Ask Greil: January 30
I find it very interesting you thought the Sex Pistols were scary when you first heard them. I was born in the late nineties, and I probably first heard them on the radio or in a Tony Hawk video game. My reaction to them was always that they were very fun and carefree. Celebratory. Exciting. Comical. The only song I would consider scary by them is perhaps “Bodies.” Because the the lyrical content and Johnny Rotten's delivery. But I didn't hear that song until much later because that was a deeper cut.
So I guess my question is what about them scared you, because to me they seem so fun and kind of humorous and jokey. Like in “God Save the Queen” Johnny even laughs when he says "which I don't think I had." And the lyrics in that song are filled with sarcasm. I wonder if its because you didn't grow up with them and they were a totally new thing. Thanks again! Also I am now reading Lipstick Traces for the first time. —KELLAN
Sure the songs were funny. Cutting humor, cutting some people out, bringing some people in, drawing a line between us and them. Yes, it’s “Bodies”—and “Anarchy in the U.K.” I remember playing that in 1977 for Michael Lesy, author and creator of Wisconsin Death Trip, one of the most ferocious books of American history, another book on Chicago murders, a very dark and in some ways morbid guy—and scholar. He’d looked into the human heart and watched horror movies unspool there. He was unflinching. The Sex Pistols left him shaking: “I’ve never heard anything like that.” He didn’t want to hear it again. Some people reacted with indifference, some with a laugh, others with confidence and happy recognition: “That’s me!” And others as if the ground had suddenly opened up beneath their feet.
What are your views on the passing of David Crosby? Also, did you ever see the Cameron Crowe documentary David Crosby: Remember My Name? —BEN MERLISS
I never saw the movie. I liked him in the Byrds. I loved that cape he wore on their second album. I liked his smile, which his long hair at the sides and his mustache seemed to frame. I liked him saying, “You can’t bullshit the ocean, you know? It’s not listening.” I most of all liked him at Woodstock with Stills, Nash, and Young, with I think “Long Time Gone,” when he seemed so thrilled to be there, so moved by the crowd, that he almost fell off the stage. The Band played that night, and they were the people all the other musicians wanted to talk to, but Crosby & Co. were better. And I have never forgotten a story in the San Francisco Chronicle, by someone spending time with Crosby or following him around, about his crack addiction: a complete horror story, Crosby having reduced himself to something on the other side of human, on the phone with Bill Graham, begging him for money, screaming “BECAUSE I NEED MORE BASE!”
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I’ll admit I’ve always thought of Jeff Beck as “the other guy,” but with his passing, I’d like to share a link to what has become my favorite Beck performance, paired with ZZ Top (or at least Billy F. Gibbons) on a dynamite version of Tennessee Ernie’s “Sixteen Tons” (featuring a cameo by Ernie himself). —ROBERT MITCHELL
That's a great set up: Tennessee Ernie Ford looking more like Jack Parr than Merle Travis and Billy Gibbons can’t rise to his level. It’s a rhythm piece that demands to be acted out more than played. Chuck Berry might have gotten there, but not Ray Charles; Charlie Rich but not Bobby Bland. Aretha? And maybe Robert Mitchum. But the song doesn’t need Jeff Beck, fine as he looks.
Jeff Beck shocked me in the Yardbirds. What he did in “Shapes of Things” seemed unreal, but it erased the song. With the much stronger number “Mister You’re a Better Man Than I” he becomes part of the body of the song; he is the song. I admired him in the Jeff Beck Group but Rod Stewart was so good it was hard to listen to Jeff Beck. Listen to their “I’ve Been Drinking.” It’s built to showcase the solo but when it comes, and the rest of the instrumentation builds to it, it’s a distraction. Maybe that’s why for so long that record, buried as a B side, was almost impossible to hear.
I’m glad he carried on. I would have thought he was pretty much forgotten. A full page obituary in the New York Times almost didn’t make sense. Someone there loved him.
A memory, though: In June 1966, we went to a small place in Brixton, in London, to see the Yardbirds: the Ram Jam Club. Before bands came on they played only reggae—its rock steady form. We had no idea what it was but it slithered through the room. Then a soul band called the Heatwaves came on. They were good. They built their set so that when they ended with “Heatwave” it was pure satisfaction.
