Here is part 2 of my interview with Rock Eras and Decoding Dylan author Jim Curtis. If you want to read part 1, click here.
AM: What other musicians are your favourites?
JC: You know what I really really enjoy? I’ve got this series of one hit wonders. Have you ever heard of a song called “Radar Love” by Golden Earring?
JC: I love that song. One of the things I keep thinking about it is I can’t understand how a band can make a song that good and not make any more good hits. Because to me that’s the perfect rock & roll song. It’s just great. Another thing I’ve been listening to that I can’t get out of my mind is “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits. It’s so smart, so clever. It’s this really cool thing. All these lines that you can’t get out of your head. Those are two of mine.
Also, I’m really, really partial to The Eagles. It’s the classic 70s, like they are enabled by Dylan. They could not have done what they did without Dylan, but then give their own twist to it. One of the most Dylanesque songs of the 70s is “Hotel California”. It’s a very Dylan-esque song. Dylan loved Hank Williams, he says this in his autobiography and incorporated this among other things. It’s like The Eagles are reaching back beyond Dylan to Hank Williams because a lot of their sounds like in their song “Lyin’ Eyes”, it’s very clearly a Hank Williams song, but then they’ve also listened to Dylan and they have these other things going on too. I love The Eagles!
Crosby, Stills, and Nash [too], “Teach Your Children” was one of these very poignant moments like the movie, The Big Sleep. It’s mid-70s it’s the time when it was a turning point because the baby boomers were growing up, marrying, and having children; they’re no longer kids anymore. And “Teach Your Children” and The Big Sleep are the two expressions of this turning point in American culture and the fans grew out of rock and roll, but now they’re married and have kids and they have other interests.
AM: Can you tell me the story of how you wrote [Rock Eras] and how that idea came about?
JC: Pretty much the same thing. I think all of my writing, whatever I write about usually comes from dissatisfaction. I know it’s a funny way to say it, but I kept thinking there’s all this stuff people aren’t talking about. I want to talk about this.
One of the things I’m really proudest of in Rock Eras is the way I talk about the entrepreneurs. Obviously, you can’t have popular music or popular entertainment without big stars and big celebrities, but you also got to have some money to put them on stage. They can’t just appear out of nowhere and go onstage. So there are all of these entrepreneurs who sign the contracts, rent the halls, hire the musicians, set up recording dates, do all of those things behind the scenes.
If you want to understand all the music, not just what comes out of the loudspeakers, then I think you have to understand the role of the entrepreneurs and when you start thinking about that, then you also start thinking about things like this: musical talent is not evenly distributed in America. Maybe it isn’t everywhere, but it certainly isn’t in America.
So when you look at the whole history of American popular music, the last 120 years give or take, since the very very early years of jazz in New Orleans. You notice that there’s certain groups that occur over and over and over again. So we have these groups: African-Americans, Southerners, Jews, and Italians. These are all minority groups within the overall American population. So I wanted to write about that in the way that these particular identifiable groups are the ones who constitute a relatively small percentage of the population as a whole, but account for most of American popular music whether it’s gospel, broadway, or rock & roll or whatever. That interested me a lot and I was happy to write about that.
I called it Rock Eras because I kept noticing there are these divisions, these markings in which the music changes. There’s the great rhyme from Don McLean’s “American Pie,” “The day the music died.” That was 1969 [Note: The song came out in November 1971 and the Day the Music died was 3 February 1959], so I got to thinking, yes that happened.
You know what happened in 1959? Two really really important things happened in 1959: Buddy Holly died and Elvis went into the army [Elvis was inducted into the Army in 1958, but served until 1960, when he was discharged].
What about 1964, five years later? That was Beatlemania. So you start thinking about the ways in which the music appears, has a particular style, worked itself out for a while, and then something happens. Something dramatic like Buddy Holly died and Elvis going into the army and then the music changes because inevitably the music changes when something that important and that dramatic happens.
