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Mark Gauvreau Judge

Please Flush

Why rock critics need to re-read Lester Bangs—and JPII.

Let's impose a moratorium on rock critics. Now. A few months ago, I came across this line by critic David Dunlap, Jr.: "[The band] Windsor for the Derby has plenty of experience jumping subgenres … everything from slo-core to krautrock to electronica to its current flavor of Mancunian-tinged postrock."

Call me square, dismiss me as an oldster, but I think when you're referring to Mancunian-tinged postrock, it's time to hang it up. Pop music criticism has grown so insular, full of itself, hipper-than-thou, and, most important, aesthetically disjointed from the thing it claims to examine that we'd best start over—beginning with a rediscovery of the granddaddy of all modern rock critics, Lester Bangs [pictured above].

Some rock critics who see that sentence will howl in outrage. Bangs, they contend, is the problem. Since his death in 1982, hordes of imitators have sought to claim his mantle. Bangs was rude, obnoxious, narcissistic, drug-addled, and brilliant. His numerous heirs are only the first four. "Bangs's enduring influence strikes me as a cancer," wrote Brian James on popmatters.com, "one that needs swift uprooting if its current purveyors ever expect to become a worthy alternative to the detested corporate mags." Ira Robbins was even harsher at salon.com: "What was once garret zealotry—practiced by idealists driven to spew, destroy and proselytize—is now well-placed product shilling … [and] celebrity worship written by well-funded content providers, pushed by powerful flacks and neutered by timid editors."

Yet James and Robbins are wrong. Not about the lousy writing and narcissism of the Bangs imitators, but about mainstream "corporate" magazines and newspapers. Entertainment Weekly and The New York Times frequently pan popular rock bands, and sometimes it can get vicious (see the Times' atomizing of Coldplay earlier this year). "Even the largest and most powerful and most established music magazines lack the spine to disagree with their readers," Robbins writes. But rock critics will often contradict popular opinion about a hot band, as the frequency of three-star (out of five) reviews in Rolling Stone attests. What the writers and editors won't do is contradict the libertine ethos that guides the music press, if not rock music. And—as many of them have conveniently forgotten—one of the things that made Lester Bangs great was that he did precisely this.

Take just one piece (in fact my favorite Bangs piece), Bangs' review of the Van Morrison album Astral Weeks. When the album came out in 1968, Bangs says, he was deeply depressed, "nerves shredded and ghosts and spiders looming across the mind." Then he writes this: "in the condition I was in, [Astral Weeks] assumed at the time the quality of a beacon, a light on the far shores of the murk; what's more, it was proof that there was something left to express artistically besides nihilism and destruction." In Astral Weeks "there was a redemptive element in the blackness, ultimate compassion for the suffering of others, and a swath of pure beauty and mystical awe that cut right through the heart of the work." This was a tonic, wrote Bangs, because "the self-destructive undertow that always accompanied the great sixties party had an awful lot of ankles firmly in its maw and was pulling straight down." In another piece, Bangs made this observation: "There's a new culture shaping up [in 1970], and while it's certainly an improvement on the repressive society now nervously aging, there is a strong element of sickness in our new, amorphous institutions. The cure bears viruses of its own."

Would Ira Robbins or Brian James—or any of those who lionize Bangs—ever agree to publish lines like that today? Not likely. And it has nothing to do with corporations or selling out. It has to do with the terrible hipster orthodoxy that governs pop music journalism. Despite the beauty and power of much popular music, the critics have become a cross between Holden Caulfield and a taxidermist. They talk about themselves, then set to work labeling the genres, subgenres and sub-subgenres the work involves—all without broaching any broader themes.

The above-mentioned piece by David Dunlap is a perfect example. He opens his review of the band Royksopp (for rock critics, the more obscure the band the better) by confessing that "the best down tempo electronica albums trigger a scene in my mind as if from some European drama: It's the gray morning after a night of revelry, and I'm being driven away in a cab from the apartment of a supermodel whom I'll never see again." Okay, fine, the reader thinks. He's going to use this bubble from his imagination to talk about this record, and tie the music to grand, timeless themes about romance, love, and loneliness.

