Online Exchange with Greil Marcus, part 2

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> >From: Scott Woods
> >Subject: Question for Greil
> >Date: Monday, March 18, 2002 1:07 AM

Your book jackets have only hinted at your career (or part-time profession) as a teacher--you've taught American Studies is all I know for sure. What and where have you taught? Is it something you've enjoyed doing? And did pop music ever enter into the curriculum?

I taught an American Studies honors seminar for sophomores at Berkeley in 1971-72. I was still a graduate student. I was thrilled at the chance--when I took the same course in 1964-65, I found my subject matter, I discovered what it meant to be a student, I learned how good teachers could be, reading and writing became more than either had ever been. My teachers were the late Michael Rogin, who died last fall, and Larzer Ziff. I was arrogant and self-important enough in 1971 to think I could follow their examples, and I was wrong. I was utterly unsuited to be a teacher. I had no patience, and a teacher without patience is not a teacher. It was a year of misery and failure. Oddly, lasting friendships came out of it--there are two people who were my students who remain close friends, and one, David Ensor, who I keep up with by watching his work as a foreign correspondent for ABC News--but I had had enough bad teachers not to want to become one. I had always expected to get a Ph.D. and become a professor, but that year taught me I had to do something else. There was no point spending my life doing something I wasn't good at and didn't like doing. That was the effective end of my university career.

The curriculum was extremely traditional: the Puritans, the American Renaissance writers, the founding fathers, Lincoln, Twain, Hemingway. I had already finished my first go-round at Rolling Stone, and was beginning to write for Creem; students asked me to introduce rock and roll into the class, but I said I thought college was for finding out about stuff one wouldn't find out about otherwise. I still believe that.

I didn't teach again until 2000, when I was invited to apply for a teaching fellowship in American Studies at Princeton. I taught the course first at Berkeley, in the spring, and in the fall at Princeton: "Prophecy and the American Voice." That meant not prophecy in terms of predicting the future, but prophecy in the Old Testament sense, the prophet as one who delivers judgment on a society, and America itself as a society, or a nation, that, seeing itself blessed beyond all others, carries within itself the expectation that it will be judged more harshly than any other, even if it has to pass and carry out that judgment itself. Again the curriculum was traditional, beginning with John Winthrop, the original Puritan governor of Massachusetts, and his 1630 sermon "A Model of Christian Charity," and moving from there across three more texts on its level and following its example: Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, Martin Luther King's 1963 March on Washington speech, and Allen Ginsberg's long poem "Wichita Vortex Sutra," both as it was written in 1966 and as Ginsberg performed it, with an orchestra of downtown New York musicians, in 1994. There were novels: Lee Smith's The Devil's Dream (read along with Nick Tosches' Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story), Philip Roth's American Pastoral, Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo. There were movies, watched in class (it was a 3 hour seminar, so we could see a movie and discuss it immediately after): The Manchurian Candidate and three versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers: the 1956 Don Siegel original, the 1978 Phil Kaufman remake, and Pleasantville, which to me is precisely the same story, except here the humans take over the pods. There was Taylor Branch's Martin Luther King biography Parting the Waters, read in its entirety; an essay on Lincoln by Edmund Wilson; JFK's Inaugural Address, and the most intense and unforgiving of all prophecies, The Book of Amos. There was music: the Revenant collection Raw Pre-War Gospel, Bob Dylan's 1990s albums--Good As I Been to You, World Gone Wrong, and Time Out of Mind, along with the complete text of Saved! gospel speeches Dylan delivered from the stage from 1978-81--and a CD of Martin Luther King speeches (Revenant and CBS provided 20 copies of each of their titles for free, which allowed me to give the CDs to students at the beginning of the term so they could listen to them casually, over time, rather than studying them for a week).

The classes at Berkeley and Princeton were completely different. At Cal there were 16 students, and for the first half of the semester usually 3 or 4 would be absent. There were two women about 40, one 30, the rest about 20, only three men, one African American, one Hispanic American, one French person, and no Jews. At Princeton all 19 students were about 20. There was one African-American and one Chinese American, and no Jews, and more men. Until the very end no one was ever absent. At Berkeley people dove into the material with a sense that it was about them, that they were part of its drama. While the classes on Winthrop and "Invasion" #1 and Lincoln and gospel music fell flat at both Cal and Princeton, and the Roth and Ginsberg classes were fantastic at both places, otherwise there were no parallels. At Princeton, students who were direct and passionate outside of class were reticent and analytical in class. There was no sense of complicity with the material, no sense that it had anything to do with their lives. I remember one very sophisticated discussion of The Devil's Dream and saying, after a break, that while I had learned a tremendous amount about the book from the discussion (which was true for most classes in both places), I couldn't tell from anything anyone said if anyone had actually liked it. The students at Berkeley made noise in class. The Princeton students made noise in their papers, which were imaginative, funny, daring, ambitious, while papers at Cal were more narrowly framed and less intellectually alive.

