Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Outtakes from the Greil Marcus Interview

My interview with Greil Marcus, which ran in the online version of the "Village Voice" a couple of weeks back, was something of a dream assignment for me; Greil is one of my literary heroes, the guy who made me want to do the kind of pop culture criticism that I hope to do, y'know, when I grow up. So smashing our 90-minute interview into a reasonably succinct piece that not only profiled him but gave proper time to his new book on the Doors was a bit of a job; I went through a lot of drafts, and had to lose or not use what I felt was a lot of good quotes. As a result, in the spirit of the bootleg recordings and alternate versions that he so often focuses on in his work, I wanted to present a couple of outtakes from my profile of him.

First, there is that old standby, the alternate ending. I wrote two full versions of the piece: the one that ran in the "Voice," which was mostly about the book, and one for one of my classes, which was more about him. For that one, I sat in on one of his classes at the New School, and came up with this (I think, stronger) conclusion:

Marcus splits his time between the coasts, keeping a home in Berkeley, teaching at NYU and the New School in the fall. His New School course is called “The Old Weird America: Music as Dramatic Speech—from the Commonplace Song to Bob Dylan.” Sitting in front of the large class of undergraduates, clad in his omnipresent black suit and collarless black shirt, he tackles the topic of the day: the folk song “John Henry.” His students have been reading from John Henry Days, Colson Whitehead’s 2001 novel on the folk legend. He plays the tune, snatches of covers by Bruce Springsteen, Paul Robeson, the Smothers Brothers, Mississippi John Hurt, John Lee Hooker. He shows a YouTube video of Disney’s animated interpretation of the story. 

And he talks. He has notes on the table, but he only refers to them when he’s reading a quote. He talks like he writes, even when speaking extemporaneously: in a restless flurry of explanations, afterthoughts, footnotes, and parentheticals, tumbling from one idea into the next. He talks about the legend of John Henry, but also tells the true story of John Hardy, whose folk song became intertwined with Henry’s; of the Bath School disaster of 1927, the worst terrorist attack on the United States by one of its own citizens until Oklahoma City; of the kidnapping of the Lindberg baby; and of Jack Holmes and Tom Thurman, the kidnapper/murderers who died at the hands of an angry mob in 1933, victims of the last lynching in California history. As he talks, other songs and legends and figures drift into view (Uncle Dave Macon, “The Wreck of the Old 97,” Walter Mosley, Stagger Lee, Mary Gaitskill, “Dead Man’s Curve,” Huey Newton). It shouldn’t all fit together, but somehow it does, all of it.

The seats facing Marcus are filled; latecomers have to sit on the steps on either side of the raked lecture room. Talking beforehand, one student inquires of another, “I didn’t know you were in this class.”

“I’m not,” she replies. “I just came for the lecture.”

And secondly, here's the transcription of our full interview. It's long, but I think it's worth your time.

I’d like to start by talking about the new book—the last two, actually, which both eschew conventional biography in order to focus solely on the music, and the experience of listening to it. How did you arrive at that structure and format?

The idea was to see if I could write a book, starting with the Van Morrison book because I hadn’t thought of anything else at the time, just about listening to somebody. It would not be about the person, except in the most minimal way necessary to give the reader grounding. It would not try to analyze the person, talk about his motives, his influences, or her influences or anything like that. But just immerse myself in the music, and look for those moments, talking about Van Morrison, where a certain quest or a certain theme seemed to be at stake all through his music. It’s a musical quest, an attempt to find a note that really transcends language, or a moment. And that could happen in all different kinds of ways. I mean, this is something that I’ve thought about Van Morrison for many years. It wasn’t some lightbulb going off. I thought, well, I want to see if I can write a book following that theme, and I’ll just ignore everything where it seems to me nothing like that is at stake, nothing like that is really happening, and look for those moments where it did happen. And in the case of the Van Morrison book, that led to like skipping over 16 albums in 17 years, or something like that.

That’s one of my favorite things in the book—this one-page chapter that lists like a dozen albums, with very little comment.

But that was the way I heard it. I had enormous fun writing the book, I wrote it very quickly. I wrote it in a month. I mean, I didn’t do anything else—and I had obviously been listening most of my life, but also very intensely before that. And often I would have idea, ‘oh, I know I’m gonna write about this,’ and then something would just pop up that I had never thought about, maybe a song that never really registered, and it would just find its way in. So after that book was finished, published, I didn’t have any intent to write another one like that. And then, you know, as I describe in the book, one day I just was driving back and forth over the Bay Bridge, and was just struck by how many Doors songs I was hearing, and realized that this wasn’t just this Thursday—that’s the way it was all the time, and not just on one oldies station or something like that, all over the place. And not just one song, but all kinds of songs, while other groups from that same time had been kind of slotted in—‘okay, you want Bob Dylan, play this song. You want the Byrds, we play that song. We don’t play the Byrds, we play “Mr. Tambourine Man.” That’ll do.’ And I just thought this was remarkable; rather than trying to figure out, gosh, what’s the significance of this, what does this portend for the future, how does it help explain the past… What struck me was how terrific most of this stuff sounded, and how some of the songs, like ‘Roadhouse Blues’ and ‘L.A. Woman,’ seemed—to me anyway—to sound so much bigger and more ambitious that they had to me anyway at the time. So I thought, well, maybe I could do this.

