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.)
If at all possible (and if it’s not against academic policy), could you please post the syllabus for the class on Noir Culture that you co-taught this past spring at Cal? You’ve shared this type of information on this site previously, and it has been most instructive. Thank you in advance for considering it.
– Robert Hull
Here it is. Suggestions welcome.
AMERICAN STUDIES C111E/ENGLISH C136
THE AGE OF NOIR
Tu/Thurs: 3:30-5, 101 Moffitt Library
Instructors: Greil Marcus, Kathleen Moran
TA/Reader: Emma Bianco
“A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness. It all depends on where you sit and what your own private score is. I didn’t have one. I didn’t care.”
– Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye 1953
Taking shape and definition in the late 1930s and the first years of the 1940s, when the United States was more than ten years into the Great Depression and the Second World War was either imminent or had already begun, and continuing into the early 1960s, noir was a sensibility and a way of being in the world. It was a critique, an attitude, a mood, a language, and aesthetic of alienation where cynicism was part of a moral code and fatalism a part of democratic faith—and it was expressed, developed, and tested at the margins of legitimate cultural discourse: in low-budget or Poverty Row Hollywood movies, crime fiction, and TV police and detective dramas.
Jim Thompson, Nothing More than Murder (1949)
Nathanael West, Day of the Locust (1939)
Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (1953)
Ross MacDonald, The Way Some People Die (1951)
Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
*IT IS CRUCIAL THAT YOU BEGIN READING THE NOVELS AS SOON AS THE SEMESTER STARTS. EVERY NOVEL, EXCEPT THOMPSON, WILL BE DISCUSSED IN CLASS IN THE WEEKS AFTER SPRING BREAK. BUT YOU WILL NEED TO HAVE READ AS MANY AS YOU CAN BEFORE THE CRUNCH AT THE END OF THE SEMESTER.
Detour (Ulmer, 1945)
The Blue Dahlia (Marshall, 1946)
Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944)
Kiss Me Deadly (Aldrich, 1955)
In a Lonely Place (Ray, 1950)
The Hitchhiker (Lupino, 1953)
Sunset Boulevard (Wilder, 1950)
Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)
AFTER WEEK TWO, ALL FILMS WILL BE SCREENED ON WEDNESDAYS IN 262 EVANS BEGINNING AT 5:30. (This location is subject to change if we get a better room assignment.)
Week One, 1/22-1/24: Introduction
Eric Goldman, The Crucial Decade (bCourses and there are many used copies at Amazon.)
Warren Susman, “Did Success Spoil the United States?” from Recasting America, edited by Larry May
Week Two: On the Road to Noir
Tues 1/29 Detour shown in class
Thurs 1/31 Discussion of Detour
Reading: continue Goldman
Week Three, 2/5, 2/7: Veteran Noir: Masculinity, Memory, Trauma
“The Way Home,” Time Magazine, August, 1944
Archibald Macleish, “The Unimagined America,” and “The Definition of Victory,” Freedom is the Right to Choose, 1951
Movie: Blue Dahlia
Week Four: The Classic Conventions of American Noir
2/12 Guest Lecture: David Thomson
2/14 Defining Noir/Double Indemnity
Borde and Chaumerton, “Towards a Definition of Film Noir,” A Panorama of American, Film Noir, 1955
James M. Cain “The Brush Fire”
John Houseman, “Today’s Hero,” Hollywood Quarterly, 1947
Movie: Double Indemnity
Week Five, 2/19 , 2/21: Jim Thompson
Jim Thompson, Nothing More than Murder
Week Six: The Sound of Noir
2/26, Billie Holiday and the Cool
2/28 Guest Lecture: Eddie Muller
Week Seven, 3/5, 3/7: Apocalyptic Noir
Mickey Spillane, “The Screen Test of Mike Hammer”
Paul Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light, ch. 20 and 23
Movie: Kiss Me Deadly
Week Eight, 3/12, 3/14: The Red Scare, the Return of the Returning Veteran
Leslie Fiedler, “Afterthoughts on the Rosenbergs”
Movie: In a Lonely Place
WEEK Nine 3/19, 3/21: A Woman’s Place: Noir by Women
Helen Nielsen, “A Piece of Ground”
Movie: The Hitch-Hiker
Week Ten, 3/25, 3/29: SPRING BREAK
Week Eleven, 4/2, 4/4: Hollywood Noir
Nathanael West, Day of the Locust, 1939
Movie: Sunset Boulevard
Week Twelve 4/9, 4/11: Hard-boiled Film Criticism
various pieces by Farber, Agee, and Kael
begin Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye, for discussion week fourteen
Week Thirteen 4/16, 4/18 : San Francisco Noir
Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye, continue for discussion next week
Week Fourteen, 4/23, 4/25: Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald
Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye
Ross MacDonald, The Way Some People Die
Week Fifteen: The Noir Streets of LA—A racial inversion
Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress
FINAL EXAM: Friday, May 17, 7-10pm
8-10 page paper
Not sure if you’ve been watching Country Music, the new PBS documentary by Ken Burns. A striking moment appears about five minutes into Episode 4, previously-unseen, color home movie footage from 1957 of Johnny Cash on tour in Sudbury (April 22), and Beverly Hills (June 2).
What is most striking is the June segment. Without fanfare we see Cash visiting an old Sun label mate at the Beverly-Wilshire Hotel: Elvis Presley. Elvis is about halfway through filming Jailhouse Rock and at one point you see him make some very familiar dance moves. At another they are both listening intently to a record being played.
This is the only known footage of these two musical giants together, never before documented. The heart-flipping sequence is seen in isolation here:– Johnny Savage
I haven’t been watching the series—I’ll get to it. But this is some coup. Amazing that pompadour of Elvis’s stays up without sky hooks.
When you hear something after you’ve read about it—or in the old days when you really had to hunt something down after reading about it—are you able to “bracket out” what you’ve been led to expect, and approach the piece strictly on the basis of “what one is given to hear”?
Have you ever been so stunned by the dichotomy of what you’ve read about something, and how it sounds to you, that you’ve experienced a musical version of “cognitive dissonance”? If so, what pieces, or styles, had this effect? And have you ever had your tastes (in music) substantially altered by a critic that you admire ?
– Dave Rubin
Whenever I’m asked a question that’s as simultaneously specific and abstract as this one—what is the meaning of life, and can you give me an example from last Thursday?—I freeze up. But as it happens, in another ‘Ask’ that I just answered, I was given an interpretation of a song—a convoluted murder mystery of a song that I never deciphered in any way—that completely, and maybe forever, changed how I heard it. This, from Elliot Silverman (10/8):
When Blood on the Tracks came out, when I was in college, I had a friend who developed this intricate theory that “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” was about the impeachment of Nixon: Rosemary was Rosemary Woods, the hanging Judge was Sirica, the bank vault was the Watergate Hotel, and so on. I never bought the theory—hadn’t even thought of it in years—but the other night I was listening to the song after hearing about a second whistleblower coming forward on the Ukraine matter, and I wondered if maybe this time, footsteps really are coming down the hallway for the Jack of Hearts.
I am making a thesis about the story of the punk movement. Now, I have seen some patrons, like the punk living a decade, vanishing the next, and then having a rebirth. Now, that broke between the 90´s wave and the coming wave, 2020. Is there a specific explanation that you may presume behind these two decades of the punk staying ‘death’? Or has it been alive in the mentioned period?
I have chosen you to ask this question because of your impressive background on the subject of matter, and I trust in your experience and knowledge.
– Martina Alfonso.
When I read Robin Cembalest’s essay “Tradition — A Curse: Punk in a Small Spanish Town,” from 1988—just before the apparent rebirth of punk in the hands of Nirvana, Bikini Kill, riot grrrl, and others, what I learned was that punk isn’t revived, isn’t reborn. It’s rediscovered. It’s a fundamental spirit, that adheres to community, time, and people who feel excluded or cast out of whatever social reality they find themselves a part of. Over centuries that spirit has taken many forms—political, religious, aesthetic—and in our time it took the form of punk. So that’s the vessel into which, for a long time now, the spirit has taken up residence. What it does is attempt to create another reality—and searching out the details of that, an infinity of tones of voice, gestures, words, shapes—is the art it makes.
That’s how your question looks to me.
What did you think of the actual 1966 Royal Albert Hall release? Same electric set, with maybe a bit poorer sound and more humor from Dylan (“this isn’t British music…”). Just curious if you hear any big difference between this show and the more infamous “Judas!” performance.
Also, were/are you a fan of The Handsome Family?
– Derek Murphy
All of the shows in the UK on that tour were singular. This one is more extreme, messier, more unhinged, more combative—a gauntlet thrown down. I love it. And also Newcastle. Liverpool. Edinburgh.
I first saw the Handsome Family opening for the Mekons in San Francisco. I had no idea who they were and was completely captivated. I immediately got what albums I could find—there were one or two then—and have since never missed a show when they were where I am and have written about most of their records—you can find them in my Real Life Rock book. We’ve become good friends over the years—we ever performed together at Chapel Hill a few years ago.
As the author of the definite study of The Manchurian Candidate, a close reader of Pynchon and De Lillo, not to mention a lifelong Bay Area resident, and especially given that you said to Simon Reynolds that you write the way you do due to an “obsession with mystery, with untold stories and secrets”—have you read Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O’Neill (2019)?
– Tomislav Brlek
I’m not a close reader of DeLillo or Pynchon. The only Pynchon I’ve read is The Cyring of Lot 49,”which was a sixties blip, Vineland, which I hated, and Inherent Vice, which I’ve read at least six times. I loved DeLillo’s early Great Jones Street but the bigger and more famous novels left me cold at best. To me he found a new and stronger book with Cosmopolis and those that followed.
I quoted from Chaos in a recent column, thanks to a friend’s comments on it, but haven’t read it yet. I’m not sure I will, given the thesis.
Any thoughts on Linda Ronstadt? I saw the new documentary last night. As a teenager in the ’70s, I thought she was gorgeous; I liked some of her singles, but I wasn’t really a fan. As a not-teenager 40 years later, I feel basically the same.
– Alan Vint
I think the proof of Linda Ronstadt, who made so many fine records (“You’re No Good” is my number one) is her on-paper totally phony punk album, the 1980 Mad Love, produced by the leader of the Cretones, as phony a punk band as the concept could allow, and the concept allows for an infinity of phoniness. It worked. It came across. It sounded new. It sounded like her.
Three largely unrelated thoughts, except that all are about Bob Dylan, whom I’m going to see live later this week:
1. A couple of weeks ago, when Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter died, David Gans was talking about him on the radio, and he quoted what he called “Greil Marcus’s great book, The Old Weird America”—the part where Levon said that when Dylan brought in a Basement Tapes tune, the Band didn’t know if Bob had “written it or remembered it.” Gans went on to say that Hunter’s lyrics were like that, in the sense that a song like “Dire Wolf” could have been written yesterday or in the 19th century. Your thoughts?
2. You wrote once about a “private treasure,” a song you liked that no one else did. I always thought that no one but me had even heard, much less liked, Spirit’s 1975 cover of “Like a Rolling Stone,” but looking at the comments on YouTube I’m apparently not alone in liking Randy California’s psychedelic transformation of the song. Have you ever heard this version?
3. When Blood on the Tracks came out, when I was in college, I had a friend who developed this intricate theory that “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” was about the impeachment of Nixon: Rosemary was Rosemary Woods, the hanging Judge was Sirica, the bank vault was the Watergate Hotel, and so on. I never bought the theory—hadn’t even thought of it in years—but the other night I was listening to the song after hearing about a second whistle-blower coming forward on the Ukraine matter, and I wondered if maybe this time, footsteps really are coming down the hallway for the Jack of Hearts. Or will the Republicans continue to support him no matter what?
1. It was Robbie Robertson who said that about Dylan’s songs. It’s a hard trick. Robert Hunter was a fine lyricist but the slickness, the sense that he never really wondered about the questions his songs proposed (as in “New Speedway Boogie”) shuts it down for me.
2. The Spirit version starts out brave and gorgeous, unearthing the undertone of compassion and empathy in the song—as it seems many people hear it, with contempt and glee as the overtone, which I’ve never heard at all in a Dylan version. But it runs out of gas. John Burks at Rolling Stone used to say Doug Sahm’s version was better than Dylan’s, but I never heard it. Jon Landau stood behind the mid-60s Boston band the Remains as the champions—a rehearsal version establishes that for almost everyone seeking to find something in the song that Dylan didn’t, Mike Bloomfield, not Dylan, is the author of the song, because whether you’re Dino Desi and Billy, the Young Rascals, the Replacements, Mott the Hoople, you find yourself tangled in his strings. Except for someone who Bloomfield accepted as working in another world, when he saw him in a New York club when he was Jimmy James: Jimi Hendrix, who recognized that “Like a Rolling Stone” was both “Wild Thing” and the music of the spheres. As he said, so what if he forgot a verse, even the third verse, the most relentless and overbuilding verse? He had the song in his throat, heart, fingers, coming out of his forehead like a child of Zeus. And don’t call that pretentious. That was what Jimi Hendrix would have said.
3. The Republicans will continue to support him—which is to say, commit treason—no matter what. But I think your friend’s theory is brilliant. He has to be right.
Hi Greil. Saw Série Noire the other night, the 1979 French adaptation of my favorite Jim Thompson novel, A Hell of a Woman. Thought it was pretty good. I realized that while I knew your remarks about seeing the man himself on the set of that lousy Chandler movie, I couldn’t remember whether you’d ever written about Jim Thompson at length. Any comments, on either his novelistic corpus or the film adaptations of his works? (I haven’t seen the 2010 film of The Killer Inside Me—based on reviews I’m a little scared to.)
– Edward Hutchinson
This spring I co-taught a class at Cal on Noir Culture and gave two lectures on Thompson, which meant re-reading ten or so of his books as well as Robert Polito’s tremendous Thompson biography Savage Art. I’d remembered Pop. 1280 and The Killer Inside Me as the top of his line, but found as you have that the best of them all is A Hell of a Woman—for the momentum of the words, story, social critique about jobs and work tossed off in a couple of paragraphs of a loser’s rant, faces on the street, in offices, in houses.
I’ve seen the movie of The Killer Inside Me three times. It’s so level, so slow, then explosive, then quiet. Casey Affleck is horrifying. The violence is awful and painful. You keep saying, “This makes no sense!” But it makes the sheriff’s sense.
I haven’t finished all the Ross Macdonald books you recommended a while back (The Zebra-Striped Hearse was wonderful) but I’m looking to vary my reading with something more recent. What are your picks for the best mystery novels of the past fifty years? Is Crumley’s Last Good Kiss still the best?
Not that I haven’t missed a lot, and The Last Good Kiss was years ago, and Jim is long dead, but when I re-read it last fall I had to stop before the end, because it’s just too awful. Plus I was writing a book about The Great Gatsby and realized the endings are the same.
I’m sorry to belabor a minor point, but how, exactly, is Xgau a “useful” shorthand for Christgau? Useful for whom? You wanna be called mRcus? I’d ask Christgau directly, but the way he whinges about money these days he’d probably bill me for it.
– steve o’neill (s1ill)
mRcus very interesting. Good hip hop name.
I was wondering if your statement in the latest Real Life Top Ten that Lana Del Rey is not hiding behind a persona is your response to her push back against Ann Powers’s NPR review? But don’t all artists construct personae as their interfaces with the audience, the world? I am reminded of the Begin Again clip you once highlighted in RLRTT:Yes, some personae are far more constructed than others, like the carefully contrived avatar of a St Vincent (to use one of your favorite whipping girls, though she does not annoy me as much as she obviously does you), but is it possible to perform without a persona? Isn’t it the nature of the beast?
Del Rey has always spoken of her work in terms of emotional authenticity, but is that the same as being persona-free? At a minimum, don’t artists select which parts of themselves to expose in what contexts? And in doing so don’t they “curate,” to use an overused word, the image they are presenting to the world? This does not have to be fake, but isn’t it still a persona?
I guess what I’m asking is, how do you define persona (and authenticity?) in regard to pop music?
– Mark Sullivan
A persona is a shtick—or as it’s called today, a brand. A brand is what’s sold, and it sells everything else. Sleater-Kinney did not, to me, have a brand, and certainly weren’t selling themselves as a brand, though they were certainly branded by critics who can’t pretend to think without brands, and fans, too. But you could say that their recent album is re-branding nonetheless.
Lana Del Rey is, I think, selling her music, her songs. Otherwise she wouldn’t appear performing, in different settings, in clothes that contradict each other, just like an actual person who wears one thing to go get coffee in the morning and another to go to a fancy restaurant at night—a change of clothes isn’t a change of persona or even an acknowledgment of one. There’s a great difference between presenting yourself as a brand and moving through your songs like an actor discovering what her role really is, what her character really wants to say, what her character actually would say, and how, in one situation as opposed to another.
Watching Ken Burn’s Country led me to listen to all the different versions of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” available on Spotify. One of them, by the Staples Singers, led me to re-watch the “The Weight” from The Last Waltz. Rick Danko’s performance in particular never fails to excite and surprise and put a smile on my face. Levon and Richard were more conventional in their vocal style and even though you have written volumes on the Band would you comment on Danko as a singer?
I have great affection for Rick Danko in “The Weight,” “Daniel and the Sacred Harp,” and so many more—though his singing became terribly mannered in “Stage Fright” and that spilled over, sometimes he seemingly forgot what he was supposed to sound like. Most of all, with the Band, I loved the way he moved—no one else did at all.
Skip James once said to a fan who with historical rudeness picked up James’s guitar backstage after a show in about 1964, after James had been found and brought back to performing more than 30 years after disappearing into ordinary life after his recordings in 1931, if he would ever be able to play as James did. James said, according to Peter Guralnick: “Skip has been and gone from places you will never get to.” You can hear the tragedy and the self-affirmation of those words in Danko’s singing on “It Makes No Differrence”—most completely, in a way that can put anyone on the floor, in a show in Portland in, I think, 1983, before the Band reformed without Robbie Robertson. I never really heard the song until I heard this.
What is is that gives folk and blues songs that timeless quality, like they weren’t written but discovered, and why is that sound so hard to capture? I can’t imagine songs like “Wildwood Flower” or “In the Pines” being written, they sound like they were found in a riverbed or plucked off a tree. The only modern artists I can think of that have captured that sound are Dylan and The Band (especially on the band’s first two records and on the Basement Tapes).
– Gerry Mander
The literary critic Harold Bloom said precisely the same thing about certain Band songs, including not only the likes of “The Weight” but “It Makes No Difference,” and Dylan into the early 1970s—they sound, he said, as if they’ve always been there. In my book Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations, which is about this whole question—it doesn’t answer it, just raises it—I tried to get at why Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown” had the feeling, the ambiance, you’re talking about.
Why, though? Where does this sense of past=present=future (and then reverse and scramble) come from? I think it has to do with how, before the Civil War definitively but to a real degree after, to the time of the First World War, the apprehension of the country, as a polity, as an entity with an existence outside of what until the Second World War was called sectionalism, the sense that, say, the South existed providentially outside of the United States—which, after all, was a made up notion—and the South was an organic society—that was the argument and the belief—was diffuse. It wasn’t quite there. When you talked about “America” no one knew what you were talking about, because it didn’t mean anything—and you can see that changing that, arguing for a singular, here and not there, now and not then, democratic republic, is what impelled Melville to write Moby-Dick and Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby. Both are, among other things, polemics about what America is, who is part of it, and who isn’t—and both assume such a thing exists.
Once America is a fact, with a national legal code and the ability to enforce it, and once copyright protection begins to be extended to previously supposedly public domain blues, folk, and country songs—something that happened only in the 1940s with the establishment of BMI as the protector and collector of royalties on such material, which ASCAP wouldn’t touch because it might get its hands dirty, and because authorship could not necessarily be ascertained, thus guaranteeing lawsuits to the end of time—then the sense of out of the air, plucked from a riverbank, began to fade, and people perhaps stopped trying to write songs as if they had always been there, even if “Wildwood Flower” came out of copyrighted parlor songs. But really—despite the specific circumstances of composition, don’t “Hound Dog” and “Take Me to the River” feel as if they were no more written by the copyright holders than by you or me?
Further to Ben Robinson’s comment about songs that should play forever, I submit “I’m So Glad I’m So Proud” by Link Wray on his Beans and Fatback album. At six minutes it’s not nearly long enough.
– Fred Muller
I didn’t know it at all, and I could hear what you mean in the first seconds—it started before the record did and it’s still playing. There’s Neil Young with “I’m the Ocean,” the Isley Brothers’ “Shout,” Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say.” But for me, from the moment I heard it, out ahead of them all, another fifties rockabilly artist who raised his head again in the 1970s, Gene Vincent, with Augie Meyers pushing over nine minutes of “Slow Times Comin’.” Again and again, it almost stops. There’s a guitarist with a wah-wah solo that meanders into another room and seems to forget that it was ever somewhere else. And then everyone else goes looking for the guy they thought they were playing with, find him, and pick up the song right there, and then snake out of the house and parade through the town. Somewhere, 200 light years into space, that song is still playing, Gene Vincent still riding its comet.
Given your comments on Bettye LaVette’s Things Have Changed I wondered if you were familiar with Barb Jungr’s album Every Grain of Sand. By a simple twist of fate I got both the same day. As much as I love LaVette I find myself drawn to Jungr even more.
I didn’t know her work, so thanks for letting me know. I watched half a dozen videos of cabaret performances. The first was “Sara,” and it swept me away. His own version always sounded self-conscious to me (Is she going to like this? Do I want her to?), and thus narrow—Jungr’s felt timeless, like an old folk song without an author. The same feeling was there in her “Blind Willie McTell,” until she began pumping it up and emoting all over the place, and that’s where she lost me. She tries so hard to make the songs different they end up sounding contrived (“With God on Our Side”) or ludicrously effete (“Not Dark Yet”). “Like a Rolling Stone” is interesting. She tries to elide the bigness of it, as sound, record, idea, and just plain social fact, but by the time the first verse ends she’s been defeated by the indelible presence of the melody and the staircase of the chorus, and what she’s left with is a kind of gaga embrace of the sing-songy elements in the song, which Dylan escaped, on record, as he was sometimes himself trapped by onstage.
