Ask Greil: March 6
Loved the phrase "chilly elegance" in your piece about Donovan. Spot on description of the music but also the comedown after the heat of the peak. Do you have a favorite cover of "Season of the Witch"? —JIM RULAND
I had to dig around to even open up the question. I never saw the Nicolas Cage movie or the early ‘70s George Romero movie, but on the basis of the trailer it might be up there with the worst films ever made. I didn’t buy the David Talbot book—I mean, I read it, and it seemed like a contrived thesis hyped up beyond all comprehension: the writer’s comprehension. He didn’t seem to know what he was talking about and didn’t seem to care. He missed the terrible emotional crash of the worst of San Francisco in the People’s Temple-Dan White apocalypse—it was all just grist for his mill.
So that leaves music: cover versions. Lana Del Rey is a terrible disappointment: vague, not even searching for a point of view. Hole’s Unplugged session version starts out with some blood and then it’s as if Courtney Love realizes she has to get through the whole thing and checks out even as she keeps going through the motions. I’d forgotten the of-the-time Julie Driscoll and Al Kooper Super Session versions because they’re so forgettable. And the problem becomes clear.
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Donovan’s original is so distinctive, so insistent in its capture of a real-life cultural verge, that anyone trying to take it up on their own terms is instantly defeated. Either you find yourself helplessly following the Donovan blueprint, like Driscoll, or trying to invent some hopelessly off approach, like Vanilla Fudge.
So the only one that works for me is the longest, the most boring and the funniest, not to say that there’s any competition in that: the Masked Marauders’ ten minute fake duet between Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger followed by endless guitar solos over Langdon Winner’s cool jazz piano runs. First it’s like, WHAT??? and then you kind of relax into it, on the assumption it’s never going to end. When it does it just stops.
In the comments on the Donovan column [link], one person put out Richard Thompson's version as The One. To me he goes histrionic to keep up with the song. And he tries too hard to make it elegant, not some pop song. Another person imagined Donovan in "a cutting contest with Them-era Van Morrison and is getting his ass handed to him until he pulls out ‘Season of the Witch.' He wins by acclimation and is given a crown of roses by a unicorn." I'd pay to see that.
I think the Doors could have pulled it off.
Thank you for this forum. Every night lately I get so pissed off watching the news. Not because there are so many awful people ruining our country but because DONALD TRUMP IS NOT YET IN JAIL. My friend says they're still "building a case" but I call bullshit. We've had two years of this crap since Trump left office. What say you? —B HESS
I think Trump may be indicted in Georgia, for election subversion, and New York, for illegal payments in the Stormy Daniels case. Given his successful track record of appealing to higher courts over every procedural and technical point, I think it’s questionable whether either case would ever go to trial, though even some Trump-appointed judges have not been sympathetic to his claims, the Supreme Court has rejected all of his election-related claims (with some exceptions for Alito and Thomas), so they might. Getting a conviction will be extremely difficult. A lot will depend on what the judge will allow into evidence (with every decision against Trump litigated as far as possible). Juries will be aware of the lack of precedent for trying a former president and will be circumspect rather than blood thirsty.
Should Trump be convicted, every aspect of the judgement will be litigated and relitigated in every way possible. Given that the charges do not include murder or other crimes of violence, it’s extremely unlikely that Trump would be held in jail pending the outcome of his appeals.
At the Justice Department, regardless of the vast difference in quantity, quality, cooperation, and motive regarding possession of classified documents, that case has been compromised by the discovery of some at least formally similar material held by Biden and Pence (and perhaps others). Even if the special prosecutor recommends action it’s unlikely Garland would authorize prosecution because it would look illegitimate if no charges were brought against Biden and Pence and Garland might be very dubious that he would win.