And it was like a dare, because with Van Morrison, I had 45 years to work with. I had almost a lifetime of somebody’s work, a kind of vast terrain to explore. And here, here is a band that released their first album in 1967 and their last album in 1971, and that’s it. And I thought, could I possibly write a book about five years in a band’s life? And I just sort of bet that I could, and the publisher who I’d done the Van Morrison book with, who I’ve now done four books with, liked the idea. And I spent a lot time listening not just to the Doors music that I knew, but all kinds of arcane box sets and reissues and alternate takes and rehearsals and… But I think the thing that was really behind this was a number of years ago, the Doors put out this four-CD set called The Doors Bootlegs, ah, Boot Your Butt.

A distinguished title.

Yeah, I’m not quite sure what that means. Well, I mean, the cover shows someone being kicked in the ass, but I’m not sure how that relates to bootlegs. But in any case, it was this bizarre collection of I forget how many songs, but over four CDs, many, many songs… of audience recordings or some that had been actually made into bootlegs, vinyl bootlegs, at the time. Starting in early ’67 and going all the way to right before the Doors’ last show at the end of 1970. And what was so thrilling about this was you could stick this thing on—and these are awful recordings, y’know, this is not some professional or semi-professional bootlegger, these are just people with crappy recording equipment and maybe they’re in the front, maybe they’re in the back, people are talking next to them, that’s being picked up, and this is a long time ago with terrible equipment, little cassette machines and stuff like that, that people either traded or, like I said, actually put out. And Jim Morrison might sound like he’s across the street, and the band might sound as if it hasn’t come out of the men’s room yet or something, and yet there was something… what’s the right word… otherwordly about these recordings, as if you couldn’t believe these performances actually happened. A lot of the performances are very strong and chaotic and broken up by tirades or speeches or the song breaking down and then restarting, or people in the audience screaming abuse—all kinds of stuff is going on. And I just found it mesmerizing.

Y’know, here’s this collection of really terrible garbage… and I’m listening to the thing straight through. I didn’t want to stop. And then I played it again. And often when I was working on something else, I would just stick the thing on and play all four records as this most disruptive kind of background music. So I knew with this collection as a kind of shadow version of the Doors’ career, that I had that to work with too. I know there’s so much more available online that this collection represents—this was enough for me. So I had two versions of the Doors’ music: I had the official version, and the unofficial version, which was a lot closer to what I experienced when I was seeing them so often in 1967. I mean, I think my wife and I started going to see them in around March of ’67 in San Francisco, and they were playing San Fran all the time, almost every weekend, every other weekend, and we went many, many times. Because we were thrilled by them, although my wife said she always thought it was more performance art than music; she wasn’t as crazy about the music as I was. But we saw them in all different kinds of situations, before they were huge, national stars, and after too.

In many ways, the book is attempt to answer this question: Is it that otherwordly quality, or is it some other quality, that’s the reason they still have the kind of presence that you were talking about?

Well, I think ultimately, you know, it comes down to all sorts of things. They were a wonderful band. And they didn’t sound like, they didn’t play like, they didn’t approach music like any other band of their time. I mean, Ray Manzarek and John Densmore will say it’s because of their jazz background, they were really a jazz band, and there was so much jazz in their music. You know, that may be true, I don’t know. It’s never really what I heard—I don’t know enough about jazz, maybe, even to recognize it. But there was a lightness, there was a sure-footedness, that other bands didn’t have. They were able to leap from one place to another, both in performance and recording. So there’s that.

There’s Jim Morrison’s voice, which is a really remarkable thing, at its best. I mean, it had the smoothest texture, and yet that texture was enormously full, and you could hear all kinds of things going on as he sang. And he also, you know, he was a thinker. As a singer, he was a thinker. You hear him thinking over what he’s singing all the time. And that could put some people off, or it could be to some people (like me) completely fascinating. So there’s the music, and many other parts of it too.

But I think there’s one place in the book, where at least as well as I could, I was able to capture what I think the bedrock of the band’s… depth is. And that is that certainly in their first albums and in their performances in their first year, and then recaptured here and there as the years went on, along with a great sense of playfulness and intelligence—and you just, a song like ‘L.A. Woman’ is written by and arranged by, found by a singer and a band who are smart, thinking people, who are full of ideas, who are always saying, ‘How do we say this? How do we say this in a way that nobody else has? How do we do something that’s different, and that makes an old tired idea feel new, and that makes old tired musicians like us—you know, jaded, cynical—feel new too?’ And I hear that feeling on ‘L.A. Woman,’ but… there was at the beginning and in so many moments afterwards, less often captured in their official records than on the kind of bootlegs, where in any given performance, they had to confront an audience that might be thrilled to be hearing them, and might be angry, and might be fucked up, and might be full of rage, and rage that sometimes Morrison could and would elicit, and try to use as a source of energy, or try to use as a way to turn songs in different directions, and turn crowds. The dynamic of what is going on between Morrison and the audience in any given moment is just extraordinary. It’s not all ‘I am an erotic politician,’ you know, that famous statement he made, that he later made fun of because he knew how ludicrous it sounded, whether or not he believed it, whether or not he had any idea of what it meant, you know. ‘That sounded pretty good.’ He said much more interesting things about who the Doors were and what they were about.

