Interview by Jason Gross
PSF: Could you talk about your work with Blue Oyster Cult?
Basically, I knew these people from age twenty-two on. The guy who managed them (Sandy Pearlman), I went to school with him. He was once a rock writer himself. I lived with the band off and on and wrote lyrics for them early on. They recorded a whole bunch that never came out. They were actually once a great, great psychedelic band. They played 11-minute songs that don't sound like the Grateful Dead or any other, but something of their own that was very much of the '60's. They existed as Soft White Underbelly and then they were the Stalk-Forrest Group. By the time they emerged as Blue Oyster Cult in the early '70's, they had gone through a few stylistic changes. They had a meeting one day where they were wondering "Can we go metal?" They decided no. "Could we be pseudo-metal? Yes." At the very beginning of their run as a metal band, there was an element of high comedy, it was almost like a parody of metal. They'd look at each other on stage like "Dig these silly riffs." I never considered them a true metal band. I know a British writer who said the Brits had a context for that sort of--they called it "heavy pomp." Which would include Queen and whatever else.
By the time they were Blue Oyster Cult, they had very little use for me. I wasn't living with them anymore and they smelled big bucks. While I still had relationships with certain of them from time to time, it became an effort to sell them a lyric, where once upon a time they were begging for stuff. They did an album for Elektra that was never released, as Stalk-Forrest, that I had eight songs on. They were the best things I ever did for them, or for anybody. But I never had more than two songs on a single Cult album. On their biggest seller, Agents of Fortune, I had nothing. I think part of the reason I was banished from that one is I behaved rudely at the wedding of the guitarist (Buck Dharma). I felt up his mother when I was dancing with her.
Allen Lanier was probably my closest friend in the band. When he was living with Patti Smith, and basically I'm the person who introduced Patti to that band...I introduced her to Pearlman and he brought her to a practice or a recording session and she took up with Allen. Pearlman was very pissed because he thought he could have her. So when she was living with Allen in the West Village, I was living nearby and we went together all the time. In retrospect, it seems to me now what a lot of that was about was Patti and Allen respected me for putting up with their anti-Semitism. They were virulent anti-Semites. "Look at all the Jews on TV." The fabulous Patti Smith once called Allen Ginsberg "that Jew queer." Yeah, ha, ha... Then he dies and she writes this gushing tribute--"I loved that man."
But anyway, Allen and I for awhile were friends because he was the only guy in the band who read a book. Then time marches on, I'd run into him once in a while. I was living in L.A., and if the tour brought them out there I'd hang out with Allen. At some point when I was showing him these writings of mine that had nothing to do with music--they were very personal, autobiographical--his take would be like "This is all well and good, but it's not informed by the miracle of heroin addiction." Like that of his dear friend Jim Carroll. So that was kind of a terminal falling out. Little to little, I came to have nothing to do with that band.
PSF: Did your work with them have any bearing on your writing?
I would say it had no influence on my writing whatsoever. (laughs)
PSF: Unfairly or not, when people talk about your work and your style, Lester Bangs's name also comes about as another "bad-boy writer." How would you compare his style to yours?
It's funny. Lester was my friend and my buddy. Me, Lester and Nick Tosches were like three drunken louts. But I never read all that much of his writing. From what I did read, it seems to me today that one of the reasons he was popular, if you can say that, it was due to the fact that he reviewed records that his audience specifically cared about. He specialized in Black Sabbath, Iggy, Lou. He kept delivering, serving up his expected dose.
Nick's take on him after he was dead was, well, Nick claimed that he'd never read a single word by Lester. But his take on him as a living being was the way some people tap a pencil subconsciously for a minute before they realize what they're doing--that Lester's whole being was that sort of twitch 24 hours a day. He was just this automaton. He never found a nuance of control over it. Once in a while when it was in its hellion mode, look out.
With his bio out and everything, everyone asks me about Lester at some point...it's become tiring. He acknowledged to me that I was as big an influence on him as Kerouac. So blah-blah-blah. But if I have to be a footnote to Lester at this point, fuggit, it annoys me. First of all, my writing predates his by three or four years. Through the early '70's, I was at least a big a contender as he was. (laughs) And to be a footnote to Lester is like Kerouac having to be a footnote to Gregory Corso.
