Ask Greil: September 29, 2023
»Jann Wenner's recent vile comments about female and non-white artists, resulting in his ousting from the Rock Hall of fame, has triggered a number of other conversations about Rolling Stone, with many critics and commenters going so far as to label it a racist, sexist publication. Very few African-American and female artists on the cover, very slow to providing any coverage about hip-hop, ignorant for the most part of disco and other dance subgenres, not to mention a masthead lean on black contributors (it seems that women fared a little better in that regard). I'm sure it's better now, but--are folks being fair by calling Rolling Stone racist? Did any conversations to this effect come up within its own walls back when you were part of it? —JEREMY H
»Well, now that we know Jann Wenner, now that he's invisible with no secrets to reveal, now that he's articulated his philosophy of rock and roll, of what it is and who it's by and who it's for, now that he doesn't just look like Harvey Weinstein, now that I've lost the spiritual community I once dreamed was built around the music, I ask sincerely, what have you lost? And what will you keep? Me, I'm keeping my second edition of The RS Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, and that's about it. —JASBIR ROBERTO RODRIGUEZ
Addressing both: I started mailing in reviews to Rolling Stone in the fall of 1968, about a year after it started, and they were printed. I began talking to the editorial staff—managing editor John Burks, editors Charles Perry and Ben Fong-Torres, all of whom also wrote and did interviews, and Jann, who I’d first met in early 1964, when we were both 18-year-old freshmen at Cal. There was a woman answering the phones. The coverage of black music, by regular columnist Jon Landau, Burks, Jann (one of whose first interviews was with Booker T and the MGs, who he called the best rock ’n’ roll band in the country), Ben, photographer Baron Wolman, whose portraits of Jimi Hendrix and B. B. King have never been matched, and more was prominent and first-rate. I do remember pained and frustrated editorial meetings about black artists on the cover—about how, whenever that happened, sales fell drastically, ad rates had to be cut back, and with the publication in an unstable financial situation at best, it was suicide to put as many black people on the cover as there should have been (that doesn’t excuse the much later cover devoted to the first Star Wars cast, with the names of everyone but Billy Dee Williams featured). Though more people had come on board, that was true until I was fired in June 1970, after six months as Records Editor and six more as a member of the four-person editorial board—with Jann, Burks, and Ralph J. Gleason—that was formed to guide the paper (as we called it when it was a fold-over tabloid). With the exception of the Village Voice, New York magazine, and the briefly-lived rock magazine Cheetah, that white-male presence was pretty typical in journalism at the time—not to mention law firms, insurance companies, banks, including tellers, car dealerships, corporate boards, political representation, and just about any remotely professionalized sector of American life you might think of.
When I came back in 1975, staying on staff until 1980, but continuing to write into the next decade, there were women editors, and soon, especially with the move to New York in 1977, almost all of the editorial staff was female, with Marianne Partridge, Barbara Downey, Christine Doudna, and Sarah Lazin, first head of a stupendously resourceful fact checking department and then of Rolling Stone books. There were no black staffers that I’m aware of. And while there was resistance, if not dismissal, to disco, the same was true with punk. It took Charles M. Young and Paul Nelson to change that.
I can’t speak for the editorial dimension of the magazine after that. But it’s foolish to look at Rolling Stone in isolation. Discrimination against and denigration of others takes many forms. Want to write for the New Yorker? Go to Harvard. Look at Shattered Glass, Billy Ray’s movie about the Stephen Glass scandal at the New Republic, where if you were white, Jewish, and Ivy League, no one was going to question you about anything. You see one female editorial person, Chloë Sevigny, and one black male far in the background, without any lines, but it’s a signal matter that the outside publication that broke the story was staffed by people whose skin was not white—in the film, one of them Rosario Dawson.