There were two things. (I’m rambling a bit.) There were two things that seemed to me central. There’s a quest in Van Morrison’s music that’s purely musical, there may be a quest in the Doors’ music that is more social or political. I was trying to get to what made them different. What drew people to them? What drew me to them? And I ended up saying something like, ‘People wanted to be in the presence of a group of people who seemed to accept the present moment at face value.’ In other words, to take it with the seriousness that it deserved. And the present moment, in 1967, ’68, ’69, is horrible. We’re in the middle of this disgraceful genocidal war in Vietnam that seems unstoppable and unbreakable, whether it’s in 1968 when Lyndon Johnson is still President and has essentially dissolved the greatness of his presidency into the horror of his presidency, you have a presidential election going on that ends with the election of Richard Nixon, who ends up prosecuting the war with more viciousness and brutality than it ever had before, although he’s running against Hubert Humphrey, who’s running on a pro-war platform. And demonstrations had been going on around the country, building in size, building in scope, drawing in more and more people… seems to be having no impact at all. It is slowly turning the country against the war and ultimately those demonstrations did have a huge impact, but they weren’t then. You have Bobby Kennedy, you have Martin Luther King being assassinated, and riots all over the country. To accept the present moment at face value… that’s a big deal. That’s hard to do.

And to perform that—to come up with songs and music and gestures and postures to embody that, to communicate that… not to give speeches about it, not to say, ‘Ah, those people in Washington, they don’t care about you, take the power into your own hands’—which is what some stupid song like ‘5 to 1’ maybe says—not that at all. Just, y’know, we’re here, we’re doing our work, but there’s a seriousness behind it that can’t be denied. It can’t be game-said. And we’re gonna communicate that in the way we stand, the way we move—and I’m not saying they thought it out that way, I’m sure they didn’t. But that’s what I saw. And that’s what I saw, I think that’s what I saw at the time. But I know that’s what I saw now, when I looked into the music, when I listened to it, and when I saw what some of those songs demanded of people who were going to play them. The Doors could have very easily taken ‘The End’—which goes very close to self parody, and at the time, when it came out, people didn’t know if this was some kind of bizarre joke or whether it was as compelling and scary as it actually seemed to be. The Doors could have easily performed a fabulous self-parody of that song. And they never did. There was something in their songs, as they wrote them and as they conceived them and as they rehearsed them—that called on the people who were gonna play and sing those songs, to draw on reserves of seriousness, ambivalence, distrust, fright, ambition and defiance, that maybe they didn’t know they had before. You know, that’s what makes music interesting.

When you write a song, when you write a book, when you paint a painting, as that aesthetic artifact goes from whatever your intent in making it was—and it might have been casual, it might have been utterly self-seriousness, you know, it doesn’t matter—as that thing, that aesthetic artifact makes its journey from the instant to the intent of the artist toward becoming a thing in itself, it will start making demands on the artist. It will start challenging the artist, and the artist may fail that object, may not be able to realize it as he or she sees it needs to be realized. Or that artifact, that aesthetic object, may draw reserves of feeling, of thought, of fortitude, of determination from that person that weren’t there before, and change the person just as the person is putatively creating the object. So the object exerts a creative pull on the creator, just as the creator does. And that goes on in many Doors songs. You can hear that happen. And you can hear them fail, you can hear them fail to realize themselves, you can hear the song needed more, the song wanted more.

I was interviewing Olivier Assayas last year about his film Carlos, his five-and-a-half-hour biography/odyssey of Carlos the Jackal, the terrorist. He was talking about the music he was gonna use to score the film, and he talked about how normally he never uses scores or anything like that, he just uses songs that he likes. But he thought with this film, because it’s so long, because it has a kind of epic scope, that maybe it needed movie music. Maybe it needed classical music, maybe it needed film noir type music, but it needed, he thought, a score. And so he tried various dummy bits of music on it, and he said, ‘the film didn’t want it. The film laughed in my face.’ And I loved that idea—

That’s great.

—of, you know, of again, the aesthetic object, something he supposedly created, now has a mind of his own, has a will of its own. ‘I’m not gonna wear that dress. I’m only gonna wear pink,’ this what my granddaughter says. And I just thought, you know, this is put so beautifully. But I think that happens all the time, whenever any real aesthetic questions are at stake. So, you know, for me, it was the sense that the Doors… communicated, whether intentionally or not, that they were a group of people that could take the present at face value, the present moment at face value. They’re up to it. And it was scary. And not everybody was, and not everybody was for more than a few moments at a time.

There was another thing that Jim Morrison said, and other people could dismiss this as one of his pompous art statements, but I didn’t. And it was something he said in an article that I had kept all these years, I found when I started working on this book. I sort of remembered that I had a folder of Doors stuff, and I looked for it and I found it. It was a folder that contained a few articles, all from ’67 except one from ’68… it included a handbill from the Fillmore Auditorium where I’d written down the songs they’d played on the back… a bunch of Avalon Ballroom handbills, which were mini-versions of the posters that they’d do for that particular week, and some other things. And in these old articles, which god knows why I kept them, I guess it was in ’68, Morrison is saying,  ‘a Doors concert is a special kind of dramatic discussion between the audience and ourselves, called by us. We’re calling a meeting.’

I thought was an enormously rich idea. Whether or not it ever happened in the way he fantasized it, that notion would be in his hand when he’s standing on stage. And there are moments that you hear on this bootleg set, where he says to people just as Joe Strummer would do in 1977 in London, he would say, ‘Why are you here?’ With Jim Morrison, it’s more of a performance. With Joe Strummer, there were shows where he said that, where he would say it, he’d say, ‘We’re not gonna play right now. I wanna ask everybody a question: what are you doing here?’ And he’d wait! Because he wanted someone to start answering, because he actually wanted to know. With Morrison, when you hear him say that, I think he also wants to know, but he’s also before ten thousand people, and it’s kind of unwieldy. But I think he really wanted to know, but it’s also a device, it’s a challenge, it’s a way of throwing people back, and making them wonder why they’re here, what they want, what they expect, what they’re ready to accept or reject.

