In which readers ask Greil Marcus questions and he answers them. To submit your own question, email email@example.com, and use the subject line, “Ask Greil.” (Alternatively, you can use the submission form at the bottom of this page.)
You’ve written about your experience at Altamont, “the ugliness, the disgust, the cheapness of feeling,” and its aftermath, how you “suddenly couldn’t stomach listening to rock and roll” and went into a long retreat.
Have you ever contemplated how that mirrored Sly Stone’s retreat from his own music at the same time? Following the triumphs of Stand! and at Woodstock, Sly & the Family Stone released “Thank You”/”Everybody is a Star” a few days after Altamont on December 10, 1969, topping the charts again, and then—two years of blankness, an abyss which no one grasped until Riot revealed it in November 1971.
In Mystery Train, you do not speculate about the causes or discuss the details of this pre-Riot period—you say “something went wrong,” and little more. Do you think Altamont might have played a part, might have left Sly Stone, a fellow Bay Area resident (could he have been there?) with the same pall of confusion, horror, falseness, and betrayal?
I feel stupid not having asked myself the questions you’re asking about Sly Stone and Altamont. Why did it never occur to me that that band might have been at Altamont, or that Sly would have cared about what happened there? Because there never seemed to be any interaction between the original Fillmore crowd and Sly? Because, especially after Woodstock, no one wanted to be upstaged by him? I asked Joel Selvin, not only author of a fine book on Altamont but the person who knows more about San Francisco music from that time (or other times) than anyone else, about the question of Sly at Altamont. He says he doubts it would have come up, that it was a “family” operation—i.e., about the Grateful Dead and their milieu—and that Sly wasn’t remotely part of that.
The lineup of bands was very catch as catch can and last minute—different members of the Dead bringing in different outfits. But even if the idea of Sly and the Family Stone did come up, from elsewhere, by late November or early December the why not is obvious. When the Rolling Stones played the Oakland Coliseum Arena on November 9, 1969, early in the tour that culminated with Altamont (that culminated with Altamont partly because they played there that night, and were attacked by Ralph Gleason and others for high ticket prices—depending on seating, from a low of $4.50 to a high of $7.50, when admission to the Fillmore was about $3—and Altamont was conceived as an apology and a way to regain credibility as a band on the right side, as well as a way to end the movie that had been filming all along), the first show started at about 7 PM, with Terry Reid and Ike and Tina Turner opening. Tina so tore up the place that the Rolling Stones wouldn’t follow her—they waited two hours before going on (which is why my wife and brother and I waited outside for three hours for the second show and got home around 3 AM). There is no way in the world the Rolling Stones were going to let that happen again—and I can’t imagine any of the bands that did play at Altamont being willing to follow Sly either.
The question of how Altamont might have affected Sly Stone is more complex and ambiguous. He was no innocent. He’d been up and down and around the block so many times they could have named all four streets surrounding it after him. San Francisco hippie optimism was part of the Family Stone’s self-presentation from the start—but as time went on and their music got sharper, always questioned, critiqued, made contingent on things no one could control. “Thank You fallentinme” #1 and #2 have the same lyrics, but the first version gives them the lie and the “Riot” version gives practically everything Sly had recorded before, including the same song, the lie. Altamont couldn’t have been a shock—on one, cognitive level. In terms of a sense of home—where do I belong, where am I from, who makes up my community, what role to I play there?—community in terms of the Bay Area, but also the world of music, of audiences, radio, records, communicating to people all over the world—it’s hard to imagine that that didn’t have an effect.
Sly had his own problems. Timothy Crouse’s 1971 “The Struggle for His Soul” story in Rolling Stone is first-class and it only skims the surface. Sly was living, partly, in his own world. He heard, saw, felt the world he had been living in, and had helped make, coming to and end—it’s stunning to hear him historicize that time, on stage, at the Isle of Wight in 1970, before most people had grasped that anything had changed or even would. But Altamont had to bring any thinking person up short, and Sly was a thinking person.
Any thoughts on the passing of Scott Walker? Just guessing (I’m in London) but I imagine the news is causing greater waves overseas than in his homeland, certainly one of the very few American artists whose influences are almost exclusively European
– Paul Ashbridge
No. Cabaret was never for me and while their hits were OK they weren’t who they were pretending to be.
You’ve likely answered this one previously but does the format you listen to music on change your experience at all? Time Out of Mind on vinyl is something else.
– David Robinson
I’m not a vinyl fetishist, though I know it’s all over: when I take records into Amoeba in Berkeley the vinyl is much more prized than CDs, and for the new Jenny Lewis album they’re carrying the vinyl only. To me, once CDs got the initial percussion-dominant bugs out of the system, the difference isn’t in the material that contains the information, but whether the music was recorded analogue or digital. That’s where the warmth-coldness depth-surface disparity comes from.
As for Time Out of Mind, my favorite version, which I was listening to when your message came in, is on a bootleg of 1997-99 live performances of the songs called Not Standing in the Doorway with the Dirt Road Blues (Just Yet), though now no doubt re-bootlegged a thousand times under other names (first track is “Lovesick,” last the same). The way those songs expanded their reach and grasp on stage is staggering.
I was wondering if you were a fan at all of Andrew Loog Oldham’s autobiography? (He writes what I think is a terrific description of his first hearing “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”…)
There’s wonderful stuff throughout but after 100 pages or so it was like fishing in a swamp.
What are your current thoughts on potential impeachment of Trump? I’m torn. On the one hand, if enough hard evidence is discovered, it would seem like a dereliction of duty for the House not to impeach, with or without the necessary confirmation of the Senate to have Trump removed from office. (It might send a terrible message to not go forward with proceedings.)
On the other hand, for the House to impeach, or even just to go through the proceedings, will almost certainly result in political chaos, maybe violence in the streets (Trump is already signaling, no?), not to mention that it will ‘gin up’ Trump’s support.
Do you favour one option over the other?
At the moment, I’m not convinced that even if proof were discovered that Trump signed an agreement to turn over the government of the United States to Vladimir Putin while a female Russian agent urinated into his mouth enough Republican senators, let alone at least 35% of the polling electorate, would abandon Trump, thus allowing not just for the House to impeach him but for the Senate to convict him. What made Nixon’s impeachment legitimate was that except for Barbara Jordan the most eloquent voices pushing it forward were from Republicans.
I could be wrong, and things could change. At this point, defeating him in an election would be better—but better means getting rid of him, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be re-elected. What it comes down to for me is what the Democratic primary means: I have my thoughts about who would make the best president, but I’m a yellow dog and what I want is someone who can win, which means stand up, not take the bait, blow off the demeaning nickname, and come up with a language that neutralizes his while making everyone else listen.
I recall when Michael Jackson died there was almost a palpable sense of relief, and the unspoken sentiment was “Thank God he’s dead, now we can love him again.” This spoke to a kind of reserve that was being felt before that. It was a Schrodinger’s Cat situation, where it was possible to believe that no actual sexual activity was going on, it was impossible not to suspect that it was exactly what it looked like, and a lot people really didn’t want to open the box. I think anyone is entitled to find an artist’s personal morals so repugnant that you can’t derive enjoyment from their work. I don’t even think you’d have to justify it. But it also seems to me that a work of art is a thing in and of itself, that has qualities of its own. Clearly it is easier to have ideals than to live by them, and you can put ideals into a work of art that you don’t live by in your life, and you’re not necessarily going to be compelled to put your most wicked impulses into your art in the same way you are compelled to act them out in life. The idea of taking revenge against the artist’s behavior by attacking the art always seemed to me a little screwy.
But on that subject—The Ginger Man. It seems to me that Sebastian Dangerfield is such a complete son of a bitch, and Donleavy is so intent on passing him off as some kind of life force or some damn thing, that Donleavy had to be trying to justify his own behavior.
– Robert Fiore
I agree completely about Donleavy. It wasn’t long before I thought, he wants us to believe he’s the king hell stud of the world. Or he wants to convince himself he is. Or could be. Or will be as soon as people read the book. He’ll have to beat them off with a stick and publishers will pay him for anything forever. I didn’t finish it.
[re: 3/11 response to Tracy Smith]
“I tried to stop listening to the Rolling Stones’s “Brown Sugar” and couldn’t—”
“Brown Sugar” goes right past me, although I can’t say that and feel good about it— but “Stray Cat Blues” feels more despicable every year and I have never been able to listen to “Midnight Rambler.” Ya-Yas and the ’69 tour bootlegs is the best combination of blues/country blues I can think of, but I have to edit out a third of it. Every time.
– David McClure
I was prompted by a disingenuous piece I read recently about Patti Smith and male rock critics to re-read your review of Horses. I’m a slightly bigger fan of the album than you are, but not by much. In general, I don’t return to her recorded work all that often, and I was pretty middling on her award-winning book, Just Kids. And yet, she was, for a while anyway, a transfixing performer—for me, best captured (on record, anyway) on the “Hey Joe”/”Piss Factory” 45.
You’ve touched briefly on her work over the years (usually negatively), but what are your thoughts on her now? Do you regularly return to any of her music? And given what an instrumental figure she was in bridging the critic-musician divide, did you ever meet or discuss music with her?
– Scott Woods
This is complicated. I was always put off by Smith’s toughness routine—“Jesus died for somebody’s sins… but not mine”—that Lou-Reed-in-his-worst-period pause, that melodrama, that preening. As time went on I was more than put off by her piety, her performing as some kind of saint, and the self-congratulation run amuck in Just Kids, which I couldn’t read for just that reason—I find that quality utterly unbearable in a writer. Her championship of Ralph Nader for turning the country over to George W. Bush made me ill—I realize that wasn’t her motive for supporting Nader, but it kept her pure and we all know what else it led to. I don’t understand why “People Have the Power” can be talked about as if it’s anything other than a lousy song, if it is a song, let alone, as with the beginning of the article you’re talking about, as if its composition is a kind of miracle about which sentient beings ought to know absolutely everything. I got so sick of her writing songs about dead poets and singers—it was like you weren’t really dead, whether you were Kurt Cobain or William Burroughs, until she wrote a song about you. She made a lot of records I love—“Pumping (My Heart),” “Because the Night,” “Pissing in a River,” a lot of Trampin’, Twelve.
