Friday, September 07, 2007


Ask any rock musician. There are two, and only two, divisions in the music scene: 1) the Artists (themselves) and 2) the audience (suckers, clappers of hands, the pussy pool). Ye shall have no more.

Like much of what musicians say, this is half-wishful bullshit. That the Big Noise shouted into existence a volley of mutant allied artists like dancers, poster designers, DJs, and journalists is one of those commonplaces no one ever mentions. Steeped in sound as a way of life, these lucky folk get to create the accompaniment for a music that can scarcely be expected to dance, see, or speak for itself. Resident in a special, poison-slicked niche in the Church of the Higher Decibel is the rock critic. Equal parts gatekeeper, poet, and swaying cobra, this individual sweats in the pit with fans, retiring later to a chamber to sing dithyrambs and cutthroat’s songs by the rhythm and melody yet rattling inside the skull. Taking rock art from the same source as everyone else, the critic uses it to fuel a more exquisite buzz; in the way that even the worst skunkweed kindles a lump of superior hashish.

Rock criticism came into its own in the 1970s, as the rise of the rock press began to spin off eminent practitioners like Greil Marcus, Richard Meltzer, and Lester Bangs. That’s widely variable quality considered now, but these were the voices rock ’n’ roll animals trained themselves to hear. By simple dint to putting the hustle and shriek of the music on the page, they themselves became artists, rock stars, men of consequence, barkers in the Great Swindle.

Poor Lester is nowadays considered one of the godfathers of punk, and he got a lot of mileage out of it before his booze-corroded body shut his mouth forever in 1982. Punk itself is a rare example of a genre of pop music being called into existence by critics, and Bangs’s efforts to steer his pet skronk this way or that make for fascinating reading. His intrigues as a scene politician were as inept as his efforts as a musician, but he passionately cared enough about what was then a revolutionary sound as far from commodification as his own gorgeously twisted way with English.

Bangs’s worst failing was in needing the Scene so much he never recognized it needed him far more. An unpublished hit piece written in 1976 for Punk magazine (and available at sees him weighing in on the ridiculous Handsome Dick Manitoba/Wayne County feud (the latter drag performer commendably clubbed the former frontman for the Dictators with a mikestand for heckling her at CBGB), all his sympathies clearly with his oppressed hetero brothers. In “Who Are the Real Dictators?,” Lester all but accused everyone in New York with a record contract of bending over for a “Faggot Mafia.” Reading the manifesto aloud at a Dictators rehearsal was encouraging, but it didn’t keep him from heeding the promptings of common sense, so the piece remained in the writer’s drawer.

While it’s easy to imagine hick-drunkard Bangs in bull-roaring denunciation of NYC queers, one finds it difficult to credit such depth of feeling for the idea of a Scene at this late date. While people still alter their bodies, wardrobes, and lives for the sake of noise, punk itself is simply cash-money merchandise and one fashion accessory among many. The music is as predictable and empty of content as a Scott McClellan non-denial denial. The stagy protest noises the genre makes have all the social force of a banana cream pie hurled by Gary Coleman.

In an era of spunkless punk, the critic’s first duty is to dynamite the house that Lester built.

(first published in L.A. CITY BEAT, 10-6-05)

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home