A Final Chat With Lester Bangs (Part 2 of 4)
U.K. book cover- photo by Kate Simon, who took it the day in late 1975
when Lester and Patti Smith met William S. Burroughs at his apartment, a.k.a. the Bunker.
by Jim DeRogatis
Were you influenced by other writers?
Sure. I was always real influenced by William Burroughs and the Beats in general. The only rock critic I'd say I was influenced by was (Richard) Meltzer. And I was influenced by him. In fact, he accused me once of ripping off my whole style from him, which I don't think was true.
Do you think you've influenced other writers?
Yeah, obviously. Sure.
What kind of reactions do you get to your work? Do you get negative reactions from people who say you panned their favorite band? Does a band ever come up to you and say, "Thanks for giving us a good word?"
I've been thanked for giving bands a bad word. I told the Gang of Four, I went to their dressing room when they were down in Los Angeles on their first tour, I said, "Hi. I know you guys have been getting your asses kissed ever since you got to this country because you're English. I figured you'd appreciate one person coming up and telling you what a bucket of shit you are." And they said, "Yeah, we have been getting our asses kissed. Thanks, we needed that. We do appreciate that." I don't know. What was the question?
Yeah, well, it's like with the Blondie book, every time Chris and Debbie did an interview for the next year and a half, it was, "Blah, Lester's book is a piece of shit." I was at the point of writing them a letter and thanking them for selling so many copies. They were so stupid they didn't even know that was what they were doing. They thought they were making their fans not buy it.
Why did you set out to do the Blondie book? A lot of other critics said, "Oh, Lester's doing a quickie fan book."
What's wrong with doing a fan book?
Well, that's not what it is. If you just look through the pictures, you say, "Oh, Debbie Harry," but when you read it, it's definitely not ass-kissing.
Well, like I told the people at Delilah, I think the fan book thing has been misunderstood. When you write a fan book, you don't have to kiss ass. They say, "Oh, we want a book for the fans," and they think all the kids can take is that stupid bland shit. But I know that's not true from many years of experience. Basically these book companies are like the record companies. They'd rather have that than something that has some vitality to the writing. You just fight to get that in.
Was it the same with the Rod Stewart book?
Well by then I'd done the Blondie book so there was more acceptance to what I was doing.
Anything else like that in the works?
No. I want to do some different things. I've got this book with Michael Ochs coming up; I'll show you some of it. When I get it finished, which is gonna be in like a week, I'm gonna go down to Mexico and write this novel. I've got to get away totally to write this novel.
Is it about rock?
No. It's about life in New York City.
How do you think your work has influenced sales? Do you think somebody is going to read a bad review by you and then not go buy the album?
Well, you know, I mean radio influences sales. Will somebody read a bad review by me of a Rolling Stones album and not buy it? Of course not. But it influences sales in the respect of-I don't know how much, because these albums have never sold that much-but you know, if I recommended like go buy this, somebody that wasn't known, maybe it would influence sales that way. But let's face it, if you can hear a song on the radio that is going to influence you to buy that record much more than anything you read. Especially since most people don't read now anyway.
Just for posterity, can I have your definition of good rock 'n' roll?
Good rock 'n' roll... [long pause] I don't know. I guess it's just something that makes you feel alive. It's just like, it's something that's human, and I think that most music today isn't. And it's like anything that I would want to listen to is made my human beings instead of computers and machines. To me, good rock 'n' roll also encompasses other things, like Hank Williams and Charlie Mingus and a lot of things that aren't strictly defined as rock ‘n' roll. Rock 'n' roll is like an attitude, it's not a musical form of a strict sort. It's a way of doing things, of approaching things. Like anything can be rock 'n' roll.
It's just like that piece in the liner notes to Velvet Underground Live 1969, some of the greatest rock stars were Beethoven, Albert Einstein.
I don't know about Beethoven or Einstein, but I mean, you just know if when you see it. I mean, writing can be rock 'n' roll or a movie can be rock 'n' roll. It doesn't necessarily have to have anything to do with music. It's just a way of living your life, a way of going about things.
When you're listening to an album, what do you listen to more: the lyrics, the music, the hooks? I know you hate the hooks [re a then-recent column in Music Sound Output.]
