Open Letter to Lester Bangs

[29 April 2007]

By Adam Williams

PopMatters Associate Music Editor

Dear Bangs,

Check your watch, old boy, it’s been 25 years since you graced us with a single word of observation. Or critique, as it were. A full quarter century has passed, and you know what? It just ain’t the same without you.

Oh, stop cringing, you’re an insufferable romantic just like me. You know full well that the world went right down the toilet as soon as you disembarked the tour bus. Every aspect of artistic humanity flushed out to sea, like some oily slick of processed toxic waste. Forget the tidal swell of socio-political maladies this great, greeny ball is afflicted with ... I’m talking about the decline of creativity and original thought and journalistic integrity (an oxymoronic pairing if there ever was one) and music with a shelf life longer than week-old ground sirloin. For crissakes, it’s all gone the way of the dodo bird, except without the fanfare. And while you’ve been on cosmic holiday, we’ve busied ourselves standing guard, watching the flames lick at the scorched and crumbling walls of pop culture, powerless to do anything but join hands ‘round the barbecue pit and break out in a rousing rendition of “Kumbaya”. You wanna know how bad it’s gotten? Grab your slippers and pour an after-dinner cordial, then take a seat and pay attention.

Let’s begin with the trade you nobly toiled at. Remember that oh-so-catchy and painfully ambiguous title of Rock Critic? It’s been summarily erased from the literary lexicon, replaced by the considerably-less-catchy and ambiguously painful music journalist. Ain’t that swell? Now every amateur-hour suckling jagoff armed with a fistful of high school English Comp credits prowls the prairie, pontificating puny pieces of prosaic pabulum while fancying themselves the next incarnation of Kerouac. Same thing as buying a motorcycle … ya don’t hafta know what yer doing; just belly up to the bar and sign on the dotted line. These days, Rock Critics aren’t nothin’ more than geology wonks, monitoring the timeline signatures of shale and sandstone.

It’s a horrendous situation, Bangs, but blame it on the publishing industry first. You seen a copy of Rolling Stone lately? Goddamn thing is a bunch of snotty fashion ads and mealy-mouthed hyperbole feeding off the bleached bones of the ‘60s. As soon as Wenner installed the turnstile in his closet, the rag became, well, a rag. But the regular parade of Top Ten and Greatest lists is really quite stellar, in a woefully out-of-touch way. At least Creem died with a shred of decency and pride, then was resuscitated into a downscaled labor of love. And let’s not forget The Village Voice, the hallmark of leftist loquaciousness and the pulse of Noo Yawk’s music underworld. It’s currently being run into a shallow grave by a of consortium pencil pushers devoid of common sense and business acumen. If distributing every weekly edition for F-R-E-E wasn’t the height of fiscal desperation betwixt and between masochistic tendencies, then sacking Bob Christgau was the zenith of idiocy. No notice, no thanks, no nothing … Just opened the door and sent him on his way, along with every cobwebbed remnant of respectability. Don’t worry about Christgau though, last I heard, he’s got a lecturing gig over at some institute of higher leaning and learning.

And speaking of your countercultural compadres, you have any idea where Dave Marsh has gone? Up up up, that’s where! A high falutin’ book writer he is, yes indeedy. About a dozen years ago he had the temerity to pen an entire tome on a single song. Nope, not Grand Funk’s “I’m Your Captain” … just “Louie Louie”. Yep, that “Louie Louie”. Throw in Marsh’s weekly radio show and you’ve got yerself an honest-to-goodness media renaissance man. That’s right, radio … I’m Sirius, Marsh has spread his wings into a whole new realm of wordsmithing. The guy still kicks out the jams, end of story. And he hasn’t sold out like that rosy-cheeked runt, Cameron Crowe. Hollywood owns his flabby middle-aged arse, after paying a tidy sum for his résumé. The fat cats even ponied up a few years back for some quasi-fictionalized account of the Boy Wonder’s rise from puberty to publication. You had a nice cameo role in there too, portrayed as the maniacal mentor and jocular journalist extraordinaire. Yeah, it’s exactly like it sounds. When you have a free moment, file the entire project away under C for Crapola.

Hunter S. Thompson image from: CannedRevolution.com

Hunter S. Thompson image from: CannedRevolution.com

Not that long ago, Hunter punched his own ticket, but some of yer other pals like Greil Marcus are out and about. Problem is, the survivors from your gory glory days are an endangered species, and no one’s strolled into the on-deck circle to fill their shoes. And that’s ‘cause there’s nuthin’ on the newsstand that’s worth the effort, so there’s no more outlets for on-the-job training. It’s a friggin’ shame, I tell ya. 

