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.”
It’s August, and if you’re lucky or European, that means evening out your tit-tan and finally putting some quality hours in with those books you’ve pretended to have read for so long. Well, call me Amelie or Emilia because I’m as colored-blocked as a Rothko and my library overdue fines are just skyrocketing. Thanks to my woeful underemployment/ entitlement granted to me the day I was born in 1980s America, I wake up every day (not before 11, obviously), pour yesterday’s french press down my gullet and get to work on the porch with a stack of books and a dictionary (a real live paper Websters, guy) while ignoring the influx of phone calls and mail that my student loaners shower me with every day (seriously guys, I never loved you. We don’t owe each other anything. Let’s move on) (and stop threatening me with the notion of “bad credit” which I can TOTALLY see through as a tool of State control DUH).
I’ve been reading Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon (naming my first born Heat-Moon, obviously) for a few months, slowly only because I don’t want it to end. Perhaps it’s because I’m feeling all too stationary, but his journey through the back roads of America is filled with quiet wisdom and wry wit, and a worthy one to live vicariously through. The book itself is an extended meditation on modern America through the eyes of its roads and the people on them, and what it means to be a human living on this land mass of incidental nationhood.
Least Heat-Moon encounters a young Hopi caught between tradition and striving for success in the white man’s world: “my heritage is the Hopi way, and that’s the way of the spirit. Spirit can go anywhere. In fact, it has to go places so it can change and emerge like in the migrations.” College students in Portland incite Least Heat-Moon to “give up on the times”: they believe that “(a) anything less than more than enough was not enough; and (b) anything not taxable was of dubious use: community, insight and so on.” Thirty years after the publication date, America continues unabashedly toward the same end. Jesus freaks, teen runaways and the old and heartbroken color the rest of Least Heat-Moon’s highways.
Whitman provides the soundtrack to Least Heat-Moon’s journey (O public road, you express me better than I can express myself) and our narrator provides sage poetry of his own: “If a man can keep alert and imaginative, an error is a possibility, a chance at something new; to him, wandering and wondering are part of the same process, and he is most mistaken, most in error, whenever he quits exploring”; “Take the land, take the old ways, Christian soldiers, but please, goddammit, leave me my soul.”
The library set up a “Mad-Men” themed display ostensibly to trick the masses into reading (marketing degree at work, folks!), and it worked because I found Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution by Debra Knight. The following statement is an exercise in redundancy, but I picked up the Beats in college and fell in love with Jack, Allen et al. In fact I’m probably still suffering from a post-adolescent wanderlust that’s since congealed into a pathological aversion to commitment of any stripe that the Beats first awakened in my then-nascent sense of life beyond the ideals I’d been (silver-)spoon-fed from day one. I hesitated to pick up the volume, as my teen crush on the Beats is now a bit of an embarrassing cliche if not an outright personality disorder, but the female angle intrigued and guilted me into picking it up. Little did I know this little book would validate all my life choices! From the intro: “…the liberal arts educations these young women were given created a natural predilection for art and poetry, for a life of creativity instead of confining it to an occasional hour at the symphony. Nothing could be more romantic than joining this chorus of individuality and freedom, leaving behind boredom, safety and conformity.” Thanks Diane Di Prima, Kerouac’s ex-wives and all the rest! Y’all are beautiful.
Next! Water crises! Sex scandal! Semiotics!
During my tender college years, I read a few volumes that made me miserable and temporarily unable to function, the effects of which I’m arguably still suffering. But that’s what getting your mind blown feels like, DEH. Read on to do an overhaul on your own brains! If you don’t feel like the rug’s been pulled out from under you, you’re not trying hard enough.
My “freshman year of college,” I was just a young pup of a sentient human, “getting into Cat Power” and realizing that I didn’t learn anything in high school aside from the fact that being a size-two neurotic is the path to success. Well fuck them! I’m into philosophy now! Little did I know what a slippery slope I was sledding.
One ordinary Tuesday, with that particular brand of baseless smug found in abundance and exclusively in dark-haired liberal arts college freshmen running through my veins, I decided to go for a run that afternoon (efforts toward armchair microbrew drunk wouldn’t begin in earnest until I completed my studies, thus at this juncture my extracurriculars were still wholesome and fitness-centric) (I also harbored a middle-school crush on a similarly smug and dark-haired peer, who identified himself as an “deist existentialist” [HA] and looked like a j.crew model. Weirdly, it went nowhere).
Before my own attempts at remaining a size-two neurotic could commence that day, however, I had a philosophy class to attend: Ethics 105. We’d covered utilitarianism (I’m a utilitarian!) the rebuttal to utilitarianism (ok, I’m not!) and on this occasion were delving into the finer points of Camus’ absurdity from our reader, The Moral Life. Our discussion basically resulted in the acknowledgement of the truth that there’s no point to life, so we might as well kill ourselves. Or at least that’s how my barely-post-adolescent brain absorbed the day’s lesson, and my nascent cerebrum was blown all over the wood paneling of our classroom. In a bad way. I promptly went back to my cinder-block dorm room and got into bed. No run would be had that day.