I talked a lot to other teachers at Princeton about my feeling that the classes were airless. With one exception, every professor said, in effect, "That's Princeton." I heard again and again that it was the student culture: "Princeton students find out very quickly that it's considered uncool to display passion about an intellectual subject in front of one's peers." But when the class was over, I went out drinking with a few of the students and raised the question again: "We find out very quickly," they said, "that professors here aren't interested in our responses or opinions. They want stuff analyzed, from a distance."

My approach was to keep quiet. My ideal class, which didn't happen, would have been one in which I didn't say a word. I discovered that as a discussion developed, and it seemed to me absolutely essential that a certain point be raised or example be given, if I kept my mouth shut, within minutes that point would be made, that example, or a better one, would surface. Within a few weeks, I had one or two students begin each class discussion, according to his or her choice of an approach: a whole agenda, one provocative question, followed through, whatever people could come up with. This worked.

I also found, at Cal, that bringing someone whose work was being discussed into the class made a huge difference in terms of the students committing themselves to the class. I invited Phil Kaufman to come to class just after we'd finished watching his Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I assumed that at some point someone would ask him, "Why did you do this picture?" and he'd say something like, "Well, my first two movies had been commercial and critical flops, and I was offered this project, and it was a chance to keep directing and pay my mortgage, so I took it." That turned out to be the first question asked, and his answer was, "It was 1978, the beginning of the New Age movement, and I was living in San Francisco, and everywhere I looked, all I saw were pods." He began the discussion on a philosophical level and it stayed there. I never had another absence. At Princeton, students are not absent, but I still needed that kind of visit to power the class, and for one reason or another it didn't work out (Phil Kaufman happened to be in New York the week we were seeing his movie, promoting Quills, but wasn't able to take off a day and come to Princeton).

I could go on for thousands upon thousands of words more. I could talk about my culture shock over Princeton as such--the place, the town (or lack of it), the people, vs. Berkeley, which is were I went and where I live. I could discuss students individually, and the difference between grades at Cal and Princeton, and the effect of the election on the class, and much more, but this is enough for now. What it comes down to is this: I learned to keep my mouth shut, and I'll be back at Princeton this fall, teaching an American Studies seminar called "Practical Criticism."

One highlight: on the train back from Princeton to New York one evening, I saw a thin blond man get up from his seat in front of me just as we were pulling into Penn Station. It took me a split second to recognize him: David Ensor, from my American Studies class 29 years before. By the time I got up to follow him the aisle of the full car was jammed and I never caught up with him, to say, "You'll never guess what I'm doing now . . ."

What's the most valuable thing you've learned about your own writing from an editor you've worked with?

I can't answer the question. I have had good relationships with editors, especially Lindsay Waters at Harvard University Press and Jon Riley, now at Faber & Faber, over very long periods of time. I'm not sure what I've learned from them. They are friends, and I trust their judgment. I have had extraordinarily good editing from countless people--Robert Christgau, Jim Miller, Kit Rachlis, M. Mark, David Frankel, Doug Simmons, Ingrid Sischy, and many more. I'm sure I could have learned a lot from them if I'd paid more attention. But what I mostly remember is again and again thinking, Thank God, he/she saved me from ruin! Again!

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> >From: Brian O'Neill
> >Subject: Question for Greil
> >Date: Monday, March 18, 2002 7:55 PM

Lipstick Traces came out at the last moment it was possible for nay-sayers to write off the Sex Pistols and punk in general as a fad due to the lack of commercial acceptance. Does the subsequent success of the movement the Pistols started add further validity to their legacy? Or on the other hand, doesn't it now make comparing punk to any "counterculture" movements such as Dada kind of erroneous since punk is no longer counterculture at all?