Same thing with Altamont, the great Rolling Stones concert which a Hells Angel killed one of the fans in the audience. It was a turning point, a turning away from the 60s ethos and prepared the way for the quieter music of the 70s like in Carole King’s Tapestry and in great songs by The Eagles. That’s why I call it Rock Eras. They are clearly defined eras in the music that are created by different, dramatic changes. Usually, things that people never planned or wanted to bring back.
AM: You said in the beginning of the interview that you saw Elvis at the Mississippi/Alabama fair, what was that like?
JC: All I can say is it was amazing, it is a matter of fact, the defining event in the history of Tupelo, Mississippi. If you go to YouTube and you enter two things: ‘Elvis 1956’, what you get is a black & white camera [recording] of the concert. Most of the things if you do ‘Tupelo, Mississippi’, you’ll get that concert as well.
I knew Elvis was famous. I had of course heard of “Love Me Tender”, which is one of my all time favourite songs and one of the greatest songs ever recorded. But I was not prepared for the impact that Elvis had on me. It was just amazing. He was young and raw and powerful, but confident at the same time that he was what he was and he could do what he could do. As I say, people who really love classic rock would be well-advised to go to YouTube [and search for] Elvis 1956 and see that concert because that’s what it was that created the myth of Elvis.
AM: What other musicians would you say were Elvis-like in their presence on stage?
JC: Jim Morrison, without a doubt. Jim Morrison is the closest thing we’ve ever had, in terms of American rock and roll. I saw The Doors live when they were just on the cusp of getting national prominence.
What I’m really fascinated by is charisma. I’m a great Frank Sinatra fan, for example, and there’s this same thing. Frank Sinatra and Jim Morrison were about as different as two singers can be, but what they both had was absolute charisma. Charisma is a mysterious thing. Charisma is whatever it is that people have so when they come out on stage you can’t take your eyes off them. And more so Jim Morrison was like that as well. He didn’t do the kind of gyrations Elvis did, but man, when Jim Morrison came out, you simply couldn’t take your eyes off of him. It was just an amazing experience.
AM: What other concerts have you seen really made an impact on you and you can’t forget?
JC: Simon & Garfunkel. A different modality I thought about then a lot because they played acoustic guitars. It’s not folk music, but it’s sort of poetry that’s set to guitars. So I wondered, `How can this be?’ and I finally realised that this is also part of the 60s, it’s like so many of the great performers of the 70s like Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins, Roger McGuinn for that matter, started out as folk singers as did Dylan. And so then you have all this wild stuff with the use of the studio in Abbey Road and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and then you go to Tapestry and quiet stuff of the 70s.
What I finally figured out is that Simon & Garfunkel are in the middle of that, they’re the bridge in the middle between the 50s and the 70s. Also, Paul Simon is such a phenomenally gifted songwriter. He’s also a great admirer, by the way, of my favourite American poet, Emily Dickinson. Paul has a song called “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” and that’s about Emily Dickinson and the importance of Emily Dickinson for his creative output.
Personalities and Outsiders
AM: Would you say that music nowadays has more or fewer outsiders?
JC: I think it has fewer. Here’s why I would say that: if you have ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ is, charisma, talent, genius, whatever, it’s easier to get yourself out because of YouTube, it’s so easy to record a video and put it on YouTube. My favourite example of the way it’s easier for outsiders to come inside is Taylor Swift.
You know Taylor Swift’s story? It’s just an amazing thing. She and her parents were living in Pennsylvania. I think I have he dates right, she was 11 years old and she convinced her parents to move from Pennsylvania to Nashville because she convinced her parents at the age of 11 that she was going to make it and she went to Nashville, she recorded an album, and by the time she was 13, she alone made the rounds of the studios in Nashville, something called Music Row in Nashville where a lot of the major agencies have their offices. so here she is! This 13 year old girl from the north and she shows up and says, ’I made this album. Listen to this album. I’m the next star.’ That’s just an amazing thing.