The coverage of Jann’s fall following what he said about black people and women in his New York Times interview to promote his book of interviews with the white male musicians he called The Masters, and “philosophers” of rock—people who in his view thought seriously and continually about what it is, what it was, what it was for, where it succeeded, where it failed, both as music and a social force—has been gleeful and satisfied. Beyond what Jann said in this specific sense, it has relied on Joe Hagan’s Sticky Fingers biography—which, as I wrote in Real Life Rock Top 10 when the book came out, if what he did with what I told him is remotely typical, nothing he wrote can be trusted. But the coverage has been cherry-picked in the extreme: I’ve read in several articles that the feminist critic Ellen Willis wrote in 1970 in “a letter” that she wouldn’t write for Rolling Stone because it was a hidebound sexist publication—the articles declining to mention that she went on to write a regular column for Rolling Stone, and a long, open feature about, as she put it, “a failed conversion experience” in the Orthodox milieu in Israel, a story that it’s unlikely any other publication would have financed and published at its full, unquestioned length.
How I see it: I don’t believe Jann believes that women and black people can’t think on the level of white people. I think he was asked an uncomfortable question, and instead of saying what he could and should have said—that he interviewed people he was most interested in, with whom he felt the most affinity, who to him had best explained what his own life’s work was about and for—he tried to weasel out with some kind of intellectual justification, and ended up speaking as a bigot, which he isn’t. His transactional explanation—maybe just to avoid this kind of questioning he should have included one black person and one woman—ONE, to practice tokenism in the most discriminatory way—does ring true, as a way of dealing with a problem, though what he said next—that what he really felt—“Fuck it”—is what he should have said straight off. Fuck it. I talked to the people I wanted to talk to. I don’t represent anyone but myself.
Ultimately the comments will stand by themselves, too egregious to apologize for. As Lester Bangs wrote in “The White Noise Supremacists,” racism is a poison infecting everyone, in the worst and deepest forms white people especially, and anyone who denies he or she harbors any racist impulses, no matter how deeply buried, can’t be trusted to tell the truth about anything else. That is something to fight against, to struggle against, and, when it appears in yourself or anyone else, not to let it pass untouched. But the idea that Rolling Stone itself is as such a racist and sexist publication, is to my mind a fraudulent notion, advanced to make other people look good.
Good books to read on Rolling Stone:
—Robert Stuart Nathan, Rising Higher (a novel about the first year or so of the magazine)
—Robert Draper, Rolling Stone: The Uncensored History
—Robin Green, The Only Girl
Have you considered reading Mick Wall's new book about the Eagles which was endorsed by Joel Selvin? —BEN MERLISS
No. I can’t imagine wanting to read a whole book about the Eagles. But—
I think it was after my negative Village Voice review of The Long Run, following my rave for Hotel California in New West, that Don Henley wrote a ranting letter to Rolling Stone—no, maybe it was after the Eagles defeated Rolling Stone in softball—I played in SF but was not part of the traveling team and the game was in LA—where he said the only reason I’d panned The Long Run was that I was afraid to face the Eagles on the field because they’d turned down my plea to write their authorized joint biography. Which is so far in the realm of fiction that there’s no point where it comes back to earth.
Rather it was reported at the time that post-beat poet Ed Sanders, fresh off his still horrifying Charlie Manson book The Family, had signed a contract to write the authorized Eagles biography. That I would have at least looked at, because he could be such an unpredictable writer. And on the other hand, never mind this whole thing. Find Stephen Holden’s 1979 Hollywood rock novel Triple Platinum, for its scene where the publicist spends hundreds and hundreds of dollars, which is to say in today’s money and prestige pricing, thousands, on a rock group at a fancy joint where the party orders everything on the menu, eats nothing, and he has to score for one of the girlfriends before the dozen main courses even arrive, and try to convince yourself Holden is writing about anyone but the Eagles.