Someone--maybe Malcolm McLaren, maybe Jamie Reid, maybe Johnny Rotten, maybe someone else--said "The Sex Pistols were a one-band movement." Meaning that everyone and everything that circled around them, that was pulled into their black hole, that was inspired by their example, was something else--on another plane of seriousness, intensity, and we-don't-care. I think this is right, and that while the commercial success of Nirvana says a lot about punk, it may not say anything about the Sex Pistols.

I've said this before, but I'm always amazed to find out, by happenstance, how true it is: whether or not punk is counterculture, or ever was--in a sense it was elsewhereculture, maybe--the Sex Pistols were on the other side of whatever line you might want to draw, and they have not been absorbed, recuperated, brought back into the fold, their disease made into a cure. They have not been able to absorb themselves, to bring what they did back into the fold of who they were before and who they are now. Not that I begrudge them a penny of all they can collect from every reunion tour from now to doomsday. But the reason Sex Pistols records are almost never played on the radio--not by mainstream FM stations focusing on the '70s and '80s, college stations, pirate stations, Pacifica stations--is that once a Sex Pistols record appears on the air, everything around it, anything played just before or after, sounds stupid and compromised. The idea that "Marilyn Manson [or whoever] makes the Sex Pistols sound like the Chipmunks" has always been a joke on whoever tells it--the demands in that music--"Anarchy in the UK," "God Save the Queen," "Pretty Vacant," "Bodies," "Holidays in the Sun," "Belsen"--are irreducible, and no one has gotten to the bottom of them yet.

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> >From: Daniel Villalobos
> >Subject: Question for Greil
> >Date: Tue, 19 Mar 2002 12:38:18

What do you think about Almost Famous? I really hate that movie, but all my friends just loved it. All right, it's just a movie, but for me it was also a sign. A sign of hard times. How do you point to the enemy, when the enemy is listening to your music? And putting it on his soundtrack?

Some of my problems with Almost Famous come from being at least tangentially part of its milieu. I had left Rolling Stone (1970) before Cameron Crowe became a presence there, and when I came back (1975) he wasn't around. We've never met. But the picture of the place makes no sense--like so much of the film. It starts with the hero's idiot mother, who by the end of the movie will become a fount of wisdom no one can resist, just because. The portraits of Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres, writer David Felton, and editor Jann Wenner are just as other-worldly: the idea that Ben was a dope who could be fooled by a kid's earnestness, or that Jann would hold the cover of his magazine for an unwritten story on an unknown band by an untried writer is--by the time the movie is set--absurd (in the early days of the magazine anything went). The denouement of the movie--the young writer turning in a warts and all piece--is ridiculous. Cameron Crowe made his reputation by writing expert, convincing pieces that showed musicians as decent, interesting, conflicted, real people, to the point that soon enough many refused to be interviewed by Rolling Stone unless Crowe had the assignment, knowing how we'll they'd come off in his hands. Cameron had a lot to do--I don't mean intentionally--with turning Rolling Stone from an independent voice into a publicity machine (the economy in general had a lot more to do with it). And I didn't like Kate Hudson.

I did like Billy Crudup--he's perfect riffing on "Peggy Sue" when the plane seems about to crash. He's always good, because on camera he projects modesty. I liked Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs. "He's not much like the Lester we knew," my wife said, and that's true, but to a degree I played an older-brother role for Lester, which is the role he's playing for the Cameron Crowe character in the movie. Whenever Hoffman was onscreen I felt real heart, Crowe trying to live up to his story and succeeding. Here, Lester Bangs seemed as unforced as everyone picking up "Tiny Dancer" in the plane.

I haven't seen Say Anything, which people love, or more than a few scenes of Jerry McGuire on an airplane. I thought Couples was OK and Vanilla Sky an abomination, even as a recruiting ad for Scientology. Fast Times at Ridgemont High remains a miracle--funny, honest, imaginative, unbelievable cast, fine direction, not a false note, and many brave ones, especially because the book Crowe wrote, on which he based his wonderful screenplay (not that I know how much of his screenplay is actually on the screen), is so unconvincing.

When we saw the movie, in New York, in a theater now ruined by the terrorist attacks on the city, there were six people in the seats.

