These days, a prominent “rock critic” can pen a book about her allegedly bohemian life, then turn around and write a piece in her regular outlet, The New York Times, that seeks (and, jumpin’ Jesus, finds!) virtue in the manufactured vacuity of ’N Sync and Backstreet Boys. This sorry combo of faux hipsterism and mainstream ass kiss is par for the ill-kempt course in the field of music writing circa 2000.
Middle-aged obsessives with long memories may recall an era when writing about rock & roll was a truly transgressive act. Rock criticism as a form was born and bred in the mid- and late ’60s, and the most exciting voices of that epoch belonged to a triumvirate that James Wolcott later dubbed “the Noise Boys” — Richard Meltzer, Nick Tosches and the late Lester Bangs. These style-flashing outlaws raised the bar of outrage so high in their heyday that others have been content to limbo under it ever since.
Bangs was the most lionized of these writers, in life and in death; in 1987, five years after his demise from an accidental overdose of Darvon, his collection Psychotic Reactions & Carburetor Dung, posthumously compiled by Greil Marcus, was published between hard covers. Chicago Sun-Times rock critic Jim DeRogatis’ amusingly self-reflexive bio, Let It Blurt, continues this canonization.
Born into a family of Southern California Jehovah’s Witnesses and raised on a teenage diet of jazz records, Jack Kerouac, cheap speed and Romilar cough syrup, Bangs was rock criticism’s original True Believer and gonzo saint. His writing for Rolling Stone, Creem (where he did his most memorable work) and dozens of other publications from 1969 on combined a fervent belief in the power of rock music, a cannily streetwise aesthetic, and an amped-up, Beat-derived, nakedly honest style pulsating with energy and commitment. (The best thing in DeRogatis’ book may be Bangs’ “How To Be a Rock Critic,” a mocking take on the profession first published in an obscure fanzine in 1974 and reprinted as an appendix.) Sadly, this prescient champion of the rock & roll faith also became a self-destructive victim of standard-issue rock excess, and of his self-fabricated image. (It isn’t surprising that Bangs was an avid early reader of Hunter S. Thompson.) As one girlfriend notes, “A lot of people used him to be ‘Lester Bangs’ — this outrageous persona.”
DeRogatis — who was once described to me as “a guy who likes rock criticism more than he does rock music” — interviewed Bangs just two weeks before he died, and doubtless would have us believe the torch of rock-crit integrity was passed during that brief encounter. His mad love for his hero leads the biographer to occasionally turn a blind eye on some discomforting matters in Bangs’ life; for instance, evidence of the late critic’s long-term sexual abuse as a youth by a neighbor is dispensed with in a single paragraph. Though Bangs’ emotional immaturity and terminal excesses receive detailed treatment in Let It Blurt, DeRogatis says in the book’s early pages, “I do not see this book as a tragedy.” Yet how can the tale of a gifted writer who died at 33, leaving behind little more than some scattered reviews, two quickie fan books and a wild-man rep senselessly emulated by idolatrous twerps, be considered anything but?
It was Richard Meltzer who told me that Bangs had died: He broke the news about his friend matter-of-factly at a Los Angeles Reader softball game on May 1, 1982, the day after Bangs was found dead in his New York apartment. At the time, Meltzer was a columnist at the Reader, and I was its “rock critic.” We knew each other, but did not hang together. My name appears, cryptically, on Page 383 of Meltzer’s new anthology, A Whore Just Like the Rest.
Therein, Meltzer makes the claim, more than once, that he “invented” rock criticism, but what he fabricated bears no resemblance to the cold puke that passes for rock writing today. As a failed philosophy major and pioneer critic at Crawdaddy in the mid-’60s, Meltzer to be sure created a handy set of purloinable, highly utilitarian writing devices (some of which, including [ahem] gratuitous/nongratuitous citations of Kant, Jasper Johns and, I dunno, Bobo Brazil, are contained within THESE VERY FUCKING PARENTHESES!) that have been lifted ad nauseam by far less gifted adherents. But his finest and truest work isn’t criticism at all. It’s a sui generis art project, in which music is the ostensible springboard for an irreverent/irrelevant consideration/nonconsideration of the matter at hand — pure writing-as-writing, as he might put it.