On the other hand, on the few occasions when we’ve met or been in contact, going back to the time of her first single to a few years ago, she’s never been anything but friendly and gracious.
But here’s what it comes down to for me. In March 2001, as part of the exhibition “Les années pop” at the Pompidou Center in Paris, Patti Smith, Nick Tosches, and I were brought together for a talk (me), poetry recital (Nick), and musical performance (Patti). We all spent an afternoon catching up—Nick and I were old friends, meeting people (for me, Gerard Malanga, who was as nice as anyone could be, regardless of his once-upon-a-time Exploding Plastic Inevitable whip dances), and then rehearsing.
That night I went on first. I was told I couldn’t use the podium Nick and I had rehearsed at, because it was for artists—Nick as poet—not critics. After an introduction from the curator Mark Francis, so fulsome I was almost more embarrassed than gratified, I began talking, and was interrupted by a guy coming onstage to tell me I was speaking too fast for the simultaneously English-to-French translation being offered. I slowed down, and was stopped again and told I was taking too long—I had been given 30 minutes, and had talked for about twelve—and had to wrap it up. I did, in about a minute. I was so furious I was ready to leave the hall—I mean, they’d invited me, not the other way around. I can’t remember being so angry. Then Nick got up, drinking and smoking, with one two musicians behind him, and performed his poetry, including “A Cigarette with God.” There’s an album of his part of the night: Fuckthelivingfuckthedead. He was not exactly coming across, and he went on forever, which made me even more incensed. Then after a break Patti came on with two or three musicians—not her regular band, at least not Lenny Kaye. She began singing, playing (including saxophone on “Sea of Love”), spitting on the stage between songs, and she was magnificent. She was overwhelming. She erased everything that had come before and started over as if no one had ever sung a song before. She seemed possessed by an energy, purpose, dedication, and fervor beyond ken. When it was over and we all left I kept saying, My God! I was on the same stage as Patti Smith!
What was your first impression of Steely Dan? Did you like “Do It Again” on the radio? Did Can’t Buy A Thrill reach you, or offer any promise of what was to come with their second, third, and fourth albums?
My immediate reaction was, this is different. This isn’t obvious. I wanted to hear more. “Reeling in the Years” sealed it—clumsy or cheesy lyrics, music that was never what you expected. I suppose at long distance that sets up Pretzel Logic—the musical flips all through “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” (more cheesy lyrics) were something you couldn’t have expected. For all that they’d done, that album was a flood of thought, instinct, daring, and the pleasure of getting it right: “All night long we sang that stupid song, and every word we sang I knew was true.”
The late Arthur Alexander’s songs were hits for him in the early 1960s and have been recorded by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan (I think!) and many other famous artists. He describes situations that may be common in pop music but there is an extra moral dimension that I find quite interesting. The lyrics often treat moral dilemmas and have solutions!
— “Anna” – If he loves you more, go to him.
— “You Better Move On” – You ask me to give up the only love I’ve ever had & it’s up to her and the lord above (to decide).
— “Go Home Girl” – To be in love and have an affair with your very best friend’s girlfriend.
Any thoughts about Arthur’s songs?
There’s a quality of sadness and regret that runs through his music that’s different from the sad soul of so many others—a kind of admission that he’s not good enough for the people he wants, the person he wants to be.
It took a great deal out of me, but I finally managed to watch the recent documentary Leaving Neverland. I am an ’80s kid. I grew up listening to Michael Jackson and I was mesmerized by his dancing and music videos. Through the years, I knew about the alleged sexual abuse but pushed it out of my mind, not wanting it to interfere with my enjoyment of his music. Now, after watching Leaving Neverland, I am leaving Jackson. Hearing the compelling accounts from Wade Robson and James Safechuck makes it impossible for me to enjoy his music as I once did. In this case, I am unable to separate the art from the artist, though I’ve been able to draw a distinction in other cases with other artists. My question is this: How do you go about making decisions regarding art vs. artist? Have you ever stopped listening to an artist because of something you’ve learned about them that crosses a particular line for you, making it impossible for you to enjoy their work? Any other thoughts concerning this subject would be greatly appreciated.
– Tracy Smith
Pete Davidson had a segment on Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live last night [03/09] addressing just this issue—and as sharply as I can imagine anyone doing. There is no way to make rules about this, to set standards, to measure one form of perfidy and all of its excuses and palliatives against others and all of theirs. You will find that at times you simply cannot listen to something, because real life will get in the way, and in other cases, where your rational mind can tell you it dishonors the victims for you to take pleasure in what you’re hearing, you won’t care.
I stopped going to Woody Allen movies when he made his “the heart wants what the heart wants” statements, which to me trashed all notions of responsibility, decency, care, and affection. I have seen a few since, which were either garbage (Midnight in Paris) or allegorical justifications of whatever he might have ever done or felt like doing. There was a time I tried to stop listening to the Rolling Stones’s “Brown Sugar” and couldn’t—I wrote (not very well) about that in a whole feature in Creem. After Altamont I pretty much stopped listening to rock ‘n’ roll because I simply didn’t want to hear it and listened to country blues instead. I loved certain Michael Jackson or Jackson 5 records, but I didn’t care about him the way so many other people did, and after covering the opening of the Jacksons’ 1984 Victory Tour in Kansas City, and watching Jackson at a press conference try to explain away the exclusionary pricing policy of the tour—I wrote about that in Rock ‘n’ Roll Confidential, Artforum, and Lipstick Traces—I could feel that in some ways he was no longer exactly a person. I don’t turn off “Billie Jean”—it’s too much of a labyrinth, you can’t not get lost in those sounds—but have no problem turning off “Human Nature” or “Beat It,” which are very good records.
See GM on: the Jacksons’ Victory tour (August ’84)
Why aren’t the Guess Who (from Winnipeg, Manitoba ) in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
And have you heard the new Marianne Faithful album? If so, any thoughts?
– David Robinson
“Share the Land” gets them in, “American Woman” kicks them out.
She’s made awful, preening records, but I’ll always want to know what she’s doing, because she can get to places most people don’t know are there. I thought Negative Capability was a bad record, but there are hints of that other dimension on it, so I might be wrong.
You are on record as loathing Jimmy Gilmer & The Fireballs’ “Sugar Shack.” I’m a couple of years younger than you are, and grew up in Wichita, Kansas, a slightly less cosmopolitan town than San Francisco. In the pre-Beatles era, Billboard Music Week (as it was known then) was my lifeline to music outside Wichita’s Top 40 radio. I was a chart watcher, rooting for my favorites to outperform the records I didn’t like. Like you, I absolutely despised “Sugar Shack” when it was popular in the fall of 1963. But I’ve come to believe that some of that antipathy was a result of the song’s excessive popularity. I was outraged because “Sugar Shack” robbed better songs of airplay and chart prominence. If it had been a more modest hit, it would have been a minor annoyance rather than the worst record on the radio.
But the fact is, I hated several of the big hits of 1963. For every “He’s So Fine” there was a “Sukiyaki,” a “Hello Mudduh, Hello Fadduh!,” or the execrable “Dominque” (the real worst record of the year). Rock & roll is dying, thought the 16-year-old kid in Wichita, Kansas, who’d been listening to the radio for all of four years. Little did I know how much things would change in 1964. “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven.”
Now, here’s the question. All songs considered (hit singles in any genre, worthy obscurities, b-sides, and album cuts) do you have a favorite year for music from the pre-Beatles era? I’d probably pick 1957, which I think of as the year that rock & roll did NOT fade away, and instead solidified its place as the dominant pop genre. Pop singers from the pre-rock era mostly stopped trying to sound like teenagers; one trick ponies like Bill Haley wore out their welcome; and a host of great new hit makers (e.g. the Everly Brothers, the Coasters, Sam Cooke, Buddy Holly, Ricky Nelson) replaced them. Runner up for me would be 1961, which was kind of the last gasp of the original R&R sound and many of the first-generation rock and roll artists.
– Robert Mitchell
If I’d been cooler or older or otherwise different and aware of rock n roll earlier than I was already I’d one-up you and myself and say 1955. Or if I were Nick Tosches, maybe 1952. But I’ll go with 1962-63 for the Crystals, the Chiffons, Martha and the Vandellas, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (“They called it folk music,” wrote Suze Rotollo, “but it was really rock n roll”), the Beach Boys, and the Beatles—before anyone here knew who or what they were or that the “Please Please Me” the radio in San Francisco in the spring of ‘63 was playing like crazy wasn’t by the Beetles.
In the early months of 1976, a friend, recently relocated from Berkeley to Arkansas, loaned me a copy of Mystery Train. I read it deeply, amazed that the skills I’d learned as a literature student were applied to the music I loved. I wrote a letter to Harmonica Frank ordering his album and got a long two-page letter in return with the LP. I needed one more course and walked into the university bookstore only to find a course using for texts your book along with others by Bill C. Malone, Tony Heilbut, Americo Paredes and others. It was a course called American Folk and Popular Music. I walked into the instructor’s office with my Frank record and my letter, and was greeted as a colleague, a member of the Illuminati, never mind [that] it was the first record I had ever ordered through the mail. That class would eventually lead me to a PhD in folklore and a life spent working in music, for which I thank you.
My question is, if you were write the book today or if you were to do a Son of Mystery Train, who might be included that were not on the scene or your radar in 1975?
– Mike Luster
Well, first, I’d love to see that letter. Frank and I corresponded a good deal and he was a musician (who never got paid) on the page.
The book as it is has, or tried to have, its own interwoven conversation. So it’s impossible for me to imagine others as part of it—in those pages. At the time I considered Van Morrison, as an immigrant, and Arlene Smith of the Chantels. The first notion was too obvious, and I didn’t think I could rise to the second. Build a whole chapter on three singles? Now I know I could have done it on simply “If You Try,” but I couldn’t have done it then. Or maybe it was just a failure of nerve.
As for progeny of the book, The Old Weird America is a paragraph from Mystery Train blown up into a map and followed as best I could. The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs is the book after 40 years of figuring out how to write about music and tell stories at the same time—trying to figure out what stories the songs want to tell and why it sometimes takes lifetimes, and, deaths, to find out.