That leaves the Big Kahuna: charges related to the January 6 riots, which could range from incitement to conspiracy to insurrection to treason. There are already recommendations for prosecution from the January 6 committee. Whether or not such a prosecution would succeed and produce any guilty verdict, the legitimacy of the Constitution and any notion of equal justice is at issue. At the least, some charges would have to be brought, and the Justice Department would have to fight without limits to bring Trump to trial. Otherwise Garland would be saying that, yes, some people are, if not above, beyond the law. Trump has lived his whole life as if that’s true, because in his case it has been. He’s not scared. Garland probably is. I think he would have no choice but to proceed, even in an election year, but I could be wrong.
I was surprised a few years ago in Ask Greil to read you say a few positive words about It's Only Rock and Roll (the album), so I have to ask if you had or still have strong feelings either way about those other two casually dismissed Stones records from the period, Goats Head Soup and Black and Blue. I stump for both albums. GHS is weirder than Satanic Majesties Request without trying, and B&B is very cannily steeped in r&b and other black styles of the period (the reggae cover "Cherry Oh Baby" is a mistake, though). Neither touches Exile or Some Girls but what does?
Did critics who panned these records at the time just have unrealistic expectations? Thanks in advance! —PAOLO
They may not be as empty as Emotional Rescue, but to me there’s only one memorable song on each album—I mean one that sticks in the mind as opposed to dissipating in a cloud of pointlessness and vagueness. On Black & Blue, “Memory Motel,” in the shadings of Jagger’s singing, is about memory, about the way you know that what seems most precious and unforgettable in the moment may be forgotten anyway, leaving only a shadow in the mind: some image lingers, you can’t focus it, it connects to nothing, and you say, why am I almost remembering this? And the music captures that just as fully. It’s unbearably romantic, and just as hopeless.
On Goats Head Soup (and these titles are so stupid) it’s “Heartbreaker.” Addressing a really bad social problem: a pre-teen black female heroin addict who died in the gutter. It was obvious to a lot of people that from the cheapness of the noisy music and the smear of Jagger’s plug-in vocal that no one in the band gave a damn about the girl whose “mother said she had no chance—no chance.” But who’s to say Mick Jagger didn’t care? The despair and refusal and the spectre of a world of stone in Jagger’s tone in that second “no chance” says the opposite. And the groove is irresistible. The song is just what it says it is, a heartbreaker.
What do you think of Del Shannon? The early ‘60s rocker who tragically committed suicide 30 years after his historic hit record “Runaway” is the subject of a new comprehensive box set of all his recordings. He never could duplicate the success of that first hit record, so his life became a Twilight Zone episode where the Faustian bargain of having a hit song became the curse of having to perform that same hit over and over whenever he played a show. Not even latter day admirers like Tom Petty who produced a couple of his final LPs could breathe new life into Del Shannon's career. And so he roamed the county fair circuit until he had endured enough, I would guess. Should we remember him as a one-hit wonder or an authentic rocker who never was fully appreciated? —JAMES STACHO
Only today I saw notice of the new 12-CD Del Shannon box and had two thoughts: 1, I have to get this, and 2, I had no idea how there could be enough Del Shannon to fill 12 CDs. While I loved Del Shannon’s hits in the early and mid sixties—there was something about his voice and his aggressiveness and his strange face, which was a more modest version of the Hulk, which distinguished him from everyone else—and for me they never lost their power or their charm, when the hits stopped it never occurred to me what might have happened with him next. When he redid “Runaway” in 1986 as the theme song for the TV series Crime Story, which as Chicago noir may stand as better even than The Untouchables, it felt even more powerful than the first time around. It felt permanent.
But the very existence of the new set made it clear how ignorant I was about Del Shannon. I didn’t even know, or had forgotten, that he committed suicide. A quick search told me that he’d recorded with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and that he’d written Peter and Gordon’s “I Go to Pieces.” There was a time in my life, long after that record was a hit in the mid sixties, when I couldn’t hear that song without going to pieces myself. The depth of feeling it brought out seemed all out of proportion to the obvious words and the coat-hanger melody, and I could hardly bear to listen to it. I’m still afraid of it. But reading that Del Shannon was the author of the song, I figured he had to have recorded it too, and that’s one reason why I’ll be ordering that box set. But in the meantime, I looked for a Del Shannon version.
