From the Archives: Richard Riegel (2001)

Richard Riegel: From Jester to Lester

By Steven Ward (March 2001)

There was a time when Richard Riegel worried about his idolization of a friend. Worshipping a friend, co-worker and colleague doesn’t really sound too healthy, but in Richard’s case, I think we can forgive him.

The object of Richard’s devotion was the late rock critic Lester Bangs. Although fans of rock journalism have much to praise in Lester’s writing, we can also thank him for nurturing the writing of Richard Riegel. If it wasn’t for Bangs’s inspiration, Richard probably never would have submitted his first review to Creem magazine–home to Riegel’s musings throughout the ’70s and ’80s.

Funny, irreverent, and dead-on perfect with his observations on pop culture, music, and the people who love rock and roll, Riegel’s writing continues to stand out from the pack. Consider his opening to this recent review from the Village Voice on the My So Called Band CD, The Punk Girl Next Door:

“Once upon a time, the sight of a punk girl moving in next door might have sparked a neighborhood watch for the barricades of cultural revolution. By today’s grim revolt-into-product times, the lights are on next door, but the punk girl’s not home; she’s started up a dotcom offering real-time textual analysis of Jerry Springer’s ‘Final Thought’ homilies for a fee. So much for intellectual-property values on your street.”

Riegel, a married family man who worked for years in the welfare trade in Cincinnati, writes in a voice full of wit and outrageousness; his use of the language can be as rock and roll as both Bangs and Richard Meltzer at their best.

From his musical obsessions (such as Arthur Lee’s Love) to his “psychic struggles” with writer Greil Marcus, Riegel discusses his craft, his years at Creem, his current writing gigs (which include the Voice and his own Loose Palace fanzine), and of course, the man who inspired him in the best way–Lester Bangs.

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Richard Riegel

Steven:   You have never made any bones about your worship and idolization of Lester Bangs. Do you feel justified about it looking back on the year 2000–the year a Lester Bangs biography appeared, the year he was portrayed in a movie about rockwriting, the year this web site about rock critics took off?

Richard:   Yeah, more than justified–not because Let It Blurt and Almost Famous made Lester a media fetish of sorts for a hot minute or two last year, but because I want his memory and his writing (both infinitely influential on me) preserved for the ages, whatever it takes to do that. I was slightly embarrassed for years, even after Lester died, that I’d always loved the guy so much, but when Rob O’Connor did his special Bangs issue of Throat Culture in 1990, I found out that my feelings weren’t unique at all–almost everybody who’d been touched by Lester, either by his writing or by his personality, felt that same intense affection. He had an unusually charismatic soul.

Steven:   How did you first start writing at Creem?

Richard:   It was a slow process, actually slower than it needed to be, but that was my fault. From the time I started reading Creem regularly in 1972, I was obsessed with the mag and especially with its editor Lester Bangs, and I wanted to be published there myself, but I wasn’t sure how to approach Lester at first. I had this weird poor (countercultural) self-image, in that I was happily married to Teresa, had a regular job at the welfare dept., did almost no drinking nor drugs, etc., and I thought (insanely, as it turned out) that my very straightness would somehow disqualify me from becoming Lester’s buddy/fellow writer. In the summer of 1972, I wrote a review of Leon Russell’s Carney album, and sent it off to Lester, with a businesslike cover letter, no special commentary. The review came back to me in my SASE a few weeks later, someone else had already done that review. In the winter of 1972-73, I was in touch with Who Put The Bomp‘s Greg Shaw, which led to my first paid publication (see below), and I neglected sending anything else to Creem for a few months. In the spring of 1973, I sent Lester a very personal fan letter, after he had written about Uncle Scrooge comic books (also one of MY biggest literary influences) in the March Creem, and he responded with one of his characteristically exuberant letters, generously inviting me to write for Creem. May 1973 marked the arrivals of both Lester Bangs’s first letter to me and my daughter Sarah on the scene–two of the most auspicious events of my life.