I was curious what your thoughts were on Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions album and tour? I thought many of the songs and arrangements either echoed or were inspired by your ideas about “the old, weird America “.
– Scott Yeaman
I liked the idea, and liked especially “John Henry” and “Old Dan Tucker”—especially the video of “John Henry.” I didn’t see why these traditional songs were dedicated to, all but branded for, Pete Seeger. The show itself brought out all the least effective parts of the recording: too many people, too many instruments, a hootenanny! Which I’d always hated, really a kind of mass square dance, something we had to do in sixth or seventh grade at the Quaker school I went to, which I hated even more.
Favorite albums or songs of 2018?
– M. Robbins
Albums: Bettye LaVette, Things Have Changed; Mekons, It Is Twice Blessed
Singles: Lana Del Rey, “Venice Bitch,” Dirty Denim, “Meant to Be”
The Huey “Piano” Smith post got me thinking of my own favourite obscure (to me anyway) New Orleans song, Reggie Hall’s everything-you-thought-you-knew-is-wrong “The Joke”. Maybe it’s just me, but something about the image of Perry Mason selling shoelaces is irresistible.
– steve o’neill
About the best critique of 1950s/early ’60s TV I’ve ever heard.
Your review of Nick Tosches’ Unsung Heroes prompted me to skim through his book, which led me down a rabbit hole I almost never find myself in, listening to some rare rockabilly cuts. Through a comp on Spotify, I came across this song (“Mountain Guitar” by Rudy Thacker and the Stringbusters), and was astounded, less so by the song itself than by the guitar sound—so dirty and so cheap-sounding, I love it. Are you familiar with it? (There is a different recording of the same song by Rudy Thacker, also available on YouTube, but it’s much tamer.)
– Scott Woods
New to me. Very plowboy. I wouldn’t call it rockabilly, though.
“Poly Styrene has a screech to disinfect the Roxy toilet,” you were quoted in the recently updated 1987 Top Ten Albums post on this site. I wonder if you have ever heard this, a live “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” from X-Ray Spex’s only American appearance, at CBGB in March 1978? Styrene had always sung this condemnation of all modern enslavement in a shouting blare, but here she makes it into a personal exorcism, forcing out the choruses in hideous, electrocuted squeals and ruptured, blood-freezing roars before finally collapsing with an exhausted “no more…” Terrifying.
I’m prejudiced, but the imitation of Lora Logic takes a lot away from the whole performance, especially near the end, where against what Poly is doing the sound just gives up on itself.
How did you first get introduced to Robert Johnson, and what do you recall of the experience? Were you already well acquainted with other blues artists?
I wrote about this in a piece—originally a talk at a history class at Berkeley—called “When You Walk in the Room,” which I collected in my book The Dustbin of History” It was January of 1970, just after Altamont, in a little place called Record City, on Telegraph near Bancroft in Berkeley. I was flipping through blues albums. I was sick of rock ‘n’ roll, disgusted by what it had become, what I’d seen that day a month before—the violence, the passivity, the musicians’ preening, the idiocy of the fans. I didn’t want anything to do with it, didn’t want to listen to it. I saw an album with “From Four Until Late”—a song I knew from the first Cream album, which I’d loved. I thought I ought to know where Cream songs came from, so I bought the Robert Johnson album and took it home.
Bob Dylan, in Chronicles, writes more eloquently than anyone about the shock of hearing Johnson for the first time. A close second is Walter Mosley. But my experience, and that of countless other people, was the same as theirs. Suddenly, the world and everything in it—love, hate, war, peace, recording techniques, musical tricks, what a song is or could be—looks different.
I went back to Record City to hear more. It was the right time and the right place. I hadn’t know that since the early or mid ’60s, Berkeley had been ground zero for the cult of 1920s-30s country blues. There was a bar, the Albatross, where blues followers spent their time, and where many performers from those decades would perform. Chris Strachwitz, founder of the Arhoolie label, who had recorded many older blues players, was in Berkeley, as was John Fahey, a blues collector who with Bill Barth had found Skip James, as was the blues hunter Ed Denson, who wrote a music column for the Berkeley Barb and was the manager of Country Joe and the Fish. Most importantly, the principal label devoted to reissuing country blues (if not the only one), Origin Jazz Library, was located in Berkeley, and Record City had everything. Over the next six months, I bought and listened to everything, barely believing the sounds, the power, the subtlety, the whole cosmos at work in this music. I had the same kind of awakening Peter Guralnick describes having experienced quite a few years earlier in Cambridge, in his book Feel Like Going Home. And my fascination for that music has never left me.
My husband is a fan of yours and often recommends and/or shares really interesting things in music and culture based on your writings, and we really enjoy it, so thank you for that.
I have a blog, with about ten followers, which is both kind of neat, and kind of weird to me as an experience. I wanted to ask you how you manage or feel about the possible neatness and equal weirdness, of having a variety of people following you?
This is an ‘Ask Greil’ question, provoked by both a thought and a recent experience. The thought being: how does one not have their writings altered when being aware of the audience that is reading them?
And the experience of: what happens when sometimes your audience is kind of different than you may expect…
For example, I was recently preparing a blog post on the greatness of Gene Pitney (I am not sure how you feel about Gene Pitney and would be very interested to know), and I went into a used record shop to buy more of his records. While there I met a Gene Pitney fan, whose intensity initially I found charming, and very understandable. But that quickly moved to kind of weirding me out completely.
Resulting in me not yet posting my writing on Gene Pitney. And my husband (understandably) thinking me lame due to, not appreciating as I should, the people of the city vibes.
I would love to hear your thoughts.
You can’t worry about what people might think of what you might say. You can try, or just imagine, who your audience might be, and try to present what you have to say with enough contexualization to make it inviting to people who, for example, may have never heard of Gene Pitney (who I love), without putting off those who have. You provide information in a manner that doesn’t convey the feeling that you are lecturing, or telling people something they ought to know.
I’d like to read your post that works in your encounter at the record store, rather than one that represses it.
I can’t find anything more than a passing reference in your work (in an early Top Ten) to Spike Lee. Are there any films of his you enjoyed? Did you see BlacKKKlansman? Armond White tore into it. Would love to know your thoughts.
I can’t say why I haven’t written more about Spike Lee. The movie that most captivated me was Jungle Fever. I thought it was deeply complex, never obvious, the characters drawn with enormous empathy, and startling over and over again—I remember thinking, whatever anyone says about Spike Lee, he knows how to make you watch. That’s always been true—with Do the Right Thing—and what IS the right thing? That’s not obvious either—the floating, intertwining subtleties of 25th Hour, the truly ambitious and almost impossible-to-pull-off Bamboozled—and whatever the weaknesses of the plot, the montage of racist parodies from all across the history of film at the end is one of the most devastating sequences I’ve ever seen. BlacKKKlansman did not have the impact on me I wanted it to. The plot seemed jerry built, the ensemble scenes underpopulated—not because there weren’t enough people in them, but because they had no convincing emotional lives. Rather than the probing sympathy Lee can find in characters that, it seems, you’re not supposed to like, the people here came off as roles, not people—but again, the closing montage of present day Klanism swept away everything in its path. If the movie were there simply as a two-hour set up for those few minutes, that made it all worth it.
The fact that Lee had never before even been nominated for Best Director at the Oscars is insane.
What are your thoughts on Lady Gaga? How do you her view her stylistic/musical evolution through the 10-ish years she’s been around?
I don’t. She’s a wonderful idea, born from Zeus’s forehead. She imposed herself in the world. But I don’t think she came upon what it was all for until “Bad Romance,” where in the last minute she practically is Zeus. After which she could do whatever she wanted. You can see the evolution, the story, in the first 45 minutes of A Star Is Born. Forget the rest—it has nothing to do with her.
Is there a period of music by an artist that you enjoy yet most critics seem to dislike? In my case I have always enjoyed the Johnny Cash recordings for the Mercury label in the late 1980s/early 1990s.
– James Proctor
This doesn’t really ring a bell for me. I did like the second Wings album…
It’s the week leading up to Mardi Gras here in New Orleans, and this is one of my favorite (among dozens, or hundreds) obscure New Orleans R&B tracks, although by a giant who defined the sound and embodied the spirit. Huey “Piano” Smith & the Clowns cut “Walking Down the Street” in 1962 after returning to the Ace label (following a brief and uneventful stay on Imperial), though it remained unreleased for decades.
The music is so vividly pleasurable, tumbling forth in its cartwheeling insouciance—don’t you imagine how much fun they were having making this?—a schoolyard variation on those seemingly limitless rollicking New Orleans street rhythms that don’t happen anywhere else. And I love the words: even after they get married, the girl still says “she’ll let him know”! “Stone age confusion” indeed. I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.
This sounds kind of faded—a diminution of the ’50s stuff. Huey and the Clowns don’t ever go as far in many directions as many other people, but they had a warmth, as ease, that was theirs alone, and that no one else caught. “Don’t You Just Know It” is a comfortable groove. But “Sea Cruise,” which originally had Huey Smith’s vocal, not Frankie Ford’s, tells you they could go anywhere if they wanted to. It’s a great record : white pretty boy Ford could sound as demented, and as happy, as anyone who hadn’t yet been run out of town. Could Smith have been better—or even different? Didn’t Ford simply copy Smith’s demo?
Have to ask Huey. Unlike Frankie, he’s still around.
What’s the Lenny Bruce material you keep going back to? Any to avoid? Also; is there any live Firesign Theatre you recommend?
I once had twenty Lenny Bruce records, most of them legal jeopardy performances that I never listened to. I hadn’t listened to the older ones for a long time, so when I moved from a big house to a small house I got rid of them. I’d start with the albums that originally came out on Fantasy and go from there.
The Firesign Theatre is another story—I have listened to their records since each of them came out and never tire of them. Even after hundreds if not thousands of playings I always hear something new. Their masterpieces remain How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All and Don’t Crush that Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, but Just Folks, Everything You Know Is Wrong, and In the Next World, You’re On Your Own are all unique, hilarious, and disturbing. Later works—Boom Dot Bust, Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death are worth it. Start with Shoes for Industry! The Best of the Firesign Theatre, a two CD set, and see where that takes you.