I never met any of the people in the band, I never saw them anywhere but from the audience. But I found great empathy for all of them, as people feeling their way through both the songs and the times. John Densmore’s book I read when it came out, Riders on the Storm, and I remember really liking it and finding it so different from musicians’ autobiographies or memoirs because he just doesn’t know what the fuck is going on. That’s sort of the subtext of the whole book is he’s really trying to figure it out, constantly. The book is written with a device that psychotherapists sometimes give to people: when you feel guilty about somebody’s death—you feel maybe it was your fault, you feel that you have to say to them the things you wanted to say that might’ve saved them, or let them die with a sense of equanimity and let you witness their death with a sense of equanimity—people often say, well sit down and write a letter to this person. Tell this person what you really feel, this departed person. Admit what you did wrong, say what your regrets are. Be angry. Just be totally open, don’t let worry the person’s not gonna answer you; we’re not gonna hold a séance or anything. And that’s the structure of John Densmore’s book. It starts out, ‘Dear Jim,’ or whatever, you know, ‘Well, Jim, it’s 1981,’ or you know, whatever. And that reoccurs throughout the book, and it’s not the strongest part of the book, but it gives you a sense of, you know, he’s trying to answer questions that all these years later, he doesn’t know the answers to. What happened? What was this about? What was it for? Could we have gone on one week longer than in fact we did? If you hadn’t died then, would the band have ended anyway? Should it have ended anyway? Should it have ended three years before? All these wonderful questions. And when I re-read the book, it was just as alive, and it was just as unstale. And that was a real spur too—not, just because someone had done good work on the Doors, I had to try to live up to it. I didn’t read every book on the Doors, there are any number of them, and most of them are god-awful and dishonest and self-serving.

Among some portion of contemporary music criticism, there’s a kind of dismissal of the band—they’re not lionized as some other groups of the period are. In the process of pitching the book, writing it, talking about it, have you encountered that kind of resistance to them?

I didn’t really pitch it, and I didn’t really discuss it with other people while I was writing it. I mean, again, this is a book I wrote very quickly. I just immersed myself in it. But it was easier to write, maybe, than any other book I’ve ever written, just because it was so much fun, and you know, when you’re writing a book in a month, you’re writing every day, you’re thinking about it constantly… and my wife and I take a walk every morning up in the Berkeley hills, and often on this walk, I’d be thinking about a chapter I was going to be writing later that day, on whatever song it might be, say ‘Soul Kitchen.’ And another song would pop in my head that I’d never thought about, never intended to write about, and within a few seconds the chapter would kind of take—chapter meaning, it could be three pages, could be seven pages—would take shape in my head, and I’d rush home and write that chapter and then in the afternoon, write the other one. So it was a dynamic process that way, so I wasn’t thinking about what other people thought of the band.

But I think that there’s a way in which people find the Doors embarrassing. Often people did now, and people do now. They find their excess embarrassing, they find their or Morrison’s inability to tell something good from something bad embarrassing—and you know, a lot of what they did was awful, terrible. And I think they find Jim Morrison himself… you know, he was a fucked-up guy. He was a helpless, degenerate alcoholic. There are things that ‘Jim Morrison,’ the character in the Oliver Stone movie does in the movie that are just absolutely horrendous, when he’s in a drunken rage or just a rage. And there’s a moment in an interview with Robbie Kreiger that I quote, where he says at one point, ‘All those stories are true, mostly.’ He doesn’t go into what ‘those stories’ are, but he’s essentially saying that every terrible story you heard about Jim Morrison is true, or might as well be, because if it didn’t happen on Tuesday, it happened on Thursday. And that’s a strong thing to say.

People are embarrassed by that, by the excess. They’re embarrassed by the out-of-controlness. But behind embarrassment is fear. People are afraid of being moved by somebody who is so fucked up. Now, we’re all moved by people who are very fucked up, that’s the history of art. We don’t necessarily like to confront that. And with Jim Morrison, all of that was out in public; you couldn’t avoid it, you couldn’t stay away from it. And because the work he was doing didn’t have the imprimatur of art, like say Dylan Thomas, you weren’t able to say, ‘Well, he’s an artist, this comes with the territory.’ With Dylan Thomas, you could say, ‘Yeah, but he’s an Irishman, and he’s a drunk, and that’s what makes him a great poet.’ Charlie Parker: ‘Well, yeah, of course he’s a junkie, but that’s what makes him such a genius. Without heroin to kill his pain, he wouldn’t be free to express this great sense of freedom and joy that we find in his music.’ That kind of art bullshit that people can use to justify their attraction to an artist who is somebody they wouldn’t necessarily want to be or that they’re terrified that they might become. With Jim Morrison, you’ve got a slobbery drunk. It didn’t have that romance, and he’s telling you, ‘I’m an artist, look at my poetry,’ and you think, ‘God, your poetry is awful.’ And otherwise, he’s not an artist, he’s just some rock and roll singer trying to get hits and make money. Easy to dismiss.

