Discover more from Greil Marcus / Letter in the Ether
Ask Greil: May 12
"The Velvet Underground and Nico, the band's first record, is nowhere near so striking as legend has made it out to be. Most of it sounds exactly like 1967, as time-bound as fashions from Carnaby Street." [link]
That's a rather shocking statement, given how out of step the VU sounded to me and many others at the time (Ok, it didn't reach me until 1970 or '71, based on things Lester Bangs wrote about them, but close enough). Anyway, you've made your ambivalence about the Velvets known elsewhere though you also seemed to warm up to them and Lou Reed over the years. Do you stand by this 30-year old assessment? Not even a fan of "Waiting for the Man"?? —BRENT RAYMER
I like the piling-on rhythm of ‘Waiting for the Man,’ but the song, the idea, the words, seems obligatory, like a follow up to “Heroin” without the vision and the bedrock mysticism. Do you think Denis Johnson would have called a book “Always Have to Wait”?
I was talking about the recorded sound, which is more like the Electric Prunes’ “I Had too Much to Dream (Last Night)” than Love’s “Alone Again Or,” which is to say what almost everything coming out of LA at that time sounded like: scratchy, thin, not enough bass, lazy drums. I connected when the VU sounded different, on White Light, White Heat. Not that that sound was in some way authentic street ambiance New York. More like Tierra Del Fuego.
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You included "If You Could Read My Mind" in the Stranded discography but I haven't seen other references in your work to Gordon Lightfoot. Did any of his other hits reach you in any meaningful way? I liked his presence in Rolling Thunder Revue, even if, as I recall, he was just sort of lurking around in the background in that one scene (where Joni Mitchell performed "Coyote"). —JAMIE
That song is the one for me. I knew Lightfoot through the radio, which is to say I didn't know him. None of his other hits communicated the way "If You Could Read My Mind" did. The way the melody seemed to slide around itself, always ending on a note of doubt. The vague yet immediately striking similes, which were like doors opening: "Just like an old-time movie." "Like a ghost in a wishing well"—that must be from some movie Lightfoot actually saw, but it seems like something everyone has seen, in some movie no one can remember. The terrible finality of "And I just can't get it back," and you know there's no door opening after that, no false happy ending, as with the Righteous Brothers' "Bring back..."
That song was just a song I liked hearing until one day when it became much more and has for me never been less. Some time in the early seventies my wife and I decided to spend a weekend in the Russian River town of Monte Rio, leaving our two little girls with a friend at our house. There was an inn there we'd passed so we decided to go. When we arrived there seemed to be only one person there, who let us in and took us to our room on the second or third floor, all the while interrogating us about what music we liked. He wouldn't leave, talking a mile a minute about Joni Mitchell. "Got to get into Ladies of the Canyon!" he kept insisting. Neither of us could bear Joni Mitchell. Finally he left and we began settling down. After midnight we heard a knocking on the window, and a woman opened the sill and climbed into the room. "They didn't answer the door," she said, and went out and down the stairs. Within half an hour there was loud music and loud talking. It kept up. After three we decided to leave. We packed up and went down. On the ground floor in front of the fire place the woman was lying naked between the guy who let us in and someone else. They didn't seem to notice us. We drove until we found a Motel 6, checked in, tried to sleep, realized it would never happen, got in the car and drove home. But we got back to Berkeley at about 6 AM and didn't want to wake anybody, so we drove to a park looking over the Bay and sat there with the radio on low. At some point, with all our physical and emotional defenses dissolved, "If You Could Read My Mind" came on. As I listened, it seemed like I could slow it down, so that every word and turn stood out, memorizing itself. When it was over I was sure I'd never heard anything so good. We sat there in that glow and then at 8 went home.
Greil - What are the best two-chord rock songs of all time? The ones that spring to mind are "C'est la Vie," "Tomorrow Never Knows," "Freight Train," and "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love." (In the latter case one can ignore the ending. It doesn't fit and they should have done a long fade.) I'd be interested to know your thoughts. —CHRIS HESLER
I don’t have any thoughts. From my perspective, this may be the most arcane question I’ve been asked. I love the Adverts’ “One-Chord Wonders” as a song, a sound, and a manifesto: I have no idea how many chords it has. But I looked it up. You can have “Tom Dooley” and “Heroin.” And I’d love to have been watching the night when on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert the Velvet Underground played “Tom Dooley” and the Kingston Trio played “Heroin.”
In light of his recent passing, what are your views on Harry Belafonte? —BEN MERLISS
This is too big a question—so big as to be meaningless. He was a huge figure. He was a great man. He became more radical, more intransigent, and less forgiving as he got older, because he saw that while the world changed in a good way on the surface, beneath the surface the world calcified and cracked. So to me it makes no sense to be asked a general question. It’s like asking what one’s views on Lincoln are. Oh, he was a good president? If Belafonte contained multitudes, which like anyone else he did, then it makes sense to ask (not me, one’s self), what was he as a blues singer? A folk singer? A sex symbol? An actor? A political thinker? An orator? And what does it mean, what could it have been, to live a public life, in many realms, from the forties to now?
