Discover more from Greil Marcus / Letter in the Ether
Ask Greil: October 30, 2023
I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say about the use of music in Killers of the Flower Moon. Unlike other Scorsese pictures where the music is up in the foreground as practically another character, the country blues, jug band and hill country music is an undertone, like something coming through the window from someone else’s house, on the breeze. As for the thing itself Killers is a movie that means to do justice. Doing justice is the reason for its length. It’s why the picture conscientiously avoids anything that smacks of entertainment. It refuses to give the audience western jollies or gangster movie jollies or detective movie jollies or even justice being done jollies, but to tell the truth as much as it could be told. The performance that really impressed me was Jesse Plemons, and Brendan Fraser was just fine. The one wrong note I thought was John Lithgow, mostly because where the other actors disappear into their roles, the first thing that came into my mind when Lithgow showed up is “There’s John Lithgow.” What I think is slightly off-target is the emphasis on avarice per se rather than the true heart of the incident, white men who couldn’t stand to see an Indian owning something that a white man could own himself. —ROBERT FIORE
I’ll be writing about this in a Real Life Rock column, likely later this month, and as I just walked out of the theater 45 minutes ago, a lot is still settling. I liked the way almost everyone was directed to underplay. I felt it a relief to find John Lithgow in a simple role with no scenery to chew—in his questioning of DeCaprio he’s not even visible (as opposed to Brendan Fraser, who blows the foghorn everyone else avoids). And I heard the same movie you did. The way the music was only present when it was orchestrating public life, busy streets, crowds of people and barely there most of the time—the use of the so-catchy “France Blues” was so spectral even if you recognized it it could feel as if you were imagining it—was a daring way to score a film. But no different from the way Jesse Plemons never raised his voice and made himself felt every time he breathed.
You were right about Robbie Robertson and Buddy Holly [Ask/Sep. 5]. I once stood in the bleak, unmarked field where the plane went down and put three coins in the dirt, the only tribute I could think to make. Robertson did much, much better.
On another note, and in service to a long-standing mystery: Why do you like Steely Dan? I dislike every note they've ever played and think they sound like lounge music, period. What am I missing?
Hope you are continuing to heal in all ways. —DEREK MURPHY
From the start, with “Do it Again,” I liked the odd (to me) tempo switching in the music, the way they could develop a theme, let it build to seeming completeness, then apparently abandon it, then retrieve it with even greater force and complexity. I couldn’t have put that into words at the time—or with what to me is the most thrilling example of this, the rhythm structure, which is so vivid and mathematical I can almost visualize it, as a metal gate being lowered and raised, in “My Old School”—but that’s how it plays to me now, listening back in memory, though there’s no sense of the past—they were not ahead of their time so much as they created their own pocket of time within the history of 20th century music.
But I also love the imagery, the way it’s both old-slangy—calling whoever you’re addressing ‘Jack,’ say—producing a sense of distant familiarity that doesn’t quite fit. What I mean is: has anyone you don’t know, at a party or conference or show or bar ever called you ‘Jack’? Me neither. But in the '30s to the early '60s people easily did—especially in a morally compromised environment, like a bar, which is where “Do it Again” is set.
And, look: the way it’s sung matters, but any band that could put the perfect rock ‘n’ roll manifesto “All night long we would sing that stupid song/And every word we sang I knew was true” into the world has my vote for eternity. And I’d bet Buddy Holly’s too. Though likely not Robbie Robertson’s. He once asked me if I’d heard anything good lately, and I said, well, it’s kind of dumb, but I can’t stop listening to “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” and he was appalled. He thought it was an insult to the radio.
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If, as you say [Ask/Sep. 29], the Sanders-Trump crossover vote "tells you a lot" (about... how cool Bill Clinton was, I guess? I confess I sometimes find it hard to follow your logic), what does the roughly equal, percentage-wise, Obama-Trump crossover tell you? — STEVE O’NEILL
People wanted an outsider they couldn't be sure of. They liked the perceived candor of Obama and Trump (never mind that Obama's was real and Trump's was a pyramid of lies). And a lot of people couldn't stand Hillary, perhaps mainly because candor as opposed to calculation was the last thing she ever communicated—except when she damned “the vast right-wing conspiracy,” which was true and accurate, and “a basket of deplorables,” which was true and a horrible image (Trump people as a basket of snakes) and tailor-made for mockery, like Romney’s claim that 47% of the electorate was dependent on government and just wanted a handout.
Lana Del Rey says she's spent the last seven years stockpiling songs for a covers album (she specifically mentioned "standards," whatever that means these days).