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> >From: Brent Sanders
> >Subject: Questions for Greil
> >Date: Wednesday, March 20, 2002 10:54 PM

In Jim DeRogatis's excellent biography of Lester Bangs, the valid point is made that Bangs' legacy was ill-served by the editor's choice of material. Said editor would be Mr. Marcus. The theory is that since Lester's freewheeling, hooligan-in-print style was the polar opposite of the rather dry, scholarly style of pseudo-bohemian hucksters like Marcus, Christgau, etc., the idea of letting his work be anthologized by the like would leave it open to A) a complete misrepresentation of his work, and/or B) a subconscious desire to show Bangs' work as mere buffoonery without illustrating or presenting the genuinely solid philosophy behind his writings. A solid point that Mr. Marcus should address.

The second question (well, Hell...they may not really be questions, so much as points for Mr. Marcus to expound deep upon...let's appeal to the ego, here) was that while Marcus' writing in articles I have read does seem to enhance and enlighten, his books seem just pompous, long-winded exercises in semantic gymnastics. I read an interview with him a few years ago, in which he was asked about his book on Dylan's Basement Tapes. His answer went something like, " Well, I wanted to write a book, so...". Whoa, such inspiration. Pick a subject, showcase my intelligence, pick up an award, badda bing, badda boom. I mean, was he really inspired by this music, or just wanting to give his thesaurus a workout? As one of the few people who has actually seen Mr. Marcus perform (as part of the Critic's Chorus with the Rock Bottom Remainders), I can honestly say he does indeed love the music he writes about; the sheer joy on his face was obvious. But his book-length writing seems to strip away all the transcendence and bog it down into mere dissertation. Even his much lauded, highly overrated Mystery Train is a lugubrious trail that doesn't illuminate or inspire so much as it plods along in it's quest to illustrate what we already know: this music can change your life, Sparky. And the high-handed tone is so blatant as to scream out it's desire to teach us unwashed heathens a thing or two. Quite frankly, his book-length work seems damn anti-Rock and Roll. Do I just not get it?

Sorry--as I've said elsewhere in this conversation, it's not up to me to convince people my writing is wonderful/essential/decent/tolerable if the writing itself doesn't convince/interest/intrigue/provoke whoever might read it. The questioner already knows what he thinks.

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> >From: Tom Sawyer
> >Subject: Questions for Greil
> >Date: Thursday, March 21, 2002 10:17 PM

My questions are about the discography in Stranded (I've never come across the reprinted edition, so my apologies if you've touched on the first two of these):

1) Are there any entries on that list that you would drop today?
2) Is there anything from that time period (pre-1979) that you now wish you'd included?
3) Name 20 records--albums or singles--from the past 23 years that rank with those on your
Stranded list.

The second edition of Stranded was published in 1996 by Da Capo; it is itself out of print now, as Da Capo recently dropped many of their music titles. There was a new introduction by Robert Christgau, a new preface I wrote about the tortured publishing history of the thing the first time around, and updated contributors' bios.

I've rarely had as much fun writing as I did in the couple of weeks I took to write the original Stranded Discography. As soon as the book was published in 1979, I started marking up a copy with stuff I'd forgotten or stuff that had come out afterward--and almost immediately quit. With hip-hop, the continuing flood of punk singles and albums, the more obscure corners of Jamaican music--I never made the connection to African music--and then the true explosion of the revision of the history of popular music by means of CDs--the kind of discography I'd played with would have required a whole book, updated every few years at that.

In the margins of that 1979 edition there is, from 1979 or 1980, the Beat, "Twist and Crawl" and "Stand Down Margaret," the Brains' "Money Changes Everything" (of course I'd add Cyndi Lauper's version, along with "Girls Just Want to Have Fun"), London Calling by the Clash, Sam Cooke's One Night Stand: Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, Essential Logic's Wake Up, Broken English by Marianne Faithfull, Fleetwood Mac's Tusk, Entertainment! by the Gang of Four, Jefferson Airplane's 1966 already included "Runnin' Round This World" crossed out, Shorty Long's missed 1964 "Devil With a Blue Dress On," the Mekons' "Never Been in a Riot" (now I'd add Fear and Whiskey, The Edge of the World, The Mekons Story, and The Curse of the Mekons at the very least), the Melodians' profound Pre-meditation, a 1979 collection of releases from 1965-72, the Raindrops' missed 1964 "Let's go Together," the Prince Buster Judge Dread series, Sam & Dave's missed "Hold On I'm Comin'" (dropped and not caught originally, not omitted).