To me, Bettye LaVette approached the songs with humor, more of a sense of how the songs were written—she wasn’t afraid of them. She sounds like she has nothing to prove in their face—though maybe they have something to prove to her.
Catching up. Thanks for Little Richard’s “Rubber Duckie” and joyful commentary.
Glad to reread your justly and wildly enthusiastic comments on Prince. Thrilling to remember him in performance. I never can say good-bye.I was mad for his work from the first record I heard. Can’t find but vividly recall the song “For You” as a capella overdubs of his voice. Heard him in concert for the first time in 1985—proud to say I won tickets with my expert answers to a Prince Quiz on a pop radio station in New York. (He did “Head” as a singalong at that show!) After that, I kept going back for more. Never saw a performer burn like that onstage in my life—he even had Nureyev beat for hungry energy.
I wonder what you think of this, so unlike anything I ever saw him do.
A friend who had played with lotsa bands remarked: “He’s got himself a damn good band there, and he showcases them instead of himself. Very James Brown—inspired. I wish he’d done more stuff like this!”
Fair enough.I say it’s great & shows him in another light, but you don’t need Prince to do this kind of thing. You?
Did you ever write about The Black Album?
– Laura Leivick
I never wrote about The Black Album. By the time I heard it, long after its first rumors, it had in a way become a black hole, sucking in every grandiose expectation you might bring to it, and nothing coming back.
For me, I never will forget hearing “When You Were Mine”—anytime I ever heard it, or hear it. It wasn’t until I was on a radio program in Minneapolis the day after he died, and I asked the host to play it, that I realized how it was kin to the Beatles’ “I’m Looking Through You” in the openness between the notes. And seeing him at the Stone in San Francisco, when he was a noise but not a name, and the waitresses walking on tables to deliver drinks because everyone was standing for the entire show and moving so much there wasn’t room for an extra foot.
What was your opinion of the first episode of Ken Burns’s Country Music? I enjoyed it and I will be digging thru my CDs listening to some of the featured music.
I’m just starting a copy edit of a book manuscript and can’t imagine watching anything that would make me think critically, as this inevitably would. Maybe in a month I’ll have time to watch it. I’ve found Ken Burns’s work riveting and revelatory (on the Civil War) and unbearably tedious (baseball—he once spent half and hour telling me about it while he was working on it and I spent close to a year waiting for it, it sounded so good). I’d like to see him take on something that doesn’t lend itself to an encyclopedic treatment: Raymond Chandler, maybe. On the other hand, the right person for that might be Quentin Tarantino.
How about “Xgau Sez”, Robert Christgau’s rip-off of this forum? In one reply he let it slip that he edits questions submitted to him, which is unconscionable. Also that title! It must be a rock critic’s dream to compare himself to Jesus and Woody Guthrie in one stroke.
– steve o’neill
Early on, my Real Life Rock column was described as a rip-off of Bob’s Consumer Guide. It wasn’t, and his request line isn’t either (the Ask column was the inspired idea of this site’s conceptualist and show runner, Scott Woods, but my inspiration, question by question, is the “Ask Mick LaSalle” by the San Francisco Chronicle‘s chief movie critic, which runs in the Pink Section there every Sunday)—though for the record, Bob did ask if I minded if he inaugurated his column, and I said of course not, the purview was hardly mine.
As for Woody Guthrie and E. B. White (or was it James Thurber) re “Sez,” point taken. But Xgau is useful shorthand. He didn’t exactly chose to have Christ in his name. And “Barabbas Speaks” doesn’t have much of a ring to it.
Several years back, I really got my chinstrap unfastened by the music writing of Geoffrey O’Brien. I was in the bookstore just kinda looking to get something, and picked O’Brien’s Sonata For Jukebox more or less blind—I quick-flipped through the back pages, and saw in one of his year-by-year top-tens “Funky Nassau” by Beginning Of The End, which is a record I love but that I never ever ever see mentioned, and subsequently bought the book just on the strength. I think it’s a stunning book, very akin to some of your work, though perhaps with romance as its first mate and history as its second, rather than vice versa.
Anyway, I know you’ve said some complimentary things about Sonata, and was curious whether you’ve also read O’Brien’s Dreamtime: Chapters From The Sixties. It’s a book I always seem to find my way back to shortly after reading your passage in When That Rough God Goes Riding about Astral Weeks‘s (and John Wesley Harding‘s and Bob Beamon’s) inability/refusal to be absorbed into the all-caps hit parade of sixties signifiers, so I wondered if you had any thoughts.
p.s. It seems like there are about a dozen or so figures for whom your sustained fascination and obvious affection has rendered you the de facto confessor for everyone else’s My First Time, so here’s one of mine: The reason I got into Robert Johnson’s music in the very first place was because as an early teen in the eighties I was an avid reader of a comic book called Scout, which was kind of a Native American Mad Max type thing, except not terrible. The creator of this comic book was a big blues fan, and titled every issue after a classic blues song, including occasional brief concordances on his Author’s Page, and at some point I put together that all the freakiest titles belonged to Johnson. A four-color post-apocalyptic splash panel emblazoned with “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day” was just too weird for me to not delve into, you know?
– James Cavicchia
I was swept away by Sonata for Jukebox—despite a title guaranteed to repel readers. I’d loved his book The Phantom Empire and his work with the Library of America. Dreamtime didn’t come across for me with remotely the same visionary specificity. If that makes sense.
I didn’t know about Scout. Would have loved to have included that in my recent rewrite of the Johnson notes in Mystery Train.
Based only on things I’ve read, my sense is that in 1973 Bryan Ferry’s cover of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” was a divisive record: some Dylan fans thinking it sacrilege (sound effects! hoedown strings!), others thinking it the funniest, if not the greatest, thing they’d ever heard. (For me it was the latter, but I had no Dylan context to speak of; to a clueless kid it was just an extraordinarily catchy tune.) Do you recall it that way, in terms of how critics and others responded? What were your own earliest impressions?
Also: Dylanesque. I dismissed it quickly and haven’t gone back. Did you hear anything there?
I don’t know if Bryan Ferry’s “Hard Rain” was divisive—it certainly should have been. I remember how thrilled I was by it—and by the way he put that and “It’s My Party” in the same moral universe. It was outrageous, blasphemous, hilarious, and he was giving it everything—that was the way Bryan Ferry could sing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and put it across. I remember Robbie Robertson being offended—and baffled.
Dylanesque was a dud. How could that be? The songs just laid there, ready for burial. Maybe it took years for Ferry’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” to begin to investigate the song—the three-ring circus he made of it at the show I saw recently was like the Fourth of July. Maybe it’s that he took such well-known, well-trod, overused songs–as opposed to what Bettye Lavette did with her Things Have Changed, finding little-noticed numbers that had psychic room in them and making Dylan seem like some very talented composer who wrote songs for other people.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on Lana Del Rey’s album, Norman Fucking Rockwell. I know you are a fan of “Venice Bitch,” but I’m curious as to what you think of the album as a whole. Any standouts?
– Tracy Smith
On the first few listens, “California” is the cloud hovering over everything else, but I imagine that will change.
I know I’m old, but really, who is supposed to read the credits without a magnifying glass?
“Old Town Road”? It seems to me to be a quite brilliant record, more than capable of holding anything you care to put on it & wearing it as deathly serious & completely throwaway at the same time. Plus it’s funny, seeming infinitely malleable and a record breaking song about escape sung by an out gay black man that straddles at least two genres not best known for embracing that sort of thing…
– Mark Hagen
There’s a better beat in Chris Rock’s fool-around than anything else. It’s pleasant, but also a thousand ready-mades folded into one.
I appreciated your response, a while back, to a question of mine regarding being name-checked in other people’s work. To expand on that a bit, have you ever felt that a writer was referencing you not by name but more obliquely? Reading This Wheel’s on Fire, I had the feeling that Levon Helm was, without naming names, trying to rebut some of the stuff you’d written in Mystery Train. I don’t have either book at hand but I’m thinking specifically of “Long Black Veil.” If I remember correctly you spent a lot of time on the song and how well it fit with the originals on Big Pink, suggesting that it had been chosen for thematic reasons, if that’s the right word. Levon dismissed the recording as a goof, basically saying: we just thought it was funny the narrator was fucking his friend’s wife.
Incidentally, there’s a great recording somewhere of Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin discussing writing the song. Dill says he had most of the lyric completed but just couldn’t resolve how an innocent man wouldn’t provide an alibi, until on the verge of sleep one night it came to him out of nowhere: “he had been in the arms of his best friend’s wife”.
– steve o’neill
Yeah, that’s really funny, especially since infidelity had previously never been mentioned in a country song. I’d trust Rick Danko on this—and it’s too bad we can’t ask him.
You may know—but that is exactly what happened to Joe Hill. What happened the night he supposedly shot two people in a robbery is unclear. He was wounded when he was arrested. But according to sources developed over the years, he had an alibi that he wouldn’t use: you guessed it.
I’m pretty sure I saw you last night at Duende before the Bryan Ferry show, which seriously exceeded my expectations. Though, the wife & I were clearly amongst the youngest people there.
I find it difficult these days to listen to modern music. Whenever Wire or The Feelies release a new record it is pretty much a given I’ll think it the best record of that year. Silver/Lead in particular just proved to me that Wire are as good today as they’ve ever been.
But, really nothing resonates and moves me as much as Dylan and The Beatles. Still.
I’d like your thoughts on the Lennon/Dylan rivalry. The “4th Time Around,” “Serve Yourself,” “Roll on John” conversation. I just read 16 pages of a review of “Roll on John” where the author is desperate to declare the song is NOT about Lennon. That’s crazy to me.
Do you think Dylan has made peace with Lennon? And, why did he write the song, if not. I adore “Roll on John,” and Tempest. Dylan is like Wire, too, I guess. He can still be as good as he ever was when he wants to be.
– MD Spitler
It was a tremendous show, the best I’ve ever seen by Ferry.
As for the Dylan-John rivalry—? John put Dylan in a song in 1968 [“Yer Blues”?–ed], then again with “God”—it took Dylan a long time to catch up. If that was what he was doing. I’m wary of ascribing single meanings or sources of inspiration to anything. If John is in there somewhere that doesn’t mean he’s everywhere or, in moments, anywhere. And “Roll on John” is, among other things, a very old folk song.
There are some songs that feel eternal, like they deserve to keep playing forever. “Roadrunner” by The Modern Lovers (I quite like the tossed-off version by Yo La Tengo as well) is one of those songs. If it somehow just kept going beyond it’s running time, I’d gladly listen to it with a smile on my face and a swagger in my step. What songs register for you like this?
– Ben Robinson
“Loan Me a Dime” by Boz Scaggs—or really Duane Allman and the Muscle Shoals rhythm section. Listening as it’s faded out, I don’t believe it ever did end.
I am wondering if you could direct me to the source material for this reference to Walt Whitman in your book, Mystery Train. You say, “Walt Whitman once wrote that he didn’t want an art that could decide presidential elections; he wanted an art to make them irrelevant.”
I’d like to use this in my classroom teaching but would like to have the original source which I assume is somewhere in Whitman’s writings.
I’d be grateful for your response. Thank you for all your work and writing.
PS: Here’s a Little Richard story for you.
On September 11th 2001, around 9 am. I turned on the television and watched what was unfolding in New York. I flipped from channel to channel since no amount of coverage, angle or image really explained what I was seeing.
The local PBS affiliate, Channel 11, had made the decision to continue with their usual children’s programming which they did until 11 am. (I have always thought this a supremely humane gesture although perhaps they were just getting their ducks in a row, since they don’t have a local news team. )
Instead of the news, they were showing Sesame Street. And there was Little Richard sitting at a piano, which was also sort of a bathtub, in a leopard print jacket. There were bubbles everywhere and he was performing a version of “Rubber Ducky.”
Obviously this wasn’t going out live, but that ridiculousness has always informed my understanding of the day’s events. I called a friend and told her to tune into to this channel. She did so, and after a moment of viewing Little Richard and the various complications of the bathtub, the bubbles, the song, the toned-down but still eye-winking performance, she said, “Does he know what’s going on?” Oh yeah, he knows exactly what’s going on.
When I looked for this on YouTube to confirm what I remembered, the video from the show appears to have been posted in 2010. I can’t explain this but I can’t explain a lot of things. I do think all of this conforms to the idea that what we want (as in, I would way prefer the Little Richard version of reality I saw that day) and what is, are not the same.
– Cecilia Pinto
I thought [the quote] was very specific and should be easy to find—but no. All of the people I know who are far more immersed in Whitman than I am, or maybe even was, came up blank. I asked Harold Bloom, who would know if anyone does, but at 89 he probably has better things to do and I haven’t heard back. The closest anyone has come is Joe Christiano, whose play based on Leaves of Grass was covered in a recent Real Life Rock column. In Democratic Vistas he found:
“Two or three really original American poets… would give more compaction and more moral identity (the quality to-day most needed) to these States, than all its Constitutions, legislative and judicial ties…”
Which as warmed-over Shelley is most interesting for its characterization of the country both as plural, which was how “the United States” was referred to before the Civil War (“the United States are”), and singular (“its Constitutions,” which is actually singular and plural at the same time). That could have been what I was talking about, but I don’t think I would have referred specifically to elections if he didn’t.
When I’m out from under what I’m overshadowed by now I will try to find the original ms. of Mystery Train where with luck I would have scribbled the reference on the back of that last page. We’ll see.
As for Little Richard—I just watched it, and it made my day. Or week. Two thoughts: that’s a hit. Was it released as a single? It should have been. He’s perfect. Second: I immediately imagined Mohamed Atta and the rest of his crew hanging out in his motel room in Florida, talking about the decadence of American culture and the sink of depravity from which they were going to rescue at least as many people as they could kill. They’re switching channels, this comes on, someone says, “Stop,” they watch it. They look at each other. “Fuck this shit,” one says. “Fuck the 72 virgins. I want to see that again.”
Could you give your thoughts on/assessment of Charlie Gillett’s 1970 book The Sound of the City?
– Tom Wilmeth
It told everyone things they didn’t know.
I’m curious if you consider the late critic/novelist John Berger an influence on your work. If so, how? His writing hit me so hard when I was younger. It seems to me you both have such powerful, similar gifts: an ability to focus so intensely on something, at just the right point and from just the right angle, that the thing explodes in every direction. A focus that expands.
It’s a great compliment to be compared to John Berger. Most of his work I haven’t read—novels, memoirs. The Success and Failure of Picasso taught me a lot about a critic taking on and talking to an artist—I think the argument is wrong but it’s audacious and full of ambition—exhilarating.
What influenced me was his review of Leaving the 20th Century, an early collection/translation of situationist writing—he accepted the extremes in the work at face value, which helped me do the same. It helped me get over the HUMP of what became Lipstick Traces. Most of all, though, it was his script for the film For Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000. It’s a sentimental account of the lives of people left stranded after the disappearance of the anarchic revolutionary spirit of the May ’68 upheaval in France—even to write those words is to sentimentalize what they seek to describe—and it’s proudly unembarrassed in the face of its own sentimentality, which allows it to explore its complexities, its dead ends, its possible escape routes. It’s one of those works of fiction where the characters are so unfinished you can’t help asking, “Whatever happened to these people?” They’d all be my age, now—I wonder what we’d have to say to each other, how we’d judge each other’s lives and, against these lives not ours, our own. Because you know that now some of them are dead, maybe 20 or 30 years dead, some forgot themselves, some never changed their minds about anything. All that hasn’t so much influenced me as become part of how I see the world.
My brother, who follows theater far more than I, just sent me an email that Girl from the North Country, based on the music and lyrics of Bob Dylan, is gong to Broadway. He does not plan to see it, saying it’s “supposed to be very depressing”; unlike me, he sees that as a bad thing. Anyway, I was wondering if you happened to see it in its earlier runs and, if so, what you think.
– Mark Sullivan
I saw it early in the year. I expected to hate it. I didn’t trust a single one of the rave reviews I’d read. They seemed contrived, the writers trying to convince themselves and failing to convince the reader, or anyway me. It started flat-but eventually I was swept up. I was never able to write about it—it’s really a scattering of high points with no real focus or argument. It is absolutely not about Bob Dylan. But I wouldn’t miss it. Here are my original notes:
Opens with Mrs. Neilsen (Jeannette Bayardelle), black boarder sleeping with proprietor Nick Laine (Stephen Boagardus)… “Sign on the Window”—melisma, very pious, devotional. “Went to See the Gypsy” done as neo-soul, no wit—so far the production is dead compared to Masked and Anonymous and I’m Not There.
Folksy interlocutor the local morphine addicted doctor Elias Burke (Todd Almond).
Elizabeth Laine (Mare Winningham) instantly good, you’re drawn to her, she’s supposed to have dementia but she isn’t very convincing at that, she has more gravity than anyone else, in her movements and voice and stubbornness. Marianne Laine (Rachel Stern) adopted African American daughter. Good on “Tight Connection to My Heart,” chorus bad.
Are there going to be any songs with humor? Or songs with humor allowed to be funny?
Meet two guys on the run, white con man and black former prize fighter Joe Scott (Sydney James Harcourt) done his time in Stillwater—turns out they’re both escapees—gets a pallet on the floor, stand up for “Slow Train,” which turns into a gospel extravaganza that gets off the ground and soars. It’s thrilling—and you begin to believe in the show, that it will take you places you haven’t been.
Mr and Mrs Burke—Luba Mason and Mark Kudisch, with their very tall idiot son (who will turn out to have a gorgeous voice, soft shoe moves, and later do a thrilling version of “Duquesne Whistle”)—fighting couple, on verge of splitting up. One of the best touches comes when Luba Mason, big blonde in a red dress, sits down at a drum set in the right front corner of the stage and lays down a Levon Helm beat; Kudisch will later do the same.
There are three black characters, all principals—the interlocutor comes forward to discuss this, talking about the black population in Minnesota, the power of the Klan, the 1920 Duluth lynching. The old rich man wants to taken in/take care of/have the companionship of pregnant Marianne—she says it’s by a guy who’s left town, but it’s later suggested (by her) that she’s impregnated by the devil or a spirit, and by the doctor that it’s a hysterical pregnancy—at the end she shows up with Joe Scott and a baby—he says of course he can’t marry her, as if there are anti-misceg laws, but in Minnesota there weren’t. But for all the attention paid to black presence in the story and the music there are no Jewish characters, in a city where the Jewish community goes back deep into the 19th century, not to mention Dylan being born there 7 years after this is taking place. Less than nothing: just before the formal ending a backdrop of a photo of an old, steep, Duluth street is projected—with, in the foreground, dominating the visual, a telephone pole in the exact form of a crucifix.
“I Want You”—as before, sad, self-pitying, slow, mournful—violin comes in: a prayer.
Mare does a bel canto “LARS” as a slow ballad, with a chicka-boom beat. The essential bigness of the song, its grandeur, comes through, despite her repeated use of “rollin’ stone,” which seems contrived, to make her seem more country, less sophisticated. It’s very strong—or the song triumphs over the set up, even when it turns into “To Make You Feel My Love,” as in “How does it feel to feel my love”?
Luba lead on a fine “Sweetheart Like You,” gives you a sense of how good the song is. It goes into “True Love Tends to Forget” with lead by Mrs. Neilsen, Jeannette Bayardelle, and here, with women dominating, a drama does take shape, as a roundelay around these two songs.
With “Hurricane,” led by Joe Scott, prisoner, prize fighter, black, the ripping power of the song—poorly written, the story shoved into the verses that don’t fit them, it doesn’t matter—is absolutely present. Everyone is part of it, whirled around the stage as if by the wind of the music. Desperate, reaching—this may be better than Dylan’s. A great sense of community, common endeavor, shared values.
“Idiot Wind” as a love song. Joe Scott and Marianne.
“Duquesne Whistle” as a hymn, then a jam, gospel jazz. Drums by singer’s putative father.
Great “Senor” by small white woman, Kate Draper, Caitlin Houlahan—again, the strength of the song stands out.
I’m guessing you’re not much of a heavy metal/prog rock fan but just wondering if you had an opinion on the band Tool? An incredible group whose technical proficiency and intelligent lyrics seem to appeal to many.
One I passed by and maybe vice versa.
In Springsteen’s song “We Take Care of Our Own” from Wrecking Ball, he sings “From Chicago to New Orleans, from the muscle to the bone/From the shotgun shack to the Superdome/We yelled help but the Calvary [sic] stayed home…” Spot-checking some live versions, he appears to sing it the same way. Do you think this is intentional wordplay, or Bruce mispronouncing a commonly mispronounced word? If the former, what do you think he’s getting at, and does it make defensible sense to you? If the latter, shouldn’t someone (Jon Landau?) have informed him of his mistake before it was released?
I assume Bruce likes the (explosive ) double meaning. There was no official help, and Jesus took a pass too.
Your luculent piece was far and away the most lucid response to Bowie’s death yet it renders the inference of your 1979 review of Lodger—otherwise in its astute assay easily the single most perspicacious essay ever written on his work—somewhat out of kilter if not outright askew. In brief, would you allow that if Bowie “promised far more than he delivered,” it is not a demerit, but rather tallies fairly nattily with the premise at the beginning of Lipstick Traces that it is of the essence for the experience of rock’n’roll to be able to say This is actually happening but never This actually happened?
I don’t have a clue.
[GM grapples with DB]
I know you’re a big Roth person and the 50th anniversary of Portnoy’s Complaint is this year. I’m curious what you think of it—not sure if I’ve seen anything you’ve written about it. I’m wondering where you think it fits in the Roth corpus overall—a weird riff/aberration? Experiment? An artistic breakthrough? None of these? Something different?
– Matt Hanson
You look at Goodbye, Columbus and Letting Go (I’ve never been able to get through When She Was Good) and you see someone with great talent and nothing to say. And then something inside of him says, fuck it—I know I have a bomb to set off and I can’t wait to see what happens when I do. And he pulls everything he’s got, including a lot he didn’t know he had, into it and lets it loose on the world. He was accused of being a self-hating Jew with his first book, but here’s he’s playing Al Jolson: You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!
After going so far, after separating himself from every novelist of his generation, or for that matter the generation before and whichever would come after, he was free to do—which is not the same as get away with—anything, including a trivial What Happened to Me After I Wrote a Best Seller novel, or a hurricane like Sabbath’s Theater.