The Minutemen are my favorite band of the last 40 years, and I think the music they made during their 1980-1981 arrival still sounds groundbreaking, daring, and startling. So I was overjoyed when I found this, a live 1980 performance of “Art Analysis,” a song they never recorded, an apparent throwaway that captures what made them so different and so great. There is no other band that can give you this ride in 53 seconds—compressing so many shifting ideas and surprise turns—and leave you fully satisfied. A listener could hear this today and think, “This is something new.” What do you hear?
They were a wonderful band, and this is what I like about them best—doing stuff that would never occur to anyone else. Except Wire, which I’ve always loved, in any incarnation, which to me, not to be reductionist, is just what this sounds and feels like. I think if you got all the band members, in or out, living or dead, in a room, and told them to come out in ten minutes with something that lasted under one minute—under-one-minute songs were all over Wire at the start—they’d come out with this. Same title, too.
[cf. 2/14] Loose terms about which band is “better” than another (i.e., Beatles v. Queen—“rallying spirit”—what does that mean? “sincerity is questionable”—how do you prove that?) go nowhere. There is no argument.
Better to stick to facts. Thousands of books have been written about the Beatles, many of them quite serious. How many have been written about Queen?
Derek Murphy, I assume you were talking to people who have not spent much time in libraries.
– Richard Cusick
Facts in art take you only so far. Like up to the first corner on your block. Then you start improvising to figure out the best way to get where you want to go. The provable best is the most direct route. But if you want the most interesting, untried, possibly troublesome route, the most direct route is not the best. It may tell you only what you already know, which is what most of the books on the Beatles do.
First off I want to thank you sincerely for your expansive response to my query about the RS History of Rock & Roll book [11/6/18]. It was a real joy to read.
This is similar to a question you were posed before. My wife and I are making a musical pilgrimage of sorts to Memphis in the spring. Last year I read Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music as well as his biography of Sam Phillips, and those books and my kinship with all of that music has left me longing to see the city so central to its stories. I only have about three and a half days to play with because of my work schedule. Obviously the Sun Studio is the major item on my agenda, with the Stax museum close behind, as well as the usual wandering that we love doing in new places. You advised another reader making the trip to see the films The King and Mystery Train, which I will. My own question is if there’s any reason I need to see Graceland. In my thirties I’ve fallen in love with Elvis after only sort-of “getting it” earlier in life, but I have to admit I’m personally a bit bored by displays of rock star opulence and decadence (if that’s a fair word), which is one reason I was underwhelmed by the Hall of Fame in Cleveland. But if there’s one person I trust to convince me that I would find some mythological importance within the mansion, it’s you. If you have any thoughts on that or any more on the city in general I would love to hear them.
I’ve actually never been inside Graceland. When I was there only the grounds and the gravesite were open. I liked the souvenir shops across the street.
You must to go Beale Street, especially Schwab’s Dry Goods Store. Get some Success Oil. And Memphis has great barbeque, but you’ll have to ask around. Ask anyone.
Questions about choices, from Stranded and beyond:
The O’Jays – “Love Train” vs. “Back Stabbers”
Del-Vikings – “Whispering Bells” vs. “Come Go With Me”
The Left Banke – “Pretty Ballerina” vs. “Walk Away Renee”
Then later, Public Image, Ltd – Paris Au Printemps vs. Metal Box
And finally, the infamous Moby Grape marketing stunt of releasing 5 singles on the same day, from what would be a perfect album. I come back to this record more than any other from that time and place… it just keeps giving and giving. But I really don’t hear a hit single on it.
Similarly, if not “For What It’s Worth,” would middle America have ever heard of Buffalo Springfield?
– Joe O.
“Whispering Bells” (very close call)
Paris au Printemps one day, Metal Box another
“Hey Grandma” might have made it if released alone. Except for them getting arrested with underage fan night of record release party and Columbia backing off.
I’m curious about what kind of audio gear you use when you are listening to music (at home, while walking, etc.)
– a reader from Hungary
At home I use a stereo, CD-cassette-turntable, with a 52 year old Macintosh amplifier, plus good desk speakers for my computer. I listen to news on the radio in the morning and to music on my car radio when I’m in the car. That’s it.
Recent events in Virginia sent me to YouTube to revisit your  lecture on blackface. While I was watching it occurred to me that the term “blackface” itself has been applied too loosely in the Ralph Northam/Mark Herring scandals. If I understand you correctly, Northam (or whoever that was in his yearbook photo) was engaging in what you call “literal blackface”—blacking up to demean and humiliate African-Americans. (I flashed on that vile picture when you quoted from Melvin B. Tolson: “somebody has to black hisself/for somebody else to stay white” and wondered, irrelevantly I guess, whether the guy in the KKK robes recruited someone to play Rastus to make his own costume look radder.) Literal blackface is, as you say, poison.
Herring’s case is different, I think. However misguided and insensitive he may have been, darkening his skin to impersonate a specific black man that he actually admired rather than a stereotypical construct doesn’t strike me as what you’d call literal blackface. In The Atlantic, John McWhorter suggests that “to ban anyone ever putting on brown makeup as part of mimicking a person of color regardless of his or her intent” will likely result in “a tacit societal rule that black Americans are the only people in the country who are never to be imitated, even in praise, except by other black people.” (McWhorter, who is black, also relates that in 1984 he and a white friend in brown makeup went to a dorm party as Louise and George Jefferson. I’m really glad I didn’t go to college in the ’80s.) McWhorter concludes: “Ralph Northam must go. But must Mark Herring?” What do you think?
– steve o’neill
Staying away from my I think simpleminded ‘literal’ formulation—and this enormously complex unearthing in Virginia—this exhumation of its history, its proof that “it’s history” is the dumbest combination of two words since people started using it—proves how simpleminded it is. I know John McWhorter—he’s a deeply skeptical person unashamed of what he loves, which includes a lot he, as a black man, isn’t supposed to, like old radio plays. He thinks. At first I thought Northam shouldn’t resign, but then I saw the picture, which is hell. He could have been straight, as Herring immediately was, but he wasn’t. He said yes, yes but, no, and anyway, and I could do the moonwalk but—he can’t be trusted. John is right.
a. Considering the countless amount of folk and blues standards that have been recorded over the years, are there any particular ones that mystify you regarding their popularity among artists? For example, I have never heard a version of “Jole Blon” I thought was any good (although if you have, please feel free to point me to it), but it pops up constantly in roots music recordings.
b. By the same token, are there any pop standards you find inexplicably popular? I find “Won’t you Come Home, Bill Bailey” to be a fairly humdrum wartime tune, both melodically and lyrically, and am surprised it’s clung on for more than a hundred years now.
c. Have you read Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End of Taste by Carl Wilson, his 33 1/3 book on a Celine Dion album (the one that includes “My Heart Will Go On”)?
d. As a side note, I was amused to learn that it apparently came about after his proposal to write a book on a Pere Ubu album was shot down for the subject being too obscure (his response was naturally to then write a book on an album everyone knows about, whether they like it or not).
e. what do you think of the Mekon’s OOOH! (Out of Our Heads)?
– James L
a. I agree that it seems like a pointless and not very convincing number as done by the people best known to have done it. That’s why I was completely shocked by the 1929 recording of “Ma Blonde Est Partie” as it appeared in Bernard MacMahon’s American Epic series on PBS in 2017, and on the 4 CD box set of the same title. I’d bet it will sweep you away.
b. Oh, “We’ll Meet Again”? “White Christmas” (except by the Drifters)? A million (no exaggeration) others?
c. Not yet.
d. David Thomas would love that story. And work “My Heart Will Go On” (or at least a song of his own with that title) into the next Pere Ubu tour.
e. A whole album about severed heads? And they lived up to the idea. It’s one of their best, least obvious, from so far left field it’s from the next ballpark over. I wrote a column on it for Interview that only scratched the surface, but there was still an infinity of strange moments to talk about.
I was recently in a discussion with a group of colleagues much younger than I – the oldest was 46, most were in their 20s, and I’m 58 – in which they all agreed Queen was a better band than the Beatles.
I’m going to leave my reaction aside. What interests me is your sense of how and why generations hear and receive music differently, and whether any objective, enduring argument can be made that, say, Elvis beats Fabian, or that Kendrick Lamar is superior to Vanilla Ice.
– Derek Murphy
You can make an objective argument that Elvis beats Fabian or Lamar beats Vanilla Ice. You can question the sincerity—the commitment of the singer to the song—of the latter two (or for that matter Elvis’s in “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck” or even “Treat Me Nice”), but you might be wrong (don’t forget the self-mockery in Vanilla Ice’s name as such). But if someone is more moved by Fabian or Mr. VI, it’s stupid to question their taste, morals, or education: they are moved, which is to say momentarily taken out of the limits of their taste, personality, or education, glimpsing that the world is bigger than, moments before, it appeared to be.
There is no Beatles v. Queen. To me, so much of Queen is bombast. But there is a rallying spirit in songs far more open than “We Are the Champions” that the Beatles couldn’t touch, even on the Queen-like “All You Need Is Love,” the sincerity of which is questionable, except when they sample themselves with “She Loves You” and “Yesterday” at the end. The world is bigger, as John Lennon might put it, “than Beatles,” and one of the things in that bigger world is Queen.
I’ve been obsessed with this song for 40 years. It was referenced in Andrew Holleran’s novel “Dancer Form the Dance” (one of the 1st two mainstream gay novels) in 1978. He described the song as one that maddened the 1st generation of post-Stonewall gay men who danced at the 10th Floor.
The song was written by and first recorded by Curtis Mayfield on his Curtom label. He then gave it to an unknown 16 year-old girl named Patti Jo in 1973 who recorded it for Scepter. It was remixed by Tom Moulton in 1975 and became the anthem of pre-AIDS gay culture. Then, it disappeared.
I first heard the song in a Tom Moulton remix compilation released in 2000. I didn’t expect it to mean much to me, but when Patti sings “make me believe in you, show me that love can be true” there were tears. The desperate yearning, overpowering the strings, percussion, background singers and, yes, a flute, reminds me of Sonny Til singing “Am I the fire, or just another flame.”