By this time it was late and the place was so hot and steamy it felt like sweat was pouring down the walls. The Yardbirds came on and the reality of the night took a step up. They were both explosive and careful, anarchic and precise. It was an unstable combination of values and it seemed to make every song feel like a risk, where anything could happen.
When they finished everyone was milling about. Two beautiful Swedish women went up to Jeff Beck, gave him huge smiles, talked for a minute, and then one of them asked Beck for his guitar. As a souvenir: “I will take it home,” she said. I was shocked. There was something so condescending, so trivializing of the show, along with a sort of implicit transaction that she wasn’t trading sex for the guitar, it wasn’t worth that much, but merely by appearing before him offering him the priceless opportunity to keep her in his mind forever as an unobtainable erotic object. Something like that. I could see him freeze with rage. He picked up his guitar and proceeded to smash it to bits. Then he kicked the pieces to the back of the stage and walked off. The women acted insulted. I liked that as much as any solo I heard heard him play.
Knowing how fond you are of unexpected connections/synchronicities, I thought you might appreciate that just a few hours before I read your response to Peter Tobia regarding Dylan's "Walkin' with a toothache in my heel" [Jan. 3] I had a thrown-away joke from the middle of an old Woody Allen stand-up bit echoing in my head for no apparent reason: "I had gone to my dentist, but I had a deep cavity, and he'd sent me to a chiropodist."
Hope your health is continuing to improve—take care. —CHARLES OLVER
Apparently that theme will echo forever. With no evidence I’ve always thought it was a plantation folk remedy. Toothache? Mustard greens potion on the heel!
I just finished Folk Music for the second time. It was so rich that as soon as I finished it, I started again from the beginning. My favorite chapter, I think, is “Ain’t Talkin’”—which like so many roads in American music goes back to minstrel music. You cite Eric Lott and Constance Rourke. Are there any other writings about minstrel music you find valuable? Have you read Dale Cockrell’s Demons of Disorder or W. T. Lhamon’s Raising Cain? —CHUCK
The treasure chest for me is in Rip Lhamon’s collections of minstrel play scripts, songs, and doggerel, including many very long, complex epic dramas by T.D. Rice, challenging racial roles and identities as no politician ever has: Jump Jim Crow.
Rock and Roll Will Stand... terrific edit.
Did Steve Strauss write anything/more? —DAVID AMES
Despite the fact that we were the same age, Steve Strauss wrote his wonderful essay "A Romance on Either Side of Dada"—my title; I don't remember the original—when I was a TA and he was a student in Political Science at Cal, in 1967 or 1968. It was a centerpiece of Rock and Roll Will Stand; I recall Mick Jones of the Clash, the one time I met him, in San Francisco in 1978, telling me he'd found a copy in a used bookstore in Marin County.
Steve went on to form the band Wolfgang and Strauss, and then in 1971, in San Francisco, the Blue Bear School of Music, which remains a thriving institution: you can find all about it, with many pictures of Steve, here.
Steve died in 2012, with a real legacy.
Hi Greil—First off, thanks for Lipstick Traces, a life-changing book when I stumbled upon it just after it came out, and Under the Red, White, and Blue, which was the most incisive and compelling work of non-fiction I read last year. Two stellar reading experiences, thirty years apart: bravo.
I just finished The Philosophy of Modern Song and was amused and bemused by it—I treated each entry as a sort of prose poem, and found much of it fascinating. I'm wondering if there were any entries in the book that particularly struck you or gave you a fresh insight or thought, either about Dylan or the song in question.
Grateful regards — GREGORY CROSBY
I wrote about The Philosophy of Modern Song as Buried Treasure here, focusing on Johnny Paycheck’s “Old Violin,” which I hadn’t known. I was entranced by the chapter on “The Whippenpoof Song,” about the ruling class and proletarian revolution, as if this one song was the means of production in and of itself. But especially Dylan on Uncle Dave Macon’s “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy” and the mysteries of “A ham of meat.” That I didn’t write about and I will.