It’s still shocking, like watching Elvis on his first two Ed Sullivan appearances. It’s hilarious. And you really want it to work out with Portnoy and the Monkey. Whatever happened to them, anyway?
Can you recommend any music biopics that subvert the Great Man narrative, that give voice to the collaborators more than (or just as much as) the big name?
Twenty Feet from Stardom.
I’m curious about when, if ever, do you feel like you’ve grasped your subject sufficiently in order to write about it well? At what point do you think that you have done adequate research or pondered the material enough to get to a place where you are confident in making a statement about if it’s good, bad, or otherwise? Is there a moment when you get a epiphanic sense of “ah yes, now I see…” or do you feel like you’re always trying to capture something elusive or inexplicable or is it just always taking a shot in the dark, so to speak?
– Matt Hanson
Criticism, as opposed to rating something, or judging a piece of work in terms of how it will or won’t advance the career of the person or persons who produced it, is an analysis of one’s own response to that piece of work. That can mean addressing oneself to the work in the broadest and most expansive way possible, because in the clash or melding of the work with the response, a varied and multilayered story begins to speak. That’s what happens in Pauline Kael’s review of Bonnie and Clyde, and that process might take weeks. In a way it might not ever be finished, and the critic’s attempt to understand his or her response to this particular occasion may color his or her writing for the rest of their lives.
It’s not a science. There’s no method a person can teach another, Anne Lamott and her books of instructions on how to be like her to the contrary. I listen, I look, and at a certain point the thing in question may start talking to me, maybe in a language I don’t completely recognize. It may turn into something else. The point of it all might be forever away from what it seemed to be. That can take a split second. The first time I heard Train’s “Hey Soul Sister” I knew I had to write about it. I had to get at its shamelessness, and its timing, even though I didn’t know then that that’s what I’d be looking for.
Your Treasure Island section of Stranded is one of my favorite things you’ve done after all these years. I’m wondering what would be your entries for John Mellencamp and Richard Thompson if you could add them now? I know RT was represented in your Fairport Convention entry, but he has a long and distinguished career to choose from since Fairport.
– Bradley Fackler
Opening up the Stranded discography—I’ve imagined it. I’ve thought about it. I’ve made notes in the margins. And I discovered that this way madness lies.
File Under: It’s Funny Because It’s True.
I initially thought that maybe you mis-read my question about you as being a question about Prince, but I have instead decided to believe that you got the question right, and just chose to answer in the third person:
Q: “[I]s there any aspect of what you do that you feel has maybe been overlooked?”
A: “[H]e never got enough credit for anything, because it’s so hard to write on his level.”
Fucking awesome. Thank you/U.
– James Cavicchia
I did misread it.
Speaking of drawing lines and finding links “that brought the world from there to here”—for rock fans like me who weren’t alive during the “there” (or the “here,” depending where “here” is), all we can do to make sense of how things unfolded across the development of rock & roll is to listen (and read) and see what happens, which patterns and paths reveal themselves.
I often think about black rock during the 1960s, and wonder about the paths it took from the 1950s (the “there”) to the early 1970s (the “here”), specifically There’s A Riot Goin’ On and its aftermath. (I choose that as my “here” not just because I was born in 1970 but because it seems that all black music had to pass through Riot‘s prism.)
Some 1960s paths are huge and easy to see. Two encompassing labels: Motown and Atlantic (which evolved to include Stax and Muscle Shoals). Two giant visionary artists: James Brown and Ray Charles. I would also include the 1960s music of Sly Stone himself that was collected on his Greatest Hits album.
(Despite my strong New Orleans music bias, its role here seems minimal; its sound and identity and larger pop presence dissolved after the Beatles, although by the end of the decade it did re-emerge with the Meters, who Sly Stone must have been listening to in 1969-70.)
I really thought I had the story covered, until I recently started to listen to the Impressions, and I wonder if they don’t occupy a small but distinctive path all their own. Curtis Mayfield has to be the only artist who made the Pop Top 20 with doo wop (“Gypsy Woman”), classic soul (“It’s All Right,” “I’m So Proud”), a traditional spiritual (“Amen”), Civil Rights anthems (“Keep on Pushing,” “People Get Ready”), and a funky early black power song (“We’re a Winner”).
I love so much of their music: the arrangements are surprising, Mayfield’s guitar is a gift, and there seems to be a wondrous, unashamed humility and vulnerability everywhere—I don’t know any other love song that simply, openly says “I’m so proud of being loved by you.”
But I also sense that there’s a unique, winding thread here, an essential one that touches and fills various gaps along the way. Do you see the music of the Impressions this way? Could the world of black music have gotten from there to here without them?
Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler had talent all their own. They weren’t really imitable. So they didn’t make their impact in terms of influence, which I’ve always thought was spurious—claiming interest for someone on the basis of their effect on people less interesting. But “He Don’t Love You” is all anyone needs to live forever, as forever goes.
You mentioned rereading Ed Sanders’s The Family. How does it hold up? I’ve been considering rereading it too. Does it remain the definitive Manson book in your estimation? Have you read the new one, Chaos? If so, any good? And while I’m on the subject, what did you think of Tarantino’s new film? Or is that going to be in upcoming Top Ten?
I didn’t find it as scary this time—when I first read it, I was shaking at the end. Maybe that’s because of the realism in Mary Harron’s Charlie Says. I am surprised Squeaky Fromme is out of prison. I’m not sure those who remain should ever get out, just as I thought the Chowchilla kidnappers should not have been released—the Schoenfeld brothers were, but Fred Woods, who always seemed the most odious, has not been. I was more aware this time through the book how spectral some of Sanders’s connections between Manson and other groups were, and how much he was deliberately leaving out—either because he wasn’t able to confirm certain stories, or because, as he put it, no book is worth eternal meditation next to a tire iron.
I will have something to say about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in my first RLR column for the Los Angeles Review of Books. [Column since published here.]
I had previously not read your review of Nick Tosches’ Dino but therein you quoted my number one take away. And the reason I asked the question about the Mystery Train perspective. Not about talent but about audience reaction to it.
“Dean, of course, had no use for any of this shit,” Tosches says, about something else, but as he retrieves Martin from his own silence—Martin has, Tosches notes, given one substantial interview in his entire career, to Oriana Fallaci—the line serves anywhere. It can finish a quote from Martin’s second wife, Jeanne Martin (“Dean doesn’t have an overwhelming desire to be loved. He doesn’t give a damn. He doesn’t get involved with people because he really isn’t interested in them.”)
My curiosity is not about the Dean Martin or John Mellencamp talent but about their perhaps different approach to fans and stardom.
– Jay Sieleman
Because he started out marketed as a commodity that screamed fake, to the point where you could be forgiven for asking if he actually existed—who can forget Johnny Cougar? Well, actually I think the world has forgotten—his approach has always been to establish legitimacy, maybe more in his own mind than in his fans, and I think that persisted, or maybe still does persist, long after he accomplished it and settled all questions with “Small Town.” Dean Martin wanted to get paid. He did. He wanted out from under Jerry Lewis—the whole idea of the combo speaks for the boundless imagination of both of them. He did. Did he die happy? Did he die? It’s hard to think of Martin in terms of an audience. He was his own world. You can think that if he had a gig in Vegas and no one came, he’d do the same show he did every night.
In the fifties there was a picture in Life magazine of Dean Martin playing roulette. My grandmother was next to him, looking at the wheel, not him. It was a big deal to her.
I am a lifetime music lover and the retired President & CEO of The Blues Foundation in Memphis (2003-2015). I only recently read Mystery Train. Coincidentally, the next book I read was Dino by Nick Tosches. I am curious about how Dino would have been viewed from a Mystery Train perspective?
And one other comes to mind—John Mellencamp—who I know “a lttle.” While different, each seems to be cut from a different piece of cloth than….
– Jay Sieleman
It’s an interesting question. I hate to say it, but it’s possible that when I wrote Mystery Train I would have been too prejudiced to take Dean Martin seriously as a singer, and considered Elvis saying in 1956 or so that Dean Martin was the best singer going—something Nick Tosches, in an earlier book than Dino, uses as the basis for his daunted admission that “Elvis will never be solved.” But thanks to Nan Goldin’s “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” which ends with “Memories Are Made of This,” I know now that it’s a perfect record, a great work of craft on all parts, a marvel of subtlety, with a lead from Martin so hard to read you could say, as Nick does in Dino, that Dean Martin will never be solved. And while I always liked “Return to Me,” I probably didn’t appreciate until long after was a deep piece of soul music it really is. In a better world, there would have been a section in the Elvis chapter all about Dean Martin and when, or if, Elvis ever did get to sound like him.
John Mellencamp is a seriously good guy, and you can hear that in his music. He’s not trying to tell you—it comes through. When Columbia wanted one of their artists on the soundtrack album for Sean Wilentz’s and my book The Rose and the Briar, an anthology of essays on American ballads, I suggested they ask JM if he’d do “Wreck of the Old 97.” It’s my favorite track on the whole set—all heart.
[cf. GM’s review of Dino.]
All Bob Dylan fans owe D.A. Pennebaker their eternal gratitude for his work documenting Dylan’s tours 1965-66. Don’t Look Back, the ’65 tour, has been extensively cataloged and updated. The ’66 footage of Dylan/The Hawks was used by Martin Scorsese for No Direction Home, and Dylan’s Eat The Document is found on YouTube nowadays. But you got to watch Pennebaker’s edit called Something Is Happening Here… while you were writing Mystery Train. Can you recall what you saw in that version compared to how Scorsese and Dylan himself have used that material? I wonder if the Dylan archives in Tulsa have Pennebaker’s version or not and now that Pennebaker has died, what will happen to that film?
– Jim Stacho
Pennebaker was never permitted to screen his unfinished film of the 1966 tour—which I think is not as strong as Dylan’s own—and when I asked if it might run along with the first screening of Scorsese’s No Direction Home, at the Telluride Film Festival, the answer was no. I don’t know about Tulsa. Essentially Pennebaker used full or unbroken takes of performance material, while Dylan used clips from various performances of the same song to produce a collaged whole. The big shocks in Scorsese’s film are the, I believe Newcastle “Like a Rolling Stone” at the start, which is so chaotic and intense, and the grand Manchester version at the end when you can actually see, not just hear, the famous moment.
I was just watching Don’t Look Back again, for the obvious reason, and I noticed something that I’d never realized from the times I’d seen the movie before. Did you ever notice in the scene with Donovan and Dylan swapping songs at the party, that Donovan actually requests “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”? The way I remembered it was Dylan grabbing the guitar out of Donovan’s hands and showing up this pretender, but as it actually happened Donovan asked for it. And you watch Donovan just sitting there dying inside. While it’s not truly analogous it put me in mind of Albert Murray in Stomping the Blues quoting Count Basie on his chagrin at losing a battle of the bands with an upstart Louis Jordan. If I recall it correctly, he said, “He just played blues! And he cut me!”
– Robert Fiore
I don’t remember the request. Pennebaker once told me, regarding that scene, that Donovan thought “Mr. Tambourine Man” was an old folk song, and Dylan was not happy about that, saying to Penny, “Most of my songs aren’t original, but that one is.”
I’ve just taken a fresh look at your March 26, 1979, New West article “Revelation and Subversion: The Ice Age Art Show.” Based on that article, I made a point of visiting the California Academy of Sciences to see the exhibit, and it was a real mind-blower, the most “everything you know is wrong” experience I’ve ever had. That article doesn’t seem to have been posted on GreilMarcus.net, although a version of it appears in The Dustbin of History (and there’s a related review [on the site] of Bjorn Kurten’s Dance of the Tiger). As you wrote then, “the problem is that the evidence is not neat.” And that was before Homo Floresiensis and the Chauvet Cave discoveries. Do you still follow new discoveries in early man studies?
– Robert Mitchell
I’ve always kept up. Early art, paleoanthropology—it’s an undying fascination.
When you start poking around, you learn a few things. Everything is older than it seems or the evidence appears to indicate. Discoveries used to be conventionally announced as “the first” and “the earliest,” which never meant anything but the earliest yet found. Everything is uncertain. Nothing is definitive. And ego rules. People are desperate to hold onto the primacy of their discoveries, and to cling to what once seemed irrefutable importance that later discoveries erode. Louis Leakey always proclaimed whatever fossil or tool evidence he discovered as part of the direct ancestry of modern humans because—well, because HE found it, but in truth no one really knows what modern humanity is. There is recent evidence that modern humans, from Africa, inhabited Europe as early as 200,000 years ago, but then vanished, suggesting Neandertals or other earlier groups drove out or genetically swamped the incursors—in other words, flipping the script of the replacement of Neandertals by modern humans in the area of 40-30,000 years ago. It’s the most wonderful, unsolvable story.
[Note: the piece referred to was quoted from here; it will be posted in its entirety on GM.net.]
Thanks for your Devo response. Two things (one related) I’ve never seen you mention:
1) Brian Eno’s solo work. Did anything by him, particularly seventies records like Another Green World, ever grab you? Any thoughts on his music or productions generally speaking? (If I’m not mistaken you only like what Roxy Music did after he left the group.)
2) Double Fantasy. Did you write about it when it came out? Did Lennon’s death effect your feelings about it then, and have you thought about or listened to it much since?
– Jeremy Cranston
Eno was not someone who drew me in.
I wrote about Double Fantasy when it came out—about how I first heard it with a group of friends—and how when John and Yoko sang “We have grown, we have grown,” everybody in the room groaned. It’s an unbearable record. When he was murdered, among the hundreds of thoughts rushing through my head was that he should have been able to leave something better as a last word.
I’ve never heard you mention Spielberg’s Lincoln. I thought it was a termite that walked like an elephant, using Great Man Oscar-Bait to tell the story of why the greatest constitutional amendment in our nation’s history almost didn’t pass. Any thoughts?
– Kevin Bicknell
[In Ask Greil 03/18/16, Greil wrote: “The opening is bad enough to put anyone off from whatever follows: the supplicant black boys gazing up at the not-yet-Great Emancipator as if he were already a monument. Spielberg just can’t help himself when there’s the possibility of a cute little boy to shove into the plot, and adorable Tad just about dissolves the story in sugar water. But I can’t imagine anyone now or then pulling this off better than Daniel Day-Lewis—Bob Dylan once said the British were good at saying marvelous but not so hot with raunchy, but DDL can say ‘ain’t’ as if it’s no surprise to him—and the scene where Sally Field’s Mary Todd is freaking out because she thinks her husband doesn’t have tickets to the theater and he says, ‘They’ll let us in’ is perfect. As are Tommy Lee Jones and S. Epatha Merkerson.”]
Lately I’ve been enjoying digging into your Prince material. He’s my number-one-competition-is-none, easy, and while I’d caught bits and pieces and passing references over the years, I was disappointed that you hadn’t seemed to have addressed him at any length. I was thus thrilled to properly search the site archives and discover that—as they say—it’s not you, it’s me. That I finally get to read these pieces is lovely enough; to find them so heavily threaded with such a sense of dazzle and shelter is really something else.
It got me thinking about other Prince things I’ve read (not counting I Would Die 4 U, which was absolute dogshit), and was reminded of Prince’s complaint that he never got enough credit for his slow jams. That in turn made me wonder: Leaving out the ideas of “complaint” or “credit,” is there any aspect of what you do that you feel has maybe been overlooked? Something you’re surprised more people don’t ask you about?
If you don’t care for that question, here’s a different one: I think of you as a West-Coaster (that’s not meant to be reductive, though as someone who has never lived on the West Coast myself, it may very well be somewhat defensive—I think every wood-chopper would prefer to believe Paul Bunyan lives somewhere else, you know?), and while you’ve written a great deal about many stripes of West Coast music, it seems that most of the weirdo art music to which you’ve given sustained attention is from elsewhere, whether the Midwest or Europe or wherever.
Is that accurate, or have I just been reading the wrong magazines? If the latter, my apologies. If the former, how come?
– James Cavicchia
I’m a Bay Area person. I’m not sure what you mean about weirdo art music—Pere Ubu? All of the great early rock ‘n’ roll performers were weirdos, from Little Richard to Elvis and on from there—do you think a normal person could have made “Footstomping Part 1”?
As for Prince and slow jams—he never got enough credit for anything, because it’s so hard to write on his level. But there is that 45 minute version of “Motherless Child” that surfaced about a day after his death…
I wondered if you’d noticed Jeet Heer’s response in The Nation to Jane Mayer’s piece on Al Franken. Heer seemed way off to me. Hope you’ll comment on where Heer et al. have come down on Franken’s take-down.
– Benj DeMott
Heer is trying to get out from under Jane Mayer’s very strong and comprehensive piece, which is less a defense of Al Franken than a takedown of the senators who forced him out. It’s is a weaselly piece: Heer seems to most of all want to affirm his own (and I so loathe the word but in context it may be the right one) wokeness.
It was clear from about Day 2 that this was a right wing ambush and most of Franken’s compatriots walked right into it. They gave Franken no option. If he hadn’t quit—and raising that as a real possibility is to me an instance of naïveté on Mayer’s (and Franken’s) part—the same people who were so intent on purifying themselves would have read him out of the party, taken away his committee assignments, and ostracized him. The after-the-fact justifications—Oh, if the Democrats didn’t show how they stood for absolute probity against the depredations of the GOP, Doug Jones wouldn’t have beaten Roy Moore—are dubious on their face—and both avoid a central question—was it worth it to trade Doug Jones, fine a person as he is, for the smartest person in the Senate?—and exposes the cynicism of the self righteousness: would Gillibrand’s mob, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, have done the same if the man accused was, say, Sherrod Brown, where he would have been replaced by a Republican, as Ohio had a Republican governor and Minnesota didn’t?
In several reviews about Bread, Lester Bangs appeared to sarcastically endorse the band by calling Diary a “masterpiece” and mentioning that “Make It With You” “melts his heart into a puddle of treacle.” I interpret that Bread was a guilty pleasure for him. I also have warm feelings about the group including the aforementioned songs and adding “Everything I Own” and “Baby I’m a Want You” although I tend to gravitate away from this style of music. What is your take on this band and their short run in the first half of the 1970s?
– Shawn Sriver
I thought they were horrible, but not as smarmy as America.
A while back I was talking with a friend about writing and voice, and about the idea that maybe one of the fundamental divides is between people who mostly write how they talk and people who mostly write some other way, and about the idea that her generation and mine—people who started writing in the nineties, the time of The New Sincerity—are, compared to writers older than us and writers younger than us, probably overly skittish about the concept of persona.
(In brief: We guessed that the older ones have wider perspective on writing’s slight remove—via academia or bohemia—and so see it only fitting to approach with extra starch or increased freak-freak, and the younger ones are so text-saturated and the stakes are so low and the game is rigged anyway and anyway what kind of mark would let themselves be constrained by this alleged self? In any case, neither side seems to worry about the authenticity-police type shit—you know, “If you don’t say ‘dope’ in real life, don’t embarrass yourself by trying to sneak it past in print, pal…”—as much as my people do.)
Anyway, somewhere in there, the question came up: Do you think someone who’s read your writing would be surprised when they talked with you in person?
Same question (I think), asked differently: Do you think you mostly write how you talk?
– James Cavicchia
When I’m being interviewed or responding to questions at a bookstore reading or after a talk, people often say I talk like I write: “In paragraphs.” That’s probably true, but I don’t write like I talk. I write in metaphors—it’s an instinctual response, my way of thinking, and I think far better writing than talking. Speaking, I am (I hope) direct, though often in response to a question I do find myself on swirls of possibilities that resemble my writing. My writing is grammatical; my speech isn’t always.
over the past few steamy days down here south of you, my summer reading list finds me dipping back into a few things that reward revisitation: miss lonelyhearts by nathanael west; hemingway’s nick adams stories, and a few by alice munro…welty…
and most potently, your own like a rolling stone, which vibrates in this moment of national trauma the way the song of its title did during the deepening of our war in southeast asia.
it occurred to me last night just before sleep—from the perspective of a songwriter and record maker—that there are songs that are great as pieces of writing and for which recordings serve as a reading into public record; and then there are songs that are ushered into greatness by the process of recording, by the document itself—“like a rolling stone” being of the latter.
by this i mean that, considered outside of its studio articulation and resulting cultural significance—which are enormous—“rolling stone” is an awkward piece of songwriting. as a songwriter, i would have been much prouder to have written, say, “just like tom thumb’s blues,” or “isis;” but as you lay out vividly, “rolling stone” as a song on paper and in its author’s head was but the rock upon which abraham prepared to sacrifice his son: blunt and flinty.
i have tried singing the song and felt embarrassed even alone in my own room. but issuing unexpected from a radio, i have stood frozen in a grocery store checkout line; and once, at 16, drove through a solid red light—and with my mother howling in the passenger seat.
but why am i telling you this, since you literally wrote the book telling me? for no other reason than that last night just before lights out, it occurred to me that the more mature distillation of this song might truly be “tears of rage”: the “you” of LASR now fully revealed and owned as “i”… the singer weary and forsaken and, ultimately… equally liberated.
anyway. i may be using this an excuse to say hello, which is fine; and to remind you that you matter to me.
and that, somedays, i too can’t stop thinking about that ornery little fucker.
– joe henry
There’s no question you’re right, and you can hear it happening (or almost not) on the full edition of the 1965-66 compilation The Cutting Edge, on the disc with the entire “Like a Rolling Stone” session, minus a lot of the studio dialogue. All you have to do is listen to the original waltz arrangement to realize that the song could have been junked during the recording process or released as a soon-to-be-forgotten B-side, and neither of us would care (and this is after Dylan had spent a day working out the song with Mike Bloomfield, not a big waltz guy—and testament to the fact that at the start no one could figure out what the thing was). There are clumsy elements in the lyrics, which aside from overblown metaphors that aren’t so much impenetrable as incapable of connecting to anything outside themselves and then generating meaning (I never liked “Napoleon in rags,” myself), and the thoughtless use of linguistic cliches of the moment, which both date the songs (“He really wasn’t where it’s at”) and function as a way to avoid saying what you really mean. You can compare the lyrics and the early partial arrangements to such elegantly, thrillingly written songs as “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” “She Belongs to Me,” “Visions of Johanna” (which evolved from a solo performance on stage into rock ‘n’ roll, and which then sparked half a dozen completely different arrangements with different musicians over several months, all of which are staggering), “High Water,” and “Ain’t Talkin'” and see the huge difference—and yet what it tells you is that perfection and songs that completely know themselves may be overrated, because “Like a Rolling Stone” exists in a different dimension from any of them.
