Monday, October 4, 2010

But I Am Going To Swim In It: Lester Bangs Revisited

Lester Bangs is a name that haunts music journalism, along with other titans such as Nick Kent, Robert Christgau, and Greil Marcus. His greatest influence, at least in my opinion, was in making the process of writing about music—whether it be an album, band profile, concert review, interview, or travelogue—much more personal, informal, and poetic than it used to be. He intellectualized and romanticized music and music listening while also bringing the god-like stars of the 60s, 70s, and 80s down to a human level. Other writers certainly contributed to this trend, but Bangs is most associated with it, to the point where over the past few years some have called for a new Lester Bangs, or more specifically, a Lester Bangs of videogames journalism. However, I have to wonder if these people are basing this desire more on their memories of what he stood for and what his writing was like compared to the actual facts.

Bangs's work is featured in two collections, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung and Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader. Together they serve not as a comprehensive compilation of his work so much as they are a complete sampling of his style. You get the drug fueled gonzo/New Journalism type stuff that is sometimes only tangentially related to music, such as excerpts from his unpublished Drug Punk novel. You get travel stories that humanize The Clash as good, regular guys but far from angelsl a typically first person account of meetings with most of the major forces in reggae/dub at their peak in the 70s in Jamaica; a strange rant about a visit to California. You get concise reviews of albums that are more memorable and interesting than the albums themselves. You get entertaining, sometimes antagonistic, profile/interview pieces on Lou Reed, ELP, Jethro Tull, et. al. You get moving, brilliant examinations of classics like Astral Weeks and The Marble Index. And you get a mountain of phrases and irreverent wordplay that make you want to believe what he says even if history frequently proved him wrong—would anyone alive today really claim that Led Zeppelin and 'Stairway to Heaven' aren't going to be around for hundreds of years?

The reason I wondered whether people remember Bangs more in theory and memory than in practice is that, at least in the cases where it's allowed to get out of hand, his writing is something you end up reading more for his personality (or perhaps the persona he projected to the world) and rambling style than the actual content and what he has to say. A lot of it is borderline unreadable Beat-like writing that you'll indulge once and skip on re-visitings of Psychotic Reactions or Mainlines. This is why people who wonder “where is the new Lester Bangs?” are partially wrong, because he was very much a product of his time and place, and you couldn't get away with today what he often did in the past and still expect to get published, not to mention get interviews.

Bangs acknowledged Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bukowski as influences, and to be sure the former's rambling, hallucinatory prose and the latter's alcoholic, dirty old man persona are part of Bangs, most obviously in pieces like 'Notes On Austin' and 'New Year's Eve', respectively. Sure, blogs might publish this kind of stuff today, and former Pitchfork writer Brent DiCrescenzo was a bald faced Bangs acolyte with his lengthy conceptual/experimental (many would say pretentious) prose, but most modern readers and critics will agree this kind of writing holds no appeal for someone who wants to know what an album is like and if it's any good. There's an answer in the writing, sure, but it takes way too long to get there, has paragraphs that don't seem to relate at all or (like Christgau's often florid intellectualist capsule reviews) are neigh incomprehensible. As for getting interviews, when the modern press does attempt to confront artists today or stand by its writers, it ends up being a mess like the recent M.I.A. piece by Lynn Hirschberg or videogame developers/publishers blacklisting magazines/websites based on unfavorable reviews or coverage.

Of course, I love Bangs, and these two collections are part of what I would consider required reading for anyone with a passing interest in music journalism and criticism in general. The key is not to see Psychotic Reactions and Mainlines as a style guide or handbook for how to write, but as a helpful tool to see that music writing can be more than just “I liked this because it's good. 5 stars. The End.” He's instructive as much for helping you get more personal with writing as he is for knowing how far not to take getting more personal with writing. After all, Bangs seemed to have little concern for the audience digesting what he released...or maybe he had so much regard for them that he didn't water anything down. Whatever the case, his love of and deeply felt personal relationship with music are the most important element of both collections. You get the feeling when you're reading through long sections about how miserable and numb he was feeling at the time that it had more to do with a dearth of good music coming out instead of any social or psychological problems he was having. By this criterion, he was indeed one of the greatest critics of any artform. Critics aren't just consumer guides; we deeply feel and immerse ourselves in art, and when there's a string of crap, it affects us more than we realize. Now, whether Bangs was one of the best writers...well, that's still up for debate.

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