It popped right up, his original recording, different live recordings. But they didn’t come across; they seemed pale, and there was little presence of an actual suffering human being in them, as there was with Peter and Gordon. Then I came across a clip from a show at some oldies venue called Little Darlin’s—which the kindly internet told me was a place in Kissimmee, Florida. Everyone in the place, Del Shannon included, seemed to be in their fifties. Everyone seemed to be overweight and cool was a forgotten concept. The whole milieu seemed like an anticipation of those fabulous Prudential Insurance “We can’t protect you from becoming your parents” commercials. And Shannon, tie loosened, barrel-chested, hair long, his face at once handsome and ugly, in short clearly not like anyone else, was wonderful, and the song, over-orchestrated with distracting piano and other touches on his studio recording, was itself, all pain and suffering, just like “Runaway.” That’s the thing about that song. According to the words, the title is about the girl who left the singer’s character: “My little runaway.” But the performance creates the unmistakable, undeniable image of the singer himself running from his life, running down the road to nowhere for as long as he lives, no escape, no tomorrow. You say that in real life he could never outrun the song. Maybe so. There are no simple, or anyway direct, explanations for any given person’s suicide; I believe it is always far more complex than it seems.
My father once had a visit from an old acquaintance, someone he hadn’t seen in years, whose life had hit a dead end. He asked my father for a job at his law firm; my father said he couldn’t do that. The man left the house, and the next day killed himself. Was it because of what my father had done? That might even have been what the man told himself—but of course not. There was a life behind that act. The man might even have come to see my father, knowing he’d be turned down, in order to find someone to blame for what he was going to do anyway. One day, when I was in college, in a classroom on the ground floor of a ten-story building, there was a loud whoosh and then a terrible thump. We all got up to look: there was a body on the ground just outside the window. The class was cancelled; I went up to the tenth floor to the office of a young professor I was working with. He was distraught. A student had been with him not ten minutes before. He had asked that his grade be changed, said that if he didn’t get his grade raised he’d lose his scholarship, he’d have to leave school, his parents would disown him, his life would be over. The professor explained why he could not change the grade, that the paper in question was not researched and its argument perfunctory, that it was neither up to the level of the class for which it was written or the student’s own abilities, and offered the student the chance to rewrite it. The student immediately left the office, walked to the balcony, and jumped, landing ten feet from where I was sitting in class. Was it the professor’s fault? Did the person really kill himself because of a bad grade? No, I told him. The student was looking for a trigger.
Del Shannon may have been trapped in the prison of a song and took the only means of escape he could find. He was also an alcoholic. He’d stopped drinking long before he died, but maybe he’d started again. Maybe he’d embraced alcohol because it offered the only surcease he’d ever found for a trauma he could never name or even remember, and maybe that trauma came back. Or maybe he’d said to himself, as he’d done so many times before, “If I have to sing that fucking song one more time I’ll kill myself,” the phone rang, it was the booker at Little Darlin’s, asking about a return date in March, $2000, all expenses paid, non-stop one-class Southwest from LA to Orlando, “and we’d like it if you’d open and close with ‘Runaway’ so if someone comes in late they won’t be disappointed that they missed it,’ and...”
What are your views on other artists managed by Brian Epstein such as Gerry Marsden, Billy J. Kramer and Cilla Black? —BEN MERLISS
Gerry and the Pacemakers always got to me. "Ferry Cross the Mersey" said, even in the moment, I'm small time, I'm nobody, I was lucky, I had a moment in the sun, and now I'm crossing that river, and you'll never hear from me again.
I agree with you that everyone is great in the TAMI show. I also agree that the Stones did not embarrass themselves by following James Brown. It's just that Brown is so revolutionary. "Out of Sight" created a sound a lot of people would follow for years—I think they're still following so much of what Brown did. One thing I notice when I watch the film is that it's pre-stage monitors. You can hear Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and others straining a bit after a couple of tunes because they can't really hear themselves and are pushing their vocals. Still, it's a great film that captures such a glorious moment in rock n roll. —JOSEPH TAYLOR
An interesting thing about James Brown: he was as you say overwhelmingly influential, again and again, year by year, sometimes record by record. Yet he was also so different, so musically and physically unique, that unlike the Motown groups or the Beatles or The Rolling Stones or so many others of his time, nobody’s wanted to be him, to impersonate him, to stand in line with the dream of replacing him. It’s not the reason RJ Smith called his biography of Brown The One but the reality of his oneness feeds in.