Thanks for the rec on Daniel Wolff's Grown-Up Anger. [Ask Greil 8/8]. Talk about timely! But are there any voices today that can address the current climate in a similar manner? —BOB SCHEFFEL
I wish I knew. Some years ago I would have said Charles M. Blow of the New York Times but he's become repetitive and self-focused. I like Charles Pierce of Esquire.com because he's so in your face, but he sacrifices depth. All in all I'd say Walter Mosley's novels contain the deepest dives, and are less cynical than Mosley himself. And there's Ishmael Reed. But probably the best thing to do would be to write Daniel Wolff and tell him how good his work is and encourage him to keep mapping the territory.
This clip is special. A real tearjerker, especially w/Robbie gone. —JAMES R STACHO
It sure is. For Richard Manuel. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him sing better. He once said, “I don’t sing like Ray Charles, but I imply, I make the same implications,” and here you can hear Charles’s “What would I Do Without You,” and a lot of Bobby Bland, but mostly him. Around this time, when the Band was in San Francisco, he said, “I can’t write anymore. I don’t know why. Nothing’s there.” He looks terrible in this performance, as if he’s already gone. I don’t like hearing him sing “I’m pushin’ 73,” because he never got close. Once, after a bookstore reading in Seattle for my book about The Basement Tapes a woman came up to me and told me how much she liked the book. Then she smiled and said, “I’m Richard Manuel’s daughter.” Before I could say anything she walked away and disappeared.
When I heard about Cat Power Sings Dylan: The Royal Albert Hall Concert my first thought was: this sounds like something Greil Marcus made up. I’ll leave it to you to comment on the real thing in your column. But I started thinking about other combinations of your favorites. The Mekons sing The Band was obvious, since they’ve already done some covers. But then I thought of Sleater Kinney Sings Essential Logic, which I immediately wanted to hear. Do you have any nominations? —CHUCK
I will be writing about the Cat Power extravaganza, but the game is interesting. First off, I'd rather hear Cat Power does Robert Johnson. Or Bob Dylan does Dock Boggs. Amy Winehouse was in love with the Shangri-Las—I'd like to hear Mary Weiss, the lead singer of the Shangri-las, who made an album of her own some years ago, take up Winehouse. For me not so much “Sleater-Kinney Sings Essential Logic” as, in our dreams, “Poly Styrene sings Sleater- Kinney." Fave: Lana Del Rey and Hoagy Carmichael—or Lana Del Rey Excavates the Chantels...
Hi, Greil - I was going to pose an ambiguous question about Tom Petty and his place in the pantheon (if indeed he has one), but it veered elsewhere. Undercelebrated guitarists in the popular domain? Mike Campbell is surely one. I would also nominate Elliot Easton and Poison Ivy. Maybe Willie Nelson. Friends who saw him this summer said he and Trigger were still in fine form. On the other side of that coin: Carlos Santana, B.B. King, The Edge. I expect brickbats in the comments but am more interested in your take. Thanks! —CHRIS HESLER
We could go on forever. I'll take Sam McGee and his "Railroad Blues," as he recorded it in 1934 and thirty years later. He was Uncle Dave Macon's guitarist, hardly obscure in his time, but not even a face in the crowd today. And Danny Whitten, the ghost behind Neil Young's Tonight's the Night—listen to what he does behind Young on "Cowgirl in the Sand," just chording, as if stripping the strings as he plays down to some phantom string only he can touch.
