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Thursday, September 04, 2003
Salon writer Andrew Leonard provides us an excellent example of Lester Bangs' most poisonous literary legacy: making people think they can write like Lester Bangs without sounding like utter jackasses. Andrew thinks this, and Andrew is wrong.
I was sorely tempted, after reading the first 50 pages of "Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste," a new collection of ranting and raving from the late, much-lamented rock critic Lester Bangs, to pull out my old Olivetti Lettera portable typewriter from the closet where it is moldering and start BANGING away. Because you can't really pound on a computer keyboard, no matter how hard you try, and in tribute to Lester (and I feel like I can call him Lester, because I know that if I started knocking back shots of tequila with him in a seedy bar we would be on a first-name basis forever after just 10 minutes of hollering about the relative cultural significance of 'N Sync vs. the Backstreet Boys), I knew that I needed to make some NOISE, I needed to get all worked up in a frothy, gibbering frenzy of excitement and start "slashing away at the typewriter until occasionally a great clot of keys would become hopelessly entangled, would refuse to untwist and fall back into their berths from the action of my whiplash fingertips and my energy would explode in fists pounding on the frame of the machine."
This is about to be a rant, I can tell, so before I get into it, let me make a few things clear. First off, Andrew backs off from this position somewhat over the course of the piece, which presumably makes this here opening a Bangsian bit of intentional provocation. But I'm going to tear that shit down anyway, because it's not the truth that dare not be spoken, it's a corrosive attitude that finds vent all too freely in the rock-crit pages of this great nation, and it deserves to be torn down. Secondly, this is not meant to be an attack on Lester per se, who I do like (though not as much as other members of the old guard), but rather on the attitudes he has apparently--unwittingly?--engendered. So let's get started, shall we?
I, too, am sad that Lester Bangs is gone, but for different reasons than most people. I am sad that Lester Bangs is gone because it allows socially retarded nerdish male rock critics to have repressed half-a-fag fantasies about making friends with him while drinking in a bar, the closeted version of wanting to suck his dick backstage. Lester Bangs would not have been friends with you, dude. He was an asshole and a drug addict, by all accounts, and what percentage of the people who now worship him would he actually even be able to be friends with, regardless of the fact that independent spirits like Lester rarely want to maintain intimate relationships with people who regard their utterances as oracular prophecies? He would have been a jerk to you and you would have resented him so thank God he's dead, because now he can't tarnish this whole Lester-image we've all built up, an image so powerful that Cameron Crowe is able to reliably write him in as a character in one of his movies (a characterization that, regardless of its accuracy, pretty much speaks for my point of view in that particular film), which doubtless made a decent chunk of the audience think "Lester Bangs" is no more real than Stillwater. Or, probably, even less real, since Stillwater actually seemed human, rather than the walking ideology that the Lester-image has come to be.
Take all the drugs and streams-of-consciousness away, take away the anecdotes and the historical connections--take away the personality and the writing and reduce Lester to the critic that he supposedly was--and what do you have? You have a guy we like because he was right about the past in the present. He wrote about music and held opinion that few others had, and those turned out to be the ones that we generally share today. But why is that? Well, it's because, basically, he didn't like much of anything that was coming out, and we today either don't like or don't understand the vast majority of what happened musically before we hit puberty. But of course that's true, because Lester was writing about popular music, and the whole point of popular music--and popular culture in general--is that it's designed to make sense and be enjoyed at a particular moment in time, and at no other particular moment in time. This is its power and its wonder. And so of course we won't like a pop song from 1973, because it doesn't make sense to us. It's not supposed to. Tell me your five favorite bands, and I will write scathingly negative reviews of them, and I bet in 20 years my opinions will be the mainstream ones. That was Lester's trick. Is it really that worth admiring?