Once you’ve pinned the donkey tail on the publishing biz, cast a disapproving eye over at the record industry. Those scoundrels are just as much at fault, since they force-feed the masses a delectable array of Pavlovian doggie treats, while processing endless conveyor belts of repugnantly soulless dreck. Lucky for us, every record company is losing revenue at an exponential rate, which bodes well for the collective demise of these lumbering sonic sauropods, who, like the ruling class of the Voice, are frighteningly far removed from the concept of quality. Another few years and the words major label will be synonymous with a can of the bestselling brand of potato leek soup.

Greil Marcus

Greil Marcus

What makes the equation ever more perverse are those biggie record honchos comfortably nestled between the soiled bed linens at the rooms-by-the-hour No-Tell Motel with the television production slimesters, who, in their mutually masturbatory brilliance, have decided that bands can be created via open talent auditions and nurtured through weekly broadcasts. And evidencing the further limitations of their corporate groupthink, they shamelessly stole this blueprint from the Monkees and the Partridge Family, but conveniently ignored the absences of Davy Jones and David Cassidy as the faces that made the teenyboppers wet their purdy pink panties. What have the TV gangsters got now? Nada! As in nada goddamn thing.

And dragging this one step further into the abyss, these same cretins are cooking up shows starring music personalities and shooting them into the mainline of the mainstream. Ozzy from Black Sabbath? The voice behind classic doomified jive like “Paranoid”? They turned the poor bastard into a stumbling, stammering, medically induced coma, right there in front of the cameras for all to see. It was positively tragic to behold. But the ratings were solid, so all is forgiven I suppose. And Gene Simmons from Kiss? He of the bovine tongue and infamous Polaroid collection? Yessirree, he’s got his very own televised platform, granting us mere mortals passage into the annexes of his remarkably fabulous existence. Rock and roll all nite and party every day? Bollocks! It’s a distant memory at this point, replaced by faded and tattered recollections from the good ol’ days.

But in all fairness, Bangs, I can’t leave the flaming bags of manure exclusively on the publishing peons’ and recording scallywags’ doorsteps. A lot of blame falls on Father Time. Remember all that “Hope I die before I get old” jibberish? Everyone worth a sou has simply gotten very dead … or merely irreversibly decrepit. Take a gander at the depleted numbers of our heroes: The mighty MC5 are down to three; the Beatles are stalled at two; the Ramones are virtually extinct, with only Marky left standing. Skynyrd? Still earning a tidy sum on the oldies circuit with Gary Rossington and Billy Powell going through the locomotions with a dizzying cast of hired help.

Lest we not overlook the immortal Mick and Keef, who are cryogenically frozen in a top-secret laboratory, to be thawed every few years and let loose on the bloated, balding middle-agers who still harbor delusions of groovin’ to embarrassing renditions of “Satisfaction”. Great Caesar’s Ghost, Bangs, even Townshend and Daltrey cling to life support under the illegitimacy of the Who banner, despite running at 50 percent original power, and with Ringo’s kid on the payroll no less.

Joe Strummer in some place, maybe heaven

Joe Strummer in some place, maybe heaven

Strummer’s gone, loony Syd Barrett’s gone, the Godfather of Soul died and suffered the indignity of a protracted casket tour after he was mummified. Worst of all, that self-serving ‘80s college radio do-gooder cum martyr Bono is bucking for sainthood. Anyone or anything musical that merited critical attention has long since vanished in the rearview mirror of Commander Cody’s hot rod Lincoln.

Where’s the seed of Sgt. Pepper and Tommy and Ziggy Stardust? Rumored to be in a burlap sack loaded down with cinder blocks, resting at the bottom of the river Charles. You’d think that sumpin’ overwhelmingly wonderful would have reared its ugly head at least once every decade, wouldn’t ya? Wishful thinking, my friend. If you really want lasting, take a look in the mirror. Dare I say that YOU have been canonized in sundry circles of starry-eyed wannabes, as some sort of intellectual enfant terrible. Not as revered as Elvis, mind you, but ya definitely have an impressive cadre of worshippers lighting candles at the altar in yer honor. Truth be told, I hold your work in fairly high regard as well, referring back to it as the mood strikes. But let’s deal ’em up straight … much of it is long-winded, self-absorbed literary calisthenics. Ironically, death has a strange capacity to turn mediocrity into grandiosity, even in the most extreme cases of blurred revisionist history. Ask Cobain what I mean, if you ever trip over him in yer travels. Still, even yer most antagonistic off-topic output dwarfs the majority of Times New Roman 12 point efforts eagerly churned out by successive generations of journalism ar-teests longing to faithfully follow in those Bangsian footsteps.

