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Chandler was educated in England at Dulwich College, arriving just as student PG Wodehouse was leaving. It’s quite possible they were taught by the same composition teacher. Which of course is fun speculation though utterly meaningless.
– Lang Thompson
The great music film writer David Thomson went there too.
Jonathan Taplin told you the second album by the Band is his favorite—mine too, and maybe not just by the Band. I got it when I was nine or ten (bought it for a dollar from a classmate who I found out later lifted it from his sister’s collection, that’s neither here nor there though).
At first my favorite songs were “Dixie” because I’d heard it so many times, “Rag Mama Rag” and “Cripple Creek” because they were funny and dirty, and “When You Awake.” I keep going back to it and finding new things—“Rocking Chair” takes on predictable weight 50 years gone, but when I listened to “Unfaithful Servant” again recently it was a revelation. Maybe I’ll learn to love “King Harvest” someday.
You write about music you first heard as an adolescent or an adult—how different do you think it would sound if you’d grown up with it, the way I did with The Band? Ever wish that you had?
– steve o’neill
I was eleven when I first heard Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and, on into the next couple of years, the Monotones, Dion and the Belmonts, and hundreds more. I loved it. I had a buried and unvoiced suspicion that there was more there than anyone was admitting. It wasn’t until oldies became a concept that I began to understand how great, deep, and profound it all was. It was riding with my best friend and my father driving from Menlo Park to Santa Cruz and the radio was doing an oldies weekend and playing all this stuff from at most four years before and we’re reacting as if we’d never heard them before and in terms of critical contexting we hadn’t.
So if I’d heard The Band at that age and loved it I wouldn’t have really heard it until I’d gone through American Studies at Cal and could understand what a big story it was part of, so it could bring emotion to Lincoln’s speeches and his speeches could bring emotion to the songs. Lucky for me I’d already done that when the album came out. We have our different stories. Neither more valid than the other. What it comes down to is the album created and will continue to create common ground.
My copy of Mystery Train is not accessible for me to double-check this but I’m pretty sure you had very little use for Fresh, Sly Stone’s follow up to Riot (with the possible exception of the Doris Day cover?). I’ve always loved Fresh if only for its rhythmic and vocal excursions. “If You Want Me to Stay” is no “Family Affair” (though it has one of the all-time great bass lines), and the LP overall is nothing like the zeitgeist-shifter that was Riot, not that it, or anything else, could be. But it’s still the work of a great artist making a great sound, and even in its casualness it sounds like nobody else.
Do you hear anything in Fresh you didn’t hear at the time? (Or have you even bothered trying?)
God knows compared to what followed it’s first class. But Sly had set the bar too high, and nothing less than an album of Marcus Garvey speeches overdubbed by the “Five” Royales was going to reach it. So it’s always sounded tired, going through the motions to me—except for “Que Sera, Sera,” which was just too weird to credit.
Mainly: It doesn’t seem like you’ve written much about James Brown–does his stuff connect with you?
Secondarily, I saw something about the New Pornographers doing twenty-year shows celebrating Mass Romantic, and knowing how much you adore media anniversaries, I wanted to take the occasion to ask: Don’t you think “Letter From An Occupant,” as bulletproof as it is, is also twenty, maybe thirty seconds too long? Like maybe it leans on the doorbell just a little? I’ve been re-listening to it a bunch lately, and even though it’s still an absolute wonder, I’m still fully satisfied when it ends, which is of course its own kind of dissatisfaction. At four minutes I’m overjoyed to let it in. I feel like at three and a third it’d break through the fucking window.
– James Cavicchia
I never immersed in the James Brown pool. I think I could never really connect with his rhythm—which for the rest of the world was the true story.
Maybe you’re right about “Occupant.” I’ve always wanted it to go on forever. It’s a miracle and I’ve never questioned anything about it. After the terrorist attacks in 2001 it was the only thing I could listen to for weeks.
A few weeks ago here, you wrote about Jan & Dean: “They made unforgettably inventive records that were inspiring, hilarious, fun, and, at least twice, as great as rock & roll needs to be.”
This immediately made me think of another artist ignored by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame whom your words could equally apply to: Gary U.S. Bonds. And while, like you, I don’t look for justice or any sort of meaning from the Rock Hall, there’s something about Bonds that has me rooting especially for him to be honored and remembered.
Does anything in the universe sound like a 1961 Gary U.S. Bonds 45? In “Treasure Island,” you wrote that “Bonds supposedly used the sound of jets taking off to give his clattering singles more density.” I thought I might ask you where you heard that, but really, it doesn’t matter—it sounds like it has to be true.
I enjoyed his early ’80s Bruce Springsteen-produced comeback, too. Last year on the radio I heard for the first time “Jole Blon” (with Springsteen singing duet), a single that slipped past me in 1981—I hadn’t felt such happiness at an older musical discovery in so many years. It’s full of joy, friendship, and affection.
But my favorite Bonds track is “I Wanna Holler,” supposedly recorded around the time of “Quarter to Three” but not released until it landed on the B-side of the 1987 reissue 45 of “New Orleans.” I don’t know if you’ve heard it, but it’s a universe all its own—when it’s playing, I think: this is as great as rock & roll needs to be.