I think a great contribution would be for someone to track down all the record store photos and see what kind of map of the USA they’d make.
So glad you read Under the Red White and Blue.
Now that I’ve given you my take on Alex Halberstadt’s biography of Doc Pomus [Jan. 16], I just want to clarify that you are under no obligation to take my word for it. I’m too young to have lived his music the same way you and your contemporaries have. And if you ended up reading the book and disagreeing with me I would be fine with that. In fact I would be curious to know what your points of disagreement would be if it so happened you had any. Now for my next question:
You mentioned in your History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs that you believed Brian Epstein’s death to be a suicide. Having just finished Debbie Geller’s oral biography In My Life on your recommendation (and it was a superb read) I noticed that practically no one who comments on his death in the book seems to share that view. What is your theory on why Epstein’s death was a likely (as you put it) suicide?
Also, do you know how I could watch Anthony Wall’s accompanying complete documentary. There’s an abridged version on YouTube with unforgivable sound gaps which I chose not to finish.
Finally, I don’t know if you’re into graphic novels but I can’t help wondering if you ever read or considered reading The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story (2013) written by Vivek Tiwary and drawn by Andrew Robinson and Kyle Baker. This graphic novel was released to critical acclaim, at least one award, and endorsements from Dave Marsh and Billy J. Kramer. —BEN MERLISS
Both Debbie Geller (who produced Anthony Wall’s film) and perhaps more vehemently Anthony (who edited Debbie’s book) believed Brian Epstein died by suicide. To Wall it was because Epstein felt he had no future with the Beatles and no future without them. He was not acting rationally: at one point he tried to sell the Beatles’ management contract to Robert Stigwood. “I think he topped himself,” Anthony said. There were rumors of the Kray Brothers blackmailing Epstein over his homosexuality and trying to take over the group.
The full, three hour The Brian Epstein Story is a work of great depth and compassion, even love, and Anthony is no sentimentalist. It showed at its full length at some Jewish film festivals at the time of its initial release, but otherwise has been limited here by the atrocious chopped up version. I’ll ask Anthony about possibilities, but for the moment I’d look into buying a UK DVD or contacting Arena/BBC to see about availability.
Hello Greil! So glad you're feeling both better and voluble!
Clearly a small group of artists have bound you by their gravity over the years; the ones I'm thinking of are non-Mystery Train / post-Pistols. If you had another 50 years to write (I wish you did) and surveyed the current line-up of provocative artists who've just begun to draw you in, whom do you speculate you'd be bound in your writing over that span? —PHIL OVEREEM
As Lou Reed and Charlotte Pressler put it, those were different times. And to me it’s a book I already wrote, or tried to, with Ranters and Crowd Pleasers, aka In the Fascist Bathroom—the pieces on Gang of 4, the Raincoats, Essential Logic, Kleenex and Liliput, the Au Pairs, Delta 5, and the Mekons. Since then? Heavens to Betsy, Sleater-Kinney, and Cat Power. A book I’ll never write.
Your recent discussion of the Canadian Content policy piqued my interest. I'm not in favour of mandating what radio stations play, and I'm not about to argue whether "If You Wanna Be Happy" could have been a hit in Finland. But... as a Canadian of a certain age I know that CanCon offers, or used to offer, its own pleasures, especially once you left the middle of the dial. In the '70s, Canadian Top 40 radio could get away with playing "Heartbeat—It's a Lovebeat" every hour, but on a country station you might hear "The French Girl"; later on, maybe some brave FM new wave DJ would play a Battered Wives record. That was a real band, and they did get played, however occasionally—say all you want about socialist regimes and approval by committee, the fact is that the government's main concern seemed to be that stations met their Canadian content quota, not what that content was.
What I liked best about CanCon was the effect it had on the oldies stations, which had to get creative. I heard "The Stones I Throw" by Levon and the Hawks before I read Mystery Train. Without CanCon, I might never have heard "Any Other Way" and consequently never learned of the remarkable Jackie Shane (American, but resided and recorded in Toronto—CanCon rules were actually pretty inclusive that way). I'd probably never have heard "Does Your Mama Know About Me?" Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers' doo-wop miscegenation ballad (featuring Tommy Chong... original band name: Four Niggers and a Chink).
