Music

Pazz & Jop: What’s in a Number?

Is this the 45th or 46th Poll? Lester Bangs speaks from beyond the grave

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Did you ever try to figure out how old some famous person was when he or she died? Take, for example, the virtuosic writer Lester Bangs, who was born on December 14, 1948, and died on April 30, 1982. Before some programmer at Wikipedia designed an algorithm thingy that calculates age at time of death, the math could be vexing: What month was it? Are the years inclusive? Anyway, 82 – 48 = 34, but Bangs died before his late-in-the-year birthday and so was only 33 — the same age as Jesus Christ — when he arrived in heaven. (At least that was his final destination according to a posthumous letter that fellow music critic Dave Marsh received from “The Cloud of Lester Bangs”: “You know that jive about ‘If there’s a rock & roll heaven, they must have a hell of a band’? Don’t believe it, pal. All the talent went straight to Hell. All of it. The big acts up here are Jim Croce, Karen Carpenter, Cass Elliot, and — especially — Bobby Bloom! It’s a nightmare!… Gotta run. Literally. Another herd of hoary Harp hacks heading here. Playing Zep’s ‘Stairway’ of course. Fucking national anthem in this burg.”)

No doubt Bangs, with his perpetually scraggly mustache, paunch, and wrinkled T-shirts, appreciated the fact that during most of the time he contributed to the Voice’s Pazz & Jop Poll, no one knew what number, exactly, anyone was working on. As the years passed, there would always be a question: Was this the 9th or 10th Pazz & Jop? The 20th or 21st? The 32nd or 33rd? With off-kilter pride, the discrepancy was often trumpeted on the front page.

Even the first Pazz & Jop was imbued with ambiguity, because it seemed as if its days were already numbered. In the February 10, 1972, Village Voice, Robert Christgau, the harried Grand Poohbah of the new critical survey, opened with this emphatic declaration: “I received a total of 84 entries for the first and last annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll. [Emphasis added.] Fortunately or unfortunately, only 39 of these came from what by some stretch of the term might be called legitimate critics — that is, human beings with more access to print media than a lonely attack on “Led Zeppelin III” in a high school newspaper in Minnesota, which was one credential proffered. The thing is, I don’t believe credentials make much difference either. I figure that a critic ought to have three qualities: interest, and arrogance, and writing ability.” Bangs nailed that trifecta early and often, beginning with his first published review (of the MC5’s Kick Out the Jams in the April 5, 1969, issue of Rolling Stone) right up to his final review, in the Village Voice, titled “If Oi Were a Carpenter,” which hit the streets the week of his death.

There was never enough space to publish all the P&J ballots — though Christgau always included his own, and Bangs was generally one of his go-to critics for conveying a sense of a given year’s sonic landscape, as in this ballot from that first poll, in 1972 (when Bangs was an editor and writer at Creem magazine):

Surely a sampler to plug into Spotify one snowy weekend for someone hoping to glean the flavor of those halcyon days of music, when, for instance, David Bowie was starting to register on critical radars. (Hunky Dory was ranked number eighteen on that year’s poll, although the album didn’t make Bangs’s ballot — it was 1976’s Station to Station that finally sold him on the Man Who Sold the World, as reflected in a positive review Bangs wrote for Creem that year.) The Rolling Stones may have been Bangs’s personal top pick, but Sticky Fingers was beat out by the Who’s Who’s Next for the number one spot in that inaugural P&J. Neither of those British behemoths were touring the States when that first poll came out, but it is interesting to note in an ad facing Christgau’s essay “What does it all mean?” that a fan could see number nine finisher Joni Mitchell at Carnegie Hall for the top price of $6.50, or number fourteen Kinks at the same venue for the same amount.

As long as we’re talking numbers, we should take a look at what Bangs’s number one pick, the Stones, were charging for their presence roughly two years earlier.

That was the winter of 1969, and the Stones were commanding top dollar (eight bucks) for what Christgau would later describe as “history’s first mythic rock and roll tour,” partly due to the fact that the wildly successful shows were well-praised by the critics and ended with all good intentions — a free show for the masses — on that well-traveled road to Hell: “The result was Altamont — one murdered; total dead: four; 300,000 bummed out.”

Perhaps, with the Stones rolling out another U.S. juggernaut tour this coming summer as Altamont’s golden anniversary looms on December 6, some intrepid reporter should ask if the Stones might want to try and get it right this time. After all, no other performers from that first P&J poll can command these numbers:

Ahhh, but we were discussing how those Pazz & Jop edition numbers went awry, not commerce and death. Well, Christgau seemed, for a while, as good as his word, and the world saw nothing of Pazz & Jop for three years. Then, in the January 20, 1975, Voice, the poll was back, the Grand Poohbah apparently having had time to contemplate queries about the survey’s name: “The confusion of forms originally implied by the title (a play on the very defunct Jazz & Pop magazine, which came up with the rating system) does not show up in the [results]. The critics I polled like rock and roll, and all of the records they selected collectively (a few did name specific jazz records) fall unequivocally into the pop category.”