I know you detest tribute albums, but I'm unsure of your tolerance for covers albums by a single artist. I prefer unexpected covers slipped in amid fresh originals that build on an overall theme. However, there are occasionally all-cover exceptions, one being Bryan Ferry's wildly diverse interpretations on These Foolish Things. And given Del Rey's progressively innovative work, she's as well positioned as anyone to deliver a bundle of surprises.
My wish would be for her to tackle something by Roxy/Ferry, maybe "Just Another High" or—if I had to narrow it down to a traditional standard—adding her own twist to Ferry's mesmerizing cover of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."
Are there any covers you'd like to hear her perform? —LOGAN MOLEN
I don't think anyone could beat your call on "Just Another High." But I'd also go for Ferry’s solo "Love Me Madly, Again," because I am always swept up in and swept away by the instrumental passages at the end, and I'd love to hear LDR walk them. I think there has to be something by the Shangri-Las. And why couldn't she go all the way and go up against the highest wall, Amy Winehouse’s "Back to Black"?
I can picture you saying that if you were asked about your views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it would be beyond the scope of Ask Greil. With that said, if you can believe I'm not looking for a list I'm still curious about whether or not you have ever read any books on the conflict that you would consider in line with your own worldview. —BEN MERLISS
What Tom Friedman is writing in the New York Times—and has been since he left off promoting his last best seller—makes sense to me. Most books on what’s going on are all about the deep roots of this intractable conflict, concluding that everyone’s actions are inevitable and beyond anyone’s control, which makes as much sense as denying the 2020 election, or for that matter the Nazi extermination of European Jewry. The idea is to absolve murderers of their crimes.
I just finished your keynote talk at Yale on YouTube [link]: moving, thank you. A minor question, but TY COBB LIVED IN YOUR TOWN?! Are you familiar with his childhood? It ties in with your address in a way—Lee Blessing wrote a play about him and the last word is "Remember." —ANDY CALLIS
I'll have to look for that. In my childhood imagination, as I looked at his plaque in my Baseball Hall of Fame book, I imagined he was just as mean as a kid as he was as a ballplayer.
Is he finally ready to sing "Coo Coo Bird"? Thanks —JIM WINGROVE
Well, it never struck me before, but are you saying that "Run Through the Jungle" is "Coo Coo Bird"? That's what your suggestion made me hear.
What really struck me was how good he looks, how absolutely unchanged he looks. He always had a sort of weathered face and carriage—maybe that came out of the likes of "Lodi"' and "Someday Never Comes," where the voice you're hearing, regardless of the calendar age of whoever's singing, has already led too many lives.
You don’t seem to share the general critical consensus around the late Ian MacDonald’s book on the Beatles Revolution In The Head. How did that book come up short to you? —BEN MERLISS
It’s very well done. I didn’t find it interesting. It lacks any imaginative and theoretical dimension. It never examines the paradox that a ‘revolution in the head’ is not a revolution, which must take place in public and raise fundamental questions about the nature of the common good, but a likely temporary change of perspectives and values. That’s why I treasure Devin McKinney’s Magic Circles, and after that Rob Sheffield’s Dreaming the Beatles and Lennon Remembers. Not to slight All You Need Is Cash.
In an increasingly joyless and perilous world, at least Bob Dylan seems to be having fun onstage lately. This version of “Killing Floor” from his Chicago dates has a Basement Tapes feel to it, doesn't it? —JAMES R STACHO
It does, because there’s pleasure and play in the way they seize the arrangement and don’t back off from the rough metal edges. Unlike the singing in “Born in Chicago,” which seemed like a pro forma tribute, with the rhythm on automatic and the singing only making me miss Paul Butterfield’s timing, toughness, and regret, here he’s both following the beat and pushing it. It’s alive; it won’t sound the same the next time it comes up.
Thought you might be interested in this: 2023 Baillie Gifford Prize Longlist.
What do you think is the most enduring moment from the tumultuous events of 1848 on Europe, and how it shaped the Europe we know today?
For those who took part in it the memories of the spring of 1848 lasted as long as life itself. The euphoria, the falling away of fear, the sense of history in motion, the experience of immersion in a collective self—decades later people could remember these moments as if they had only just happened. —Best, LANG
I assume the last paragraph is a quote, on the Gifford Prize longlist, from Christopher Clark’s “Revolutionary Spring” (which along with the Hoyer, Echler, and Branian titles looks irresistible). Of course those lines remind me of Wordsworth on the French Revolution: "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven!" That's the tone of so many 1848 memoirs. Not that I've ever gotten A. J. P. Taylor’s judgement out of my head: "1848 was the turning point at which modern history failed to turn.”
