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Let it Blurt | Life and Times of Lester Bangs | Americas Greatest Rock Critic | Jim DeRogatis | review | book | Lollipop
Let it Blurt
The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic
by Jim DeRogatis
(Broadway, 331 pp.)
The Music Writings of Richard Meltzer
by Richard Meltzer
(Da Capo, 591 pp.)
by Jon Sarre
Dads! I, like most any rockcrit hack I've known or read, have ripped sumptin', be it conscious, unconscious, or spellin'-wise (I've probably cut'n'pasted whole phrases and still haven't noticed) offa these gents. Stylistically, every goddamned word I write is a paraphrasation of Messrs Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer. Happened upon Bangs' posthumous Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung 'round age 21 (a good read, but looking back on it now, I suspect editor Greil Marcus collected pieces with his own shitty liberal do-gooder world-view in mind, but more [slander] on Greil later), and realized "Jeez, I've been cribbin' from this guy and didn't even know it!" (probably cuz I was "influenced," yeah, that's the term, by bonafide card-carryin' 2nd gen rockwrites like Chuck Eddy, Legs McNeil and Byron Coley, who'd taken cues from Lester'n'Richard, so, if they're 2nd, than what's that make me? 5th? 47th?).
What we have here with these two books are simply the best accounts probably ever written, on the Golden Age of Rock Journalism. Yeah, there really was such a thing. We're talkin' like damn near thirty years ago, the fuckin' record companies would actually fly writers out to see some schmuck, get him wasted, get him laid, let him charge unlimited room service in a damn hotel of all places! Twenty free promos via US mail a day (sell 'em unopened, then write the review if yer Meltzer...)! Free concert tickets (scalp 'em, sayeth Richard, then write the review as if you were there)!! Press parties, the works! Writers were not some pain-in-the-ass with a tape recorder, they were fuggin' peers, dig? Nowadays, with Entertainment Weekly, those mindless infotainment thangs on the teevee, MTfuckin'V, VH-1 and the rise of the professional publicist scum class and the sad fact that most "critics" are mindless hack shills raised on the tube who don't know dick from like before two years ago, if that, and even if they did, wouldn't wanna piss off the record label jack-offs (why? Shit, I dunno, but I also don't know why they still send stuff to me, even if I enthusiastically like said shit, the resulting review's so fuckin' opaque that it borders on absolute nonsense, in all the press packs I've ever seen, I've found exactly one reprint of sumptin' I've done on a band -- Tricky Woo's The Enemy is Real. Funny, really, cuz I suspect they put everything they could find on the band in that kit, cuz that piece didn't even make sense to me, written as it was, whilst comin' down with the flu and simultaneously sluggin' back this cheap Greek wine, fuckin' damn near undrinkable swill, I once had like 25 cases of the stuff (don't ask why) and when I moved, rather than lug that shit, I just stacked it on the street -- wino bait, used to see empty bottles of the crap all over the neighborhood). Plus the pay is shit and so's the music these days, but t'wasn't always so.
Meltzer's A Whore Just Like the Rest, a collection, like the title states, of his assorted music rants, is by far the more entertaining of the two books. Renowned as the author of the seminal, yet damn near impossible to make sense of, The Aesthetics of Rock (sample from '87's De Capo reprint (p. 124): "Often an unknown tongue is felt as merely implicit in a song but excluded explicitly, creating the tension of the meta-unknown tongue." Sure, Richard.), this anthology reveals him to be a humorist par qua qua (obligatory Meltzer appropriation) excellence, and that's cuz most of his reviews (album, concert, film) are completely fictitious. Y'know, he just made 'em up (his reasoning is that, if sealed, promo albums could be sold for a buck, opened, their value at the used record store dropped dramatically). His writing is better when he's improvising, the stuff he comes up with is just so funny, couldn't be that good if he actually listened to that Cactus record, no way! A good example is his write up of the infamous Altamont "festival," where Meltzer claimed some kid's leg was chewed off by a wolverine. Laugh out loud funny, also kinda poignant at times (the Bangs eulogy, where he doesn't spare us Lester's many shortcomings, f'example). His bitterness comes out too, 'specially when attention is directed towards the "The Dean" and I dunno, the Assistant Prof of RockCritdom, Bob Christgau and Greil Marcus (they edited both him and Bangs at the Village Voice and Rolling Stone, respectively), not for their various distortions of music (which've been plenty), but for their slights against him and his "career" and for their general pseudo-academic assholism. Mebbe it's ironic that they still write 'bout rock and Meltzer disgustedly walked away from the whole shitty playpen.
Lester Bangs probably shoulda taken a cue from his friend Meltzer. He didn't/couldn't tho -- mebbe rockwritin' was all he thought he could do. He died alone in 1982 at the age of 33. An OD, most likely, but to quote Meltzer's book: "...one of the things which helped kill Lester Bangs was WRITING, [Marcus and Christgau] accused me of romanticism -- how can writing kill?, they questioned. Well, guys, it doesn't always kill, but it certainly comes closest when you're doing it right. Only when it makes active use of your blood, your heart, your nerves, glands, sex fluids, vertebrae and whatall, and don't forget your stink, in a word: your body. In a word: your life."
Bangs was one of the best and most celebrated rock'n'writers ever. He could be witty, caustic and hilarious, sometimes in the same fucking sentence. He brought a rabid fan's perspective to his subjects, when he was on -- which he was quite a bit o' the time, on somethin' anyhow -- he could personify the whole rock experience. The guy was one colorful motherfucker, as real and alive as the people he covered and did battle with (Lou Reed, for one). Fat Jim DeRogatis succeeds, too, in bringin' him back from the grave in Let It Blurt, his comprehensive portrait of the scribe's life from Jehovah Witness kid in El Cajon, CA to burned-out alchie on NYC's Lower East Side. Sad, y'know? The man was so fuckin' heavy with humanity or sumptin' warm'n'sweaty, something akin to that amorphous term. He wanted to be loved and alla that, and he wanted to write the Great American Novel like his hero Kerouac. The "rockcrit" mantle kinda trapped him, tho, so he never wrote that fuckin' book. Safely cremated, his old pals Bob'n'Greil have since sainted Bangs, but ya get the impression they had not much use for him whilst he walked the gutters (and cheers to DeRogatis for saying as much). The whole biz rots, ya know. Bangs is long dead and Meltzer's long "retired," who was the luckier one? I leave that up to you.