The Critics Who Rocked Buffalo
|By Richard Pachter, Special to
The Buffalo News
June 18, 2000
haven't always existed. For the longest time, there was a lot of rock 'n' roll but not
many people writing seriously about it. In the late '60s and '70s, came the first
generation of real rock critics, some of whom were known to be as wild off the page as
Jerry Lee Lewis was on the stage. And some of the best known descended on Buffalo like a
literary "Animal House" in 1974 for an academic symposium of rock critics.
Richard Pachter was there, a kind of designated driver. He lived to tell the tale.
Lester Bangs. Richard Meltzer.
Hard to believe now, but once upon a time, these two guys -- rock critics, of all things -- had a fervent following. Not a squealing, door-busting mob, but a critical mass of aficionados sufficient to ensure immortality -- or at least a reputation some 20 or 30 years later.
In the early '70s, Bangs and Meltzer didn't merely "review" music -- b-o-r-ing! -- they teased it, belittled it, loved it, ignored it, whatever was required. Editors of Fusion, Creem and the era's other rock rags (are there any left?) gleefully but warily commissioned reviews from the pair, often over the objections of ad managers who had to solicit business from the same record companies that provided the pair's fodder.
It's hard to believe that Rolling Stone -- the same super-slick publication that now cover-features nubile girl singers and boy bands like a latter-day 16 magazine -- was once part of a wave of "serious" rock journalism. Rolling Stone, even at the height of its hip pomposity, rarely published Bangs and Meltzer, and when it did, usually regretted it.
Now, with the Internet and MTV, there are no writers who cover or review music that have any kind of following. Kurt Loder may be a solid scribe with decent credentials, but his newsy bits aren't as memorable as the on-screen face-offs he refereed between Courtney Love and Madonna on MTV.
Bangs, who died of a Darvon overdose in 1982, didn't just scribble reviews. He interviewed (several times) his hero and antagonist, Lou Reed, and in a memorable summer of '71 issue of Creem (which also contained Greil Marcus' monumental "Rock-A-Hula, Clarified" later expanded into a book-length exploration of the indefinable elements of rock), Bangs created a mock history of the Count Five, the one-hit wonders whose "Psychotic Reaction" blatantly ripped off the Yardbirds' "I'm a Man," replete with an imaginary (and outrageous) discography.
Meltzer (still alive and residing in Portland, Ore.) was Bang's Glimmer Twin, though writing separately and enjoying (if that's the word) an on-and-off friendship. Where Bangs was clownish and an unashamed fanboy, Meltzer, though frequently funnier than Bangs, often cited philosophers and arcane sources beyond the typical scope of Uriah Heep fans. His early extravaganza, "The Aesthetics of Rock," highly praised for its rabid intellectualism, was several decades ahead of its time -- further proof of the author's genius.
Though Meltzer's anarchistic sense of the absurd is equal to Bangs', his evocation of sexuality is usually at ground -- if not gutter -- level.
In May 1974, Bangs and Meltzer came to Buffalo for a rock critics' symposium at Buffalo State College.
I was employed by the venerable Leonard Silver, Western New York's pre-eminent music entrepreneur, as promotion man for his Best & Gold record distributorship. I'd left the University at Buffalo a few months before, having been music editor of Ethos, the school's student magazine.
But I was still plugged into the town's critical community, despite having gone over to the other side.
At UB, I'd taken a course offered by the school's American Studies Department, with several other rock 'n' roll literati, including Spectrum reviewers, Billy Altman and Joe Fernbacher, my pals Matty Goldberg and Terry Bromberg, WPHD deejay Jim Santella, The News' Dale Anderson and others.
The class was led by Jeff Nesin. At times, we were joined by a Kenmore High School student, Gary Sperazza, who later published a magazine called the Shakin' Street Gazette.
In May '74, attending Buffalo State, Sperazza had somehow wangled enough student activity funds to fly in a bunch of nationally known rock writers for a symposium. Bangs, Meltzer, Greg Shaw, Nick Tosches, John Mendelssohn, Lenny Kaye, a pre-Arista Patti Smith and Rob Tyner, lead singer of MC5 (a Detroit band), showed up, along with Altman and Fernbacher, having forfeited their amateur status by selling reviews to Creem.
Bangs and some of the others were billeted in a dormitory at Buffalo State. They reportedly had attempted to foment a panty raid, failed, then tried to solicit sex, presumably from coeds, by running around the quad and shouting. Not surprisingly, this tactic, too, was unsuccessful.
DeRogatis reports in his new Lester Bangs biography "Let It Blurt" that they tried to get into Goodbar's, standing in line in the rain, but didn't get past the guy at the door.
The rock critics' panel was wild and wooly. With no clear agenda, topic or proposition ("Resolved: Rock criticism is an oxymoron"), Nesin, the designated grown-up, gamely attempted to moderate.
But Nesin was smart enough (and more than cool enough) to let things unfold when it was clear that no order would be imposed.
I'll spare the play-by-play (it's in DeRogatis' book), but highlights were: Meltzer and Bangs' tag-team verbal trashing of the Village Voice's Robert Christgau, Bang's recitation of a letter written by Canned Heat's manager to Rolling Stone that got him banned from that publication, and Meltzer's questions to Zoo World editor Arthur Levy ("What's your favorite Jewish holiday?").
The panel broke up after Tosches invited everyone -- audience included -- to a party, presumably in the dormitory where some of the participants bunked.
It had lasted about 40 minutes, preceded by a poetry reading by Patti Smith, accompanied by Lenny Kaye. (I knew it wasn't quite rock 'n' roll, so it had to be art, but what did I know?)
The next day, I drove Bangs and Tyner over to my Fillmore Avenue apartment for some scrambled eggs and sanity. Bangs was very polite, clearly appreciating my bourgeois hospitality. My parents would have, no doubt, been proud. What happened to the rest of the writers? Well, panel participant
Nick Tosches wrote several books, including a highly acclaimed biography of Dean Martin, which Martin Scorcese wants to film, and, most recently, an explosive biography of boxer Sonny Liston.
"The Nick Tosches Reader" was just published by Da Capo books, and includes plenty of references to Meltzer and Bangs, and some other shorter work.
Altman continues to contribute to the New York Times, People and other publications, and published a biography of humorist Robert Benchley. Fernbacher passed away last year. Nesin is president of the Memphis College of Art.
I lost touch with Mendelssohn. Shaw runs Bomp, an alternative record label. Meltzer's new book, "A Whore Just Like the Rest," offers ample documentation of his wildly brilliant and hilarious music writing.