I was ecstatic over Lester’s interest, but I had very little rockcritical experience at the time, and I didn’t know exactly where to start without specific assignments. I realized much later that I must’ve been in a situation like that of a “bonus baby” baseball player, someone with evident potential but no minor-league seasoning yet. But I was able to get that when we moved back to Cincinnati in the fall of 1973, after I’d completed my alternative service for the draft, as I met this local guy named Brad Balfour, who was seven years younger than me, but infinitely wiser to all the rockbiz games already. Brad had just landed the job as music editor of The Jester, Cincinnati’s free weekly of the time, so he put me right to work writing record reviews for him when he learned of my Creem and PRM connections. Brad was a consummate hustler when it came to scoring promo records and concert passes and all of that, so I learned everything I needed to know about that aspect of rockwriting from him in 1973-75. He left Cincinnati after I was established at Creem, around 1977, and became editor of that New York Review of Records periodical much later on.

Anyway, in November 1973, just as my reviews began appearing regularly in The Jester, I got a long memo in the mail from Lester Bangs, laying out this Screem parody issue he wanted to do, and soliciting my writing for it–the plan was that Screem would parody aNational Lampoon (which Lester didn’t like) parody of Creem. Thanks to my intense studies of all the other rockwriters of the time, I was more than ready to write parodies of their styles, so I wrote a ton of stuff for Screem during the winter of 1973-74 (as detailed and finally partially published in my Loose Palace fanzine, which came out in the spring of 2000.) Lester was very enthusiastic about my contributions, but he just got too busy with the regular monthly Creem, and the Screem project never got off the ground. I finally had my first paid writing in Creem in the May 1974 issue, a review of Mark Shipper’s reissue album of The Sonics, that protopunk band from the Northwest. Then I had a review of Aerosmith’s Get Your Wings in the August 1974 Creem. Gradually I got into the groove and started getting regular assignments from Lester, with almost monthly publication by 1975–and that was also the year I began to get myself added to the record companies’ mailing lists, at Lester’s insistence (I had been raiding Brad Balfour’s vast promo stashes until then.) By the time Lester left Creem in the summer of 1976, I was pretty well established at the mag. I guess the rest is history, more or less.

Steven:   Were there other rock mags you wrote for besides Creem and if so, which ones and what was that experience like?

Richard:   My first paid rockwriting was actually not in Creem, but in Phonograph Record Magazine–a sarcastic review of an Allman Bros./Wet Willie concert, in the March 1973 issue. I had another piece or two in PRM before I got into the groove at CreemPRM at that time had a folded-newspaper format like Rolling Stone, but the writing was far more adventurous–Bangs, Meltzer, and other Creemsters appeared regularly–ironically enough, in view of the fact that PRM was published by United Artists Records(!) as a kind of hippie-run promo tool. UA didn’t seem to have any problem with hosting all kinds of wild & creative writing, even in praise of their competitors’ records, as long as their own product got reviewed somewhere in each issue. A great forum like the early-’70s industry-sponsored PRM would be just incomprehensible in today’s OUR-brand-or-else! corporate culture. I’m a highly monogamous guy in general, so once I was established in Creem, I rarely wrote for other mags, even on spec. (I should add that my regular employment at the welfare dept., which continued throughout my entire Creem career, enabled me to be far more choosy than the usual freelancer about where and what I wrote.) I had one record review published in Circus in 1978, three for Bob Christgau in the Village Voice in 1978-79, and that was pretty much it for me and “outside” mags until Creem finally bought the big bargain bin in the sky in 1988. I had almost total artistic freedom at Creem, plus it was my favorite rock mag of all to read as a fan/consumer anyway, so I was always ready to write more stuff for Amerika’s Only. Since Creem‘s demise, I’ve done paid rockwriting only sporadically, usually for an editor with a Creem connection–e.g., Dave DiMartino at Launch, and now Chuck Eddy at the Village Voice. I also did a few pieces (I really like!) for the inimitable Andrew Palmer, at New Zealand’s Real Groove mag, in the ’90s.

