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I know you’re not a fan of Sgt. Pepper (I love your line in the Stranded discography that “Sgt. Pepper was a Day-Glo tombstone for its time”). My problem with it has always been the Lennon songs. Save for “A Day in the Life”, the Lennon songs are mediocre (at best). I view Sgt. Pepper in a similar vein to Citizen Kane. Kane is a remarkable debut from Orson Welles and needs to be seen but it’s not his best film (see Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil, or even The Trial). Ambersons moves me in a way Kane never does. Rubber Soul moves me in a way Sgt. Pepper never does. This is a long-winded way of asking: leaving aside the Yellow Submarine soundtrack, is Sgt. Pepper your least favorite Beatles album?
– Steve Canson
I think my least favorite Beatles albums are The Beatles’ Second Album and Something New. The group was so wonderful that the cheesiness of the album titles and covers really took away from absolutely tremendous songs, one after the other, just making everything else on the radio except Smokey Robinson sound stupid. As far as music goes, today I have a lot more affection and respect for Abbey Road than Let It Be—full of throwaways (“Dig a Pony”) and lugubrious white elephants (“The Long and Winding Road”). Rubber Soul, the American version, is their best album, but it’s not fair to compare other Beatle albums to it—it would be anyone’s best album. Start with the endless puns in the title, and the basic claim, that it was soul music, which they made good on, and then the cover, which managed to be threatening and welcoming at the same time. And the songs—come on! “I’m Looking Through You” was almost a throwaway on that album—it’s just a rhythm exercise, though between, say, Apollo and Diana.
Sgt. Pepper has it’s own kind of soul—the joy of experiment and invention. We’re kings of the world and we can do anything! The songs may be novelties, but the fun in “Lovely Rita” is still there, it wasn’t just of the moment. “She’s Leaving Home” is still painful. “Getting Better” is still hard as nails. And as for John’s songs—“A Day in the Life,” which dwarfs everything else, would be anyone else’s best record, is John and Paul.
As for Citizen Kane, you’re right to compare it to Sgt. Pepper—it has that same we-can-try-anything-and-get-away-with-it drive. And except for the battle scenes, and John Gielgud walking through the, what, hundred-foot-high rooms of the castle, in Chimes at Midnight, I don’t think Welles ever matched it.
Once again songs in movies. One of my favorites. What do you think about “Surfin’ bird” in Stanley Kubricks Full Metal Jacket?
– Kolt Gerrag
“Surfin’ Bird” in anything is perfect. Just like the late Godfrey Cambridge should have played every dramatic role ever written.
Which pop song is Judith Butler?
– Kolt Gerrag
By Judith Butler? Her cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U.” About Judith Butler? “Surfin’ Bird.”
I do not recall you commenting on Neil Young/Crazy Horse Zuma. Tonight’s the Night is a powerful statement. But Zuma has more consistent songwriting, and is the purest Neil. Paul Nelson was on target: “Blood on the Tracks with more blood and more tracks.” Plainly his best album.
– Harry Clark
Well, sure. It’s never done it for me, and with someone who’s been making records with his own name on them since, what, 1968, 1969, unless he’s been buying them himself, best is meaningless. It’s your his best album. I’d take the Dead Man soundtrack any day. And go out with Way Down in the Rust Bucket. But what about “I’m the Ocean”? The second and third solos in “Cowgirl in the Sand”? The first five tracks of Americana? Who says you have to choose and rank?
Am I crazy or is Danielle Haim channeling Levon Helm here? I watched it a few times fascinated without quite knowing why before the comparison struck me, probably because it’s not an association I would’ve made with this particular band.
– Daniel L.
She’s got the hunched shoulders. I’ve never believed a note of their music. All concept, no cattle.
Have you seen BANG: The Bert Berns Story? It convinces me that the stories about shady music business hustlers and con men told by Nik Cohn in Rock From the Beginning were, if anything, too polite. The fight between Berns and Jerry Wexler, in which Wexler enlisted the Mob-connected Morris Levy to threaten Berns, only to have Berns trump Wexler by sending the acting head of one of New York’s Five Families to threaten Wexler, was astonishing and scary. For records as fine as “Cry, Baby” to emerge out of this setting seems like a miracle.
– Bill Wolfe
I’ve seen the film, which has incandescent scenes of music making—but not matching what Joel Selvin does on the page in his book on Berns, Here Comes the Night—which will also tell you more about high stakes Mob music wars than you can find anywhere else.
This is fantastic. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Mick Taylor playing records and commenting upon them in Danish radio in March 1970. You can see and hear Exile on Main Street coming round the corner.
On a not so related note: On the evening of the release of Chemtrails Over the Country Club, any second thoughts on NFR by Lana Del Rey? While it contains some of her greatest songs, I do think it is leaning into becoming more of a brilliant Lizzie Grant record rather than a Lana del Rey record. The sense of vertigo and falling from previous albums is gradually being replaced by a more traditional singer-songwriter approach.
I don’t hear that. One friend said [of Chemtrails] she’s concluded melody is not for serious people. I don’t hear that either. I think the commitment to abstraction and drift continues as the foundation of her view of the world. Accents and points of inflection will change. Some rhythms will not work. But there’s no one else around who could have come up with the aesthetic of “Yosemite,” let alone turned an idea into something you can actually listen to.