And greetings, Lang. A long time since you sent me that detourned Beetle Bailey comic strip that ended up on p. 168 of the current edition of Lipstick Traces.
Any thoughts about “Tweeter and the Monkey Man”? It's commonly viewed as a playful homage to Springsteen. But the line “Near the souvenir stand, by the old abandoned factory” draws blood—it sharply points out Springsteen’s monetization of rust belt blight.
In addition to mocking Springsteen, I think Dylan is sending up some of his own social justice story songs. He sings the song with the same conviction that he sang “Hurricane.” Lines like, “It was you to me who taught in Jersey anything's legal as long as you don't get caught" ring true. But this is a farcical, nonsense song. And funny as hell because of the "real" passion he sings with.
The song also reminds me of the Humprey Bogart movies where the plot makes no sense but you’re drawn into it because it makes sense to Bogart. —ANDREW HUTTER
Life is too short to think about a band supposedly named by then-Prince Charles, let alone a dopey little Springsteen put down, even if he might well have joined the unsupergroup if anyone had asked. Which brings up the question: was he asked? And did he say no? And if he did was this payback?
As a music critic who doesn't really write "record reviews" per se, do you feel an obligation to seek out and keep up with what's out there and what's new? I can't help but compare the "depth" of your approach as a critic with the "breadth" of someone like Robert Christgau (which I know is reductive on both ends, but as a general comment ... unfair?). —TERRY
Most of what’s new sounds to me contrived and manufactured. And by contrived I don’t mean made, but a certain number of narrative or audio tricks applied to an idea so that a surface novelty hides a reassuring familiarity. And I have no interest in and less patience for people supposedly working out their romantic, personal, or biographical traumas in songs or any other form and publicizing them as such. So I write about what catches my interest. There are certain performers I follow. I always find surprises and interest in the way music informs conversations in all other realms. I don’t compare myself to other writers and I doubt any other writers compare themselves to me.
In a recent answer to a question about podcasts [Sep. 29] you said you'd pick and choose because "I don't have 500 song-hours to spare."
This reminded me of a question I've long wondered about—how do you listen to music? Are you regimented about it, as the concept of "song-hours" implies, or is it looser than that? How do you make time for music you love vs. new music? Do you still listen to much contemporary music? Is music always on? Vinyl, mp3, streaming? Headphones, earbuds, audiophile speakers, smart speakers, car stereo?
I'm sure this level of detail sounds a little crazy, but I struggle with it myself. I had to cut back recently on music podcasts when I realized I was spending more time listening to people talk about music than listening to actual music.
I hope you're doing well. I love “Letter In the Ether.” Thanks for doing it. —KEVIN WALSH
Right now I’m in an apartment where I can only listen to music on my computer with a CD attachment and small but good speakers. What I like is to have music on a stereo at the back of a room so its feel comes through and I can listen without necessarily paying attention. When something strikes me I’ll stop what I’m doing and play again, maybe once, maybe ten times. I like an ambiance, but that’s hard to do with desk speakers right in your face. It’s not on all the time. Or even most of the time. I’ll often listen to all or part of ten new albums in a row and nothing calls out. That’s depressing. And then because of something I’ve read I’ll look up something on YouTube and listen many times and then follow the algorithm on the right stack into other lands. Wonders there.
I’m not driving, but when I do again I’ll go right to the XM Sirius DNA channels to be caught up by affinities I would never have guessed at. That’s how I discovered Delbert McClinton as a blues writer.
My best wishes, sir. I share your disdain for the Dylan-Levy collaboration "Joey," for my money the pound for pound worst song on any Dylan album. How then to explain that Dylan played it 82 times between July 4, 1987 (there must be some irony in that date) with the Dead and November 14, 2012, shortly after which he began building his setlist around the American standards he was then recording? That's roughly 14 hours of "Joey" played in concert, when he has never played a minute of "Sign on the Window," "Dirge," "Up to Me," or "Red River Shore," to name a few random ignored favorites. What can he possibly hear in it that we don't? Is he sadistically testing his audience? What does this say about the man who has surely created the greatest quantity of sublime music in the era of recorded sound? —JAY
Maybe he has poor taste in his own songs. He performs “Gotta Serve Somebody,” too. But not, I think, I hope, “Catfish.” I mean, Catfish Hunter threw a perfect game as if he were having a beer. He died at 56 of ALS. He doesn’t deserve to manipulated into a cheap protest song that made Charley Finley the Man and George Steinbrenner Martin Luther King.
