Ask Greil: August 8, 2023
Received knowledge has it that "Clothes Line Saga" was Dylan's sardonic reply to "Ode to Billie Joe," but if it wasn't at least partly inspired by Bo Diddley's "Two Flies" (which I heard today for the first time)... well, it sure should have been. —STEVE O’NEILL
That “Clothesline Saga” was based on “Ode to Billie Joe” isn’t received knowledge, aka Old Wives’ Tale: the original title on Garth Hudson’s tape box was “Answer to Ode.” But even if neither Dylan nor any of the Band weren’t thinking about this really incredibly sophisticated philosophy of everyday life treatise, “Two Flies,” which I don’t think I’ve ever heard either, it’s just the sort of thing that would be in the back of their minds. What a unique recording. Could anyone else have even thought of this record, let alone pulled it off? There’s a reason Bo Diddley appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show before Elvis—and Elvis recorded first. Not that I know, in the great chain of being, what it is. Thanks for this.
Hi Greil, I have been a fan of your writing long before I used Mystery Train as one of three "textbooks" for the Sociology of Rock class I taught while still a graduate student at the University of California at Riverside in 1976. My question concerns the studio version of Hendrix' "Star Spangled Banner"—not the more widely-known (and praised) Woodstock version. I have long felt that the studio version, which doesn't seem to be well-known, is a masterpiece and love listening to it all the way to the very deep bass line ending. I would love to know if you have ever written about it or, if not, would do so now. Thank you, Greil. —BILL GOODYKOONTZ
I wasn’t aware of this at all. AT ALL! Which is crazy. It’s so much.
It’s a great patriotic anthem in an almost conventional sense. You can imagine Francis Scott Key, Abraham Lincoln, Francis Scott Fitzgerald, Philip Roth, Barbara Jordan, and Gretchen Whitmer all standing up to cheer it. It doesn’t need the passionate defense Jeff Bridges (with Bob Dylan’s script, unless he’s improvising) offered the Woodstock performance in Masked and Anonymous, his argument that Hendrix is saying, “It’s my country too! I am a native son!”
Musically it’s wonderfully complex and playful, with the machine gun fire—or salute—at the end, with the whole then resolving into a sort of drone homage to the end of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” You can’t ever anticipate what will follow what. It’s Hendrix at his most free since “All Along the Watchtower.”
Duke University Press has a new series of books, Singles, which devotes an entire 45- shaped book to a given single: so far I’ve seen general editor Joshua Clover’s “Roadrunner” and Eric Weisbard’s new “Hound Dog.” This—all the versions together as one unreleased meta-single—seems like a necessity.
I really enjoyed the Chet Baker piece. Have you ever seen the film Born To Be Blue (directed by Robert Budreau, a Canadian film director/producer) that examines a period of Chet Baker's life (Baker is played by Ethan Hawke) in the 1960s?
If you have seen it, what did you think? If you haven't, you might find it interesting. —RICHARD DENNIS
I thought it was a convincing picture, a small movie in the way people barely make them anymore. And I always like seeing Ethan Hawke go up against roles that seem all wrong for him.
Hi Greil: I had written you many years ago, based on my husband's affection for your writing, and reflections. You were very kind and insightful to me, about the notion of acceptance of the interesting and odd experiences one may find in a record store, and to not be so intimidated by a potential audience in my own writing.
But I am writing tonight, as my husband and I share some wine, in our kitchen and listen to music pumping from our dining room, and I asked my husband "does Greil review this?" and he did not know so I thought to write you.
We are listening to Captain Beefheart's Live At My Father's Place CD, and specifically I am in love with, and rocking out to the song “Drop Out Boogie.” There is something so delicious and astute about the experience of this dialogue, hilarity, and confident accusations. Is it him and a father, or him and himself? I don't know. And I don't know why this is so very good to me. But it is. I am a fan, of things like Gene Pitney (this was what you and I spoke about years ago, and you gave great guidance, thank you again), and Bombino, and Pere Ubu, and some of the sound things my husband tries on me—this song being one of those things. I feel like I am on both sides of this one. A few words, from both sides, that say it all and create an argument in my head. What do you think? And what about after that?