CanCon, in its own way, pulled these songs from obscurity, which was worth having to hear Bobby Curtola sing "Johnny Take Your Time" every couple of weeks. —STEVE O’NEILL
Can't and never would argue against anything that brings strange sea creatures to the surface. A lot to listen to here. Mainly to find out what the Battered Wives could be—and the last thing I was expecting was late '50s doo-wop from a seventies punk scene. Perfect.
Enjoyed the back and forth with Jon Landau on the Rock Hall, and I saw in the comments section that you do in fact receive a ballot each year. Which leads to the question: what in fact is your own criteria? You cite Phil Spector, noting that some artists "made contributions," but how do you measure that? Is it entirely personal?
And are there instances where an artist with one or two great songs, and not much else, would in your opinion be worthy of inclusion?
I ask as someone who would love to see the Shangri-Las, Lesley Gore, and Dionne Warwick and dozens more... My problem is I wouldn't know where to begin or more to the point where to STOP. —TERRY
With my older daughter weighing in I tend to vote for women who are not sure things. One-hit-wonders are fine, even better than that, but there has to be some kind of story, a mythos, surrounding it. I mentioned the Big Bopper and "Chantilly Lace." The record was a huge hit, a drooling catch-phrase, "THAT'S WHAT I LIKE!" "BABY, YOU KNOW WHAT I LIKE!" Everybody responded, it was impossible not to like. That he went down in the same plane with Buddy Holly and Richie Valens, both of whom have had good movies made about them, made him immortal, but Jim Dodge's Not Fade Away went far deeper, placing him at the center of a journey as much about the pursuit of a true America as Easy Rider or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And I'd put Alphaville in there for "Big in Japan" alone, even if "Forever Young," fast or slow, was their real hit. And a-ha for "Take on Me." They both have an aura. They both stand outside, looking in. But Beyoncé and even Twisted Sister will be in there and they never will be.
Dear Mr. Marcus: I wanted to simply thank you for writing about music I love with real depth and intelligence. I treasure my yellowing and somewhat crispy paperback edition of Mystery Train. It blew my mind when I first read it as a teenager. It still maintains its place in my heart. I am a semi-retired English teacher working in Brooklyn's high schools since 1988. You inspired me to develop a class called the History of Rock and Roll in my school, which incorporated music from Robert Johnson to early 1990's hip-hop. I loved seducing my students into caring about and appreciating the history and power of music. I was able to open my kids eyes and inspire them to think and express themselves through writing connected to the artists and songs we covered. You showed me that my love of all music and especially Rock and Roll was something legitimately important and powerful. I'm about to turn 58 and I realize that music lead me to so many of my interests and truly shaped who I am. I write short stories from time to time and eventually plan to “do a Greil Marcus.” In other words, I'm planning to start writing about the music I love and why it has had such an effect on me. Most of the artist you wrote about in Mystery Train had a profound impact on my life and thinking (Elvis, Sly & the Family Stone, the Band). I also have deep and meaningful connections to the music of Miles Davis and the Grateful Dead. Please forgive my rambling. My intention was to offer a quick and sincere thank you. Much like my favorite music, you sir, opened my eyes to an intriguing world of wonder and magic. —DEMETRIUS KANAKIS
Many thanks for your kind words. That book is still alive for me too. And I think Robert Johnson is still rewriting it.
Why was the name of the Basement Tapes book changed from Invisible Republic? I always thought that idea was pretty eye-opening for me but was it too abstract for a title? —RICHARD DENNIS
I go into this is some detail in the introduction to the 2011 edition of The Old Weird America. The short of it is that my original title was just that. Neither my American or U.K. editor liked it. I wrote up a list of about 20 titles and they both picked Invisible Republic. Then almost every review or comment or pull quote regarding the book, for years, used the phrase “the old weirdAmerica,” from the title of the chapter on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. For that matter it became a generic term, as if it had always been in circulation. As if I hadn’t made it up, which was fair enough: it was my rewrite of the poet Kenneth Rexroth’s “the old free America.” And no one other than Bob Dylan was able to remember the title: “Invisible Empire”? “Invisible Music”? “Mystery Republic”? So the first chance I had I changed the title to what I’d wanted in the first place. Then I couldn’t remember what to call it and neither could anyone else. I should have let it be.
