The Rock Star as Hero
It is easy to forget that the Velvet Underground’s career was brutally short: four albums over four years, from 1965–9, and their association with both Andy Warhol and Nico did not last past the first one. Throughout their existence, their chart positions were mediocre and album sales negligible. Their impact has been completely posthumous: as an influence, way cooler in retrospect than in real time. Why was their fate to be, as critic Ellen Willis prophesied, the “first rock-and-roll artists who had no real chance of attracting a mass audience?” (And I don’t think rock criticism is a Bangs vs. Willis cage match, Willis will have her day.) Furthermore, given this, why do they still matter? Because they snared the affections and the imaginations of the critics. The music writers of the late 1960s heard something exciting in the Velvets that kept them interested, especially Lester Bangs, who formed a bond with band leader Lou Reed that was “equal parts Johnson/Boswell, Vidal/Mailer, and Mozart/Salieri (and it was often difficult to tell who was who)” according to Bangs’ biographer, Jim de Rogatis.
Bangs was so enamored with Reed that he devotes several essays to worshipping him. But being the object of Bangs’ affection was like being a kitten in the hands of a gleeful giant. In 1975, he wrote: “Lou Reed is my own hero principally because he stands for all the most fucked up things that I could ever possibly conceive of. Which only shows the limits of my imagination.” Bangs admired Reed’s ability to do more drugs, drink more booze, be more sleazy, and rock harder than anyone else. “Lou realized the implicit absurdity of the rock ’n’ roll bête-noire badass pose and parodied, deglamorized it.” This too was Bangs’ pose, as he was the critic who acted like a rock star, drinking and drugging and generally living to excess. And he was set on bringing Reed down, even if he lost his illusions in the process: “The fact is that Lou, like all heroes, is there for the beating up. They wouldn’t be heroes if they were infallible, in fact they wouldn’t be heroes if they weren’t miserable wretched dogs, the pariahs of the earth, besides which the only reason to build up an idol is to tear it down again, just like anything else. A hero is a goddam stupid thing to have in the first place and a general block to anything you might wanta accomplish on your own. Plus part of the whole exhilaration of admiring someone for their artistic accomplishments is resenting ’em ’cause they never live up to your expectations. Plus which they all love the abuse, they’re worse than academics, so the only thing left to do is go whole hog nihilistic and tear everyone you ever respected to shreds. Fuck em!” Bangs iterates the classic rock critic pose of disillusionment, or practically invents it, here. Rock stars will always betray you, will always sell out, will always disappoint you in the end. So why bother being a fan? Because Bangs, like most true fans, could not imagine life any other way.
The Critic as Fan
The dominant post-1960s way of writing about music is as the story of a person (or a band) who has played a show (or made a record or otherwise put music into the world) that has compelled the writer to ply his trade. This was Lester Bangs’ way, and his legacy would reach far into the future of rock criticism and biography. Of course there are exigent circumstances, but the idea of a critical itching, burning, a physical need to tell the world about this music prevails: Bangs’ prose overflows with opinions and bravado, and thus typifies this model of writing. To wit, Bangs on a Velvet Underground song: “it’s the best music ever made, the instrumental intro to ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ is like watching dawn break over a bank of buildings through the windows of these elegantly hermetic cages, which feels too well spoken, which I suspect is the other knife that cuts through your guts, the continents that divide literature and music and don’t care about either.” Bangs was an important tastemaker, championing the Velvet Underground, garage rock, the Stones, all blues-based, noisy rock. The gist of this school is “let me tell you why this music moves me;” implied is “and why it should move you too. Unless you have rocks in your head, in which case, I can’t help you.” This type of rock criticism is a blunt, not a fine, art: it cajoles, bullies, provokes, and personalizes the music. Every piece is a mini-memoir spurred by a song: either the writer is telling you about himself and, incidentally, he is telling you about the music, or vice versa. Again, to wit, the opening of that Velvet Underground piece (which was unfinished) was Bangs repeating, and confirming, the accusation that all he wanted to do was “suck Lou Reed’s cock.” You can’t get much more personal a revelation in criticism than that.
The career of Lester Bangs was a thumbnail sketch of what happened to rock criticism in the late 1960s and 1970s, and Jim de Rogatis’ biography of Bangs, Let It Blurt (2000), attempts to integrate a history of rock criticism with the story of Bangs’ life with skewed results. It’s a little like writing a history of Cubism in a biography of Picasso: it makes perfect sense, as long as you are not a big Braque supporter. Nevertheless Bangs was a pivotal figure in the history of rock criticism. He wrote for most of the major publications of the time — Rolling Stone, Creem, the Village Voice — and was friends with all of the other important critics of the day, who admired his talent for writing and getting into rock star-like trouble. Where most of the other critics moved on to books, Bangs could rarely pull himself together to write much longer than a magazine article. His legend, though, looms large over the next generation of rock writers, who insert themselves into their stories the way he did. They write as fans as well as critics.
Lester Bangs Has Opinions He Wouldn’t Mind Sharing