Thursday, August 23, 2012

You, me and Lester

On her blog, Jessica very kindly mentioned a gooey rant I wrote and she published in Hit It Or Quit It 12 years ago about about my intensely personal reader/writer relationship with the works of one Lester Conway Bangs.

I've been thinking a lot about Bangs lately because like Maria Bustillos asserts for herself in the New Yorker, Lester really taught me how to read , as well as teaching me about 5000 things I've seemingly since forgotten about writing.

Lester Bangs by J.R. Nelson originally published in Hit It Or Quit It #15, Spring 2000

"The politics of rock n' roll, in England or America or anywhere else, is that a whole lot of kids want to be fried out of their skins by the most scalding propulsion they can find, for a night they can pretend is the rest of their lives, and whether the next day they go back to work in shops or boredom on the dole or American TV doldrums in Mommy n' Daddy's living room nothing can cancel the reality of that night of the revivifying flames when for once if only then in your life you were blasted outside of yourself and the monotony which defines most life anywhere at any time, when you supped on lightning and nothing else in the realms of the living or dead mattered at all."
Lester Bangs on the Clash, NME, December 1977

Icons must be dead. Of course they must. It is the nature of worship to snatch meaning from death and attach it to the corresponding lack of meaning in life. Death sells. Death reinvents. Death gives the mundane a biblical aspect. After all, nothing inspires worship like a feverish life extinguished; entire religions, the movies, jazz, rock music; much of the fanatical energies these arts inspire are derived from the intense worship of certain living beings and the intense vacuum their deaths leave on true believers. We like to think that the dead and willfully silent go on speaking to us somewhere far above the sound and fury of the living, where we can always hear their echo.

The name Lester Bangs might not mean anything to you. He wrote about rock music for 14 years, from 1969 to 1982, most notoriously for Creem, the great rock magazine of the 70's. He wrote two books, one a short paperback/quick pic bio of Blondie and one a joint effort with Paul Nelson about Rod Stewart. He wrote hundreds of articles, thousands of record, film and book reviews, picture captions, interviews and hundreds of pages of philosophical screeds in the form of novels never published, in addition to recording a few of his own musical compositions with pick-up bands. He died in 1982 at age 33 of a heart attack brought on by the complications of having been a drunk and drug addict for most of his adult life. Some of his best writing was collected in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, a posthumous collection published in 1988 which is currently rated #77,521 on the overall sales list at the Barnes and Noble website. By the time this issue of Hit It Or Quit It goes to print, Jim DeRogatis' long-rumored biography of Lester should be on bookstore shelves. Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic is a well researched but poorly written book with the hilariously unfair task of any biography: sum up a complex life in 256 pages. But aside from a some amazing pictures, a great bibliography and the (unlikely) effect of bringing Bangs to a larger public, I don't particularly care for or about DeRogatis' book at all, and this isn't meant to be a review of it. Lester Bangs lived a sad life, and his own writing tells the story better than any biography could.

But Lester Bangs is the writer that dared me to find my own voice, and so I do care. I purchased my first copy of Psychotic Reactions some seven years ago, when I took the train to Chicago from my sleepy college town near Springfield IL with the sole intention of seeing a trilogy of movies. As you can imagine, a person who takes a five-hour train ride to see some movies has a pretty pathetic existence. Not having anything better to do or anyone to talk to, I ended up reading the entire book on the train ride back. Right away I began reading bits of it to my friends, amazed at Bangs' sense of humor and how he treated rock & roll "gods" like punching bags. In the midst of a fanzine piece celebrating the horny adolescent sounds of the Troggs, he imagined killing James Taylor in retribution for the egotistical ugliness of super-stardom in the rock world. In another legendary series of "profiles" he traded barbs with Lou Reed about music and drug abuse and the price of fame, plainly indicting both his hero and himself as suffering the same diseases. His record reviews could be unsparing, his tone often scathing and self-righteous.

Compared to the flattering fluff pieces about rock stars I had spent my teenage years reading, Bangs' analysis of bands and records and what they meant was astute, often hostile, and shockingly self-aware. I began to fall under the spell of the incredible presence of his writing, the twists and turns of his prose style, the great digressions and tirades that untied and unified countless theories he spun from the music. Thematic musical connections, political statements, literary lyrical analysis, intensely biographical personal interludes, made up bits of fiction (one of my favorites involved Lester interviewing President Thieu of Vietnam about Jethro Tull) and a vivid sense of the poetry and horror of human nature all coalesced into his rambling sentences. But there was something else there too, beneath the surface. Bangs frankly stated over and over again how a worthy higher truth eluded him, teased him and how that in turn led to constant disappointment, and more unanswerable questions. His writing is full of embarrassment at this disappointment; apologies and asides to readers and to himself are scattered throughout his prose like land mines. All writers should apologize profusely for indulging their pretensions, and I have come to that conclusion largely from reading Bangs' work.