I’m a high school English teacher, and I love the way your essays attempt to unravel (or sometimes playfully tangle!) the “Mobius strips” of history, politics, film, and music. I teach The History of RnR in 10 Songs in one of my classes, and I couldn’t help but notice your reference to various Sopranos sequences as moments of cultural touchstone— including that book (A.J. hearing Dylan for the first time) and your Great Gatsby treatise (Vito coming to terms with his closeted homosexuality). It piques my curiosity: are there any other moments in great television or film that stand out to you, in which a classic tune is evoked to capture subtexts/ turning points of American history? Don Draper hearing “Tomorrow Never Knows”? Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” as a soundtrack to urban + blue collar betrayal in The Wire? Or any particular Scorsese moment? I am always impressed (and stirred!) by movie and TV auters savvily using a song to really punctuate their theme(s)—and not just in trite or predictable ways, vis a vis “Sympathy for the Devil” in every suspense thriller!
Thank you for always sparking new insights into my reading, listening, and viewing habits.
There are too many to even begin to think about—it’s something I’ve written about in my Real Life Rock column forever. Right now you make me think of The Maytals’ “Pressure Drop” in In the Name of the Father and Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing” in The Five-Year Engagement. Not exactly a song, but the best music video without music: the first Hitler-in-his-bunker Kiss Army routine (in Downfall). And making me wonder: has Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain” ever been used on a soundtrack? What movie could possibly stand up to it? Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse? Michael Hanake’s The White Ribbon, or as crawl music for his The Piano Teacher, if he could make the credits roll for ten minutes?
Now, you must admit that the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust at the Capitol is history. I mean, 1978, I was in—well I wasn’t in high school anymore that year but I had a sister who was. What could that have been compensation for? Was it the year they closed the last segregated water fountain or something? The natural replacement stares us so hard in the face that we might overlook it: Elvis. Imagine him in the rotunda cocking that sneer at all those powdered wig boys, a triumph of democracy: “Well what do you know ’bout that? Baby, let’s play house.” The other name that jumped out at me from a list of Tennessee figures is Aretha Franklin: more ecumenical, more gravitas.
The American Studies question I have for you is, besides civil rights figures, what sort of historical figures could represent the South in its entirety? It’s a puzzle to me. This all led me to wonder who California had sent I saw it was Ronald Reagan—it’d take a war to shift him—and goodness me Father Serra. I mean, I don’t swing with anti-colonialists but I’d let them have that one. He’s not even American, and I think we’ve got enough troubles of our own without answering for Spain. Who would represent California? I’m thinking John Muir but people are being pissy about him now. If it were for me alone I’d say Ambrose Bierce.
– Robert Fiore
The south in its entirety. I’m not sure I know enough about the south to answer. Not that would stop me or anyone. But whoever it is would have to embody not just the-contradictions-of-the-south—black white rich poor democracy dictatorship law lynch law and on and on. I suppose Kentucky doesn’t quite count, so that rules out Lincoln. Fictional characters are tempting but I think a cheat. Nathan Bedford Forrest was a mentor to Samuel Stacker Lee, whose name was taken by Lee Shelton of St. Louis, the real Stagger Lee—but that’s as far as any ambiguity enters the story of the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. As a statue in the Capitol he’s not history, he’s propaganda, if not terrorism. But who could represent the south? Every time I think of a name, there’s a no–too parochial, narrow, limited, modern, male. So two possibilities:
– Huey Long
– Zora Neale Hurston and William Faulkner, together
Regarding “I do believe that real artists know things other people don’t and that their art is a matter of trying to communicate those things”… Do you get definite senses of what–for examples—Robert Johnson, Sly Stone, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, and/or Cat Power know, and try to put across? Or is “things” something less
And speaking of two above, any thoughts on the new Young live set, and/or the Stones’ bewildering online song dump?
– Andrew Hamlin
It’s not something that can be named, certainly not by me. You could ask them. They might know what you’re talking about. They might have a specific answer.
In fact, Sly Stone did answer the question. Asked why he formed the Family and what he hoped to accomplish, he said that by creating a band of men and women, black and white, he would be creating an image of harmony that could be communicated to other people, and the music they played would dramatize that.
Haven’t heard Neil Young, haven’t heard the Rolling Stones.
(This is not really a question for Ask Greil, but feel free to post if you like.)
I’m sure you have already found this, but in case not—we now have good quality audio of Van Morrison’s “Caledonia Soul Music” out in the world. Better late than never.
This is unbelievable. I’ve listened to this hundreds of times since it was first broadcast on KSAN in 1970, and on the bootlegs of that long night—“Just Like a Woman,” “Friday’s Child,” on an on. It never occurred to me that there was a parallel universe out there where perfect versions of things you love—maybe even other people?—exist. But this is just that. Wow. Thank you.
What is your opinion of the recently released on PBS Murray the K’s It’s What’s Happening, Baby! TV special? I thought it was great for fans of 1960s pop music.
– hugh grissett
I could never stand Mr. Fifth Beatle. DJ as used car salesman.
Not long ago, Rolling Stone revised its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. I know you disdain ranking lists such as this, especially when they are so vast, but what really I want to ask you about is their new choice for Number One: Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.
I don’t like the album. I tried many times, because I love Marvin Gaye’s music up to and even after that time. And I do love the album’s three hit singles, but beyond that, I don’t hear a single interesting moment. And I don’t think three great singles make a great album. If that were true, you could just as easily place United, his first album with Tammi Terrell, in the top spot, as far as I’m concerned.
