Guess the Mystery Writer #1

What follows are two quotes from a famous writer—someone whose rise to fame preceded rock—talking to an interviewer about the Stones (both quotes are from the same interview). Rather than tell you who this is and where it’s from, I’d rather let you, dear reader (??) take a guess. Perhaps it’s extremely obvious? (If you are familiar with the passages and want to spill the beans, that’s fine; there’s no special prize here for answering correctly.)

There’s something unsatisfying about Jagger. We must have listened to two hours of music. Jagger’s always promising so much more than he delivers. You know, finally he’s in a sinister bag—he is certainly of all, if we take the three, four, five, six major rock groups in the last ten years, he has been the one who was the most sinister. Yet he’s finally not terrifying…

Jagger himself, or his music?
His music. I don’t know anything about him. I think that the Beatles, you know, can hit eight bars in Sgt. Pepper that are more frightening, even though they’re not sinister. The Beatles had more of a sense of powers they could summon by playing the wrong note at a given moment. It’s as if they’re more terrified by music than Jagger. Jagger’s terribly spoiled. There’s all that muttering in the background: “Oh, no God, you won’t break this heart of stone.” What a threat. Beyond that constant dirge, beyond the throatiness which makes you think he’s riding on the rims, through all that electric masturbation, you know, all that sound of distant musketry, every drumbeat, there’s still a mountain of bullshit. It’s not getting in and saying, I’m going to kill you, motherfucker. It’s not saying, I’m here to call upon Satan. It pretends to. Some of his music I find, you know, marvelously promising. But it’s irritating as hell to listen to for two hours because you keep waiting for the great payoff, and it never comes.

But again there’s a kind of bullying that I’ve always distrusted in rock. Which is, it doesn’t take big balls to have a big electric guitar and a huge amplifying system and 50,000 American corporations that they’re all sneering at, working overtime to amplify them. You know, it’s a little bit like some politician that you despise saying, I represent the people. He only represents his power in his microphone and his media, his vested electronic office.

“Sympathy for the Devil,” I felt, was arch, and much too self-conscious. I couldn’t quite catch the words and that’s one of the things about Jagger that’s always suspect to me. When you play on the edge of the articulation of words it’s because you’re trying to do two things at once. I did hear him at one point wailing about the Rus­sian Revolution—that the Devil was there at the planning of the Russian Revolution and, you know, that’s news. No good Chris­tian ever thought of that before. That, I thought, was finally on the edge of the revolting. You don’t, you know, you don’t infuse a bunch of dumb, spaced-out, highly sexed working kids with a little historical culture while you’re singing. Come on! I decided Jagger must have picked up a magazine article about the Russian Revolution the day before he wrote the words. But, you know, there’s more profundity in “Eleanor Rigby” than there is in “Sympathy for the Devil.”


20 thoughts on “Guess the Mystery Writer #1

  1. I am going to hold back from spilling the beans, but in my continued obsession with getting old, this is another marker, because I’m old enough to remember the interview when it was published. Thought it was nonsense, although I didn’t blame the interviewee … I just thought he was too old to understand. Seems ironic, now that I’m ten years older than he was at the time of the interview.

  2. Appreciate you not bean-spilling, but one of us may have to at some point if we don’t want to keep three or four readers in suspense.

    Regarding your point about being ten years older now than the speaker was when he said this: I’ve long believed that rock music helped diminish the concept of an age gap, though it took a long time to happen, and seemed initially like it would have the precise opposite effect.

  3. Think one or the other was Mailer— later he says “the drummer’s more than half of it,” which is also true of most good rock and r&b and blues and jazz and Latin and several other things ( maybe less so in straight-up pop, whatever that is). Otherwise, Jagger was once overheard saying, “My father’s never understood what I do,” and the quoted ones do seem to be hung up on authenticity, but—-when they put it this way—so articulate, these professional word guys—, I kinda sympathize (two hours of some Stones can be pretty irritating, and prob not in the way intended)

  4. Also, reading this, I’m reminded of working in a CD store 1996-2003, parents finally getting the courage to come back in, catching up on reissues and prev. unreleased Beatles, Zep, Jimi, Dead, experiencing all that in a new context (being responsible adults etc), and their kids, starting in junior high, would do likewise (discovering that their parents’ Pink Floyd tapes should have incl the ones w Syd). Ditto generatons of r&b and hip-hop fans, checking more of that rock stuff, But nobody ever wanted the Stones. I wonder how many fans they have left. Other than the ones who make them good for another tour or two or more, maybe..

  5. However! I also recall that we had to stop playing the remastered (? giving it the benefit of the doubt More Hot Rocks the day it came out, because it made all the recently recorded stuff sound rather sad.

  6. Box of stogies for you, Don. It’s Mailer, Rolling Stone, January 1975. A whole couple pages or so talking about the Stones (the only place he really discussed rock?). You’re right that he does praise Watts (not by name, but he obviously heard something in the beat, no small feat for a pre-rock guy I guess), and has kind (though not terribly revelatory) things to say about Dylan, whose genius, he suggests, comes through his words not his voice or music.