What I'd really missed: most of the Velvet Underground, which didn't come across for me, perhaps because of West Coast snobbery, until punk had opened it up for me. Most of Pere Ubu before Stranded came out and certainly afterward, until the 1990s, when to me the band made its best music, still continuing through Raygun Suitcase, Story of My Life, Pennsylvania and last year's Surf's Up, plus David Thomas's live Meadville. Much Southern soul that barely got out of the south in the late '60s or early '70s (now collected on Down and Out: The Sad Soul of the Deep South). Also much early commercial folk: I'd add the Kingston Trio's "Tom Dooley" and Peter Paul & Mary's "Don't Think Twice" and "Too Much of Nothing"--I was much too cool to mention them the first time around.

What I'd add, now, just off the top of my head, ignoring the hundreds or thousands of discs that CD reissue projects would mandate: Grandmaster Flash, "Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel" and "The Message," the Geto Boys' "Mind Playing Tricks On Me," Alphaville's "Big in Japan" and "Forever Young," Foreigner's "Urgent" and the transcendent "I Want to Know What Love Is," most of the Peter Green Fleetwood Mac's early music, Heaven's to Betsy's singles, Sleater-Kinney's Call the Doctor and All Hands on the Bad One, Nirvana's Bleach, Nevermind, and Unplugged in New York, Bob Dylan's Unplugged and Time Out of Mind, Billy Ocean's "Slow Train Coming," "Tenderness" by General Public," Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, Elvis Costello's King of America plus the singles "Let Them All Talk," "Everyday I Write the Book" and "All This Useless Beauty," the Slits' 1977 demos collected on the 1980 Once Upon a Time in a Living Room, the soundtrack album to my book Lipstick Traces, Counting Crows' "Mr. Jones," Eleventh Dream Day's Lived to Tell, Madonna's "Live to Tell," "Holiday" and especially "Like a Prayer," Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP, PJ Harvey's To Bring You My Love, everything by the Handsome Family, Lou Reed's Ecstasy (among many great solo albums), Big Sandy's L.A. doo wop tribute Dedicated to You, Come's Don't Ask Don't Tell, DJ Shadow's Endtroducing, Van Morrison's The Healing Game, Daft Punk's Homework, Hooverphonic's A New Stereophonic Sound Spectacular (now I'm looking through old notes), the box of Costello & Nieve 1998 live shows--see what I mean? I could keep this going all day and not come close.

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> >From: Tom Sawyer
> >Subject: more questions for Greil
> >Date: Saturday, March 23, 2002 11:00 AM

I'm interested in your thoughts/impressions on any or all of the following:

  • Eminem

    The best New Dylan in years, because he's also the New Prince--in love with words, and he swings, he knows a beat from a bleat, he can keep up with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog, he's as funny as Pete Townshend. Scary, because he gets down under anyone's skin, can make anyone uncomfortable, including, quite obviously, himself. Not a clue where he might go, what he might do.

  • Ryan Adams


  • Lucinda Williams

    As great an emotional fraud as Destiny's Child--wins the prize over them as the most mannered singer in pop music because she's been fooling people with it longer. A monster of self-praise, of the poor-mouth, to her own self be true, but I love one of her comments in the current Esquire: "Some of my best friends are music critics." What a shock.

  • The White Stripes

    I'd have more to say if I could find their earlier records. Their sister/brother wife/husband mystique is about as interesting as the debate over how Jeff Kent broke his wrist, though.

  • Jay-Z


  • Alanis Morissette

    Does not know a beat from a bleat. I still think "You Oughta Know" is the whiniest record ever made. She's better in movies.

  • Aimee Mann

    Up there with Lucinda Williams, but a much more obnoxious whiner than Alanis Morissette--I mean, there's a difference between making a horrible hit record based on an irritating emotion and basing your whole life on it. The sense of entitlement, of condescension, comes off of her in waves. Given that a whole movie was based on her wisdom, though--who can forget every character, dead or alive, mouthing along to, "Wise Up," I think, in Magnolia? And then, lo and behold, everybody did wise up. Gosh.

  • Gorillaz

    Nothing to say.