Not to mention the blandness of the accompanying writing, which you would expect to make a compelling case for the music on the album, and what makes it great—not just great, but the greatest ever made. Nope, it’s mostly about the album’s context and its influence. Or it just flatly states facts: “‘Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)’ is a taut ode to the environment; ‘Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)’ takes on drug addiction.”
This is really bad.
(And There’s A Riot Goin’ On is now at Number 82. But never mind.)
So, what’s going on here? What are your thoughts? Why is this album here? What is this telling us? And why can’t anyone convince me that they actually think it’s great?
It’s a good, moderate, consensus choice that makes people feel like they’re on the right side (honor the dead, respect the environment) and that nobody ever listens to. There’s more of Marvin Gaye in Hanif Abdurraqib’s A Fortune for Your Disaster than there is in or on What’s Going On. Give me “Can I Get a Witness,” “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” “Let’s Get it On,” “Sexual Healing,” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
I know you’re a fan of Nik Cohn’s I Am the Greatest Says Johnny Angelo. I’ve only been able to find passing references to it in your reviews of other books (like Cohn’s King Death), but I seem to remember reading your comments comparing the two editions of the novel. Am I remembering correctly? In any case, I’ve managed to track down both versions (the Penguin paperback and the Savoy reprint of the original version). Flipping through, the differences seem pretty significant. Which would you recommend reading? One, the other or both?
I’ve only read the original version. I didn’t know there was a revision. And don’t know why one would revise a novel. To correct factual errors? There are no facts in the book.
Greil—in your Yoko Ono response [2/26], you said something you’ve written before: that artists know things the rest of us don’t. I’ve never really agreed with this. To me, they have the talent and imagination to express those things, to give voice to them, but we know them too, that’s why we respond to their work. There are so many strange lines in Dylan’s mid-’60s work that I understand immediately, although I couldn’t begin to explain what they mean. He can. Or maybe he doesn’t need to, he wrote them.
– Alan Vint
Maybe another way of saying that artists know things others don’t is that they see thing differently—which is a real reduction of what I mean, but maybe more acceptable. Which why it isn’t what I mean. Maybe a more psychologically accurate way to say it would be that artists think they know things others don’t, and are driven to try to say what that is. And there could be many motives in that, beyond the edification of humankind. Think of Robert Johnson (as I seem to do all the time these days). He could play the guitar in ways that others couldn’t. He could weave his voice into his guitar playing in ways that produced an impression of the uncanny: what is this feeling, how can he do that, where am I, the world doesn’t feel exactly as it did a minute ago, an element of unreality, or super-reality, has just been introduced. There is a secret language being spoken that while I myself can’t speak it I can understand, in some aspect of my being, every gesture, note, word, sigh, stop, fall, and close. And why might Johnson want to tell the world what he knows and, he feels, no one else does, to make his secret knowledge public? Hobbes argued that the motive behind the creation of Greek philosophy was to seduce more boys than the other guy—which is to say that the most base or selfish motives can lie behind the highest creation. For Johnson—maybe just to show the other guys up and get more women, which amounts to the very same thing. For Jonathan Edwards, the purpose of philosophy was to affirm “the beauty of the world.” Those are the words he used—not “The Beauty of God’s Creation.” He introduced a certain element of hedonism, or even paganism, into the idea. Maybe Johnson’s motive was also to affirm the beauty, the order, of the world, especially when, in his lyrics, he says that the world is disordered and he doesn’t understand why it is as it is, and refuses to accept it. But really, what the artist knows is not determinate. It’s the will to tell.
On 1/12/21, I asked what you thought of the new remix of “The Shape I’m In.” You said “I hate the ‘Shape I’m In’ remix. Everything separate, cleaned up, antiseptic. No sweat. Or blood or tears or anything else.”
But you wrote a glowing review of the remixed Stage Fright in Real Life Rock Top 10. Now I’m not accusing, I like when people are honest about their opinions changing. I just wonder what changed your opinion. Or maybe you like the rest of the album, but not that track in particular?
I heard that one track online as a preview and thought it sounded washed. Playing the new version of the album as a whole it didn’t feel that way at all.
Hi Greil. I’m writing an article about Bobby Patterson, whose song “The Trial of Mary Maguire” you selected for the Rose & The Briar album for Ugly Things magazine.
Can I ask why you chose that song and if you have any thoughts on Bobby’s music?
– David Michael Holzer
The album is the soundtrack to a book of the same name where different writers write about different ballads. Ed Ward wrote about “The Trial of Mary Maguire” so it had to be there. Ed chose it, not me. To everyone’s benefit. You should talk to him. He lives in Austin, Texas.
What did you think of the box set they put out on Elvis’s 1969 Vegas shows? I have always had a soft spot for that period; once you get past the occasional Vegas trappings in the arrangements, he’s really rocking out at times.
Good monologues and great James Burton guitar solos as well.
I listened to it all, and the repetition, not just of the performances but of the stories told, is too much of a good thing.
Have you ever written anything about Yoko Ono? I confess it wasn’t until after punk (post-punk really) that her music became something I could actually hear, but aside from loving a whole lot of music by her (she steals Double Fantasy right from under John’s nose) I think she’s someone who genuinely changed people’s ears and ideas of what singing could be. After x-Ray Spex, the B-52s, Lora Logic etc. there’s nothing “unlistenable” about her.