I spent the rest of the year writing in my journal and fantasizing about dropping out of school/life, with only my self-righteousness and the Shins to fuel me through June. It was around then that I recovered, having clumsily distilled Sartre’s existentialism (for my own purposes of having a good time all the time) into “life ‘doesn’t matter’ in the sense that there’s no afterlife SO WE CAN DO WHATEVER WE WANT!” This “philosophy” has served me well to this day. (I also learned that if you drop an approximation of basically that in conversation with approximately 97% of people, they’ll think you know what you’re talking about.) Then I transferred to a state school and learned how to talk to boys.
Also at my state school of choice, which mercifully had no football team, a small Greek scene and enough bearded babes to fill the non-existent stadium, I would ride my first wave into the whirlpool of armchair anarchy and attempt to navigate the ensuing downward spiral. A teenage obsession with Rolling Stone led me to deeper, darker annals of various subcultures (hey, I checked out Naked Lunch, man), beat poetry and living vicariously through the cocaine-fueled misadventures of the Rolling Stones et al. My repressed tendencies toward existential anarchy began to blossom around this time, as a postmodern fiction class proved the falseness of our world is its only true defining quality. (I’m sure my flirtation and eventual commitment to intellectual anarchy has something to do with having been half-assedly raised Catholic/reading too many teen mags and as a result not liking my nose, and could have been cured by a boyfriend/eating disorder but WHOLE NOTHER STORY). I ditched my homework to tear through Delillo, oral histories of 70s London, Warhol’s aphorisms, accounts of eastern European anarchist memoirs and Baudelaire– DOES THIS BROAD KNOW HOW TO PARTY OR WHAT. (I cringe at that list; I now know I should have been drunk and making mistakes like everyone else, and would not recommend being overly-read to anyone, ever, as it only leads to debilitating hyper-self awareness.) It was around this time that I checked out Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century by Griel Marcus from the university library. My life would never be the same. Already rendered an insomniac by All The Ways In Which The World Will End, as was my chosen course of study, Marcus’ account of post-WWI European anarchists, dadaists, Situationists and the revolution of 1968 convinced me that a) a better world is possible and b) that it will never happen. COOL, NOW I CAN SLEEP. So I started making art like this:
Continuing my path of Postmodern study and thinking I was a key factor in the Revolution, (um, Chinese kids melt down our laptops for metals with acid baths that they breathe in, guys) (no, seriously), I got kind of into contemporary leftist European thought; the shining gem in that crown being the one, the only, Jean Baudrillard. This guy will RUN A TRAIN ON YR MIND S00 HRD. He throws around terms like hyperreality and simulacra to illustrate his key thesis that (and I’m paraphrasing here) everything is like, fake, because it’s a construct of something real, which we recreate to experience something “realer.” I.e. Southern California is HYPERREAL AS FUCK; it’s a desert that humans turned into Eden so that they could ignore the crushing vacancy of the human soul in the modern world. Or something.
Really interested in the pursuit of denying the goodness of life in general (but in a totally lame, uncommitted way, because I still had friends and stuff) I decided to acquire a copy of Baudrillard’s America for myself. In this book, he deconstructs the image of a man running on the beach with a Walkman as a symbol of the End of A Society, the Harbinger of the Apocalypse, oh except that’s already happened, obviously.
Sample quote: “The marathon is a form of demonstrative suicide, suicide as advertising: it is running to show you are capable of getting every last drop of energy out of yourself, to prove it… to prove what? That you are capable of finishing. Graffiti carry the same message. They simply say: I’m so-and-so and I exist! They are free publicity for existence.”
Obviously a natural choice for a 21-year-old American with nothing but a bright future ahead as her birth rite. YES TO LIFE!I basically couldn’t describe a concept, place or material object as anything but “hyperreal” for the ensuing year or so. Which is totally sexy, obviously.
After having my cranium rocked by these tomes, I eventually devoted my entire existence to the pursuit of getting made out with whilst wearing jorts. Baudrillard is turning in his grave over people like me, but he probably never went to a dance party. PLUS, at least I have an abundance of fodder just in case I ever meet anyone who’s also a recovering psyche-destroying book junky (call me).
The point, of course , of all this reading (living in general, really) is to construct one’s own toolkit with which to take on the world. Open your mind, let the infinite in and build your own haven of beautiful truths.
Keep reading, yallz!
❤ hyperreality 4 lyfe ❤
Summer: Books and iced americanos amiright. Here’s how I wiled away my splendid underemployment and hedonistic afternoons sweating in public.