I started reading The Grapes of Wrath last month after hearing Woody Guthrie's “Tom Joad” from Dust Bowl Ballads. I became bored by the time I reached chapter 4 in a way I never have with Faulkner even at his densest. And I remembered reading about how you had praised some of Steinbeck's works including at least one from The Grapes of Wrath. So I would like to know your general views on Steinbeck. Maybe then I can get some idea about whether or not my current feelings about The Grapes of Wrath are warranted. —BEN MERLISS
I'm partial to The Grapes of Wrath because my father knew Steinbeck, and Steinbeck gave him a special edition of the book—one I've always described as being bound in real grapes and real wrath—an edition I still have. It's an epic story. It might have been too big for itself. It might have been aimed at the movies, and the John Ford movie might be a fuller realization of the story than the novel. My father himself thought In Dubious Battle was a better book. I like The Harvest Gypsies, a series of seven articles Steinbeck wrote on migrant labor camps for the San Francisco Examiner in 1936 that in many ways read now as notes for the novel that followed. For me Cannery Row and especially East of Eden are a lot tougher, more down to earth, harder to take, and stay with me more deeply. Of Mice and Men may be sentimental in its portrayal and plot but only someone a lot more cynical than I am can resist when George, for the first time, for the last time, all the times in between, tells Lennie about the farm they're going to have—the crops growing in the sky. But that great scene in Bonnie and Clyde when Clyde gives a dispossessed farmer, whose truck is already loaded to the sky with his family's belongings, ready to head for California, a gun, to let him shoot down the bank's FORECLOSED sign—that's simply a scene in The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck didn't bother to write.
When Mystery Train was first published, all the Inheritors were still alive and kicking, if somewhat unsteadily, and could in theory eventually complicate or even disprove the outlines of their careers proposed therein. By the next edition, however, Elvis was dead, The Band disbanded, Sly Stone freefalling from grace, and the Great Randy Newman Mystery squarely poised for unraveling at the Academy Awards. Over the years, the Notes and Discographies section continued to expand, tracing in painstaking detail the assorted, by turns droll and dour, afterlives of those four acts (not to mention a host of attendant figures). As the main text remained mostly intact, the structure of the book appeared slightly more lopsided with each new version, subsequent releases ostensibly yielding little in the way of amendment or contestation of the original argument. Would you say that critical insight is overall more likely to benefit from or be encumbered by the study of addenda and ephemera to a given body of work? Curiously, though most assuredly not undeservedly, the only artist to consistently gain in stature with each successive retelling of his tale, even as his oeuvre grew in bulk the least, is one of the two Ancestors along for the ride—Robert Johnson. Does this go to show that the proper business of criticism is to cast what is well-known in a new light, as opposed to incessantly lighting out for new territories of cast-offs and outcasts? (It should perhaps be clarified that these last refer to works, not to artists.)
Given that Mystery Train remains the only book of yours to go through six editions (with the 7th likely under way), it seems as good an instance as any of the work that made one’s name unduly claiming all attention at the expense of more involved offerings—in your case, Lipstick Traces, Invisible Republic, and The Shape of Things to Come. Do you have any views on the widespread phenomenon of persisting to privilege inaugural pieces, even given the benefit of hindsight?
Finally, has the way in which Hemingway’s short stories impacted your writing become any clearer well-nigh fifty years on? —TOMISLAV
I’m not sure what you’re getting at. The original book with its 25 pages or so of notes was a picture of America as I saw it, as discovered and mapped by a few performers who to me hit its bedrock and breathed its air. I’ve never felt the need to repaint any of the pictures that make up that history-mural, except for an extension of the Randy Newman chapter for the second edition, to take in the conundrum of commercial success for a performer whose career was premised on its impossibility.
