Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Taking On Lester Bangs
It’s not uncommon that master narratives will include meta-narratives about the master narrative itself. Within the corpus of rock writers who created the rock master narrative, who is most often singled out for attention and (sometimes) praise? Lester Bangs is a rock writer who, for the duration of the 70s, was a heavy influence on anyone who decided to write seriously about rock music. He was a jokester, a prankster, but also a kind of floating conscience— a moralizer who wanted to see rock stars do the right thing by the working stiffs who bought their records. Even though the balance between Gonzo and moral elements was uncomfortable, Bangs was a stickler for the “real,” the authentic, and embraced it wherever he found it. His tastes ran to the avant-rock that began to pick up steam in aficionado circles by the early 70s— the Velvet Underground, Iggy and the Stooges, the MC5, and even Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks.” He also embraced what he considered to be good natured kitsch like the Troggs (who became famous for “Wild Thing”). Bangs was most at home writing for Creem magazine, which was, in sales terms, an underling to Rolling Stone, and the finality of whose demise was particularly brutish. It’s very hard to find a vintage issue of Creem anywhere. Nevertheless, much of Bangs’ best writing has been reproduced many times over, in anthologies and collections oriented around just him. He was a genuine personality, no less than Mick Jagger or Jimi Hendrix, and was able to inspire devotion in those who followed him into the volcanic abyss of total rock consonance.
Nothing helped consolidate Bangs’ position more than having Philip Seymour Hoffman play him in the 2000 film “Almost Famous.” The film, written by Rolling Stone stalwart and screenwriter Cameron Crowe, amounts to a Valentine sent to everyone involved in the rock business in the early-to-mid 1970s. It idealizes and views nostalgically the rock lifestyle, complete with sexual and other forms of excess, and the position of a neophyte rock journalist who wants to play with the big boys (and girls). William, the neophyte, stalks Bangs until Bangs deigns to talk to him. Much of what Bangs in the movie says to the William character is negative— that bands are hypocrites, who will act like his friend to get a nice story written, that Bangs himself is a lonely recluse who never goes out, and that (as William doesn’t realize) Bangs is leading him on to believe that the story he’s writing is worthwhile. All this adds up to a very ambiguous portrait. But the movie gilds every possible lily into a pleasing form, and we are meant to see Bangs as a lovable misfit. Possibly, there is some truth to this— that Bangs wanted to be seen as a lovable misfit. But the important judgment, in terms of what Bangs wrote, was how much substance did it contain?
When Bangs would do his morality routine with artists like Lou Reed and the Clash, it was always with the presupposition that these guys, at least in their music (and, as is the case with the Clash, their morality), were genuine. That was where the buck stopped for Bangs. But what, for Bangs (if we decide to take his writing seriously) did “genuine” mean— musical sincerity, lyrical gravitas, a willingness to overlook commercial interests in the hope of changing lives, or a composite of all these things? Bangs never wrote a really rigorous summation of what his rock consonance aesthetic was. That’s the other half of his critical ethos— the idea that he needed to be just winging it, as a kind of Gonzo dilettante. He had to care, but it wouldn’t have been cool to care too much. Gonzo did mean there was ample room in his writing for humor; as when he would rave, with potent ironies in tow, about a new Chicago triple live album. His humor also emerged when he was confronted in person with his musical idols; Bangs going head to head with Lou Reed, and making (according to his own narrative of the event) a complete cretin of himself. Bangs apparently saw himself and his Creem cohorts as inheritors of a Beat sensibility; that his antics added up to a new gloss on Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty. There were some highbrow literary references in Bangs canon, as when he compared Black Sabbath with John Milton. Bangs could occasionally play the middle; with Sabbath/Milton, it was difficult to tell if he was being Gonzo or earnest. That Bangs was at least a competent prose stylist did differentiate his writing from that of other rock scribes. He was fluent, and a natural energy flowed through his sentences and paragraphs. If he has been cast up as a kind of rock Ezra Pound, great aesthete moralizer (and God knows Pound did have, fortunately or not, a Gonzo side), it’s because his prose in grounded in fluent literary ability.
But, ultimately, what remains unredeemed in Bangs is what remains unredeemed in most other rock critics; the sense that he knows literally nothing about music. Most of his pieces amount to semiotic analyses of rock stars’ personas and personalities. He couldn’t write much about the music itself. Bangs at least had a defense for himself on this level; since most rock music was itself musical rubbish, why should he need to know anything about rock as music? It’s hard to argue that most rock music, by most musically proficient standards, is not tripe; but that there is some quality music in the rock corpus which needs to be dealt with as music remained unaddressed, because Bangs and his cohorts were not capable of addressing it. When you swing over from the Chicago triple live album to “Astral Weeks,” Bangs’ writing loses it pungency. Bangs was better at satire than he was at criticism. As such, from a literary standpoint he can be seen as a minor Swiftian. But that he could have an elevated place could only happen in a desolate milieu. And when you rip open a movie like “Almost Famous,” you can see that it would be Bangs’ worst nightmare; a candy heart from Rolling Stone to itself. Bangs’ Gonzo persona was at least memorable, in the movie and in his prose. As such, he does outdistance the other rock critics of the time.