Since it was you who led me to The Orioles, I’m curious what you’ll make of this.
– Mark Shaw
There’s so much that’s distinctive and unusual here: phrases (‘Your heartbreaking world’), the commitment in the singer’s voice, the way the chorus grows in strength as the orchestration under the melody increases. It becomes a story. You want it to continue on the B side, to find out what happens. Phil Spector said that some records are just records, and some are just ideas, but records that are both can rule the world. I can imagine that if this played ten times in a night in a club it would feel as if it did.
I might be wrong, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen you refer to George Orwell. Did any of his work—novels, essays, journalism—ever have an impact on you?
– Justyn Dillingham
Well, I’m currently teaching in Room 101, Moffitt Library, at Berkeley, and have so far resisted the temptation to attach cages full of rats to students’ heads. Otherwise, Homage To Catalonia has stayed with me deeply for its passion, complexity, and judgements regarding relative evil.
Have you seen Across the Universe? I’ve never seen you write about it. I thought it started to drag when Bono showed up but Evan Rachel Wood and the Woodettes singing “It Won’t Be Long” was as sexy as anything I’ve ever seen.
– Kevin Bicknell
I haven’t seen it—but soon will, as I’m taking part in a discussion of the film after a screening at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where I went to summer school half a million years ago.
[see talk here]
The connections between great rock ‘n’ roll are difficult to predict. Huey “Piano” Smith “Don’t You Just Know It” and the Band “We Can Talk.” Trading vocals among band members. In each instance, a total groove.
– Harry Clark
Not only difficult to predict, but hard to parse backwards. I don’t think I ever would have made that connection, but can hear it instantly. I wonder if there would have been a place for “Ooh Poo Pa Doo” in “We Can Talk”—it’s one of those instances where it pains me that we can’t call Richard Manuel and ask him. I remember so vividly him saying to me, in 1970, “I just can’t write anymore. I try, and it sticks. I don’t know why.”
Given your positive response here last week, I’d like to ask your opinion about a few obscure records I love (though I would bet you’ve heard them all):
— Howlin’ Wolf, “Do the Do” (Chess single, 1962). You’ve written about the chaotic, fighting, “hammering, shoving” instrumental atmosphere of “Wang Dang Doodle,” and this B-side sounds like they went back for more. My favorite Hubert Sumlin guitar solo.
— Dave Bartholomew, “The Monkey” (Imperial single, 1957). “Yes, man descended, the worthless bum—but brothers, from us he did not come.” Can you imagine hearing this on the radio then?
— Percy Mayfield, “Digging the Moonglow” (Specialty single, 1957). Just an unimprovable song and a delight, made by a despairing artist after a disfiguring car crash—a tale full of images, sounding like a natural hit.
Percy Mayfield has always put me off, despite interesting or daring songs—I always feel like I’m listening to a businessman make a pitch, and this is no different. Howlin’ Wolf’s “Do the Do” is a sensuous marvel, an apparent throwaway that can make you feel like you understand rhythm for the first time. As a sex song it’s also the best name-of-the-dance song ever. And Dave Bartholomew’s “The Monkey” is a visionary masterpiece. It’s like listening to the Pillar of Fire the Israelites followed during their forty years in the desert. You can see Prince Buster playing it a hundred times in a row; you can hear Jim Morrison using it as a take off for “The End.” It’s so politically powerful it ceases to be funny about five seconds in. It’s Nobel Prize work—the Signifying Monkey taken to its limits, though here it’s really the monkey doing the Signifying Human.
Could you please give your opinion on three songs on heavy rotation on my CD player lately? Conway Twitty’s “I Hope, I Think, I Wish,” Del Shannon’s “Why Don’t You Tell Him?,” Lesley Gore’s “You’ve Come Back.” Thank you. I have also been playing Del Shannon’s “The Answer to Everything” lately.
– hugh c grissett
I continue to appreciate your taking me into the woods over performers I thought I knew but obviously didn’t. The Conway Twitty is delicate, self-conscious—a very “She Thinks I Still Care” like number that he pulls off well, though I’ve always liked his proto-Roy Orbison hits more than his more respected stuff. The Del Shannon seems distinctly minor—something of a self-imitation. I like the guitar, but the song lacks conviction, from the writer, and Shannon seems to recognize there’s not much he can do with it.
I think about Lesley Gore more and more often. She had such a cruel life—giving up her nice Jewish girl future for music, tossed on the scrapheap after her hits stopped, shunned both for not coming out and coming out, dying far too young, denied recognition after her death—though people forget, or didn’t notice, how powerfully her music resonated, on an organized basis, during the last month of the 2016 presidential campaign. But again, while Quincy Jones creates a good setting and Gore tries to get all the way into the song, this isn’t really a song. You can hear the melody searching for some kind of direction to follow, never mind resolution. There’s nothing to hold onto. There’s no structure to elicit emotion, let alone to hang it on if it does come forth.
I can live without Conway Twitty, but there are half a dozen Lesley Gore songs that pierce life, and Del Shannon at his tortured best (“Runaway,” especially as rerecorded for Crime Story, and “Stranger in Town”) remains one of a kind: the Gene Vincent Gene Vincent should have been and, once (“Slow Times Coming”) was.
Aside from a mention in your piece on the Natural Born Killers soundtrack, I don’t think you’ve written much about Diamanda Galas. What do you think of her music? I love the album she did with John Paul Jones, especially the cover of “Dark End of the Street” and “Baby’s Insane,” where she sounds like a drunk Cher auditioning for a Salvation Army band.
– steve o’neill
Your description is perfect. But to me she always sounded as if she had a huge bellows going all night to pump her up. Like, OK, I get it. Someone where I liked the idea better than the act.
1) Have you seen Deadwax on Shudder and, if so, what did you think about it? (Deadwax is seven short episodes which total two hours [for some inexplicable reason]. I liked Hannah Gross in the private eye role, a “vinyl tracker”, Ted Raimi, and Chester Rushing, as a college radio DJ. The writer and director, Graham Resznick, has definitely seen a couple David Lynch films.)
2) Also curious if you have seen The Sinner on Netflix and what you thought of Bill Pullman’s portrayal of Detective Harry Ambrose?
– Erik Nelson
I haven’t see either—they went right past me. But I’ll look at both (Bill Pullman has seemed so depressed in the last five or six years) and try to report back.
May I get your opinion on three more of my favorite obscure songs? One of my fun pastimes is searching out good obscure songs. My latest ones are, “Picture In My Wallet” by Darrell and the Oxfords, “My Memories of You” by Baker Knight, and “Cry, Cry, Cry” by Jack Scott.
– hugh c grissett
There’s a running theme here—very light, not very convincing songs by guys carrying a torch for some girl who left them, or, in Jack Scott’s case, that he broke up with. But while Baker Knight has a nice touch, and Darrell starts out with an insinuating tone, promising an actual story, the songs seem ornamented, as if no one is very confident they work. I love Jack Scott—one of the true rockabilly originals, combining doo-wop and Elvis like no one else, plus he looked like a complete thug—but again, this seems to me almost a contradiction of his best instincts. First there are the horns, which make you wonder if Jack Scott even heard the final record. I’m not a big lyrics person, especially with songs like these, but here the lyrics are so bad you can’t not notice: “Maybe things will change, rearrange”—when song speech is a contradiction of real speech, when it goes where no sentient being would ever go—I’ve got a real love problem, I think I need to rearrange it—then there’s no hope. Playing this on YouTube takes me in a line to Scott’s real hits—“My True Love,” right now.
The YouTube film clip that accompanies Larry Williams’ “Slow Down” [see 1/26 – hugh c grissett] is from the 1956 film Don’t Knock the Rock, and the song they’re dancing to is Bill Haley’s version of “Rip It Up.” The best (i.e., the silliest) dance sequence in all of ’50s rock & roll exploitation movies appears in that same film.Unless it’s this one from Rock Baby Rock It:
– Robert Mitchell
I’m always half-amused half-stunned by the 30-year-old high school students in these movies. Yet if Gene Vincent didn’t sue the people behind Rock Baby Rock It for persona theft—well, I guess he didn’t, since the guy is still there.
1. Any opinion on Samuel Marlowe and his influence on Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler? (He seems like a fascinating character, but I can’t help thinking of the Henry Silva segment on Amazon Women Of the Moon: “Bullshit, or not?”)
2. What do you think of the novels John Irving has written after The World According to Garp?
– Erik Nelson
I didn’t know anything about Samuel Marlowe until I looked him up and found the 2014 LA Times story by Daniel Miller. The real question is, what does Walter Mosley think of this?
My favorite John Irving novel after Garp—though I love two of his first three, Setting Free the Bears and The 158-Pound Marriage—is The Cider House Rules. Having an abortionist operate out of an orphanage run by nuns is the kind of thing that, first, only Irving would think of and, then, pull off as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world. It also led to the best movie made from an Irving novel—Charlize Theron has never been more forceful or irresistible, and Tobey Maguire never more of a witness who becomes an actor. After that, A Widow For One Year—and again, the movie made from just part of that, A Door in the Floor, is also fine.
Like many, I find your Real Life Rock column to be essential reading. My question is in regards to the missing New West/California offerings. I teach at a university in Canada that has an excellent library, but they have nothing to offer. Do you have any advice as to how the absent columns might be found? Have they disappeared?
– David Penner
I wrote a column called Real Life Rock for New West/California, which had a little box at the bottom listing various things that made up a Real Life Rock Top 10, but there was no commentary. The actual Top Ten columns began with the Village Voice in 1986, after the Real Life Rock columns per se had ended.
After California folded, it seemed to disappear into the ether. I have no idea who holds the copyrights. Certainly no effort was ever made to exploit the pieces that had appeared in the magazine with anthologies or anything else.
So, in essence, the columns I wrote have disappeared, except for those I collected in In the Fascist Bathroom or Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus, and those that have appeared on this site. I have them all, and hope that soon, if I keep up my end, they will all have a home here.