Hi Greil. I hope you’re well. I’m recovering from a major concussion so I empathize with your situation.
Anyway, it seems to me that everyone wants to trash Dylan for doing a Christmas LP. A few thoughts:
1) Sure, it’s kind of a mess, but it’s sort of his Self-Portrait of Xmas music, and I like it, not all of it, like I like the fun parts of Self-Portrait.
2) Last Xmas I worked some hours on a big box store that played Xmas music constantly. It drove all of us crazy, and it was pretty much all schlock, except for the occasional Ella or Dean Martin performance.
When I left work, I immediately played the Dylan CD, specifically “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” because its roughness was a perfect antidote to the schlock I’d been living with.
If I could make a video that would capture the heart of that performance,
it would start with a long shot of a desolate city street. The camera would move in to a box underneath a lamppost. As it got closer, you would see Bob Dylan huddling for warmth in the box, singing “I’ll be Home for Christmas” to himself. The song would end and the camera would pull back and we would see that nothing had changed, still no people, still just a guy in a box singing about a Xmas he may or may not have ever experienced. That’s what Dylan’s voice captures/suggests in that song.
Did you have any reactions to any performances on Heart? There’s not much there, I know.
My first reaction was, I went out Christmas caroling too with my Boy Scout troop, but I wouldn’t want to listen to a record of it. Christmas was a big deal in my family. But I wouldn’t want to watch home movies of anyone else’s Christmas.
I had Christmas in the Heart for years and never played it. I wasn’t curious. I just didn’t see the point. Then one day I heard “I’ll Be Home” and heard it as soul music, just like Dean Martin’s “Return to Me.”
Favorite Christmas album other than Phil Spector’s: an old Columbia LP called A Music Box Christmas, Christmas melodies played on 19th-century music boxes. You can find it on eBay for $10—just checked.
FYI for reader BEN MERLISS: https://www.thevideobeat.com/music-documentaries/brian-epstein-story-1-2.html Bought it several years ago. Good quality. Pretty certain it's the original UK version.
Interesting to hear you speak on T.D. Rice. I drew a similar conclusion from Lhamon's "Jump Jim Crow" in New Literary History, and Lott's idea that blackface was (paraphrasing), 'a symbolic resolution to an intractable social dilemma'--negotiating racism through "magic," or magical thinking, mimesis.
On the subject of magical thinking, I have a dilemma of my own: there's an apocryphal story that Rice was imitating a "Jim Crow" dance he once saw performed by an Afro-American stablehand, and the stablehand was in turn imitating an Afro-American trickster figure, the Crow. In other words, the racial imitation act (blackface, and later rock n' roll) that eventually led to the end of Jim Crow segregation, and is once again a signifier for racism itself, was derived from an Afro-American trickster myth.
This seems too sublimely poetic and ironic to be true. I'm tempted to believe that Rice was unwittingly attracted to the symbolic power of a trickster (a mediator like Skip Gates' Elegba, wearing a black-and-white mask in Signifying Monkey). However it seems far more plausible that I'm the one attracted to magical thinking--projecting myths and anthropological concepts onto a minstrel performer. That may be how the apocryphal story about Rice imitating a stablehand imitating the Crow got started in the first place.
It's my understanding that--regardless of how Rice stumbled upon it--Jim Crow was an actual character in Afro-American lore, and he was named after a West African trickster figure, the Crow.
So how to explain the incredible coincidence that the inspiration for Rice's "Jim Crow," which stirred-up talk of abolition, came to signify racial segregation, then upended it, and is now synonymous with racism itself, was an African trickster figure? Is this historical accuracy, or apocrypha?
Please help. I'm stuck in Ouroboros, the snake is eating its tail. Tell me where to read.