* Ask Greil (current)

  • Ask Greil Archives: 2016; 2017; 2018

    In which readers ask Greil Marcus questions and he answers them. To submit your own question, email admin@greilmarcus.net, and use the subject line, “Ask Greil.” (Alternatively, you can use the submission form at the bottom of this page.)

    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?
    – Lou

    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?
    – Edward

    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?
    – Adam

    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?
    – Randy

    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.”
    – revelator60

    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.
    – Mark

    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.

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