[Note: At 11, Taylor Swift visited Nashville with her mother to submit a demo of Dolly Parton and Dixie Chicks covers. Her father transferred to Merrill Lynch’s Nashville office to help Taylor break into country music, when she was 14. She released her debut album when she was 16.]
It’s also, by the way, I suspect, something that makes music so confusing, there’s just so much of it as I’ve said before. There’s just so much out there, so many talented people that it’s hard to sort it all out. But the great ones like Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga, I’m just crazy about Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga. To me they’re the epitome of what music is in 2019.
AM: What do you find special about Lady Gaga?
JC: Since I’m so interested in where people come from, the sociology of popular music. First thing to know about Lady Gaga is that she’s Italian. She’s very Italian and what does that mean for the history of popular music? It aligns her with a few other Italians of whom you might have heard like Frank Sinatra and Madonna. And what I believe is it may or may not be genetic, but I think there’s this certain advantage that Italians have of drama, of putting themselves out in the world, of being larger than life personalities. I mentioned charisma in connection with Jim Morrison, but obviously Sinatra has it, Madonna has it, and Lady Gaga has it too. And then, there’s the operatic quality of Lady Gaga, which is very Italian.
The clothes, Angie, the clothes! There is this operatic sense that I don’t think, for example, a Jewish woman in America would have. Barbra Streisand is a great, great star, but you don’t remember her for her clothes. But for Lady Gaga, there’s this whole presence. Nothing is too elaborate. Nothing is too over the top for her. And then, not incidentally, it’s combined with this wonderful songwriting. Lady Gaga is really special.
AM: What other rock stars would you say are the best dressed?
JC: Funny you should ask that. You know who is often on the best-dressed list? I’m a fan of a magazine called Vanity Fair. Vanity Fair regularly has lists of the best dressed people in the world. These are mostly movie stars and really really rich people who buy a lot of custom clothes, these are women who think nothing of spending $10,000 for a suit. You know who appears on that list? Keith Richards. Keith Richards has been on the list of best dressed men year after year. You know why? It’s sort of this thing like with Lady Gaga. There are these people who have charisma, but there’s different kinds of it. Dylan’s is very understated, but there are people like Keith Richards and Lady Gaga who are so confident of themselves, who are so much their own persons that they can assemble an outfit and make you look at it, so you’ll never forget it. You would not think of a Rolling Stone being on the best dressed list, right? But really if you do a Google search for Vanity Fair best dressed list, you’ll find Keith Richards on it over and over.
AM: Yeah, you’d think it’s one of those glam rockers like Elton John or Freddie Mercury.
JC: Right. You would think that, but they’re not there. I think it’s because Freddie Mercury and Elton John had these very extravagant outfits, like the ones that Lady Gaga has, but they were only on stage. Keith dresses the way he does when he’s going to the airport.
AM: Would you say that rock & roll is diverse in people and sounds?
JC: Yeah, nowadays because it’s all over the place. Obviously, the important connection is between rap and rock & roll. Rap is like the successor to rock & roll in some ways, but rock & roll still continues. You know what the real problem with talking about music today is? As I’ve said there’s so much.
And because of recording studios, because there’s so many smart kids who are tech savvy that they can produce these sounds that nobody ever imagined before. They control the voices, they can run synthesisers, they can do drum beats, all of those things. There’s just so much and it’s so diverse, it’s very confusing for a lack of a better word.
I understand why being a 15 year old it would make you very confused these days. Because there’s so much. And what I would call the good old days in the 60s, it was obvious who the great performers were. It is much less obvious now because there’s so many of them.
AM: Back then you would say that it wasn’t diverse or that it was?
JC: It was less diverse then. If only because the recording companies control the output of the music. It’s a major milestone in Dylan’s life when he signed a recording contract with Columbia Records. Same recording label that Barbra Streisand recorded on. Because the big companies control who got to make records and whose records were played, and whose records were sold.
We all know that’s not true anymore. It’s all over the place. It doesn’t take all that much to make an album, certainly to make a video clip and put it on YouTube. The music is just all over the place.