I hope you are doing well —JACKLYN PENNER
I didn’t know this. It’s so much fun, he’s having such a great time, he loves the songs, the audience is right there—what a confirmation it must have been for someone who even if his records were released on major labels was always an outsider artist. And the timing tells its own tale. Coming off Trout Mask Replica in 1969, there was a series of ever more explosive, scrambled-tall-tale albums—Lick My Decals Off, Baby in 1970, The Spotlight Kid, 1972, Clear Spot, 1972, all on Reprise. They seemed to create shape out of chaos, but at any moment could return you to clatter and howl that needed no meaning beyond the pleasure it made. So then he decides, or someone makes him believe, or he had a vision he could save the world if he could make more money and reach more people, who knows, to, you know, sell out, and he goes to Mercury and in 1974 makes two horrible albums, Unconditionally Guaranteed (to make you wonder what you ever heard in him) and the really coolly titled Bluejeans and Moonbeams, which could have named some embarrassing 1950s teen-duo album, say Paul and Paula’s never made “back together” concept album—and it turns out that all those other people don’t exist and he has nothing to sell that anyone other than the few people who can already sing his songs back to him want to buy. So here he is in 1976, two years off that debacle, two years before buying back his voice with Shiny Beast in 1978, Doc at the Radar Station in 1980, and his last, Ice Cream for Crow in 1982, all back under the Warner Bros. umbrella, and it’s like he never heard those Mercury records. Everyone knows they’re in the right place at the right time. It reminds me of Bo Diddley’s Beach Party, the first live album I ever bought, and still have—bought it, though I wouldn’t have understood it this way in 1963, for the concept, which seemed so strange, but it was at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and the feeling is the same on both. It’s when I learned Bo Diddley could attach “Bo Diddley’s” to anything—”Bo Diddley’s First World War,” “Bo Diddley’s Dream,” “Bo Diddley’s Mistake”—and it would sound obvious, inarguable, irresistible.
Re: Roger Waters. If Waters, is anti-Semite, then everyone is who disagrees with Israel's politics and with Greil Marcus's. No disrespect intended. Long time reader and there are things you've said over the years, I've looked past them. Each to his own. Recently you've said very disagreeable things about Chomsky, Greenwald, and others. You’ve been unmindful to others who differ with about any number of things. But you have the pen, right? The rest of us are stupid or idiots. Yr never wrong. Israel is never wrong, the upper class are all Jew haters. Christ, what a load of malarkey, paranoid self-centred and unkind. To yourself and those about you and the great artistry of Rogers which unlike others who you praised takes big risks. My name is unknown and it wont matter to you you're losing readers who won't listen to this angry castigating tone and generalizing about them who disagree. I hope your moderator posts this in the spirit of honest and sad paring of the ways. We won’t be reading you any longer. —ANNA
This exchange, which is part of my newsletter, seems to me to say we both have a pen, or a voice, in this forum. I say what I think, you say what you think, and maybe we have something to say to each other.
I’m often wrong. Like any country, Israel either as a society or as putatively embodied by a government, is and is going to be wrong in ways small and enormous. Right now Israel is on the edge of plunging into autocracy, the morally and physically violent rule of the greater part of the country by a minority made up of the worst people Israel has ever produced. It is an internal civil war of conquest to allow and protect an erasure of the non-settler population of the West Bank—a void that part of the Palestinian unstate, like Hamas, wants for Israel—and the secular part of Israel. As my sister, who lived in Israel on a left wing kibbutz near the Lebanese border from the sixties until her death this year, always said, “The Arabs will never drive us out of Israel. The Israelis might.”