But it’s also a book where people live, or lived, with continuing and changing circumstances and contexts, real lives, and it’s been a thrill, and a true challenge to try to follow that. Every time I finish a new edition I start a file for the next one. I’m doing that now, for a 50th anniversary edition in 2025. And it’s a cornucopia. Since the last regular edition in 2015 (there was an illustrated and revised edition in 2020 from the Folio Book Society), to speak only of Elvis and movies, there’s Mike Connolly’s 2017 BBC documentary, Elvis: The Rebirth of the King, an argument for the ‘70s as a period as deep as any other; Thomas Zimmy’s 2018 two-part PBS documentary The Searcher; and most significantly Eugene Jarecki’s poetic and time-shuffling 2018 The King—and then Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 Elvis, unlike the rest an expensive production, a huge theatrical hit, and a fictionalized film with real moments of transport and vision, and then this year Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, which I haven’t seen but which the Time critic Stephanie Zacharek says is a work as delicate and empathetic as any of her superior films. The Robert Johnson story continues to take on new illumination, and new shadows, with the Conforth and Wardlow undefinitive self-presented definitive 2019 biography Up Jumped the Devil, sideswiped the next year by Annye C. Anderson’s Brother Robert: Growing Up with Robert Johnson, the late Mack McCormick’s long, long rumored and startlingly intimate history-autobiography Biography of a Phantom, not to mention Kimberly Mack’s 2020 critical study Fictional Blues. Sly Stone’s autobiography—thin in places, but alive with his unique wordplay and punning—comes out next month. To keep up with this is a privilege. And I know I won’t outlive any of these tales.
As for editions of Mystery Train overshadowing other books, if it’s so, it’s of no concern to me. In any case I’ve continued to do the same with the notes to Lipstick Traces, which since its last English edition in 2009 has gone through many foreign language editions, with two more this year, all of which I’ve updated with contemporary news stories, memoirs, art works, and newly discovered historical documents. I would love to publish a third edition of The Old Weird America, to take in both the release of the complete Basement Tapes and this fall’s Harry Smith exhibition at the Whitney Museum, with John Swzed’s new biography, but so far no one has taken the bit.
This is fun. I couldn’t resist. I wouldn’t think of it.
As for Hemingway: learn how to let a scene set itself. Walk into it. Sit down. Try to imagine how the people you want to write about would sit, hold their heads, start talking. Be aware of when it all falls silent.
Hello, Greil. Among other things, your description of Mean Streets in your “Rock Films” essay published in the 1980 edition of the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll made me a lifelong fan of Martin Scorsese. Your description of Un Chien Andalou in the “Anarchy in the UK” essay did the same for Luis Bunuel. Have you written more extensively about Buñuel or have any thoughts about his larger filmography? I ask as a fan of films such as The Young and the Damned, The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, The Exterminating Angel, and Tristana. Pardon my use of English titles over the Spanish. —BILL CHACE
I haven’t see a lot of Buñuel. Crazy, since I read and loved his autobiography, The Last Sigh.
Hi Greil - The lyric “he kept a picture of a pigeon in his wallet,” made me laugh out loud, mostly with wonder, and now I’m hooked. I can’t get enough of Chuck Prophet’s songs. Temple Beautiful is one of the finest San Francisco/Bay area albums I’ve ever heard.
Also discovered Magazine this summer. The combination of Howard Devoto and John Mcgeoch is hypnotizing. I’ve read some of what you’ve written about Devoto. Am interested in your thoughts on both him and Chuck Prophet.
Also, thanks to you, James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss crossed my radar. Am ever glad it did…I think (damn… it does go dark in places).
Thanks always for the perspective and the worlds you help usher. —BILLY I.
Chuck Prophet has always gone right by me, or vise versa. I never found anything to hang on to. I was a fan of Howard Devoto from the moment I found the Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch in Rather Ripped Records in Berkeley in early 1977. I thought “Boredom” (“ba-dum ba-dum”) was as perfect a record as “I Wonder Why” and as funny as “Something Happened to Me Yesterday.” When I heard “Shot by Both Sides” by Magazine I knew where punk could go—and now I hear it as a door opening to Nirvana. I actually got to meet Devoto once—he came to a reading I was doing at a drunken big pub on the outskirts of London where anything anyone did brought on shouts and cheers. I was shocked that he was kind of tall—he’d always looked so small in pictures. And he was so warm.