Pazz & Jop No. 3 arrived in a rush — barely eleven months later and, important for the Mysterious Case of the Missing Edition Number, the only Pazz & Jop Poll to appear in the same year it was surveying. It came out in the December 29, 1975, Voice, and the headline proclaimed, “1975 Pazz & Jop Poll: It’s been a Soft Year for Hard Rock.”

That gives us two polls in the year 1975; the poll covering the music of 1976 (No. 4) wouldn’t appear until the January 31, 1977, issue. This is where that “what month/inclusive years” math gets confusing. And mid-Seventies rock and roll, in all its manifestations, was inextricably linked with mind-altering drugs, so who knows — maybe some files got misfiled, or something.

Come January 23, 1978, we’re into poll No. 5 and Christgau is reflecting once more on the wild ’n’ wooly aspects of the survey’s name and the futility of its logistics: “A fellow member of the rock criticism establishment tells me that the poll which inspires my annual wrap-up might have a real shot at exposure in the newsweeklies — a chance to get some AM airplay and go pop — if it wasn’t saddled with such a ridiculous name. And I respond that the name is supposed to be ridiculous. Not that it’s actually meaningless, of course, but why go into that? I like the term Pazz & Jop because it once set [editor] Clay Felker to concocting alternate back-cover flags and is regarded by my current boss as virtually unpronounceable. It sounds dumb, and it gives me an out. Is this the most comprehensive year-end poll of rock critics conducted anywhere? You bet. Is it official? Of course not. How could it be?”

And how appropriate that those ironic disrupters of the pop scene, the Sex Pistols, topped a poll that by definition could never be official.

It was the next year that gave ambiguity free rein: “Triumph of the New Wave: Results of the Fifth (or Sixth) Annual Pazz and Jop Critics’ Poll” was the headline on page one, above a picture of Elvis Costello’s nostrils. And, with harsh serendipity, bedlam on a much larger scale was foreshadowed by a headline lower on the page: “Donald Trump Cuts the Cards.”

“The New Elvis” topped the sixth P&J Poll (and, yes, the higher number was correct), but the Voice’s Wayne Barrett was doing his own digging into some decidedly shady numbers, and giving New Yorkers a warning the rest of the world would wake up to four decades too late: “At center stage is Donald Trump, the young man who managed the land deals, profiting by his relationship with a mayor and a governor. He has left a trail of tradeoffs behind him that is — in a city where political brokers learn to cover their tracks — exceptionally clear.”

Back then, in the hinterlands of Baltimore, I didn’t know from The Donald — but I was picking up the Voice at a well-stocked newsstand near the Maryland Institute College of Art. And I knew right away that Christgau was onto something with this ongoing extravaganza that took the pulse of an art form that touches us all so deeply — those heavy beats and soaring melodies that grab you by the viscera that first time they come blaring through the car radio or wafting through an open window. I still remember being on the lighted dance floor in Baltimore’s Club Roxy and being thunderstruck by “Rapper’s Delight.” As Christgau pointed out in later essays, too many P&J critics were late to realize how powerful new-kid-on-the-block hip-hop was — and would continue to be. The Sugarhill Gang’s masterpiece was the last single to make the cut in the 1979 poll, which appeared in the January 28, 1980, issue. (It should be noted that Bangs put his criticism where his art was. Check out the double asterisks below, warning readers that Bangs voted for his own single — yes, that’s the esteemed critic moonlighting as fervent vocalist — and that enough of his journalistic colleagues concurred to boost “Let It Blurt” into a six-way tie with, among others, some disco divas with serious pipes. Talk about putting your money where your mouth is….)

In 1984 I was an art school graduate and truck loader for UPS. One day, cruising into downtown Baltimore with a low sun in my rearview mirror, “Born in the U.S.A.” burst out of the 100-watt speakers connected to the Bose radio–cassette deck I’d recently installed in my 1965 Buick Special (thereby doubling its Blue Book value in one stroke). Presumably the 136 critics (out of 240) who put the Boss’s album over the top in the poll published in the February 19, 1985, issue of the Voice were hip that the title anthem’s upbeat melody was undercut by downbeat lyrics, even though Ronald Reagan happily name-checked the song on the campaign trail in 1984, much to Springsteen’s chagrin.

And so it goes. P&J got bigger every year, the various Voice publishers realizing they could wrap a lot of record-store, indie-label, and concert ads around the essays and ballots assaying the previous year in pop music. The first Pazz & Jop I worked on was in 1988, when Prince ruled the airwaves and the poll. I was a painter and the greenhorn in the production department, and hadn’t yet started writing for the paper. But I cut my teeth on those late-Eighties P&J supplements, which ran up to 28 pages’ worth of extravagantly long essays, ballot lists, critics’ comments, photos, and graphics interwoven with a cornucopia of ads covering all musical tastes, desires, and dreams.

