Then the other day, I was reading in Dave Marsh’s book on 45 singles how the real words to “Surfin’ USA” were “if everybody had an ocean,” instead of “if everybody had a notion.” I was blindsided again, as Marsh also says he was.
     Has this ever happened to you? Where you find out something you believed for years was not so and you could almost feel the ground shift under your feet?
– Ian

There’s a name for it. Mondegreen. It happens to everyone. As in Jimi Hendrix’s not exactly “‘scuse me while I kiss this guy.”
     Maybe because I’m from California and surfing was big in my high school, it was always ‘ocean’ not ‘notion.’ And notion is just too abstract and effete for and actual song lyric—unless it’s “Goodnight Irene.”
     I’ve always believed that what you heard is what is there. To listen is to compose.

What do you think of the new remixes of “The Shape I’m In” and “All Things Must Pass“?
– Luke

I hate the “Shape I’m In” remix. Everything separate, cleaned up, antiseptic. No sweat. Or blood or tears or anything else.
     But I’m never going to listen to “All Things Must Pass” again.

No question here, just wanted to mention the wondrous irony of watching the storming of the capitol on TV, punching up this website on my Kindle, and being greeted by the Sensations’ “Let Me In.” Nice touch!
– Jim Cavender

It’s a sick thought to imagine how cool it would have been if that gang of thugs had smashed in singing that song. But cool is communist. Cool is all those people who stole the election. So it couldn’t happen. Democracy may be cracking but epistemology lives.
     Joe Biden never sounded better. Never sounded so much.
     One traitor told a newsperson, “Wait for the inauguration. We’ll be back with guns.” At Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, almost all of the members of the plot to kill him—there was a plan to kill him then and there—were present in the crowd: most of them below, Booth in the reviewing stand above. Right now, everyone is in danger.

Hi Greil, I’m a longtime reader and I was curious about why you’ve rarely if ever written about some of the bands I’ll define loosely as 80s college radio rock: REM, The Smiths, The Cure, The Replacements, etc. A lot of these groups were foundational to my own taste and to many others my age — I was born in 1976 — not to mention hugely influential to a lot of the bands that followed in their wake. Is it that you dislike them or you simply don’t find their work compelling (or something else)? I’m honestly not sure I’ve seen you even mention these groups other than a stray negative comment about REM once. Thanks,
– Daniel

I have written about all those groups, but only in snatches—Real Life Rock Top 10 items or stray comments in pieces about something else. The reason is that except for the Cure I didn’t like listening to them. In different ways I found them boring—Morrissey’s self-absorption (I always wondered why the Smiths’ songs sounded nothing like the film stills on their album covers), the way the Replacements seemed to be playing to critics once so many swooned over them, R.E.M.’s strum ‘n’ whine. But I was completely caught up when I saw the Cure play for what seemed like three hours on their first American tour, at a place called the I-Beam in San Francisco; and I played Seventeen Seconds, mainly for “A Play for Today,” about a thousand times while I was writing Lipstick Traces. I loved and still love their radio hits, especially “Friday I’m in Love.” I liked Robert Smith’s hair and the way so many people tried to sound like him. I always wondered what he really looked like. But “Jumping Someone Else’s Train” is number one. There’s never been a rhythm like that.

I’m wondering if you’ve ever heard this. I’m impressed by the fact that the band, and especially Mick, can still make this sound like it’s about sex—like Snap, Crackle, and Pop are participants in a menage a trois, and you, the listener, want to be a part of it, or run away, or both at once.
– Bill Wolfe

This has been around for a long time and it’s always a surprise: it sounds like the band. Just like the Nu Grape Twins who made weird and touching records in the late 20s-earlly 30s, odd blues gospel jingles, and maybe their best was the straight commercial “I Got Your Ice Cold Nu Grape.” Really, the Stones should have released this as a single. On their next tour they should open with it. Except they won’t get any royalties. They might even have to license it.

I’ve been reading you for about forty years now, so I feel like Seinfeld going out with Dolores asking this, but what is the correct pronunciation of your first name?
– John Burns