Coda: On Lester Bangs and the state of rock criticism

By Chris Nelson

From Pop Music and the Press (Temple University Press), edited by Steve Jones

 I s'pose it stumps none of us anymore, least of all pop culture scholars, when folks wind up everywhere but the places we expect. Of course their journeys, and in particular what they yield, are still fascinating. Take Lester Bangs, smelly rock scribe, proselytizer for Black Sabbath and a man who aimed his prose not at the Ivory Tower but the Bowery gutter. The same Mr. Bangs is either the actual subject of, or spiritual informer behind, numerous essays right here in this very tome -- which, you’ll note by peering at its backside, is published not by a Bowery zine, but by the venerable institution of Temple University.

 It just so happens that Temple is the very Philadelphia school whose hallowed halls I left before nabbing a masters degree in the early 1990s. Back then I wanted to be a rock scribe myself, I just didn’t know it. Night after night, I would ditch Derrida (whose ideas actually seemed pretty punk rock) and head over to the dark confines of McGlinchey’s on South 15th, where the bar pushed 90-cent Yuengling draft porters and the jukebox pumped the Stones’ “Dead Flowers.” Occasionally I’d carry in something like Nick Tosches’ Hellfire or Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming, but mostly I’d pore over Lester’s posthumous anthology, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. You can still see rings on an Iggy essay where my mug sweat onto the page. Some of the pieces -- the title work, a draft of a review of Peter Guralnick’s Lost Highway -- have damn near every other sentence underlined, highlighted, bracketed or scribbled beside, as different bits would boogaloo all over my brain during each read and re-read and re-read.

Lester ushered me into his psyche, for sure, as well as into and beyond the music. But he also helped me cut into my own core to look around at what was there. His fretting over whether to buy the Count Five’s Psychotic Reaction -- a disc he initially judged as mediocre but that ultimately became the emblem of his addiction for gonzo rock power -- mirrored my own urge to discard James Joyce for Chuck Berry. It's not that I thought Joyce wasn't worth the time. Tromping through Ulysses and all its attendant handbooks has a certain kinship with poring over liner notes and record guides, so I fell right in. But I came to Joyce and all the others backassward: at the time, they were as close as I knew how to get to rock 'n' roll within the safe confines of academia. Then Lester made it plain for me: Joyce and Johnny B. Goode are equals. “Nothing more nor less than a record,” he wrote, “a rock ‘n’ roll album of the approximate significance of Psychotic Reaction ...  could ever pulverize my lobes and turn my floor to wormwood.”  What does Joyce do if not pulverize your lobes? Of course, rather than get me high on Joyce, that realization, courtesy of Lester, was a backdoor validation of my instinctual passion for Chuck Berry songs. The light bulb buzzed over my head. If The Great 28 is just as significant as The Dubliners, then I'd turn my attention to the 28

 Like none of us before and few of us since, Lester Bangs completed the circle of rock writing as triumphantly as Pete Townshend laying waste to his guitar, because Lester’s work itself turned our floors to wormwood. Witness the most accurate and invigorating description ever penned of rock salvation, written while Lester was on a U.K. tour with the Clash in ‘77: “The politics of rock ‘n’ roll, in England or America or anywhere else, is that a whole loft of kids want to be fried out of their skins by the most scalding propulsion they can find, for a night they can pretend is the rest of their lives, and whether the next day they go back to work in shops or boredom on the dole or American TV doldrums in Mom ‘n’ Daddy’s living room nothing can cancel the reality of that night in the revivifying flames when for once if only then in your life you were blasted outside of yourself and the monotony which defines most life anywhere at any time, when you supped on lightning and nothing else in the realms of the living or dead mattered at all.”

 Now couple that skill for distilling the very essence of rock with a lustily led life and you’ll see why Lester himself -- whose closest stab at the great rock bio was a quick cash history of Blondie -- is the subject of Jim DeRogatis’s thorough profile, Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic. Which brings us to the center of this here essay, for it was Blurt that drew me down to Chicago’s Empty Bottle on April 15, 2000 to consider the state of rock criticism nigh on 20 years after Lester’s death. Bangs, as some folks know, was also a singer, releasing two albums and the single for which DeRogatis’s book is named. DeRo is also a writer-musician, who, outside of his work for the Chicago Sun-Times, is perhaps best known as drummer for the Ex-Lion Tamers, a Wire cover outfit that opened for their inspirations on a 1987 U.S. tour. Rather than celebrating the History of Lester with a Borders-boring reading, DeRo assembled a band with the Mekons’ Jon Langford at the mic to play a set of Bangs’ own work and his fave covers.

 It seemed appropriate for me to revisit old rituals for the gig, so I claimed a seat early at the Empty Bottle bar, intent on adding some new sweat rings to the pages of Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. Soon I was knee-deep in “The Clash,” the same essay in which Lester birthed the beautiful explanation of rock above. There he was, going on about righteousness, not sonic goodness mind you, but a band quality that’s rare in the rock gene pool, and, I might add, in rock writing itself.

 “[B]eing righteous means you’re more or less on the side of the angels, waging Armageddon for the ultimate victory of the forces of Good over the Kingdom of Death ... working to enlighten others as to their own possibilities rather than merely sprawling in the muck yodeling about what a drag everything is.” Amen.