But that never happens. Dunlap is too busy proving his bona fides as an omniscient scenester. He calls the singer "an uncanny mesh of Bjork and Cindy Lauper." One song is "R & B-esque." And be relieved (or warned): the album in question "won't be filed alongside George Jones's The Battle and Fleetwood Mac's Rumors in the Heartbreak Hall of Fame." Moreover, Royksopp has a "vinyl nerdiness" and suffers from "Bacharach worship." Writers (and showoffs) like David Dunlap, Jr., have embraced Bangs' occasionally beatnik, sarcastic, first-person style but none of the true iconoclasm or spiritual passion behind it—they've abandoned any claims to truth, or rather any truth other than the idea that they have huge CD collections and that corporate rock sucks.

To be fair to Brian James, he does acknowledge that Bangs' "increasing rejection of nihilism and solipsism, the most important development of his late period, is regrettably lost on his followers." And how. When I was rereading Bangs' review of Astral Weeks, I was floored by what he said about the song "Madame George." It's a song about a transvestite, but there is nothing vulgar about it—it is about the humanity of even the strangest of us. "The beauty, sensitivity, holiness of the song," Bangs writes, "is that there's nothing at all sensationalist, exploitative, or tawdry about it; in a way Van is right when he insists it's not about a drag queen … it's about a person, like all the best songs, all the greatest literature." Bangs then goes on a magnificent digression about the problem of seeing the miracle of each human life, and how doing so can almost be too much to bear:

As I write this, I can read in the Village Voice the blurbs of people opening heterosexual S&M clubs in Manhattan, saying things like, "S&M is just another equally valid form of love. Why people can't accept that we'll never know." Makes you want to jump out of a fifth floor window rather than read about it, but it's hardly the end of the world; it's not nearly as bad as the hurts that go on everywhere everyday that are taken so casually by all of us as facts of life. Maybe it boils down to how much you actually want to subject yourself to. If you accept for even a moment the idea that each human life is as precious and delicate as a snowflake and then you look at a wino in a doorway, you've got to hurt until you feel like a sponge for all those other [expletive's] problems … so you stop feeling. But you know that then you begin to die.

All this about a rock and roll song. To me, Bangs is not going overboard, but diving into the deep questions that music of the caliber of Van Morrison demands. Can you imagine such a thing running in any newspaper or magazine today, from the Village Voice (which would call the anti-S&M barb intolerant) to the Times (ditto) or Rolling Stone? And don't tell me it would get spiked because the corporations would feel squeamish. It would get tossed because pop music editors and writers have become as identical as bowling pins. They are more than willing to fight the corporate power, embrace obscure bands, and celebrate the "rebellion" of punk, but are scared little ducks when it comes to their own orthodoxies, which are anti-religious—indeed, which scamper quickly away from any of the grand themes and metaphysical emotions that come from great music. They are terrified of breaking out of the glib, know-it-all style that is the template for pop writing; it could mean the loss of a job. But it would be nice for some of them to try.

It's time to just flush it all and start again. I mean, give the most unlikely people in the world a shot at rock criticism. Give Pope Benedict the next Radiohead album. One of the things that astounded me after I reread Bangs' Astral Weeks piece was its similarity not to that week's Spin or Rolling Stone but to the thought of John Paul II. It sounds insane, I know. But Bangs' emphases on the personhood of Morrison's Madame George, and the degradation of the S&M clubs (modern liberal life in a nutshell), reminded me of something. Then it came to me—it was similar to something John Paul the Great had written in 1968, the year Astral Weeks was released. In a letter, the future pope wrote:

I devote my very rare free moments to a work that is close to my heart and devoted to the metaphysical sense and mystery of the person. It seems to me that the debate today is being played out on that level. The evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person. This evil is even more of the metaphysical order than of the moral order. To this disintegration planned at times by atheistic ideologies we must propose, rather than sterile polemics, a kind of "recapitulation" of the inviolable mystery of the person.

They are shockingly similar ideas (down to the italicizing of the word person) coming from the pens of two great writers at the same historical moment. And anyone who thinks the modern mainstream media would publish either one today is just clueless enough to be a rock critic.

Mark Gauvreau Judge is the author most recently of God and Man at Georgetown Prep: How I Became a Catholic Despite 20 Years of Catholic Schooling (Crossroad).

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