A Box Full of Rocks

“You’ve seen him depicted in the Academy Award winning film Almost Famous. Maybe you’ve read him in Rolling Stone or Creem magazine. Now, see where it all began — El Cajon, California. A Box Full of Rocks: The El Cajon Years of Lester Bangs is a new documentary by Grossmont College instructor Raul Sandelin. The film chronicles the childhood years of famed music journalist Lester Bangs as he grows up in El Cajon. A Box Full of Rocks will be released in Summer 2013…”

More info on the film (and on Bangs, generally) here.

Was Creem a Bastion of Anti-intellectualism?

“The writers [Creem] propelled to stardom — Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, and Nick Tosches being three of the most celebrated — explored rock with a bombast that was smart but anti-intellectual, ‘amateurist and faux lowbrow,’ positioning themselves between the studious class of New York writers and the deference that came out of San Francisco.”

“If Goldstein represented the quandary of what critical practise should be in an age when mediation risked killing the very culture he loved, [early Voice music critic, Annie] Fisher provided an answer: return to pleasure and give up analysis (a stance that would be taken up, in a different way, by the journalists who helped to build Creem)

Both of these quotes are taken from Devon Powers’s Writing the Record: The Village Voice and the Birth of Rock Criticism (pages 6 and 95, respectively). Of the many specious claims I’ve come across in the book (I like some parts of it, too, though on balance I don’t think the author really achieves the enormity of the task at hand), this is the one that most rubbed me the wrong way — i.e., the idea that Creem was this bastion of anti-intellectualism. Also, the idea that the “journalists” at Creem gave up analysis for pleasure (when really, the point, I think, was to not separate pleasure from analysis, to not even recognize a distinction). Labelling what Tosches, Marsh, and Bangs did as “smart but anti-intellectual” in a book entirely devoted to an important strand of the history of rock intellectualism… I just don’t get that at all. Not to say that there probably weren’t some writers in Creem who might have played that as a certain stance, or a certain move. There was always a “this-isn’t-art” argument lurking below the surface of Creem‘s trash aesthetic, not to mention a lot of fucking around, mocking the musicians, etc. I guess I just don’t read that as anti-thought; it was more about expanding how one could think about this stuff, how something could be analyzed in a way that didn’t necessarily scream “analysis” in bold letters. Lester Bangs typing on stage while the J. Geils Band played their set; this was just a different way to do it.

Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee, Good Times

Sometime on Friday 30 April 1982, in an apartment somewhere in New York City, Lester Bangs dies. He is found lying on the floor. He is approximately thirty-three-and-a-third years old. He had been suffering from the ‘flu and had been taking Darvon and NyQuil. It was suggested that his immune system was shot due to an over-zealous cleaning-up of his own body following a lifetime of alcohol and speed abuse. But he was taking more than the recommended dose of both these remedies, and in addition had taken quite a bit of valium. There is a record spinning on his stereo, the needle locked in the run-out groove. The record was Dare by the Human League. It has not been specified which side he had been listening to, or what song he was hearing at the point where he may have realised that life was sliding away from him. No one could know; he left no notes, not having planned to die.

I don’t know what he would have made or thought of it…

Marcello Carlin, reviewing Human League’s Dare on his #1 UK albums blog, brings Lester Bangs, Margaret Thatcher, and Heaven 17 to the table also. (Dare is not a record I continue to play often, but it’s probably one of the half dozen records about which I can accurately say that my initial listen to it was utterly transformative, in that it felt like a break from everything I’d listened to in my life up until then. It wasn’t, of course — nothing ever is — but initially, one Saturday evening in my basement bedroom, it felt anomalous.)

From the Archives: Lester Bangs (1980/2001)

Everyone’s a rock critic: The lost Lester Bangs radio interview

In 1980, following the release of Blondie, Lester Bangs was interviewed for a radio program called “News Blimp.” A copy of the tape was sent to me anonymously by someone who “fished it out of the garbage.” The interviewer is unknown, and my searches online for “News Blimp” also pulled up nothing. I’ve been advised by someone who was close to Bangs that there’s really no issue with my running it on this site, especially given that the source is a mystery. (And yes, it’s the real deal.)
– Scott Woods, 2001

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Interviewer:   First let me ask you if it was difficult writing a biography without the help of the people that you were writing about?

Bangs:   You know, in a way it was and in a way it wasn’t because there’s something that happens when you get the collaboration, or the cooperation, of the people you’re working with; all of a sudden you’re on their side, they take you into their confidence and you’re all buddy-buddy, and you’re almost like a recruit to the cause. Whereas if you have absolutely no cooperation at all, then you know that you at least can maintain your objectivity, you know?

Interviewer:   Lester, is this the first book you’ve written?

Bangs:   Yeah…Well, I wrote a novel in 1968 when I was in junior college called Drug Punk about drinking Romilar cough syrup, but this is the first book I’ve written that’s been published.