In those heady years, even some of music’s megastars worried about just what, exactly, the Voice critics thought of them. When U2 won the Grammy for Album of the Year for The Joshua Tree, in 1988, Bono, in a wide-ranging acceptance speech, noted, “We set out to make music, soul music. That’s what U2 wanted to make. It was soul music. It’s not about being black or white, or the instruments you play, or whether you use a drum machine or not. It’s a decision to reveal or conceal. And, without it, people like Prince would be nothing more than a brilliant song-and-dance man. That he is, but he’s much more than that. People like Bruce Springsteen would be nothing more than a, he would be nothing more than a great storyteller. But he’s much more than that. Without it, U2 would probably be getting better reviews in the Village Voice, but…um…that, that’s a joke. Sometimes they don’t understand.”

But all things come to an end.

Except sometimes, they don’t.

Sometime before the February 13, 2007, P&J (covering the music of 2006), some editor in the Voice’s new corporate hierarchy had decreed that this number madness (sophistry?) must stop! Surely not coincidently, Christgau had been let go by the new owners, and although his essay contribution, which had appeared 33 times previously, was no longer wanted, he gamely turned in a ballot. And with that, the 34th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll had at least gotten its number right.

Yet here we are, with this 45th or 46th (we’re not telling) Pazz & Jop Poll, and Bob Christgau is all over it. And, to gussie up a cliché, to understand the present (and, we hope, the future), one should be cognizant of the past. Which brings us back to the late, and greatly lamented among his colleagues and fans, Lester Bangs.

Bangs was always a rollicking, cantankerous, exuberant presence in the poll, and so, amid a miasma of melancholy, we thumbed through the green-bound volumes of the Voice archives in search of his last P&J contribution. There it was, in the January 27, 1982, Voice. When that issue hit the streets Bangs was still alive and kicking out the jams, and no one had an inkling that he would be dead three months later from an accidental overdose of various medications. In the 1981 ballot section, Christgau let Bangs have his head — two columns’ worth:

Because of the realities of the situation and a simple respect for music itself I am compelled to state in response to your poll that 1981 was in my view such a dismal year that I cannot in good conscience vote for more than two or three albums, much less 10. As you know, I always vote in these things strictly on the basis of how much I actually listen to the record, as opposed to how “significant” it might be. What I did this year was what almost everybody else, certainly including critics, did: listened to old music, when I listened at all. Because almost all current music is worthless. Very simply, it has no soul. It is fraudulent, and so are the mechanisms which perpetuate the lie that anybody else finds it vital enough to do more than consume and file or “collect” (be the first on your block).

Bangs goes on, with an earnestness that was one of his hallmarks: “Music is the only thing in the world I really care about — but I simply cannot pretend to find anything compelling in the choice between pap and mud.”

But no one should construe such sentiments as giving up. That Bangs wouldn’t do, and he does go on to list a few picks from that benighted year of 1981, including Richard Hell and the Voidoids. And that reminded us of a 1978 interview Bangs did with Hell, in which interviewer emphatically disagreed with subject:

Just for the record, I would like it known by anybody who cares that I don’t think life is a perpetual dive. And even though it’s genuinely frightening, I don’t think Richard Hell’s fascination with death is anything else but stupid. I suspect almost every day that I’m living for nothing, I get depressed and I feel self-destructive and a lot of the time I don’t like myself. What’s more, the proximity of other humans often fills me with overwhelming anxiety, but I also feel that this precarious sentience is all we’ve got and, simplistic as it may seem, it’s a person’s duty to the potentials of his own soul to make the best of it. We’re all stuck on this often miserable earth where life is essentially tragic, but there are glints of beauty and bedrock joy that come shining through from time to precious time to remind anybody who cares to see that there is something higher and larger than ourselves. And I am not talking about your putrefying gods, I am talking about a sense of wonder about life itself and the feeling that there is some redemptive factor you must at least search for until you drop dead of natural causes. And all the Richard Hells are chickenshits who trash the precious gift too blithely, and they deserve to be given no credence, but shocked awake in some violent manner.

Bangs, it should be noted, signed his piece, which had appeared in Gig magazine, in homage to Hell: “Your fan, Lester.”

And in that final ballot, with a poignant bit of fatal prescience, he tossed this off: “Just to save time, here’s NEXT YEAR’S TOP 10,” and listed ten parody albums, one of which was Richard Hell Sings the R. Dean Taylor Songbook.

Then he died. And in the 1982 poll, published in the February 22, 1983, Voice, Christgau ran, with no comment, Bangs’s “next year’s” ballot.

Bangs was nothing if not a fan. Like he said, “Music is the only thing in the world I really care about.” While we don’t all feel that way all the time, it’s a pretty safe bet that there has been a moment (or more than one) in all of our lives when that perfect song wonderfully sums up our existence — right here, right now.

Perhaps Bangs’s curse was that he wanted to feel that “bedrock joy” of music all the time.

That kind of passion, as Christgau understood from the jump, was what Pazz & Jop is still all about.

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