Jim Crumley was a big, burly drinker who didn’t seem to have a mean gene. I picture him carrying two go-cups at night in New Orleans, even though it was broad daylight in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Did you ever consider reading The Last Sultan, Robert Greenfield's bio of Ahmet Ertegun after deciding that Wade and Picardie's book was less about Ertegun and more about Morris Levy? —BEN MERLISS
Robert Greenfield wrote invaluable books—STP, The Spiritual Supermarket, his biography of Bill Graham—and a lot of Grateful Dead-infected dross. I suppose when he published The Last Sultan I thought I knew as much about Ahmet Ertegun as I wanted to know. Maybe I was wrong, but I didn't read the book.
In case you haven't seen it, here's an article that gives Clinton-bashing a good shellacking: What the Clinton Haters on the Left Get Wrong. —ROBERT L FIORE
Thanks for this. The self-identified left, as currently speaking through Cornel West, is neither left nor revolutionary or even idealistic. It's a perpetual motion purity machine meant only to make its adherents feel superior to everyone else and maybe even themselves, and vestigially, to elect the likes of George W. Bush and Donald Trump in order to (professed motive) intensify the contradictions so the rottenness of American society and governance will be exposed and people will flock to their side and (real motive) confirm those pressing for this result that they are better than anyone on either side. Bernie Sanders—not a member of the Democratic Party—has done more to weaken the Democratic side than anyone else who wears the cloak of decency, as someone who is neither right or left once put it. The Sanders-to-Trump crossover tells you a lot. Clinton did many craven things that have caused real damage. His accomplishments—and dedication to forging permanent rather than merely newsy changes in countless areas of policy—far outweigh them. Go back to the left response to the nomination of Stephen Bryer to the Supreme Court—he was vilified as a Clarence Thomas in, ah, a cloak of decency for his work on the US Sentencing Commission. And, lo, he didn’t always vote in a block, and he was, at least in public, far too generous in ascribing honest motives to the justices on the right. But, you know, really?
[See Robbins/Marcus Sep. 5 exchange]— Well, I suppose I thought the main difference between Russia and Israel was too obvious to mention, but I'll mention it: Russia's military is not almost completely funded by the US ($3.8 billion for FY2023). It is absolutely the case that Russia and China have miserable records. But it's nonsense to compare the foundings of their modern states with that of Israel—the rulers change, the forms of government change, but you know perfectly well that the states have already existed in some form for centuries (at least). Come on. You can't see how this is whataboutism? There's a very real sense in which bringing up Russia and China every time someone mentions Israeli apartheid serves mainly to minimize the crimes of Israel. No one—at least no one I respect, and I suspect no one you respect—denies Stalin's crimes, Putin's crimes, or the persecution of the Uyghurs. No one accuses people who decry such crimes of racist bigotry, which critics of Israel face every time they open their mouths. —MICHAEL ROBBINS
We have a situation mirroring that of the US. Israeli society is split between a well organized minority of ever more violent extremists, including some electoral factions that celebrate the Rabin assassination, and a less leveraged majority. On one side you have a racist, openly fascist coup against open and nation-building institutions, principally the once mandatory military service, and on the other you have an equivalent of Arab-spring-like public demonstrations, bringing in tens of thousands of previously silent and apolitical people into public protests to save the country. The people currently in power are perfectly happy to lose international legitimacy, including among American Jews, so long as they can expect support of all kinds from the assembling fascist coalition of Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, and, if Trump is re-elected, the US.
In terms of time-legitimating traditional societies v. what you’re presenting as an on-its-face illegitimate jerry-built Israel, if you think there is fundamental continuity between Czarist Russia and the Soviet Union and dynastic China and the People’s Republic, you are vastly underestimating the way an ideology can erase history. Whatever else Israel may have been at its founding, it wasn’t that. It was much more analogous to the nation erasing and nation building that took place across Central and Eastern Europe over the last five hundred years. I’d recommend you look at the new Goodbye Eastern Europe by Jacob Mikanowski to get an idea of what a nation is and what it isn’t, but also to read an entrancing book.