PSF: Why do people seem to embrace him and his work?
Well, to some extent, because they never read his sources. As I said, he liked the bands the readers liked. But he also wrote about Helen Reddy. That doesn't get put in the collections. When Lester was an editor at Creem, R. Serge Denisoff did a study on rock mags of the early '70's. Creem always fancied itself as being independent, but this guy found that there was a higher percentage of major label reviews in Creem than in Rolling Stone. Creem was very much supported by record companies. Lester for a long time, as editor there, was an asshole. He was one of the worst editors that I ever had or Tosches ever had--but that's okay, we were used to that from editors. What was really bothersome was he thought that all the mainstream crap that he loathed had to be covered. They had this stupid column, "Eleganza," that Lisa Robinson and John Mendelssohn would split, where they'd write about "Ooh, this band wears t-shirts--bad!" Though Lester ABHORRED that kind of hokum as ideology, he encouraged it for the mag because it was good for sales. Lester, the sub-management entrepreneur, was everything that he hated in others.
PSF: What do you think about music journalism today?
I never read it. I live in Portland and there's this paper called Willamette Week--it's the weekly throwaway here. The music section is large, it seems much too large--why they thought to over-cover the music is beyond me. Those rare times when I read a review, it almost always reads like hype. By which I mean, the syntax, the unit sentence, utterance is so much like hype, the writing of press releases. It's like these writers are making excuses--"What am I doing in this review?" It's binary! The most binary writing there ever was--this is good or this is bad or this is good but...
That's what ultimately made me sick of doing it. It had to be yes/no, and it had to play some role in encouraging consumerism. Readers started writing nasty letters--"I read his review and I don't know if he's telling me to buy it or not."
I think the whole biz about the food tube, the freebies and the whole thing--it's more addictive than crack.
PSF: Exactly. It's hard to get out of that loop.
My gut feeling is part of what killed Lester is that, well, I was kicked off every mailing list and he wasn't. The industry decided that he was their designated free man. "We don't tell Lester what to write"--ha ha. So he stayed on all these mailing lists and continued to have unlimited bar tabs at clubs. He was encouraged to continue being a hellion. To me, that's two-thirds of what killed him.
PSF: What do you see as peoples' perception of you and your work?
It's funny. I've had about 15 people interview me since the book came out and then I'll read what they wrote about me. Essentially, because most of the rock pieces I've written are from after I began to have severe misgivings about the industry, my actual coverage of what actually happened, my show-and-tell of the '60's and so forth, may be in the minority. But I did do some pretty good ringside coverage of this stuff. There are people who write about me now who deal with me as if I never really wrote about what was going on. From a certain point onward, I was still writing about what was going on, it just wasn't IN the music.
The bulk of the pieces in the book are from '72 onward. But before that, I had this very early Hendrix piece, I reviewed the second Cream album. My book The Aesthetics of Rock is a little unreadable because I certainly didn't know how to write when I wrote it. But it seems to me that NOBODY ever wrote anything that extensive, delving that deep into the beast. It's unfortunate that when I wrote it, it almost wasn't writing at all. I say in the intro to the reprint, "Consider it a box of greasy automobile parts"--the largest document of my writing from before I learned how to write.
PSF: That'd be a good warning label for the cover.
Yeah. Everything that's written happens in time, in history. So by the time I had the chops to "really write" about it, I preferred not to! (laughs) But I was quite an enthusiast once upon a time. Certainly as committed as Lester was his entire life. I gave up the ghost. I had no optimism for the music after '73. I don't feel that is so much an expression of my own scorn or my disillusionment or apathy as...there is a good deal of neutrality to it. The bottom had fallen out of the whole damn thing.
PSF: You had talked about how rock had fallen and risen so many times. Where is it today do you think?
When punk ended, which I'll call 1981, when I was living in L.A.--they had an incredible punk scene with the Germs, X, the Screamers, Nervous Gender, a great synthesizer-noise band. There were so many great bands there. Maybe 100, 200 people went to see all of them. By the usual rock club standards, there was "no audience." It couldn't be corrupted since there was no money to corrupt it. Then I.R.S. Records started throwing money down. The Go-Go's were once a gutter band, though it's hard to believe now. They were sluts wearing the equivalent of lamp shades on their heads. Then I.R.S. said "How would you like to become an ordinary girl group?" They did. They were once very raw--they sang songs about getting raped. They were as hardcore as any other band. So that was about '80, '81. The scene just fell apart.