The first time I encountered Yoko Ono I either didn’t catch or wasn’t told her name—it was a showing of her film Bottoms in a UC extension class on dada and Fluxus my wife and I took in about 1966. Since it had no sound the instructor had people in the class improvise a soundtrack—that may have been part of Yoko Ono’s instructions for showing the film. We had great fun shouting at the movie and each other.
Otherwise I have not been on the bandwagon. In terms of writing about her—well, I wrote an appalled piece on Double Fantasy that came out just before John Lennon’s murder. Later I was even more appalled by Yoko’s statement that her and John’s heroin use was a matter of them “taking it in celebration of ourselves as artists”—after decades I can still recall her exact disgusting words. I do believe that real artists know things other people don’t and that their art is a matter of trying to communicate those things. But to me Yoko Ono’s corollary has always been that artists, like herself, are better than other people. That’s what her comments on heroin said to me. After that I never wanted to listen to her—to hear what else she might have to say.
It’s just like realizing that after his Barcelona movie I never wanted to see another minute of anything with Woody Allen’s fingerprints on it, and hated myself for watching his moronic recreation of Paris in the ’20s. But again, isn’t the real message of most of his movies that he’s better than other people? “The heart wants what it wants” was his justification for seducing the sister of his daughter, who he said wasn’t really her sister anyway because she was adopted. He could use the same words for the accusation that he molested his daughter and then say the hell with it, couldn’t he?
Dylan Crossing The Rubicon. I read that the Rubicon was the river where military people had to lay down their weapons, leave their soldiers behind, they were going to enter the Republic of Rome. If so, then what Bob is talking about between “Crossing the Rubicon,” “Key West,” and “Murder Most Foul”? Stuff we wouldn’t believe, I suspect.
– Alan Berg
I think here it just functions as a catchphrase.
I always thought the lyric was “and I serve(d) on the Danville Train.” So I took it as him serving as a confederate soldier. Of course in Joan Baez’s butchering Stoneman’s Cavalry becomes “So Much Cavalry” which, because she is subverting an actual historic event, makes it inexcusable.
– Steven Johnson
Well, to me it’s that “so much cavalry” is not something anyone would ever say. But it’s been fifty years, and since that word-art-historical crime Joan Baez has almost certainly done things far worse. So have I, and probably you.
I searched for Neil Young’s 1992 appearance on PBS’s Centerstage after reading a feature you wrote for Spin (January 1994). I found several videotaped copies uploaded online, but to my surprise they ran for nearly two hours uninterrupted whereas the PBS broadcast was reportedly an hour. Have you seen the entire two-hour show?
Here’s one link, but there may be others of better quality—this one fits the whole show in one upload.
I never liked “Harvest Moon” all that much—it had some good songs but it dragged in places and felt tepid overall. But hearing Young perform 9 of its 10 songs here was a different experience. Every song gets across better, and he gives them a context where they actually gain some resonance (like placing the sentimental “One of These Days” right after “Tonight’s the Night” and before that “The Needle And The Damage Done”). He openly admits to playing without ‘a list,’ and what unfolds is whatever comes to mind or whatever suits his mood.
I liked this so much, I went back to the 2010 Archives album “Dreamin’ Man: Live ’92” which was basically a live compilation of every Harvest Moon song. (“Natural Beauty” was even taken from the Centerstage show.) I thought I had missed its charm but it didn’t seem that way at all. I noticed most of the songs were done in bigger venues—theaters with more agitated crowds, unlike Centerstage which was filmed in a quieter and more intimate studio. The difference may have impacted the performance, but the one cut they did take from Centerstage was also doused in echo to match the other recordings.
– Jacob R
This is not the Neil Young I’ve followed. For me it all happens in the tangles of the strings. “Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze.” “Dead Man.” “Cowgirl in the Sand.” “Arc.” “I’m the Ocean.” “Revolution Blues” (by the Waco Brothers).
After all these years I’m still a bit miffed at your take on Ray Davies in the notes for the Randy Newman chapter. I believe no one has written a better song about their homeland than Ray’s “Victoria.” In the top ten is “Village Green.” What is your selection for the best song written about one’s homeland? (Please, no Woody Guthrie.)
– Tony Capretta
Carl Perkins, “Tennessee.” Or “California Girls.”
I have not been a fan of the remixes of the first two albums by The Band. I gave them many listens and found myself going back to the original mixes. This changed when I heard the new remix of Stage Fright. The Bob Clearmountain mixes are warmer than the original, but the biggest change was the running order. Robbie Robertson said that the new running order was how the album was meant to sound. Once I got used to the new running order, I found the album less disjunct than the original. Have you listened to the remix and what is your opinion is of the album in its new form?
– Scott Anderson
I’ll be writing about that in my next Real Life Rock Top 10 so I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I’ll just say to my shock I’m having the same reaction you are.
Do you have any thoughts on the Springsteen Jeep commercial? Is it too much to hope for that it’ll bring a divided country together, just as the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad ended systemic police brutality? I did get a kick out of this comment on Bruce’s DWI arrest, from a “source close to the music icon”: “I just hope Jeep ends up looking bad in the end.”
– Steve O’Neill
To tell you the truth, it sort of went past me in a gauzy way. I think I was too unhappy over how pathetic Kansas City was to notice much. I thought it was interesting that there weren’t any songs in it.
Are there any female artists you would consider (or have ever considered) writing a book on?