  7. Thanks for resurrecting this interview segment, as I don’t think I’d ever seen it before. Like a lot of other Mailer pronouncements, the ideas are odd — the Beatles “terrified” by music (?) — but you don’t have to agree with him to dig the chutzpah of his language.

  8. Norman Mailer complaining that someone is promising so much more than he delivers is like Trump complaining that someone else is uninformed ,vulgar,and a stranger to nuance.Mailer’s remarks on Jagger are just about the purest example of projection that I’ve ever seen.Mailer was,to give him his due, one of the greatest bullshit artists who ever lived,

  9. Let’s just say I appreciate his effort. I posted it because there are scant few examples of pre-rock intellectuals attempting to take rock even remotely seriously, so it interests me to see Mailer do so here. Oddly, he gets much closer to the inside of rock than Marshall McLuhan (b. 1911) does — Mailer talks beats and themes — but McLuhan’s framework interests me more,. maybe because no rock critic ever really attempted discussion of the stuff on his terms, using his (or anyway, using a comparable) language. Mailer meets the music more on its terms; McLuhan makes the music match his terms (“come to papa….”).

  10. Jazz critics,admittedly a very small sub-set of pre-rock intellectuals,took rock very seriously.Rock was as threatening to them,as the preachers who smashed Elvis records over their knees,claimed rock was to the society
    at large.Some -most notably-Ralph Gleason were eventually won over….Mailer’s remarks were interesting-more for what they say about Mailer than the music-I’m glad that you posted them -and look forward to seeing
    something here of what McLuhan had to say about Rock.

  11. Scott, as luck would have it, just a few days ago I was re-reading your August 2000 interview with Richard Meltzer — — and you had a fairly lengthy exchange with Richard about McLuhan, about 3/4 of the way into the interview. You two didn’t come up with any instances of McLuhan reviewing rock as such, but Meltzer was very impressed with a review McLuhan had done of another form of pop culture, William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch”.

  12. David, interesting point about jazz critics, though Gleason aside (who really would be central to any conversation about older guys getting rock, I suppose), did they take it “seriously” in the sense that they actually grappled with it, tried to make sense of it? Certainly, they took it seriously as a threat to jazz, but I’m not aware of many who tried to figure it out. Not that any of them would have been obliged to, not that it would have made them better human beings (or better critics) to have done so… it’s just one of those weird ticks that interests me, a stepping-out-of-time (or beyond boundaries) kind of archaeology. Nat Hentoff likely figures into this conversation somewhere (he interviewed Dylan for Playboy, though I’m not sure about the details behind that—was he just someone who was available and perceived as having a connection to music?), Amiri Baraka too, who wrote lots about soul and r&b, though I don’t think he was ever anything like old guard, was he? (I’m bringing him up because I don’t really know.)

    Mailer and McLuhan and _____ [?] interest me additionally because they are outside of the music thing altogether. (The interplay between those two minds is of interest also. Some very interesting thoughts by NM about MM in his Letters book. It’s like the Great Literary Icon of the ’60s going head to head with the guy who pronounced literate values dead in the water.) I have posted some McLuhan-rock stuff herein a while back, but I will try to do something more comprehensive –it’s been on my mind for a while, actually.

    Richard, thanks for bringing up that discussion with Meltzer. I’m glad I broached the subject, but I should have pressed him a little more. His understanding of MM, based on his comments about the CBC and so forth, is so off base it’s almost shocking. But understandable, given that a lot of people have a very surface-level awareness of his work, being so unreadable and all. (The idea of McLuhan as this provincial Canadian who produced ditties for our national broadcaster is actually quite laughable, though; the Canadian establishments, literary AND media, mostly loathed McLuhan in his time; he was granted access for a few years because his international stardom demanded it, but he was not a beloved figure, and, in his gentle yet probing and confusing way, he waxed as apocalyptic about the validity of their respective enterprises as he did about so many others.)

  13. That’s a very crucial distinction you made -between jazzers taking rock seriously as a commercial/social force vs.taking the music seriously qua music. I should have been more alert to that distinction…… Because of jazz’s musical complexity vs the simplicity of early rock,the jazzers by and large ,I think, felt that it was obvious that they didn’t have to take rock seriously-that technically simple music was beneath their consideration,as would be sophisticates.
    And that’s why jazz ceased to be a popular ,youth based dance music,and allowed that slot to be taken over by Rock & Roll. The snooty jazz obsession with complexity worked to Rock’s advantage… .. The left -wing folkie intellectuals couldn’t put rock down for being too simple-they listened to it on Rock’s terms -and thought ,like Van Ronk,that it was just cheapened,bastardized Blues-so they listened seriously and enviously,I think…Hentoff ,who always had great open ears,eventually wrote about Country music. John Hammond-who saw and heard it all-always had a political agenda,which I think was why he originally signed Dylan. I’m glad you opened this discussion