There’s something a little stiff and confining in the rhythm that keeps me from saying yes to it. I believe in close enough for rock ‘n’ roll but for me this isn’t close enough.
The album I listened to most last year was an album that seemed to have nothing to do with last year: Fairport Convention’s What We Did On Our Holidays. I think your long essay on them captures what drew me to them: the mystery and menace, and the sense of a deep and unknowable history in their sound. After reading it, I found myself wondering what a British version of Mystery Train would look like.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting you (or anyone) write such a book. But I wish I could catch a glimpse of the table of contents. Fairport Convention would be there, of course, as the only conceivable British answer to The Band, just as The Beatles are the only possible answer to Elvis. Mystery Train itself already features Ray Davies as a kind of distant brother to Randy Newman. But who else would be there? Robert Johnson is a sui generis figure even among American musicians. There’s no British equivalent of Sly Stone. And I suspect that all of their Harmonica Franks lived and died in the days of Oliver Cromwell. What do you think?
– Justyn Dillingham
This is not a simple question. Mystery Train (I first thought of calling it Phonograph Blues, then I wrote the last section and knew the book had named itself) was based on two premises: explore rock ‘n’ roll as American culture, and write about people who either hadn’t much been written about or, to me, hadn’t been written about well. Obviously Elvis had been written about endlessly, but I didn’t think anyone had even mapped the surface, let alone tried to get under it. That’s why Bob Dylan was not there—I was completely inspired and intimidated by the first edition of Michael Gray’s Song and Dance Man, and was sure I’d be wasting my time, not to mention everyone else’s, if I tried to step onto that turf. In fact I almost gave up on my book after reading that.
A British or UK or Great Britain or English/Scots/Irish version would have taken the same knowledge of, feel for, and commitment to a civilization, society, and polity that I tried to bring to Mystery Train and which sustained me while writing it. I’m not sure I wouldn’t be able to draw on that—then or now. It would come with the territory or it wouldn’t. But it would be about rock ‘n’ roll as British culture, not just a selection of critical profiles. And counting the ultra-traditionalist folk singer Anne Briggs as a punk—which is how her contemporaries saw her—it would be all punk: Sex Pistols, Gang of Four, X-ray Spex, Raincoats, Au Pairs, maybe Marianne Faithfull, and honorary Bryan Ferry. I think you could find British culture right there. And I could have started right away. A couple of months after Mystery Train was published, Johnny Rotten auditioned for the Sex Pistols.
I am a long time reader of your writings (Rolling Stone, bought Mystery Train 46 years ago, etc.etc) and I have a copy of Invisible Republic (now The Old Weird America). I was looking at reviews of The Old Weird America to try and discern how much additional information there might be in that edition of the book (the newest edition of which I believe was published when Dylan turned 70—10 years ago). One reviewer mentioned that maybe there would be another newer edition since the 2014 release of the 6 CD box The Complete Basement Tapes (and also with Dylan turning 80 this year). Will there be another newer expanded edition of The Old Weird America? (I am considering purchasing the book—even though I already have Invisible Republic—for what is reportedly a fair bit of more info in the discography etc, but would wait if there was going to be yet another newer expanded edition).
– B Evans
The 2011 edition does have some updated material regarding the basement tapes—and a cover with photos from 1967 that were a coup at the time, plus a note on the transit of “the old weird America” phrase—but nothing like the revision I’d like to do to take in the basement tapes Complete release—and a few more. I asked the publisher about that at the time and was told no. Maybe some day someone else will want to do it.
July 3rd marked 50 years since Doors frontman Jim Morrison died. Despite their relatively short recording career of six albums, the Doors legacy ranks right up there with the other ’60s immortals. But no matter if the career arc is lengthy like Dylan or the Stones or relatively brief like Jimi or Janis, the greatness usually falls around the period of ’65-’72 and no one usually refers to anything the artist did thereafter, Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks being a notable exception. Is this fair? I’d like to think the Doors, like the Stones, would have made a couple more great LPs with Jim, had he lived, before finally ceding the late ’70s to punk and disco, only to return, somehow, into a nostalgia laced ’80s-’90s comeback. As author of a Doors book I greatly enjoy, A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years, I’d welcome your thoughts on what an older Jim Morrison might have created.
– Jim Stacho
Given what was actually going on in JM’s life when he died, I think it would be most likely that he would be drawn more and more deeply into the Paris heroin culture. He would disavow music and write, publish, and perform poetry. He would have either become a good poet, and after Pamela Courson’s overdose would have pulled himself out of addiction. Today he would be a Bitcoin raja—unless, as is more likely, his poetry never rose above Byronic doggerel, and he returned to LA to put the Doors back together. After two poor, increasingly jazz-oriented albums and half-full shows, they would make “No,” which people from Johnny Rotten to Exene Cervenka would cite as their primary inspiration and which years later Quentin Tarantino would adapt as “the only real example of LA noir since Chinatown.” Today the Doors, as a trio, would play two or three shows a year in LA clubs or bars, and always unannounced.