Hello, I was wondering if Marching to Shibboleth [Firesign Theatre] will ever be back in print again? I did buy a copy when it first came out in 2011, but noticed that it is no longer being printed by Bear Manor or anyone else. I can find no information about the book's possible re-publishing and there is no longer any info about it on the official Firesign site where I purchased it in 2011. I read also on the Firesign Facebook site that the remaining members were intending to publish a hard cover edition, but not sure if that ever came to be as I have never seen or heard of a hardback version. I imagine the idea was shelved due to costs. I don't imagine there were many sales of the book published by Bear Manor Media which of course would have negatively impacted the possible continuation of further printings. Any info you have on this would be much appreciated. Thanks —PHILIP V. STURGES III
I asked Phil Proctor of Firesign and a Firesign projects person. The upshot is that at present it would cost too much. Publishing it as a PDF would be no problem, but that’s not a book. They want something you can hold in your hand. So it’s a waiting game.
Forgive me if I’m the hundredth person to ask you about this today, but did you see this?
I’m keeping in mind that at least some of this might end up being messy and disappointing, but my first reaction is that I’m very excited about it. I’ve been worrying for years now that his research would be lost. —STEPHEN MP
I knew about the publication, by the Smithsonian, after fifty years as a rumored lost or even destroyed manuscript, of McCormick’s ‘Biography of a Phantom’—his search for Robert Johnson. I read it last fall and was thrilled to have the chance to write something for the cover. It’s enthralling how much Mack found in the late sixties and early seventies. It’s also strange how his discoveries have been ignored and even covered up by those who claim to be masters of Johnson’s legacy—not that Mack didn’t contribute to that himself. I remember talking to McCormick on the phone in about 1973 about his work and his book, the frustration over so many years that it never appeared, and finally the shock that it did exist and that, as the story of a quest, it was for real, it worked, it cast spells, and could make a reader feel as if he or she were standing only a few feet away from the life Robert Johnson lived.
I didn’t know about the McCormick recordings the Smithsonian will issue this summer and look forward to hearing it all.
In your 2001 review of the “restored” edition of Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men, you made a convincing case for editor Noel Polk’s inability to escape his own patronization, but you didn’t go so far as to say you wouldn’t recommend it. Which version of All The King’s Men do you recommend? —BEN MERLISS
The regular, originally published version. Also the movie—the regular, originally released version. The 2006 remake with Sean Penn, Jude Law, and Kate Winslet looked good on paper, and turned out completely pointless. They forgot that the original was pure ‘40s noir—part of the form.
Greil, I am so sorry about your recent loss. Best wishes for peace and strength to you and your family.
Your remembrance of Tom Luddy was beyond wonderful.
I was always a little mystified by your indifference to Television (the band)—not only because I figured the twining guitars of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd were irresistible, but also because of Verlaine’s clear stylistic debt to some of the San Francisco bands you did like—John Cippolina of Quicksilver most obviously, but also a little of Jerry Garcia, whose first album with the Dead you liked.
It was to your credit that you admitted to not getting the Velvet Underground for a while due to West Coast chauvinism—have you had any similar reckoning with Television and/or Tom Verlaine?
Highest regards —EDWARD
Thank you for your kind words.