  • O Brother, Where Art Thou

    It's not Fargo, but I liked the movie. I'm a sucker for George Clooney. His miming of Dan Tyminski's "Man of Constant Sorrow" was fabulous, as was the singing and arrangement. The pure-Coens' notion of having an a cappella "Oh Death" come out of the mouth of the Grand Klavern of the Ku Klux Klan, offering a philosophy lesson to the blues singer who's about to be lynched, was astonishing. The album is not as good--Gillian Welch, the Whites and the Cox Family are very dull, and after a while you realize the best thing there is the 1927 Harry McClintock version of "Big Rock Candy Mountain," which should have been on Anthology of American Folk Music. Still, it's no surprise the album reached so many people so strongly--if you don't know this music, it's like doors in a mountain opening, and you can't help but want to go inside. It's an old-timey version of The Harder They Come soundtrack, and there's as much to discover in a more-where-this-came-from sense as there was there.

  • Peer-to-peer file sharing (Napster, Morpheus, Gnutella, etc.)

    Haven't done it.

  • Michael Jackson's Invincible

    He lives. As in They Live. Doesn't anyone remember that he's a child molester?

  • The Beatles Anthology project (discs and/or videos)

    The good stuff is on their albums.

    Bob Dylan seems to have held your regard as a critic longer than anybody in rock & roll, so I'm wondering how you'd respond to the following debating proposition: Dylan is the towering figure of the rock & roll era. And, if so, why is it that the public, by and large, doesn't get it? (It seems to me that the inverse ratio of critical esteem to public acceptance--i.e., sales--is unmatched in the music, and he's forever the butt of easy jokes.) And one other thing: I don't think I've ever seen any criticism that comments on the huge changes in the quality of Dylan's voice over the years. Unlike almost any of his contemporaries, his voice has changed so much from his earliest recordings that, set side to side, you'd never recognize him as the same guy. Yet critics never really acknowledge this. Any thoughts?

    I don't think he's the towering figure of the rock & roll era. For one moment, from roughly the time Highway 61 Revisited was released in the fall of 1965 to the end of his tour in the UK in May 1966 he truly did tower over everything around him--everything, not just other musicians, but other artists, other politicians, other philosophers, other evangelists. He knew it, and you could hear the fact and the knowledge in his sound, and you can hear it now. But if anyone has to tower over an era, it was the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

    Dylan is a strange, dubious character. He has more to do with the Lone Ranger than John Wayne--"Who was that masked man?" He keeps his distance. He is from somewhere else. He not only speaks in riddles, he lives in them. For more than ten years, he has had more in common with a dead blues singer or old-time ballad singer than with any contemporary.

    I think the reason the changes in his voice have not much been commented on--and I think this because your question made me realize how completely I'd ignored the question myself--is that, despite changes in tone, pitch, clarity, etc.--any formal description--the attack, the point of view, the way in which the voice enters a piece of music, what it does there, how it gets out, or how the music gets away, if it does--has not changed. That is: it remains unpredictable. It's music as a game of three-card monte. This hasn't always been true. It wasn't true for Slow Train, Saved, Shot of Love, Infidels. But the way in which the singer works on "The Drifter's Escape," "Like a Rolling Stone," "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," and "High Water" defines Dylan as a singer, and defines his voice, in the greatest sense. As long as Dylan can draw breath, I imagine this will matter more than the actual sound he makes--because the twisting and turning that goes on in performances like these, the ability to bring a whole world into focus with the dramatization of a single syllable--the first "care" in "High Water" say--is the actual sound he makes.

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    > >From: William Altreuter
    > >Subject: Question for Greil
    > >Date: Sunday, March 24, 2002 9:13 AM

    Rock music seems very atomized at the moment, a category which contains a number of very specific sub-genres. Is it meaningful to talk about "rock music" as anything more than part of the trinity of blues based American popular music forms? Was it ever?

    For Noisefest in San Francisco a few weeks ago, I was on a panel with other writers. One, Gina Arnold, author of Route 666 and Kiss This, also teaches swimming and diving to younger students. She had mentioned the panel she was going to be part of, and her students asked what it was about. "'Is Rock Dead?'" she said (it wasn't, but the theme was so vague I can't even remember what it actually was). None of her students knew what "rock" was. That seemed to answer the question.