I totally agree with you that the Shangri-Las’ absence from the Rock Hall of Fame is a terrible injustice. However, there is one book about them that I am aware of, the 33 1/3 book on their Greatest Hits album.
They deserve better.
Emmitt Till was found in the Tallahatchie River. Does that add to our discussion of what Billie Joe (Christmas?) threw off the bridge, and why Dylan felt “Clothesline Saga” was a response?
– Alan Berg
I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me at the time, but for years now I’ve been convinced that throwing anything off the Tallahatchie Bridge is a symbolic re-enactment of the lynching of Emmett Till—just as the early-teen Woody in I’m Not There being thrown into a river was the same. And given how thoughtful and probing anyone who could have written “Ode to Billy Joe” must have been, I have trouble believing Bobby Gentry didn’t think of it as she wrote.
I agree with what you have to say about the self-presentation of Laura Nyro. Self-hagiography. But imagine she only wrote those early songs and never sang a word. Same problem? I hesitate—the song craft is just so great. On the other hand one might say, well, that’s another problem (or perhaps a version of the first one) the preciousness of the song-crafter. I admit to being divided, but I suspect you won’t be moved.
I don’t want to be unpleasant. But in the scale of things I don’t think I can devote what’s left of my time as a sentient being to thinking about Laura Nyro.
Do Jan & Dean merit induction in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? I would say yes, using the following point/counterpart: The Dave Clark 5 are in. If the DC5 belong, then so do Jan & Dean. To be sure, neither act seems like a “slam dunk,” but I would argue Jan & Dean singles such as “Surf City” and “Dead Man’s Curve” were better records than any the DC5 ever made, and have outstripped the DC5 in public memory and cultural impact. Via Jan Berry, Jan & Dean were also likely the more innovative act in terms of record production, etc. The omission of Jan & Dean from the R&R Hall of Fame is a curious case.
– Birgit Fouts
Like the Shangri-Las, Jan and Dean were unique. They made unforgettably inventive records that were inspiring, hilarious, fun, and, at least twice, as great as rock ‘n roll needs to be. The Dave Clark Five were the definition of mediocrity, and everybody knew it at the time, including, I’d bet, the Dave Clark Five.
Looking for justice from the Rock Hall is like looking for the moon at the bottom of the sea. I can’t remember if Jan and Dean have ever even been nominated, by the special nominating committee, let alone voted in by all the people who, however they’re selected, vote. I know the Shangri-Las haven’t been. Shadow Morton and at least two of the group are dead. Lead singer Mary Weiss Stokes is still alive. I know what it would mean to her for the group to be recognized, and how much she resents that it hasn’t been.
For the Shangri-Las, there is no book, no movie, but there is the weirdly titled collection Myrmidons of Melodrama. For Jan and Dean, justice can be found in Joel Selvin’s Hollywood Eden, which tells the inside story of what was always right in plain sight, and Dean Torrance’s Surf City, which despite the fact that it was copy-edited by a blind and illiterate schizophrenic, is in its way as good as any book ever written about rock n roll. And in the TV movie Dead Man’s Curve, the Jan and Dean MTV Behind the Music episode, and the original circa 1971 Jan and Dean Legendary Masters collection, which came with a concordance matching each Jan and Dean single to the car and girlfriend either had at the time of its release. It’s interesting to see how often, as time goes by, they overlap.
I just finished Chaos by Tom O’Neill, which led me (along with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) to check out the whole Charles Manson affair, which I was never interested in. The thing that really knocked me down was Neil Young on You Tube saying he tried to get Reprise Records interested in him, i.e., trying to help him get a record contract.
If that doesn’t put a hole in the late 1960s rock scene, I don’t know what does. Maybe you had to be there?
I could be wrong, but I don’t think Neil Young has ever disavowed his attraction to Manson. It’s certainly there in “Revolution Blues” (done best by the Waco Brothers) and “Mansion on the Hill.” It wasn’t just Dennis Wilson. Terry Melcher was ready to sign Manson to his mother’s label; when Manson came to the house, Doris Day took one look at him, and ended that. But take a look at Charlie Says [Mary Harron]. It says enough.
In one of your replies, you used the phrase “a self-selected elect, the avant-garde under whatever name it might take at whatever time,” and that got me thinking about how we often don’t realize where the real vanguard is until years later. In the fifties, the “self-selected elect” might have been portions of the film making industry or beat poets, but over time we came to see that the real action was among frantic truck drivers in the deep South, black teens on urban street corners, and so forth. In the seventies, the singer-songwriter community thought of itself as the center of the artistic universe, but we now see the early hip hop scene in the Bronx as the real thing. Do you ever find yourself reevaluating some of your previous judgments because of later discoveries? And, do you care to hazard a guess as to where the current vanguard may be (and does it even involve music)?