– James Cavicchia
(p.s. When they’re casting the biopic, for mid-period Greil might I suggest Italian dj/producer Donato Dozzy. They’d have to do something about the hair, but otherwise dude’s a ringer.)
I wrote a third of a book on Geeshie Wiley. I wanted there to be a chapter in Mystery Train on Arlene Smith, but didn’t yet understand how you might construct a whole aesthetic portrait out of a few singles by someone most people never heard of. I’d still like to try.
Donato Dozzy is pretty damn close.
Would it be absolutely insane to consider Orson Welles to have been working like a situationist along the lines of Guy Debord? I’m specifically considering the “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast as a situation, because of the reaction it is said to have produced. Also, in F for Fake Welles addressed some of the anti-image and anti-market themes Debord was interested in. Is it more important to consider the politics of the Situationists and Lettrists when looking at their legacy? Is mythmaking counter to what they, for lack of a better term, “stood for”?
I don’t think it’s odd at all. I think it’s somewhat odd that apparently the only mention of Welles in all the numbers of the situationist journal, from 1958 to 1969, is in a piece on cinema called “Sunset Boulevard,” by Michèle Bernstein, about Welles and Sternberg as masters of the baroque. And I wonder if Welles knew of the situationists; he certainly knew the Lettrists, the Isou lettrists, not Debord and Wolman’s breakaway Lettrist International. For here he is traveling the world as your TV correspondent, interviewing the knights of St. Germain des Prés in 1955:
It’s really interesting. Lucid. And it’s where the situationists came from. I wonder if Debord and Bernstein saw this at the time and sad, Damn! Why wasn’t that us up there?
You have often written about the Puritan origins of American identity and self-definition; Puritanism as the root of several possible binaries and many contradictions. If we take seriously the idea that many Puritan tropes in early America were borrowed from, and in conversation with, what Spanish/Catholic folks were saying back then, would that affect your understanding of the American “spirit”?
– Freddy Dominguez
If you’re saying that the Puritan ethos in New England is rooted in the Spanish Inquisition, as Monty Python puts it, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”
How did the Rolling Stones first come into pop consciousness? With the Beatles it seems that the territory is marked out right from the start, with “She Loves You” and “Please Please Me” and “Twist and Shout.” With the Stones, it seems there’s a couple of years where they’re a kind of purist R&B band, then in 1965 they start releasing what we usually think of as Rolling Stones records. What was their presence before 1965?
[update] An addendum to the previous that just came to me: The famous line is the Beatles wanted to hold your hand and the Stones wanted to pillage your town, but really, in the beginning it was the Beatles wanted to hold your hand and the Stones wanted to play Chuck Berry covers.
– Robert Fiore
I can’t speak for the world. In the UK when they started out they were blues purists and evangelists, and that may have affected their early following—and common denigration by British blues players. But their first single, as you say, was a cover of Chuck Berry’s (not that well known) “Come On,” which after a lot of soul searching about Be True to Your School (of the blues) they judged within their standards of legitimacy. And then they covered the Beatles “I Wanna Be Your Man.” And then they made a commercial for Rice Krispies. Still, they did remain true to their school—they wanted to introduce the US to its own artists, from Muddy Waters to Howlin’ Wolf and more, and they did.
In the US nobody knew about any of their moral struggles or cared. “Not Fade Away”—and really, has anyone really plumbed how and why Buddy Holly was the number one touchstone for the Beatles, the Rolling Stones (Mick Jagger saw him play in the UK), Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, on and on?—was on the radio here. It was an obscure Holly track and sounded completely out of the blue—not that their version wasn’t miles away and a hundred miles an hour faster than the original, to the point where it became its own original. That was in 1964—they were a mid-to-low-high chart band (nothing like “House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals, Gerry and the Pacemakers and Dave Clark Five, let alone the Beatles). Their first album—with the cheesy title England’s Newest Hitmakers (i.e., here today, gone tomorrow) in the US—no title, no words at all, for the David Bailey group portrait in the UK—made a lot of people look. Or stare. No one had ever seen people look as mean, mysterious, threatening, and alluring as those people, whoever and whatever they were, staring out over their shoulders. For me, the sense that they were extreme, rule breaking, something radically different, was in the fact that on the album there was a song under two minutes and a song over three minutes—which for a rock ‘n’ roll group was unheard of—everyone somehow knew that a 45 just wouldn’t play, or something, if the song was 1.56 or 3.04 (when Phil Spector had a record longer than three minutes he just listed it at 2.58 on the label). The killer for me was “Tell Me”—which was even longer on the UK album. And not just me: “Tell Me” is the dramatic hunger in David Chase’s incredibly accurate film Not Fade Away.
The breakthrough—what made them immortal, unchallenged as the Beatles were unchallengeable, their own reality principle, was “Satisfaction.” Not just that it was such a big hit—there were a lot of big hits. It was because the record was so total. It didn’t dominate the radio, it could seem as if it were the radio. It made a connection, created a permanent audience, and captured not just the moment but the street politics of the next ten years. You could see that happening: in 1966 and 1967 Top Forty stations all over the country ran contest polls asking people to vote on The 100 Greatest Songs of All Time (i.e., since 1955) and “Satisfaction” always won.
After that, they had a free field that no one else could occupy. They could leave the field and let it go to seed, they could build ziggurats and hanging gardens and make it the envy of the world. But no one else could so much as walk across it without being sucked into the quicksand.