What were your initial impressions of the different performances during the original Woodstock festival—what stood out, what might have been career changing, and which ones bombed or failed to meet expectations. Also, how did those impressions change when you saw the documentary for the first time?
– [heavily-edited extrapolation of an interview request]
Far too much happened in 1969 for me to summon thoughts on all of it, sequentially. My version of re-engaging was to reread Ed Sanders’s The Family last week.
I wrote the inside feature for Rolling Stone’s post Woodstock issue [this will be posted here—ed], the same one with Jan [Hodenfield]’s (better) story. And a 25th anniversary piece for Interview that’s on the site.
My favorite performance was Crosby Stills Nash & Young.
Recently, John Lydon, in his letter to the Rock n Roll Hall Of Fame, and during a drunken TV broadcast with a “punk” panel including Marky Ramone, argued that the Sex Pistols “project” was not part of the lineage of rock ‘n roll or post-war popular entertainment, but rather was outside of that lineage, that it was the “other,” an interruption, a serious breach in its timeline and as such shouldn’t be regarded as part of that tradition. Do you agree?
– Billy Burke Pilgrim
As it happens, I wrote a book making that argument in 1989. Just about my favorite review of it came from John Lydon, being interviewed in Australia a few years later. The interviewer brought up the book, which had positioned the Sex Pistols as part of a current of European heresy in politics and art going back to the Middle Ages, as if it was obviously ridiculous. I think I can remember Lydon’s response word for word: “It’s so mad, it’s so daft—it’s thoroughly entertaining.” “But don’t you think he’s completely wrong?” “No, he’s not wrong.”
Years later I did a long segment on Lydon’s internet radio program. We talked a lot ahead of time. He brought up various dismissals of the book he’d made, including in his first book, as the kind of thing he thought he had to say, to keep ownership of his own story, and also said, in essence, you and I understand what the Pistols were about, but most people just aren’t going to understand that. I didn’t take that as a compliment.
For his part, Malcolm McLaren, who I got to know well enough in the years after the book appeared, became its biggest advocate. For that matter, after the New York debut of the Austin theatrical company the Rude Mechs’s adaptation of the book, which had featured a deadly, dead-on David Greenspan as McLaren, the phone rang the next morning. My wife answered, laughing—she said it was David pretending to be McLaren. I got on the phone, and it took a few minutes for the person on the other end to convince me he really was McLaren—and that he wanted to stage a London version of the play so he could play himself.
First off, thanks for the lovely writing, and thinking, about music and so many other things too over the years.
Have you heard the new Sleater-Kinney material? I noticed a month or two ago that they had released a couple new songs, and I listened, and I didn’t get it—felt like they were missing their energy, not to mention the jagged edges that I usually hear sticking out of their songs. There was a long article about them in the NY Times today, and after reading it I listened to the new stuff again (four songs out now, in total), and I’m still disappointed. The Times article made it sound like they were feeling a lot of urgency about their work, but I just can’t hear it so far in the new music. Do you hear it?
I hear a person who New York Times critics and herself have sold as the coolest person on earth. What I hear on the new material is: Wouldn’t you like to be like me?—not mentioning that she’s been an image from the start.
I have been an absolute fan of the band since they formed and I heard their first tracks (including their cover of “More than a Feeling”) and stood next to the stage when they first played San Francisco. I never liked everything they did: being a fan is knowing that to embrace poor work is to betray the band, not to mention oneself. What I hear so far is a producer stealing the voice of people better than she is so that she’ll still be appearing In the fashion pages when they’re no longer competition. I hope I’m completely wrong. I am prejudiced for the west over the east. But I’ve always thought St. Vincent was a fraud and I’m not hearing differently.
You recently wrote here of “The Fat Man”: “I’m shocked at what a radical change it heralds. You can draw all the straight lines you like between this and a thousand records made before it, and there will always be gaps, the missing link that brought the world from there to here.”
There are so many dimensions to the question of the first rock and roll record, and I think anyone’s answers—because there is no single answer—are only as interesting as the thoughts behind them (which gaps were closed, and when, and how?). You’ve made a case for “The Fat Man,” recorded December 1949 (this makes me happy, not just because I’m from New Orleans but because there’s so much more here than in 1951’s oft-cited “Rocket 88,” which I don’t even like; to me it advanced nothing—in fact it sounds as if it’s reaching backward to Louis Jordan), and likely many others over the years.
In “Treasure Island,” you wrote that on the Sun Sessions, Elvis, with his band and Sam Phillips, “invented rock and roll.” It seems clear that here, and in Mystery Train, your thought is that Elvis is the one most responsible for this “revolutionary transformation of culture,” and if we are to think of rock and roll in cultural terms, then Elvis truly, and maybe singlehandedly, “married white culture to black.” I don’t think anyone would dispute that. But I also can’t help doing my own present-day archaeology (I wasn’t alive to experience the unfolding), and when I listen to Elvis’ second single, “Good Rocking Tonight,” released September 1954, my simple thought is that no one—black or white, on record or off, in imagination or in practice—had ever sung like this before.
Then there’s the question of rock and roll as musical form, and Chuck Berry is usually the first artist mentioned. In “Treasure Island” you call Berry the Originator, saying that his 1950s music “will forever define the form and spirit of rock and roll.” I have the same feeling. When I listen to his first record, “Maybellene” (July 1955), I think: this was the first single in the history of the world that took the wild thrust of hillbilly music, charged it with the scream of Chicago electricity, nailed it home with the hard urban snare backbeat of R&B, and topped it off with a blistering guitar solo—and made the Pop Top Ten. Chuck Berry was black and urban, but this music was not rhythm and blues.
But what about the beat? You almost never speak in technical musical or musicological language (and thank heavens, because that doesn’t tell us much anyway), but you often talk excitedly, and profoundly, about the beat in rock music. We always hear about how rock is partly defined by the straight 4/4 beat (drummers call it straight eighth-notes), but I do not hear that beat in any of the above performances. Despite their musical departures from what came before, their beats all contain, to some degree, a rhythm that swings, bounces, or shuffles. (“Maybellene” blurs this because it’s played so fast. And though Chuck Berry often played his guitar and sang in straight rock rhythm, his drummer always swung the beat. “Johnny B. Goode” is probably the best example.)
To my ears, the first straight rock beat happens on Little Richard’s “Slippin’ and Slidin” (March 1956). Rhythmically, there is no line backward from here. It only goes forward—to Little Richard’s own “Lucille,” which slowed it down and really established it; to Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire”; to the early Motown of “Money”; to surf music and “Louie Louie”; and then to the enormous propulsive drive of “I Saw Her Standing There,” which I hear as the foundational beat, or groove, of the universe of rock that followed (including and especially punk, not to be reductionist).
Earl Palmer wrote: “The only reason I started playing what they come to call a rock and roll beat came from trying to match Little Richard’s right hand. With Richard pounding the piano with all ten fingers, you couldn’t very well go against it. I did at first—on ‘Tutti Frutti’ you can hear me playing a shuffle. Listening to it now, it’s easy to hear that I should have been playing that rock beat.”
I might be wrong. You’ve heard thousands more early/mid-1950s records than I have. Do you hear the “straight rock beat” in any music released before “Slippin’ and Slidin'”? For me, this beat heralds as much a radical change toward rock as any others that can be pointed to—it’s an element that can’t be found in any blues, R&B, jazz, country, or pop track that came before. Does the question interest you?
To say Chuck Berry was the originator and that Elvis invented rock ‘n’ roll is no contradiction. It was just invented many times in many places in different forms at the same time: “Earth Angel” by the Penguins is as perfect and as beautiful, as much a carrier of formal novelty as anything else.
On the beat, you’re right on all counts, though I’d go for “Ready Teddy” not because it’s first but because for Little Richard it’s the summa. And I agree on “Rocket 88.” I’ve never gotten that as anything more than a jump blues novelty record. I’d go for the Medallions “Buick ‘59”—released in 1954 but titled to affirm that sense of novelty in the music and also so they could re-release it in 1959 and get a hit all over again, which they did. Now that is rock ‘n’ roll if anything is.
Thank you for decades of great writing. I have to admit, I was shocked when a friend pointed me to a rave of the first Devo album that was posted on this site. You call it “one of the most exhilarating, not to mention one of the funniest, debut albums in years: a tour de force of Heartland strangeness that moves like pure pop music.” In the years that I’ve been reading you, I don’t think I’ve ever seen another mention of them. Lasting treasure or moment’s pleasure? Were critics who labeled them “fascist” off-base do you think?
– Jeremy Cranston
I thought the first album was a gorgeous explosion that the lockstep best of the early singles didn’t remotely foreshadow. There was a whole scene that grew up around the band in Akron and in retrospect I think you can hear that album as a rocket ship right out of it. They made interesting records afterward but they seem trapped by their whole devolution humans-to-robots shtick, as with “Beautiful World.”
“Mongoloid” was funny and disturbing at the time and still is. Of course no one would play it today and “Down’s Syndrome” doesn’t have quite the same ring.
As for “Fascist,” bad critics are always looking for a genre label for bands so they won’t have to actually listen to them. And Bruce Conner would not have made a video for fascists even if they did wear flower pots on their heads.
How has rock criticism affected rock & roll? Positives? Negatives? How has rock criticism been affected by the philosophical controversies that are central to other contemporary critical ”discourses” such as art criticism and literary studies ?
– Dave Rubin
That’s a book I’m not sure anyone else would want to read, not something I can answer in a paragraph or two. Let’s just say to your first question, I’d rather hear from a musician than a critic, let alone myself. For the second—to the degree that it has, it’s all for the worse. I don’t know if it has. When I was writing Lipstick Traces, you couldn’t read five pages of anything without running into the term post-modernism, which to me signified a corruption of modernism at best and was meaningless otherwise, so I resolved that the word would not appear anywhere in the book, which it doesn’t. Even if it meant someone I quoted couldn’t be fully credited, because his good book had the word in the title.
You must have been asked this a thousand times (though not here in Ask Greil), but if in 1979 the situation was reversed and you were asked to submit an essay on your desert island album, what would you have picked? Specifically, which album would you have most wanted to write about in this way? I think most readers get that Stranded‘s desert island question is not about what’s the best album ever but rather the one with which a listener has developed such a deep, personal relationship that it just may sustain them indefinitely. Was there one for you in 1979?
Astral Weeks. My wife and I heard it on KMPX when it was released—when it appeared, it felt like. By 1979 I’d already spent years on its island, playing it hundreds of times. It was a relief that Lester Bangs chose it. I’d written a full page critical piece on it for Rolling Stone and a concert review/backstage interview for the San Francisco Express-Times when it came out. Neither was very good.
I wasn’t convinced I could do any better ten years later. When I wrote about it and in my Van Morrison book I used nothing from those old pieces, and took inspiration from Lester’s.
Thank you for correcting me on the lyrics for “She’s My Baby Doll”—“expensive perfume” surely makes more sense, and I hear it now…
Speaking of Cajuns, I’m curious about your opinion of the Band’s “Acadian Driftwood”. As I recall, you were fairly dismissive of the song in Mystery Train, but in your review of Northern Lights-Southern Cross, which predates my edition of the book, you seem to like it a lot. (Though, forgive me, I thought the review read like you were trying to convince yourself you liked the album).
I keep coming back to the song for the lyrics and vocals, and despite the grating National Film Board arrangement. How do you feel about it these days?
– steve o’neill
Probably true about the review, but what I say in MT about “Acadian Driftwood” is still what I think. Too careful, too correct—the song only gets off the ground when Richard Manuel sings in French. (And what is the Nat’l Film Board version?). But what I missed on Northern Lights was the real glory of “It Makes No Difference.” Certainly it grew when Rick Danko sang it on stage, especially with Levon Helm on the You Tube so called Living Room Tapes. There seems to be no bottom to the song as he understands it and puts it across. Maybe the words meant more to him as time went on; maybe the melody did.
I think the best thing anyone ever said about the significance of production was when Jerry Leiber (or it might have been Mike Stoller) said, “We didn’t write songs, we made records.” The art of making records might have been rock and roll’s most significant contribution to music. You’ve written about how impressed you were by the latest restoration of Robert Johnson and the American Epic remasters, and I was wondering, have you had the opportunity to listen to the original 78s? There are those who favor 78s over LPs the way people favor LPs over CDs. When I heard the American Epic version of “Peg and Awl” I at first thought it had to be a different version of the tune. I suspect the Epic version and the Harry Smith version are going to coexist as different records.
You know, there’s separating the art from the artist and there’s separating the artist from the art. After I wrote to you about how eager his fans had been to bury Michael Jackson’s crimes along with him, it occurred to me that as the records become less important to people Jackson is going to become another Gilles de Rais. The enormity of what he did, the way he did it and how he got away with it will render the music into an incongruous footnote.
– Robert Fiore
It seems clear that Michael Jackson is being written out of mainstream discourse on culture, which is to say, white, Anglophone, empowered, and employed practitioners of discourse. That doesn’t seems to be true among the great parts if not most of the African-American community, or of whole countries overseas. So while he may become a footnote in the history of pedophilia here, in books that the professional classes read, that might not be true elsewhere. As you can tell from the impassioned tone of this paragraph, I don’t know and I don’t care.
Once “River Deep, Mountain High” bombed, Phil Spector pretty much closed up the Philles label and went out lecturing at college campuses. I heard him at Cal in 1966 or ’67. He was enthralling, a born raconteur and stand-up comedian (Lenny Bruce was one of his most treasured friends). He told marvelous stories about the record business, which seemed to be anecdotes (there was a very long one about copyright, accusations of plagiarism, armed guards, and electrified fences) but over the course of the talk resolved themselves into arguments about culture, celebrity, creativity, money, greed, jealousy, and knowledge. One part I have never forgotten, and which has been behind most of what I’ve written about rock ‘n’ roll, was this: “There are records, and there are ideas. They’re not the same, and it almost never happens that the two come together at once. ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ is an idea, but oh—if it had been a record, too. Anyone who can make something that is both a record and an idea will rule the world.”
In one way, this meant, “I should have produced ‘Like a Rolling Stone,'” and that rule the world meant top the charts for five years in a row. But I thought then and think now that he meant rule the world.
Elvis’s 1968 TV special is now available on CD in a confusing plethora of different versions: The Complete ’68 Comeback Special, The Best of the ’68 Comeback Special, NBC TV Special, Memories: The ’68 Comeback Special, etc. I am interested most in the small-group session, much less so in the big production numbers. Which version do you recommend?
– Elliot Silverman
This is from the 2015 Mystery Train. Everything may not still be available. In theory reissues or archival material should be kept in print/alive forever, or at the least for the lifetime of anyone born when the release first appeared. If only.
These performances—taken from two invitation-only concerts held in a Burbank studio auditorium on June 27, 1968—are collected on Memories: The ’68 Comeback Special (RCA), the six p.m. show, plus three rehearsals from June 25, and on Tiger Man (RCA), the eight p.m. show. Burbank ’68 (BMG) collects a dozen rehearsals; Let Yourself Go! The Making of “Elvis”—The ’68 Comeback Special (Sony BMG) includes rehearsals on “When It Rains, It Really Pours” and “That’s My Desire.”
I love the paths the internet takes me down. Fact-checking Robert Christgau, who claimed that Doug Kershaw wrote “Diggy Liggy Lo” (I’d assumed it was a Cajun folk song, but I’d also thought it was called “Diggy Diggy Lo”) led me to the actual writer (according to Wikipedia, anyway), Terry Clement. His original is in Cajun French, and it’s great. It’s on YouTube, as are a couple of his other records, including “She’s My Baby Doll” which might as well be in Cajun French and I think if someone asked me for one song that defined rockabilly I’d play it. Representative lyric: “Well a rich girl wears a bitch’s perfume [that can’t be right, but it’s what I hear]/a poor girl does the same/my girl don’t wear none at all/but you can smell her just the same”. Is he someone you’ve heard of?
– steve o’neill
“She’s My Baby Doll” defines rockabilly once it turned into a rocket ship no one was controlling. It could go anywhere and say anything. But I think the line is “expensive perfume.”
Regarding your reply to the question about record production, remixes and such, I remember you had a very positive reaction to the Robert Johnson reissue several years back that had extensive audio cleanup, EQing and whatnot. I liked it too, and since first hearing it I’ve thought about other candidates for similar treatment. I could rationalize this by comparing it to digital restoration of an old movie, as opposed to colorizing it, but I have to admit it ultimately would be imposing my preferences. When I hear Elvis’ version of “What’d I Say” from 1963, he sounds like he’s having a ball, the backup singers sound completely unhinged, and yet there’s no rhythm section presence at all. The performance is terrific, but the recording is atrocious. In such a case, wouldn’t a good remix be worth doing? I agree that audio clarity isn’t always needed (doo wop records often thrive on their own murkiness), but sometimes a revised mix can be a revelation. You’ve expressed preference for the American versions of some Beatles albums because they left off songs you didn’t think needed to be included, and you’ve edited the writing of your friend Lester Bangs. Would these kind of “revisions” be analogous?
– Jim Cavender
Elvis rocking out and no band… yes, Elvis movies as cinema discrepant, a genre I thought I was inventing until during research for Lipstick Traces I discovered that it had been invented, using that name, correctly—cinéma discrépant—by Isidore Isou, a high-art cult prophet who modeled his look on Tony Curtis, but looked liked Elvis before the fact—in Paris in 1950. I should have mentioned the 2011 Robert Johnson recapture, but it sounds and feels like something other than a remix: rather, somehow finding not the right balance, loudness, speed, etc., but allowing the music to take on more presence, and create its own atmosphere. But all this fancy talk is just another way of saying that there may be no rules, no standards, no guidelines either to, let’s say, remake a finished record—supposedly refinished! says the refinisher—and that it really does come down to, as Bo Diddley put it, who do you love?
Listening to The Long Goodbye from Pere Ubu. A singular achievement among a 40+ year career that has traveled the realer than real fictional America. I hear moments that sound like the Residents and Snakefinger while somehow feeling familiar and strange at the same time. It is as invigorating and challenging as ever to listen to another creation by David Thomas. Wondering if you have heard this new record, as given his age and health this may be his final record (hopefully not!), and what your thoughts are about it?
– Matt G
I just finished listening for the third time. I’ll be writing about it in my column. I think the real album is the live version from “Montreuil.” Thomas sounds exactly like himself. If he’d brushed death you’d never know it.
I bought Furry Lewis’ Fourth & Beale back in the late ’70s when I was a teenager & never really got it but could never really put it down either—couldn’t work out if I liked it or not. Over the years it worried away at me & I don’t think I’ll ever get to the bottom of it. I still hear new things in “I’m Going To Brownsville,” to the extent that I once felt compelled to take that right hand road driving from Nashville to Memphis just to check. What’s your take on Furry?
– Mark Hagen
There’s a casual, everyday feeling in his music, which makes the appearance of a casual, everyday heroism—in the feel of it—so different from anyone else. I’m thinking especially of “Cassie Jones,” where the narrator emerges from the story as the real hero, because he’s free to think it all over. There’s a great sense of time going in a circle, so that the belief that there’s nothing new under the sun becomes not imprisoning but a spur to keep telling the story, because the next time you tell it, it might pick up a stray new thought, or even come out differently.
But really—read Stanley Booth’s great portrait, “Furry’s Blues,” and the testament that follows on the occasion of Lewis’s death, in Booth’s new collection Red Hot and Blue: 50 Years of Writing About Music, Memphis and Motherf**kers, then put on “John Henry.” When Lewis sings “This old hammer killed John Henry—but it won’t kill me,” when he already had his lifetime job as a Memphis street sweeper, you can feel as if he really does have John Henry’s hammer, that he sleeps with it every night, and also that “this old hammer” is his own broom.
To impeach or not to impeach?
Sean Wilentz has recently weighed in for “to,” and I wonder what you think.
Speaking only for myself, I don’t see why Trump should be given the opportunity to claim another victory before the election. Wilentz also ignores the fact that the Republicans are far less ideologically diverse than they were in 1973 and are fully committed to allow a criminal to stay in office to pursue their policies. He believes “pursuing a fully justified impeachment inquiry… would turn Trump’s demagogy against him,” but I don’t see how this would work, considering the anticlimax of the Mueller Report and Trump’s mastery of demagogy. He will go on waving facts away and playing the martyr.
I’ve been opposed to impeachment given that there is no chance of conviction—yes, he could shoot people on 5th Avenue and the the Senate would consider it a legitimate exercise in the president’s inherent power to take preventive action for national security purposes—and because it would help Trump’s reelection. There is nothing he could do that would cause those who now support him to say, Gosh, he’s a bad guy! He shouldn’t be president! He could hold an orgy with Jeffrey Epstein on the White House lawn with a thousand naked women and his evangelical support would not suffer (men, that might be a harder call). Despite Sean’s arguments I still think impeachment supported only by Democrats, and not all of them, either, could have that effect. Clinton’s impeachment was prima facie illegitimate because it was brought by means of a 98% partisan vote; the charges brought by the House Judiciary Committee against Nixon were legitimate because it was bipartisan, and the Republicans who voted to bring the bill forward were among the most respected and considered lawmakers in the country.
But I have also changed my mind. When actions are taken and speech is made that is an absolute violation of the Constitution and all of those things that surround it and give it meaning—the Declaration of Independence, the law, institutional norms of behavior, traditions of probity, decency, and democratic respect for the people—then those elected representatives of the people who are willing to take on the burden and the risk have a duty to come together and press the case that a violation has occurred. That can only be done through a process of public hearings that move forward without self-aggrandizement. People—such as Sean—will have to come forward to explain how and why Trump’s conduct is an affront to and a purposeful attack on the nation itself and the very idea of republican and democratic values.
I think, at bottom, that the deepest crimes at issue are multiple acts of treason, where he has put his personal, family, or pecuniary interests above those of the country or the people, acting on behalf of foreign powers to benefit or protect himself. That is probably impossible to prove and a hard case to press, and probably shouldn’t be a shirt to wave no matter how much blood is on it. But the Democratic majority should begin hearings, slowly, deliberately, with the goal of finally taking a Constitutional stand that will be entered into the official history of the country: at a certain time, in a certain place, for certain reasons, certain people whose responsibility it was to affirm the oath they had taken to preserve and protect the Constitution of the United States said, in a body, as the Constitution made it their responsibility to do so, said no.