– Jim Cavender
I used to think the beats were a waste of time, despite Allen Ginsberg’s “America,” which I always loved. I got so tired of reading people saying how On the Road changed their lives I was determined never to read it myself. When I finally did, ten years or so ago—the unrevised scroll edition–I was shocked at how good it was. I realized that the beats were really doing something unique and irreducible—starting in about 1948 and for a couple of years after that. Despite the incense burning over grand turning points in the fifties–and early performances of “Howl” in Berkeley in the fifties, which are so funny and exciting—I think most of what came after was publicity, and all in all a footnote. Of course the ripples of the rocks they threw in the lake go on forever—the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the great beat movie. But by the time they went public Little Richard and Elvis were telling a different story, a real story. At least in retrospect—and possibly at the time—people thought of the milieu around Sam Phillips’s Sun Studios as a true bohemia—“Like Paris in the twenties,” as Jim Dickinson called it—in other words, a classic, self-conscious avant-garde.
You may have discussed this in the past, but since I’m a recent discoverer of “Ask Greil”, here goes: I wonder if you have any thoughts on the writings of Peter Guralnick.
One thing that strikes me about him is the way he inserts himself and his emotional reactions at length into stories that are nominally about other people. Rather than making me want to say, “Move over, you’re mucking up the narrative”, I’m sort of charmed by it. I find myself rooting for him as he tells two parallel tales, one about the endless ramifications of American music, and the other about his grappling with what it means for him personally. It seems like a rare instance where a non-fiction author’s giving his ego free rein over a huge amount of factual source material clarifies, rather than confuses, the result. I say this as: (a) a social scientist (anthropology) who was trained to be cautious about ego effects on writing, and (b) someone who hasn’t read any alternate versions of the stories he tells.
Since Guralnick’s more a chronicler of music history and less an interpreter of individual musical moments like yourself, I’m curious about your perspective on what’s he done.
– Gerald Lombardi (Tokyo, Japan)
I’ve written about Peter’s work in a piece on his Lost Highway, collected in my Dead Elvis, and on Careless Love, collected in my Double Trouble, where I talk about our very different approaches. Peter is more of a novelist, to put it mildly, than I am, and his entering into some of his work is like another character in the story. It doesn’t strike me as an intrusion, let alone in any sense vain. In critical terms, you could say that as a character in his own portrayal of others he’s the reader’s stand in—asking what the reader would like to ask, going where the reader realizes he or she wouldn’t know to go.
With the Sam Phillips book, there are different issues–Peter doesn’t enter as an investigating guide, he is a part of the story, and not a dramatic or faux-fictional character. He once wrote of first talking with Phillips, or at least early on, and how Phillips was speaking to, if not from, the role Peter and others had imagined he had played in changing the world: to put it well, that Peter and others had helped Sam understand who he was and what he did, to put it less well, that he was playing to that imagining, playing with a fixed deck. Either way is kind of thrilling to me.
Recently in his newsletter, Robert Christgau reprinted his old Joy of Cooking review. A band he got into, he said, with a “nudge” from you—and indeed it topped both your ballots in the first (or zeroth?) Pazz Jop Poll. But by the time of your Stranded discography, Joy of Cooking was nowhere to be found, and aside from a couple of mentions early on, they haven’t come up in your writings since. Have they held up for you? Did you like any of their later work? Were they a lot of fun to see live? I listened to the album after reading Christgau’s review and liked it fine. But it certainly wouldn’t be my favorite album of 1971. And when I put on Tracey Nelson after them, she kind of blew them out of the water.
Their albums were fresh air when they appeared, but the tradition takes shape without them. They were thrilling live: fast, unpredictable funny, an over the shoulder goodbye look cool.
Greetings from Australia and thank you so much for being open to questions—if only other authors were as broad-minded. I see that way back in 1999, Rob Shields cited your superb summary in 1989 of what Lefebvre meant by “moments”—“tiny epiphanies… in which the absolute possibilities and temporal limits of anyone’s existence were revealed.”
Two questions for you. First: do you agree that Lefebvre’s moments revolve around failure? The Paris Commune, Paris ’68, and we could add in Occupy and much more—all political failures. Lefebvre also seems to have been incapable of love himself, at least in the sense that Christ, for example, is widely understood as having meant. His personal selfishness was after all legendary—as you know even Guy Debord broke with him over his treatment of women. So, failure on both counts. It would seem that some kind of analysis is required to modify these ‘moments’ to render them both successful and ethical. My personal preference would be to subsume them into Garaudy or Schaff’s concept of subjectivity, but there may be many other routes forward. What do you think, after more than three decades?
Second, and more generally, how do you view Lefebvre now? Do you think that his Marxist humanism is worth saving, as Christian Fuchs (and I) would say it is, albeit that much needs reforming. Do you have any views about in particular his concepts of ‘cities’ and ‘space’, in view of how real estate has come to dominate our lives even more than it did in the last century? And are you still as convinced as you were back in 1989 that Lefebvre has much to offer us, even today, despite his intellectual odyssey and his evident human failings? Politically correct after all he was not. One might mention ESG as a threat to capitalism, even…?