Steven:   In your wonderful Throat Culture essay, “Lester Bangs: Liberation Critic,” you talk about how Lester’s writing showed you that your “heart’s own aesthetic impulses were the truest I could find.” You didn’t try to copy Lester’s style, but his writing showed you that you should find your own writing voice and write about what moved you, not what Rolling Stone was putting on its cover that month. Do you agree with that and could you elaborate?

Richard:   Yep–I just re-read my “Liberation Critic” essay, at your glowing recommendation, and it still holds up. I had been buffeted by all these seemingly contradictory aesthetic influences for years, all through high school, college, and after, about the supposed gulf between “high” and “low” art–I’d studied long and hard in both schools, but I never fully understood how to reconcile them and to put them together into my own writing, until I saw Lester’s example. I would like to name names and clarify a few points in “Liberation Critic” now, though. My 12th-grade English teacher, the New Critical (i.e., Kenyon Review and that crowd) follower who insisted that art should be high or not at all, is one Stanley Plumly. He’s seven years my senior, and really did become “a famous poet” later on–he’s been published frequently in The New YorkerAtlantic Monthly, all those prestigious venues, you could look him up. The American Poetry Review people practically swoon away whenever they interview Plumly these days, and I think, “You poetaster groupies should have known him in 1963, when he was fresh out of college and driving a 1952 Studebaker Starliner to work, to teach English at Miami Trace High School!” I made regular A’s in “Mr. Plumly’s” class, but we clashed repeatedly because I liked satirical writers like Sinclair Lewis and Max Shulman, not to mention pop-culture icons like hot rods and rock’n’roll, and he didn’t. I felt, in my inchoate way, that Plumly and I were locked in a culture war of sorts, so I did good work for him, but it had to be on MY terms as much as possible. Recently I found my final exam for senior English–I had made some outrageous comment in one essay response, deliberately to irritate Plumly, and he wrote, “This is a PUNK example!” beside it when he graded the exam, so I guess I was born to write for Creem at that moment! I’ve read lots of Plumly’s poetry in recent years, and while I respect and can appreciate his talent, his tone is too often too controlled and chilly and off-putting for me–just the opposite of a Bangsian passionate confessional screed, of course. Some of my classmates and I actually had a reunion with Mr. Plumly in 1993, when he spoke at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio. We got along okay, but he’s NEVER responded to the tearsheets of some of my Creem pieces I gave him that day. So good-bye & farewell, Stan, I’m sorry we couldn’t see eye-to-eye, but you helped inspire me to write, in your own high-assed art-before-dishonor way.

The “prestigious-if-parochial liberal arts college” of my “Liberation Critic” piece is Earlham College, in Richmond, Indiana. For now-inexplicable reasons, I felt estranged from my alma mater during the ’80s, but I really appreciate my education there by now, especially after Sarah’s experiences at some of the post-secondary schools she’s attended. It’s true that Earlham’s English department was very heavily-oriented to British lit during my years there (1966-68), but the school had been founded by British-ancestried Quakers, after all, and this was a few years before the cultural-diversity academic revolution. One of my Earlham English professors, Kathleen Postle, really encouraged my interest in American literature, and helped me win an award for my senior thesis on Jewish-American novelists, the first dough I’d ever made from writing. So thanks for everything, Earlham, I contribute to you now whenever I have a few spare $$. (Earlham r’n’r trivia sidelights: Lester’s musician pal Robert Quine graduated from the place in ’65–I didn’t know that until Bob reported one of his solo LPs to The Earlhamite back in the ’80s. Also, Seth Justman’s bro, Paul Justman, was my classmate–I didn’t know him at all, nor dream of the existence of the J.Geils Band at that point, but Teresa found Paul J. “really good-looking” when she noticed him on one of her visits to the campus.)

Steven:   In fact, Lester actually was influenced a bit by your stuff. Tell me about that.