  14. Old guy who was struck by a rock in the 60s: Andrew Sarris. Two reviews, which I could quote from all day (I will restrain myself, some), of A Hard Day’s Night and Don’t Look Back. Both first appeared in the Village Voice and can be found in the (essential!!) collection Confessions of a Cultist: On the Cinema 1955-1969.

    quotes: from A Hard Day’s Night review: “The razor-slashing wit of the dialogue must be heard to be believed and appreciated …. I must say I enjoyed even the music enormously, possibly because I have not yet been traumatized by transistors into open rebellion against the ‘Top 40’ and such … I think there is a tendency to underrate rock ‘n’ roll because the lyrics look so silly in cold print … My critical theories and preconceptions are all shook up, and I am profoundly grateful to the Beatles for such a pleasurable softening of hardening aesthetic arteries.” (August 27 1964)

    from Don’t Look Back review: “Dylan is not the easiest singer to understand at first hearing, but there is something electric in his performance that justifies a second and third effort. However, some anti-Dylan critics assume that Dylan’s fans listen to him in mindless incomprehension simply because the critics themselves are unsophisticated in pop-rock-folk-jazz recordings. It is as if the cultivated playgoer went to a performance of Hamlet without any prior acquaintance with the play. (Did he say ‘What a ruddy peasant slave am I,’ or what? The actor doesn’t enunciate properly.) Of course, there is less cultural pressure and pretense with Shakespeare than with Dylan, but ignorance of either is not the best qualification to evaluate either. Dylan’s fans are probably more qualified to discuss Dylan than are his detractors, but since the former are usually younger than the latter, it is easy to put down scholarship and expertise as the whims of youth … Kids today have so much better taste in pop singers than their elders did that the human race may still be saved.” (Sept. 21 1967)

    There are plenty more interesting statements in both reviews, perhaps more interesting than the ones I picked. But I’m especially shocked by the bit about how “of course” there’s less “pressure and pretense” in appreciating Hamlet than Bob Dylan singing in the middle 60s! I wonder if anyone would write that about appreciating Shakespeare in contrast with any kind of pop music today, or for that matter any time other than the mid-60s, when being “well past 30” was a synonym for “a very old person.”

  15. Great stuff, Vic. I have quoted those very lines before on Hard Day’s Night — I agree it is a fantastic review. Had not seen the Dylan, and didn’t know it existed. (I definitely need to get a copy of Confessions, thanks for the reminder.) Insightful stuff about youth tastes there, too. I’m very curious now — to bring this back full circle — if Sarris ever reviewed Gimme Shelter (and thus conveyed some feelings about the Stones in general). Kael, in her review of GS, comes off not as a wide-eyed fan by any stretch, but she seems to understand and convey some of their power (doesn’t she compare Jagger to Marlene Dietrich?). A polar opposite approach would be John Simon, who I doubt ever said less than a disparaging word about rock; I still like him somewhat as a critic, though.

  16. I think that McLuhan buddy Walter J. Ong wrote a whole piece circa 1968 about popular music that I can’t find in a quick Web search, unless I’m thinking of this, which quotes a lot from Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends. His phrase “attempted casualness” seems quite apt for folk-rock, one of his points seeming to be that our oral culture nonetheless lives in a literate world.

    (I’d say that especially Dylan and Reed take this several convolutions farther, both to attempted casualness in a literate world and to attempted noncasual audaciousness in a background context of enforced casualness in a nonetheless totally literate world. Btw, I don’t think Ong is right if he’s simply mapping the terms “casual” and “noncasual” onto “oral” and “literate,” since there’s no reason to assume the former is always more casual than the latter, and that you don’t have formal and less formal in both categories. But then, I haven’t actually read the whole essay, so I don’t know if that’s what Ong is actually doing.)

  17. Link above doesn’t really stand out (it’s on the word “this”), so here:

    Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology, p. 299

    (Also, if you read what I wrote literally, I seem to be saying that Ong’s essay focuses particularly on music that Frank Kogan has trouble finding in a Websearch. Actually, it’s the essay, not the music, I have trouble finding.)

  18. Late to this reply, but that’s very interesting, Frank. I will look for that book.

    I had no idea Walter Ong had been connected with McLuhan, for example, or had ever written about pop music at all. I intend to write some academic stuff on this at some point: some of Ong’s ideas about oral vs. literate culture are really ideas about recorded vs. non-recorded culture. So it means that some of what he distinguishes as the hallmarks of “literate” culture have long since come to apply to oral-generated forms such as popular songs.

    I don’t think, by the way, Ong thought of it as “casual” vs. “non-casual” or made a hierarchy of high vs. low — it’s more about the methods by which culture can remember itself (to put it awkwardly — the phrasing is my fault, not his, but I don’t want this comment to get too lengthy).

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