I don’t know if you’re a podcast guy, but I listened to Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast that came out on July 11 and was surprised to find that it was devoted to Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys. Most of what I know about Randy Newman I learned from Mystery Train—both the essay and the notes. I wonder if you heard this podcast and if you had any thoughts on it. I found the interviews with Newman fascinating and hearing the Dick Cavett show Newman bases Rednecks on was remarkable as well. Thanks for your thoughts.
– Scott Anderson
I listened to half of the Malcolm Gladwell podcast, and then I lost patience with him and gave up. While it’s a delight to hear Randy Newman talk so naturally and openly, saying exactly what he thinks (which is how he talks, whether in an interview or accepting his Oscar), and his version of “Marie” for the show is heartbreaking, Gladwell does nothing but belabor the obvious. Newman explains something clearly and in a lively way, then Gladwell explains what Newman just explained as if it’s both the most shocking thing he’s ever heard and clearly over the audiences’ heads. The real subject is Gladwell: how he discovered that Randy Newman’s songs were both alluring and about something. Wow.
In a recent interview (7/3/2019) with the NY Times, the New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum was quoted as saying that separating the artist from the art (in critical writing) was “the sociopath’s approach.” What are your thoughts concerning “separating the art from the artist”?
– Bill Boyd
If we mean not attempting to understand or merely talk about an artist’s work in terms of his or her biography—neuroses, traumas, unresolved relationships, unfulfilled or for that matter fulfilled desires—you not only can separate the artist from the work, you have to. Who cares what is was in Robert Penn Warren’s particular self that allowed him to create Willie Stark, Jack Burden, and Annie Stanton—let alone Sugar-Boy? Whatever it was, he went outside of himself to do that, and that’s what matters.
For that matter, you can try to separate Annie Hall from Woody Allen’s self, his biography, his self-presentation, his public self, though he does everything he can to make it impossible. If the movie hits, because of Diane Keaton, Allen’s to-the-camera addresses, or whatever it might be, you can forget about the man behind the camera, even now. But after a time a person working out why conventional morality doesn’t apply to him in public forces you to see that what’s going on is someone insisting he’s better than you are and making you pay to listen to him. At that point, no, you can’t make the separation.
I have no idea what calling separating the artist from his or her work “the sociopath’s approach” means.
Greetings from Chicago… I combed (albeit moderately) the archives/search function and didn’t see anything on this, so: Do you feel any type of way about Suicide? If you’d more rather talk about the home team, I’d also be interested in your thoughts on the similarly google-confusing Chrome.
Two of my many blind spots.
I know I just asked a question about Suicide, but that reminded me: Have there been artists you discovered only once you were solidly into chronological adulthood (mid-thirties or later, let’s say) that significantly changed the way you hear, perceive, or otherwise think about music?
Most of my biggies date to college or earlier, but there are a couple-few later additions (Suicide, Arthur Russell, maybe one or two more) that have genuinely moved something. Do you have some?
(Some time ago I asked a shadow version of this question–“Of your all-time top-ten artists, have any of them originated in the last ten or fifteen years?”–of a group of my too-cool-for-school record-collecting acquaintances, and was derided as being rockist and “Jann Wenner-ish,” which, I can’t lie, stung a little. Shout-out to Denise & Co.)
There are any number of cases where there were records I knew—the Orioles’ 1948 “It’s Too Soon to Know” (I was three—for all I know I heard it on the radio)—but didn’t understand, in terms of their originality, fecundity, or their role in terms of a revolutionary transformation of culture. There are many other records by people I knew and didn’t think I had any more to know where I was wrong—of course I knew Fats Domino, I knew too much Fats Domino, but I don’t think I ever heard his 1949 “The Fat Man” until after the release of his Fats Is Back! on Reprise in 1968. I remember clearly. It was in some clothing boutique in London, sometime in the ’70s. I knew it was Fats Domino, but I didn’t have a clue as to what it could be: right then I knew it was the best thing I’d ever heard and that, whatever it was, I wouldn’t have been the person I was if this record had never been made. Every time I hear it—most recently, on a quite brilliant 3 CD set called The First Rock and Roll Record—I’m shocked at what a radical change it heralds. You can draw all the straight lines you like between this and a thousand records made before it, and there will always be gaps, the missing link that brought the world from there to here.
The same was true for me with punk. There was nothing new to know or understand, for me, anyway, in the Ramones, but when I first heard the Sex Pistols and “Anarchy in the UK” I had no idea what it was, where it came from, what it wanted. Who are these people? And that carried over into the next few years with the Mekons, the Gang of Four, the Au Pairs, Kleenex, the Slits, the Anemic Boyfriends, Public Image, the first Elvis Costello album (which I thought was a hoax dreamed up by Nick Lowe and Graham Parker—what real human being would appear on an album cover as much of a dork as whoever that splayed leg character was?). And then years later there was Heavens to Betsy and riot grrrl. The whole equation changed: how did these people summon the nerve to appear in public and say what had never been said in a form of speech that had never been spoken as something other people might want to pay attention to? And, for that matter, on this site people are constantly asking what I think of something I’ve never heard, something great, and in a feeling I love I’m shamed by my ignorance, and thrilled by it too.
You’ve written a little about remasters and music recorded in analog vs. digital. But as far as productions, are there any that affect your total enjoyment? Not necessarily things that were recorded cheaply, but actual production choices or styles. Any albums where you love the songs and musician, but have issues with the actual sound of it? Are there any musicians where you can’t stand her or his guitar tone, etc.? Any albums that have a sound that you once hated but now like? Or vice versa? Have any 1980s productions improved for you? The commentary on the sound of Born in the USA, for one example, seems to have gone from “ruined by all the keyboards/synthesizers” to “sly commentary on Reagan’s America.” Thank you very much.
– Richard Eugene Schulte
When CD reissues first began to appear I bought half a dozen of my favorite Rolling Stones albums to hear how they sounded now, to hear how they were really supposed to sound, etc. They all had this weird percussion mix so that every drum sound was like someone dropping a box of rocks on the music. I had to take them all back. After that, I was hearing all sorts of records that were not the records I had spent years or decades listening to. You could hear more. Stuff that had been intentionally buried was now highlighted. By someone who, you know, thought that might be interesting. Or that the original mix was some kind of accident that could be corrected.
The technology now exists to take, say, an interview or a speech and reconfigure it to make it better: more lucid, better organized, with more interesting metaphors, or having the relevant person say what you, the remixer, know he or she really wanted to say, but didn’t have the nerve, was afraid of embarrassing someone, or facing legal consequences.
Why do it with music? To show you’re better than it.
That said, though John Simon was disgusted, I did like hearing Bob Clearmountain’s remix of the Band’s Music from Big Pink, and hearing all sorts of things I never heard before. So while I can make arguments, it all comes down to the thing itself, which is not something else, or everything.
William F. Buckley Jr., Noam Chomsky, and Christopher Hitchens: as a public intellectual yourself, how do you view the work of these three (acknowledging that Hitchens wrote a snotty, obtuse review of Double Trouble)?
And did you watch the Buckley-Chomsky Firing Line Vietnam debate in real time?
– Derek Murphy
To me the designation public intellectual is doubly creepy. It implies, first, that one is an intellectual, which is not something you put on a shirt, or that anyone should ever call himself or herself, and second, that other people have an obligation to pay attention to you. I wouldn’t want to be in that company, but certainly these three loathsome characters, even if they never used the name on themselves, fit that bill.
As Susie Linfield details in her recent book The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky, Chomsky considers himself a world-fount of knowledge and probity whose mission it is to judge all those who are less true than he, so that, to paraphrase Kipling, he can keep his hands clean when all about him are getting theirs dirty, and to do that, he makes things up, distorts facts, leaves out those that are inconvenient, and, as Linfield discovered when she began to check his sources, mainly sources his arguments and claims to his own writing, competing a literary Möbius strip. Buckley was, despite his appreciation for Elvis in the beginning, a man who sunned himself in the glow of, in the words of William Hogeland (in a shockingly tough essay on Buckley and Pete Seeger called “American Dreamers,” in his book Inventing American History), “his own gorgeousness”; he was a racist who, in 1957, sanctioned white violence against black Americans in the Civil Rights movement in a National Review editorial called “Why the South Must Prevail”—as if black southerners were not part of the South, which to him they evidently were not, since on his plane of being they didn’t exist. Christopher Hitchens’s review of my book didn’t bother me; I’ve written far worse stuff about him than he ever wrote about me. Like Buckley and Chomsky he was, in his writing, superior to all mankind, excepting various famous friends whose names he liked to drop (and vice versa). As a person he must have been very different (I met him only glancingly once or twice; we were neither polite to the other), because I am friends with many people who deeply valued his company and his friendship. But as a writer his subject was self-promotion and his mode was self-congratulation, and there’s nothing in words I can abide less.
As they were saying on the minstrel stage in the 19th century when the tall-tale teller came out, don’t get me started.
I agree with some of your remarks [see RLR-6/24] regarding the Robert Johnson book but I’m curious about one of your comments. “Ignoring the testimony of the blues scholar Mack McCormick (1930-2015) and the blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield (1943-81) that the tale of Johnson’s deal with the devil was a widely shared and dispersed story going back to the 1940s”—where does this information come from?
In an interview for Ted Gioia’s 2008 book Delta Blues, McCormick discusses hearing the story in the 1940s, when almost nothing had been published on Johnson, from both white record collectors in New Orleans and “members of the black community,” in other words people who would not have been in touch with each other or sharing tales. In the 2016 edition of Ed Ward’s Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero—a superb book—Bloomfield is quoted relating how he “heard that story” from many different blues musicians in Chicago in the early ’60s—well before the 1966 publication of the Pete Welding Living Blues article with the Son House statement. There’s more detail in the Notes to the Johnson chapter in the 2015 edition of my book Mystery Train, but I’d recommend looking at the Gioia and Ward books books directly.
I’m looking forward to hearing more of your reaction to Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder movie—any idea when we can expect it? The German filmmaker killed me, especially when he compared Larry Sloman to a cockroach.
I’m sure you’d think it immodest to bring this up yourself, but don’t you think that character was a bit of a wink at you? You were, after all, a rare and unlikely Shocking Blue appreciator, and the guy’s movies looked like they’d be right up your alley.
The Shocking Blue were cool, but I was always disappointed we never got a Nordic supergroup called the Shocking Blue Swede.
– steve o’neill
Larry Sloman is definitely the cockroach in the movie, and my only real complaint: why is this constant self-promoter there at all, let alone again and again? Compared to him Michael Murphy as Tanner is a paragon of convincing sincerity—and he’s really good. As someone almost always called on to play bland, clueless characters, it might be his best performance.
I didn’t and don’t see any wink, though I thought bringing in Shocking Blue was kind of beyond hip. As for Shocking Blue Suede—Blue Suede were already shocking.
I didn’t know it when I wrote Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations—not until Fritz Schneider, my dear friend and long time German translator, alerted me to Shocking Blue’s “Rock in the Sea”—one of the most imaginative and at the same time almost automatic, coded versions of Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground”—from their album Attila—the title is a wave to “St. Louis Blues,” which is also in there. So I included it in the German and French editions.
Looking back now, the single of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” released in late May of 1968, was clearly the beginning of what would be a new golden era for the Stones. Coming six months after the psychedelic murk of Satanic Majesties, the song must have sounded especially thrilling, and been almost as much of a shock as John Wesley Harding or Music from Big Pink. Do you remember hearing the record for the first time and, if so, what your impressions were?
My impression was, “The Stones are back!” But that wasn’t quite it—the beat had that “Satisfaction” undertow, but the words were more imaginative, odd, free, untethered from the realism of all the songs about sex and frustration—same themes, maybe, but not day to day. My friend Langdon Winner found it flat—nothing new, a cheap comeback, an apology. And then came “Honky Tonk Women”—and that was the door blowing open.
What do you recommend for biographies of Buddy Holly and Hank Williams, Sr.?
Buddy Holly—Rave On by Philip Norman (though right now I’m reading Peggy Sue Gerron’s Whatever Happened to Peggy Sue?, which has many stories Norman never heard, principally that she and Buddy Holly married the wrong people instead of each other). Hank Williams—first Colin Escott’s very painful Hank Williams and then Chet Flippo’s more impressionistic Your Cheating Heart, less thorough but gets to places Escott didn’t know to look for.
You’ve written about how “modern” Lowman Pauling’s guitar sounded in the 1950s with The 5 Royales. I wonder what you make of Pete ‘Guitar’ Lewis’s playing on Johnny Otis’s “Midnight in the Barrelhouse,” recorded in January of 1949.
– Elliot Silverman
Wow. I didn’t know it, but as you’re implying, Lowman Pauling must have, and Howlin’ Wolf’s Willie Johnson, and Roy Gaines on Bobby Bland’s unstoppable, untoppable “It’s My Life, Baby,” which has almost every other guitar player ever born begging for mercy. Thanks.
Did no one think of the obvious caption for that Paul McCartney on the train picture:”Hey Mister—can we have our ball back?”
– jalacy holiday
just a comment based on the recent exchange about Paul McCartney on the train. A couple of years ago Petula Clark did an interview with the Montreal Gazette that included this quote:
“I still see Paul from time to time, in unusual places. Not long ago we met on Victoria Station in London. Thousands of people were milling around, catching trains. Paul was on his way to Brighton. We chatted for a minute or two until he said, ‘You realize, Pet, that nobody has recognized us? Maybe we should sing a song.’ I said, ‘I’ll sing one of yours if you sing one of mine.’ But wiser heads prevailed.”
My reaction at the time was, and continues to be, “Petula Clark and Paul McCartney still take the train by themselves?”
They should definitely have duetted on “Yesterday”—but badly, pretending to be buskers.
The references in All God’s Dangers to the end of the Civil War as the Surrender come early in the book. When the British ruled India they instituted a ceremony called the Delhi Durbar, meant to commemorate first the coronation of Victoria as Empress of India, and then coronations of new British monarchs. It attempted to evoke a ceremony of the same name going back to Mughal days, in an attempt to write the British into the larger tradition of Indian royalty. It was a huge public ceremony held at a place called Coronation Park, also known as the Durbar Grounds, and it brought in all the native rulers for parades, revelry and all manner of pomp. When India gained its independence—British Surrender, as it were—the Indians gathered up all the statues of Victoria, the Edwards, the Viceroys, soldiers, all the symbols of British rule, hauled them all together and lined them up around the Durbar Grounds. It seems a nicely pointed gesture.
– Robert Fiore
Regarding Bob Frost’s question [6/18/19] on re-thinking you opinion: I am some years younger than you and have been listening to rock’n’roll music and many other kinds of music for more than 50 years. Frost’s question and your reply made me think about the music I have come to like during these years and how I relate to it today. But it also made me think about your writings and many of your colleagues writings in Rolling Stone, which I read between 1970 to 1985 and enjoyed very much. The best writings were of a kind that actually made me interested and made me want to find out more. It is very likely that many of my music preferences were influenced by you and other writers.
When I listen today to the music I liked then and wonder if it still sounds good, it many times does so. But not always! It’s like wine, some wines get better with age, some don’t. But at the same time I feel free to have my totally personal opinion. In a way, I can listen with “fresh” ears.
But one thing I thought of is that there are some songs that I still today cannot listen or relate to in an objective way. I first heard the Rolling Stones “Satisfaction” on the Swedish radio when it entered the U.S charts as a newcomer and it hit me in the head right away! I walked around the whole summer of 1965 humming that riff!
Whenever I listen to that song I almost get that same feeling. It feels like there is a track or a memory in my brain that starts running as soon as I hear the original recording by the Rolling Stones. Have you had the same kind of thoughts about old songs you still rate high?
Yes. There are certain songs—really, records—that thrill me to the core the instant they appear, because I know an adventure is going to start. But it’s not like that “Satisfaction” riff, which is always the same. With “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Gimme Shelter,” even though I can recall every note in isolation, know everything that is coming, the contingency you can hear in every note—that this didn’t have to be played this way, that this might be half a mistake, that if the musicians were positioned differently in the room something might be off, or at least different—opens up the performances, so that, in a sense, when you listen, you don’t know how the songs will turn out, and you’re shocked every time at what happens.
Did you get the feeling the Rolling Thunder Revue documentary should have been called I Wish I Hadn’t Looked Back? I liked the Nazi guy.
– Robert Fiore
I missed the Nazi guy. Where was he? Or do you mean the pseudo-filmmaker? I loved the movie. Especially the Tanner parts.
Just wanted to wish you a Happy Birthday! [6/19] Care to share anything left on your bucket list, if you have one? More authorship, I hope.
– Jim Stacho
Many thanks. Want to re-read the unabridged Count of Monte Cristo.
You and Pauline Kael share birthdays? I saw something about her 100th yesterday.
We found out listening to Garrison Keillor’s Writers Almanac. We made it a practice to see who would call each other first to congratulate each other. I miss that.
I’ve been listening to a reading of All God’s Dangers, and one thing that jumps out at me was the way Shaw/Cobb refers to the end of the Civil War as “The Surrender” or simply “Surrender.” It creates a certain perspective; “After Surrender” is pointedly not “After Freedom” because that hadn’t happened yet. If you’re looking for a belittling label to apply to Confederate statues, “Surrender Monuments” might do the trick. Coincidentally, it recently occurred to me that you may be making the argument against those statues more complicated than it has to be. What they do is glorify a slave society in arms. This is a characteristic of the statues themselves, not a characteristic of the history of the statues (interesting and germane as that is). That and the unmistakable implication they carry about who’s boss. Something not much remarked on is the way Confederate regalia reveals the Quixotism of the Southern antebellum society. Robert E. Lee’s entire getup is King Arthur cosplay. Grant wore work clothes. Did any American military man ever wear anything prouder than that slouch hat? Maybe the tricorner.
Wouldn’t there be a Bootleg Series entry to be made out of the complete recordings of the 1974 tour with the Band?
Paul McCartney—you probably saw that photo that circulated around the internet of McCartney sitting by himself on a train, reading a newspaper. You have to wonder how many years of his life he spent yearning to be able to do that again.
– Robert Fiore
I’d forgotten about that term, “The Surrender.” I don’t have the book with me to check how Ned Cobb used it, but it opens up all kinds of Monty Python turnarounds in the war over Confederate Hero statues. Can’t you imagine a whole crew of anti-racists showing up at City Council meetings in support of the statues, giving impassioned speeches: “This isn’t about race. It’s about heritage. Our southern heritage, and surrender is what southern heritage is all about!” But I still think they should all be carefully positioned together somewhere at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, so a future society can discover them and invent a whole new history to explain what they were doing there.
I hadn’t seen the photo of Paul on the train. I looked it up and it’s undeniably odd, skewing reality. I wonder about it: the empty compartment, the fact that he’s not alone—there’s someone there who sneaked up to take the picture, or who was there to take the picture. But I can see a marvelous children’s book coming out of it. Set up: parent approaches a train compartment with child. It seems empty, but then in the corner she sees… “My God, Teddy, that’s Paul McCartney!” “Who’s Paul McCartney, mummy?” “You don’t know?” “No.” “The Beatles?” “No.” [This is, I think, very unlikely. We might have to wait a couple of generations.] “Susie, do you know what a band is?” “Like BTS?” The parent takes the child into the compartment, sits down as far as possible from the older man with the strangely boy-band face. “Honey, let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, a very long time ago, before you were born, before I was born, there was a band the Beatles…”
I know you’re not a fan of the Rolling Thunder tour (not my favorite either), so I’m not expecting to see you review the monster-size box set, but will you be writing about the Scorsese documentary?
On a similar note, Dylan’s career seems to have been pretty well excavated. Is there any unreleased material you think worthy of a future Bootleg Series?
It could be—it just could be—that the version of “Blind Willie McTell” on the first “bootleg series” set is Dylan’s greatest recording. If that was squirreled away somewhere, there’s no telling what else might be.
I’ll be writing about the Scorsese Rolling Thunder movie and the box set when I’ve seen and heard them. I admit it’s always bothered me that the tour was named after one of the most brutal and supposedly cool-sounding American campaigns of the Vietnam war.
Have you heard anything from Morrissey’s new California Son? I always liked the Smiths, never paid much attention to Morrissey’s solo work. Since he’s decided to become the British political equivalent of Ted Nugent, and since California Son is a covers album, I didn’t see much reason to listen. Then Armond White praised the record unreservedly in the National Review. He takes the usual NR swipes at “progressives” and “Millennials”, compares California Son favorably to Bryan Ferry’s covers albums and singles out the cover of Dylan’s “Only a Pawn in Their Game” as delivering “the album’s most electric shock”.
I had to hear that, of course, and was pretty shocked myself—it’s an incredible, moving, version. I’ve listened to the whole album now and, desultory and inevitable Joni Mitchell cover aside, been amazed by it all. One line from White’s review sticks out: “the delight of pop art’s radical universality”. Armond and Morrissey, I think, got that right. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.
– steve o’neill
I always liked the Smiths’ album covers and never cared about the records. I haven’t followed Morrissey’s solo career, so I didn’t know about California Son (I see it doesn’t include a cover of the Rivieras’ “California Sun”—horrible the first time around, worse from the Ramones—so I’ll give him credit for that). But I did listen to “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” I respect Armond White, but to me it’s a horror show.
It’s no longer a song, it’s some 1950s Cineamascope Bible epic. The music isn’t written for this big, pure voice, which exposes the limits of the melody—it’s more than strong enough to carry Dylan’s voice, which is modest for the vehemence of its argument, but it collapses under the weight of Morrissey’s. And whatever you might say about Bob Dylan’s original—and to me it was caught in its own trap, where by the end even the Klan and the killer can count as pawns in their game, and it hardly matters whose game it is—it wasn’t pious. This is piety as the fount of all values, to the point that everything in the song reflects back on the singer, and the gift of himself he’s bestowing on the listener, if not on Medgar Evers—and from Morrissey’s tone, I’m not sure he knows who Medgar Evers was.