In July 2018 here, when asked about the new 50th Anniversary deluxe edition of the Band’s Music from Big Pink, you responded, “What we really don’t need is another—or any remix.” Then in your December 2018 Real Life Rock Top Ten entry about this edition, you wrote, “All you need is the single CD as remixed by Bob Clearmountain, which you can get on its own, and it’s a shock.”
Of course, it’s perfectly natural to have prejudices upended in a delightfully surprising way, but I wonder: Were you aware of your skepticism (and your July answer) as you first listened to the anniversary remix? If so, was it cathartic to feel that skepticism overcome by what you heard? Also, did the experience do anything to soften your overall feelings against remixes? Do you hope The Band gets a similar treatment?
I was put off by the gross expensiveness of the box set, by the notion that anything that right should be tampered with, but the second or third time I played the remix I was hearing so much I hadn’t heard before I was swept up. The Clearmountain seems to me full of respect, but also a fan’s desire to expose secrets, to hear what you’re not supposed to hear.
That said, I was almost unconvinced of myself by Chris Morris’s long and devastatingly clear attack on the remix in Variety. Then I played it again, agreed that he was right, but didn’t care.
Could you give me your opinion of three of my favorite obscure records—Gene Thomas’s “Baby’s Gone,” Dion’s “A King Without a Queen,” and Little Willie John’s “She Thinks I Still Care.” Thank you!
– hugh c grissett
One of the things I love best about this, whatever it is, is finding out about music that I never knew, or even heard of. As with all of these. But they didn’t sound special to me, which isn’t to take anything away from how special they are for you. Gene Thomas doesn’t convince me that his baby is gone, or that he’d notice if she were. Dion’s “A King Without a Queen” seems to me a title stretching for a song, which never comes together—it’s not filler, but it never achieves shape. Little Willie John’s “She Thinks I Still Care” is fascinating—but all it does it take me back to George Jones, who can put so much into the end of a word, or take so much from it. And it’s no shame to come in second to George Jones, at least on this song.
I watched Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home back to back with the recent movie The King. Scorsese shows a live performance Dylan performing “Visions of Johanna” toward the end of the 65-66 tour with the Hawks. Dylan is brilliant—and really out of it. That face tells the story of management pushing an artist too hard. I remembered that look on his face. I was shocked when I saw it again at the end of The King. Elvis is performing “Unchained Melody.” Like Dylan, Elvis is drugged and tired, but it occurred to me that this had to be the result of having managers like Albert Grossman and Tom Parker. These two faces continue to haunt me. Is this really the price these artists pay to perform? Elvis didn’t live a long life and Dylan’s certainly changed after that tour, but I can’t help think that both were the result of managerial abuse. These are great artists, yet they seemed to have little control over their lives. How does it come to this?
– Scott Anderson
It’s hard to tell when the persistence of the performer is due to his or her own needs—the need to be in front of people, to receive back whatever they are giving, the need to make money—or the manipulations of management. It’s more complicated that it might appear, though in the end we might say, yeah, but it all comes down to the same thing: greed.
Near the end of Elvis’s life, the need for money was real. Part of that was due to Col. Parker’s mismanagement of Elvis’s career and money, if not actual embezzlement to cover his Vegas gambling debts, and part of it was due to Elvis’s hysterical profligacy—but that profligacy was encouraged by Col. Parker, and might have even been, to some degree, arranged by him, in order to keep Elvis beholden to him. I haven’t ever read anything ascribing anything as vicious to Albert Grossman—Dylan’s father was a businessman, Dylan was familiar with the disasters of debt and the fleeting nature of good fortune, he made money and knew how to keep it. It could be his major financial blunder was trading Grossman the giant Double if not Triple “Elvis” Warhol gave him, or was importuned to provide, for a screen test, for a couch.
Elvis was in no position, psychologically or otherwise, to say no near the end of his career—if he wanted to. He had said no, with Steve Binder backing him up, to the Colonel over his 1968 Singer Special—going for a daring show when it could have been a Christmas show inferior to his movies. And when Dylan came back to Woodstock after his UK tour in the spring of 1966, for what was supposed to be a brief layover before a huge world-wide reprise of what he’d been doing since September of 1965, he very plainly, by whatever means, according to whichever story you chose to believe, got out of it, with the equivalent of a doctor’s note about why Bobby didn’t have to go back to school for, you know, eight years.
You’ve written that “each Republican president makes the previous one look good,” and “the bar always goes lower, and it can always get worse.” That being the case, do you have any predictions about what a post-Trump Republican presidential candidate would look like? The idea that someone who makes Trump look good could be nominated, let alone elected, terrifies me, and I’m not even American.
– steve o’neill
There’s never been a president like Trump, so it’s easy enough to say that this little rule of mine will come to an end when he is out of office and another Republican president comes along. Even Mike Pence, who Trump himself once joked would prefer to have all homosexuals put to death, the argument goes, would understand and respect Constitutional restrictions and the mores of democracy government. But Trump has broken so many laws, traduced so many unwritten all but common-law limits, and so utterly destroyed the dignity of the office, which is itself a kind of institutional restraint, that the presidency, as we’ve always understood it, may no longer exist. It may now exist solely as a power center where the person exercising power rewards certain elements of the American commonwealth and punishes others. You can argue that this has, if not always, often been the definition of presidential or even institutional power. I could give you many examples. But not for the pure pleasure of the cruelty of the act.
The best way to prevent my unhappy, hard-earned sense of things is for the Republican Party to suffer such overwhelming defeats in 2020 and the elections following that to survive it will have to purge itself or disappear. That is hardly likely, and Trump’s defeat in 2020 isn’t likely either, even if we have a somewhat predictive recent line of one-term presidents, meaning it can be done.
Everything is up for grabs.
You’ve recommended The Chill by Ross Macdonald several times and Blue City at least once. I thoroughly enjoyed The Chill and wondered if you have any favorites among the seventeen other Lew Archer novels?
My favorites among the Lew Archer novels are everything except The Ivory Grin, The Underground Man, Sleeping Beauty, and The Blue Hammer—the last three being his last three. The Galton Case might be the best, after The Chill, but The Goodbye Look and The Zebra-Striped Hearse are as good as any mystery writing has to be.
I reread most of them last year, while reading Tom Nolan’s biography. I used to think the writing was clumsy, compared to Chandler—well, it is, but there’s an emotional undercurrent, a sense of guilt, running through the books that makes Macdonald’s reaching to metaphors and similes humanizing, a kind of character flaw that ultimately makes the character more real.
I know you did mention Lawrence Osborne’s Only To Sleep a few months back, though a quick scan through 2018’s questions didn’t bring it up for me [see 7/27/18 – ed.]. But having finally read the book this weekend, I’m wondering what you thought about it. I loved it—and for me, Osborne got so much right—the specific places, the descriptions, the characters—while also straightening out the some of the Byzantine plot issues I’ve experienced with Chandler, and adding something to them at the same time. Have you written more about this book, and if not, what did you think? Also, did it make you want to read more of Osborne’s books? I’ve read 3 of his other novels in the past couple of years, and all of them have made me want to give them to friends so I could talk more about them with someone. For me he’s that kind of writer.
I was displaced by the portrayal of Philip Marlowe as someone who’d had sex, visited New York, and had a drinking problem. That couldn’t have been more right, but I think one thing I love about the character is that he exists in a bubble of time, space, and morals. Below is what I wrote about it in the October  edition of my Real Life Rock Top 10 column for rollingstone.com:
10. Lawrence Osborne, Only to Sleep: A Philip Marlowe Novel (Hogarth). Osborne has to do a little cheating to get the 73-year-old retired private eye into 1988, but not more than Raymond Chandler himself did, who in seven mysteries from 1939 to 1958 had Marlowe born anywhere from 1903 (for The Big Sleep, his first) to 1914 (for Playback, his last). The payoff is the chance to listen in as Marlowe muses on “the strange music of Tina Turner,” shakes his head over Guns N’ Roses, and sets a scene that in its very blankness carries a hint of something uncanny, telling the reader something about the characters that they don’t know themselves:
When I was opposite the gangplank I saw that it was not a party at all but just a middle-aged man with a Mexican girl and a boat’s captain of sorts in a cream-colored uniform. The middle-aged man — Black, I assumed — had a sunburned pirate’s face with a ridiculous dyed goatee and eyebrows painted on with a calligrapher’s brush. The man fighting signs of aging always has a touch of sinister vaudeville about him. But his threads were impeccable. The three of them were playing cards at a glass table with a bottle of Jav’s rum and listening to Bob Dylan.
It’s a literary impersonation that actually works, even if Osborne has Marlowe say “It is what it is” once and “Back in the day” at least twice — the kind of cant phrases Chandler would have never used, because they smear specifics of motive, mood, time and place and replace morality with Whatever. I hope there’s a sequel. Seventy-three is not that old, and “I stopped the car to let a tarantula make its way across the road in the same way you would stop for an old lady” is just what a 73-year-old Marlowe would say.
What are your feelings about Veedon Fleece?
When it came out, nobody noticed it, including me, who played it and heard nothing but zeroes. Then I listened again, and wrote a piece on it for the Village Voice. What I said there I also said in the headline, which is the best I’ve ever come up with: “FANS NIX MUSIC OF SPHERES.”
If you don’t mind revisiting Stranded territory again, I’d love to hear your comments on two of the singles from the discography, two songs that I always associate with each other: “Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love)” by the Swingin’ Medallions and “Hooked on A Feeling” by Blue Swede.
Both because they’re so funny, and they’re funny because they don’t care how stupid they sound and as if they don’t care what anyone thinks. They’re pure humanism and pure nihilism. They’re not shameless—they’re avatars of a world based on love that is beyond shame.
Where did love come from? Love for the songs. BJ Thomas’s “Hooked On a Feeling” was a good record despite the terribly hokey and too-late-for-the-train drug references all over it. It had sweep. So enter creepy in-your-face perverse producer Jonathan King years later with a cosmic pun: Dont’cha step on my blue Swede shoes for a group doing “Hooked on a Feeling,” sung, alternatingly, by a smooth voiced sincerity machine and a pack of gorillas—the kind of gorillas from old Bob Hope/Bing Crosby “Road to…” movies, i.e., extras dressed up in gorilla suits jumping up and down waving their arms and chanting OOGA BOOGA OOGA BOOGA in unconscious imitation of Richard Huelsenbeck’s 1916 Cabaret Voltaire self-named “Negro Poems.” How could it miss? How could you not love it?