 Now, to my mind, rock writing should be utterly righteous. And by that I mean it should wake us to possibilities, rather than moan about what a drag things are. I’m not saying that anyone should impose a no-bad-ratings edict -- we all gotta call ‘em like we see ‘em, obviously. But there is an aesthetic that runs through the best rock criticism that holds as a primary tenet the confident faith that somewhere out there, someone is making great music. You may not know who it is, or where they are at the moment they’re creating their Slanted and Enchanted, and it may take you a while to find it once they do. But you know that someone is tapping the emotions that one day will lead to a new Nevermind or It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. It’s the essence of rock ‘n’ roll after all that anyone can land on the earth and one day create a Count Five or a Bikini Kill. Beyond faith, just figure the numbers: there are too many Janes and Joes out there making noise for all of them to be doing crap at once.

 I hand you back to Lester, with tinkering: “The righteous [rock critic] may be rife with lamentations and criticisms of the existing order, but even if he doesn’t have a coherent program for social change he is informed of hope.” 

How accurately this applies to my vocation as a whole right now I don’t know, but my gut tells me not as much as I’d like. I know from conversations that folks like DeRo’s buddy at the Chicago Tribune, Greg Kot, is informed of hope, as are old school deans like Greil Marcus and Dave Marsh. But these days there’re probably as many music writers as musicians out there, not just in Rolling Stone, Spin, the Village Voice and a million other rags, but on a gazillion pro Web sites that offer news and opinion without much analysis. That's not to mention living in the average fan, who in some ways is replacing the trusted critic. Armed with a Web site, and more importantly, programs like Napster, she or he can witness to the power of the Memphis Goons, then pass around near-CD quality MP3s to back up the claims. "Who do you trust?" Tom Petty used to ask his audiences. Well, who do you -- the snotty scribe who packs reviews with oblique references or the kid in the dorm room who's happy to let you and your cable modem have-at his collection of music?

 Maybe it’s always been this way, but I get a sense that there are too many of us in the paid profession who pinball between “sprawling in the muck yodeling” and ironic defense. I’m not saying we shouldn’t flip our minds around. Lester for one was a master of learning to love in hindsight. But these days it feels like many writers second-guess themselves right outta the gate. They may be quick to dump on the Backstreet Boys or Britney Spears, but then they’re just as quick to gush with calculating hipsterism about this or that song by the same artists -- perhaps for fear of seeming out of step with counterclockwise, uber-cool tastemakers or maybe simply of not having a sense of humor. I hate to echo conservative op/ed types, but the routine smacks of relativism. And unless there's a thoughtful argument behind it, it's mealy-mouthing that ultimately makes readers mistrustful. Or maybe it’s fear of looking wrong 20 years down the line, something Lester apparently never thought about, but that many of us consider now precisely because we all grew up with Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. Whatever the reason, it feels like there are too many Play-Doh opinions where there should be underlying aesthetics -- what Lester ID’d in the Clash as “brutal conviction.”

 Brutal conviction is the lifeblood that charges our innards and shoots sparks in our brains. Without it, how can you proselytize? Because I do believe that proselytizing, preaching the gospel and spreading the good news of whatever your musical bag is, is ultimately what we rock writers are here for. When we really nail it, rock writing, just like the music, shows us part of ourselves, from shiny crowns to warty feet and aching heart between. But beyond the complex analysis, beyond the plain review, we do what we do because there’s fire in our guts for schooling others and ourselves, and it burns every bit as hot as the ball that scorches oh so gloriously every time “Louie, Louie” or “Cretin Hop” or “Little Red Corvette” cascades into our ears.

 It’s really as simple as that. It’s as simple as me needing to tell you -- indeed it is a need, because I can't be satisfied until I've shared this goodness with someone -- that when DeRogatis, Langford and their cohorts closed out the night with the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray,” it was a glorious moment, bursting with victory, in which the guitars’ groove and feedback danced wildly with the lusty grind of the Farfisa and finally DeRo’s expert thud, thud, thud on the tom.

 More transcendent still -- and when I say transcendent I’m thinking of Ralph Ellison talking about the blues “fingering that jagged edge of pain” and somehow, inexplicably, rising above -- was “Day of the Dead,” Lester’s recounting of the day that he learned while driving in a car with his mother that his beloved dad had just burned to death in another city, that’s that, don’t say a word, shed a tear, end of story, little Lester, go on and grow up now. DeRo draws an insightful picture of that afternoon in his book, but natch, nothing could be as knowing as Lester’s own attempt to confront the horror: “Ooh mama, take me away / from that terrible, terrible day / A car of death and the cask enclosing / You’ve lost yourself and everyone knows it.”

 Despite the devastating subject, the music isn’t mournful but urgent, both on Lester’s Jook Savages on the Brazos and as DeRo & Co. played it at the Empty Bottle. Langford sang passionately from scribbled crib sheets, dashing each piece of paper to the ground in mock punk triumph, but triumph nonetheless. The guitar lines were bright, giving wind to young Lester’s feet as he tries to flee the crushing pain before it defines him for life.

 And DeRogatis, quite possibly the only person on the planet who knows all the words to this nearly lost bit of greatness, pushed Lester along on this night, shouting the lyrics while his hulking figure brought stick against kit with punishing blows. There on a tiny stool, was a man who found a sense of completeness in not just limning the life of America’s greatest rock critic, but who, for a single night, proselytized by example, with brutal conviction, about the fiery righteous music. And in doing so, gave us the hope that our rock writers, too, can be righteous.