Not that anything I've ever read by you suggests as much—your devotion to criticism is obvious and admirable in itself—but did you ever harbor any ambitions to work in a more proactive role in the music industry, for instance A&R? I ask because you have great ears and recognize great talent often from distant corners no one else is paying much attention to. Would it have been interesting for you in any way to have advocated for some of your favorites at a label, thus raising the possibility that their music may have reached a broader audience?
If not, are you aware of any instances where your advocacy of a certain artist has had a noticeable impact on their career--perhaps made someone at a label sit up and take notice? —LINDSAY S
To your first question: No. To your second:
Jon Landau’s Rolling Stone review of the 1973 Maria Muldaur gave it a huge boost and contributed both to the success of the album and her subsequent, still ongoing career. His depiction of Eric Clapton as the master of the blues cliché led to the breakup of Cream and Clapton’s attempt to join the Band. Pauline Kael helped rescue McCabe and Mrs. Miller from oblivion and Bonnie and Clyde from nearly universal condemnation. It’s possible that what I wrote here and there has given certain performers a sense that someone was understanding what they were saying, and an affirmation that their work was worth doing. If that’s true, that’s a lot.
This is a followup question to one I actually asked last year and didn't get around to again until now.
You stated that your favorite Hank Williams bio (other than John Fahey's words on him in one of his own books) is still Chet Flippo's and that you only liked certain passages from Colin Escott's more recent book. This is surprising to me given that you wrote in your notes for the most recent edition of Mystery Train that Escott's was the best because it avoided Flippo's "Hunter S. Thompson like sensationalism," to use your own words. Would you mind clarifying your preferences between Flippo and Escott? —BEN MERLISS
Between editions of that book it's usually seven years or so. In that time my perspectives change. When I first read Colson Whitehead's John Henry Days, and wrote about it in Bookforum, I said that the alternating chapters between the protagonist J. and John Henry folklore and history made two books, one deep and wide (folklore) and one of far less interest (Adventures of J.). Later I reread the book, and found myself eager to get to the ends of the folklore chapters and find out about J. I've taught the book at least six times in lecture and seminar classes, and every time I reread the book. I never get tired of it. I keep finding new correspondences, conversations across time and place, and I would not for anything trade one side of the book for the other.
Did your admiration for the late Richard Davis’s bass on Astral Weeks ever lead you to any of his jazz work? The wonderful records he made with Booker Ervin and Eric Dolphy, for instance? —CHUCK
No. But I’ve listened to what he does with “Sweet Thing” over a thousand times. There’s a moment when he seems to somehow turn the music over, as if lifted by a body in his hands. I listen for that, and sometimes I miss it.
I hope you’re doing well. I know you appreciate Fairport Convention so when I saw this live cover of “Come All Ye” by Julianna Riolino I thought I’d pass it along. The band seems to be playing with so much joy, passion and a great sense of fun. I found it thrilling. Take care —SCOTT
I guess I have too much death on my mind to respond to this performance in a direct way. The passion, the joy they all take from song—yes. But all I can think of is Sandy Denny falling down those stairs. I wrote some obituaries for Rolling Stone, starting with Brian Jones, maybe the last for Kurt Cobain. But the one that took the most out of me was Sandy Denny. Because there was so much fatalism and foreboding in her music? Because of the way she glided through “Fotheringay,” with death—execution—tracing her every step?
I'm sure you know my proposal that undeserving acts be ejected from the RRHF was whimsical and unserious. [See Sep. 5] Still, I think your Ty Cobb analogy was false equivalence: I wasn't suggesting that Journey or Bon Jovi don't belong in the Hall because they're bad people, but because their music, you know, sucks. Oh well, Hall of Fame inductions for sports must be so much easier to navigate than those for music.
Also, and I'm sorry for being pedantic, the Vic Morrow look-alike Blue Cap in The Girl Can't Help It isn't Cliff Gallup but Paul Peek, an interesting guy in his own right (there was a pretty good remembrance of him by King Kaufman in Salon, around the time you wrote for it, I think).