AM: What do you notice about the past two decades of music, what patterns do you notice?
JC: Obviously, rap is the thing that has put so much force and dynamism in popular music. There’s also this sense of understanding the past. I think it’s really important that Lady Gaga was recognised for A Star is Born. Do you realise that’s the third movie version of that script? That’s the third version of it. It takes a lot of confidence to remake a movie in which Barbra Streisand was the star. Very few women would want to do that, right? That’s not competition most women would seek out, right? But she did.
[Note/Clarification: It’s the 4th version, but third remake. The original film version was released in 1937, starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March; the 1954 musical film version starred Judy Garland and James Mason; the 1976 version had Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in the lead roles. Every generation got their Star is Born!]
There’s, I think, acceptance and respect for the past, that’s true. Now one thing we haven’t talked about, it’s already tangential to your subject of classic rock & roll, is country music. And it’s in country music, especially I think, that you have so much respect for the past. There are these terrific people like Brandy Carter, but she’s a songwriter of some importance. She lives in Nashville and she writes country songs and really you can’t live in Nashville and make country music without having respect for the past. It goes with the character.
I think that’s one reason why Dylan made Nashville Skyline, because he wanted to connect with that. Also, here’s another thing about Nashville Skyline, it’s tangential to your question, but let me just mention that. He didn’t call it Nashville, he didn’t call it the Nashville studio where he made the album, he called it Nashville Skyline. And I think the reason he called it Nashville Skyline is that’s what you see when you’re outside of Nashville, when you’re coming to Nashville as an outsider. Because he certainly was an outsider as far as most people were concerned. So there’s this connection that he makes between people and styles that are different from one another.
Rock is dead? And the Future of Music
AM: Would you say that rock & roll is dead? What do you think of bands like Greta Van Fleet that are kind of bringing back the old style?
JC: I would say that there’s this famous, clever line Mark Twain said one time, ‘The reports of my death have been exaggerated’. It’s one of his classic lines. Nowadays people want to make headlines, they want to get published, they want to get people’s attention and one of the ways to do that is to make extravagant statements like ‘rock is dead’.
Well, come on, get real, rock is not dead, as long as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, among many others are still alive, rock is not dead and it’s going to be ongoing. It’s now created its own energy, it has its own history, its own presence in a variety of ways. So it’s not going to be on, but what I think people mean when they say ‘rock is dead’ is that it is no longer dominant the way it was in the 60s and 70s. We’ve returned to what’s become a theme in my interview, there’s so much music. There’s so much of it out there. There’s so many ways in which you can create sounds that you simply never could before. I would phrase it carefully and say the dominance of rock & roll is dead because primarily of rap, but also because of all the other things you can do to make music these days.
AM: Would you say it’s a repeating of history like when disco kind of took over in the late 70s?
JC: Well, I don’t hear anything that sounds like disco anymore. Disco’s actually a unique sound, a unique element of the 70s. I don’t hear anything like disco anymore and I don’t think that dancing has the significance that it had like 5 years. Also, incidentally, disco fits pretty neatly into my 5 year divisions because you have disco roughly from 74-79 and immediately after 79 is Michael Jackson and Thriller [Note: Thriller came out in 1982, but Michael Jackson was prominent in 1979 with his album, Off The Wall]. Thriller defines a new era because it’s the beginning of MTV [and for the] first time rock stars had to be able to move. They didn’t before. Now, you understand what I’m saying. What Dylan does, but with Michael Jackson, you had the visual element and you had to be able to move and dance and do that kind of thing.
AM: Would you say that the same pattern of the decade and then five years is still going on now? What would you say are the monumental years?