And there’s a moment in the book where I’m writing about ‘Roadhouse Blues,’ that fabulous, endless, bottomless song, and I quote John Densmore’s book, about how John Sebastian plays harmonica on it. It wasn’t in the studio, y’know, he overdubbed harmonica—this great harmonica, blues harmonica like John Sebastian never played it on his own records. And he’s, yeah, he’s getting freedom, he’s getting lift, lift-off from the track he’s playing against, he is absorbing this dynamism and trying to keep up with it—and he is keeping up with it. He’s doing a wonderful job. But he would not allow his name to be used on the album. And the story they put out was, he’s using a fake name because he’s under contract to another label. No, he didn’t want to be associated, he didn’t want his name associated with the band. They were disreputable, they were embarrassing, he didn’t want anyone to know. Yeah, they paid him five thousand dollars or whatever they paid him, he wanted the money, fine. But he didn’t want anyone to know he’d done it for them.

There’s a wonderful essay in the book called ‘The Doors in the So-Called Sixties’ where you talk about the Oliver Stone film about the Doors and about Morrison, and it was interesting to me because I saw that film on opening night, and caused me to remember my own experience, which was a powerful one but is now sort of separated from  a conventional wisdom about that film—that it’s a bad film, it’s overblown, what have you. Your essay refutes that, and does so well. Do you see what you do as, in some way, creating the opportunity to prompt those kinds of reevaluations?

No, not at all, really. I’m not trying to make people appreciate the Doors. I’m not trying to elevate them into some kind of pantheon or anything like that. I’m just trying to work with what’s there. I’ve always thought that criticism comes down to… Pauline Kael has put this much better than I have, but analyzing one’s own response, and trying to do it in a way that might actually be interesting to other people. It’s not gazing at your navel, you’re saying, ‘I’m one person in the audience, why am I reacting this way?’ Not presuming everyone’s gonna react that way—but anybody could. There’s nothing special about your reaction, there’s nothing privileged about it, it’s just you’re one of many people, and this is your reaction, and likely it’s shared by others, even if you don’t ever read them.

I’m not trying to accomplish anything, in that sense. Of course I watched the Oliver Stone movie again. I was enthralled by it, again. I didn’t feel any differently about it than I had the first time. I think it’s, you know, really a remarkable piece of work. I think Kevin Dillon is just fabulous as John Densmore, both in his demeanor and in the way he looks—and that’s a very small part in the movie, but it’s pretty wonderfully cast. I think it’s a terrific movie.

I mean, I do like Oliver Stone movies. Not every single one of them, but I think Natural Born Killers is incredible, in so many different ways, and you come out of that movie wanting to smash a window or drive through a traffic light or, you know, jump off a building. You’re just full of that kind of self-destructive energy. My wife and I saw that movie early, about 11:00 one morning, and then we went on our walk up in the hills, and at one point, there was a branch in the middle of the pathway. A big branch. And it was very dry, it was very hot, and it’s rattlesnake area. You’re careful when you walk up there. And you know, one thing you never do is you don’t just walk over a branch or kick a branch, because there could be a rattlesnake in the shade underneath it. And so my wife walked up to this branch and kicked it out of the way, and I said, ‘Don’t do that, there could be a rattlesnake there,’ and she said, ‘I don’t care, I just saw Natural Born Killers.’

Early in the book, you sort of mention, in passing, some contemporary music—you have this thing about a Lady Gaga song and a Train song, which sidetracks into a full-page appreciation of those songs. And your other books, and the “Rock Top 10” column, are full of references to very new stuff—things I haven’t heard, and I’m 35. So many of your contemporaries stopped listening to new popular music at a certain point, and look down on it in a certain way. It feels like you never did. I realize that some of staying tapped into that n is professional obligation, but the enthusiasm feels genuine. How do you sustain that when, as a critic, it’s so easy to get jaded and walk away?

Well, I love listening to the radio, and I love writing about music. And the two aren’t separated. I mean, obviously I play music too, I don’t only hear it on the radio—if that were true, I’d be listening to a very narrow spectrum of music. But when I’m listening, even when I’m just beside myself with pleasure, I’m also writing. In other words, thoughts and images are occurring to me. I’m always writing about something as I listen to it, even if I never actually write any words about it. That’s always going on, and I love that. So, you know, you could look at this, and you could say ‘here’s this old guy, writing about a band that he went to see when he was—‘ let’s see, when it was ’67, I was 22—‘and he’s revisiting his vanished youth’ and all of that sort of stuff. Which maybe is true, and maybe isn’t. But Lady Gaga and Train are in there because I’m trying to recount, I’m trying to give a look at a long-gone time, I’m trying to frame it, frame the thought processes that went into writing about it. And they have to do with the present moment—and not, oh the poverty of the present moment, and things were so much better then. Because I don’t believe that. I don’t feel that. But also, it’s a chance to try and write about what made those two songs so terrific, so wonderful. I wasn’t gonna pass that up!

As a reader who is also a writer, one thing that is intimidating about reading your work is that, for lack of a more artful way to put it,  you know about so much different stuff. You’re always referencing books, film, an obscure piece of music, a piece of ephemera, you’re so acquainted with so many points on this cultural map. I’m interested in that from a practical, logistical sense—you have a real life, a family, are you just reading and watching and listening all the time? How do you take in as much as if feels like you take in when I’m reading you?

