Discover more from Greil Marcus / Letter in the Ether
Ask Greil (September 5, 2023)
So, it’s just Garth now on the mystery train.
I will never be able to decide where I stand on Robertson, except for his guitar playing on “Who Do You Love” and with Dylan in England c. 1966. And what else did he have to do, really?
Any final thoughts would be greatly appreciated. —DEREK MURPHY
[August 9] It’s too soon for me. We went way back. We were friends. There’s been so much death around my life this last year I can only respond physically—shaking.
I’m glad he got to write his book. If you don’t know where you stand, read the pages on his meeting Buddy Holly. You’ll stand with him, if only for a moment.
Your writing on Bob Dylan and The Band has always informed and entertained me. Now that Robbie Robertson has passed away, I'm thinking of his amazing life and realizing a lot of it, whether it was childhood or dead-end bar gigs, wasn't all that great early on. Later, came a lot of pressure to keep The Band going and looking for a way out, which he found working with Martin Scorsese. But before The Band got famous, they had that time in Woodstock with Dylan in '67 which you wrote about in The Old Weird America. That had to be the best time for camaraderie and creativity for all concerned, wouldn't you say? —JAMES R STACHO
I wouldn’t know. If there wasn’t a true brotherhood working together on Music from Big Pink with all the joy, playfulness, loving craft, and all-around don’t-care you could imagine—that you could hear—then they all had great acting careers ahead of them. When I met them all in 1969 before their stage debut in San Francisco, they were clearly part of a joint stock company. There was the same feeling backstage during The Last Waltz, even if by then there was a heroin brotherhood within the greater brotherhood that by then existed only as a fiction, a beloved old novel you could go back to again and again. There is a memory of what it all once felt like in the Danko-Helm Portland Living Room Tapes performance of “It Makes No Difference,” which is about abandonment, withdrawal, exile, and suicide, but never more so than here. But you’re hardly wrong. I can hear Rick Danko describing the basement sessions to me on the phone right now: “It was like a clubhouse. It was wonderful.”
In light of Robbie Robertson’s passing I have two questions:
1. Robert Christgau has recently described Robertson as a roots-pop middlebrow rather than the font of wisdom he was often taken for including by himself. What would your response to this be?—BEN MERLISS
The wisdom, if you want to call it that—I don't, I'd call it something worth finding and passng on—is in the forms of speech in the songs. "Like a viper in shock"—the shocked way Levon Helm and or Richard Manuel shoots out that line. "Carmen and the Devil walking side by side," as if it's the most natural thing in the world. Robert Johnson's "Me and the devil, were walking side by side" is allegorical—not in some educated listener's understanding, but placed in the song as such—and in "The Weight" it's just ordinary life. The singer, the tale teller, evinces no discomfort with the line; he only becomes uneasy when Carmen unloads her friend on him. What's he supposed to do with him for the rest of the day? And what this means is that as a songwriter, or a bandleader, Robbie was a director. He wrote his songs with the singers in the Band in mind. In that way Rick Danko is an author of "It Makes No Difference" (which as a set of words is nothing, or less, on the page, a string of clichés), because the song was written as a song for him to sing, as something only he could change from ordinary to transcendent. It's no accident that a scholar of, as he put it, the secular "American religion," Harold Bloom singled out that song as a deep plumbing of what to Bloom was the fundamental American experience, the fundamental American idea: loneliness.
I have a hard time seeing Bob using such shibboleths as "roots"and "middlebrow," but if so it's a sign of dismissal, of a subject not worth the right words, whatever they might be.
2. One of the issues I have with The Last Waltz as a film is Robertson’s projection of himself. Though I like the film as a spectacle, I find the whole film difficult to get behind due to the heavy emphasis on Robertson even if it was in a sense to cover up for the increasing personal issues of the other members except for Garth. Robertson seems to stretch his stage presence to the point where it comes off as an overcompensation (and I imagine you know about the allegations over the microphone and make up). I actually remember feeling a little angry when the cameras, having failed to capture a close up of Richard Manuel during his verse on “I Shall Be Released,” almost immediately afterward moved back to Robertson’s face for the chorus giving an insincere impression of the man in the process. I don’t remember coming across your full views on Robertson’s presence in your own writing on The Last Waltz, so I would like to know your response.