JC: I don’t think it’s as clear now. One of the reasons I wrote the book is that it was clear then. I think there’s just so much out there. That’s a very good question and I don’t yet have an answer to it. Get back to me in a year or so and I may be able to figure that one out. I think the chronology is important because part of the difficulty of the chronology is that Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen are still alive and still touring. So there’s that and then there’s the question, frankly nobody figured out: What does it mean that the primary venue for music is YouTube? Which is a new thing, right? They’re not records, they’re not concerts, they’re not where you listen to music on the radio. Historically, those were the three ways in which people heard music. You go to a concert, you listen to the radio, you buy the record. YouTube is none of that and I think I would like to know a little more about the history of YouTube and when it made its huge breakthrough because now you have the new phenomenon. What matters is not how many records you sell, although that’s nice. What matters is your number of downloads on YouTube, right? I’m not sure when that happened. It’s like there’s this break that happened between record sales and downloads. My sense is it probably happened something like 2005 or 2006. Somewhere in there, but that’s something I want to investigate.
AM: What bands from nowadays do you think will be the new classics?
JC: Maroon 5 probably. Very talented bunch of guys, but I think that now we are in an era that if anything, resembles the 70s. When after the breakup of the big bands like The Beatles, then you have a whole series of singer-songwriters and individual performers. People like Roger McGuinn from The Byrds who are part of really important bands. The bands broke up for whatever personal and psychological reasons and then it was still talented people. So they went on tours, they did tours of their own, they had occasional tours with other people. It’s my sense now that what really matters in music these days is individual performers. I keep going back to Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga. Here’s the way I’ll say it, I can’t think of any bands that as stylemakers are as important as Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga and of course there’s Beyonce.
AM: Do you think that rock lyrics are a good way of getting people into literature and poetry?
JC: Yeah, I do, as a matter of fact, I’m so pleased I have Dylan’s complete lyrics on my shelf. Sure do because it’s a way of getting people to think about what they’re listening to. I’m probably going to teach a course on Dylan this fall and that’s one of the things that I plan to do. When you think about what Dylan does, he does the old stuff that he’s been doing for a thousand years give or take. He uses rhyme and alliteration, puts words together in a way so that you remember them and of course he’s doing that in a variety of ways over the years.
AM: Where are you teaching this course on Dylan?
JC: I am now old enough, believe it or not, I live in a retirement community. It’s a bunch of us old Dylan fans, we’re still here and that’s probably where I’m going to do it.
AM: Do you think there’s a lot of elitism amongst classic rock fans on music today?
JC: Yeah, because I hope this won’t happen to you, Angie, but it is very easy as you age, as you go through life’s stages, whatever they are for you, is that the good old days were better. And who’s to argue with the proposition that the mid-60s when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and Dylan were going strong was one of the great eras in all of popular music. It’s easy to say after that, that’s when John McLean’s phrase ‘the music died’, it’s never been so good since. And I feel sympathy for that because that’s the music that I love that means so much to me, but I absolutely refuse to give in to nostalgia or the good old days because there’s so many exciting and interesting performers.
AM: Do you think that people are going to look at today’s music, the people who look down upon it, are going to look at it more positively in a few decades time?
JC: I’m inclined to think that because what happens is, this is true for all forms of popular entertainment that I know of, is that time sifts things out. The real classics are the ones that endure and the classic music that’s been made now is going to endure just like it did 50 years ago. Because there are these sounds that form what’s called the Great American Songbook, written in the 30s and 40s and these are still great songs. Songs from Oklahoma!, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music and all of these classic Broadway shows are still sung and enjoyed by high school kids.
High schools will put on Oklahoma!. Oklahoma! came out in 1943. What happens is history sifts these things out and eventually you come up with something like the classic history that people know and respect and that defines us. My favourite movie, Casablanca is a great example of that in movies. Casablanca came out at the beginning of the war and people still love that movie.
AM: What do you think that young people have to offer in their perspectives and analysing music of the past?
JC: I think that they have a freshness that is not affected, I don’t want to say burdened, but affected by the experience of listening to it when it was fresh. The experience of hearing Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for the first time is like one of these indelible experiences that people my age had.