By the way, that phrase about how the Beatles just wanted to hold your and but the Rolling Stones wanted to pillage your town—attributed for some reason to Hunter Thompson and half a dozen other people—was mine. Meant tongue in cheek—as in that’s the cliché, but it’s nonsense. As with famed rock critic Fredric Jameson writing that the Beatles came from a middle-class background and the Rolling Stones from a working class background, when it was the other way around, because they looked like it. I guess for a semiologist that’s all it takes.
The first article of yours that I read was in Rolling Stone about Dylan’s 1966 tour.
I’m curious about your thoughts on Rough and Rowdy Ways.
Thanks for all of your work. It has helped me see and understand not just music but life.
I wrote about it in the April, May, and June 2020 Real Life Rock Top Ten columns in the Los Angeles Review of Books. I know it will keep coming up.
In an “Ask Greil” reply from 9/11/18 you wrote: “if Trump declares the results of the November [mid-term] election invalid, in whole or in individual states, the Supreme Court would uphold him. Then you’re in a revolutionary situation: action in the streets against government presence and the obedience or refusal of troops to stop it.” None of that happened at the time, but two years on your comments seem pretty prescient, even if things didn’t play out quite how you predicted. Were you surprised at how quickly and summarily the courts, including the Supreme Court, rejected Trump’s claims? Had they upheld them, do you think we would have seen the kind of reaction from the left that we did from the right?
– steve o’neill
With today’s story about Trump’s plan to turn the Justice Department, which had already declared his claims worthless, into his personal hit squad, I don’t think my paranoia about what could have happened has been entirely misplaced. I couldn’t have foreseen the blatancy and ham-handedness of the White House conspiracies. You have to give the people Trump placed on the Supreme Court credit for refusing to hear a single case. But to your real question, no. For the simple reason that what you’re calling the left—which doesn’t really exist (let’s say the left is not Antifa, a few particular BLM groups, but the people who voted for Biden)—isn’t armed, isn’t bent on destruction and murder for its own sake, and is not made up of people for who a death threat is their first response to anything they don’t like.
I certainly thought about what I could and would do if the worst fears were realized. I could march. I could sit down and occupy streets or even highways. It might make sense to march through and occupy all of downtown Oakland, the city where I live, both to protest the destruction of republican governance—a small r governance as it was conceived and which we take as a given—and to forestall or block burning and looting by those who would turn any demonstration into its negation (as, with the protests against the George Floyd killing in Oakland, was spurred by Boogaloo followers who drove to Oakland and killed a Federal building guard in a drive-by shooting in a crime meant to be blamed on demonstrators, just as the mass arson in Minneapolis was literally sparked by a right-wing provocateur). But given where I live, any such actions would be uncontroversial and not very dangerous, if they were dangerous at all, beyond the possibly deadly fact of being part of a crowd. Traveling to Washington to do the same thing, with the city occupied by tens of thousands of Capitol mobsters, would be a very different story—and probably the necessary one. Were that to have happened—and this is horrible to say—it would have been up to the military to refuse civilian orders, take over the city, and reinstate Congress—none of which would have any legal validity. And then the Supreme Court would be working far beyond anything that could be called law. It didn’t happen, but it’s now clear Trump did not let a day after November 7 go by without trying to make it happen.
Your comment that you’ll never listen to All Things Must Pass begs the question of why. The album is overproduced all to hell, but some of the songs, especially the title track, “Run of the Mill,” and “Beware of Darkness,” are as good as anything George wrote. Also, have you heard the Beatles rehearsal of the song–it’s rough and not ready, which probably explains why it was left off “Anthology,” but the staggered background vocals John and Paul add are really tremendous. It makes me long for that next record they never made.
It does sound more like a basement tapes recording than anything else, but I’m still a “Don’t Bother Me” person myself.
At the end of a troubling week I settled down yesterday morning to listen to the historian David Olusoga’s selections for Desert Island Discs and noted that among the particularly fine records was Geeshie Wiley’s remarkable “Last Kind Words,” which I know is a particular favourite of yours.
I will spare you the hoary old question of naming your favourite pieces of music, perhaps you may wish to nominate your favourite book and luxury item to take to the island if you were to be chosen as a castaway? (David’s choices were George Orwell’s diaries and a Slide Guitar)
– Paul Ashbridge
A bunch of Ross Macdonald novels and a picture of my wife.
1) Have you seen the German series Babylon Berlin on Netflix? It is really up your alley (and down your street). It’s an ambitious noir set in Berlin during the Weimar Republic (1929). The characters are complex and the plot is enthralling. The first episode sets up the story and is a little slow, but the second episode moves like a house on fire. Several plot threads advance during an elaborate musical number at a flapper club at the end of the episode. At the end of the first season, I questioned an old, black bluesman in a house of ill repute in Berlin in 1929. But, then there is a glorious musical number early in the second season that literally made my jaw drop and stop questioning the excellent use of music in the series.
2) Has Rod Stewart released anything of worth, in your opinion, in the last thirty years? Thank you.
– Erik Nelson
I love that show, and I know from research on Weimar street battles between fascists and communists that I did for Lipstick Traces that it is terrifyingly accurate in terms of public violence and private conspiracy behind almost every scene. The conflicts of the characters—with each other inside themselves—become more focused and more interesting as the episodes go on. Bryan Ferry is precise, performing as a washed up nostalgia act who somehow captures the moment—the moment in history. The combination of the dull looking Volker Bruch and the can’t-look-away Liv Lisa Fries is brilliant, especially because scene by scene she’s one more step ahead of him. And history is writing the script: it can only get worse.