All the very best,
– Julian Roche
Regarding moments and failure—Michèle Bernstein for a situationist exhibition created a whole series of mockups depicting all the great revolutionary defeats as victories. If it’s true that moments and defeats are twinned, it’s because when one commits oneself deeply to something, be it a love affair, a protest, a mass action, someone glimpsed on the street for a second and never seen again—they leave that person bereft, stranded, aware of what was lost or never grasped at all. It leaves the person forever unsatisfied, because the good was sighted, felt, even lived out, solitary or as part of a group or cohort, and then it slipped away, leaving the person wondering if his or her whole life has been some sort of self-delusion, or a trick played by the world on the gullible. And that’s true even of successful revolutionary moments, such as the Free Speech Movement—even if it formally wins, achieves its goals, routs the enemy from the field, the spirit that made it happen recedes, can never be recaptured or recreated. So one focuses on those moments: there is where it happened. There is where I understood what could happen. And so you feel, not necessarily think, that what really matters in life is not achievement, honors, riches, lasting love, the respect of others, or whatever success or victory is made of, but tiny moments against which all of that means nothing.
In terms of L’s Marxist humanism, or whatever you want to call it—taking The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and the lodestone or modern discourse, which I think is really what he did—anyone who can write as well as he did, with such daring and flair and playfulness in the language and syntax—will always matter. Work on that level is art, and art can always inspire, and imbue the theoretical questions raised with a spirit of adventure—intellectual, revolutionary, aesthetic.
I’ve just finished The Rose and the Briar. What a great book! Like the best kind of writing (to my mind), it draws from so many different ideas and ultimately shows how they’re all related. I did have one question. How could you neglect “Phantom 309”??
– Jennifer Dinger
The same way we ignored Stan Rogers’s soul-crushing “Northwest Passage.” Ignorance, stupidity—but mainly, asking writers to write about whatever they wanted. And we had to squeeze the concept. Is “Come Sunday” really a ballad? OK, Stanley, make your case.
I’ve been watching (not all in one sitting of course) the video of you and your panel of rock critics using Dave Marsh as an excuse to talk about yourselves and dear god what a train wreck. I enjoyed what you, specifically, had to say about Creem, but what was up with the Blair Witch camera? And all the credit Marsh deserves for his charity work notwithstanding, watching you play Ed McMahon to his Jerry Lewis was disconcerting to say the least.
I did love seeing the rapier-wit Dean of Rock Critics (“chris cow,” as the Zoom subtitles would have it) bumble through his script read like a gibbering chimp, though.
And what was Greg Tate talking about with that Dave/Springsteen “recognition of self” comment? Does Zoom just make your brains fall out your ears?
Absolutely. I’m never good in these round tables.
To explain what I was saying [5/25] in mono v. stereo reissues, perhaps I was just swallowing the hype on this, but the way mono reissues have been pushed was “everybody put all their attention and effort into the mono version and the stereo mix was an afterthought because not many people had stereo gear.” That’s certainly the basis on which the Beatles Mono Box was promoted, and more recently the Rolling Stones mono collection. I might be misremembering this, but my recollection from the Buffalo Springfield reissue was that the stereo mix was something the producer put together without the band’s input. If you tell me the Who Sell Out mono version was a bargain basement deal (the Who being sold out as it were), I believe you.
– Robert Fiore
I don’t know who did what and why. If it sounds right then I’d say the stereo is legit. Stereo became a thing—in Playboy product reports and standards and hype, which was the test in the early-mid sixties. It was developed to replicate the real symphony experience. At first it was simple—put this here and that there. To the point where the vocal was on one track and the instrumentation on the other. And that could be wonderful. I’m not sure if the stereo mix has been changed, but when Rubber Soul came out one of the great thrills was to turn off the vocal track and just listen to it as an instrumental. The interplay, the simpatico, the deep affinities made it a thing in itself. We wondered—why not put it out that way?
No question for Mr Marcus, I just wanted to pass along a Dylan Twitter thread from 2 days ago I think he’ll will enjoy…
– rich tidwell
I think this quite hilarious. Especially the woman who ‘performs as’ St. Vincent Price.’
Hello Mr. Marcus,
I am a French researcher, and I want to know more about covers in the ’60s or ’70s. For instance, Bob Dylan’s songs or Beatles’ were massively covered: did other artists ask for their permissions? Or they just paid royalties? Do you know if some artists can refuse others to cover their songs? Merci, as we said in France.
Laws vary. There is generally a right of first release, which the owner of the song can surrender (if I recall correctly the Byrds [Roger McGuinn] released their versions of “American Girl” before Tom Petty). Normally one licenses on a standard automatic manner from the relevant music company and either accepts terms stated or negotiates.
Your description of the dystopian political scenarios in Masked and Anonymous in the Like a Rolling Stone book is depressing me as I reread it today, realizing how distressingly close it is to current reality.
That’s so because you can imagine them all saying, let’s push this a little farther… Just substitute Russians for Nigerians or whoever they are and its right there. Trump’s project: sell the country, take the profit, buy southern Florida, live happily ever after.
Have you ever tried writing a novel? Has it ever been an ambition of yours to do so?