I don’t know, I live a very ordinary life. I watch TV with my wife. We watch, y’know, The Good Wife and Law and Order reruns and stuff like that. We go to lots of movies. I read a lot of novels—I don’t read very much nonfiction. But I have a good library and I have a good memory. I have an office with lots of books and lots of records, and y’know, when I’m thinking about, say, what Richard Hamilton said about pop art, or what Dennis Potter said about using music in his films, I’ll remember where this notion of an idea came from, and I’ll be able to go get it, dig it out, look it up, and find the right words and I’m pretty good at that. I have a lot of reference books… and the Internet is a great labyrinth. You look up something to check a simple fact, and there’ll be some other fact in there you didn’t know about, which will send you off in some other direction, which may be a dead end, or may turn you in a different direction.

That’s like being up in the library stacks. When I was writing Lipstick Traces, I spent two, three years in the stacks of the University of California library, which most people weren’t permitted to do. I’d just go in there and wander around all day. And I’d go up there and I’d, say, be looking for a specific book about French culture in the 1950s. And it’d either be there or it wouldn’t be, but I’d get intrigued by the books that were, you know, on either side of where it was or where it was supposed to be, and I’d start looking. I remember one called French at the Half-Century—and I loved that phrase, ‘half-century’ instead of ‘mid-century.’ I just loved the ‘broken in half’ notion of it. So I picked it up and started to read it, and it was this obscure French sociological study about French youth at the half-century. And in it there, was a reference to something that I vaguely knew about, which sent me off in another direction, and ended up leading to a whole chapter of Lipstick Traces that never would have been there otherwise. In other words, I knew that a guy named Michael Mourre had staged this action in Notre Dame during Easter high mass in 1950, when dressed as a Dominican monk, in a pause in the service, he stands up and hides behind the altar and pronounces that God is dead, and there was this incredible riot.

I knew about this incident. But I didn’t know that he had written an autobiography almost immediately afterwards, and this little book mentioned it. So bam, I’m off, I’m getting this autobiography, and that led to forty, fifty pages in Lipstick Traces, and a grounding for, really, the whole book. It never would have been there if I hadn’t been just poking around. Nobody would’ve told me, I never would have known that this book existence. Or, what likely would have happened, is that I would have written the book, and it would have been a much poorer, less interesting book, or I never would have been able to finish it because I wouldn’t have had this wonderful launching pad… and then years later, after I’d abandoned the project or the poor book was published, somebody’d say, ‘Have you ever read Michael Mourre’s autobiography?’ And I’d say, you know, shoot me now.

In the book, there is the wonderful phrase where you write that pop culture is “the folk culture of the modern market”, that it is like “an unknown station playing unknown music, until both turn into secrets everyone wants to tell.” Tthere was a time when that was literally what would happen. Now it’s more of a metaphor. When and where do you see those kind of transactions taking place in this culture, and is it more or less likely?

I think it happens in much smaller spaces. In other words, those secrets don’t spread out instantly around the country, around the world—and by instantly, I mean, weeks, months, a year, something like that. But I think that same impulse is absolutely still there.

Look at the iPhone. Look at the way the way the iPhone started. It started as this cult object, as this fetish object. You know, it’s good looking… I mean, isn’t that cool? What does that mean? Look at all those talismanic symbols, I wonder what they are? And it started out as something that was very expensive—what’d it cost, $600 or something? And it was derided by all sorts of people, and I was probably one of them, as some sort of expensive status symbol, or just the latest electronic fetish object and you really didn’t need this and all that kind of stuff… But then people discover not only is it beautiful, not only is it cool—in the best sense of the word—but it’s also useful. And it really does make life easier. And not only does it make life easier, but it makes life more interesting and fun. And so this spreads like crazy, and suddenly everybody’s got, if not an iPhone but a version of it, and is walking down the street, and you bump into them because they’ve stopped in the middle of the street to text somebody… or you’re going to a concert like I did last night to see the Mekons at the Bell House in Brooklyn, and you’re standing next to some guy who is texting and checking websites all the way through this incredibly dynamic show, and you just wanna knock the thing out of his hand and say, ‘You paid fucking 18 dollars to get in, don’t you want to see what’s happening?’ And of course you know, that bright screen, because it doesn’t have a dimmer, is so distracting… Well, anyway.

It becomes like a major navigational tool for real life, and a major irritant, but you know, it’s part of life in an instant. So maybe this is a part of the folk culture of the modern market. This is a secret that everyone wanted to tell right away. But on the other hand, in the class that I teach at the New School, which is about old American folk music as a form of democratic speech, as a kind of speech that’s accessible to anybody and anybody can use in very highly individualistic ways, I play a song called ‘Dangerous Blues’ by a singer named Mattie May Thomas. And she was a prisoner at, I think, Angola Penitentiary—if it wasn’t there it was at Parchman in Mississippi. In any case, she was a longtime prisoner, and a folklorist came to the prison in 1939 and he wanted to record women at the prison. So these various women were either gathered of their own volition or brought in by the prison staff to the sewing room of the women’s prison to sing for this guy, and this woman sang three or four songs.

I was able to do a little research and find out this was her third stint in prison. I think she was first in prison in 1924, this was ’39, so she wasn’t young. And I don’t know what she did, what she was in prison for; she could have been in prison for sassing her employer, she could’ve killed somebody, she could’ve stolen something, someone could have had it in for her and railroaded her in, who knows. But she was no folksinger. She sang these various songs a capella. They’re pastiche songs, they’re blues songs made of bits and pieces of other songs that are just common coin, of what I’ve always called ‘commonplace songs.’ But she’s presenting them as her songs, this is a made-up song about being in prison alone, she says before one song. ‘A made-up song, I made it up. It’s my song.’ And every line in it is from some tall tale, some bragging song, some old ballad. But they’re put together in a different way, and they’re sung in a way that no one ever sang it. Whoever this woman was, she had a trained voice, she was a professional singer. She’s not just—it’s in the vibrato, it’s in the arc, it’s in the holding back. This was no folk singer, whoever the hell she is. And then she disappears; nobody knows what happened to her, nobody really knows anything about her at all.