I’m sure Rod Stewart has done work worth noticing in the last thirty years, and it’s not his fault I didn’t notice. I did think his talking with Dan Rather about how I’m dead was pretty memorable, at least for me.
I’ve long been a fan of your writing. I’m not sure whether or not my mind is playing tricks on me, but was Lipstick Traces ever put on the stage as a show? I seem to remember a fairly extraordinary on-stage version, one of the best pieces of theater I’ve ever seen. Did this actually happen and, if so, was there any recorded version?
Thank you and Happy New Year.
– Toni Hart
I’m a little at sea as to the nature of your memory. There was—or is—such a play, and it’s stunning. I wonder where you saw it. Here’s the story.
Kirk Lynn and Shawn Sides and Lana Lesley and others formed a theater group in Austin, Texas, in 1995, called the Rude Mechanicals (pre-Shakespearean term for roving actors)—now called the Rude Mechs. Kirk and Shawn decided they wanted to adapt my book Lipstick Traces. Emily Forland, now my agent, then working with the late Wendy Weil, had gone to school with Kirk and vouched for him. I said go ahead, tear it up and put it back together, I want nothing to do with it—I’ll answer factual questions, but that’s all. It’s a 500-page book and I wanted to see what someone else made of it. So they went to work. Kirk wrote it, Shawn devised it, and they premiered a 45-minute version at a fringe theater festival in New York in 1999. My friend John Rockwell went. He called from backstage as soon as it was over. “It’s to die for,” he said.
When it had its official premiere in Austin a month later, my wife and I flew out to see it. I was shocked. It was playful, it was fast, it was a 75-minute cut up of a book that was already a kind of cut up (one commentator said I’d obviously shuffled all the paragraphs around at random on my computer, but I wrote it on a typewriter). I felt more gratified than I had when the book was published. I went up to Shawn, hardly believing what I’d seen, and told her, “You staged the book I wanted to write.” There had always been a certain spirit missing in the book—Shawn and everyone else put it back. It was a revelation. I learned things I had never been able to grasp. I’d never quite understood what happened in the Cabaret Voltaire—the participants would speak of being possessed by spirits, but they couldn’t quite make it happen in their writing. Watching the Rude Mechs, I understood what happened. I saw it. With dances the Rude Mechs didn’t get out of performance studies but made up themselves.
The Rude Mechs staged it again in 2000 and a New York producer named Melanie Joseph came to see it and decided she wanted to stage it in New York. In 2001 it opened at the Foundry Theater: even faster, more inventive, more blink-and-you’ll-miss it than before. Lana Lesley as Dr. Narrator and Jason Liebrecht as Johnny Rotten kept their original roles from Austin, but Melanie brought in the downtown New York actors David Greenspan as Malcolm McLaren and James Urbaniak as Guy Debord (and Hugo Ball and Steve Jones), with Ean Sheehy as John of Lyden, Tristan Tzara, and Michel Mourre, and T. Ryder Smith as a leaping Richard Huelsenbeck. On opening night I saw Laurie Anderson and Debbie Harry sitting together; I didn’t notice Malcolm McLaren. The next morning I got a call from—I thought—David Greenspan pretending to be Malcolm McLaren—his performance was so precise and alive the real Malcolm McLaren became a spectre in his presence. “I want to bring this play to London,” David said. Except it wasn’t David, it was Malcolm. “And I’m going to play myself!”
That never happened, but the play ran for six weeks in New York. Later it had runs in Seattle and Los Angeles, and in Columbus and Minneapolis. It was staged at a festival in Austria. Later the Rude Mechs licensed it to another theater group in Chicago—their version I didn’t see. Last year Lana Lesley produced a graphic-novel version of the play—not the book—as Rude Mech’s Lipstick Traces, published by 53rd State Press. If you want it all brought back—or for those who never saw it—it will bring you very close.
The Rude Mechs remain an innovative group and the core of it is intact. They’re the most wonderful people.
The or certainly a question of the hour would be, is decadence something a society recovers from, like a drug addict might clean himself up, or is it something like the debilities of old age, that you can manage but cannot reverse? Surely even if your object is a one-party state, choosing a Donald Trump to be your leader is the very dictionary definition of decadence in a democracy. It’s like voting for Caligula because he and his horse make such a lovely couple. Can you think of a society that fell into a state you might call decadence and then pulled itself together?
– Robert Fiore
Most of the countries in Europe, often sequentially, from the 1870s to the present. Whether any of them exactly “pulled themselves together,” as opposed to having been shocked almost to death and then reconstructed not precisely to their own desires—Germany, France, Poland, Italy, Hungary, and so on after World War 2—is another question. But if there’s one example, so far, of a country that might have done what you’re asking for, it’s Ukraine.
Besides Ruben & the Jets were there any other Frank Zappa albums that you liked?
I loved Absolutely Free. A lot of Zappa’s satire of every aspect of American life and culture is cheap and condescending. For real satire you have to be implicated: you have to have said or done or almost said or done whatever it is you’re trying to humiliate and kill—you have to be in some small part humiliating and killing yourself. You have to be, as the current word has it, complicit in what you’re attacking.