    I stopped using the term "rock & roll" to apply to anything contemporary years ago, because it seemed to have been completely emptied of meaning. If anything, by 1993 or so the term seemed to refer only to a certain style of playing, i.e., rockabilly. In other words, "rock & roll" had been reduced to the same level of meaning, or un-meaning, as it had long had in the UK. In my frame of reference, though, "rock & roll" meant a way of being in the world, of talking about that manner of being, of separating yourself from all the assumptions that seemed to govern the world, of affirming that anything could be said at any time. It was a sound of surprise, both in terms of form, genre, style, but also of the individual voice, word, melody, note, riff, an interruption of the ordinary, the obvious, that could come at any time. It seemed to me that all of these things came together as a single standard of value, and it was that value that defined rock & roll, and made it different from any of its antecedents. It was not blues. It was not country, swing, mainstream pop, or anything else. The music itself, as an idea, an impulse, asked Carl Perkins, "What would it mean to have fun?" and Perkins, who had never asked himself that question, because the limits of his life as he had been raised to respect them proscribed the question, answered with "Blue Suede Shoes." With the sound, the words, the will, the idea.

    I think it was Robert Christgau who called "Blue Suede Shoes" a protest song. In 1992 I could still hear the Geto Boys' "Mind Playing Tricks with Me" as part of the same culture, deriving from the same sense of value. In the 1950s and 1960s it made sense to consider all popular music that derived from and sought to extend and deepen that value as "rock & roll"--doo wop no less than rockabilly, Chicago soul no less than Motown, later Philly soul no less than LA country rock or the San Francisco sound, the Rolling Stones and reggae speaking the same language. I recall a conversation with Richard Meltzer one night, it might have been about "The T.A.M.I. Show," but he said, with great vehemence, as if a huge amount was at stake, something like, "The point is, it was ALL ROCK." Rock & roll contained multitudes, could absorb and transform anything without it itself losing its value, its purpose.

    This is clearly not true any more. When I stopped using the term "rock & roll" I used "pop music" instead--that is, I went with something that was not simply functionally meaningless, but which was obviously and aggressively meaningless. Now, at times, I can still hear that Public Enemy and Sleater-Kinney, Eminem and the Corrs, the Noonday Underground and Low all could and ought to travel under the same name. But it would be useless to write or speak as if they did, if one had any interest in getting something across to someone else.

    Why is this? There are a lot of reasons. Ethnic/identity politics. The historical fact that "rock & roll," which once signified music made by black musicians for black listeners--younger listeners who responded to the kind of stuff Alan Freed was playing in Cleveland in 1953 under the name "rock & roll" as if it was something new, not blues, jump-blues, swing, not like anything, too crude, too fast, too silly, for older listeners--had come, by the 1970s, to signify music almost exclusively made by white musicians for white listeners. The fact that with the appearance of reggae, punk, and hip-hop, not to mention music from Africa, Mexico, South America, and the Far East, the number of people vying for the attention of listeners expanded far more rapidly and to a much greater extent than the audience did, even though it was expanding too. Marketers, in order to somehow rationalize this situation, insisted on identifiable labels and pushed musicians to remain with genres. Listeners, in order to identify themselves to others and to themselves, did the same. Certainly there were times when "a rock & roll fan" could maintain an awareness of what was happening in "rock & roll," even if rock & roll meant, as with "The T.A.M.I. Show," Motown, James Brown, the Rolling Stones, the Liverpool groups, Jan & Dean, Lesley Gore, and more, more, more--"ALL ROCK." Now it is impossible. Can anyone be completely on top of Northwest female rock & roll, New York hip hop, San Francisco turntablism, Chicago British country, and several hundred other not meaningless groupings, at the same time?

    I long ago decided I couldn't, and didn't want to. I write about what reaches me, as someone who is simply present in culture. Whether that's good enough is for others to judge.

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    > >From: Patrick McAvoy
    > >Subject: Question for Greil
    > >Date: Wednesday, March 27, 2002 7:33 PM

    I know you have done a fair amount of research on Harry Smith and his life in the Berkeley area in the 1950s. I know he had connections with the San Francisco art scene. Did he know Pauline Kael at the time? I assume that they knew many of the same people, so I was curious if they were familiar with each others work. Thanks.

    I walk past the apartment where Harry Smith lived in the 1940s every day. It's at the foot of Panoramic Way in Berkeley, just above the football stadium, a basement apartment in a woodsy part of town. Certainly Pauline Kael and he knew each other. A few years ago, right when my fascination with Smith's work was reaching the point of obsession--the point where, for me, real work starts--I was talking to Pauline, and I said, "You know, when I started looking into all this, I knew nothing about Harry Smith. I didn't know if he was from Seattle or if he was from Mars." "Oh, he was from Mars," she said. She hadn't hestitated a second.

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