So I’m poking around the Internet, seeing if I can find anything about her. Her music was re-released a few years ago; I thought maybe, because of that, some nephew, y’know, some son or daughter or friend, would go on the Internet and post something about her. Well, what I found was a MySpace page for Mattie May Thomas. It had a picture of a black woman, who could’ve been her in a different life—this looked like somebody from the ‘50s with a Jackie Kennedy curl in her hairdo. All of her songs posted on her MySpace page, things like ‘if you want to know more,’ and of course, if you want to know more, you click and there isn’t anything… And then there’s this list of her MySpace friends, y’know, which included people like Friedrich Nietzsche or Artaud or Hattie Smith or Aretha Franklin, all these dead people, all these living people… Whoever put the page up said, ‘These are people who I think have affinity with Mattie May Thomas.’ So then, you know, what’s this picture, what’s this doing? And I can’t remember if you just click on the picture… or what. But, oh, no, this page was put up, it turned out, by a Greek filmmaker named Biomass, that’s the name he goes by. There were links to various videos he’d made, and one of the videos includes footage of a black limbo dancer, and that’s the face that you see on the MySpace page—which I used in the Van Morrison book, because I wrote about both Biomass and Mattie May Thomas in that book. And he’s produced this incredible video, scored to a song called, I think it’s ‘Dangerous Blues.’ And he just samples the phrase ‘No mo’ freedom, no mo’ freedom.’ And he shows footage of Paris students rioting in 1968, all kinds of industrial production, and black limbo dancers, really incredible limbo dancers, six inches off the floor or something. And it just gets more and more frightening, because ‘No mo’ freedom, no mo’ freedom’ becomes more and more real, this redundant idea from the distant past, freedom.

So there’s trying to tell a secret about Mattie May Thomas, trying to tell the whole world about it. He wants you to add your name to his list of Mattie May Thomas’s—i.e., his—friends, and say, ‘Yes, I heard. Yes, I responded, and I’ll tell other people about this.’ Who knows, y’know? In five years or ten years—I mean, nobody looks at MySpace anymore, but maybe it’s now a Facebook page—people will be talking about Mattie May Thomas and maybe somebody will come out of the woodwork, and say yeah, I knew he she was. I know.

These books are about literally listening to music— the physical act, to some extend. I’m curious about how you listen to music. I read that you don’t have an iPod; is there a specific ritual, for lack of a better word, for when you’re listening to new music or a piece you’re going to write about?

I put on silk robes… And a Merlin hat… and I then I kneel before the altar of my stereo system… Um, no, the way I listen is I put on stuff while I’m working, while I’m writing. Not while I’m reading, I can’t read and listen to music at the same time. I can do one or the other. But when I’m writing, I put stuff on, and it will leap out. It will make me stop writing and say, what was that? Or, I heard that song a hundred times, I never heard that, what’s happening there? So I just put stuff on, and I let it catch my attention or not. That’s how I listen. Or I listen in the car, and when I listen in the car, I don’t put on the radio, I don’t have a CD player or cassette machine my car.

There’s a wonderful section about a live recording of “Roadhouse Blues” in Pittsburgh, and you do this kind of transcription/description of Morrison’s scat singing, wonderful riff—and you’re building the section in a way that almost seems to match what you’re talking about him doing in that performance. The writing is so dynamic, it has such a momentum, and as I read even your earliest work, I’m finding that energy/tempo has been present from the beginning—it’s something that’s always been a part of who you are as a writer. Is that borne out of music writing specifically? Or your particular influences? Where does that come from?

I know what you’re talking about, and I could talk about other writers who inspired me, influenced me, in all kinds of ways. But as far as that goes, I don’t think I’m a very good analyst. But I think I’m good at dramatizing things. And sometimes dramatizing something can become its own form of analysis—or when you’re dramatizing something, you’re trying to get into that spirit, then ideas flow from that, and they can become inseparable as you write from the dramatizing. So instead of simply saying, ‘What’s going on here is this, and this is what’s at stake, and these are the tools being used to achieve this kind of effect,’ you make that happen. And as it’s happening, you then talk about what’s happening. But you never lose the momentum, you never lose the thread, you never lose the thinking that’s going on at the same time as you’re being swept away. That’s what I do. I know that I do that, and I love doing it, but it’s not meant as an effect. It’s just… I wanna write about this performance, this 1970 Pittsburgh performance of ‘Roadhouse Blues,’ and how do I do that? How do I get across to somebody else, maybe who’s never gonna listen to this, who’s never gonna go out and spend $16 on this ‘Live in Pittsburgh’ Doors album—because God knows how many ‘live in 1970’ Doors albums there are out there, official ones, maybe dozens, I don’t have ‘em all—and someone who’s not gonna want to listen to that, but give them some sense of what’s happening. You know, not for their moral edification, but for their pleasure.”

How has the time you’ve spent over the last few years as teacher affected the way that you write—or has it?