This has nothing to do with Roger Waters and his long-standing attacks on Israel as an embodiment of the presence of Jews on earth. BDS is a movement and a point of view based on the conviction that Israel as a polity is illegitimate on its face. What follows from that, and what reveals the core of the position, is that Jews are as well. Otherwise academic organizations in the UK and to a lesser degree the US refusing to collaborate with Israeli colleagues, making Jewish scholars non-persons, might have sone meaning beyond a deeply-rooted suspicion of, or revulsion for, Jews—because if it were a moral position on human rights, why is there no such movement against Russia or China?
Enough, for the time being, other than to say that, regards Roger Waters, as my father used to say, that’s what makes horse races.
First off, apologies on my part last month for not first fact-checking Bob Seger’s inclusion in RnR HoF.
Not long ago, someone presented me with a disparaging quote that George Harrison had made about Yoko Ono, as though this in itself was justification for the many decades’ worth of misogyny and racism to which she’s been subjected, along with the weird sense of entitlement/ownership fanboys feel towards their male idols.
I countered the use of Harrison quote with the argument that Yoko’s contributions to music were likely far more reaching than any musical achievements during George’s solo career. George’s solo career contributions seem more organizational (Concert for Bangladesh, Traveling Wilburys, Rutles, Monty Python projects).
Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Diamanda Galás, Lene Lovich, Bjork and members of The B-52’s might be in agreement.
Would be curious to have you to weigh in on Yoko Ono’ music over the decades.
Thanks always for the time and thought you give to this column. —BILLY INNES
I think you only have to watch the footage in The Beatles: Get Back to see how her presence in the studio, as a kind of silent judge finding all around her wanting, insignificant, and inferior, when at the time both she and John were using heroin, which she later described as an act of “celebration of ourselves as artists,” a naming that quite clearly did not include such mere journeymen as P G & R, to understand how the other Beatles might not be altogether generous in their assessment of her contributions to the world. She has played an art saint all her adult life. She said as a professional widow for decades. Well before John Lennon was murdered she was an accomplished businesswoman, which didn’t hurt either of them.
As part of the Fluxus milieu she came up with some startlingly blank provocations. One certainly startled Lennon at the Indica gallery in London in 1966. Around the same time I saw her film Bottoms in a class on dada at Berkeley. I was mainly impressed by how she’d managed to round up all the people who took part. I think her music is negligible. I don’t doubt that as a multifaceted art figure she might have served as one of many role models—or art saints—for Kim Gordon. To say that she was an inspiration to the likes of Lene Lovich is about as meaningful as saying she wasn’t an inspiration for me. As for the B-52’s, you can hear that all over, and she can take credit for that. It’s not her fault that Fred Schneider is an even worse singer than she is.
But importance, meaning, value, whatever you want to call it, is not about influence—which usually means pumping up someone on the basis of their influence on people even less interesting than they are, which, with the exception of Kim Gordon, is certainly true for Ono. Sinead O’Connor’s death was reported today. She was always plain and proud to trumpet those who’d inspired her, as Amy Winehouse was. Did they influence anyone else? Or did they do their work in the country of their own affinities as if they were not like anyone else and didn’t need to be, as if their voices would both take care of themselves and spin through the ether long after they were gone? They will. Yoko Ono’s voice may—the ether’s taste is not mine.
On your visit to Tulsa this Spring, did you have the opportunity to do any Bob Dylan related research from his archives there? I recently read Clinton Heylin's new book on Dylan (Bob Dylan: A Double Life) and what intrigued me most were the outtakes from Eat The Document, none of which were used by Scorsese in No Direction Home. I doubt the public will ever see these clips from the '66 Tour, but they sound fascinating. Perhaps there is yet another Dylan book for you based on newly available material in Tulsa? —JAMES R STACHO
I didn’t have time to look at, let alone go into, the archives when I visited the Bob Dylan Center in June and I doubt I will when I’m back for a book event in late October. Some day—or week—I’d love to. Maybe. Or not.