Continue reading “From the Archives: Lester Bangs (1980/2001)”

Bangs Audio II (now with transcript)

What a few minutes on Google will learn you: I mentioned in a recent post that I wasn’t sure who Sue Matthews was, or what publication (or radio station) her 1980 interview with Bangs was conducted for. Turns out this information has been available online for a few years now, at the website, Cousin Creep, which also includes a transcript of the interview. Which was conducted, btw, for ABC, Radio Australia. (Not, as I embarrassingly assumed, for an English publication; sorry, terrible with any accent which isn’t Southwestern Ontario-flavoured.)

In 2009, Sue Mathews contacted me and informed me the cassette copy I had was the only surviving copy. In recalling the interview, Mathews mentioned: “Lester was a great person to meet, by the way, just as you’d imagine from his writing. A very generous and thoughtful interviewee, with no ego at all. I ran into him in the post office in Chelsea (NY) a year or so later, and we had a coffee nearby – he was that kind of guy”.

And now, remixers — start your engines!

Almost Thirty

I’m almost 30, and although certain elements of my lifestyle have remained as dissolutely constant as in 1971, I have to admit that I’m just not into drinking half a gallon of Gallo Port and listening to Black Sabbath’s first three albums in a row, which is what I did every single night the winter of that year.

– Lester Bangs, “The Roots of Punk Part III,” New Wave Rock, February 1979

Rod the Bod

“‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?’ still needs modest defenses. Eerily mimicking the feel of the Stones’ ‘Miss You,’ Stewart’s band plays every extant disco signifier: four on the floor drums, locked-down bass, guitar fills too groove-conscious to do anything besides stay out of the way, sax solo. The key, though, is the amazing synth line, lumbering across the track, suggesting a scenario much colder and sleek than the one written by Stewart (noting the synth is one of my earliest memories). This is the second curious thing about ‘Sexy’: it’s a singer-songwriter narrative bedecked in polyester, which, thanks to the synth and rhythm section, intensifies the comedy.”

Alfred Soto on disco-era-and-beyond Rod Stewart. I have some thoughts on this, may try to express them later, but I don’t read Alfred’s piece as a rebuke to the Bangs/Nelson [insert most ’70s rock critics] line on Rod. I dig the visors, though.

Paul Nelson and Lester Bangs Rod Stewart

Secret Agent Men

Devo’s Paradox: Why some art can’t be appreciated in its own time. By Noel Murray, AV Club.

Nearly a year old, this piece, but just discovered today. Akron’s spud boys vs. four seventies rock critics–Christgau, Bangs, Dave Marsh, and Tom Carson–none of whom reserve too many kind words for the band (though of the four, only Marsh seems to out and out despise them). Clearly, Murray is some kind of Devo fan, though in a piece that’s commendable for its evenhandedness, he only overstates the case for them once, I think, with the specious (at best) claim that “today, Are We Not Men? routinely lands on lists of the best and/or most significant albums of all time”–really? I haven’t noticed that at all (it’s possible we’re not looking at the same lists in the same publications). His strongest point, however, is his assertion that, in some instances (particularly, I’d suggest, for a band like Devo, who never lacked for a manifesto) negative criticism actually helps tell a band’s story–it completes, or anyway fills in, the picture they’re trying to create in the first place. Says Murray:

“It’s important to note, though, that the Devo skeptics weren’t ‘wrong’ per se. Devo intended to provoke with its science-fiction mission statements and its emotionless renditions of ’60s party music, so the affronted reactions that the band received from some quarters weren’t just expected, but to some extent, desired. Art and criticism are supposed to be in conversation with each other, and the Devo-haters were just answering the band in the terms its members had established. Marsh in particular makes a persuasive case that Devo is more shallow and disposable than smart. He just fails to be as persuasive when he all but demands that the young people of the late ’70s not take any pleasure in this catchy, exciting music.”

Elsewhere he notes:

“Tom Carson and Robert Christgau’s dismissive, defensive reactions to Devo are part of that band’s story, and now help explain what Devo was and what it meant, circa 1978. Those guys did their jobs–and well, I’d say.”

Funny thing is, I bet Devo agreed with that, too.

Don’t fight the urge.

Carola Dibbell on Fiction and Music Writing

An interview with Carola Dibbell at Black Clock:

BLACK CLOCK: You wrote rock criticism on and off for thirty years and have spoken before about the leakage between fiction and music writing. Can you explain what you mean by that? What role has music played in your fiction?

CAROLA DIBBELL: In the early seventies, I was surprised and impressed by the rock writing in Dave Marsh’s and Lester Bangs’ Creem, and a little later in the Village Voice music section, edited by Robert Christgau, my husband. In this fledgling and disreputable form, you could be vulgar, personal, amateurish and formally ambitious all at once and actually be read. It gave me a chance to do things with the voice and tone and disorder I was already exploring in fiction that was not actually read. It took longer for me to bring those rock critic elements into my fiction except, I suppose, that writing about pop led me to contemplate genre fiction. Then, in the late nineties, when my fiction was going nowhere, I made a conscious decision to let the rock critic write the fiction, sort of, and the fiction changed a lot.