Impolite Discourse

The Noise Boys Ride Again

Instead he got his best-of early: Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, edited (solely) by Greil Marcus, published in what would have been Lester's 39th year, 1987, and not yet pecked to death by the many geese who've stuck their yellow noses in. And now he gets a biography as well. The legend is a lousy substitute for the words—my best hope for Let It Blurt is that it will spark a second anthology. Still, DeRogatis has gathered his facts with gusto. As someone who knew Lester, I found the account of his early years poignant and then some, and, whatever my quibbles, the rest of the narrative is readable, scrupulously researched, and fair enough—affectionate without romanticizing Lester's tragic, destructive . . . not "excesses," to hell with that, vices. Wonderful photos, too. But—well, here comes the first person again. Early on, DeRogatis quotes me as saying, "His critical ideas were not the strength; it was the language that was the strength," then stoutly ripostes, "I disagree." I braced myself, but the follow-through never came. The few ideas DeRogatis cites at all—boo irony, boo academia, the beauty of ugliness, rock's democratic imperative—are elementary. Even Bangs's style is barely explored; I wonder how many who weren't there will suss that he was one of the funniest writers on the planet. The book's few striking critical insights come from interviewees, particularly Meltzer. And be this journalistic principle or intellectual aptitude, it has as its consequence a response to Let It Blurt that assumes Lester's writing and raves on about his legend.

It was to refocus on his words that this piece was initially conceived. Just how good was Lester Bangs, and why? Marcus, that sobersides, famously claimed of Psychotic Reactions: "Perhaps what this book demands from a reader is a willingness to believe that the best writer in America could write almost nothing but record reviews." Note that this is not the same as claiming Bangs was the best writer in America—but Marcus wouldn't mind if you got that idea. On the other hand, after Meltzer belittlingly compares Bangs to such "dregs of beat" as Ray Bremser and Ted Joans, he doubles back, grandly and slyly adding: "(He also of course found USE for Céline and Bukowski.)" No admirer of Bukowski or fan of Céline, I don't find that especially far-fetched. Then again, I do have a weakness for record reviews, and would be hard-pressed to gainsay some lit crit who found Bukowski and Céline more "relevant." But Bremser and Joans? In my dream world, even a lit crit could make that call. And although Tosches pumps Meltzer's big Bangs piece as the class of the field, I prefer his own little one, which fondly sums up the "hayseed" 's three obsessions—writing, music, and communication—and concludes: "he was a nice guy."

This basic observation doesn't partake of DeRogatis's "St. Lester," a straw myth no one believes in. It simply respects the openheartedness people fell for, in person and on the page. Meltzer is so set on reestablishing the self-abuse, hostility, egomania, and b.o. the nice guy and his legend made too much of that he short-changes the sweet stuff, and so there's something conflicted about his g'bye. Lester's writing—his self-mocking confessionals, left-field generalizations, free-form metaphors, effortless epithets, and boffo laugh lines, all flowing like a river of Romilar or a Coltrane solo—touched readers in a place his legend never reached. Between the two he became more notorious and beloved than Meltzer ever could be while ringing changes on a method of outrage Meltzer isn't crazy to think he got to first. But Meltzer has never come near Bangs's well-nigh Dickensian flow—few have. And for a long time he didn't approach Bangs's heart either. It was his heart, heart that never compromised his tremendous intelligence and always fed off his humor and his endless love of music (here signifying merely "his subject," or "the world"), that made Bangs the wonder he was.

Lester Bangs lets it blurt.
photo: Amy and Tanveer
Lester Bangs lets it blurt.

One rock and roll thing about Bangs was his gift for juicing commonplaces—hype! alienation! spontaneous bop prosody! (youth! sex! the big beat!)—with the freshness of his idiom and the intensity of his convictions. That's why I believe his language subsumes his ideas. But he was also a gusher of musical connection and description who in the right mood could hear just about anything. In the right mood, Meltzer can be an even better, very different critic-qua-critic. The Nick Tosches Reader, however, gives us something else—a great music reporter, with narrow tastes and an overview captured in its entirety by the title of his Bangla Desh putdown: "The Heartbeats Never Did Benefits."

As a devotee of the journalistic collection as a literary genre, yes I said yes I will Yes to the Michele Sindona prolegomenon, the Carly Simon interview, the Burroughs-Hoover tour de force, the meta-ironic send-up of Love Story, the awesome George Jones profile The New Yorker rejected in its infinite gentility. In toto, however, this 593-page monster is a bold-faced mishmash, full of dull stuff (much of it from men's magazines, although the stump-fucking fantasies 'tis rumored he penned for Penthouse Forum are absent) calculated to prove how much realer a writer he's become. In controlled doses I love the high-low particularities, heroic rhythms, and sardonic bite of his prose. But after 593 pages—plus the skillful 1988 literary thriller Cut Numbers and The Devil and Sonny Liston heaping contumely on Muhammad Ali and the pinkos who love him—I was plumb worn out. If you believe Philip Roth, Peter Matthiessen, and Hubert Selby, Jr. are our only great living writers, Der Dean isn't gonna stop you from making "There is no new thing under the sun" your fucking mantra. But a writer who prides himself on going against the grain should recognize that anyone who devises a fresh way to say the world cannot change will eventually be rewarded by rich people who hope he's right. Tosches's novel-in-progress looks strong. I sincerely hope it goes against the grain. And if instead he gets mired in his "vision," he was still right to forsake rockwrite. The passion is not in him.

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