I’ve seen Donn Pennebaker’s film of the same 1966 tour material, Something Is Happening. I think Eat the Document is better. But I’m not an an imperialist historian, putting bits of data together to prove superior knowledge. I like to listen, look, and read, and in an imaginative way try to see where that takes me, what untold stories then come to light. So in that sense I’m not sure I ever will go into the archives. I care less about what went into all the performances on Fragments, say, than what is there. And in any case I’m not going to write another book on Bob Dylan.
Have you ever read anything by Cornel West that you think is worth the time and effort to read? I’ve only ever read Race Matters, and now I’m wondering if I should re-read it with your recent words about him in your latest Real Life Top 10 in my mind. —BEN MERLISS
I'd swear one of your books contains perfect comments on the painting "Richard Wagner in Venice" by Vicente Garcia de Parades. I've searched through all I could find without locating it. Just give me a reference, please. And many thanks. —DAVE MOORE
I’ve never heard of it.
Enjoying your columns old and new very much and hoping this finds you well. As is often the case with David Thomson, I find that our passions often move in opposite directions, though this doesn’t make reading either of you any less thrilling. But then this pops up in your last Top Ten: “And moments outside of all of that, of transcendence: Country Joe and the Fish's "Section 43." Nice to know I’m not the only one. Thank you.
I think the subject of “rock novels” came up recently. Any chance you came across David Mitchell’s most recent novel Utopia Avenue? It was his attempt to create a story about a fictional rock band with the 1960s music scene in Soho as a backdrop, complete with the requisite cameos (some more successful than others). If not, has any of his work made any impression? —ROBERT GETZ
I haven’t read him. I’ve read too many novels about bands to want to read another one. The only one I remember with any real fondness is The Commitments. But thanks, I’ll take a look.
Two Woody Guthrie questions:
Would you consider Joe Klein’s 1980 Woody Guthrie bio essential reading in tandem with Guthrie’s own Bound For Glory?
You once said that Mermaid Ave. is not the way to discover Woody Guthrie. Which way is the way in your view? —BEN MERLISS
With Joe Klein’s book I never felt I was getting the full story. Guthrie’s father and the Klan. Guthrie’s response or lack of it to the Tulsa race massacre. Guthrie was a Communist Party militant who as a singer-propagandist did what he was told in terms of what songs to write and how they should be performed. I learned more about the CP milieu in the Oklahoma Federal Writers project in Robert Polito’s Jim Thompson biography, Savage Art, than I did about Guthrie’s CP milieu in Klein’s book.
I never read Bound for Glory. In the sixties in Berkeley it was one of those books everybody HAD to read, like Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and The Teachings of Don Juan and I made it a point never to read any of them.
As for Woody: “Dustbowl Ballads.” “Ludlow Massacre.” Daniel Wolff’s book, Grown-Up Anger: The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913.
Enjoy your writing and perception. Curious as to your thoughts on post-punk, either in the UK, or here in the United States? The political statements (The Sound/Gang of Four) or emotional statements via Hüsker Dü and Minutemen (replying to the GOP’s version of the United States) during the late seventies through the eighties. —KEVIN GRIMES
Umm... That’s sort of a big subject. I hate to say “it’s in the book” but I did publish a book on the territory, Ranters and Crowd Pleasers aka In the Fascist Bathroom in 1993 that grew out of a 1980 Rolling Stone piece on Gang of Four, the Raincoats, and Lora Logic, all of whom I’ve kept in touch with through all these years, and tried to keep up with in this last year’s Real Life Rock columns (with Lora’s new collection and album pending).
Come back with a more specific question, opinion, or argument and let’s talk more.
Additional reader exchanges re: Real Life Rock Top 10: Aug 1, 2023
Michael Daddino: I think [Lindsay] Zolandz's "imperial" almost certainly refers back to the phrase "imperial phase," used by Neil Tennant to describe a moment in the Pet Shop Boys' musical life when they were unstoppable. (Unanswerable?) An imperial phase is where a rock musician can do anything, this in a musical genre where anything is possible. (I know from your work these kinds of freedom can be liberatory and can be totalitarian.) It seems to me like Tennant has pointed to slightly different stages in the PSB's career as their imperial phase, but he's described it this way: "I felt at this time that we had the secret of contemporary pop music, that we knew what was required. We entered our imperial phase." Also: "'I think [Introspective] is our imperial album,' Neil reflects. 'The one where we felt, making it, that we understood the essence of pop music and so we felt we could do what we liked. And this was what we wanted to do. It's our best-selling album overall.'"