I don’t know. I don’t know how to answer that. You know, when I first started teaching in 2000, and you know, I started out as a graduate student, I was gonna be a professor, and I taught for a year at Cal when I was a graduate student, I had my own class, an honors seminar. And I really hated doing it, and I was really bad at it. So I decided that wasn’t what I should do with my life. So I stopped, and that was in 1971, and I hadn’t ever taught anything since. Then I was invited to apply for this teaching fellowship at Princeton, and I did that in 2000, and I also started teaching at Berkeley at the same time. Those classes were all seminars, and at Berkeley where I’ve taught, I don’t know, six or seven times, I’ve only taught seminars. But since I started teaching at the New School, I’ve been teaching a lecture class, with a hundred or more students, which is very different. And, you know, maybe teaching that way, I’m more attuned to ‘am I getting across, are more people attuned to what I’m saying, is this working?’ Maybe I’m more attuned to that than I used to be. That, I’m not sure.

Except for finding, I found this out as soon as I started teaching in 2000 and it continues today, that the awareness of younger people—students who are 19, 20, 21—of, say, this kind of music, is staggering. I mean, I did a questionnaire the last time I taught at Princeton in 2006, for the seminar, and I asked students various questions so I could sort of orient myself toward them and around remember their names, know something about them and remember their names. And so I asked people what are your favorite books, movies, records, where are you from, have you traveled, stuff like that. And that year, out of I think 13 students, all very young age, three picked Astral Weeks as their favorite album. You know, it was made long before they were born. And I thought that was pretty remarkable. I also remember a wonderful seminar where ideas were being batted back and forth, and there was a very lively discussion going on, and one student starts talking about the Kinks, and how the Kinks totally disproved whatever we were talking about, he was talking about very specific songs. And everybody just seemed, yes, no, and arguing, and then at one point one student says, ‘Alex, can I ask you something? What are the Kinks?’ And it was just wonderful, because she didn’t know, she wanted to know, but everybody else did. I thought that was just great.

In prepping for this interview, I’ve discovered that there are occasional contrarian pieces, even Q&As that you’ve participated in, where people are  writing about you in a way that is far more contentious and angry than I would expect, as someone who just reads you. How much of that, do you think, is tied up in the fact that you’re writing about music, which people take so personally and have such an investment in it?

Well, people sure hated Dale Peck when he was writing those pieces for the New Republic. I loved them, not that I agreed with anything, I just loved reading them. I mean, not that I agreed with everything, that wasn’t the point.

I think that when people have been writing for a long time, they can become really irritating to readers. Maybe your dislike of them is totally rational and reasonable—you know, you don’t like the way this person writes, you don’t like the way this person thinks, he’s always going off on the same fucking flights of fancy, and um, and yet you know, the person may get under your skin, and you may end up reading him, maybe because you read the same publication the person writes in, he’s just there. And he just becomes incredibly irritating, and makes you angry, and every word he uses, including ‘a,’ ‘and,’ and ‘the,’ seems really creepy and pretentious, and so it drives you nuts. I’ve been doing this a long time, so I’m sure I irritate some people.

Being a Dylan fan, I have to ask Dylan question—and I guess part of it is that I fell I have to ask you a Dylan question. You’ve been so often linked to him, more perhaps than any other artist and critic—does it get (for lack of a better word) irritating to be the Dylan expert, to know that you’re going to get those calls when a Dylan story happens?

I don’t think it’s true.


No. I mean, I think Michael Gray, Christopher Richards, Sean Wilentz, are just as out there, if not more so, than I am. You know, and I’m not this great Dylan expert. If you put me under torture, and asked me to name all the songs or even maybe even one of the songs on Under the Red Sky, I just couldn’t do it! You know, I don’t know. I don’t know everything about Bob Dylan, I don’t care about everything about Bob Dylan. I didn’t ever listen to Christmas in the Heart. I heard a few things on the radio, and it made me think, Well, I used to go out Christmas caroling too, but I wouldn’t necessarily want to hear a record of what that sounded like. Y’know, I’m really not the right guy to answer all your questions, if that’s what somebody wants.

I did get a call the other day saying could I be standing by to do an interview Thursday, this week, were Dylan to have won the Nobel Prize. Now, I’ve always thought, for a musician, the only Nobel Prize that makes any sense is for Physics. Music is a form, I think, of Physics, far more than mathematics, and they have that prize too. But no, this is for Literature. And I said, yeah, sure, I don’t care it’s not gonna happen, you can wake me up at six a.m., it isn’t gonna happen. But then I thought, what if it does? Because I think the idea of Dylan winning the Nobel Prize is ridiculous, in many different ways, but primarily because you’re saying this is for Literature, pull his lyrics out, put them on a page, say you deserve a prize for writing all this brilliant whatever-it-is… well that’s not what he is, that’s not what he does, that’s not why you and I are talking about him. We’re talking about him because he makes music, and these lyrics, whether they’re doggerel or whether they stick in your mind forever, come to life orchestrated, they’re given a body because of the way they’re sung and played. So it’s a gross reduction of what you’re talkinga bout. It’s like saying, we want to give the Nobel Prize to Borges because there’s really interesting topography in his books, something like that. So I started thinking about how I would say, ‘That’s all very nice, and I’m sure he’ll make good use of the money, but I think it’s a bad idea.’”

Is the form of this book one that you’ll return to?

Yeah. I don’t know what, I don’t have an idea for another one. But I probably will come up with one. I mean, they’re fun to write, they don’t take that long, and with this one especially, I’m really happy with it. I just, partly because I had such fun writing it. So I don’t look at it as this great labor. And I hope it’s fun to read.

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