SEX & DRUGS & ROCK WRITING THREE NEW BOOKS ON ROCK WRITING ICONS -- RICHARD MELTZER, NICK TOSCHES ANDLESTER BANGS
|By KIERAN GRANT,
IT BLURT: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF LESTER BANGS, AMERICA'S GREATEST ROCK
CRITIC By Jim DeRogatis
A WHORE JUST LIKE THE REST: THE MUSIC WRITINGS OF RICHARD MELTZERBy Richard Meltzer
THE NICK TOSCHES READER By Nick Tosches
"The first thing to understand and bear in mind at all times is that the whole thing is just a big ruse from the word go, it don't mean s--- except exploitatively and in the zealotic terms of wanting to inflict your tastes on other people."
Lester Bangs, How To Be A Rock Critic, 1974
Lester Bangs was a zealot.
He was a lot of other things -- massively talented, self-conscious, idealistic, sensitive, caustic, big, smelly, alcoholic and quite likely cough syrup-addicted.
And, as the first true icon of rock criticism, Bangs was ready to reduce his life's work to "a big ruse" if it meant conveying, even just for a second, the guts, humour, and unrestrained honesty of the rock 'n' roll music he loved so passionately. He was so successful at inflicting his tastes on other people that, much to his own apparent consternation, he knocked up with big ideas a universe of rock writers to follow -- like him, they were frustrated rock 'n' rollers who, for better or worse, found more solace at the typewriter than at the mike stand.
Bangs didn't invent rock criticism -- that turf belonged more to still- active chin-strokers like Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus. But, along with his pals Richard Meltzer and Nick Tosches, he did make a case for rock criticism as literature, or at least made the concept up as he went.
Besides the fact that Meltzer, Tosches and Bangs used to get loaded together, that spirit is the one thing uniting three new books: Jim DeRogatis' Bangs biography Let It Blurt; Meltzer's volume of music writings, A Whore Just Like The Rest; and Tosches' anthology The Nick Tosches Reader.
Meltzer, Tosches, and Bangs became friends in the late '60s/early '70s while contributing to primal rock mags like Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, and Creem. Bangs, of course, is the one member of the trio not alive to edit a collection of his own work -- the definitive Bangs bible, Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung, came out in 1987, five years after the writer died under hazy, druggy circumstances, aged 33. But his creative and personal exploits are tracked, captured and filed with journalistic precision and fanatical care in Let It Blurt.
DeRogatis, a respected latter-day rock crit in his own right, puts a history behind the personality, filling the gaps in the life story of a man who, to all but his circle of friends, was known only by his opinions on records. Weaving together the proverbial extensive research and interviews, including his own 1982 interview with Bangs as part of a high school journalism assignment to interview "a hero," he punches through the mythology that's shot up around Bangs' work.
There are some dark revelations: Lester, then Leslie, lost his father in a housefire when he was eight; in his 20s, he struggled to exorcise lingering racism and homophobia that crept inside him; he had serious love/hate issues with his mother and her Jehovah's Witness faith. Other details are entertaining: A Southern Californian with Okie roots, Lester went through life "a hick"; he had serious love/hate issues with Lou Reed; he was always a frustrated musician.
DeRogatis is ultimately left with a sad tale of a sad guy who could never quite keep up with the blitzkrieg blast of his own ideas, and he wisely tells it like it is.
He does celebrate the circle of '70s rock scribes who hoisted each other up as heroes for a laugh and would up icons. He doesn't romanticize his hero's live-fast-die-young ethos (given Bangs pipe dreams of grandkids sitting on his knee hearing about Iggy and The Stooges, we're never sure that early death is what he wanted).
Still, If not for a superb afterward on the function of criticism -- a vindication, at last, for us lost children of Lester -- it's a story that will bum out even those devotees who hang in long enough to hear it.
If Bangs was rock 'n' roll criticism's heart splattered across the page, Meltzer and Tosches are, respectively, its bile and brain.
Compiled from the relatively safety of Meltzer's rock memories, A Whore Just Like The Rest fuses self-loathing -- actually, everything-loathing -- with outrageous humour and a style that's often so impenetrable it makes Bangs' trademark 25-line, all-caps sentences look fluffy by comparison. So strong was Meltzer's disdain for the "rockwrite" process that he often went to mind-bendingly inventive extremes to avoid actually reviewing a record or, shudder to think, interview some guy from Three Dog Night. Instead, his writing explodes, full-on rock style, with impulsive thoughts that seem to be sparked by the music he listened to. He admits that his main source of income came from selling promo albums, and that, back in the days of extravagant spending on the press, that he routinely exploited record companies as a source of free meals.
Linked by self-deprecating blurbs from Meltzer in the here-and-now, the entries date from his dorm-room drug ramblings in the '60s -- a stream-of-consciousness review of Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced?, a segment of his 1970 tome The Aesthetics Of Rock -- to his coherent latter-day musings, including a sensitive/snarling chapter on the "Lester Legend."
You never know for sure when Meltzer is putting you on. But the real beauty of his work is that, like Bangs', it can't be properly imitated. He's smart and crazy. You'd like him.
That leaves the field of "proper" writing open to Tosches. And, while calling him "conventional" hardly seems fair, it's my contention that, where the others were rock marvels, this tough, streetwise, bar-room intellectual from Jersey had and has the purest journalistic and literary gift.
Music writing makes up only a portion of The Nick Tosches Reader, and much of that is dedicated to country music. With no attention to chronology, Tosches creates a free-flowing best-of package that riffs alternately on his many fascinations and writing assignments: Records, women, dope, mobsters, George Jones, TV shows, Martin and Lewis. In the process he lets slip a devastating talent for poetry and lives out the rock critics fantasy of writing copy that can be both completely gonzoid and crystal clear -- usually separately, sometimes at the same time.
Rock writing, as Bangs and Meltzer knew it, is dead. But Tosches prooves that there is an afterlife.
"Rock 'n' roll's basically just a bunch of garbage in the first place, it's noise, it's here today and gone tomorrow, so the only thing that can possibly trip you up is if you begin to reflect that if the music's that trivial, can you imagine how trivial what you're doing is?"
-- Lester Bangs