I saw the rehearsal for the concert, the concert, and the movie. The movie was the best, for its wide, clattering, loud music, the same for its spirit, the same for many of the performance sequences, most of all Paul Butterfield, Muddy Waters, and Van Morrison. I shared and shared all your frustrations with not seeing Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson—which were, by the way, the same frustrations you had when you went to see the Band perform onstage. While Garth sometimes stood to play accordion, Richard stayed at his piano or his drum set—the people you saw were Levon, Rick, and Robbie.
I didn't like Robbie's flashy scarf. But it was Scorsese's movie—the whole thing was story-boarded—and it wasn't the camera that was in love with Robbie, it was the director. I was swept away by the whole thing. I know how thrilled the guys in the Band were when the show was over. I can imagine how disappeared they might have felt when they saw the film.
Life and rock 'n’ roll are filled with plenty of 'what ifs'? What if Buddy Holly had taken the bus to Iowa instead of a doomed plane, for instance? And what if Mike Bloomfield had agreed to be Bob Dylan's guitarist, as he was asked to be, on Dylan's '65-66 tour? Instead of the Hawks, Dylan is backed by alumni from the Hwy 61 album sessions (Kooper, Brooks, et al). and what happens to Levon and The Hawks who were playing their great, albeit anachronistic R'n'B sets in Jersey? Do they become a whiter Booker T & MGs instead of The Band? What of Robbie Robertson's songwriting? Because without his association with Dylan, he becomes a much different kind of writer, I would think. In light of Robbie's passing, I think of this butterfly effect and wonder 'What if'? But glad Robbie met Bob and the rest, as you have written wonderfully about in several books, is history. —JAMES R STACHO
Sparked by this, I have a terrible fantasy that if Buddy Holly had lived he’d have become a minister. And that Robbie Robertson would have eventually taken over the Toronto Jewish mob.
Letter in the Ether is a reader-supported guide to everyday culture and found objects. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. If you want to support my work, the best way is by taking out a paid subscription.
Your comment about Van Morrison probably singing “Take This Hammer” since he was five [see Real Life Rock Top 10/August 1] made me wonder: if you could design an arts curriculum for early elementary Ed for all of the US, what are a few of the essential activities and songs you would include? How many hours a day or week? How much autonomy would you give local teachers (like if a teacher in the U.P. wanted to teach a Finnish polka)? I remember singing “Shenandoah” and “Erie Canal” in elementary school—not too bad in retrospect. —ANDY CALLIS
In its way this part of Letter from the Ether is a very fun full time job. But I can’t afford to turn single questions into a full time jobs. You want me to design a lesson plan for the whole country providing a sense of shared culture for, I’d guess you mean, second or third grade. While countering Florida guidelines is God’s work, to take your serious question seriously would mean work that God wouldn’t actually do.
Let’s just say that this lesson plan could do worse than to start with “John Henry.” Sing a conventional version. Then show the Disney cartoon movie. Then sing a less obvious version, as in “This ol’ hammer killed John Henry, but it won’t kill me…” and roll.
Hi Greil, was wondering what you thought of the recently rebooted Creem magazine? I have the issues but have not got around or just not been interested enough yet to read them, it seems to me as if Creem was of another time and place and to try and recreate that in a much different world is a futile exercise. —GARY FENRICH
I spent too much money to buy the first issue. What it had to do with Creem other than using/owning the name is lost on me. A big, overproduced Yes album of a magazine—so someone can live up to his father’s legacy? Not my concern. None of my business. Paging through it, I felt a little unclean.
Until a few years ago, Pitchfork put out an elegantly but not pretentiously designed quarterly edited by Jessica Hopper called The Pitchfork Review. It was full of ideas and humor and passion and I read and kept every one.