Another conclusion I've come to from reading Lester Bangs is that you and I are united by our record collections and too little else. While I've been reviewing records in one form or another for nine years now, more often than not in the last few months I've sat down to write a review and been tempted to just laugh and call it all a sham. How could I sit down and write about what amounted to the same stack of 15 shitty CDs yet again? Lester Bangs changed the way I listened to every record I had ever heard and led me to seek out hundreds more on my own. He made epic demands of records and more often than not found them wanting in starkly personal terms. On the other hand, where he found beauty or pain or any real emotion, he could build a veritable home of words. Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, the Stooges Fun House, P.I.L.'s Second Edition, Nico's Marble Index, the works of the Velvet Underground, Albert Ayler, the Clash, the MC5, Captain Beefheart, Ray Charles, Richard Hell, Suicide, Ornette Coleman, Black Sabbath, Kraftwerk and many more were his gifts to me. Could I have heard any of my current obsessions in the same way-- Fugazi, Los Crudos, the Locust, Elliot Smith, Scott Walker, Joan of Arc, Dillinger Four, the Alkaline Trio, Discount, the Roots, Neutral Milk Hotel, Pedro the Lion, Cat Power, the Get Hustle, Gogogo Airheart, Black Heart Procession, Slaves or Orchid without Lester's words echoing around in my head somewhere? Probably. Could you love any of these artists without ever having picked up this magazine? The answer is obvious. So why do we do this? Why do I do this? Why am I ranting at you about a writer who died almost twenty years ago, a man who spent much of his life writing about bands like Wet Willie? An obnoxious, self-righteous drunk who died at a young age of little more than a lack of common sense? Worse yet, why am I ranting to you about my own fears in the guise of writing about Lester Bangs?

The search for truth is a stupid mission to tie up with writing about rock music. Rock is all about lies and illusions; and to an it has to be in order to set our emotions free. Manufactured poses, distorted intentions, a million basement dreams brought kicking and screaming to life, lots of sex, money and hooch to tempt away talent and piss-poor role models trying to walk the road with any earnestness. I think that a lot of the people we write about (and for) in this magazine want to cut through all the numbing bullshit that fucks up the world. We just have to be careful where we look. I am often guilty of extreme and ugly hero worship, just like Lester. Some people are equipped to deal with the world, to confront it with some inner reserve the rest of us lack. Others of us are chipped at by everything until there is nothing left. You can be a shell, or you can be a corpse, or you can be an icon, but you are still gone. Something has swallowed you. I need strong people around me because I clam up, am afraid of my feelings. The taste of life is just too rich sometimes, like cake icing. Either I project my desires on somebody or hide out, behind other people's records or fashion or whatever else I can brew up to defend myself with in the battle versus death or boredom or growing up or whatever lies at the end of this life. Faith is a terrible risk in this digital, ironic age, and a record collection is a often a paltry cathedral.

You should still read Lester Bangs' words because they will affect you in an intimate way. He wrote and responded with absolute love and hate and pity to what he saw and heard, because he refused the distance of cheap irony. He wrote to and for everyone the world tries to smooth over and make bland, and he did it better than almost anyone. Before he died, I think Lester knew how crazed his search was and how alive that made him and I can only hope he was aware of how well the words he wrote gave life to the ideas he cherished. But, you have to draw a line somewhere. There is a picture of Lester playing live at CBGB's in the early 80's, looking pale as a ghost, wearing a t-shirt that reads "Freedom or Death"? Which one did he end up with? I still feel cheated that I never got to meet Lester Bangs, although I probably wouldn't know what to say to him if by some miracle I did get that chance. Heroes are funny that way. They don't respond, even if you spend years of your life writing to them in the grave. I love Lester Bangs and what he wrote so much that even approaching the truth about all these questions has left a little bit of me dead inside forever, and there is only one thing I can do. Sup on the revivifying flames wherever I can find them, and carry on. So don't anybody try and wave good-bye.

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