About Television you may be right. I have always had a deep and abiding prejudice against New York’s CenteroftheWorldism. I love New York as a city. We lived there in the fall for ten years between 2000 and 2015 and immediately and always felt part of it. But I’ve rooted against all NewYork teams—the Yankees the most—my whole life. I never liked the Ramones. I thought the first Talking Heads single was an atrocity. Television too much like the Grateful Dead. Blondie yes, Patti Smith undeniable. A lot of CBGBs bands were utter frauds. But none caught me up, gave me a new critical-thinking world to live in like the UK 1976 and on through the early eighties, not until Afrika Bambaata and Grandmaster Flash and Laurie Anderson and late Lou Reed and Sonic Youth and then the Seattle-Olympia groups from 1991 on brought me back home. Since then—Karen O had a moment, then she was a brand. The Strokes were always a hype, and worse: the great white male hope. And as great guitars go—I’d rather listen to Peter Green with Fleetwood Mac’s live recordings of “I’ve Got a Mind to Give Up Living” than anything else. Tom Verlaine was in another, smaller world—and so was Eric Clapton. And even—probably not according to God, or likely Peter Green were he here to weigh in, but to me, Jimi Hendrix.
I re-watched Berkeley in the Sixties the other day, and was swept up in the narrative, though less because I discovered things I didn't know than because I appreciated the clear-eyed, often self-critical (what seemed, to me anyway, to be honest) recollections of the participants interviewed. Then I went back to your review from the May 1990 Real Life Rock, to find out that your own thoughts on it were quite a bit more negative. You call it "smugly narrow" and say it "replaces history with highlights." The former comment is in reference to the "we" in the overbearing use of "We Shall Overcome"—and I mostly agree. Though there are actually a few great songs on the soundtrack ("Little Martha," Joy of Cooking's "Did You Go Downtown?") the movie—at least past the great opening use of Little Richard's "Keep a Knockin'"—rarely feels imbued with rock and roll, either musically or in spirt. I take your word re: "replacing history with highlights" because you were an active participant.
You have a couple pages on your own experience in Berkeley in the epilogue in Lipstick Traces ("I never got over it," you write) and of course it comes up all over the place in your work. Can you pinpoint what parts of your own experience you feel the movie (or other popular framings of the Berkeley FSM) did an inadequate job of capturing? Or is the problem that the "lived experience" you describe can't be captured in that way? (Is there a movie or book which has captured this to your satisfaction?) —SCOTT WOODS
To me what it's about is what captures the spirit of the events—the sense of everything beginning over again every day, the way the terms of discourse—i.e., what people were talking about and how—expanded so quickly, just as they would during the students and workers general strike in France in May 1968. First you're talking about rules and regulations. Then the legitimacy of the institution making the rules and the means of contesting them. Then the nature of free speech in the United States as a whole. Then the Constitution in all of its facets and history and the place of a local event in 1964 in the history the Constitution both limits and implies. Then the meaning of freedom. Then the meaning of life. And all in an immediate, prosaic, unpretentious way: people really trying to convince themselves and others, to understand what others are saying and what they're saying. And I'm leaving a thousand steps out.
Not a lot does capture this. Michael Rossman always understood this was the question, and speaking, he was extraordinarily eloquent. But not in what he wrote. John Schaar and Sheldon Wolin, both professors I worked with at Berkeley, couldn't have been more sensitive to the complexity of these questions, but it's not in their collection of pieces for the New York Review of Books, The Berkeley Rebellion and Beyond (a book with "and Beyond" in its title is not going to pay off—it means the writers don't know where they're going). The late David Goines—after the Free Speech Movement he became a printmaker, responsible for designing all the posters for Chez Panisse and other Berkeley institutions. He died February 19. So many of the people I'll mention have died. Michael. Sheldon. Jack. Brad Cleaveland. Mario Savio. But in David's 1993 The Free Speech Movement: Coming of Age in the 1960s, you get a sense of texture, uncertainty, pride, the gift of being in the right place at the right time. But not doubt. Not fear.
There's some of what it felt like, and how apprehension translated into words and acts, in the photo journal The Trouble in Berkeley, text by Stephen Warshaw. There is a lot—maybe, in its way, all of it, and even more—in Ken Sanderson's "Multiversity Lost: An Abridged Version of a Travesty," a hilarious seven-page epic poem collected in the otherwise stolid Revolution in Berkeley: The Crisis in American Education, edited by Michael V. Miller and Susan Gilmore ("But to begin Stage Two of the hidden/ Guerilla War, withdrew into secret/ Chambers, disguised headquarters they called/ Panty-Radium; there in the darkness/ Of Panty-Radium they all convened/ And for the space of one weekend, talked, plann'd/ And built the Free Speech Movment: FSM").