[See Ask Greil, August 8] You know I admire you. But you also know that Russia and China were not founded within living memory by the forcible expulsion of 750,000 people and the massacre of tens of thousands of others. You know that they have no ethno-religious requirement for citizenship. You might as well ask why single out South Africa under apartheid for censure. And what is happening in the occupied territories is apartheid. It's shameful that so many liberals pretend Israel faces a double standard from the left when it simply faces the standard it has created for itself. None of this has anything to do with Roger Waters, by the way. —MICHAEL ROBBINS
This is a labyrinth I don't think you want to get into. The Soviet Union, the dissolution of which Putin takes as either a historical crime he has chosen to avenge, or a historical fiction he means to rewrite, was, last I heard, founded within living historical memory: my grandparents were around as sentient beings to witness it. When I was in high school in Menlo Park in the early sixties, students would often go the two miles to the Hoover Institute at Stanford to visit with Alexander Kerensky, after the fall of the Czar head of the provisional government in Russia before the October revolution. The modern Chinese state came into being within my own historical memory. We're not talking about Ivan the Terrible or the Ming Dynasty. I don't think you want to get into the de-populations (won't use such bad words as genocide) in the first decade of Stalin's rule, or the millions executed or sent to living deaths from the ‘30s on, or the similar re-educatings (again, not to use uncomfortable words) in China in the 1950s or the millions erased during the Cultural Revolution. As for no "ethno-religious requirements for citizenship," Putin is making the Orthodox church as much a governing entity as the fascist coalition in Israel is doing for the Ultra-Orthodox, and the Uyghurs might have a bone to pick, too.
How does Fassbinder figure for you (if he does)? My question is prompted by Ian Penman's new Fassbinder: Thousands of Mirrors. Fassbinder loomed large for artists and critics of my generation in New York, and the same seems true for Penman's in London, but I don't recall you writing about him much. (This enthusiasm isn't necessarily shared by my German friends, who detest his nihilism.) And do you follow Penman's music criticism? He roams around the culture in a way that recalls your own explorations. —HAL FOSTER
I came to Fassbinder late and he was so productive, or obsessive, or in need of money, it was impossible for me to catch up. But I did see a lot of movies until (and after) one completely captured me, and a lof of people would say the same, it's probably his most popular movie: The Marriage of Maria Braun. I will never forget that scene where someone drops a cigarette butt and a whole table of soldier prisoners dives down to fight for it as if it's the holy grail, their last meal, the light at the end of the tunnel.
I can't read Ian Penman. I feel him looking for the angle no one else has pursued, to prove that he sees things others don't—and not finding that angle, because he isn't seeing things others haven't. His essay on Elvis is definitive in this sense. He relies on, references, and tries to rise above only the most fringe sources, retellings, Elvisana, and then throws in details to show he knows more, but only because he's not mentioning the sources where he found those details (Peter Guralnick, Elaine Dundy's Elvis and Gladys). He overwrites, is cute and coy—to me its all an exercise in proving himself superior to his material. Is there a moment of true feeling, an instance where he's so moved he comes out of himself and isn't sure of his bearings, anywhere in his It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track? I didn't find it.
Since we're not talking anymore about who should be in the RRHF and isn't, can we change it up? I think it would be pretty cool if every year the Hall had a deduction ceremony, acknowledging past mistakes and booting out the undeserving. Let's say three acts per year: I reckon your first vote would go to Journey, but who would be numbers two and three?
Which brings me to: Gene Vincent—he's in the hall, but does he belong there? I believe Dave Marsh once called him a "minor but important" figure, and I'm still trying to work that one out. Vincent looked the part better than any white man this side of Elvis and "Be-Bop-a-Lula" is fundamental but no more so than "I Put a Spell On You" and I don't think Screamin' Jay has even been nominated.
There's an old BBC documentary (it's on YouTube) called Gene Vincent—the Rock and Roll Singer. It's kind of the ugly inverse of Don't Look Back: in 1969, Vincent and a mediocre pick-up band are on a dismal tour of England. At 34 years old he's bloated and defeated-looking, visibly in pain from dragging around his ruined, useless leg. He'll be dead in two years, and there's an eerie resemblance to Rick Danko near the end of his life. He's unfailingly soft-spoken and immaculately-mannered, greeting fans or hassling with promoters; onstage, bathed in sweat, he does his best, and sometimes you see a hint of what was and might have been.
