Lester Bangs was a genius.
He was a phenomenally talented writer who, for the 13 years between his first publication in 1969 and his death in 1982, wrote some of the most eminently readable, insightful, and downright entertaining music criticism in the history of the form – a form that is not generally known for being entertaining. Truth is, I'm not even sure that it's fair to call him a music critic. Lester Bangs was a poet and essayist who found in rock album reviews the perfect vehicle through which to express himself.
His influence was staggering and vast, continuing in the pens and keyboards of two generations of writers for what is now 25 years since he shuffled off this mortal coil.
Lester Bangs himself may be the greatest thing that ever happened to rock criticism. His continuing influence is perhaps the worst thing that ever happened to it.
There are thousands of rock writers (and aspiring rock writers) who will scream "BLASPHEMY!" at the very notion of calling Bangs' influence a disaster (as Blogcritics' own Mark Saleski did, with his tongue at least partially planted in his cheek, upon my announcing that I intended to write such a thing). But hear me out.
What made Bangs an indisputably great writer was that he was incredibly novel, fiercely original, and – this is key – 100 percent idiosyncratic.
It's often remarked upon that he was unafraid to break every rule in the bible of criticism, including the Golden Rule – "Remove yourself from the writing" – but in fact, breaking those rules was the least of his innovations. Anyone can break those rules. What made Bangs a legend is that he did it well.
Got that? Bangs' criticism worked not because he broke the rules, but because he broke them well.
Therein lies the problem.
The rules, you see, are there for a purpose. Their purpose is to provide the critic with the boundaries that separate good criticism from poor criticism. That's not just the rule against putting yourself into the review, you understand. It's also the rule against freewheeling, elaborate and extended metaphors; the rule against making broad comparisons between the subject of your review and a general sense of society, life, or the world at large; the rule against writing a music review that isn't actually focused on the music you're reviewing; and the rule against making your observations and opinions personal, esoteric, and/or highly subjective.
In particular, there is a rule that has been true since the dawn of criticism, and it remains just as true today: Every time the word "I" or "me" appears in a critique, in any context, the critique is thereby that much weaker.
If you are Lester Bangs, with all of his talent and skill and breathtaking originality, you can break all of these rules with gleeful abandon and have your writing not only not suck, but have it be compelling and inspiring and wonderful.
If you are not Lester Bangs, when you break all of these rules your writing sucks.
Two points of comparison come to mind, for the sake of illumination. First, take the only real parallel for Bangs in modern American letters: Hunter S. Thompson.
When Thompson first began his career, his journalistic prose was riveting and radically different — it unfolded like a novel. It made huge and sometimes outlandish pronouncements. It was frequently distorted and abstracted (sometimes compellingly, sometimes hilariously) by the drugs in Thompson's system. And it was always, on some level or another, about Thompson himself as much as, or more than, his ostensible subject.
Very much like Bangs, that.
So radical and innovative was Thompson, in fact, that the journalistic world declared his approach to be "New Journalism." The idea was that all future journalism would be that way: eccentric, self-referencing (and self-effacing), unabashedly narcissistic, embellished, and subjective.
It didn't take.
Journalism experimented for a while — a painfully short while — and eventually, although Thompson remained a giant and there were an (extremely) few notable exceptions, settled back into largely what it had been before his arrival on the scene. The reason for this is that the practitioners of the journalistic trade attempted to pull off what Hunter S. Thompson actually did pull off…and discovered that Hunter S. Thompson was the only one who could make it work.
The other is the example I so often return to: the legendary and brilliant Florida talk-show host, Bob Lassiter.
Lassiter, a man whose cult is steadily growing, thanks to the airchecks collecting on the web and elsewhere, had the astonishing ability to tell deeply personal stories about himself, as well as launch into idiosyncratic and erratic rants, that could sometimes last up to three hours. He could ramble about Ronald Reagan and make it impossible for you to turn away, or tell you about every Christmas he lived through and make you weep.
However, when his monologue didn't last an entire show, and he would make ready to take phone calls, he was very clear about who wasn't invited. "You're not welcome to tell long, complicated stories about yourself and where you were the day that John F. Kennedy died," he said more than once. "It may be the most meaningful and poignant story in the world to you, but it ain't meaningful or poignant to anyone out there listening.
"Unless, of course, you're an extraordinarily good storyteller. And you're not."
These, unfortunately, are the lessons that the followers of Lester Bangs haven't learned. As a result, we too often get crap like this real-life excerpt from a Ben Folds review that appeared on Pitchfork a couple of years ago:
Back when he was Five, Ben Folds made punk rock for wussies. With a goofy drawl and sloppy piano-fisting (SFW, natch), Folds alternately threw stones and built glass houses. He'd mock a too-cool coterie of nose-ringed goths and closeted ex-Cure fans (ah, those innocent pre-Killers 1990s!), then let his guard down for ballads about heartbreak and, yes, the abortion that hurtled the Five through fame's window like a post-Final Four student rioter's "Brick". His hipster-baiting, sincerity and modest fame guaranteed a few nasty reviews, sure. Still, Folds challenged cred-consciousness before crying "rockist!" was OTM. Wussy, yes, but worthy.
Said one all-too-accurate observer, "I'll give $5 to the first person who can tell me what this idiot is talking about. Other than amusing himself with his hilarious little snark puns and masturbatory inside jokes, this entire paragraph tells me nothing about the music of Ben Folds, and whether or not I might like it. This is 100 words of wasted time."
Hilarious little snark puns and masturbatory inside jokes are the essence of Lester Bangs' legacy. Again, they worked when he tried them. They don't work when, oh, anybody else on Planet Earth does.
That, of course, covers only one of the three positives I credited Bangs with earlier in this article: "idiosyncratic." The others, "original" and "novel," speak for themselves at this point. What he did was original. What his followers do is emulation of him, which is exactly the opposite of original. And since Bangsian criticism has become de rigeur, it's also exactly the opposite of novel.
I talked earlier of a figurative "rule book" of rock criticism. But there's another rule book that is, at least in American English, practically mandatory for any writer worth his salt: Strunk and White's Elements of Style. Near the end of the book, when the grammar and mechanics have been covered, E.B. White adds a chapter about developing a writing style. He includes within the chapter a set of guidelines; the second of these is: Write in a way that comes easily and naturally to you.
Lester Bangs did exactly that. Too, too many people have spent time ever since then writing in a way that came easily and naturally to Lester Bangs.Powered by Sidelines