Soft is the opposite to what the title suggests. Instead this is an album of quick, jagged rock and roll, New York style. Take it or leave it.
So Lester says, now Lou Reed is dead they’ve taken to spending lots of quality time together safe in heaven, and they get on better than expected – there’s even a golden jukebox with all that doo-wop Lou loves, and Lester decided to drop all the death-dwarf stuff in the spirit of re-conciliation. “Why are you down here then bothering me?” I ask the Ghost of Lester Bangs, who just smirks and says he always enjoys slumming it with lowlife, and besides, believe it or not, he says, it takes a while for all the latest music to get up to where it rightfully belongs. This strikes me as being a little bit rich all things considered, but I’m willing to humour him for the time being in the hope of keeping future haunting to a minimum. “Right, so let’s stick on some music then,” I say to Lester who gleefully rubs his hands. “Cool, yeah, make it gritty, something American, New York, quick, quick, quick,” he orders over-excitedly.
I stick on Rathborne’s Soft hoping this will keep him quiet. The title track cranks the album to a start with some deep ‘70s guitar riffs. It sounds like hell’s gates are opening. “Oh yeah baby, this is the good stuff,” he shouts at me over the music, but then his face falls in puzzlement when the guitar further distorts into a more grungy place. Lester missed out on the Seattle scene and all those kids in plaid shirts, so he thinks this is a new development. I tell him about Cobain, he just shrugs. “Huh, I get soft,” he says, listening to the lyrics, “you must be able to relate to that I suppose.” I ask him what he means. “Well come on man, you’re a music writer, a hack, therefore by nature you’re less than virile. Don’t worry pal, I’ve been there myself,” Lester sneers.
I tell him to shut his ghostly trap, “And anyway Bangs,” I say, “impotence is a thing of the past with Viagra, and all those pills you can buy, or so I hear.” Lester looks at me dumbly so I update him on the advances made in modern medicine. He is duly impressed, “Lou would have popped a few of those,” he retorts. I feel weirdly defensive for Reed. “You were hardly a saint yourself, Romilar cough syrup was your thing, wasn’t it?” I counter. No reply.
Lester is now lurching towards the stereo to fiddle with the levels for “What More”. After turning the sound up even higher, he begins what can only be described as frugging around my living room. “Hey, this is practically New Wave, man,” he shouts, then singing along with the appealing hook – “what more can the devil want from me / I told you once before / But that I’m not that into it.” He knocks over a lampshade. I’m not impressed. “Look Lester, I’ve got to write this review for PopMatters and you’re hardly helping me,” I tell him. Appropriately enough, now “I’m So Tired” is playing in the background. It’s got the tone of the Ramones or the Strokes, and Lester is nodding his head in appreciative time. “Well, you know what Frank Zappa said – most rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read,” he says. “This isn’t an interview dummy”, I respond. Lester pulls a face.
He goes off to rummage in a kitchen cupboard, I assume for Romilar. There’s a lot of banging and clanking. “Eno” and “Low!” provide the perfect accompaniment to the chaos Lester’s creating – short, brash, quick, punkish bursts of energetic noise. He comes back in looking shame-faced. “Looks like you’re out of cough mixture. But hey, whatever. Those tracks were kind of snappy, this one is a bit more mellow, right?” Indeed it is. “Little Moment” is a sweet acoustic interlude after the sharp, jagged terror that has preceded it. I take the opportunity to get Lester to sit down and relax. Unfortunately, the next track is positively rousing. “Last Forgiven” is an upbeat and melodic piece of idiosyncratic power pop with Dylan-esque moments. It’s highly catchy, and gets Lester off the sofa again jumping around in joy. “I’d forgotten what it’s like to be truly inspired man, I love this. Heaven’s great and all, but it so safe up there, it can be difficult to get visceral kicks like these,” he shouts, then turns insulting again: “But this is young people’s music and there’s nothing sadder than a tired old rock critic.”
Lester then spots a nearly-full bottle of vodka on the top of a dusty shelf, helps himself, taking a deep swig and then holds up an arm, swaying rhythmically to “Wanna Be You”. It’s got that Ramones garage influence again. Lester seems to be enjoying himself, bopping around the room, but my patience is beginning to fray.
“Good grief, Lester, this has got to stop,” I say. He tells me I’m a drag, which is quite possible.
“Deal” is more low key, Lester sits and lights a cigarette. “No smoking indoors,” I snap. Lester ignores me, and mutters to himself – “uh, now, yeah, okay this sounds like Big Star, kinda cool.” Unfortunately, the more chilled out song only temporarily calms him. The frenetic riff of “Why” gets Lester thumping his feet on the floor until I finally lose it: “You just don’t get it, do you Lester? I need to focus to write and you’re not really helping with all this carry-on.”
“That’s just where you’re wrong man,” he says, looking sullenly at the floor. “Don’t presume things about me. I used to be a writer, remember, and don’t you know all my friends are hermits?” he growls sulkily, clearly not expecting an answer, disappearing into the bathroom without looking back. I give him some space to get over his wobble, and listen to “So Long NYC”, a flash of semi-regretful rumination full of New York cool, as if Rathborne is saying goodbye not just to the city but to youth itself. Feeling guilty, I go into the bathroom to check Lester is alright, but there’s no one there. For a moment it looks like someone was thinking about taking a bath, but then I realise all the taps are running – bath, sink, hot, cold, at full velocity. The mirror’s steamed up and I can’t see my reflection. I can hear someone knocking at the front door. I decide not to answer it, and go back to bed and put some music on. This is the only way I can get to sleep, and by now it’s very early in the morning.