Two Rock Critics Stole the Show

They're two of the most devilish players in the madcap history of rock criticism.


By Brian McCollum, Calgary Herald


A Whore Just Like the Rest: The Music Writings of Richard Meltzer, by Richard Meltzer; Da Capo Press (575 pages, $24.50)

Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic, by Jim DeRogatis; Broadway Books (256 pages, $15.95)

Richard Meltzer and Lester Bangs practically invented the stuff, as Meltzer himself asserts in typically daredevil style right from the get-go -- first sentence -- of his new anthology. Upon staking his claim as the architect of rock writing, certainly the strangest strand of arts criticism to crest and crash within the course of two decades, Meltzer goes on to write, ''Which, heck, I dangle as neither credit nor debit -- just my way of saying hi.''

A Whore Just Like the Rest is Meltzer's way of saying hi for 575 pages. Brash, visceral and reckless, Meltzer, Bangs and their colleagues at periodicals like Creem and the Village Voice sculpted a writing style that sought to snare the primacy of the music they found themselves immersed in.

As revealed in this assortment of essays on rock's chameleonic orbit -- late '60s psychedelia, New York punk, modern indie rock -- Meltzer's 30-year career has been less an evolution than a colourful checkerboard. From writing 1970's ground-breaking The Aesthetic of Rock to hacking quickie blurbs on such artists as Anne Murray for the San Diego Reader, Meltzer has certifiably been there, done that.

His style is hyper-conversational, with sentences careening wildly, crammed with lots of ''lotsa,'' ''y'know'' and ALL-CAPS EMPHASIS. Meltzer views rock not as an art deserving of traditional critical treatment, but as a wild ride to be joined.

Meltzer leaves no icon unturned, and his weird love-hate affairs with such luminaries as Lou Reed, John Lennon and even venerable Village Voice editor Robert Christgau provide insightful entertainment. In this age of pop as corporate stock option, there are few like him; Chuck Eddy comes to mind, but even his brand of subversion comes with a thoroughly modern ironic spin.

Throughout, Meltzer pays ample homage to his friend and peer Bangs, who died in 1982. Bangs has become something of a legend, probably the closest any rock critic has come to approaching the folklore status of the artists he wrote about.

Former Rolling Stone editor Jim DeRogatis, among the lone shining lights in contemporary rock criticism, has written a sober but gripping account of a life marked by breathless self-destructiveness and far-reaching influence.

As a mainstay at Walled Lake, Mich.-based Creem in the early '70s, Bangs spent plenty of time around Detroit. He loathed and lapped up the city's gritty vibe, occasionally escaping to Windsor, where he developed a fondness for Canadian beer.

Bangs' impetuous writing has been immortalized elsewhere; DeRogatis wants to glimpse into the brain that birthed it. The Rob Reiner look-alike is revealed in all his slovenly glory: slurping painkillers, needling a drunk Lou Reed, hoisting a typewriter onstage at Cobo Hall in Detroit to write a real-time review of the J. Geils Band.

By the time Bangs died in his New York apartment -- from alcohol and Darvon -- rock had accepted him into its ranks as thoroughly as he had embraced it. ''I have no confidence in speculating whether he was great despite his excesses or because of them,'' writes DeRogatis, who, as a college journalist, once met Bangs. ''St. Lester has become a rock 'n' roll icon, and people read into him the myths that they need.''

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