Andrew Leonard says that Lester should be around today because he would probably hate Britney Spears. Well gee, we certainly don't have any rock critics around today doing that, do we? Andrew raises the question of whether or not Lester would like anything going on today (after saying that Les would still be engaging with pop culture rather than retreating to indie rock), especially things like hip-hop (which, um, was around just a wee bit before Lester coughed up his spleen, metaphorically speaking), "electronica" (ahem), and pop. The answer being, of course, he probably would not have liked today's rock superstars. Partially this is because, well, Lester hated most things, especially pop, and I doubt this would have been much of an exception. But the other reason is that Lester would be old. Andrew says he'd like to "read Lester on the subject of the Dreadful Hegemony of Boomers and Classic Rock," but come off it, dude. This is dumb idealization and false image-projection on a corpse that hardly has the structural integrity at this point to withstand such a heavy-handed assault. Name me one older rock crit who doesn't champion bands from when he was younger. One! Marcus got his Elvis and Laura Logic, Christgau his Dylan, etc., etc., etc. Hell, I'm sure in twenty years I'll still be harping on about the Geraldine Fibbers and PJ Harvey and Nirvana, and I'll have a hard time getting quite as excited about the bands around at the time. This is simply the way it goes. But to me, this is actually the more valuable service a music critic can provide, because it's not like there won't be new critics coming up to be just as excited about the new stuff while I harp on about britpop and grunge. Critics provide a continuous living memory of the musical past, which is far more valuable than tearing everything bad down willy-nilly at the time; instead of killing everything, save one thing, and harp on about it no matter how popular opinion changes. This is a service we provide.
This is how music works: we all get very very excited about bands at the time, lots and lots of bands, and we listen to them obsessively and we talk about them and we enjoy them and tell others about them and go to their concerts and figure out their music, and we do this even though most of these bands or artists don't "mean anything"--even though they actually mean quite a lot if you're willing to cough your way through that revolted allergic reaction to bands that don't make a conscious effort to convey the fact that they "mean something." And we do this, and it is like love, sort of; music is like love in that they both don't really mean anything, but they seem to mean everything, and so they do, in the end.
But so: then a young music fan comes along and they're wondering who they should listen to, what they can get hep to in order to figure out how music works. And they have this insurmountable pile of data, song upon song upon song, and there's no way of traversing that except through what amounts to random selection. Lester seems concerned primarily with the long term, with what acts will "stand the test of time," but what bands do that seems to come down to which ones your dad has in his record collection, or which ones you find in the library, or which ones have cool cover art, or what the critics at the time are hyping. The long term doesn't matter so much in the present, certainly not so much that you need to be wholly concerned with it in your criticism.
Lester's negativity is presumably excused by the fact that when he did care about a band, he like really cared man. Because MUSIC IS IMPORTANT! But that's the thing: music is important, not individual bands. Fuck individuals bands. They're all working the same twelve goddamn chord changes anyway. What's important is the music, the little variations, the minor digressions, the contexts, the social scene (yes! Fuck it! I will say this!), the shows and the writing and the yelling and all the shit, all the attention that makes music vital. It is important, and so why the fuck would you want to shoot its babies? Why the fuck would you care about authenticity in the context of an artform so wholly artificial? This is a man who happily did that NME bullshit move of praising an artist to the hills and then disproportionately tearing down their next album because it didn't "live up to expectations." Jesus Christ, who cares? That's the kind of shit that would prompt a three-page letter to Pitchfork from me, and you can be sure it's no different if Mr. Bangs wrote it (although maybe, like Christgau and Marcus, he'd have learned to couch his opinions in so much verbiage that you couldn't actually discern a critical viewpoint). The excuse given is that this harsh treatment would drive a band to greater heights, but it sure as shit didn't seem to work with either the MC5 or Miles Davis.
So fuck Lester Bangs. We've got more than enough of his kind today, taking music far too seriously and being far too lazy in looking for meaning; dismissing anything with a commercial connection out of hand, and acting like music is a damsel in distress they must save while coming off as nothing more than an insanely jealous stalker whose affections are mostly unwanted. Guys, you don't get it. You've retreated to the underground while pretending to engage with the mainstream, and you spew out your hateful little screeds while dreaming somewhere deep in your subconscousnesses of nuzzling Lester's putrid scrotum with your downy-soft cheeks. Stop it.
This is all to say: Lester Bangs was a way better writer than critic. And Andrew Leonard is a tool for buying into his grand posthumous prank.