– Madelaine Lange
Not at all. I’ve fooled around in fiction inventing biographies for Skip James, Robert Johnson, and Geeshie Wiley, and had great fun and satisfaction doing it—getting everything right in terms of context, making up the rest. I did something similar before the 2000 election with twin pieces imagining Bill Clinton’s future if Bush were to win or Gore. Art Spiegelman once presented me with a series of comix panels done for RAW—without any explicit ID, following Princess Caroline of Monaco after she escapes following Grace Kelly’s death and her adventures with sex, terrorism, and punk, and asked me to write captions for them, and that turned into a very mini novel, all cued to someone else’s work. But as I’ve said here before, I think criticism at its best is a form of fiction, and that is still kicking.
The reissue trend of the last my goodness has it been ten years now has been mono versions of records of the ’60s, and mostly it’s been at least a new sound of something familiar. I was wondering, are there any mono versions that you’ve found particularly superfluous or disappointing compared to the stereo? What brings it to mind is the new Deluxe Edition of The Who Sell Out (which if they’d been on their game would have been called The Who Sell Out Sells Out, or better still Jaguar Presents The Who Sell Out Sells Out). I would have thought that mono has been more true to what Radio Caroline sounded like, but I didn’t listen to it more than a couple of times. The stereo mix just seems to surround you, with the dynamics of each performer bouncing off each other, while the mono just sits there like a lump in the middle of the room. The other time I had that feeling was with the reissue of the first Buffalo Springfield album, where they had enough room to put both versions on one disc. Whoever it was that did the stereo mix on that was like a matchmaker in one of those societies that has arranged marriages who has a better idea of which young people will be suited to each other than the young people have.
– Robert Fiore
Stuff recorded in mono should be heard in mono (Phil’s last words). One of the worst features of the ’70s as the most embarrassing decade was so-called enhanced aka fake stereo that ruined the entire Chess catalogue and much else. But what you’re talking about makes no sense to me. In the ’60s albums were recorded in stereo and released in essentially fake mono for a dollar less because they were supposedly cheaper to produce. When I was asked to write liner notes for a Dylan Mono Box I was shocked to find Dylan mono went as far as Highway 61 Revisited. Who would buy an album defined by its expansive sound in mono, I thought. Then I looked at my own records and found that I had: $2.99 not $3.99.
I really enjoyed watching you, Paul Morley, Ann Powers, Sean Latham and Laura Barton the other night; especially to see the mutual admiration that was subtly expressed by you all. Are there any Dylan authors or new books on the man that you particularly admire?
– Lucas Hare
Timothy Hampton’s Bob Dylan’s Poetics: How the Songs Work—terrible main title, I think they may be reversed for the paperback. From 2019. Replays the songs—and Hampton can write about music technically in a way that someone who can’t score, like me, can not only follow but see through. He has a great sense of humor. He could have called his book Making the Songs New.
Found the Dave Marsh discussion interesting and revealing. He does seem easier to admire than like, though that’s just my opinion from afar.
s curious why he considered Lipstick Traces a sort of apostasy or betrayal. Did he think the subject matter was too removed from the immediate concerns of Americans living under Reagan?
– Derek Murphy
Because America was under the thumb of Ronald Reagan and the fight was here—America was the subject, and I was deserting the field. I don’t altogether disagree. But an obsession had developed and I had to pursue it. And it might have been a flight from the burdens and disappointments of democracy—a fascination with a self-selected elect, the avant-garde under whatever name it might take at whatever time. But as an obsession I had to pursue it and I was lucky to have the chance.
Great Bob [turned] 80 on May 24. Apart from music, what is his legend made of? Which are the elements that interpret his legacy all these years as in a never ending narrative?
– Dimitris (Greece)
I can’t, on this forum, address questions about the meaning of life, which is what questions as broadly ontological as these amount to, not that I could address them in any other forum.
Writing in the immediate wash of the loss of your colleague, Ed Ward. I hope ‘colleague’ is still a good word. It seems that term gets degraded every time a congressman uses it to describe their opposite number.
I adored Ward’s writing. In particular the description that made me a fan: The opening statement in his Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll chapter on The Band. I don’t have the book in front of me to quote it perfectly, but he described a town where he once lived, in rural Ohio. There, his two second-floor apartment windows faced different views – one of the small town, and the other of the adjoining countryside. It was an absorbing piece of folk art, rendered by words in place of paint. On first read, I could picture the scene perfectly. I saw a young man sitting squarely in the wide arc between the corner windows in his bedroom in a cheap antique chair. Ed had quickly drawn the reader into his own space and asked if they had ever been in a place like that. Why? So that he could equate The Band to that scene. He wrote that the group had their legs on both sides of the line between the two vistas and could move between the two casually. Or words to that effect; I can only recall the gist of it. But among the things that I learned from Ed’s work might be that a gist of an idea can be indelible.
Condolences on his loss, and I wonder, naturally, if you have a passage shelved in your mind that is owed to Ed Ward.
– Glenn Burris
[Note: this was the first of three inquiries received about Ed Ward, who died on May 3rd.]