Syd Barrett

Syd Barrett

That said, you’ve missed out some righteously high times, Bangs. The inaugural death blow to our collective sensibilities crashed the party disguised as the music video age. We saw it coming like a ghost-riding trailer truck, but threw out the welcome mat nonetheless and embraced it with outstretched arms and legs. Then, the vicious circle of repetition brought us the second wave of glam, direct from LA’s Sunset Strip; the amorphous classification of grunge (which, according to researchers was the disenfranchised albeit elitist neer’do’well bastard child of the original punk movement, with less rage and an uglier, ill-fitting wardrobe, and credited as the brainchild of an opportunistic Puget Sound fortune teller); the re-re-birth of Brit pop as a cheaply cloned homage decades removed from our favorite Liverpudlians; and the numerous laughable mutations of the standard heavy metal gene. Even the formerly tolerable poetic expression of rap has morphed into a hideous Hyde-like fiend. But you’ll be heartened to know that rap progenitor Grandmaster Flash was recently inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. What that means in terms of music’s absurdly incestuous nature, I’m not quite certain, but I’m positive you would have had the proverbial field day deconstructing the hypocrisy of said Hall each year when a fresh class of puzzling inductees is announced. There’s quite a bit more to mention about the fun you’ve been precluded from enjoying, but it will hafta wait as I’m still collating the results of my years of field study. 

Before I forget, have you noticed a suspicious correlation between your untimely departure and the decline of pop culture in a macro context? You leave, the music scene descends into oblivion (with music writing and impassioned critique adroitly fastened to the trailer hitch) and everyone with a peso and an opinion starts spouting personal platitudes of enlightenment. Forget about generating a modicum of original and compelling discourse, Bangs, ya can’t write about what doesn’t exist. And what doesn’t exist can’t be written about if the entire journalistic biosphere is manned by automatons who wouldn’t know a quality byline if it lunged from the saw grass and bit ’em in the backside.

So what we’re relegated to is a sparsely decorated canvas with a dearth of redeemable music mags and creative resources, juxtaposed by a recording industry pooping out paltry product like a giant hoary bilge pump. Then, what used to be an exclusively ragtag club of hungry Huns feasting on big guitars and the King’s English, is now reduced to an SRO tar pit of provincial dreamers and non-dairy creamers, all looking to buy in at the raised stakes players’ table but with nary the chips to parlay an ante. Finding someone with a take-no-prisoners attitude and the set of clangers to back it up in print is about as likely as getting Tiny Tim and Isaac Hayes to duet on “Shaft”. Oh well, better to be a has-been than a never-was, so I shant lament the folly of partaking in a fruitless avocation.

Despite the world of music spinning out of control on its axis, rotating itself into footnote status, and its journalistic moon following suit, believe it or not, there remains but a singular glimmer of hope shining through the storm clouds, a faint trace of redemptive energy that probably won’t save us, but is sure nice to dream about … Iggy just turned 60. He’s back playing with the Ashton brothers and still fits in the same pants he writhed about in onstage at the Grande Ballroom. Who’d have wagered on little Jimmy outlasting us all? Personally, I think he’s impossible to kill off, same as the descendants of those king-sized prehistoric insects. And as long as he’s perfecting agelessness and singing about whatever, I suppose all ain’t completely lost.

Wayne Kramer having a party.  Photo from PlasterCaster.com

Wayne Kramer having a party.  Photo from PlasterCaster.com

I’ll close by noting two things, Bangs: First, if possible, you need to get yer ass back here and try to save us from ourselves. The chillen today haven’t got a sense of history, and you could share your wit and wisdom and quite possibly show the modern era hatchlings the inherent flaws in utilizing phonetic spellings and striving to be hipper than aging, excruciatingly un-hip hipsters. Second, today not only marks the 25th anniversary of your exit stage right, but it’s also Brother Wayne Kramer’s birthday. Here’s to you both.

Cheers,

Adam


P.S. Hilly finally got evicted. He’s moving CBs to Vegas. Go figure.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/open-letter-to-lester-bangs/