Richard:   I had mentioned this to Jim DeRogatis when he interviewed me for Let It Blurt, and it turned up in his final text, but I don’t think I was a major influence on Lester, in any case. When I wrote the Screem parodies noted above, one was a posthumous interview with Duane Allman, in which he commented sardonically about some of the denizens inhabiting r’n’r heaven with him. Then, in my Mahogany Rush LP review in the October 1975 Creem, I had Jimi Hendrix phone Frank Marino from the purple haze of eternity, and make cutting remarks about the young Canuck lifting his style. Obviously, Lester had read both pieces, and lo and behold, when the April 1976 Creem comes out, Lester has this long feature which combines the concepts of my two pieces–a posthumous interview with Jimi Hendrix, who’s not too thrilled at some of his would-be-guitar-god successors’ strutting around. As I told Jim DeRogatis, I was very flattered that Lester had “stolen” my concepts (if that’s what happened), as he had done them up much more grandly than I had, with his usual Bangsian genius. Whether I influenced Lester in more long-range ways, I dunno–he always seemed to like my writing, and praised it in letters to me and in other contexts, so I’m eternally grateful for that.

Steven:   I’m assuming you are/were a fan of Richard Meltzer and Nick Tosches because of your love for Bangs. Is that true?

Richard:   Sure is–though I’ve never been quite as passionate about Tosches’ writing as I am about Bangs’ and Meltzer’s. I think Nick is a fantastic writer, but he tends to be very stylized and controlled in his crit-noir persona, and I relate more readily to the sprawling-confessional guys like Lester and Meltzer. I regard Meltzer as an absolute genius, as one of THE best writers from my whole generation, but the literary world doesn’t seem to have caught up with my ranking of him just yet.

Steven:   Tell me about your feelings and attitude about a guy like Greil Marcus. Where does he fall in your rockwrite hall of fame?

Richard:   Ha! See my discussion of my psychic struggles with Greil Marcus’s fellow cultural brahmin Stanley Plumly above. When I was first reading & loving Creem in 1972, I made the mistake of wading into Marcus’s “Rock-A-Hula Clarified” magnum opus one day, and after a few pages, I thought, “What IS this pretentious crap?!? And how did it get into Creem, of all mags?!?” I was prejudiced against Marcus from that day forward, and (as with Plumly), while I can see clearly by now that Marcus obviously is a gifted thinker and writer, his icy, anti-flesh tone always puts me off when I try to read him. As I noted in my own Chuck Berry-vs.-Elvis Presley magnum screed (helpfully published in my own Loose Palace ‘zine last year), Albert Goldman caught all kinds of critical flak for his hate-driven biography of Presley, but at least his Elvis is a real flesh & blood human being, whereas Marcus’s (in Mystery Train passim.) is a terminal abstraction, a mere symbol of The Common Man (at best)–I’ve never gotten any sense from Marcus’s writings that Elvis Presley was a real person whom we should care about in human terms first of all. But that’s my bias.

This led to a droll confrontation with my own rockcritical idol, during my first ever in-person meeting with Lester Bangs, at his house in Birmingham, Michigan, in June 1974. I hadn’t been there too long, and we’d fallen into a discussion of all the other rockwriters on the scene. I casually opined, “Ah, that Greil Marcus is an anal-retentive sort…” and Lester thundered out, “He is not anal-retentive!”–all of a sudden I was going at it hot & heavy with my own idol over this Marcus character. We parried for a couple minutes until we realized we were arguing apple corps & orange skies, as I was claiming Marcus was a bad writer, while Lester was insisting he was a fine editor, so we broke it off. And then Lester related a fascinating rockcritical parable I’ve remembered and consulted for over a quarter century now. Lester said that when he was writing record reviews for Rolling Stone, among the editors he worked for, Jon Landau didn’t seem to understand some of Lester’s reviews, but would publish them anyway; Ed Ward understood them, but often disagreed with Lester (“You can’t say that in Rolling Stone!”) and edited him heavily; while only Greil Marcus both understood and appreciated Lester’s reviews, and published them largely as written. Lester expressed lasting gratitude for Greil’s editorial style that day, so I always remembered that, and after Lester’s death, when it was announced that Marcus would edit the posthumous Bangs anthology, lots of other writers were alarmed by that seemingly incompatible appointment, but I thought, “Well, presumably this is what Lester would want, based on what he said to me back in 1974.” And I think Marcus did a pretty good job on Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung, everything considered–it’s not all my own choices and takes, but crucial pieces like “James Taylor Marked For Death” are front and center, and that’s more than copacetic with me.