Re: “Rock Awhile” (6/2): I’m no musician, but I listen to a lot of jazz, and I’m pretty sure that that is a saxophone, not a clarinet.
And while we’re speaking of rock & roll precursors, do you ever listen to Louis Jordan? I’ve read that both Ray Charles and Bill Haley claimed him as an early influence.
– Elliot Silverman
I’m sure you’re right. People didn’t use the clarinet in blues or R&B as a solo instrument. It just had that feel.
Louis Jordan was a giant. I’ve never much liked listening to him compared to, say, Roy Brown, even though Brown owes so much to Jordan
Have you heard Betsy Brye’s vocal version of “Sleepwalk” from 1959? I heard it recently for the first time, its amazing! One more question please, have you read Bruce Conforth’s book on Robert Johnson? I read it, and its interesting but a little dull. I just wish he wrote more about the music. It does have a lot of detail about RJ.
I hadn’t heard it. I don’t like the way the music is pumped up to push the vocal—there’s something strangely modest, hesitant, about the instrumental that is completely lost here, if not trashed.
I did read the Conforth/Wardlow Robert Johnson biography. I have a lot to say about it, which I will whenever my Real Life Rock column reappears, but for the moment—anyone who says it may be that all “Dead Shrimp Blues” comes down to is that the San Antonio area was a good place to eat shrimp is tone deaf.
Is the play that you wrote prior to writing Lipstick Traces, that you mention in the Iowa Review (10/20/2016) available anywhere? Might it be included as an introduction to a forthcoming edition of Lipstick Traces—along with a picture of the “Greil Marcus tattoo ?
Do you know of any PhD dissertations that have been written about your work—or of any currently in preparation?
– Dave Rubin
My 1983 pseudo-play Cabaret Voltaire Historiograph (unless it was the other way around—the word may exist, but I picked it out of the air as something that ought to) is posted on the site.
The tattoos rightfully belong to the woman who carries them and I couldn’t share them without her permission, and I don’t think public display, beyond walking down the street, is what she had in mind.
I’m not aware of any academic work on Lipstick Traces. I am more than happy that the quite gorgeous Russian edition finally appeared this year. China is next.
I wish to ask you questions about your view of the Beatles. I ask the questions as someone who likes some of your work and respects all of it.
That said, I suppose I might have an undercurrent of hostility toward what you’ve written about the Beatles, because I disagree with you so sharply, and I have emotional weight attached to my opinion. And further, I seem to want my opinion validated. (The latter, at least, is silly, I know.) Maybe I’m driven to write out of hostility (anger can be a good motivating force) but maybe it’s more to glean information about how good critics do their jobs. I’m not sure. Anyway, I quite appreciate the opportunity to write and ask. Would that more first-rate writers offered this kind of opportunity.
I believe that your view of the Beatles, as described in the first Rolling Stone history (1976) and re-printed any number of times since, is remarkably off-base. Your back-of-the-hand to “Hey Jude,” Abbey Road, “Lady Madonna,” etc., strikes me as ridiculous. It seems to me that the last 40-plus years have borne out the idea that what the Beatles were doing in their last couple of years, with special reference to Paul McCartney, not only stands up to searching critical opinion, it has been embraced on a very deep level, a heart and soul level, by many millions of people.
My questions:Do you ever feel tempted and/or obligated to re-think your opinions of 40-plus years ago, or are they set in stone? If the latter, why? If the former, how do you clear your synapses and go about it? Also this: How do you reconcile your clear enthusiasm for democracy (Lincolnesque in the best sense of the word) with a view of the Beatles that is radically contrary to what the broad marketplace is saying about them?
People like what they like. When they like something, or dislike something, they may find themselves thinking about their response—what it actually is, where it comes from, why a song seems empty, fake, or irritating, why a song is something different and provokes a reaction unlike others… and that’s where critical thinking begins.
Everyone has their own responses. Out of that may come a democracy of opinions, but you seem to be confusing democracy with a majoritarian kind of self-censorship: if something is popular, then it is the responsibility of the well-meaning person to like it, regardless of his or her own, actual, real, good-faith response—in other words, one should participate in the democracy of culture in bad faith, by faking a response.
I realize that “Hey Jude” is very usable, in the sense that many people find it an irresistible singalong and a deeply felt expression of sympathy and affection that they can use as a conduit for their own attempts to express such feelings, especially when they don’t actually have them. I’ve always found it tiresome, from the first, sententious notes, to the fade out ten or fifteen minutes later, minutes that seem like weeks. I mean, this was a chance for something really new in musical communication: why didn’t they work with a good engineer to create a record that would, if one so desired, play forever, with a circular fade that never ends, instead of a record that merely feels as if it does?
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t like it, or want to tell people why, subjectively and objectively, it’s great, special, unique, or proof that music is a universal language. It’s just that no one needs to agree with you—or, as you imply, everyone else.
Of course I change my mind if and when I hear something in a different way. That almost never happens. But I have certainly changed by mind about Paul. I wasn’t on John Lennon’s side when he excluded Paul from the human race with “How Can You Sleep” for his consorting with so-called straights, but I was always a John (and Ringo) person. Over the years, I think both that Paul has come out of a certain shell and I’ve been able to recognize he has always had a sense of humor—about everything—that is empathetic in a way that John’s wit wasn’t. To watch him talk, do imitations, open his heart to other people’s foibles, with modesty about himself and his right to speak for others who can’t talk back—because they’re dead, I mean—in Anthony Wall’s documentary about Brian Epstein is to realize, if you weren’t a Paul person, how much you missed. I now have only the greatest admiration for him.
And even if I wasn’t a Paul person, I always knew the opening bars of “All My Loving” as Paul sings them are as good an incarnation of utopia as anything else under the sun.
As you define a pop explosion in your 1979 Beatles piece, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours was not a pop explosion, or even, as you wrote of Sgt. Pepper, a small pop explosion. But its musical and cultural moment seems to be distinguished—to transcend the simple matter of huge commercial success. I was just a kid, so I can’t really say—but I remember it seeming unusual that Rumours was an album owned and loved by my (white and black) grade school friends, my older teenage cousins, our babysitter in her 20s, my parents in their 30s, our neighbors, teachers, uncles, and aunts in their 40s, etc. Maybe I’m just impressed today by its endurance—how it sounds as if it was built to endure—and that I still play it often, despite its saturation and omnipresence. What do you think?
It wasn’t a pop explosion—it was a huge album that as you say had great and deep staying power—and I think it’s remarkable that the performers were able to escape the great hits on the album and go on to make music as indelible, even better (“The Edge of Seventeen”). A pop explosion is not just a major this or that, but something that changes the language, shifts one’s view of the world, and creates a situation in which almost everyone wants to speak that new language, and so people do—and creativity explodes. Pop explosions: Elvis, the Beatles, Sex Pistols, hip-hop. You could argue for Dylan in and of himself, or Hemingway, or dada. But as an event Rumors was like the soundtrack to Grease or the Bee Gees in Saturday Night Fever, though I like it so much better, even if “You’re the One that I Want” is as good as “Gold Dust Woman.”
You wrote [5/25] “But the Howard Keel part was always there. It used to be suppressed” in a reply to a question about Bruce Springsteen’s upcoming album. I believe this refers to a quote from your wife. But, can you please give me (being from Sweden) some information about HK!
He was a big, florid guy with a big, florid voice—he starred in Show Boat, which in a lot of odd ways has always been a touchstone in America music, from 1936, when Paul Robeson was featured and his “Old Man River” was stamped into the American Grain, to the 1951 Keel version, where the song was still the beginning and the end. And there’s the 1929 movie, where Robeson’s role is taken by Stepin Fetchit, who sings the great Gene Austin hit “The Lonesome Road,” which Bob Dylan took as a template for “Sugar Baby.” But that’s all look-up stuff. Through the ’50s Keel was a presence on TV, part of the air, his voice pushing too far, until all you could hear was someone looking in the mirror. That’s not Bruce—just a tendency to push beyond his range until all you hear is the push.
Who does she think she is, Pauline Kael?6/8/19
I’m curious what you know about the Pauline Kael documentary, which you participated in. I see there’s a screening in New York, but do you know if it will be showing (or widely distributed) anytime soon? Have you seen it?
I saw a rough version of the Kael film. I thought it worked well. What’s special is what seems like home movie footage from parties at her Berkeley house in the ’50s or ’60s. I don’t know when or if or in what format it will be released or shown.
Blown away by Goree Carter’s “Rock Awhile,” but also struck by how much his guitar work recalls T-Bone Walker. Just looked up Carter’s Wikipedia entry and one of his nicknames was Little T-Bone.
– David McClure
Every Texas guitarist with a dime’s worth of gall was Little T-Bone. Including Steve Miller, who knew T-Bone and always speaks of him with the affection boys have for favorite high school teachers and favorite grandfathers.
Why no Real Life Rock Top 10 for May 2019? What is your opinion of Goree Carter’s 1949 record of “Rock Awhile?”
I didn’t know Goree Carter. But it’s obvious Howlin Wolf (“How Many More Years”), Chuck Berry (“Johnny B. Goode”), and especially Ike Turner (“Rocket 88”) did. It’s great—especially the little harsh chording guitar bits. There is something in the rhythm and the singing—NOT the guitar and the fabulous, I think, clarinet break—that’s too smooth, too metrically predictable, to make it rock ‘n’ roll—that thing, as Jim Dickinson always sort of used to say, that before it was it wasn’t. But thank you.
And thank you for noticing Real Life Rock Top 10 missed May, I really can’t talk about why now.
I live in Grafton, Wisconsin—former home of the Paramount Records company. Grafton is located a few miles north of Milwaukee. The vast majority of the blues artists who recorded for Paramount were from the deep south.
My question: Was there no place in Chicago for these people to record? The train to Grafton necessarily ran through Chicago. How did Paramount get them?
– Tom Wilmeth
The answers are surely in Alex van der Tuuk’s acute study Paramount’s Rise and Fall, in the copious documentation in the Third Man/Revenant Records two monumental compendiums The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, and in many essays in various editions of 78 Quarterly, all of which I’ve read and none of which I have access to right now. But some facts and thoughts. Paramount did record in Chicago, as did its sister label Black Patti. But at some point the company likely decided it was cheaper to record in its own facility in Grafton, even if the equipment was less advanced and reliable (Paramount’s were famous for being the worst sounding records on the market), because it was cheaper to house musicians in Grafton or Milwaukee (in segregated hotels), and because working locally gave the company more supervision over the musicians and fewer distractions for them. And once the Depression hit all of that would have become that much more important, though there was recording in Grafton before. But that is a guess, and you should search out van der Tuuk’s book for real answers.
Raptors vs. Warriors? And what do you expect or hope to see?
Hey, I live in Oakland!
I’ve been studying the Beatles’ touring years lately, which has involved a decent amount of slogging through some half-hearted performances in which they can barely hear themselves. But every once in a while I find a gem like their Atlanta show in 1965, in which it’s said that they encountered monitor speakers for the first time (according to one article, Brian Epstein was so pleased he attempted to hire the sound technician away from the venue), and if you’ve never heard it, I thought you might appreciate this frenetic version of “I’m Down” that closes that show. The tape quality isn’t great but the performance itself sounds explosive to me—out of control in all the right ways, like they rarely were on stage in these years—and makes me wish I’d been there
– nathan phillips
I have a pretty clear memory of hearing the Beatles close their 1965 show at the Cow Palace with “I’m Down.” I was standing in my rickety folding chair in complete delirium. It was the highlight of the night. But this blows it away. Thank you.
Do you think Dylan will ever make a record of new original songs? It seems like he’s done with song writing and is enjoying just performing his back catalog old songs and painting. It’s been seven years since Tempest, but I recall him saying in an interview back then that he had intended that record to be an album of “…religious songs…” and I have been hoping that he might follow through on that idea. The recent releases of old standards and the ongoing bootleg series are not of much interest to me; I’d rather have a new record of bad songs than a good record of old songs. But I never hear or read this opinion from anyone else. Any thoughts?
– Steve Ladd
I can’t imagine he wouldn’t.
I was happy to find a positive review you gave of the first Dire Straits album in the archives, one of my favorites growing up. What was your take on their albums in general, and Mark Knopfler’s solo career? I like some of the early albums (Golden Heart) but the current ones (Down the Road Wherever) seem a little tired to me.
– Lou Pecci
Making Movies has glorious songs. I haven’t kept up with the solo albums. Knopfler’s attempts to follow Dylan’s scattered time on “Blind Willie McTell” is stirring, a pinnacle.
At around page 60 of Lipstick Traces you talk a bit about Jonathan Richman, and then do a description of the recording of the second version of “Roadrunner” that is really powerful.
I also recently stumbled across your 1977 review of Rock n Roll with the Modern Lovers which I wish I had read in 1977 (two years before I found all the Beserkely recordings on 8-track for $.50 each at Zellers County Fair in Winnipeg that made me a lifelong fan and changed the way I listened to music).
Have you kept up with Mr. Richman’s music? He tours regularly (even comes to Winnipeg every couple of years). The crowds are small, but there are wonderful moments at each show, spontaneous and really moving.
Is he someone you still listen to?
– David Robinson
I see by looking that he’s put out a whole series of albums since I last saw one, so I’m ashamed to say I haven’t kept up, but in this age when everything is available anything that isn’t present seems to be more hidden in dimmer corners than ever. So I’ll have to look. He used to live in the Bay Area, maybe still does, but I haven’t seen notices of any shows. But I did meet Jerry Harrison recently. A lovely guy and one of those people you start talking with and feel like you’re in the middle of a conversation that has been going on for years.
Any general do’s and don’ts/hints/remarks on “how to get a song into prose,” other than reading Mark Zwonitzer on the Carter Family for the don’ts? (RLR, p. 314 ), or Rodney Doyle’s The Commitments (RLR, p. 33) for the positives?
– Dave Rubin
Play the song over and over in different settings. Let it take you. Free associate. Then double back and ask what is in the song made you think of that, and ask how it’s in the song—because it’s there somewhere.
I must admit I was a bit surprised by your recent statement here [4/24] about artistic influence. You seemed to go far beyond rejecting various theories of influence to denying any interest in artistic influence (using Fitzgerald as your example—who cares who influenced his writing?). This confused me because I have always seen influence as a common theme in your writing. For instance, doesn’t Invisible Republic (aka Old Weird America) explore the influences that fed into Dylan’s Basement Tapes? Granted, you approach influence differently than those you dismiss, perhaps more like Baxandall, who saw “influence” in terms of artists choosing which past art to imitate and/or build upon instead of past artists passing their influence to chosen heirs, but aren’t you still exploring influence? Did I misread your dismissal of interest in influence?
– Mark Sullivan
I think there’s a fundamental difference between influence, which is of little or no interest to me and which I think is at best a diversion from more interesting questions and at worst a cover-up of what makes a person interesting, unique, unclassifiable, and inspiration. Bob Dylan was influenced by Woody Guthrie—an influence he soon enough sloughed off—but he was inspired by Robert Johnson. He wrote like Guthrie, and imitated his phrasing. He didn’t write like Johnson or sing like him, but Johnson showed him what it meant to make art. Even when, early or late in his career, he takes up an old folk song and tweaks it just slightly (“As I Went A-Ridin'” early, “Red River Shore” later) he is inspired by it, but not influenced by it. It’s a fact, not an ideology, like a chair. You are not influenced by a chair when you sit in it, but given what it might do to your momentary sense of comfort or discomfort, it might inspire you to give voice to a thought you would never otherwise have had. It used to be that when I felt my writing going stale, I’d re-read Hemingway’s short stories or favorite pieces by Lester Bangs. I wouldn’t come away writing like either, but I’d find myself inspired by the sense of clarity in Hemingway (“A clean, well-lighted place” has become a tiresome cliche, and people are influenced by the phrase as a moral imperative, but there is clean light between his sentences) or the daring and love of words in Lester. Fitzgerald wasn’t influenced by Hemingway or Zelda but he was inspired by them. That’s what I mean.
I recently bought Van Morrison The Bang Masters (only way to get a recording of “Joe Harper Sunday Morning”). There are early 1967, full band w/women back-up singers versions of “Beside You” and “Madame George.” I don’t know how they’ll sound after 50 listenings but they sound really good after two.
Do you know anything about these recordings? Or have you written about them in your Van Morrison book already?
– David McClure
I did write about them, especially the endless fake versions of “Madame George” Morrison recorded because he owed Bert Berns’s widow so many songs. They were bootlegged a long time ago. They’re so odd.
I’m a too-frequent flier, but I was curious about your reaction to this one from the upcoming Springsteen album, Western Stars. It seemed like a nothing tune until I realized it was lingering in my head, the way a bad dream does long after you’ve awoken and forgotten the details. The feeling remains.
– Derek Murphy
He’s not Elvis. He’s not Tom Jones. He’s not Celine Dion. He’s not even Englebert Humperdinck. But the Howard Keel part was always there. It used to be suppressed.
Thank you for responding to my previous questions. You once wrote that you considered the NY punk scene to be more of a club scene—meaning, I think, that it in part attracted people who specifically moved to NY to become ARTISTS (like thousands of young and youngish people before them), and congregated at clubs like Max’s, etc. In contrast, the UK and CA scenes were perhaps more made up of bored lower and middle class kids compelled to get together to make noise in shops, basements, and garages. Were there any NY bands you would have made a regular effort to catch, if you, like Christgau, had been living and working there at that time? Any that you may have had a more favorable opinion of? Or do you think—sonically, politically, aesthetically—you would have always preferred the UK/CA stuff? I prefer the UK/CA bands, but have always absolutely loved the guitars on Marquee Moon, even if that record ends up saying nothing.
– Richard Eugene Schulte
I think I would have liked who I liked. I remember when, at a seminar on punk at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York in 1988—Richard Hell, Jon Savage, Malcolm McLaren, Stephen Sprouse, and me (in the audience Debbie Harry and Lauren Hutton, then Malcolm’s girlfriend)—Legs McNeill shouted out from the crowd at something I said, “I never saw YOU at CB’s,” as in, how could someone who wasn’t where he was when he was know anything?
“…[R]ock has been turned over and the most vile flood of maggots, flesh eaters, ticks, and parasites has rushed out to poison the land…” I honestly don’t listen to much contemporary rock at all (though the bits I hear seem more machined than made). Would you be willing to elucidate?
I was talking about the American rock, not the American rock ‘n’ roll rock…
I was browsing a 2nd hand bookshop last month. Old-timey photograph of a stylish & confident black man caught my eye. Title of the book: All Gods Dangers. I skipped straight to Nate’s opening paragraph and was surprised, awed, delighted and grateful—like tripping over a rainbow and falling ass-backwards into a pot of gold coins.
Can’t stop thinking about it. Googled around and found your review. You seem like the right person to ask: Any other books like that?
– James Ruschak
There are definitely books like that: The Odyssey. The Sound and the Fury. The Old Testament. Moby Dick. That is to say it’s in a class by itself. Theodore Rosengarten himself (I’ve never been able to forget the picture of him in People just after the book was published, hanging on to a trolley or a bus) never approached it; he may have known not to try. And the book has been forgotten. When at the selection meeting for A New Literary History of America, in a room full of the best American scholars, older and younger, when I proposed the book, only four people had heard of it, and only two of us had read it.
There are a handful of lines in Treasure Island that are a little mysterious and always trip me up. I was hoping you would expound on them.
– Mr. Tambourine Man—You wrote that the Byrds’ sound was “called ‘folk rock,’ for some reason.” What did you mean by “for some reason”?
It always seemed like an impoverished concept. But mainly I was just being snarky. The record didn’t need a genre made up to justify it. To me, anyway, the vocal sounded more like the Beach Boys than anything else. Folk surf?
– Layla—You called it “an anguished and somehow heroic statement, just before the fall.” What was the fall?
Clapton was already using heroin when he made “Layla.” After that he went all the way down and began making racist statements in public.
– Highway 61 Revisited—You called it “a piece of music that stands as [rock’s] signal accomplishment.” What did you mean by “signal”?
The one that raises a sign–like a signal at a train station–that says, this is what this music can do, this is what it can be.
– Tupelo Honey—Van Morrison walks down Broadway in his hot pants. “But were they pink?” This seems like a line that’s simply imagery and feeling, one that shouldn’t need explanation. So I feel silly asking, but is it more than that? Is there a reference I’m missing?
Pink hot pants were the ultimate hot pants. I mean, if you’re going to go all the way, go all the way.
– Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols—Your final words: “Fun, too.” I can sense that the band was having fun making this music, and especially putting it out into the world, but I don’t think of it as a fun record. At least, not enough to call it “fun.” (Or maybe I do, and I don’t realize it.) But more to the point, I never saw any indication, except quickly here, that you thought of it as fun. Do you?
It’s fun to see everything come crashing down. Maybe wrong, terrifying, ultimately a crime. But fun, too. Groovy. Can’t buy a thrill? They brought a thrill.
Probably out there for you but I wonder if you have ever been asked what JD Souther’s song “Black Roses, White Rhythm and Blues” might refer to. I always really appreciate your thoughts.
I honestly wish I had something to say, but I was never able to get past J. D. Souther’s LA Cocaine Cowboy sneer to actually listen to his music.
So many incredible American musical forms were birthed, in whole or in large part, in the South. Rock and roll, rockabilly, country, jazz, blues, etc. After reading the great book Doo-Dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture by Ken Emerson, it’s apparent that the South has always had a very rich musical identity (of course, much of it was problematic). Historically, was the South more “musical” than other parts of the country? If so, why do you think this was?
– Ben Robinson
There were more black people in the south.
Everyone’s going to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame eventually of course, but Joan Jett getting there before the Shangri-Las (as you predicted, somewhere) is unforgivable. How about the Monkees—do they belong in the Hall? I don’t think anyone can seriously argue that worse bands haven’t already been inducted; the main argument against their inclusion seems to be that they were a “manufactured” band, a charge that could also be leveled at, say, the Drifters and any number of the acts produced by Phil Spector. At their best, the Monkees were kind of a male girl group anyway—I can totally imagine the Ronettes singing “Look Out, Here Comes Tomorrow”.
– steve o’neill
Sure, the Monkees—but not until they’re all dead.