That paragraph is as luminous as anything on Music from Big Pink. I read it again and thought, it’s a good thing that hadn’t been written when I was writing about the Band for Mystery Train. Because if it had I might not have bothered.
I talked for a long time Tuesday to David Browne of Rolling Stone, who was writing an obituary for Ed—when he first e-mailed about talking, I hadn’t heard of Ed’s death but figured that must have been the reason. I finally focused on his chapter on the “5” Royales for Stranded—as, first, music writing at its very highest, and then, at the end, after Ed’s shocking “I made all of that up” after taking the reader through the story of the forgotten but now absolutely alive rock ‘n’ roll band. It was as if he’d given the reader a great gift and then snatched it away—until you realized that the gift was unkillable precisely because he had made it up: it was fiction, and if it made you believe then it was true. And then after that, a manifesto in the form of a diatribe, on the falsity of culture writing, the killing ghetto of rock criticism, the shrinking of American culture, his place in the scheme of things or why there wasn’t one and never would be. I remember another contributor to the book asking, when he saw the finished work, why I hadn’t cut that last section—it was self-indulgent, who cared, it was a bad way to end the book (I knew, when I first read it, that nothing should or could follow it). It’s Ed, I said. I gave everyone a chance to write a length about something they cared about and he did, no less than Lester Bangs did, which is why his piece closed the book. I wish more people had had the nerve.
You did a radio show at KALX Berkeley shortly after Elvis died; I still have a cassette of that great show where you played “Long Black Limousine,” “Jesus Mentioned,” and more. I cannot find or remember one of the songs that went “1 2 3 4, Dr. Nick can I have some more? 5 6 7 8, oh too late, the King of RocknRoll is dead Bye Bye.” Do you know that song from so far back in the Time Machine? Thanks for all you do.
– Mike McAlister
I have it somewhere, but it’d take me forever to find it. But I think it’s right up there with “Breathe For Me, Presley,” which is also by someone I can’t remember. [Charlie Burton?] I wish I had a tape of that show. I thought it might be on Elvis’ Greatest Shit! but I misremembered—that’s all real Elvis recordings, like “No Room to Rumba in a Sports Car” and an outtake of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” where Elvis blows a line and lets out with “Shiiiiiiiitttttt—”
Have you ever considered bringing all of your Beatles writing, together and solo, into a single volume? I find everything you write about them to be stirring, the pieces may be brief, often in Ask Greil, or longer, as in Ten Songs.
Not like any other writing on them. Deep, deep!
Thanks for the vote of confidence, but… there are so many Beatle books. And I’m not sure the world needs another one after Devin McKinney’s Magic Circles. That said, nothing scared me as much as taking on the Beatle chapter in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. I was so stranded I put Lester Bangs’s piece on the British Invasion first, just so I wouldn’t have to set the stage. That’s one piece I wouldn’t take back, even if there was a horrible error right at the start.
Stay safe in Portland.
I have been a huge fan for decades, and I hate for my first submission here to be in the form of a correction, but here we are: your reply on April 14 to the question of whether you were a fan of SCTV (“…especially Michael Richards as Reagan and what they did with Katherine Harris after the 2000 election”) seems to be conflating several different comedy series, from different eras. The Michael Richards reference is almost certainly about Fridays, ABC’s late ’70s/early ’80s response to SNL; and both SCTV and Fridays were long gone by the time comedy shows were making fun of Katherine Harris, so I presume the latter reference is actually about MAD-TV, the longtime FOX Saturday-night mainstay.
– Harold Wexler
You’re right about Fridays. I thought Harris was the same show. Maybe I never saw SCTV at all. Which show had Oxy Rush Limbaugh talking about his new marriage and still no sex but he wasn’t going to push it?
4/29/21 Hola, have you seen this?
Did you ever have a live Dead experience to thrill you to the marrow?
Great site, hope you are well.
I hadn’t seen it. What strikes me about it is how completely Jerry Garcia sounds like anyone who went to Menlo-Atherton High, which is not surprising since we grew up in the same place at pretty much the same time, as did the rest of the band—I knew Bill Kreutzman in grade school and Bob Weir, who I didn’t know, was two years behind me in high school.
I did have a live Dead experience. Not at one of their shows, though I saw them a lot in 1966 and 1967. Listening to “Cold Rain and Snow” on Vintage Dead.
What do you think of Bob Dylan’s Christmas Album? I told the Dylanology fan group it was crap. And added, where’s Greil Marcus when you need him? So someone posted a link to you.
– Graham Smillie
It’s actually the one Bob Dylan album I haven’t listened to. I heard one number on the radio and that was enough. I used to go around town singing Christmas carols too, but I wouldn’t want to listen to a record of it.
Have you read Joel Selvin’s new book Hollywood Eden? If so, what is your opinion of it?
– hugh grissett
If you have any interest in that time and place, you’ll love it. It’s hard-boiled, funny, and between the lines a study of how hustle and trash sometimes turn into art.
[Greil wrote more about Selvin’s book in his latest Real Life Rock.]