Thus, we get the J. Geils Band’s album The Morning After considered as a checkers game; a “review” of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Pendulum with a “built-in echo” effect; a preview of a Railroad Jerk show that “confuses” the New York band with saxophonist Roland Kirk; write-ups of concerts never attended and albums never listened to; literally blow-by-blow accounts of label-sponsored debauchery on tours and promotional junkets; and deliriously candid autobiographical confessions in the guise of “music journalism.” It was never really possible to learn anything about the purported subject of a Meltzer piece, for, as he himself points out in an introductory note in A Whore, “What I’ve done . . . is lure you into taking an interest in ME.”
The pleasure of reading Meltzer’s collection is tainted by his confounding and all-too-apparent anger that his unusual and intransigent work hasn’t attained the same acceptance that the piecework of less gifted careerist contemporaries has been accorded. “So what the hell am I after? My due,” he writes sourly in one 1998 piece, in which he attempts to settle old scores with such rock-crit heavy lifters as Marcus and Robert Christgau. (Jon Landau and Dave Marsh get their just desserts elsewhere.) This bitterness, which infects the prefaces to several entries and some of the later writing, is frankly stunning. Doesn’t Meltzer, of all people, realize that being a professional iconoclast has its commercial pitfalls?
Meltzer and Nick Tosches have long been viewed as the Damon and Pythias of rock writing. At first blush, Tosches’ style and attack could be much like his buddy’s: The new anthology The Nick Tosches Reader includes a 1971 review of Black Sabbath’s album Paranoid, which takes the form of a minutely detailed description of a satanic orgy. As Meltzer recalls in his book, he and Tosches clandestinely exchanged bylines on reviews of a Commander Cody album that appeared in Rolling Stone and Fusion back in 1971, and got themselves banished from the former publication for their trouble. However, as Meltzer’s work has grown increasingly mired in cultish marginality, Tosches, a self-confessed onetime street tough and barfly, left rock-crit behind to become a big-name writer in slick mags and a highly acclaimed biographer (his 1992 Dean Martin bio, Dino, is earmarked for a movie translation by Martin Scorsese).
Tosches says he subscribes to a precept taught by director Don Siegel: “If you’re going to be a whore, be a high-priced whore.” (Tosches, like Bangs and Meltzer, uses the language of prostitution without irony to describe his craft.) But his writing has always been just as highly personalized as Bangs’ or Meltzer’s, and it is considerably more elegant than that of either. In the nearly 600 pages of the Tosches Reader, one discovers an adaptable writer who is able to find the perfect pitch, tone and authorial voice to address his subject, be it the texture of an ancient Roman coin, the joys and sorrows of fucking while drunk, or the poetry of the Doors’ Jim Morrison.
Tosches concludes a profile of the elusive mob attorney Sidney Korshak by writing, “The only true secrets are those that remain hidden. The only true mysteries, those that can never be solved.” He is the poet of the deeply enigmatic, and his best nonfiction writing — on Korshak, Martin, minstrel singer Emmett Miller, hell-raising rock & roller Jerry Lee Lewis, Mafia financier Michele Sindona — attempts to plumb the core of men who can never truly be known. The Devil and Sonny Liston continues on that path, surveying the cipher who was the ’60s heavyweight champion Liston, born into sharecropping obscurity, enslaved by the mob, and found dead of a drug overdose in his empty Las Vegas home.
While Tosches never determines if Liston’s death was an accident or murder, and never really ascertains if Liston threw his fights with Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, he clearly agrees with one low-level mug from Pennsylvania, who says, “This guy didn’t just take a dive — he did a one and a half off the high board.” Through the murk, he nonetheless manages to find something sublime and curiously affecting in the tale of this palooka, strong-arm hooligan, rapist and smalltime dope dealer. Tosches consistently discovers real literary light in the most Stygian souls. That’s why he has grown into the champ of his particular division.
LET IT BLURT: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic | By JIM DeROGATIS | Broadway Books | 352 pages | $16 paperback
A WHORE JUST LIKE THE REST: The Music Writings of Richard Meltzer | By RICHARD MELTZER | Da Capo Press | 592 pages | $17 paperback
THE NICK TOSCHES READER | By NICK TOSCHES | Da Capo Press | 594 pages | $19 paperback
THE DEVIL AND SONNY LISTON | By NICK TOSCHES | Little Brown & Co. | 288 pages | $25 hardcover