If you are, let’s say, 20 years old right now born around the turn of the century, then this is all history and you inevitably listen to it with different ears. And that I think is also part of what happens as time goes on and history changes things. I would be very interested to talk to somebody who is 20 years old listening to Sgt Pepper for the first time. Not because you’re supposed to like this, not suppose this is great music, but what do you think of it? I think it would be an interesting experience.
AM: Yeah I think I’ve seen that on YouTube. Like the Fine Brothers have a whole YouTube series where they show [things like] old music to younger people and they get their opinions on it. Then they show older people stuff from their childhood and they get memories from that.
JC: Sure, but if you’re 20 years old then you don’t have those memories. I think that’s what would be interesting. To have a completely fresh sense for this thing because Angie, there’s no way I can ever listen to the music of the 60s without having not just nostalgia, not just memories, my long term 50 year association of living with this music. Can’t ever get away from that and I have no particular desire to, but it is a different experience.
AM: That’s what I kind of noticed, like for me I’ll listen to it and I’m just thinking, I feel nostalgia for a time I wasn’t even in. It’s so strange.
JC: I think people your age who love classic rock often have that sense.
AM: If social media was a thing back in the day, how do you think that would affect the music industry and how people listen to music?
JC: Sure, inevitably. Remember, part of the fascination, part of stardom of the 60s was that all the great figures were mysterious.You didn’t have access to them. Let me give you an example, Steve Jobs. In this great biography that Walter Isaacson wrote about Steve Jobs, he talked about being in the 60s, living in the Bay Area, and going to Berkeley in search of Dylan’s lyrics. What people don’t realise is that when the albums came out there were no lyrics with them and people never heard anything like this. It was dense, it was hard to understand and also always Dylan’s voice that made it problematic to understand so people said, ‘What is he saying?’ And there were people who would sit down by the hour and transcribe the lyrics and he knew somebody at Berkeley who did it. So he drove across the bridge, went over to Berkeley, and talked to some people who had copies of lyrics.
That kind of thing would never happen these days. There were these great, charismatic geniuses who were out there and they were mysterious, they were distant from us. Now that’s not true anymore
AM: Do you think that older musicians back then would have embraced social media had that been a thing?
JC: Sure because it’s a way of connecting, it’s a way of expressing yourself, understanding the world, all that, yeah.
AM: What advice would you [give] to young writers who are writing about music?
JC: A couple of things, the most obvious one is listen to a lot of music. Listen to different styles of music. Because if there’s one striking thing about the history of popular music in America, it’s the diversity. Popular music is just all over the place and the easy way to do it, it’s what most people do they say, ‘I like x. I really like this style and blah blah whoever’ and that’s what they concentrate on what they want to write about, but that just really gives you short term reward. If you want to be a serious music writer, if you feel like you have something to say to the world about music, it’s really important to listen to a variety of styles, classic styles in a variety of ways.
Let me give you some names. You ever listen to John Coltrane? That would be one example. Somebody who, for example, loves Taylor Swift, as I do would be well-advised to listen to, for example, classic jazz because it’s different. It’s like it makes you more sensitive because you have to listen to this and this is different, this is not like anything I’ve heard before but everybody says John Coltrane is a genius. So maybe it would be good for me to pay attention to this and then if you listen to John Coltrane and then you go back to Taylor Swift, I think, you’ll have more sensitivity to what’s distinctive about her.
And the thing is that’s so easy these days because you go to YouTube and you can find anything that’s ever been recorded basically. Old time gospel music, black gospel music, one of the most powerful musical styles that’s ever flourished in America. Dixieland jazz, bluegrass. If you listen to a whole variety of stuff and you want to make a career for yourself, you really think you have something to say to the world, you’d really be well-advised to know a lot about the diversity of styles in American music. There’s so many, come from different regions, different ethnic groups, and so forth.
Shout out to my good friend and Topaz level Patron, Patrick and my friend Matt.
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[…] interviewed Decoding Dylan author Jim Curtis (part 1 here) (part 2 here). Check out the interview if you want to hear perspectives on popular music, Bob Dylan, and about […]