Some of the footage is bizarre. Before one television appearance the host lists off grocery prices: "and to go with the meat or fish: sprouts ten pence a pound, cabbages and greens about ha'pence. Now then, rock and roll fans..." Other scenes hit hard. Checking into a dingy English inn, Gene charms the middle-aged desk clerk. She's flattered and flustered, though she obviously has no idea who he is. When she gives him his room, he asks: "there's not too many stairs, are there?"
But early in the film, rehearsing "I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow" in someone's basement, he tilts his head to one side, rolls his eyes upward and for a moment looks like there's nowhere and no one in the world he'd rather be. Before I saw the film I wasn't sure if Gene Vincent deserves to be in the Hall; now I'm rethinking what 'deserves' means. —STEVE O’NEILL
Thanks for altering me to this strange and depressing documentary. When I searched for it on YouTube it came up tagged as ‘VHS Abyss’ and that pretty much captures it. The way Vincent continually has to hassle and demand and threaten and beg to get paid. The humiliation you can see on his face when he tries to get his musicians to listen to him: it all made me think of P.J. Proby, another American from the rockabilly tradition who had his real career in the UK: “I am an artist and should be exempt from shit.” But then it turns out that in the TV studio (after that humiliation) and on stage the Wild Eagles are actually not bad and that Vincent can give strong performances—I love the way he pulls out “SHEEEE’S my baby now”—but also how the film is is evidence for David Thomas’s dictum that “bands rarely achieve reality on stage—mostly it happens in rehearsals, in secret.” That’s what happening with that so heartfelt “(I Heard) That Lonesome Whistle” in rehearsal—it’s fine onstage, Vincent gives it what he has, but that first time it’s the song giving him what it has and him giving it all back.
No, he wasn’t of the same stature as Elvis Chuck Berry Bo Diddley Fats Domino Jerry Lee Lewis Carl Perkins Buddy Holly Dion. And yet he produced one hit that turned out to be as unforgettable and emblematic as any in the music. He was starkly different, and told a different story: he always had a cloud of dissipation around him. Watch him and his band, the Blue Caps, doing “Be Bop a Lula” through the window of a walk up apartment in the fabulous 1956 rock ‘n’ roll showcase film The Girl Can’t Help It—lead guitarist Cliff Gallup is twisting his fingers in the strings in his acoustic guitar and twisting his face like Vic Morrow in Blackboard Jungle and there’s Gene Vincent, so skinny he looks like something’s wrong with him, he’s only 21 but there are already lines in his face, he has to fight through his bad looks to get the song across, and he does. Not only that— what seems like a standard rock ‘n’ roll name-of-girl song becomes a talisman, a fundament, an embodiment of the whole form, so that when years later the Doors rework the rhythm for “Roadhouse Blues” and Jim Morrison even falls into bop-a-lu-la in the middle it not only makes perfect sense, it makes invisible sense, as if the original was always there, not made but found.
I don’t think you can or should take people out of halls of fame. Ty Cobb was a racist and he never hid it. Should he go out of Cooperstown, as if dozens of others there didn’t hate the fact that Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey were ever born? Take out Journey? Let the place live with its shame.
Hey, Greil - What happen with the job of rock critic? Only looking for a moneymaker? —EDUARDO
If what you mean is that rock critics are only in it for the money, I’m sure a lot of people would like to know where the money is. I suspect that isn’t what you mean, but if it’s something else I’m not sure what it is.
Back in 2007 when the Dylan biopic I’m Not There was released, Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Chicago Reader site was a hub for film buffs looking for serious long format movie reviews. It also had an active comments section.
A person who may have been Bob Dylan himself (“The Man who would be Bob Dylan”—link here) left a comment on Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review for I’m Not There, which linked to a very lengthy blog post criticizing Rosenbaum’s film review, attacking Haynes’ film… and attempting to set the record straight on Mr. Dylan. All by someone who writes as Dylan, in a very convincing way.
Were you aware of this post, and do you have an opinion on whether or not it was written by Bob Dylan? You were mentioned in the piece.