Steven:   You occasionally write for the Village Voice today. What’s it like working with Chuck Eddy? He’s a wonderful writer. I’m wondering what kind of editor he is.

Richard:   When I wrote for Robert Christgau at the Voice in ’78-’79, that was the first time I’d ever been edited that closely. After he received my ms., Bob’d phone me and we’d go over every word, every punctuation mark. It was a bit enervating at first, but I did learn some helpful compression-for-brevity skills that I applied to all of my Creem pieces from then on. Bob and I had an absurd-but-necessary taxonomic tussle one afternoon, while editing my Steve Gibbons review, over whether British cars have “right-hand drive”–he insisted that cars drive on the left side of the road in the UK, and I said, “They sure do, that’s why the steering wheel’s on the right side of British cars, in America both things are just the opposite.” We went round & round about that, but Bob finally accepted my explanation–in the blue collar sweepstakes, his dad was “only” a fireman after all, mine was an auto mechanic, we Riegels oughta know about all things vehicular if any manjack of a crit did.

When Chuck Eddy invited me to write for him at the Voice in 1999, almost exactly 20 years since my last appearance there, I wondered whether he’d edit as closely as Christgau had–sure enough, he does, but Chuck loves odd concepts and zany puns (as you might’ve guessed from his own stuff), so he always encourages those qualities in my reviews, and sometimes finds just the right word to make my raw phrases even better. Chuck’s a great editor–I can’t wait to tell Lester I’ve got his Greil Marcus topped, when I get to see him again.

Steven:   Are there rock mags and rockwriters you read today and if so, which ones?

Richard:   The one current rock mag I read regularly is the Brits’ own Mojo–I like the flashy, colorful format and the extensive coverage of ’60s artists. (Even when I know they’re catering to my Old Guyness by reliving the ’60s on a monthly basis.) Mojo has a good quotient of dry British humor, too, so while it’s not quite Creem, it comes closer than any other current mag to that Boy Howdy ambience I miss so acutely. Among the *younger* rockwriters, for some reason I tend to favor those scribes who 1) are Bangsian disciples to some degree and 2) tell me my stuff’s still worthwhile, even if I’m 54 (as of 12/08/00) if I’m a day. So that group includes Rob O’Connor, Jim DeRogatis, and Chuck Eddy, for starters. Among Chuck’s Posse (as I call it), I’m especially fond of the writings of Andrew Palmer, Don Allred, and Phil Dellio. And I appreciate Kevin Delaney, Sara Scribner, and Barney Hoskyns for all they’ve done to keep the Love/Arthur Lee saga alive.

Steven:   What about your writing influences. Besides Bangs, were there other rockwriters that you loved to read back in the late 60s/early 70s?

Richard:   My first favorite rockwriter was not Lester Bangs, but John Mendelssohn, when I was first subscribing to Rolling Stone in 1969. Lester’s reviews were appearing in RS at the time, so I knew his byline, but his full persona wasn’t yet revealed–Mendelssohn was camping it up in his inimitable fashion already, and he was one of the few RS writers then who betrayed any sense of humor, who dared to suggest that the whole counterculture shtick might be a huge joke. That concept was vitally important to me at the time, though John didn’t pursue the aesthetic/moral implications of those questions in his writing the way Bangs and Meltzer were to do, and I drifted away from following him. Many years later, after Lester’s passing, Mendelssohn mentioned in one of his Creem “Eleganza” columns that he admired my writing, so I sent him a retroactive fan letter, and we’ve corresponded for 15 years now, though we’ve still never met in person. We don’t have a lot in common aesthetically by this time (John now even disdains his trademark Kinks, whom I still love), but we have fun making sarcastic e-mail remarks to each other.