“Double Shot (of My Baby’s Love)” has always been my favorite song among many. When I was asked to join the Critics Chorus of the Rock Bottom Remainders I said yes, partly because we would get to do that song (I figured if I hadn’t learned all the words in more than 25 years I wouldn’t have to now). Again, it was life without shame: the absolute shamelessness of standing up in public and the thrill of not caring how stupid you looked.
I was very disappointed, in the age of Wikipedia, to find that the Swingin’ Medallions were not, as the radio insisted in 1966, a bunch of guys from some fraternity in Georgia whose drunk anthem was sort of accidentally released by the music subsidiary of the International Consortium of Hazing Rituals and became a hit, but rather, the second release of an at least semi-pro band of a song written by actual songwriters. But I got over it. The glory of the song and its legend trumps all facts. And, as the phrase must now remind us, it does everywhere else.
could you please share your opinion on two of my favorite songs—Larry Williams’ “Slow Down” and the Choirs’ “Its Cold Outside”?
– hugh c grissett
Many thanks—I didn’t know the Choirs and “It’s Cold Outside,” which is fabulous—somewhere between the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby” and the Swingin’ Medallions “Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love).” It sounded like the early sixties to me, until the video that came with it on YouTube showed their haircuts. As for “Slow Down,” Larry Williams never made a bad record (I’m not crazy about “Dizzy Miss Lizzie,” but it’s a good record). Number one is “She Said Yeah”—his, but also the Rolling Stones’ head-spinning version. The video that’s attached to “Slow Down” on YouTube is strange: near-death-experience physical jitterbugging by adults at some club with a big dance floor that must be in the UK or Europe—it opens with a dark-skinned man swinging a blonde woman, which would have never been shown in the US in the ’50s, then shows various couples where the women are taller than the men. Deep in the background near the end, you can see a rock ‘n’ roll band on stage—I couldn’t blow it up, but the short, blonde singer could have been (in my dreams) Bill Haley or Eddie Cochran. I wonder what movie that footage is from.
What albums are you most excited for in 2019?
I never predict.
Does X represent the best of LA punk?
I’ve never been interested in this sort of question and don’t even understand what an answer would mean or what purpose it would serve. It seems to me like a narrowing, an exclusion, a way of saying, this can stand for the whole so we don’t need to think about (much less listen to) anybody else. You can’t measure X against the Germs or the Minutemen against the Descendents, let alone God and the State against God and the state, though you can feel out the way they were all in conversation with each other, and soon enough, and still, with the world at large.
I was just watching a documentary called Elvis: Rebirth of a King on the BBC in England and I just wanted to thank you for your description of the song “Baby What You Want Me to Do.”
I have loved that song since first seeing the Elvis ’68 Comeback Special when I was probably 12. I’m now 42 and whenever I pick up a guitar it is always the first thing that I start playing either consciously or subconsciously.
Over the years it has started to annoy my partner and I’ve never been able to adequately describe what it is about that version of that song that inhabits me so totally when I hear it.
Your description was exactly what I have been seeking to explain to people for 30 years and I thank you for verbalizing the feeling so beautifully.
With kind regards,
Thanks for your kind words. It’s a very well-made and thoughtful film, and unfortunate that it can’t be seen online from the US, and doesn’t seem to be available as a DVD.
Of the countless reviews and articles you have written over the years what piece, in your estimation, received the most (negative and/or positive) feedback? Has a negative review of something you’ve written ever stung, enough to cause you to do a double-take on what you wrote?
In a piece in Rolling Stone on the Band’s The Last Waltz I got the name of a Neil Diamond song wrong, and received over 60 letters of complaint, “you moron.”
Have you heard or seen Springsteen on Broadway yet? I just got the CD. I thought the show faltered in the second half, and Bruce sounded old to me for the first time that I can remember, and the recording quality is kind of odd (I think he wants it to sound like a real Broadway recording, i.e., crappy), but I’m a new father, and the stuff about his father and how he’s reacted to it as a father himself just knocked me out. The visit in LA… the dream… geez. Am I just a sleep-deprived sentimentalist, or was it good?
– Jeff Beresford-Howe
I haven’t listened to the album. I wrote about the show in my column. I’m not sure what you mean by sounding old. Scratch in his throat? Problems getting words out? No rhythm? Or thoughtful?
Here is a quote from your Real Life Rock column in Rolling Stone, December 2018:
Chicago Plays the Stones (Raisin’ Music). Aren’ tribute albums terrible? The Rolling Stones’ 2016 Blue and Lonesome, their Chicago blues album, certainly was…”
I know that you don’t like tribute albums, but Blue and Lonesome was not a tribute album! What the Rolling Stones actually did was, during recording sessions for new songs they made a break and started playing “old” blues numbers which they actually recorded and later released as Blue and Lonesome. The intention was not to make a tribute album. Anyway, obviously many people, me included, like Blue and Lonesome. And it has sold quite well!
I can understand if you don’t find an album interesting, but to call it “awful” is quite a different thing—why this harsh judgement?
Because except for Mick Jagger everyone sounds bored.
You once described Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang, Bang” (Real Life Top Ten, 5/5/04) as “shockingly avant-garde.” Did it strike you that way in 1966 (or did you even hear it then)? Or did it need the context of Kill Bill to come alive for you? Also, as a fan of hers, wondering if any of her other music has ever caught your attention.
– John Ross
Well… “These Boots Are Made for Walking”? She has no voice, the song is an idea, not music, it’s a natural hit, and every female singer on earth hears it and says, “That should have been me!” And every female singer on earth does it, one way or another. My favorite version is by Kim Gordon. She didn’t do it? It’s in everything she ever did.
“Jackson” is my favorite.
“Bang Bang” came across for me with the Kill Bill soundtracks, which, except for Django Unchained, are the best soundtrack compilation albums ever.
Mr Marcus, what is your opinion of the Joe Meek produced record by Johnny Leyton, “Johnny Remember Me”? I can’t understand why it wasn’t a hit in the U.S. Any thoughts on that?
– hugh c grissett
It’s instructive that when I called it up on YouTube the beyond over-the-top video, while showing Johnny being pawed, fawned over, chased, fainted on, and all but having his clothes licked off by hordes of girls while not changing his expression or denting what must have been pounds of hairspray on his head, there’s a brief insert of chart positions and pics of people at the top at the time, one of whom is Ray Peterson, whose “Tell Laura I Love Her” was a huge if unbearable hit in the US, and in a UK cover a #1 hit in the UK. It kicked off a long cycle of dead girlfriend records, teen tragedies, records that seemed to simultaneously mock themselves, their singers, and their audiences. People loved seeing how gory it would all get.
John Leyton also recorded “Tell Laura I Love Her” for Joe Meek. Nothing happened, but the next year they put together something more interesting: a swoony, somewhat spooky, very crepuscular dead girlfriend song done in the manner of the commercial folk revival kicked off by the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” three years before, or for that matter “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” an irresistible cowboy ballad which had been around forever and which was a hit for the Sons of the Pioneers in 1958—and a hit in an instrumental version by the Ramrods in early 1961. “Johnny Remember Me” has a certain affinity with Jody Reynolds’s 1958 “Endless Sleep,” an infinitely better record—there, at the end, the singer “saved my baby from the endless sleep”—suicide—but you’re not entirely convinced. There’s no explicit reference in “Johnny Remember Me” to a girl killing herself over Johnny, though it seems inescapable, and the only source of frisson in the music, aside from the “Johnny, Johnny” female chorus. So two trends—Joe Meek was a mover and shaker, a madman, a mystic, and a record producer, which means he dreamed trends like other people dream missing appointments—one bland but acceptable singer, in the mold of the Billy Fury-Johnny Eager post-Elvis UK pop stars but cooler, with a name resonant with British history, which is to say, ancient border ballads, real English folk music, and you’ve got a hit. A touchstone, even, what seemed like a breakthrough, a classic.
But Leyton was a nothing singer. His lack of visual presence comes through in his one note voice. I have no idea what happened to the record in the US—if it was released, if there was any radio action—or any payola—at all, but it’s hard to imagine American listeners noticing it even if they heard it. I know I didn’t.
Picking up from your television discussion from 1/4/19: I realize I’m shooting in the dark here—and not all of these have strong musical associations—but I wondered if you’d watched and pondered any of my picks for top TV of recent years.
Roughly in this order: Treme (the most seamless and fecund fusing of music to people’s lives I’ve ever seen over a long story arc); The Knick; The Governor (prison drama, shocking contexts for “It’s Over” and “I Want To Know What Love Is,” building up to inmates joining a guard for “The Mikado”); Suspects (forceful, desperate police procedural throwing in improvisation); Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (Ice-T playing a cop, which would be funnier if he wasn’t so damn good at it); NCIS; CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (watch for Roger Daltrey, but don’t be surprised if you don’t spot him at first); the first seasons, at least, of True Detective and The Killing; and the various versions of The Tunnel, aka The Bridge.
– Andrew Hamlin
I liked the second season of True Detective, especially Rachel McAdams’s and Colin Farrell’s haircuts.
I meant to ask you awhile back what you thought of the HBO Elvis doc The Searcher. I liked it overall, but as with everything like that there’s always some things you wish had been done a little differently (I won’t bother with examples.) What did you think?
What I wrote in my Real Life Rock [4/25/18] column at the time:
In Part 1, ending with Elvis in the Army, the use of music is imaginative—“Blue Moon” unspools at almost its whole length, and it sounds more unearthly than ever. The documentary footage is fabulous. Some is unseen, and what’s been seen is made fresh. It’s a welcome relief to have soundtrack commentary but no talking heads. But only Bruce Springsteen looks for a social context, and with the banal dronings of Alan Light, Warren Zanes, Bill Ferris, and Tom Petty, there isn’t the slightest deviation from the conventional, chiseled-in-stone narrative. Before long it’s stupefying: Any new idea would die in this intellectual desert.
