The Right to Be Wrong


It’s gotten to where just the name does it: Lester Bangs. It makes me happy. It’s like raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. Of course, even apart from the guy it signified, its perfection of pure form is stunning, but what it evokes as the signifier of the person is even better. I think of his innocence and goodwill first, and his compulsion to talk about whatever was going on and to figure out what mattered (starting from music) and it makes me sorry I can’t call him up. It’s strange. I didn’t even like him very much when he was alive. Just five or six years ago when his biographer was asking for stories about him I told him that when I knew Lester I didn’t take him very seriously or pay very much attention to him. That though doubtless my distaste was partly that of the junkie for the lush, I mostly thought he was a buffoon. Lester was this big, swaying, cross-eyed, reeking drooler, smiling and smiling through his crummy stained mustache, trying to corner me with incessant babble somewhere in the dark at CBGB’s, 1976 or so. He was sweet like a big clumsy puppy, but he was always drunk and the sincerity level was pretty near intolerable.

Now I miss him.

Of course it’s easier to like a good-hearted, hardworking dead person, the extremely edited Lester, than the obliviously intrusive physically present one, but Lester has made way more friends than most since he died. Posthumously, he’s become the noncharismatic Elvis of rock writers: obscene provocateur and polite mama’s boy, vulnerable and egotistic, trashily prolific and artistically transcendent, anti-drug and full-time addict (who died young that way); but most of all forgiven everything and adored by his fans while being the most popular model for those who would essay his trade. Well maybe that’s a little strained; probably Jack Kerouac would be a better comparison, if not as much fun. Because Kerouac actually did influence Bangs a lot and the appeal of Lester shares a lot with Kerouac: that innocence and goodwill and drive to describe and be true to what matters in life. People like a writer’s writing because they like the writer’s company. Writing is intimate and finally what draws you to an author’s work is the shape of the mind and quality of feeling you find there, and Lester, like Kerouac, reads like a real good friend to a lot of people.

I have to interrupt and confess how I’m struggling to resist taking revenge on rock critics. I was a musician and I’ve thought a few times of rating the critics the way they do the artists. But I’m really really going to try to restrain myself. How petty would that be, if I were to go after them? Not only have they generally been real good to me but my life is more fun than theirs. I must try to be large I must try to be large. I don’t want to be a jerk. I’ll just say that I believe Lester deserves his supreme popularity (he liked me the most).

But I’ve got to go after the self-importance of the best-known worst of them a little. The rock writers, naturally, want to believe that their genre, like say the movie criticism of the Cahiers du Cinéma writers such as Godard and Rivette, is sometimes actually the work of important artists. In fact Greil Marcus, in the introduction to Bangs’s previous collection of rock journalism, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung (1987), wrote, “Perhaps what this book demands from a reader is a willingness to accept that the best writer in America could write almost nothing but record reviews.” (That line is typical of the way Marcus ruins good things by laying the burden of his pretentiousness on them.) And it’s true that writers as good as Patti Smith and Nick Tosches wrote about pop music seriously, with full respect, and really well. But I don’t see much justification for a line like Marcus’s about Lester. Lester was lovable and perceptive, but the writing is wired thinking-aloud; it’s pure process, and my feeling is that Lester had too many blind spots and neuroses for writing that depends so much for its value on the shapeliness of his mind and reasoning. As with Kerouac, you go to Bangs’s work to be refreshed with your pleasure in the characteristic beauty of his mission and mind, to be reminded of the presence of a certain being that inspires and provokes. But it hardly matters what pages you read—all the appeal is in the tone and ethical/aesthetic values, and you get them immediately, so a little goes a long way.

Nevertheless, of all the most highly regarded rock journalists (say Tosches, Robert Christgau, Marcus, and the execrable and excremental Richard Meltzer) Lester was the only one who valued self-doubt and who actually seemed to like the music more than he liked himself. Lester was a critic who reserved the right to be wrong, which seems to me admirable. Like many rock writers Lester took extreme stances, but unlike the other most flamboyantly contrary of them, he didn’t paint himself into a minuscule corner of supported music, and he didn’t go sour with cynicism and resentment (or maybe he did a little toward the end—1982 for Lester—when punk seemed to end up genuinely, fatally, hopeless). Lester was large and he was interested in doing what was right—which sometimes entailed willfully offending those whose values he opposed—not merely being right in his taste and musical standards. He wanted to learn. What’s appealing about him is the same thing that he valued in the music he wrote about: the life in it—engagement with and responsiveness to the world. To put a positive spin on the spew-and-rant factor, he didn’t care about beauty except as flow. He wanted everything included. He was confrontational but it came from goodwill, from his belief that feelings—sensitivity to what’s going on—are what matter and that if you’re going to really notice things, really perceive, there’s going to be a lot of sadness and horror and filth as well, so to some extent they’re a necessary part of beauty. Basically, Lester always wanted people to care more. That could be really tedious, but when the examples of things due more loving regard are such as White Light/White Heat and Raw Power and Pangaea, it gets interesting.

If you like Lester, you’ll like this new book. It’s a lot like the other one but it has more Miles Davis and Rolling Stones than Lou Reed and Iggy and some big chunks of autobiographical writings.