A rockwriter who was as influential upon me as Lester Bangs early on, but who’s barely known now, since he left the field, was Mark Shipper–his Flash fanzine of 1972, which celebrated bargain bins and his (and Teresa’s) beloved Paul Revere & The Raiders, and brilliantly ridiculed all sorts of rockstar/rockcrit pretensions, was a major major inspiration to me that year. His later Paperback Writerand How To Be Ecstatically Happy 24 Hours A Day For The Rest Of Your Life books were just the kind of satires I would like to have done myself, if I’d had more time. Unfortunately Shipper vanished from the rockwriting scene in the early ’80s, but I still revere (so to speak) the sarcritic impulse he gave me back in the day.

Steven:   Tell me about your favorite rock bands and your favorite pieces you wrote for Creem?

Richard:   Alltime fave r’n’r bands: The Animals and Love. I’ve followed both since they appeared on the scene in the ’60s, but it didn’t hit me until a few years ago that my two faves are yin & yang: The Animals were British but sounded intensely American, Love were vice-versa, Eric Burdon was white but obsessed with becoming black (and very skilled at the racial transformation), while Arthur Lee was black but obsessed with becoming white (and breathtakingly expert at that transition, even more so than Burdon.) I realized that there must be something especially vital to me in that crossover fusion between the black and white musics/arts, when they really do fuse together rather than go on separate but equal in the customary genres. Other permanent faves: Chuck Berry, Lou Christie, Graham Parker, Human Switchboard.

My favorite of my own Creem pieces is a humble “Beat Goes On,” “Metallic J.C.’s Consciousness-Raising Wrap Session” (May ’79), about the scientific discovery of Iggy Pop wrapped in the Shroud Of Turin. Obviously I love writing such satires. I always liked doing Rock-a-Rama capsule reviews, too, as they were like snotty haikus. Eventually we got paid $10. for each published Rama, up from $2. in Lester’s (i.e., Barry Kramer’s) day.

Steven:   What the hell ever happened to former Creem writer Rick Johnson? Is he writing anymore?

Richard:   Rick “Reek” Johnson continues to reside in Macomb, Illinois, site of his alma mater, Western Illinois U. He’s the manager of a newsstand in downtown Macomb now. I haven’t seen him since 1989, but we correspond several times a year, and his (inevitably handwritten–he hasn’t owned a keyboard for several years now) letters are full of those same hilarious concepts and wiener puns that perennially distinguished his Creem writing–I’m always laughing to split my sides by the time I finish one. I regard Rick Johnson as Lester’s and Meltzer’s equal as a rockwriter, even though his style was very different (actually more “postmodern,” for whatever that’s worth) from theirs, especially in the way he constantly satirized the ever-encroaching corporate culture by “sampling” TV-commercial catchphrases into his rockwriting and showing how media-saturated we were all becoming. Just this week, my TV started yapping, “When dentures dream,” and I thought, “Man, if that’s not a Reekian concept, I don’t know what is!”–he probably should have been writing commercials and making some solid dough all along. I wish I had a venue for which I could give him some paying writing assignments now.

Steven:   Do you think Creem could survive today if the magazine was restarted?

Richard:   I don’t know–I think we probably need a major seismic shift in the whole Amerikan culture, away from the hypergreed and corporate totalitarianism of the ’90s, to make something like Creem (in its classic form) possible again. I don’t know how soon (if ever in my lifetime) we can recover that fluid cultural freedom of the late ’60s/early ’70s, but I’m naively hopeful that the kidz will soon wake up and realize how all the corporations are playing them for dupes these days.

Steven:   Do you think rock fanzines and webzines might be the place where the next Lester Bangs might get his or her start and what do you think about today’s alternative media?

Richard:   I don’t have a big picture of that scene, as I just know the little niches of it where I do some work. There’s that weird dichotomy now in which the independent mags and labels etc. can publish pretty much anything they want, but not expect any widespread distribution of their stuff, not like Creem, which was somehow underground and mainstream simultaneously. When I look through Punk Planet now, and see all the hundreds of indie bands and ‘zines listed, it almost scares me to think how many of the great ones will probably end up being known only by very tiny cults. (Sorry, I’m a classic baby bazoomer, the Teeming Sixties really spoiled me…)

Steven:   Are you being published today in anything else besides the Village Voice and what’s up next for Richard Riegel?