Peek was a southern white boy who in the late '50s collaborated with Black, out icon Esquerita—wonder what Ty Cobb would've made of that! —STEVE O’NEILL
Thanks for pointing out that error and giving Peek his due.
Dear Greil: What do you think about this kind of dialectic explication of rock n roll poetry? —ULF
Which serial killer did this kid grow up to be?
Hi Greil—I'm wondering (and forgive me if this question has already been asked and answered) if you've dipped into Andrew Hickey's podcast A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs. I've been enjoying its sometimes eclectic and deep settings of context for each artist and song (additionally, Hickey's English-accented voice is weirdly soothing, perhaps a great plus for any podcast); occasionally I've been brought up short by an insight or opinion (the episode on Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Parks, and "Heroes & Villains" was particularly interesting in the case it made against the notion of "lost masterpieces"). Curious to know if you've listened to any of it, especially since the most recent episode was on "The Weight." —GREGORY CROSBY
I haven't. I'll look—at least if I can pick and choose. I don't have 500 song-hours to spare.
I always have wondered about Dylan’s songwriting collaboration with Jacques Levy on Desire. It seemed odd that the man whom I considered the greatest songwriter in the world would collaborate with a virtual unknown, a trained psychiatrist who had written some songs with Roger McGuinn, but who was probably best known for his work in off off Broadway experimental theater. The album was a huge success but then no further collaboration with Levy. And not others? —BILL CARNEY
I don't know anything about their relationship. Levy said they tossed lines back and forth, so it was as if both of them wrote every word. He'd suggest ideas, they'd work them up. Supposedly Dylan liked Levy's collaboration with Roger McGuinn ("Chestnut Mare") and got in touch with Levy about collaborating. Since except for a couple of shared credits on the Basement Tapes Dylan had never formally co-written, this always suggested to me that Dylan had completely run out of ideas, was, as he describes in Chronicles, utterly empty, a name without a reality behind it, tapped out, used up—and needed someone to give him a subject, something to write about, no matter how phony it might be—you can hear that in the paint-by-numbers outlaw-stands-up-to-the-man nunbers about Catfish Hunter (do you really believe Dylan followed the A's?) and Levy's pal Joey Gallo. And except for "Isis" on Desire, that might be the whole story—as Lester Bangs saw it in his devastatingly researched and reported Village Voice piece on the album, it was a put-up job, utterly without feeling, made simply to keep Dylan in the common conversation—and of course all other reviews called it a masterpiece.
Dylan, at least in the first 20 years or so of his career, sequentially attached himself to male figures who were in different ways collaborators, sidekicks, soulmates, people he leaned on, looked up to, took inspiration and validation from, people he cast aside as he moved on—Al Aronowitz, Robbie Robertston, Bob Neuwirth, and more. Maybe Jacques Levy was another. As a psychiatrist he was also a New York scene-maker, a friend to literati, actors, show people, chefs. He had to have pitched Joey Gallo to Bob Dylan—why, you know, Bob, he was like the Lenny Bruce of the mob. He was the Bob Dylan of the mob! He'd make a great song—just like Pretty Boy Floyd and John Wesley Hardin and Jesse James and God knows how many other horrible they-lived-outside-the-law-but-they-were-honest fake heroes.
Lester's piece, by the way, has the ultimate punchline when it comes to how Joey Gallo really felt about Jacques Levy's songs.
It was November 1960, and my seventh-grade mind was wrapped around the Shirelles’ monumental hit, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” The song’s lyrical precision penetrated my teenage-girl psyche with its longing for love — and respect. The lyrics were so fraught with social implications, especially those suggesting possible teen pregnancy, that some radio stations banned the song. But noted music historian Greil Marcus loved it so much that he once played it “eight hours straight,” which in my book makes him an honorary teenage girl.
Yes. I tracked down the reviewer and told her it was the best compliment I ever had.
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