The inductions have become a joke. That KISS should be in after what Gene Simmons said about N.W.A being elected—I’m not looking it up, but if KISS were in before N.W.A they should have been kicked out and if they weren’t their induction is even more appalling than it seemed—I mean, if you have to have KISS in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (and Museum), the only way is through the Hitler-KISS video.
This is not the one–but it’ll do.
Apropos of the presentation you posted about blackface, I was wondering where you would place something I watched recently on your blackface scale. It was a pre-war MGM musical called Honolulu which I was watching solely because the dancer Eleanor Powell was in it. My expectations were low, and my hopes were for no more than professionalism, but though froth it was Hollywood hitting on all cylinders. The comedy stuff is clever, Gracie Allen (mostly without George Burns) is tremendous, Robert Young in a dual role as a big movie star and a regular guy is much more convincing as a regular guy. At one point in the picture everyone’s on a cruise ship to Hawaii and there’s going to be a costume party where the guests dress as their favorite movie stars. Cut between Gracie’s number with a quartet of Marx Brothers featuring two Grouchos, we see Eleanor Powell blacking up, the kind of scene that had its contemporary thinking “Oh, this should be fun” and the modern day viewer thinking, “Oh. This.” and preparing for the usual chagrin. What Powell is doing is a tribute to Bill Robinson, mirroring a similar tribute her male equivalent Fred Astaire did a few years earlier in Swing Time. Now, it’s a near certainty that either film could have had Bill Robinson himself if they’d wanted to, but the whole spirit of the thing is “What a shame Harlem is on a different planet inaccessible from our own.” (You do some A/B comparisons and you see besides the reason they don’t appear beside Bill Robinson in a movie there may be same reason boxers preferred not to appear in the ring with Sugar Ray Robinson.) Astaire’s makeup is borderline-case-at-the-mythical-brown-bag-party but he wears a minstrel clown suit, Powell is done up in the full Shinola but aside from a loud vest she’s dressed more like Robinson. Both scenes are good faith tribute with no element of mockery, but it seems to me the point is that what neither film would conceive of doing is having the dancers pay tribute to Robinson as themselves. It was not permissible that they as themselves dance like a You-Know-What, but it was permissible to practice the convention of dressing up and saying “Look at me, I’m a You-Know-What!”
It seems to me that blackface in particular is something that would be appropriately addressed by reparations. For one thing, it’s present in a way that slavery per se isn’t. It’s not a reverberation of something that happened a 150 years ago, you can see the thing itself at any time and it’s just as demeaning as it ever was. I imagine some sort of significant dignity-enhancing program that could go on for a hundred years paying back some of the dignity that was stolen.
In an era when the American rock has been turned over and the most vile flood of maggots, flesh eaters, ticks, and parasites has rushed out to poison the land—when white supremacy is now taken for granted and the White House refuses to sign on to a declaration against the promotion of hate massacres not because of false concerns about free speech but because it does want to promote hate massacres, I couldn’t watch any of these clips, whether Powell or Astaire or black blackface tap dancing, for more than a few seconds. They didn’t translate. I couldn’t read them. They were all disgusting. I don’t want to analyze. The love and warmth that you can find in Al Jolson’s blackface—more in the 1926 Plantation Act than in the 1927 The Jazz Singer isn’t present here—what is is soul-sucking—these people are so not human I can suck up all of their elan, use it up, slough it off, and throw it back, and come out as clean as I ever was—and, with the huge white lips on the black blackface performers, self-slavery, selling yourself to whites, erasing who you are, with a blackface that won’t wash off. I can’t watch rape scenes in movies. I can’t watch these either.
I’m going to be visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time this fall. Once I’m at the Canyon, I don’t plan on reading anything or listening to any music, but I’ve got a long trip to get there (2 flights and a layover) and I’m trying to figure out what to load onto my Kindle and iPod.
As far as books, part of me thinks this is finally the time to read Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, while another part of me says I should read something by Zane Grey. (Which one?)
As far as music, the Old West suggests to me Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, but I know you’re not a fan of those, so wondering what you might suggest.
You’ll want Big Sky music. The best I know is in the cowboy songs Ken Maynard recorded in 1930. They’re collected on Ken Maynard Sings the Lone Star Trail, a single CD from Bear Family.
The best way to see the Grand Canyon is to have someone lead you, blindfolded, to the lip of the canyon, then remove the blindfold, and be stunned beyond words, imagination, even thought. You don’t want to acclimate yourself, to build up to the Big Sight. You want to see it all at once. If you don’t believe in God, this won’t necessarily change your mind, but for a moment you will believe that the Grand Canyon IS God.
What were your thoughts at the time on Gang of Four’s Solid Gold? I don’t recall reading anything by you. Did it match up to Entertainment!? Have your feelings on the record since evolved?
For what it’s worth I think it’s the greatest music of their career though that judgement came many years after the fact.
– Jon Delvecchio
I did write about it, in Real Life Rock columns for California magazine at the time.
First, nothing compares to Entertainment! Not by the Gang of Four, not by anyone else. It’s a thing in itself. When I met the Gang of Four in the UK in early 1980, they were talking about quitting—because they thought they’d said what they had to say in the most effective way possible. Not that they should have quit—they did much more—but they were right in their way.
On Solid Gold the rhythms that are so contradictory and unpredictable on Entertainment! have stabilized. That’s why “Paralysed” is the most powerful piece on it—all the confusion, the self-loathing, the refusal in the music of Entertainment! is present in Andy Gill’s voice—the hesitations, the spitting it out, the turning away.
Songs of the Free is so much better.
I love The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan and The Band. Your liner notes tell a great story, they deepen my appreciation for the music within, and they make listening to the album even more fun. Unlike some other opinions I’ve read, the inclusion of recordings on the album from multiple sources doesn’t bother me. In fact, the tracks by the Band are some of my favorite. To this day, each time I play The Basement Tapes on my record player I read your liner notes and think of how amazing it must have been to experience this album’s long-awaited release in 1975. What talented artists!
I have always been curious: Was it your understanding, at the time the album was released in 1975, that all tracks on The Basement Tapes were recorded at Big Pink in 1967?
– Zachary Champoux
The information I had was vague. I knew there’d been some re-recording (“This Wheel’s on Fire” didn’t sound like the original basement tapes tape that began circulating in 1968). I knew that the Band tracks were not part of of the basement sessions, but didn’t know some of them were, or might have been, recorded for the 1975 album, in other words years after the album’s supposed fact. All in all it’s a great thing that The Complete Basement Tapes, even with witless liner notes, has now superseded that album. Even though it isn’t, as must have been inevitable, complete. Among other orphan tracks is a stunning version of “This Wheel’s on Fire,” clearly recorded at the same time as the version everyone knows, with the vocal by Rick Danko, not Bob Dylan.
Any opinion on the music of Gram Parsons, in particular his work on the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the first Flying Burrito Brothers LP and his solo Grievous Angel? Any truth to the rumor that Keith Richards “stole” “Wild Horses” from him?
– Joe O.
He was never really on my radar.
Back in January [1/26], someone wrote in to praise your appearance in the BBC documentary Elvis: The Rebirth Of The King; you in turn praised the documentary, and lamented that it wasn’t available online in the US. Well, at the time of this writing, it’s on YouTube:
– Charles Olver
That’s great to know. Many thanks.
I wasn’t alive at the time, but I always hear how the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival changed rock music. And it sure seems logical and evident that, immediately after the festival, the audiences of Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, and Jefferson Airplane exploded. But what I don’t understand is, how did it accomplish this? The music arena at the festival was not huge—it held less than 10,000 people—so how were so many other rock fans across America exposed to these performances, such that it made an instant impact? How did they reach you? Or, was that impact just a myth?
It was a great showcase for bands that hadn’t been seen by East Coast and LA people before—in other words, the record business. Clive Davis was there and signed Big Brother. Laura Nyro was apparently an embarrassment and that severely damaged her career. There were endless writers from the same places who helped put Jimi Hendrix on the map—but his having been playing in saturation mode on KMPX, the first rock FM station, in San Francisco, for the previous six months, may have had as great an impact—when he arrived, people were ready for him.
There was a San Francisco snob bias against the festival, in that it was the project of Hollywood people like the self-named Wolf King of LA. I was part of that—instead of Monterey, I went to the Magic Mountain Festival on Mt. Tamalpias in Marin, where I retain indelible memories of the Doors (who we’d seen a dozen times or more the first half of 1967, and who didn’t really come across in the sunshine); the Seeds, who were fabulously odd; and Every Mother’s Son, for whom the word lame was coined.
Who do you think is the audience for this? It seems like hippie cosplay. Also, limiting the edition to 1,969 is cute.
– Erik Nelson
People with a lot of money and nothing else to do with their lives.
If forced to choose: Godfather I or Godfather II?
Also, any thoughts on any of the following movies from the same period?
1 – The Conversation
2 – The Parallax View
3 – All the President’s Men
4 – Dog Day Afternoon
5 – Three Days of the Condor
I’m not much of a ranker, and if I had time to respond to what-do-you-think lists my mind would shrivel.
I haven’t seen The Parallax View or Three Days of the Condor, but Dog Day Afternoon remains wild, strange, painful, insane.
You mentioned Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked; in the novel a character references your Self Portrait review. What’s it like to see yourself—or at least your words—represented in a work of fiction?
– steve o’neill
It’s thrilling and a little shocking. There’s a reality flip involved. To be cited in some historical work or critical study, usually for the most banal thing you’ve ever said, is a flat experience at best, and more often a kind of humiliation: I actually have said interesting things, at least once or twice, somewhere— But to be imagined, as a real person, or anyway a real name, or for your own words, into an imagined world, is absolutely displacing. It’s happened to me a few times: in Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, with Nick Hornby (he’s a friend), in Matthew Robbins’s film Dragonslayer, where the evil head of the invading Christians who want to wipe out magic has my name (Robbins is a friend too), or, my favorite: in Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album, a character goes into a bookstore and buys Lipstick Traces, as a talisman of I don’t know what. The one reference I didn’t like was in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, where I appear as some sort of music business insider, because I didn’t like the book. But as I’ve said before he did spell my name right, and if I’d seen the book before I viciously attacked him in print for a something he said about Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, I probably would have been a lot nicer.
Just discovered this treasure trove and have thoroughly enjoyed going through it. “What the hell is this shit?” still makes me laugh (I personally love Self Portrait, mainly due to chronological context I’m sure…), your admission to liking Wings’ second album (I wonder if you mean Wild Life) is pleasantly shocking.
But stopped to respond to this great line: “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.'”
Just something about those guys that does stick, an underlying pain. You just wish you could throw your arms around Rick Danko. Never met him but miss him daily.
I thought I would share what I thought was a great moment with Robbie at one of his recent book events. Just simply asked him if he ever wrote and heard the other guys’ voices in his head and how they would’ve approached it. He sat back and said “oh yeah, sometimes I’ll write something and think, Richard would’ve sung the shit out of this…” Lots of conflicted feelings out there towards Robbie, no doubt, but to me I thought it was a nice moment. Just something about that Band.
Thanks for all the great moments you’ve shared with us all,
And thanks for this.
I recently listened to Songs for Drella and during “I Believe” I was struck by the gap between how Lou Reed sees Solanas (as a villain) and how a lot of younger people see Solanas today (as hero). What was your impression of Solanas at the time of the shooting? And, if it’s changed, how do you regard her now?
My impression at the time was that she was a serious person who was also crazy, but after seeing Marry Harron’s film, I Shot Andy Warhol, with Lili Taylor as Solanas, I thought somewhat less of her—that, like so many in the Factory milieu, she was infected by the disease of fame and would do anything to achieve it, as if “In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes” meant “Everyone deserves to be famous right now (as long as they’re not as famous as me—Andy Warhol).” At least here, Solanas has ideas, they’re real, but what she hates about Warhol is that he doesn’t take her seriously and blows her off, not that he’s representative of all men who deserve to be cut to pieces.
1. Favorite Dylan hair phase?
2. Not including Dylan, Greatest Rock Star Hair Ever?
2. Cyndi Lauper, Romania, 2001
Beating a (very) dead horse, but just want some clarification… Your original Stranded Treasure Island list included only “Superstition” from Stevie Wonder, and nothing else? And under pressure from the publisher you added the two albums? If so, my assumption would be you consider Wonder’s contributions to the rock and roll canon to be limited or unessential. I agree he was the most overrated artist/performer of the ’70s, but certainly “I Was Made to Love Her” and “Living for the City” are worthy inclusions. You delved into the latter song quite a bit in Mystery Train.
In a similar vein, what should the reader conclude about entries credited to Dave Marsh, specifically the Hendrix and MC5 discs? He suggested these records, provided the write-up, or both?
– Joe O
To be honest, re-reading the Stevie Wonder entries, I can’t remember what the one record I originally included was, and which I added under pressure from Robert Gottlieb. They read as if they were all meant to be there.
I felt Dave had a much better handle on Hendrix than I did, so we talked about it and he agreed to take Are You Experienced? and Live at Monterey—I would probably not have included Are You Experienced? otherwise. MC5 were Dave’s life when the band began—early issues of Creem take up the MC5 as if they’re life and death; if they succeeded or failed, the whole community around them would follow, walk into a new world or retreat into oblivion—and I thought that entry, whatever it turned out to be, was his by right. And what he came up with, one sentence, I would never have come up with. And I would have written about “Sister Anne.”
Did you like the Skyliners? I always thought they were a white-out version of the real thing, and maybe they were, but I heard a best-of recently and it knocked me out.
– Derek Murphy
I confess I don’t know the Skyliners beyond “Since I Don’t Have You,” and regardless of what wonders might await elsewhere, I don’t need more. That was part of what I loved about groups of that time, and then again in punk—they came out of nowhere, or anywhere (in this case, Pittsburgh, which seemed so unlikely, like the Anemic Boyfriends—from Alaska, and what could be more punk than that?), and you didn’t have to know who made the record, or care—just as long as you could hear it again.
It’s a glorious record. It has everything: loss, self-pity, heroism, sacrifice, all sent into space like Sputnik with that final chorus. I will never forget Ben Fong-Torres, doing a guest DJ spot sometime in the late ’70s, coming out of that moment: “That was Jimmy Beaumont on the note that put him in the hospital, he’s been faking it ever since, but what a thrill it was!” Even if it was Janet Vogel, or, as I heard once, the producer’s wife.
What is your favorite place in Paris?
– Mario Alexander Weber
My favorite place in Paris was a little bistro on the Boul St. Germain across from the Tour d’Argent called Chez René. We started going there in 1967—I think it opened in the late fifties or early sixties. We went twice every time we went to Paris. We knew the menu by heart. We went with friends, ran into acquaintances who became friends. I wrote about it in the last piece in In the Fascist Bathroom. It was run by the same family until some years ago it was sold. They kept the name and nothing else—now it’s a sewer.
Today: a certain friend’s apartment, just down from the Fondation Cartier. The light on certain nights. Clouds over the rue Dauphine in the morning when you can’t tell if it will be sunny or if its going to rain. And Cinema Christine, which runs American movies from the ’30s through the ’60s. Most of them are bad. But some you’ve never heard of and won’t forget, like Ida Lupino in Roadhouse.
Your distinction between “girl groups” (Marvelettes, TLC) and “women groups” (Supremes, Pointer Sisters) makes sense to me. One act I don’t think quite fits either category, though, is the Shangri-Las—too world-wise for one, still a bit too callow for the other. Do you think it’d be accurate (if not correct) to call them a chick group?
– steve o’neill
I never thought of them as anything but a girl group. They were teenagers. And not late ones. But your question threw me for a loop. I started thinking, making up categories: “Goth Girl Group.” “Death Girl Group.” “Girl Group, Death.” They could call themselves a chick group. Maybe even Shadow Morton could. But we can’t.
You keep up with new music. You love your classics. You listen to stuff for work and scholarly reasons. How often do you listen to all the in-between stuff? Before you culled your collection, did you ever devise any sort of nerd system to ensure that your good to very good albums didn’t fall by the wayside? Or did you just play whatever you wanted to in the moment? Did all that music eventually start to feel like a small source of anxiety? How often do you listen to Hackamore Brick? (Yes, I know you’re always asked about them…)
It was all guessing against history, mine and the world-spirit. I made a lot of mistakes. But records as unique as Hackamore Brick don’t necessarily have to be played: I can hear the songs just by being reminded of them. The opening of “I Watched You Rhumba”—like the opening of “Satisfaction,” except I like it so much more.
In light of your discourse on “Love and Death in The American Rock’n’Roll Novel,” I thought I’d ask your thoughts on six American rock’n’roll novels not in your presentation. In no particular order: Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia (I recall you very impressed with her Eat The Document); George R.R. Martin’s The Armageddon Rag; Bill Flanagan’s Evening’s Empire (I recall you impressed with his nonfiction Written In My Soul); Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad; Bradley Denton’s Buddy Holly Is Alive and Well on Ganymede; and Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones & The Six.
– Andrew Hamlin
I haven’t read or heard of most. Stone Arabia is lovely, but it reminds me of Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked only here the cultist is curating himself—and I felt no sympathy for him. I’ve kept Armageddon Rag but don’t remember it, which makes me wonder why I kept it. But I’ve recently reread Cathi Unsworth’s The Singer—I was going to talk about it at the MoPop Conference but knew I didn’t have space. It’s got momentum, pauses, and no flinching.
What is your advice for young writers trying to get into the (cultural) journalism world?
Write. Try to make what you write public, in whatever manner possible. Keep writing.
Apart from your own: what are some of the better books about artistic influence? In the spirit of (say) Harold Bloom, The Shingle Style Today, The H.D. Book, Magic Circles, etc.?
I don’t like Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence or Jonathan Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence, and I loathe David Shields’s Reality Hunger and his other attempts to hijack the notion. I don’t find the subject interesting. Who cares what Fitzgerald’s so-called influences were for The Great Gatsby or Tender Is the Night when the reason we’re talking about them, that is, the books, are so much more interesting than they are?
I’ve just finished listening to the BBC podcast “The Hurricane Tapes,” a ten-hour exploration of the Rubin Carter case. It’s fascinating stuff, including extensive recordings made of Carter before his death, new interviews with his co-defendant John Artis and just about everyone else associated with the case who’s still alive, archival recordings of those who aren’t. The show’s creators have an eye for the immaterial but indelible detail: a necklace made from Carter’s glass eye, a judge’s high school ode to a “little colored chum,” the Del-Vikings. They don’t forget that real people were killed—“I always said if I saw Bob Dylan,” says the grandson of a victim, as aggrieved as William Zantzinger but with a right, “I would yell at him and then I would spit in his face.” The interview with Carter’s daughter that ends the podcast is devastating.
I first heard of Carter from the song, and figured that if Bob Dylan said the Hurricane was innocent he must be. When I stopped being eleven I started thinking a little more critically about the case before I stopped thinking about it at all. I was vaguely aware that Carter had been released but not exonerated and had moved to my hometown; when the movie came along its argument that since Rubin was innocent he couldn’t possibly be a bad guy struck me as dishonest as the idea that since he was a bad guy he must be guilty.
Did you follow the case? Do you have any opinion about Carter’s guilt or innocence?
– steve o’neill
I didn’t follow the case to its conclusions. As for the song, as others pointed out at the time, it had a snap, a vehemence, a you-must-listen-to-this force that had been missing from his music for a long time. The clumsiness in the rhythm had a lot to do with that—the screeching violin, the we’ve-got-to-get-the-word-out-now feeling, no time to waste. But I think the clumsiness in the writing and singing—jamming “And the all-white-jury agreed!” into a space that could at best hold three syllables, and jamming that information in when, really, “the jury agreed” might have been more powerful both as words and rhythm—makes the performance not stand up, makes it seem dated, an artifact. It’s the rhythm that gives credibility to the words or, as in this case, in terms of the rhythm of the words as such, undercuts them.
As I’m sure you’ve heard, some people are arguing that Billie Eilish is the new queen of alternative pop, overthrowing Lana Del Rey. I was wondering what your thoughts on Billie Eilish are? What new thing (or things) is she bringing to the table?
“Queen of Alternative Pop.” How would you like that on your tombstone?
A professor friend recently asked me for readings and thoughts on the context—especially the racial context—of the Moondog Coronation Ball. When I went to my bookshelf, I grabbed and reread (for the first time in decades) Charlie Gillett’s Sound of the City.
Two questions. How would you respond to my friend’s query? Do you have any thoughts to share on Gillett’s book?
– Thomas J. Mertz
I’m not sure what you mean about the racial context. Alan Freed was white, his audience was black and white, and from the photos published the crowd at the Coronation Ball was almost all black. The context is the question of how a music that was understood as primarily a black creation had, by the date of your choosing, become almost completely identified as white, and how that dynamic has continued to shift, to the present, when the upper reaches of the Hot 100 are filled with black performers. But the fact is, in the early and mid ’50s, when you turned on your radio and heard a new voice, you couldn’t necessarily tell what was who and who was what. Most of the time you couldn’t, and a lot of people didn’t care.
I know that if I opened Charlie Gillett’s book now, so long after first reading it and then devoting months if not years to tracking down records by people I’d never heard of who apparently had a determining affect on people I loved, I’d find a mountain of stuff I still don’t know.
In the e-book version of Mystery Train, which I borrowed from my library, the book has a typo in “Hellhound on My Trail.” It says “Blues falling down like bail,” whereas the song says “Blues falling down on my head like hail.” It makes more sense. I’ve not seen the printed book, so I don’t know if it’s in there as well. I was wondering about that. That’s my comment, for now and I am just really enjoying this wonderful book,
I checked, and you’re right—four times. Obviously I never noticed that, and will have it corrected the next chance I get—in about five years, I’d guess, except for a collector’s edition that may be coming out next year. But really, the typo gods are not all bad—“Blues falling down like bail” works. It more than works. It’s a whole new story.
Back in the ’70s, I remember reading a rock critic who asserted that Mick Jagger would never write an autobiography. Given his recent, and thankfully correctable, health issues, do you think Jagger has any interest in a memoir? I don’t mean a tell-all, necessarily, but a collection of interesting stories, like Robbie Robertson’s Testimony. So far, my favorite commentary on Jagger’s career has come from Bill Wyman. Not the Stones’ former bassist, but the writer, whose “Please Allow Me To Correct A Few Things” appeared in Slate in 2010, in the form of a hypothetical review of Keith Richards’ LIFE. Maybe Mick should hire that Bill Wyman as a ghost writer.
