Ask Greil: December 22, 2022
I am reading your book Mystery Train for the first time, and I had some questions for you.
On page 74 of the sixth revised edition, you write, "Riot matters because it doesn't just define the wall; it makes the wall real." And that line made me think of another album, Pink Floyd's The Wall. So I was wondering what you think of that album and that band and their concept of the wall and how it relates to the wall you are describing.
My other question is, did you ever consider writing about the Grateful Dead's American Beauty or Workingman's Dead for Mystery Train? Because those albums are all about folklore and American myths and tales. Thank you for your time. —KELLAN STANINGER
Pink Floyd were an interesting, undefinable band at the start. Their 1967 single, “See Emily Play,” told you something about them: they were playful. They valued moments that didn’t have to carry meaning. By the time of The Wall they were trading in wisdom. The wall was a conceit ( l meant to write “concept” but the word that popped up instead may be closer). When Sly Stone chanted “Frightened faces to the wall” it wasn’t a metaphor. Cops screamed “Up against the wall” at black people and you did it or you were beaten. Maybe you were shot.
I liked Workingman’s Dead but it was also, honestly, helplessly, a paint-by-numbers version of The Band. So for me there was so point in bringing it up—anymore than there was any reason to talk about Gary Busey’s group Carp, which was the same thing only more so and much worse. Busey went on to turn himself into an instantly credible on-screen Buddy Holly; then it was drugs and alcohol and years as a puddle of abasement at the feet of Donald Trump.
I can’t tell you how good it feels to hear that someone is reading a book I wrote nearly fifty years ago for the first time. I hope it’s worth yours.
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Greil -- I'm very interested in any thoughts you might have on the new Sight & Sound poll/list of the greatest films ever, just published last week [Dec. 1]: the ascension of Chantal Ackerman's Jeanne Dielman to #1, the much greater presence of female and black directors in the Top 100, the inclusion of much newer films, the disappearance of The Godfather Part II, Raging Bull, The Magnificent Ambersons, and others...All the stuff people have been arguing about all week. —ALAN VINT
I'm not the perfect person to answer this. I've never seen Jeanne Dielman, so maybe that disqualifies me from the start. I always thought the idea of Vertigo as the greatest film of all time was a joke—I'd rather watch North by Northwest (which is on this list) or The 39 Steps any time. If I were compiling a vote, I'd keep it to those movies that when I saw them said to me "This is what a movie can be!" and let me understand the form, the ambition it called for, the opening of infinite possibilities in telling a story and leaving behind a work that would thrill and trouble the minds of generations to come. For me, pictures that did this are Sunrise, The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Godfather, City Lights, Citizen Kane, Way Down East (Griffith, 1920, not on list unless I missed it), The Lass from the Stormy Croft (directed byVictor Sjöström in 1917—not on the list), and Bonnie and Clyde (not on the list, unless again I missed it). And a few more. Otherwise it's just favorites and consensus and not wanting to seem uncool. If such a list has any use at all, it's to lead people to movies they might never have heard of or would never been otherwise inclined to see—Sunrise being the great example. But really, it's all bean counting. I don't like lists. I hate the internet meme of "The 10 Funniest Things JFK Ever Said, Ranked!" And that's what this is. I'd prefer something like "A few movies you might want to see after you're dead."
I decided to check out the audio version of Folk Music, available through Audible, and narrated by Ian Porter. I can't get far into it, though, not because Porter's reading is off in any way (this is not a criticism of him) but because I'm too familiar with your own voice, having heard you on dozens of interviews over the years. Having someone else recite your words is just not connecting for me. Your 'voice' comes through stronger on the page.
So, a couple questions. Have you ever thought about or been approached to narrate any of your own books? Have you ever indulged in a work of criticism by hearing as opposed to reading it? (I recall you were a fan of a Philip Roth audiobook, but are there others?) —TERRY
It hasn't come up regarding my reading my own books for audio editions. Given the great job Henry Rollins did for The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs I'd defer to him any time. With Folk Music I was given three audition tapes and chose one. I couldn't have done it in any case. At that point my speech was ridiculously halting. I could barely string two sentences together.
Yes, I loved Arliss Howard's reading of Philip Roth's The Human Stain. I tried a couple of others on driving trips and gave up after a chapter. While I can still read I will.