What advice would you give to an undergraduate who's interested in pursuing music journalism/writing? And did your choice in major (both in undergrad and graduate school) hinder you in the industry in any way? Secondly, how do you manage your time while writing on your own terms without becoming a jumbled mess? Hope you're doing alright! —GENE
Write wherever you can, in your student newspaper, your own zine, letters to the editor of publications you read. I started by sending reviews in to a magazine I liked. What I studied in college happened to be American studies and political theory, and that informed everything I did, but if I'd been a biology major I'm sure my need to write in public would would have brought that in too. But there was no industry. You can't write for an industry. You have to write for what you're addressing yourself to, in the smallest or the largest sense.
How do I manage my time? I keep a list. But what other writers do has nothing to do with what might work for you.
Everybody knows the line about separating the art from the artist, but examples vary from person to person. It does seem there are times when certain artists overestimate their individual talent based on their status in the world. Roger Waters (even without his alleged antisemitism) comes to mind as an example of such a figure who isn’t as brilliant as he thinks he is. Are there any examples that come to your mind (musicians, writers et al.)? —BEN MERLISS
Too many. Almost all New York Times Op-Ed writers except Tom Friedman, who is truly scared and trying. Woody Allen. People who think referring to Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" makes them soulful. Leonard Cohen. Lucinda Williams. Lucinda Williams again. People who throw around the word genius as if they think it'll rub off on them. All Republican U.S. Senators. People who are turned on by the Hamas massacres. Some people I know.
I really enjoyed your "Why I Write" lecture from a few days ago—as well as your keynote in Tulsa on noir. It struck me, listening to these talks, that it would be interesting to hear how you read. Are your daily rhythms centered on a particular reading practice, or is it more catch as catch can given current projects? —COURT CARNEY
Like a lot of people, I'm usually reading and rereading—I do a lot of rereading—three of four books at a time, at different times of the day. Right now I'm reading Chester Himes's 1959 Real Cool Killers, Percival Everett's forthcoming James, and Jonathan Lethem's new Brooklyn Crime Novel—which has in fact stolen me away from the others and I'm ten pages from the end and wondering if I won't start again when I get there. So while I try to be responsible to the books I ask for or seek out and buy, it's catch as catch can. The day belongs to the book, not the other way around.
Hello Greil: I haven't read any of your books but I always enjoyed your columns in Interview and The Believer. I'd like to read one of your books on Bob Dylan, but I'm having difficulty deciding which one. Should I start with The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes? Please advise.
Much love —JAMES NULICK
Writers often think their last book (whenever the moment might be) is their best. I feel that way about Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs. I try to contextualize, to allow people to pass through unfamiliar territories without appearing to tell people where they are, and I think that worked best there. And I had so much fun writing it. I don’t think The Old Weird America has dated—its hard for me to figure it was published almost 25 years ago—but it may, for some people, cast a spell the new one doesn’t. So of course I have to say, read both. Maybe at the same time.
Playing the Cat Power Sings Bob Dylan game: I am still holding out for Otis Redding Sings Hank Williams and Charlie Rich Sings Chuck Berry (including the hit single “Nadine”). —B RYNERSON
Well, Al Green has done Hank Williams, and magnificently. Otis might have done as well. But Charlie Rich on “Nadine”—he would have killed it. And “You Never Can Tell.” Except that he wouldn’t have: “I don’t like happy music,” he once said. “I don’t think it says anything.” So let him have “Havana Moon.”
Not really a question—just a comment. Tonight I had a hankerin' and I listened to "Money Changes Everything"—once by the Brains, once by Cyndi Lauper, and once by Delta Moon. Cyndi Lauper's version is under-rated. Still a great song, and possibly even greater today than it was then.
Have a good night. —TONY CAPRETTA
In her autobiography, Lauper talks about her producer bringing in the song, wanting an early-Dylan folk treatment. No, she says. I'm going to do it like the Clash: "London Calling." But look up her Body Acoustic version—where it works just as powerfully, but as a completely different song, not defiance but social regret.
Hackney Diamonds. These guys either made a deal with The Devil or with The Lord. Its pacing reminds me of Sticky Fingers. For me your review of that 1971 album applies to this one: “I play it all the time, and the more I play it, the louder I play it.”
Best —BILLY I.
They made a deal with the devil: for giving up their music Mick and Keith get to live forever (you don’t think Ron Wood really has an equal share, do you?).