Persepolis II, (2001) Embroideries (2006) and Chicken With Plums (2006), Marjane Satrapi
I know, global politics are not that sexy. Until you’ve met Satrapi. Her graphic novel Persepolis breathes humor and humanity into the Iranian revolution with the intimacy of a friendly conversation. Embroideries is an afternoon spent with her aunts and mother’s friends as they chat about sex and love, and Chicken is an elegy to her late uncle that manages to be touching and funny. Satrapi is a rare storyteller of heart and wit.
I Thought My Father Was God: And Other True Tales From NPR’s National Story Project, edited by Paul Auster (2000)
A lengthy collection of non-fiction short stories from Americans of every demographic. Some pieces are powerful, some aren’t, but together they form a wide view of American life in the past half century. Not a particularly hard-hitting collection; racism is mentioned approximately once in this version of American history and sexism, classism, etc, not at all. But perhaps the collection is most successful when the reader eschews all notions of what “America” means and instead listens to the voices of these ordinary people.
Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism, James Agee (2005)
Agee: not an ordinary American. The author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and the Pulitzer-prize winning A Death In The Family was also an extremely prolific critic and essayist. His essays on film here from the 1940s and 50s are insightful, honest and art in themselves. In the era of blockbusters, or when all you need to sell a movie is tits and terrorists, it’s hard to believe that American cinema was once an art form. Does anyone take movies seriously anymore? Peter Travers doesn’t count.
Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead, Neil Strauss (2011)
A collection of interviews by a marathon journalist. He deals mostly in the music business, and covers every pop and rock star you’ve ever heard of, plus a few stray CIA agents and lawyers. Because his subjects include the Britneys and Robert Plants of the world, there isn’t too much in this volume in the way of existential truths. But it is compulsively readable and Strauss is sneakily ruthless in exposing his subjects as vapid, drug-addled, self-obsessed children, which of course most of them are. Except for Springsteen, but that goes without saying.
How They See Us: Meditations On America, edited by James Atlas (2010)
A collection of essays about America by international writers. There are a variety of sentiments on display here: America has stolen an Iraqi author’s homeland and history, America has given a Chinese writer the freedom to realize his artistic ambition. America has failed the world, America has redeemed itself with Obama, America is a “tyrannical prom queen” (as one Nigerian writer’s contribution states). One overarching theme materializes: America is everywhere. It does not know cartographical boundaries but instead has permeated the entire globe with its influence and hamburgers. If reality is informed by perception, all Americans need to read this book to discover exactly what “we” are in the 21st century.
And The Pursuit Of Happiness, Maira Kalman (2010)
Instead of the question of whether America is “good” or “bad,” Kalman explores what America is. The daughter of Israeli immigrants, New Yorker Kalman spends a year exploring American history and notions of democracy in an attempt to discover if the founding fathers would be satisfied with what their vision has become. She travels around New York, to Washington, to California exploring the government, schools, farms. Most importantly, though, this book is completely illustrated in beautiful full color by Kalman. She paints Jefferson, she paints her lunch. The type is her handwriting, and she incorporates her own musings into the facts she picks up. The book is charming and whimsical but it’s not simple.
Pushcart Prize XXXV: Best Of The Small Presses, edited by Bill Henderson with the Pushcart Prize Editors (2011)
I want to marry this book. It’s smart, sensitive, brutal, sharp, sweet, bearded… um what? The title sums it up: a collection of the best non-fiction, fiction and poems from small, independent publishers. Over a hundred pieces form the collection and while the subjects and voices are all unique, they are all united in their sheer truth and power. This volume has done nothing less than actually inspire excitement in me to live in a world where art of this caliber is being created by so many people. This book is a gift.
Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace, David Lipsky (2010)
In 1996, David Foster Wallace was 35 and had just published Infinite Jest to international acclaim. After seeing a photo of Wallace in his trademark scruff and bandana, Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone decided he was “one of them” and sent David Lipsky to follow Wallace on his book tour. Lipsky spent three days with Wallace, smoking, eating, driving and talking. After Wallace’s 2008 suicide, Lipsky published the complete transcript of the interview. For the small but fervent world of Wallace-philes, this is a rare conversational glimpse into Wallace’s world, but part of Wallace’s unique genius (and hence his devout followers) was that his prose was a direct route to every corner of his unique, crazy, gifted, super-human beautiful mind. Nothing he says here comes as a complete surprise; it serves as more of an addendum to his essays and fiction. Lipsky himself takes some liberties with the format and inserts some commentary which comes off as extremely clunky (to say nothing of the strange feeling one gets that this is Lipsky’s attempt to cash in on Wallace’s suicide, finding that these three days has suddenly appreciated a shit-ton of value). But those who love Wallace’s writing, and his humanity, really, will take any scrap they throw at us, and end feeling a little emptier knowing that the supply is always diminishing.