Richard:   My latest non-Voice paid writing was an op piece about welfare “reform” in the Cincinnati Enquirer, in August 1999. I’ve been interested in satirical writing about politics for the past few years, and I hope to report more such publication in that field soon. I retired from the welfare dept. in July 1998, after 30 years of work man & boy, and I’ve kept busy since then both writing and tending my booth in an antiques mall (I’ve been a manic Depression-glass collector over the years, too–true story), but I don’t have a lot of $$$ to show for my avocational industry thus far–I’m trying hard to focus my energies on doing lots more paying writing in 2001.

Steven:   The Stranded question. If Greil Marcus asked you to write an essay about the CD you would bring to a desert island, would you do it and which CD would you write about?

Richard:   See my response to #7 above. First of all, Greil would vote me off the island in advance, after the nasty things I’ve written about him, and I wouldn’t blame him for a minute. But in a perfect desert-island universe, I’d bring along one of my 5 copies (4 different configurations) of Love’s Forever Changes, the greatest rock’n’roll album of all time.

Steven:   Do you think the world missed out on some incredible fiction from Lester? Did you ever harbor any desires to write fiction?

Richard:   I’m not sure if Lester could’ve made the full switch to fiction, even if he’d lived a lot longer–it’s very difficult to change those writing grooves once they’re set in place, especially when you come to depend on the money a certain genre can bring you. Economic need probably would’ve continued to compel more criticism than fiction from Lester’s typewriter. In a sense, maybe “James Taylor Marked For Death” and “Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung” and some of his other long pieces really WERE a kind of mutant fiction, as even though they’re confessionals, not everything he wrote in them was completely true. Also, the dialogues between Lester and Lou Reed in those famous confrontational interviews are just as fine as any in conventional fiction–obviously Lester was working with verbatim lines from his tapes, many from another master of the cutting phrase, but Lester’s editing and framing make the dialogue just crackle with electricity, and read as wonderfully as any “real” novelist’s prose.

I wrote a bit of fiction in high school and college, but I’m not sure how good it was. In recent years I’ve been writing short, Proustian sketches about various memories of my youth–I call them collectively “A Sensual Autobiography”–I don’t know if they’re publishable as such, certainly not for $$$, but they feel really good to write. Any fiction I end up writing would probably be Kerouacian–not in quality–but in the autobiographical genesis of it, with characters taken directly from my experience, rather than created on the spot.

Steven:   What’s the worst thing about writing about rock music and did “the job” ever make you feel less passionate about the music?

Richard:   In Creem‘s (private) writers’ gallery booklet of 1983, I wrote that the “worst fringe benefit” of being a rockwriter was “receiving glossy photos of Seals & Croft in the mail,” and I’ll stand by that. I could always recover my passion for the music every month, in some LP or other, UNTIL Creem died–it’s been more difficult since I lost my wedded-for-life journalistic outlet.

Steven:   If Lester were alive today, what the hell would he be doing?

Richard:   I think that Richard Meltzer’s post-1982 career is a good key to what a more existential Lester’s would’ve been like–Meltzer’s written amazingly great books like L.A. Is The Capital Of Kansas and The Night (Alone), both “beyond” music, but they didn’t sell well enough to give him the leverage to fully escape the rockwrite ghetto (as he’d probably call it), and he has to fall back on all kinds of freelance work to keep going. Meltzer is a real inspiration to me in the way he always demands that the culture (gulcher?) come to him rather than vice-versa, no matter how hard that makes it for him to earn steady money. He and Lester would be in this escape-from-rock-crittlegyzm struggle together if Lester were still with us, fellow “whores” with brains of gold.

One thought on “From the Archives: Richard Riegel (2001)

  1. Richard of course is no stranger to the rockcritics universe. Indeed, since we made the shift to WordPress in 2007, he has been our #1 commenter, a fact I am never not grateful for (validation that ANY of this matters a whit has not, let’s just say, been easy to come by). But aside from all that, I think this is a terrific interview on its own merits.

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