But the place to go—and by the place to go, I mean the library, since all of these books are long, even long long long, out of print, except maybe David Goines's)—is The Berkeley Student Revolt: Facts and Interpretations, edited by Seymour Martin Lipset and Sheldon S. Wolin—Lipset being a classical institutionalist liberal, which is to say on the right of the conflict, and Wolin all but re-educated by the events he was witnessing, seeing the realization of his lifework Politics and Vision, political philosophy from Plato on down, realized as he watched and listened, a radical to Lipset's conservative, and they could work together. This is a nearly 600-page 1965 $1.95 Anchor paperback with scores of articles, essays, manifestos, leaflets, editorials, reports, think pieces by famous scholars, still-stunning intellectual explorations of where did it come from and what does it mean and what is actually going on statements by Mario Savio and others whose voices were most deeply heard at the time—one did not say "leaders of the FSM." It starts where it all started, with "A Letter to Undergraduates," a strange self-printed, mental-ward-long call to arms that appeared on the campus in the beginning of the fall semester in 1964, a call for complete revolution at and in the University that was as thrilling as it seemed completely insane. It was written by a former graduate student named Brad Cleaveland—who later became an engineer working for Aramco and a confidant of Clark Kerr, the president of the University of California system and the devil in Cleaveland’s pamphlet. There are other statements, official and bureaucratic, from the same moment. And then there is the 100-page "Chronology of Events," first published almost immediately by California Magazine, the official monthly of the University of California at Berkeley. It is what it says: a chronology. But day by day, hour by hour, you get, under or on top of a descriptions of acts and events, university announcements of new rules and FSM demonstrations against them, countless voices as they were heard, words as they were spoken, a relentlessly building torrent of free speech, of freedom in all its confusion, that can leave you breathless. It was then and it is now the best thing written on the Free Speech Movement, that three-month open air classroom that began when the University prohibited the distribution of so-called political advocacy material on campus, students set up tables to distribute it anyway, announcements of, say, demonstrations against racist hiring practices by Bay Area businesses—auto row in San Francisco, the Bank of America, the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, the Oakland Tribune—and a police car drove onto the plaza at the entrance of the University and one student was arrested and put in the back of the police car to be driven off to the campus police station and lockup, which at the time few knew even existed, and students then sat down around the police car to prevent it from leaving. Students began to climb up onto the roof of the car to give speeches. It lasted all day and through the night as scores joined the first dozen and then hundreds and then thousands. The article was illustrated by a ghostly night-time photo of countless people sitting on roofs and ledges as the drama played out; it was almost mystical.
It strikes me you’re not a fan of the Beatles Anthology (docu) series from the ‘90s. I did wonder however if you ever saw The Compleat Beatles, a documentary from 1982 and what your view of it as a documentary is, as compared with say The Brian Epstein Story. —BEN MERLISS
There are a lot of buried treasures in the anthologies, such as the Beatles’ first record, “That’ll Be the Day”— which was also the record that lit up a young Bobby Vee when he heard it. “I thought it was the freshest, newest sound there ever was,” he told me one afternoon in the early ‘70s, “and I was right, it was.” I never did see the film.
Luna's terrific version of "Season of the Witch" opens the 'I Shot Andy Warhol' soundtrack; it's all a pretty fun listen: https://open.spotify.com/album/0Du2cUrElfsttoCDP7hKvR?si=bwVmCRAKTcK2GquVfSlQbA
My condolences also GM may she be forever held in the light. Re: “Season of the Witch” covers, the only one that ever moved me was years ago (20? 25? at my age time is more ephemeral than ever), in my hometown Philly, Luna at the Tower Theater on Halloween, as a final encore played it in a haunting Luna-style that was befitting both the source and that day’s pagan ritual. Maybe someday it will surface.