The phrase has gained currency among critical and fan circles thanks to Tom Ewing's 2010 Pitchfork essay on the concept (full disclosure: Tom is a friend, though I would never ever presume to speak for him) where he used it to make sense of Lady Gaga up to that moment, allowing some artists, like the Beatles, "feel too vast for the idea." Tennant certainly had the histories of Rome and Britain bouncing around his head when he first deployed the phrase this way, but today, when I search it on Google, mainly what I get is people talking about rock music, very frequently Beyoncé but also Gaga, Adele, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Britney Spears, Madonna, and even artists as negligible as Ed Sheerhan. Zolandz used it before to describe what happened to Drake after Take Care.
I think Zolandz' "imperial" has to be seen in this context as well as the context of Trump and DeSantis. I would never say "imperial" or "imperial phase" are utterly innocuous—I mean geez, for starters, "empire" is right there, staring at us. But I think the larger question is the more interesting and disturbing one: not so much "Why do people reach for this concept to describe Beyoncé right now?" as "Why have people been reaching for this concept to describe the creative lives of any number of artists, past and present, for the last 13+ years?"
Greil: It’s an interesting argument, and on Neil Tennant’s terms and yours Beyoncé is surely in imperial territory and has been for a long time. You could say the same for Taylor Swift or Rihanna. But none of them has presented herself as a ruler or a goddess. I think on those terms Lindsay Zoladz had exactly the right word.
Derick Schilling: Cornel West has made one lasting contribution to American culture: serving as the inspiration for "Professor Roland Sanders," the red-herring suspect in the murder of the [university president] at academic den-of-crime "Hudson University" in the wonderfully demented Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode "Anti-Thesis," a story that encompasses "Desolation Row" and Moby-Dick as it introduces Detective Goren to his nemesis Elizabeth Hitchens/Nicole Wallace. ("Sanders" was played by the late, great Reg E. Cathey.)
Greil: I love that episode, and the whole Nicole Wallace arc it kicked off. But so happy that West made a lasting contribution. And that that’s it.
David Everall: Reading the Oppenheimer entry and seeing the Dylanesque image featured I was reminded of a drawing I saw in a Bath Art Gallery a couple of months ago. It’s from 1922 by Paul Drury, best known as a second world war artist. It’s a self portrait I believe but I immediately thought of a young Bob. https://www.dropbox.com/s/sp1lnekcv2cjdu2/IMG_2821.HEIC?dl=0
Greil: Uncanny. I have a photo of my older grand-daughter’s great aunt as a child in a group class picture. Obviously after she died she came right back to life.
Peter Danakas: I guess if they're marking their foreverness in Paris, are they lamenting the cruel inescapability of fate and death in Clear Lake? Or hoping to escape it by this humble token of respect? Probably just a tribute to the "Three Stars." of course. The guitar solo of "La Bamba" usually gets me quite emotional because of the lost promise and unfulfilled potential it seems to express. It's so different from anything else from that time—longer, more complex, with a very liberating, rising feel. It could've been from twenty years later, really. Do you know if Valens played it or was it Carol Kaye, as I've read a few times ? Doesn't really matter anymore...
Greil: I’ve always thought that was one of the great guitar breaks—it’s the way it explodes out of the song, a runaway train. For me it was always of a piece with Buddy Holly’s guitar solo in “Peggy Sue”—up to that point the song is so measured, parceled out, and the suddenly it’s about a completely new dimension of feeling. And it would hurt to think that Valens didn’t play it. According to what seems to be a carefully researched or sourced Wikipedia entry on Carol Kaye—she’s still around at 88—she did play on “La Bamba”—acoustic rhythm guitar.