What do you think of Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series releases? I've been a hungry fan for many decades and am finally starting to feel like I don't need to consume as much as they are now offering. There is a 5-CD Time Out Of Mind release coming out in a couple months. This is in addition to the 3-CD Tell Tale Signs which also covered this era. Do we need four or more versions of these 11 songs? And there is an even a deeper dive into Blood On The Tracks and the three giant mid-’60s albums. Sure we all choose which ones we purchase. But, for the avid fan who wants to keep up with this, does having this much out there diminish the original releases on some level? —BOB
I think very much no. The sets illuminate, expand, play with possibilities. Some will tire some people—I think the Blood on the Tracks set does show what a mistake the original sessions were, and there are no outtakes of the Minnesota sessions, showing how the band broke out of the prison of the first versions of songs, and as I don’t want to listen to the Christian material other than “Pressing On”—the songs are ideological, or as BD said in an interview, very possibly lies—the set devoted to that time is far too much of a bad thing. The Witmark Demos set is for completists only and presents itself as such—it’s fascinating as a document if you’re interested in documents, which I am but you can probably live without. But I can tell you that the forthcoming Fragments box from the Time Out of Mind sessions is both endlessly pleasurable and, again and again, a revelation. Fun and deep all at once. I can’t wait to write about it.
Bob Dylan just concluded a long European tour in Dublin. Friends who attended this show and a previous one in London raved about the performances, however they said his movements, at 81, appear quite unsteady, even frail. There are rumors that the R&R shows that extend into 2023 may be it. Having first seen him in 1964 and last at The Beacon November 2021, one retains the delusion that the shows will indeed never end. Any feelings about the end of BD performances? —VINCENT
He's 81. It's common for people 81 to walk like it, especially after putting great effort to put songs across, sitting and standing at a piano for an hour and a half. Your legs get stiff. Your arms, too. Your neck is crooked.
Bob Dylan's whole career has been a series of rumors. Don't believe half of what you read and anything that you hear. The notion that someone, even Dylan, has mapped out Dylan's future, even Dylan himself, through the end of next year, and then "that's it," is silly. How many retirement tours did Smokey Robinson do? No, I don't have any feelings about end of of Bob Dylan performances. Or thoughts and prayers.
Anyway, to my knowledge he hasn't performed "Murder Most Foul" onstage yet.
Did you ever read Alex Halberstadt's biography of Doc Pomus, Lonely Avenue, and if so what's your view on it? —BEN MERLISS
I haven’t. How is it?
I hope this finds you feeling better with each week. If you’ve already addressed this, please lead me to where I can read your thoughts.
I was wondering what you think and how you feel about Nick Cave’s Ghosteen album. As one who’s listened closely and had many emotions stirred by all of its songs, this album is the exception to David Bowie’s line, “Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry.”
With that, I’d like to know your thoughts on Ghosteen.
Best always —BILLY INNES, Benicia, California
I don't mean to be snide. The music can be transporting, dream-like, something I can picture Lana Del Rey in front of. I envy your reaction. But for a song to make me break down and cry, it has to be sung.
Thanks for your kind thoughts.
Have you by any chance heard of a band called His Lordship? I hadn't until last week, when I saw them supporting (and almost upstaging) Jason Isbell in London. I'm not going to try and categorize them, except to say that I think they might be the sort of thing you'd be interested in. Maybe. For me, they were incredibly exciting: I wish I'd turned up earlier and caught their whole set. They did a crazy version of Santo and Johnny's “Sleepwalk”—rather than, say, their cover of “Wild One”—as a tribute to Jerry Lee Lewis, which was quite special. Here they are from earlier this year.
What do you think? —LUCAS HARE
I hadn’t heard, and I can’t say their name would have ever led me to listen, but their “Red Hot” is as hot as it could be. I love James Walbourne’s guitar solos, especially the second-to-last where he goes down low. Interestingly, Peter Guralnick’ s new book The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Illustrated Story of Sun Records, includes pages devoted to both Billy ‘The Kid’ Emerson’s original and the much wilder version by Billy Lee Riley and His Little Green Men. I confess the first time I heard Riley screaming—
“My gal is red hot!
“Your gal ain’t doodely squat!”
—somewhere around 1970, I was totally shocked. It’s not exactly a secret what that means, or if there’s a more graphic way to say it.
I enjoyed Folk Music, and can relate to the last two paragraphs, having been in the audience for “Mr. Tambourine Man” at Newport ‘64 and having hung out with John Hurt in a coffee house back room in the ‘60s (I have his autograph on a Gaslight menu). Is there a reason you did not name the younger singer Bob refers to? Smart that you didn't, leaves the question more universal. —ED GRAZDA
Right. I didn’t name him because I didn’t want to trade on his name to pump up the line, and because I didn’t want what Dylan said to read as any kind of personal disparagement.
Lucky you to have been there, and there. I’m very glad that you, knowing the territory, liked the book.