I stopped paying attention. By the time of the Minutemen--probably the last band that I wrote a rave about, chronologically, in the book--that was about '83, '84. I really haven't paid attention since then. Something'll happen like Sonic Youth and somebody'll say "Hey, you gotta listen to this!" "OK, that's fine." Kurt Cobain was dead before I ever heard Nirvana, somebody made me a tape. I thought "Half of this is pretty good, and the other half is matinee idol music, pretty boy music." In Portland, where Kurt played, people that I trust tell me there were 20 bands as good as Nirvana but he was the pretty boy. Whatever...
I know people in bands and sometimes I go see them. But I don't hear anything that strikes me as new. Nothing HAS to be new. What I get from listening to the blues is a sense of this ongoing mammal ritual--something ETERNAL--like it's all Friday night fish fry music. When rock and roll was fish fry music, in terms of both the fish fry--the "venue," the "occasion"--and the music, it was a lot better off. I don't mean certain primitive chords or lost innocence or even a time when it was easier to get laid. It was just something so WITHOUT GUILE once upon a time. It wasn't art on a pedestal, it wasn't even especially neat or pure or even complete...it was very few takes, quick mixes, and put the record out, damn it! (laughs) Something aimed at an audience, you bet--but fuck demographics. I think things were a lot better then.
PSF: But doesn't that paint it into a box? The way you make it sound is that the only way rock can be good is if it's revivalist.
No, I don't mean that at all. I'm not talking about lost chords and covers of old stuff. What rock and roll has always been, as anything ongoing, as a business, is EVERYBODY does covers of songs from before their audience was born. Springsteen was never anything but "Let's all pretend the '60's ARE the '50's and let's do this U!S!A! and boogie-till-you-puke" that even for cynicism was superseded by so many things during its run. I don't mean it in any revivalist sense. It's simply that it's most viable when it has a certain uncontrived, ingenuous, or non-disingenuous, MAMMAL URGENCY, a grounding in realities more basic than "the score," or "shoot the moon," or another cheesy rite of passage--and I really hate the current vogue on "cool"--a certain REAL edge, or even a real bluntedness.
The best jazz is very mammal, and very autobiographical music. I say somewhere in the intro to the reprint of Aesthetics of Rock that rock and roll, when it works, can go from A to Z instantaneously. It is sometimes that magical. From about the mid-'80's on, it's been hard for most bands I've heard to do A. And jazz can always do A, B, C, D, E, maybe it gets to F or G. And G is good enough! I wouldn't mind seeing ROCK settle for...maybe I'm a sentimental fool, but there is a certain requisite blundering heart-on-a-sleeve aspect to IT that I'm missing now.
MTV also had a nasty terminal effect. It made bands think audio-visually. Everybody does videos. Sound has certainly become less important, less primary. I want rock to be primarily concerned with sound.
PSF: Do you see any reason for hope or optimism for rock?
No. Rock-writ-large, at this point, as an ongoing thing--as an institution--is something to forget. The only way for it to BE rock and roll anymore is practically to turn it off. Even in the hottest moments of the '60's, it was something you had to go out and find, you had to meet it halfway. There was no such thing as rock-surround yet. You could go for weeks without hearing it coming out of car radios or apartment windows. Rock and roll was NEVER used in a commercial. It was hardly ever on TV. You had to buy the records or hang out with people who did. Some people don't believe me but I swear that the '60's as I knew it, my friends and me, nobody watched TV 'cause rock wasn't on. Yes, the Doors were on Ed Sullivan and you knew it was coming, word would be out. Then it would go six months where there wasn't anything else. What you did back then was you listened to records, you'd go to shows, hang out with friends, and you lived life. If all else failed, you smoked some reefer and you turned on the TV without the sound to make fun of it.
So what did they do? Everything has its undoing in this country. Little by little, think-tanks were created, "How do we make sure that kids will watch television?" It took a while for MTV, which strangely enough was an offshoot of some package thing that Michael Nesmith of the fucking Monkees was doing. To realize that the Monkees had a hand in it! MTV is essentially the Monkeeization of rock and roll. Literally, they had a hand in it. To think that that has happened is frightening to me.