You mentioned the value of Bob Dylan bootlegs. What still unreleased Bob recordings do you recommend? —RICHARD DENNIS
The sound on the incomplete 1990s five-CD Basement Tapes bootleg set is more immediate than on the official release.
I know that when it comes to the Rolling Stones you are partial toward the books of Stanley Booth and Rich Cohen. What other books (or articles) can you identify as having something about them that you could recommend like you did with my similar question on the Doors? —BEN MERLISS
My Rolling Stone pieces on the 1969 tour and Let it Bleed. Robert Christgau’s Creem cover story (collected in his Grown Up All Wrong).
Hi Greil, I remember how in LARB you called more than half of RARW filler or dead space. Have you changed your mind since it has clearly evolved in his live performances? —NANCY
I haven’t heard performances of the first songs on Rough and Rowdy Ways that felt to me as if they had more lift and self-belief in them, more reason to be sung, than they did on record. Really, given the Jimmie Rodgers bow in the title, leading off with “Waiting for a Train” would have given the show a boost right off—and even following “Murder Most Foul” with “Mississippi Delta Blues”—or even the death rattle “Yodeling My Way Back Home”—might be a kind of encore that would seal the album in stone. For me , it’s the whole complex of emotions in the first line of “Key West”—“McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled”—from amusement to horror before you can begin to take it in, the way it sets the stage, the historical stage that “Black Rider,” “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” and especially “Mother of Muses” so want to occur for “Murder Most Foul”—that opens the drama that will play out over the next near half-hour: the moment that dramatizes the idea of history itself. And that’s enough.
Hello Greil, I hope this finds you well and feeling better each day. I've been wrestling with the words to express my condolences to you for the loss of your daughter. But your story about her spinning the song wheel at the Elvis Costello concert opened the door wide to my feelings. What a transcendent memory to have, of your little daughter spinning a wheel of chance—with the understanding that it's sure to land on something wonderful. We all spin that wheel at least once or twice in our lives—I'm glad she had that chance with the knowledge that she'd be happy no matter the outcome.
I do have a question: what do you think of the "artist's statement"? By that I mean, the short description a student (usually in the visual arts) is compelled to write for their student show—or perhaps a thesis. I was talking to a friend who went to the same university and I was laughing at the banality of what I'd written for my own artist's statement (lots of "struggle" and "conflict" in the paragraph). I wish I'd had the clarity of mind to simply say "The meaning of my work is there to be seen" and left it at that. Anyway, do you have any thoughts on that particular academic parlor game? All the best —CHARLIE LARGENT.
It’s an absolute setup for pretentiousness, pomposity, self-regard, shame, embarrassment, and humiliation. It might be marginally better if the charge were “artist’s note,” but even there the signpost of authority—what gives you the right to call yourself an artist?—is coded right in.
Maybe the only way to handle it is technically. Say how long it took, what materials you used and even why. If the lock of hair that’s embedded in the paint is from your great-grandmother, don’t say so.
Thank you for your thoughtful words.
If you haven't seen it, you might like this interview with Linder about Dada, punk, and the shock of seeing that music take shape: "As I was watching it I couldn’t analyze it quickly enough. I knew that something quite shocking was happening." —MARTIN MAW
Thanks for this. It's fascinating and I love her just slightly cynical tone about all the people who weren't at the Sex Pistols/Buzzcocks show in Manchester who later turned up saying they were, and her impulse as the Sex Pistols were playing to in her own words analyze what was happening. And her saying that for the first six months of "the movement" it—the music, the people on the street—didn't have a name, so it couldn't be pigeon-holed. I'm not crazy about her collages. One crucial element of collage, of juxtaposition, is humor. I don't hear it there.
Enjoyed the back and forth w/Jon Landau here about the Rock Hall. What do you make of this year's inductees? Did any who made it match your own choices? —HARRY L
The Spinners and George Michael. I won't go into Joy Division. The fantasies I have of their induction are unprintable.
What are your views on writer James M. Cain? —BEN MERLISS
He wrote superb plots and had a feel for perverse sexuality that none of his peers dared go near. But as a stylist he couldn’t touch Hammett or Chandler, and for creating haunting characters Ross Macdonald was beyond him from the start. It’s absolutely telling that his books without exception were better movies—which have entered the national imagination in a way the books did not. The Lana Turner-John Garfield The Postman Always Rings Twice. The even stronger Barbara Stanwyck-Edward G. Robinson-Fred MacMurray Double Indemnity (where Chandler wrote the screenplay). The Todd Haynes Mildred Pierce with the drop dead casting of Kate Winslet and Evan Rachel Wood. He made a real contribution. But in a way his own work in other hands left him behind.