I’ve been catching up with your More Real Life Rock book, and found your lovely Aretha Franklin tribute (August 22, 2018). You talked about sitting in a London pub in 1967 next to a businessman who was utterly transfixed by hearing “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)” come on the jukebox, to the point of shouting “Did you hear that? Can you believe that?” at the end. This sounded eerily familiar to me, so I tried to recall where I heard something like it, and then I remembered reading the wonderful anecdote that ends Christoph Wolff’s (dry, but not dull) biography Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician.
The year was 1789. Twenty-three-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, then the hottest composer on the continent, made a trip from Vienna to Leipzig (where Bach lived and worked for the later part of his life). At this point, Bach was almost 40 years in his grave, not so much forgotten as barely ever known outside a 50-mile radius from where he was born. Bach’s successor as musical director at the St. Thomas School was Johann Fredric Doles, and he invited Mozart to a recital where (in Doles' words) the following event occurred:
The choir surprised Mozart with the performance of the double chorus motet “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” by Sebastian Bach. Mozart knew this master more by hearsay than by his works, which had become quite rare; at least his motets, which had never been printed, were completely unknown to him. Hardly had the choir sung a few measures when Mozart sat up, startled; a few measures more and he called out “What is this?” And now his whole soul seemed to be in his ears. When the singing was finished he cried out, full of joy: “Now there is something one can learn from!”
His whole soul seemed to be in his ears. Isn’t that it in a nutshell? It’s known that Mozart embraced counterpoint (a favorite Baroque technique) in the later part of his life, possibly stemming from this initial encounter. I’d like to think that the businessman you sat beside quit his job the next day, got a soul band together (a la The Commitments) and spent the rest of his life chasing the sound he heard in that London pub. —JAMES L.
What a great story! And a great fantasy about the businessman, singing “I Never Loved a Man” to this day. Or with his last breath.
Will there be a german translation of your new book? —REINHARD SUEDHOFF
Not as of yet. Write your favorite German publisher and tell them what they're missing--
In reply to the question about groups having natural empathy, you mention The Youngbloods. [See 11/25] I've always liked them, though I never saw them live (I don't think they ever played in the UK, and their later records weren't released here). The two official live albums, Rock Festival and Ride the Wind were pretty good, though uneven, and the first three studio albums were excellent. Can you expand on what you like about them, and would you recommend any of the semi-official live/radio broadcast CDs?It's a pity that they're most remembered for “Get Together” (nice version, but tiresome song). —CLIVE SYKES
They just popped into my head. It’s for their first titled-after-themselves 1967 album (say “self-titled,” as everybody does, you mean they named the album, whatever the title may be). I’d never heard a band so tight. It was as if they were one person. Especially on “Four in the Morning.” So it seemed to me they were all looking out for each other in the act of listening to and watching each other. I lost track after “Darkness, Darkness,” when they became a Marin County band. And probably I should have named ‘The Weight.” The singer feels sorry for himself, but the other guys in the band, tossing the chorus around, sure feel his pain. Even if they’re sort of making fun of him too.
Don’t know if you’ve ever heard this. “Saturday Night Stroll” recorded duet featuring Jimmie Davis and Oscar Woods. Country, Blues, Gospel, Spoken Word and more. Cinematic in nature with several acts. Quite a tale is told with a gamut of changing musical styles as the backdrop. And they sing together, I have yet to tire of hearing it. Talk about Old Weird America! Thanks for all your insightful writing through the years. —ELLIOTT MAJERCZYK
That's wonderful—especially the subtle steel guitar work. It reminds me of one of the great lost blues masterpieces, with the perfect title "Old Country Rock," by William Moore, from 1928—the same laconic delivery, the hidden sting ("Too sad," Moore says in the middle of this account of a town frolic, "Everybody rock, grandpa rock," and down the line, "Too sad for the public"). What a strange character Jimmie Davis was, born in 1899, died 2000, governor of Louisiana in the ‘40s and the ‘60s, mostly on the basis of "You Are My Sunshine" (which of course it was always claimed he didn't write but stole—and if his great love was black music, when he took his second term it was as a flaming racist, running against the populist Earl Long) (see A. J. Liebling's The Earl of Louisiana). The best writing on him is in Nick Tosches's Country, and Toru Mitsui's entry in The Encyclopedia of Country Music. The only biography is Toru's, published only in Japan. Toru was a close friend, translator of Mystery Train—really, editor, who prepared fabulously illustrated and annotated editions in Japanese. He spent a lot of time with Davis in Louisiana, who he described to me as unfailingly courtly with a perfect memory, and it's a crime that his work is not available in English. But this is a gem. As you say, just about all of life in a little more than three minutes.