PSF: So you think it's time to put it to bed?
Yes, that would be nice, but it's certainly not going to happen. It's forever. It's crowd control. That and sports are crowd control. There are nights when I come home drunk and I hear sounds in my head, and I'll go put on some records from when I cared. But I don't think the world needs it to CONTINUE. And I don't know if the world can any longer be nurtured even by the original stuff. I have no idea. I just think that too many other factors are at play. It's a fucking minefield. I just don't know that it is any longer possible, or feasible... What do we have here--Alphaville? THX-1138? The "future vision" in THX is more benign than what we have today, with rock and roll as one of the controls. Yes, for sure, individuals CAN be nurtured by individual rock events and yes, accidents can still happen. I'll concede you Mike Watt, or Cat Power. But I don't think it's set up for accidents to happen too frequently.
PSF: What do you mean when you call it "crowd control"?
Obedience. David Bowie had a role in that. What the '50's and '60's were about was disobedience. With Bowie, what the fuck was "fashion"? Yes, there were always foppish rockers like Jimmy Page with silk pants and paisley jackets. But Bowie took it to where fashion is good for you and conformity is an acceptable strut. I really think he and his co-conspirators had a terminal malfeasant effect on everything.
I mean today's kids LOVE computers! They think the Internet is good. I'd rather drown in my own shit but I have to deal with it. Y'know, "professionally." Once upon a time, I didn't want to get a computer but every mag I worked for said I had to turn in text on a disk. I still didn't have a modem so I mailed the disk. Then they wanted it instantaneously so I had to go online. I just find it worse than the Eisenhower '50's--which rock and roll came about to destroy or at least circumvent.
PSF: You don't think there's any kind of egalitarian spirit to the Internet that helps bands?
I think it's all the same thing. The behavioral quirks are the same. The entrepreneurial strut of it all is still so desperate, still so profit-or-bust. Regis Philbin has this show giving away millions of dollars to bozos answering multiple-choice questions--that's as egalitarian as rock on the Internet. It's not! The rich have gotten richer, the poor have gotten poorer. The dance on the bottom, the underlings, I just see despair in what they're doing--they're further than ever from taking a piece of the pie.
PSF: So you don't go for Napster?
I don't clearly know what that's about. My sense is that I certainly don't want to lose the 10 cents a year that I get as royalty from Blue Oyster Cult. The hell with the record companies, it's just time to recast the contract between bands and the distribution network. I just don't know that the way to do it is to disenfranchise the saps like myself who rely on it. It's just dog eat dog among the underlings.
PSF: What are you working on now?
For at least the last fifteen years, my priority as a writer, my preference, is that I would like to simply do "books." What is a book? Publishers don't want a book. They want a rock book, a film book, a novel. I would just like to go for a few hundred pages, no fixed theme or subject, and call it done. But to be published, I have to write things like novels. So that's what I try to do. I had a novel out five years ago, The Night (Alone), a lot of which was recycled non-fiction pieces turned to fiction. I changed names and made situations more overtly fictional. I'm gonna have to sit and really think about what's next, and if makes sense that I could do something like that again and succeed in getting it published, then that's what I'll try and do again. I would like to write basically what you'd call "big stacks of old girlfriend stories." Smut. The memoirs of my penis. There isn't much market for that at the moment, although you never know--maybe they'll need somebody to be "the new Bukowski."
Rock and roll was once very much about the BODY. That's the part I'm still trying to access. If not for black music suddenly being played for white people in the '50's, everybody would have been the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. White people in this country were stiff as a piece of spaghetti.
PSF: Uncooked, right?
Yeah, uncooked. I just feel that the African-American gift to world culture is THIS. You could say that country music, cowboy music, played a role in it too. The music of redneck lunatics. I don't think there's much of a presence anymore of the body in mainstream music. I mean this much more than sexually, and I'm not talking the strut of obedience. My writing is very much body writing. Who knows how it reads, but I'm always physically exhausted from the act of writing!
Also see some recent work from Richard Meltzer:
As I Lay Dead
And see some of Richard's favorite music
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