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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print media lives!

Beautiful, inspiring interview over at The Awl on a little newspaper that’s ruffling feathers in a small North Carolina community merely by staying committed to the tenets of quality journalism.

unrelated photo of springtime bike ride scenery in SW Michigan.

My really incisive observations of modern art.

When I was younger I was obsessed with print media and the hoarding of it (and by younger I mean “now”) and filed away accordion folders and shoe boxes and under-bed storage containers full of clippings from Vogue, Entertainment Weekly (seriously), Rolling Stone, etc. One set of images that remained filed away for years was from the September 2001 issue of Vogue (which I remember because that was the season of the debut of Gap leather, which I promptly procured for myself in shiny black blazer form and which my sixteen year old self just wore the shit out of at every varsity hockey game, as did every other girl at the existential jail we called our high school). There was a lengthy spread of graphic, sculptural curiosities: the pope on the ground, burdened by a large rock,  a mouse dead or asleep at his desk, a stuffed horse unsettlingly suspended from the ceiling. The weight of the images was undeniable, which is why I kept them for years, waiting to use them in the collages or cards that occupied my school breaks and summers. But the images were too heavy, obviously more than wallpaper to line my missives with– they demanded more than the inane musings of tween girl chatter. So they sat filed away for years.

This past fall, I picked up the November installment of W for the first time in 10 years because it was the “art issue”, featuring Nicki Minaj on the cover. It was by chance that its pages not only featured a solid spread on Detroit and its supposed burgeoning art scene, but the same pope and mouse from the annals of our young millennium and my own leathered youth.  The Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, described as the “tragic poet” or “prankster” of contemporary art, was primed for a retrospective and announcing his retirement.

This winter in New York, I spent some time rolling around from Queens to lower Manhattan and back again in pursuit of decent espresso and some vegan pho. My sister and I were deliberating between the MOMA and the Guggenheim, and our friend’s free passes to the Goog sent us their way; her membership led us straight to the front of the line. Firmly established as VIP, we strolled into the famed rotunda and looked up to a massive installation– a gallows of sorts– hung from the ceiling of this iconic building: the pope. The mouse. The horse.

As we worked up the tiered ramp and around the installation, Maurizio’s “pranks” slyly revealed themselves: every loss of the English national football inscribed into black granite (shown in England, and probably why, Cattelan himself muses, he hasn’t shown there much since). Hitler.  New York city cops strung from their feet– a veritably cheeky move in a city whose patrol cars are marked with stickers that offer a reward of ten grand for any information involving the death of a city cop. In the W article, Cattelan claims that the installation begs the viewer to “kneel down and convert to the saving faith of that mysterious religion called Cattelanism, where God is a prankster.”

The cops and art criticism as a house of cards. I fell in love.

Some “critics” (whose occupational legitimacy is always up for debate to any artist, for good reason, as most “critics” seem mostly only littered with their own pathos) (also, this isn’t a review or critique, just an appreciation) challenge the place of humor in “serious” (read: real) works of art. But as Cattelan makes very clear amidst this sea– wreckage, really– of modern culture, one can’t fully internalize the experience of being alive in the modern world without laughing at the fringes of the horror we’re suddenly capable of (cf.  Hitler).  Cattelan’s humor then becomes a piece of art in itself, woven within the objects.  His own humanity is hanging from the ceiling. The true power of “art”– in any of its forms– is when it becomes a means of communication between human beings. What we call “art” is really just a platform to reveal some truth about oneself or the world, or oneself in the world.  In Cattelan’s case, his experience manifests itself through his razor-sharp wit, which cuts you while you laugh and you’re not quite able to articulate why it hurts.

Revisiting that W article after seeing the show, I found in Maurizio what seem to be twin muses: a disarming vulnerability and an iron resolve. In New York Magazine, he wondered if his Guggenheim retrospective itself meant that there was “something wrong somewhere.” He begs forgiveness from the self he failed to take seriously (among others), he reveals the stuffed horse as a sort of self portrait: while living in Milan, he was depressed, “waging a war against [him]self”:  “I felt powerless, hung out to dry, horse meat for grinders wielded by curators and critics,” yet he goads those same curators and critics, daring them to denounce him as merely as a prankster.

He describes himself as two halves: “the freewheeling individualist and the artist chained to his ambitions.” That phrase stopped me cold: it was as familiar to me as something inscribed on my own arm, but much simpler and more honest than anything I ever would (or could) have written about myself.

This morning, I read my first own bad press, in which the critic wondered if I was dumb or sarcastic, and advised me, should I ever want to be a “serious” artist, to “lose the sass.” I felt a strange sort of pride, and thought of Maurizio.