Your unique insight into the man in question might help solve this little mystery. —JAKE FINCH
I wasn’t aware of the pseudo-Dylan post. I’d seen Jonathan Rosenbaum’s piece. There’s no way in the world that post is from Bob Dylan. First, he’d never write “I wanna.” He had a serious high school English teacher, B.J. Rolfzen, who he respected and who respected him. “Ain’t” and double negatives in songs are one one thing; “I wanna” in prose would be disrespectful. And Dylan is a trickster, a prankster; if he wanted to comment on a review he’d likely contrive a piece out of bits of other reviews. And—he was presented with Todd Haynes’s idea for the film, on an initial request for permission to use songs and any other protected material, and Dylan’s response was, in essence, run with it. Whatever he might have thought of the whale about to swallow Woody, he had to have said, “Yes, that’s exactly what I meant!” with “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken,” coming out of LBJ’s mouth on a TV monitor.
JR knows a lot, thinks through what he knows, but he has no sense of humor and can’t abide symbolism. So I’m Not There is going to get completely away from him. The film as a series of insults? Only if you think any of Haynes’s imaginary incarnations are meant to even reference a real person self-named Bob Dylan more than the cover of Highway 61 Revisited in Haynes’s Wonderstruck is meant to be a person, not a talisman of a fictional character in a movie.
I’m Not There is a funhouse. JR is the last person who could take the rides. The faux Dylan can’t even find his ticket.
As someone too young to recall, imagine my surprise, reading—in a book about Apollo 8, of all things—that the White Album came out just two weeks before Beggars Banquet, to finish out 1968. Do you recall the first time you heard each one? Any compare/contrast thoughts, then and/or now? Any sense of the two talking to each other?
And while I'm at it, any memories of Apollo 8? —ANDREW
I don’t recall the two together. Seem like very discrete events. I have clear memories of listening to both albums obsessively, as world-historical present-moment explorations of life itself, over and over with favorite songs changing by the day, shaking my head over what it took to get ‘the Kennedys’ into “Sympathy for the Devil” when it so obviously started out as ‘Kennedy,’ finally settling on “Salt of the Earth,” and somewhere else going from “Glass Onion” to “Yer Blues” and on from there, round and round.
I don’t remember anything about Apollo 8.
Dearest Greil, does “Hattie Carroll” make you cry? I saw Bob do it on Steve Allen on 2/24/64 and I’ll still listening to it, still pissed that little has changed and still tear-soaked and heartbroken. Lovingly—BOB.
It still shocks me. I devoted many pages in my book Folk Music to the source of the enduring power of the song. A lot of it has to to with the depth of emotion the song, as a thing apart, with its own agency, is so often able to draw from its own composer and singer, decades after it was written and first performed—you can hear that perhaps most vividly on the box set Rolling Thunder Revue. And the source of that, it seemed to me, was craft. Dylan devised , or stumbled on, a scheme where the song was structured as a narrative ladder, taking the singer and the listener up, step by painful step, and then casting them down to the bottom with each chorus. In that way the song is Sisyphean—except here, with the last chorus, Sisyphus succeeds in pushing the stone to the top of the hill, and then looks down on the world that knew he would never make it. Camus wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus that in the end, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Here Sisyphus, as the composer and singer, may be happy that craft has finally conquered an otherwise untellable story, and despairing, raging, that, as the song has kept its subject alive in human memory, she remains dead, with the obscenity that is a certain way she was forced to give her life for someone else’s art.
Did you ever read Richard Carlin’s biography of Morris Levy, Godfather of the Music Business? Endorsements from Steven Van Zandt and Joel Selvin made me wonder if you had. —BEN MERLISS
I don’t know that book. Richard Carlin is not, in earlier books, a deep diver. The book that opens up the story is Justin Picardie and Dorothy Wade’s Music Man, ostensibly about Ahmet Ertegun and Atlantic Records, but rooted and branched in interviews with Levy as the man who knew where all the bodies were buried because he’d buried them himself and his memory was sharp and, you can’t help thinking, he thought Picardie and Wade were very cute.