1) Here’s a link to a short youtube video of Phil Proctor talking about the origins of the Firesign Theater that I found informative and entertaining. I like when Proctor makes a Fred Willard joke and they cut to Willard in the audience.
2) You have written of Saturday Night Live several times over the years. Were you a fan of SCTV?
– Erik Nelson
I loved SCTV. Especially Michael Richards as Reagan and what they did with Katherine Harris after the 2000 election. They often exposed SNL as cowardly and backward—especially during that time, which was generally embarrassing for SNL anyway.
I’ve been reading you my entire life and had the pleasure of seeing you at the Chicago Humanities Festival. On 3/25 you asked, “Has Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain” ever been used on a soundtrack? What movie could possibly stand up to it?” The song in its entirety plays over a sexually explicit three-way in Gaspar Noe’s Love. Unfortunately, Love was shot in 3-D, so you will be missing a dimension if you stream it. Do you think the scene stands up to the music or just feeds off its power? Maggot Brain is also the title of a twenty-minute short about a record collector whose vinyl of the titular album goes missing, setting him off on an obsessive quest to recover it. Here is a link in case you are interested.
– Robert Puccinelli
Thanks so much for this. I’m not sure I could take Gaspar Noe even to hear what he did with “Maggot Brain”—well, I watched a few scenes from Love, and know I won’t—but I loved the Maggot Brain movie. It reminded me of that skin-crawling record-filing scene in Diner. I could see too much of myself and a lot of other people I know in both. Also: you’re terrific in this.
I’ve been reading your 1979 Beatles piece, and my question arises from your recent answer here about Sgt. Pepper, and from an earlier one where you wrote that you were always a John person, but that you have since “certainly changed your mind about Paul”—and that you later realized “if you weren’t a Paul person, how much you missed.” The main idea of my question to you is: Did we miss more than we thought?
I think of the middle period from A Hard Day’s Night through Revolver and even into Sgt. Pepper as distinctive—after the band really found themselves as songwriters and collaborators, but before they began their obvious disintegration. In this period, John and Paul were both brilliant. John’s songs are often better, though, and they dominate the albums. And I have no doubt that John’s toughness often saved Paul from excessive sweetness, softness, and whimsy. However, now I wonder if, during this time, the overall guiding spirit and musical vision the Beatles were creating in—ebullient, incandescent, effortlessly and incomparably tuneful, adventurous and inventive yet instantly and universally accessible—were mostly Paul’s.
I can only point to superficial supporting evidence. Before this period, John’s musical vision was mostly spare, original rock and roll. After this period, I’ll use your words: “John was already cultivating his rebellion and his anger.” On the other hand, Paul’s direction seemed consistent throughout—“pure pop for all people” (to borrow a Paul phrase of yours)—and from mid-1964 through 1967, John’s music was passing through Paul’s prism, not the other way around.
In other words, to me it seems that Paul’s “All My Loving,” “You Won’t See Me,” “I’m Looking Through You,” “We Can Work It Out,” “Here, There, and Everywhere,” “Good Day Sunshine,” “For No One,” “Penny Lane,” and “Lovely Rita” could have happened without John. But John’s “Eight Days A Week,” “I Should Have Known Better,” “It’s Only Love,” “Girl,” “In My Life,” “Day Tripper,” and “And Your Bird Can Sing” (and maybe even “Strawberry Fields Forever”) could not have happened without Paul.
I’m not stating this as some kind of bold claim or insight. It’s really just a thought, barely more than a suspicion in hindsight. But what do you think? With Paul, especially during this middle period, did we miss more than we thought?
I’m not sure [what] the line between apparent or even documented John and Paul songs is (And how can it be documented? John would often say, when someone questioned something about a song, “Well, that was a Paul line”). “I’m Down” seems like an absolute John song, in this meta-world, but Paul sings it. “A Day in the Life” has John verses and a Paul bridge—if you want to put it that way. But John had a lot of trouble finding how many holes they needed to fill the Albert Hall. He may have thought of it. Paul may have. I’m sure George Martin told everyone he did. Do you really think they weren’t throwing ideas at each other, even if both came in with their fragments to start?
What I meant about changing my mind about Paul was that I thought he was, compared to John, shallow. Hearing him interviewed over the years since the Beatles ended, especially in Anthony Wall’s (movie) and Debbie Geller’s (book) The Brian Epstein Story, I know that was a stupid thing to think. So I missed paying attention to him when I could have. I missed not taking what he said about his first solo album, in the press kit that came with it, where he disparaged the Beatles, more seriously. I don’t think I, or other people, necessarily missed anything in the songs. You heard them, they came across, did you care about authorship?
They were a group. “Things We Said Today” may be their first art song. It’s credited to John and Paul. But it feels like George’s “Don’t Bother Me.”
Given its intersection between the civil war and punk influenced rock&roll, I’m curious if you’ve ever heard Titus andronicus’ The Monitor?
Yes. Of course I was attracted by the overweening ambition and arrogance of taking this on and offering songs like “A More Perfect Union” and “Richard II.” But I didn’t hear it happening beyond the titles.
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 Kubrick’s 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