Part 2 is better: The conventional wisdom is less oppressive because no one seems to care that much if you believe it or not. It begins with unbelievably wild footage of Elvis performing Lowell Fulson’s “Reconsider Baby” in Hawaii in 1961—his last live performance until the 1968 comeback TV show—which confuses the “he died in the Army” story the film seems to want to tell. Even more striking is a snatch of interview with Colonel Parker—has anyone ever heard him?—who is so clearly a colonel from somewhere in Europe.
For good or ill, this film comes down to an interview near the close of the film, after a title has announced Elvis’s death. The TV writer and producer Chris Bearde, who died last year, is talking about that ’68 TV show. Every day, he says, he and Elvis and the director, Steve Binder, would gather in Binder’s office. He recalls one day: “We had a little black-and-white TV in the corner. On the TV, Robert Kennedy has been assassinated. Elvis picks up a guitar, and he started playing. Talking a mile a minute. He said, ‘I want you to understand me, because this is a moment in time’”—and Bearde’s voice breaks, as if he’s overcome by the memory, yes, but also acting out how, in the moment, Elvis’s voice broke—“‘when we’ll,’” coming out w’eeeel, “‘have to understand each other.’”
“We didn’t know how to end it,” Bearde had said of the TV show, and now that becomes the entry for the end of The Searcher. The last song of that night now becomes the last song of this film—and the last word: “If I Can Dream,” the whole performance.
He’s wearing an ice-cream suit that doesn’t seem to fit. The song comes across like a building with all the nuts and bolts still visible. There’s no groove, and the delivery is clumsy and hesitant. And all of that is overwhelmed by the passion Elvis is digging out of his heart, and his story, his whole life as he has lived up to his heroic singularity and failed to.
With a new album on the way, do you have any thoughts on the Mekons’ records of the 2000s?
– Jim Peterson
Lots. But as I’ve tried to explain previously, I can’t use this vast and wonderful opportunity to go back and forth with people to provide surveys, retrospectives, genre studies, career overviews, and stuff like that.
But It is Twice Blessed, the recreation? rediscovery? refusal to admit the passage of time? re-assemblage of the original band with their original material, is a marvel. It’s like the Avengers finally recording two of their 1977 songs for Died for Your Sins more than 40 years after with more fervor than they would have brought to them at the time.
I admit to being puzzled by your description of Breaking Bad as “tendentious and breast-beating.” What particular point of view was it promoting, and what was it beating its breast about?
Let’s just say that “Just as every cop is a criminal/And all the sinners saints” can sound perfect as Mick Jagger swings it like someone throwing out a lasso, it’s not so great as the basis for a continuing drama where people have to keep making up new plots.
You’ve referenced Armond White on this site before [see AG/09-09-17]—for me he’s the most intellectually audacious and challenging film critic since Pauline Kael, even as I find him alarmingly reactionary (in the National Review White characterizes the new Mary Poppins reboot as socialist propaganda and worse: one song from the film, he says, “sounds like showbiz Stalinism” and recalls “the essence of Soviet erasure of history”. The only reason I’d ever watch the movie is to try to figure out what the fuck he’s talking about). Are you an admirer of White’s work? And more broadly, are there any (living) conservative commentators you enjoy reading/watching/listening to, however much you might disagree with them?
– steve o’neill
When I first read Armond White I found him extremely tough minded, quick, hard-boiled, and you could read him for the pleasure of his writing. I haven’t kept up, though, and didn’t know he was writing for the National Review. I’ll look.
There aren’t that many critics I follow, or just bump into, with any regularity. I like reading Mick LaSalle, the movie critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, but have no idea what his politics are. The same for Amy Taubin in Artforum and Film Comment. David Brooks is a conservative political critic of morals, or moral critic of politics, and I sometimes find him interesting. The best criticism I’ve read anywhere recently is William Logan’s review of Lenoard Cohen’s The Flame in the New York Times, and I know nothing about him at all except that he’s identified as an Eliot scholar. Eliot was conservative, to put it mildly. Does that make Logan an Eliot-symp?
I’m a huge fan of Pauline Kael and I’m sure you two discussed music a lot when she was alive. I’m really interested in where her tastes lied musically. I know she loved jazz and opera, but outside of that were there any musical artists or records she championed in conversation the way she championed Altman, Renoir, De Palma, Godard, Peckinpah, or Last Tango and Bonnie and Clyde in print? Were there any golden idols she’d tear down as she did with 2001 or The Sound of Music? Were there any albums or artists you shared with her that she went crazy for?
We mostly talked about movies and people we knew, or people from her life I didn’t know but was interested in. I don’t recall music coming up per se.
In 2016 here [3/24/16] you wrote that Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake “certainly seems forgotten.” I would add that the Small Faces seem forgotten, and—in this age where everything ever recorded can be heard, every story can be told anew—I find it inexplicable that they have disappeared.
In less than two years (early 1967 to fall 1968) with Andrew Loog Oldham’s UK Immediate label, the Small Faces made a kaleidoscope of great British rock, scattered over two fine albums and some sharp singles, with enough leftovers for a compelling posthumous LP (The Autumn Stone and Red Balloon are among their best). The 1999 2-CD set The Darlings of Wapping Wharf Launderette catches everything (with great sound), which may be a bit much, but surprising pleasures are everywhere.
I think their music has aged well: melodic, bright, funny, warm, compact, punchy, and it moves (Kenney Jones was dynamite)—never heavy and slow at the same time (to borrow a Robert Christgau observation of another band). Whenever they lean too much toward music hall or psychedelia, their rock hardness makes the center hold (listen how the sunny shuffle of “Lazy Sunday” gets upended by the crash of acoustic guitars). I can’t say that about same-era Kinks, or even Beatles. And the Small Faces had a little coherent rock band magic: think of how dreadful Steve Marriott’s music became the instant he left them for Humble Pie, or how sludgy and rudderless First Step sounds.
The Small Faces’ Immediate catalog does more for me today than many other mid-sixties British bands—even ones I love, like the Yardbirds (Keith Relf’s limitations sound undeniable today). I don’t think you can tell the story of sixties British rock without them, and I really hope they can break into this conversation (I wish the same for the Young Rascals with U.S. sixties rock), or even broader ones, and find more ears.
What do you think?
I loved that album for its playfulness. Saying an LP could be anything: flying saucer, tea cosy, water pump, tobacco can. And the music had the same spirit. And the modesty and self-mockery of their name. To be a face was to be someone who mattered in the world of the Mods. These guys were saying, We don’t matter, you’d never notice us, and we don’t care.
In the essay “Atlantic Records 1947-54” you wrote that Clyde McPhatter “was drafted in May of 1954, and when he returned he went solo; he lost his music and never found it again.”
The first time I read that, I refused to believe you. How could a man who sang with genius for the Dominoes and Drifters lose his gift? So I listened to everything McPhatter recorded after 1954 and decided…you were right.
Initially I thought Clyde’s problem stemmed from lackluster material. His solo records at Atlantic skewed toward soft pop (with a few blessed exceptions like “Without Love,” and “A Lover’s Question”) and when he moved to MGM the quality nosedived. But later on Clyde received better material and production, thanks to Clyde Otis and Shelby Singleton, and his last two albums—Songs of the Big City and Welcome Home—were honorable efforts. Nevertheless, the spark was gone from Clyde’s voice. Why?
I found a partial answer when Clyde Otis described McPhatter’s final recording session: “I’d look out from the control room and Clyde would be sneaking a bottle out from somewhere in his garments. I confronted him and he said ‘I just can’t sing unless I’m drinking now.’ When I heard that, I just gave up.”
That’s one of the saddest things to ever come out of the mouth of a great singer. A vicious circle of alcoholism, absent management, depression (feeling like a has-been), and closeted bisexuality destroyed Clyde McPhatter.
But instead of looking for causes, perhaps you would agree with Clyde Otis: “It is never easy to understand how artists can self-destruct. McPhatter had everything to live for but if you asked him, he’d tell you quickly he had nothing.”
He did get it with “A Lover’s Question.” The best collection I know is The Forgotten Angel: two CDs with a live “Treasure of Love.”
My sense, from what I’ve read, is that the service took something out of him. I don’t know if it was racism, mistreatment, physical abuse, or isolation. But he didn’t come back the same person.
Hi Greil – Just listened to this rare & at times revealing interview with Van Morrison. I thought you might enjoy it.
Thanks. I’ve always found the idea of Van Morrison as—as one true fan once put it—a troll living under a bridge, as sort of beside the point. Who cares? I spent an afternoon with him once, and while he wasn’t all that friendly, he talked, he said things about his music that opened it up, and when he asked if I could take him to meet the jazz critic Ralph Gleason and I did he was in heaven. We could take this Van Morrison as the real Van Morrison. Why not?
Any thoughts on any of the following: Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, The Deuce, Killing Eve, Stranger Things, Ozark, Big Little Lies, Sharp Objects? Pop music figures into all of them, to one degree or another.
– alan vint
I watched the first few episodes of Breaking Bad and found it tendentious and breast-beating. Plus I find Bryan Cranston one of the most tiresome actors around. So nothing there. Better Call Saul I found meretricious and self-flattering at the start and didn’t pursue it. I didn’t care about the people in The Deuce even though I would usually watch anything with James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Yes, lots of music oozing around but it was just ooze. Never watched Killing Eve, Stranger Things, or Ozark.
Sharp Objects I never missed. The use of music was as cutting as the title. It was predictable here, over there so unpredictable it could seem like a mistake—Sandy Denny in that Hispanic joint? The Everly Brothers singing “Rose Connolly”? Amy Adams and Led Zeppelin? I wrote about it in Real Life Rock Top 10 in the first installment in Rolling Stone in September. And Big Little Lies—that fantastic Elvis show! That was beyond unpredictable. I wrote about that in the April 19, 2017 Real Life Rock column for Pitchfork.
But I think the most faraway, tantalizing, seductive use of music on TV recently was in The Night Of. There was one song, playing in the background of a bar. I wrote the music director asking what it was. He didn’t know. Maybe it just showed up, I said, like this show, and stuck around til it found the right moment.