And—to clear the Stones questions from my backlog—are you fond of any of these Rolling Stones side projects, obscurities, and/or outtakes? “Memo From Turner” (Jagger & Ry Cooder), “Gone Dead Train” (Randy Newman & Ry Cooder, no Stones involvement that I know of, but it’s on the Performance soundtrack), “Deuce And A Quarter” (Scotty Moore & D.J. Fontana, with Keith Richards & Levon Helm), “Watchin’ the River Flow” (Ben Waters plus Wyman, Richards, Watts, Wood & Jagger)? And by the Stones themselves, “Claudine,” “Cocksucker Blues” (you listed this in “Treasure Island” but didn’t indicate whether it was the unplugged or full band version), “Cook Cook Blues,” “Everything’s Turning To Gold,” “So Young,” (which seems like a sequel to “Stray Cat Blues,” as sung by an older and slightly wiser man). Saving the best for last, it wasn’t a side project but might just as well have been, given its exile to obscure multi-disc compilation albums: whatever happened to “Child of the Moon,” a great song that seems to have been consigned to the dustbin of history by its even greater flipside, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”
– Robert Mitchell
I don’t or wouldn’t know what Mick Jagger has in mind. Given how often a Jagger autobio has been floated I’d imagine he’s started one more than once and said, why? The problem with memoirs is that almost no one tells the truth until they’re dead.
As for side projects, the best thing that any member of the band did outside of it is not join the Traveling—sorry, I just can’t bring myself to say that name out loud. And that Jamming with Edward has its moments.
Just discovered this treasure trove and have thoroughly enjoyed going through it. “What the hell is this shit?” still makes me laugh (I personally love Self Portrait, mainly due to chronological context I’m sure…), your admission to liking Wings’ second album (I wonder if you mean Wild Life) is pleasantly shocking.
But stopped to respond to this great line: “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.’”
Just something about those guys that does stick, an underlying pain. You just wish you could throw your arm around Rick Danko. Never met him but miss him daily.
I thought I would share what I thought was a great moment with Robbie at one of his recent book events. Just simply asked him if he ever wrote and heard the other guys’ voices in his head and how they would’ve approached it. He sat back and said “oh yeah, sometimes I’ll write something and think, Richard would’ve sung the shit out of this…” Lots of conflicted feelings out there towards Robbie no doubt, but to me I thought it was a nice moment. Just something about that Band.
Thanks for all the great moments you’ve shared with us all.
After all you have provided me, I would like to buy you a new left speaker (can we also buy/rent a New Left Speaker, too?). Please forward payment information.
– Randy Ray
Actually there’s nothing wrong with my speaker. It’s a connectivity problem with my 52-year-old MacIntosh amp.
Would you care to share some practical advice about how you prep for interviews, how you devise questions, etc.? I know you have said that you don’t consider yourself a great interviewer but I’ve enjoyed the hell out of many interviews you’ve done over the years, and though I’ve conducted at least a couple dozen interviews myself with various bands and artists, I’ve never once felt like I was able to get the subject to open up in an interesting way. Would appreciate any words whatsoever on this from you.
– hIGH energy Jack
I generally don’t prepare an extensive list of questions. I do try to pin down details that are in conflict or are uncertain, as to dates, people involved, places—all the who what when how. Otherwise I try to open a conversation and follow where it goes. If I have something specific I want to discuss and the interviewee backs off, fails to remember, prevaricates, I try to keep coming back to it after going on to something else.
I’ve often said that in my vicarious experience, the best interviewing technique is to make the interviewee reach for his or her knowledge, ideas, responses—to throw the person off guard in a way that is respectful, not hostile. There are many ways to do this, none of which I’ve come close to mastering. Jonathan Cott’s technique, though it may have been less a technique than a completely honest way of opening the interviewee into new territory, was to come prepared with quotations from Elizabethan poets, female saints, or medieval rabbis that he felt the interviewee had some deep and hidden affinity with, even though the interviewee had almost certainly never heard of the person he was quoting from, or ever given a stray thought to any century preceding the current one. Almost always the person would say, that’s so beautiful, that makes me think of…
There was another interviewer I knew, who worked for NME, who had an absolutely terrible stutter. It was very hard to endure—after a little while, impossible. It could take him minutes to get out half a question. So to avoid the brain killing noise, the interviewee would just start talking, even asking him or herself their own questions, talk and talk and talk to keep the interviewer from opening his mouth. This was legendary. Outside of an interview situation, though, you could talk to him.
In some ways my most satisfying interview was with Francis Coppola just before the release of Apocalypse Now, for Rolling Stone—an assignment from Jann, “Someone has to do it, you do it.” Francis, who I knew somewhat at the time, was just out of the hospital and he was a physical wreck. Psychologically he was shot. He had no defenses. Speaking in a disconnected, a-syntactical, repetitious, and, on paper, all but illiterate fashion—pure fatigue—he went back and forth, saying the most remarkable things, leading up to a moment when he was describing the end of the movie—which was not the ending of the movie in the final cut I had watched a few days before. I said, But that’s not the ending. He said, It’s not? I said, No. I realized that in his mind, the movie still ended in a way different from the finished ending—radically different, since the ending in his mind left the movie at the edge of a psychological cliff, with no idea what, really, the ending would be. And he said, Well, the ending I wanted was the truth, and the ending I put on it now is a lie. It’s hard for me to imagine an artist saying anything more powerful.
I taped the interview, and so did Coppola’s staff, and when they listened, they were horrified, and insisted we do the interview over again—because Francis sounded so incoherent. I said I would take out all the hesitations and uhs and wells and silences and everything else that got in the way of something that conveyed what he meant and that could actually be read, which I did.
What you wrote about how once there was no rock and roll and then there was, it put me in mind of listening to a Little Richard compilation, one of the Fremeaux Indispensable series. At the beginning he’s a fairly conventional R&B act, and suddenly with “Tutti Frutti” it’s like he’s flipped a switch, and he’s something completely different, and I can’t really put my finger on what makes it so. Another thing I left until very late in life is listening seriously to Howlin’ Wolf—I mean, literally it was just this week—and it was immediately obvious that this was everything rock and roll aspired to. You couldn’t emulate it because nobody has an instrument like that. I think you had to go down to a crossroads for that, maybe deal with the same devils William Blake used to do business with. So anyway, you couldn’t emulate it, you had to approach it by other means. It was a hard rock assembly kit with all the parts.
Your discussion of Neil Diamond puts me in mind of Pauline Kael’s contention that American viewers would liked the movie Zardoz a lot more if it hadn’t been made in English. If Diamond had sung in a foreign language you could see him becoming a real cult item. And I like him myself through the Uni days (was there anyone else on Uni?).
I can hear Neil Diamond in Italian. He’d have been huge in the Eurovision song contest. Or Hebrew. I wonder if he ever fooled around with the idea.
You’re right about Howlin’ Wolf and what rock ‘n’ roll aspired to. There’s something about “How Many More Years” or “House Rockin’ Boogie” that can make you say, Why, that’s already rock ‘n’ roll, right there—and know that’s not quite right. That sound, carrying the sense of event, is more than rock ‘n’ roll, more complete, more coherent, as if saying to rock ‘n’ roll, you might as well quit now, and never be born. But that sound is also less. It’s so much an affirmation of skill, sympathy, professionalism, technique, and control, that there’s never a sense that it could go anywhere, lose itself, risk bursting into flame. It’s perfect. Rock ‘n’ roll, except in doo-wop, may be saying there’s no such thing. Compared to “How Many More Years,” the beat, the musicianship, the singer’s timing in “Like a Rolling Stone” is amateurish. Yet it got to places “How Many More Years” didn’t, because it was looking for places that weren’t on that song’s map.
Warpaint is a wonderful band that, I think, has difficulty focusing their music—a band I want to love more than I actually do—but they have a few moments that are among the best of this era. 2016’s “Whiteout” is terrific. “Elephants” is a dizzying song with shimmering guitars and mesmerizing rhythms that really comes to life in various live YouTube versions (my favorite is this early 2009 Los Angeles performance).
But “Undertow” is the song that fulfills everything—it’s not just the record they were born to make but a record that only they could make. As much as I love the record, though, it almost feels incomplete next to some of the stage versions on YouTube. For me, this 2011 Rio performance is the one.
I was surprised to search your site and see no mentions of Warpaint. Have they ever caught your attention?
I haven’t said anything about them because I didn’t know anything, so thanks. “Elephants” is the kind of swirl I’m always looking for and rarely find—a lot of dub in it, a lot of trust on the part of the musicians, in themselves, maybe, or mostly in their music, as if it’s not quite theirs. I will catch up.
Given your clearly stated discomfort with “Brown Sugar,” I am wondering if you saw any of the shows at which Bob Dylan covered it in fall 2002. Any thoughts on why Dylan would choose to cover such a problematic song? Do you suppose the fact that his secret marriage to African-American backup singer Carolyn Dennis had been uncovered the year before is relevant or coincidental? On a (presumably, though one never knows with Dylan) unrelated note, that was the same tour when he was covering three Warren Zevon songs as Zevon succumbed to cancer—a remarkably generous gift to one of his most talented disciples.
I assume he likes the song.
I was interested to read your comments on the improvement you heard in the Time out of Mind songs when they were played live. Are you not a fan of Daniel Lanois’ production technique on that album? What about his work on Oh Mercy and Neil Young’s Le Noise?
I’m not a fan of Daniel Lanois. To me—and I think the Chronicles chapter on Oh Mercy says as much—he’s a hit-your-marks producer. He wants everything orderly and he has a finished result in mind. I found his comments in his autobiography on how Time Out of Mind would have been so much better if Dylan had followed his suggestions both hilarious and disgusting. To my ear, he didn’t produce that album at all—or Dylan recorded it out from under him.
When I first heard the album, in the spring of 1997, months before it was released, I was told it might not be released at all. I couldn’t believe Lanois would allow his name on anything that sounded like what I was listening to sounded like: crumbling, rough, full of chance and happenstance, dirt on the floor, dead flies on the windows, with that fraying guitar chord that opens “Cold Irons Bound” the heart of the miasma, the milieu, the mise en scène. I figured that assuming it was released, it would sound much different from what I heard. It didn’t.
What do you think were the best doo-wop songs in the ’50s and ’60s, and which are the greatest if you were to list a few now—which are time-proven?
Secondly, what do you think are the most melodic rock/pop songs?
These aren’t questions I can answer. The best doo-wop song is the good one I’m listening to at the moment. Is “The Wind” better than “Come Softly to Me”? No. But in the moment, of course, and vice versa.
Any thoughts as to why Nirvana and Pavement—and to some extent, Fugazi—have historically drawn writers—and Pearl Jam, almost none?
Bonus question: in hindsight: was helping Ralph Nader in 2000 courageous; or disastrous; or both?
I don’t know about writers and Pearl Jam. Could have to do with melodrama.
Supporting Ralph Nader? Stupid, and worse. Nader wanted Bush to win so he’d be the great White hope in 2004.
I hate to see this beautiful website being marred by a. questions about what kind of stereo hi-fi speakers & amplifiers & turntables are to be found in your house and b. the new moralist hosophobia concerning great rock and roll songs.
I have four kids: two girls and two boys, they understand English better than I do, even the youngest one, and she’s fourteen. I would love to sing “Stray Cat Blues” and “Midnight Rambler” loudly in the car with her, but she won’t listen to any Stones music so we don’t. My youngest son likes the early Stones, including “Under My Thumb,” but we never sing together. He’s not that crazy.
They also love Michael Jackson’s hits. I don’t, except for “Billie Jean”, but I love them loving them. (Is this English?)
I did not explain to my parents what I was listening to (with a dictionary on my lap) when I was 15: songs like “Dinah Moe Humm” by [Frank Zappa], “Midnight Rambler” from YaYa’s. And while rock ‘n’ roll sparked my imagination for the rest of my life, these songs did not shock me, or change my way of thinking. Of course they didn’t. Not then and not now. Bullshit.
Elton John sang “Saturday’s All Right for Fighting.” I made my punk friends in Brussels dance to it, playing the song in between “Alternative Ulster” and “Don’t Dictate,” and they were wondering what great punk song that was. I did not tell. But does this song justify gratuitous violence? As if Elton John were a singing thug? Come on!
And what about Pat Hare’s great “I’m Gonna Murder my Baby”? He did, didn’t he? I would love to sing this song driving my car, but I find it very hard to sing the blues, so I don’t. I think this is a stupid discussion.
So I better ask a little question:
I started studying “Treasure Island” in 1979 when I was 15 after I had read a translation in Humo, a Belgian magazine. I was glad I found my albums of The Band (and some others) on the list, was puzzled by LIVEr than You’ll Ever Be (is that or isn’t that Ya Ya’s?), and at first I fought the list vehemently. But I was so much attracted by the language, the atmosphere, the whole new world I found within these words, and most of all the strange names that were mentioned, like Martha and the Vandellas or Hackamore Brick. So eventually I gave in and gave away my copy of Overnite Sensation, and started looking for ways to find The 5 Royales and The Fleetwoods, absolutely not knowing what to expect.
I read Stranded one or two years later, so I had a definite non-European/British view on the past. It is a very strange feeling when you cross the school yard with a Roy Orbison or a Ray Charles album under your arm (Le Disque d’Or de Ray Charles, my very first catch) while everybody else was looking at me with the names of David Bowie, Pink Floyd, ABBA, or even the great Sex Pistols lasered in their eyes.
I learned to swim through the eighties on my own, though.
The list was great and still is. One may add but not subtract. After all these years, I don’t want to add a lot: just three records: Bobby Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe,” a second Small Faces single (“All or Nothing”?), and a Sonny Boy Williamson best of. Williamson has the slyest, sexiest voice of all blues singers I know and he is, like Muddy Waters and Elmore James, very much part of the realm of r&r. I suppose Randy Newman molded his singing style into Williamson’s. (Newman himself honors Sonny Boy Williamson, so we can leave the child seducer of “Good Morning Little School Girl” to him. What a relief!)
It’s a small, narrow question, but could you, would you agree that—from an early 1979 perspective—these three records earned a place on “Treasure Island”?
I love what you say: “One may add but not subtract.” But since I was forced to add two Stevie Wonder records I’ll subtract Greatest Hits and Innervisions, and then—
Bobby Gentry, “Ode to Billie Jo”—how could I have left that out? People are still arguing about it. At first, like so many, I thought it was a miscarriage or the results of an abortion going off that bridge, but now I’m sure it was Emmett Till, symbolically—and what if it’s not symbolically? Not that that’s really what’s kept the song alive: it’s the family, gathered around the table, not knowing, not caring, and then the singer, at the end, letting her father go as easily as he ignored her.
Small Faces: I’d put in Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake. Or not. And mainly for the cover.
Sonny Boy Williamson: “Nine Below Zero.” Absolute mysticism as ordinary life. And don’t even ask about the weather. Still—my favorite Sonny Boy Williamson is Bob Dylan and the Plugz with “Don’t Start Me Talkin'” on David Letterman. But if we opened this up to live performances that discography wouldn’t need a section, or a book, or an encyclopedia, but its own internet. Which, and I still find this hard to believe, the present-day wonder of the world, it has.
As for stereo equipment: hey, I just answer the questions, I don’t ask them. But my left speaker isn’t working right now.
Last night I saw a 60-year-old man sing about 15 Neil Diamond songs. He sang very naturally, yet sounded uncannily like Neil Diamond (both from the same part of Brooklyn). I was never a Neil Diamond fan—but the songs carried such a wistfulness that I was deeply moved. As it seemed to me the other 30 or so people who were there were similarly effected.
In your seventies (as I am) have you found any music pleasurable that in your twenties you would have sneered at or made a point of avoiding?
When Rock & Roll loses its trappings of youth & rebellion is it still Rock & Roll? I never thought that Neil Diamond was real Rock & Roll in the first place and I understand that it’s essentially pointless to place works inside or outside of some generic category—but I’m hoping that you’ll have some general reflections on changing tastes as you get older. (Not that I think you personally have undergone any stereotypical “mellowing”—quite the contrary)
Is a newfound openness to “easy listening” a sign of tolerance/openness/expansion or musical senescence?
– Dave Rubin
There are definitely songs and records that I might have scorned in the past that I can now take pleasure in, but I think that’s more a matter of getting beyond—aging out of?—snobbery than, and I hate the word, so I won’t use it, so let’s say blanding out, or acquiescing to acquiescence. I always liked the Carpenters. Bill Withers doesn’t sound any less narrow than he ever did. I still hate the Captain and Tenielle, or however it might be spelled.
I always liked Neil Diamond. “Solitary Man” is a great record any way you cut it. It’s not categorizable. It still sounds fresh, because there’s nothing like it. There’s pathos in “Cracklin’ Rosie.” “I Am… I Said” was never meant to be rock ‘n’ roll—it was meant to escape it. His Jonathan Livingston Seagull soundtrack wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll, but it might have been his soul music, which didn’t mean it turned out better than Barbara Hershey changing her name to Barbara Seagull, until she changed it back. But for that matter, youth and rebellion, however defined or characterized, don’t define or characterize rock ‘n’ roll. When I hear the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Nite” I don’t hear rebellion, but particularly I don’t hear youth—these people sounded like adults to me in 1956, when they were all much older than I was, and they still sound like thinking, experienced, damaged adults now, when I’m much older than they were. What’s youthful about “Gimmie Shelter”—and isn’t it about how the impulse to revolt, in the sense traced in Camus’s The Rebel, is desperately searching for a place to hide—to hide out, maybe, until the storm has passed, or to die?
There’s no way to define rock ‘n’ roll, I think, other than to say that once, somewhere in the 1940s, there was no such thing as rock ‘n’ roll, and then, maybe sometime in the 1940s, more likely in a concatenation sometime in the 1950s, there was, and after that certain people recognized that, felt it, inherited it as a kind of Jungian collective unconscious, or race memory, and tried to keep the promise they heard in that event. So rock ‘n’ roll is as rock ‘n’ roll does. “Yesterday” is rock ‘n’ roll because it was by the Beatles in 1965—and everything the Beatles were doing at that time changed what rock ‘n’ roll was and how it was understood and received (“And,” said a friend at the time, “you know John is playing one of the violins”).
So Neil Diamond, son of Dean Martin, son of Little Richard—and who knows what songs we love wouldn’t exist if the people who made them hadn’t heard “Solitary Man” and said, I want that sound. I want that rhythm? I want that feeling. I don’t ever want to feel as alone as this person does, so I’ll have to find a song that takes me all the way there, so I won’t be able to stand it, and will have to leave the apartment where I’ve been holed up for a week and go out and look at other people.
I have become increasingly aware, and critical, of rock and roll’s legacy of sexual innuendo, blatant misogyny, and casual machismo. I used to give great rock and roll songs that traded in these tropes a pass, because the music was so good (seemingly everything by The Rolling Stones, a lot of stuff from the ’50s). But, now that I’m a father of a three-year-old, and because we as a society are much more focused on gender equality and critical of toxic masculinity, I find it nearly impossible to listen to songs like “Jemima Surrender” by The Band, “Switchboard Susan” by Nick Lowe/Mickey Jupp, etc. without cringing and feeling complicit (these examples are, of course, tepid compared to stuff from the likes of Motley Crue, etc.). I have begun to think differently about a lot of the music I love but, to my disappointment, find that I’m still all too often willing to give rock and roll a free pass. Do you believe that sex, machismo, and misogyny are vital components that make rock and roll what it is? Do you have any favourite examples of rock songs that have flipped these components on their head?
– Ben Robinson
Wait til your three-year-old comes home singing “Under My Thumb.” It’ll be like deciding if you can allow your child to play with guns—squirt guns, but, you know… Not to be flip, but that happens. A three-year-old girl or boy, or for that matter an adult woman, might hear in that song a feeling of power, her power, her right to it, the satisfaction of imposing it. Gender may matter or it may not. Who the domination in the song might be directed to is unlimited. Compared to the way the words come out of the mouth of the person who’s half-singing it, maybe even only half-conscious of doing so, Mick Jagger may sound like a wimp who’s trying to convince himself he means what he says. So many women have cut their own versions of “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” but wouldn’t you like to hear Sleater-Kinney—or for that matter Nancy Sinatra—doing “Under My Thumb”? Especially if either were doing it with Pearl Jam?
I read today’s New Yorker piece on the Stones, including your thoughts.
The Stones are once again touring and thus their work and business practices should be examined. I have had two lousy experiences (Philadelphia ’78, an absolute nightmare, and Dallas ’15, lousy seats and thus a rip-off) and have also taken of late to re-examining their work (“Stray Cat Blues” and “Brown Sugar” specifically) and wonder if it is time for a full-frontal assault on the band. Or is that fighting yesterday’s battle?
– Frederick Lazare
I haven’t been to see the Rolling Stones since I can’t remember when—a show in Oakland when the most exciting moments of the night came when an Elmore James number was playing between acts—and they were acts, where the possibility of someone real, something unexpected, something unplanned, had been foreclosed in advance. I think anyone willing to pay the absurd prices the Rolling Stones have been charging for decades are taking part in a ritual in which the terms are that they surrender all expectations and desires in exchange for being able to tell someone, or themselves, that they were “there”—wherever that might have been—gets what they paid for. You had a lousy seat, for which you paid far too much, but not enough to get a good seat? Why is that a rip-off? The entire enterprise is a rip-off and you accepted those terms. You might want to examine your own business practices.
You ask if the time is right for an attack on the band. Do you mean that an attack on the band might, today, receive a kind of assent or approval it might not have received at some other time, so you, or someone, might look good doing it? Or that, given the current shibboleths, it might be in some sense more effective?
I wrote a long piece for Creem in 1971 on why I couldn’t listen to “Brown Sugar” (which, I said, ought to have been my favorite song). Now I can. What Joe Biden allowed Republicans to do to Anita Hill was a disgrace at the time, not just as refracted through a contemporary lens. But I think “Stray Cat Blues” is something else—and what that is isn’t obvious.
If you think it’s the right time for you to launch an attack on the Rolling Stones, do it. If you’re trying to suggest that someone else do it for you, and answer your questions, you’re wasting someone else’s time.
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 an 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.