When I was in high school, not that long after Zappa was, four hundred miles south, to show up with brown shoes could get you pushed up against your locker or shoved against the wall. It was a violation of taste and style that was disgusting on its face and threatened everyone around you: What kind of person am I if I’m willing to tolerate such an atrocity? Thus “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It,” and “America Drinks and Goes Home”—you know Zappa played in lounge bars just like that.
The cover of Weasels Ripped My Flesh is a work of genius.
[Read Greil’s Rolling Stone review of Ruben & the Jets, co-written with Jeff Rappaport]
Again, no question here, but while I’m noticing current events echoing in pop culture, it may just be our cable provider but as the Capitol storming is being covered on all the news outlets, the commercial breaks keep showing ads for Russell Crowe’s new movie Unhinged, in which he’s shown breaking down a door on some mad rampage. The word “unhinged” is probably the most frequently used term describing Trump’s current state of mind. “Russell Crowe is genuinely terrifying”, the ads promise, but somehow he comes up short compared to the nearly-identical news footage of the seditionists.
– Jim Cavender
Russell Crowe would make a great Trump. Written I hope by Quentin Tarantino or Tim Burton, not Aaron Sorkin.
When I was a kid, my mom used to play Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker and Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin. Because Louis and Chet both played the trumpet and sang, I thought Billie Holiday did too. When I found out more about her life I remarked maybe she might have been happier if she had just stuck to playing the trumpet for session work. Mom’s jaw dropped to the floor and she quickly corrected me. Then the other day, I was reading in Dave Marsh’s book on 45 singles how the real words to “Surfin’ USA” were “if everybody had an ocean,” instead of “if everybody had a notion.” I was blindsided again, as Marsh also says he was.
Has this ever happened to you? Where you find out something you believed for years was not so and you could almost feel the ground shift under your feet?
There’s a name for it. Mondegreen. It happens to everyone. As in Jimi Hendrix’s not exactly “‘scuse me while I kiss this guy.”
Maybe because I’m from California and surfing was big in my high school, it was always ‘ocean’ not ‘notion.’ And notion is just too abstract and effete for and actual song lyric—unless it’s “Goodnight Irene.”
I’ve always believed that what you heard is what is there. To listen is to compose.
What do you think of the new remixes of “The Shape I’m In” and “All Things Must Pass“?
I hate the “Shape I’m In” remix. Everything separate, cleaned up, antiseptic. No sweat. Or blood or tears or anything else.
But I’m never going to listen to “All Things Must Pass” again.
No question here, just wanted to mention the wondrous irony of watching the storming of the capitol on TV, punching up this website on my Kindle, and being greeted by the Sensations’ “Let Me In.” Nice touch!
– Jim Cavender
It’s a sick thought to imagine how cool it would have been if that gang of thugs had smashed in singing that song. But cool is communist. Cool is all those people who stole the election. So it couldn’t happen. Democracy may be cracking but epistemology lives.
Joe Biden never sounded better. Never sounded so much.
One traitor told a newsperson, “Wait for the inauguration. We’ll be back with guns.” At Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, almost all of the members of the plot to kill him—there was a plan to kill him then and there—were present in the crowd: most of them below, Booth in the reviewing stand above. Right now, everyone is in danger.
Hi Greil, I’m a longtime reader and I was curious about why you’ve rarely if ever written about some of the bands I’ll define loosely as 80s college radio rock: REM, The Smiths, The Cure, The Replacements, etc. A lot of these groups were foundational to my own taste and to many others my age — I was born in 1976 — not to mention hugely influential to a lot of the bands that followed in their wake. Is it that you dislike them or you simply don’t find their work compelling (or something else)? I’m honestly not sure I’ve seen you even mention these groups other than a stray negative comment about REM once. Thanks,
I have written about all those groups, but only in snatches—Real Life Rock Top 10 items or stray comments in pieces about something else. The reason is that except for the Cure I didn’t like listening to them. In different ways I found them boring—Morrissey’s self-absorption (I always wondered why the Smiths’ songs sounded nothing like the film stills on their album covers), the way the Replacements seemed to be playing to critics once so many swooned over them, R.E.M.’s strum ‘n’ whine. But I was completely caught up when I saw the Cure play for what seemed like three hours on their first American tour, at a place called the I-Beam in San Francisco; and I played Seventeen Seconds, mainly for “A Play for Today,” about a thousand times while I was writing Lipstick Traces. I loved and still love their radio hits, especially “Friday I’m in Love.” I liked Robert Smith’s hair and the way so many people tried to sound like him. I always wondered what he really looked like. But “Jumping Someone Else’s Train” is number one. There’s never been a rhythm like that.
I’m wondering if you’ve ever heard this.
I’m impressed by the fact that the band, and especially Mick, can still make this sound like it’s about sex—like Snap, Crackle, and Pop are participants in a menage a trois, and you, the listener, want to be a part of it, or run away, or both at once.
– Bill Wolfe
This has been around for a long time and it’s always a surprise: it sounds like the band. Just like the Nu Grape Twins who made weird and touching records in the late 20s-earlly 30s, odd blues gospel jingles, and maybe their best was the straight commercial “I Got Your Ice Cold Nu Grape.” Really, the Stones should have released this as a single. On their next tour they should open with it. Except they won’t get any royalties. They might even have to license it.
I’ve been reading you for about forty years now, so I feel like Seinfeld going out with Dolores asking this, but what is the correct pronunciation of your first name?
– John Burns