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Who Wants Yesterday’s Blurtings?
I didn’t plan to read Let It Blurt, Jim DeRogatis’ biography of Lester Bangs. That’s not because I didn’t like Bangs, although I wouldn’t nominate him as “America’s greatest rock critic” (as the bio’s subtitle has it). It’s just that I haven’t found DeRogatis a particularly interesting writer. And that I don’t generally read biographies. And that I doubted that the book would tell me much I didn’t know.
But then along came A Whore Just Like the Rest, a collection of music writing by the guy who used to byline his pieces “R. Meltzer.” (It’s Richard now.) Columnists can’t resist a package, and here was one ready-made. Indeed, there’s a publishing trifecta, because Nick Tosches—the third member of the gonzo rock-critic trio once dubbed “the Noise Boys”—also has a new anthology of his shorter writings. Village Voice columnist Robert Christgau could hardly ignore the congruence, especially given that both DeRogatis’ and Meltzer’s books include more than a few slams at him.
In his piece, Christgau rebuts some points that seem trivial if you’re not Christgau but plays fair in his estimation of Meltzer, Bangs, and, I guess, Tosches. (I haven’t read a word by the last since his bio of Jerry Lee Lewis, which I hated.) What was interesting, if perhaps inevitable, was that Christgau’s prose drifted toward Meltzer/Bangs mode: the run-on sentences, the jarring asides, the ironic overemphasis, the jump-cut transitions, the existential rejection of interpretation or even meaning itself. The stuff is infectious, even for those of us who went through periods of serious Meltzer/Bangs emulation that we long since renounced (or just grew out of).
Yes, I was a Bangsian, which means a Meltzerian, too; it was the latter who pioneered the style, which he concocted from the Beats, Tom Wolfe, the philosophers he read at Yale in graduate school, and other, less obvious sources (Faulkner? Don Rickles?). Bangs published a few of my pieces in Creem, and I published outtakes by both Bangs and Meltzer in a fanzine I ran. I never spoke to Meltzer; we communicated a bit by mail, which is how impoverished writers did it in those pre-e days. I also corresponded with Bangs and spoke to him on the phone a few times—at Creem’s expense—but met him only once. That was at a gig by Bangs’ circa-1979 band, Birdland, at the Mudd Club.
I thought Bangs was affable, Birdland was OK (though not as good as the group I saw earlier that evening, Steve Reich and Musicians), and the Mudd Club was appalling. According to DeRogatis, Bangs was frequently out of control, but that night he got drunk quietly. I used to suspect that Bangs exaggerated his drug- and alcohol-fueled bad behavior in his writings—for one thing, he frequently asked for drugs, which suggested that he didn’t have many—but I didn’t research a bio on him. DeRogatis did, and he says that Bangs really was the oblivion addict he painted himself to be.
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Given that he apparently died of a Darvon overdose, Bangs’ drug use did prove crucial to his existence. But DeRogatis’ account of it—and the rest of Bangs’ life—is not all that engaging. I can’t imagine Let It Blurt grabbing anyone who isn’t already hooked (or can remember once being hooked) on Bangs’ writing. Still, it’s a less irksome read than A Whore Just Like the Rest.
In part, that’s because Meltzer’s book is like an album you don’t want to play anymore because you’ve heard so many imitations of it (especially for me—I read some of these pieces long ago). But the central problem is that most of the book’s selections were written after Meltzer had already lost interest in rock. He became known for reviewing records he’d actually never heard in an absurdist style that turned reviews into lists, offhand asides, or—his most cynical ploy—enthusiastic but obviously insincere raves. In the context of an overly reverential journal like Rolling Stone, these anti-reviews could be refreshing. Collected in bulk, they quickly become a drag.
Bangs ended up being more popular than Meltzer with fans of what the latter calls rockwrite, and that’s not only because he is tidily dead. He also is given credit for having had more heart—which may be true. For all his bluster, he seems to have been more earnest, less cynical, and less macho (and therefore less misogynist) than Meltzer. Reading Meltzer’s groupie gossip and insolent descriptions of female body parts is fun only if you can separate his demythologizing of male romanticism from the fact that the women he’s writing about are actual people (yes, even Linda McCartney).
In some fairly embarrassing passages, Meltzer raves that he hasn’t gotten his due, that he’s a more important rock critic than Christgau and Greil Marcus, who conspired against him. Well, he’s not, even if they did. (And no, I’ve never been a disciple or even an acquaintance of either Christgau or Marcus.) What I don’t get is why Meltzer doesn’t claim to be the most important journalistic stylist since Tom Wolfe.
Because he is.
Has Meltzer, now occupied with retro enthusiasms like jazz (yawn) and boxing (ugh), never read Dave Barry? Or any of the Barry clones that populate virtually every American newspaper, definitely including the Washington Post? Did he not happen to read, in a Pulitzer Prize-
winning newspaper, a nearly incoherent essay attempting to connect John Woo and Nietzsche, a piece whose ranting nonscholarship was descended directly (OK, probably indirectly) from Meltzer’s The Aesthetics of Rock? Meltzer’s non-sequiturian style has become the currency for a generation of sorta-hip, kinda-humorous mainstream-journalism commentators. Whether they got it from Meltzer or Bangs or the many imitators who have filled the columns of rock mags and alternative newspapers, these guys are now writing about sports, or movies, or exploding cows in a Meltzerian manner.
I’d even claim prescience for the Meltzer-Bangs approach to universal understanding: They tried to prove that they had evolved beyond bigotry by boldly using terms like “spic” and “cooz” and another one that’s popular with rappers these days. The trouble with the Farrelly brothers? You can trace it all back to Creem magazine, circa 1973.
Basically, Bangs kept reconjuring the excitement originally conveyed by rock ‘n’ roll, whether by seizing messianically on a new trend (metal, Krautrock, punk, no wave) or, finally, by deciding to become a musician himself. Meltzer withdrew to the sidelines (first L.A., now Portland) and grumbled. By 1968, he was already disillusioned that the music he had considered an insurrection had become merely a style. Odd that he doesn’t seem to have noticed that the exact same thing happened to his prose technique. —Mark Jenkins
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