Love Letter to Lester

Maria Bustillos on Lester Bangs in the New Yorker:  “for a certain cohort of bookishly inclined kids… there was only one writer.”

Perhaps the sweet spot of a Venn Diagram conjoining “bookish” and “reckless” might be more descriptive of Lester Bangs, his writing and his legions of young followers.  This isn’t Proust, where the squares of our Venn will huddle.  Lester writes about acid-drenched parties where he and his friends do stupidly destructive things in psychotropic-induced rages, his battles with his own demons and intermittent hero, Lou Reed.  As a tween from the purgatory of mid-Atlantic suburbia looking toward bored binge-drinkers as the best-case scenarios at the liberal arts college of my choice, I was scandalized and intrigued. I forfeited my pass to join the future bloated depressives of America in a game of STD bingo and spent weekends with Lester instead. For those certain bookish and (imaginarily) reckless among us, reading Lester was not only finding a friend, but a key to that desperate, manic, breathless, joyful voice in our own heads, to magically transform us into writers, or at least made us think that it could.

I began living vicariously through others’ accounts of what went up Charlie Watts’ nose as a sixteen year old, and the third-hand records satisfied all the curiosity I had toward real recklessness; my lust for the dark side remained cerebral, not manifested (back then at least). My journey through bold-faced names of the 1970s underworld led me to Lester, and cracking open his first collection, Mainlines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste was like meeting a person I’d always imagined existed and was waiting to meet: someone who never shuts up but everything that comes tumbling from his mouth is somehow thoughtful, impassioned, shocking and true. Sure, like anything that has enough courage to be alive, he’s damaged, but you wouldn’t trust an artist who wasn’t crushed under the weight of existence (or the Lower East Side in 1977), and also drunk. In a self-penned “about the author” featured in the intro to his second posthumous collection, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, Lester refers to himself as the best writer in America, pitting himself against Hunter S. Thompson. He’s right. Thompson may remain the the ruling king of the literarily debauched, but thirty years later, the poetry and rage of Lester’s work somehow hum and scream off the page to a truer tone.

Aside from Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s turn as Lester in Almost Famous and a few name-checks by unknown contemporary bands, Bangs has been conspicuously absent from pop cultural discussion (a biopic starring R.Patz is somehow not in the works), so I was thrilled to see Bustillos’ paean to him in the pages of such a tony rag.  In awe of his wit and seemingly tireless intellect, Bustillos outs Bangs as a lit nerd in rock writer’s clothing, rather than painting him as the oversized, benzedrine-ridden Falstaff many others have (perhaps that both portraits are accurate explains his true complexity and endurance).

A comment on the article  identifies Bangs as “mainly notable for being an extreme example of rootless, insecure, self-destructive hipster nihilism,” inviting others who subscribe to his worldview to follow his example “all the way to the cul-de-sac where it inevitably leads.” Besides assuming that the commenter must then view a cubicle and three-car garage as ultimate transcendence above said existential cul-de-sac,  nihilist struck me as a low and ugly epithet, as well as completely misguided. A true nihilist does not create. To create requires an intense engagement with the world, a leap of faith that another human will understand what you’ve made.  Each of Lester’s pieces are loaded with nothing but his impassioned joy or hand-wringing. Sure, he hated Prog Rock and most white male singer-writers of the 70s and his teenage hero, Bob Dylan, let him down. But true despair (for Lester, over the career of James Taylor) can’t be known without experiencing pure ecstasy (granted by seeing the Stooges live or tricking a record clerk into selling a favorite, obscure Count Five record for 89 cents).

Between airing his many grievances over the state of popular music, New York, Detroit, Idi Amin, women, men, and the list goes on, Lester let his joy and wonder of life and the world show through:  “Lately some people have begun to assert that, with 1967 so far gone and all, ain’t nothin’ cosmic anymore. They say that rare evanescent psychic Pez drop has gone out of contemporary life. But I Know Different.”

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MISS U 1977 (4 yr brainz)

the king of the cranky drunk geniuses, Lester Bangs.

Hey kids, once upon a time, media outlets existed that didn’t have “Verizon” or “BankOfAmerica” in the title, people went to see “musical artists” who they actually enjoyed, rather than read about on the internet and wanted to see so other people who read about them on the internet would want to have sex with them (back in the old days, such formalities were unnecessary, as everyone walked around in a perpetual crochet-top state of mind, so I hear/imagine). ( The last such event I attended was two full years ago. It was a band that was getting a lot of “internet buzz” at the time, and I naively wasn’t expecting the line to be crawling with mall cast-offs and sorority also-rans.  After shotgunning some PBRs in the parking lot, my jorted crew and I found ourselves lingering in the shadows of some local poli-sci majors, who were rolling their stripey polos off and spilling their seven dollar beers on my dance moves. At one point, I listened while one leaned uttered to other, “she’s hot, but not as hot as [other female performer].” Ok so maybe I’m being a tad sensitive but as I have a PhD in “female artists aren’t taken as seriously as male artists! They’re judged on their appearance more than their talent!” I went home, deleted my facebook account and decided to retire from the buzzworthy circuit then and there.)

I digress. Back before “rock and roll” and the concert-going experience were commodified within an inch of their lives and completely de-clawed of any of the actual danger that defined the genre in the first place (I’m talking like ALTAMONT, man) music journalism was marked with the same amphetamine’d snarl of the artists themselves. (Wikipedia Lester Bangs and then read the rest of this.) Can you imagine a contemporary  Rolling Stone without a naked seventeen year old, ambiguously “talented”  human-shaped void on the cover? ME EITHER!

However. I am pleased to report that even these wearied eyes have spied some actual illumination in the music-journo cave. This century even! Some high points:

This piece, published on Pitchfork back in February, ignited my hope in a music journalism renaissance: “popular” music itself has evolved worlds from our Long National Nightmare of 1997-2003 (perhaps those young pups at the “alt show” were more a harbinger of hope than the end? half glass full yall!), as should sentient takes on This Whole Thing. William Bowers tears through the Florida festival circuit like the quietly enraged progeny of David Foster Wallace and Lester himself. I imagine him to be PhD’d and drunk in equal measures, but of course. Admittedly prone to such sentiments, I found myself grateful for his existence in this post-Village-Voice-as-actual-cultural-arbiter universe.

In the mood for Dos and Don’ts but bored of Street Boners (incessant whining and casual misogyny is s0 over), I wandered over to Vice and discovered the brilliant accounts of Moe Bishop, who seems to hate most music, as all music writers worth their wayfarers should. He had me at this rewrite of a classic John Mayer inanity.  Bishop also thinks music festivals are overblown and dead,  which makes me want to chuck warm beers at the revelers with him.

Finally, for a more cerebral, less gloriously unhinged approach, check out (Pitchfork’s editor-in-chief) Mark Richardson’s Resonant Frequency column. Scouring teh world wide web for a thoughtful take on Grimes, I stumbled upon Richardson’s commentary on gender as informative of our experience of various artists, which basically fits into the center of the Venn diagram of my obsessions (cf. this entire post).

Long live benzedrine-/egomaniacally-fueled proclamations about rock and roll saving/destroying Western civilization.