Well, when I wrote that about hooks, it's not that I hate hooks. For instance, I like Ghost in the Machine by the Police, that's a hooky album. The reason I wrote that is because everybody, both the people who are writing about it and the musicians in these bands, they were in a very clinical way saying, "We've got to have hooks in this." And what they mean by that is something that's recycled from the '60's and purloined in a certain way that everybody knows any way and recycled. And I don't think that when the Beatles did it or whoever that they sat down and did it like that. And that's why I wrote that. But also I do like things that drone. [laughs] What was the question?
What do you listen for in an album? What draws you in?
Just soul and vitality. I don't isolate things. If the lyrics are great, fine. But I don't really, much later I might listen to them, or I might listen to see what the bass player is doing, but...
What's currently on your turntable? What do you enjoy now?
Let's see... [goes to check] The last record I listened to was Bud Powell. Under that is Charlie Parker. The Police is under that. Hank Ballard. I don't know. I've been listening to a lot of early Sun stuff, Hank Williams. I got drunk the other day and I regressed to 1971 and played nothing but Grand Funk and Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. It was sick.
Must have been a real hangover.
It was weird. You find yourself going into your past. I tried to get into that hardcore shit, and it's shit. I don't know, Van Morrison I listen to a lot.
Your reply to Christgau's Pazz & Jop poll ["Almost all current music is worthless"]...
I was wondering when you were going to get around to that.
Yeah, well... Do you think that's too pessimistic?
Well, what I think is that if you don't monitor the... say, 99 percent of what's being released is shit, but if you don't monitor it, you might miss an album like the Velvet Underground's first album.
Well, see, I monitor it. I listen to everything from Quarterflash to the Circle Jerks, O.K.? I monitor it. But you've got to be honest about what you find there. The way I look at it, the only reason I have any credibility in the first place is because I'm willing to say things like that. And if anything does happen again, I'll have more credibility for the fact that I did say it. It's interesting, since that came out, rock critics and people have been like, "Uh-uh." But anybody who's a musician or in the public totally agrees with me.
What do you think the importance of New Wave was for rock 'n' roll? Do you think it's still going on?
I went to see that movie the other night, The Last Waltz, and you sit through something like that in 1982 and you really see why New Wave was necessary. There they are, so smugly thanking that they're brilliant musicians or even jazz musicians just because a guy can play a solo for 10 minutes that's just scales. It's real pompous. The only trouble with New Wave is that nobody followed up on it. Everybody thought that the initial gesture was all they had to make. Richard Hell made that one album and got too lazy to make another one, or the Sex Pistols breaking up. Although it's good they broke up. But very few of them followed through. But it was really an exciting burst there for like a year, year and a half.
What do you think the next step is now?
I don't know. The next step for me is that I've got to do something that has nothing to do with music, which is to write this novel.
What do you think about an idea like Robert Fripp's that all the old bands, the dinosaurs, should get out of the way to make room for younger bands?
He said that? Shit! He just reformed King Crimson! And I know he has his ambient ideas or whatever you call it, but he wants the money, too.
But do you think a 45-year-old Mick Jagger is realistic?
Well, I mean, again, it's a question of who. Van Morrison is going to keep making records when he's 50, and he's great. And this new Lou Reed album [The Blue Mask] is really good and he's 40. A lot of the people who have done the greatest things in rock 'n' roll have been out of the teens or twenties. I've never thought that being a teenager is-no offense-is the absolute coolest thing you can be. I was pretty unhappy when I was a teenager, and I wouldn't want to go back to it. And these people who say, "Teenage rock 'n' roll," as if that's all that it's about, celebrating your adolescence. There are other things to rock 'n' roll and to life. And I think really rock 'n' roll is better when it reaches out to those things. One reason I like the Velvet Underground so much is that it's really adult music.
What are you up to with your band?
I realized after a while that... like when I was in that Birdland thing, we were playing every night and I wasn't getting any writing done. I was having these long nightmares every night that I was bogged down in the middle of this endless book that I was never going to finish writing. And so what happened was that I realized that I shouldn't have a regular band. The best way for me to do it is to write a book, then take the money and go and find some people. Like this thing in Austin, what I did was I found a band that I really got along with, and we had some ideas in common, and I had these songs and we put 'em together and we recorded it. Then you leave town and it's just better for me, because I can fool around and do a lot of other different things. This thing of like having a band and you play together and play together and play together and then you go into record and you hate the songs and by the time you play them all over again you really hate them... I just don't want to do that. I think a lot of people are realizing that you don't have to do that to make good records. Or to be good live if you want to play once in a while. That's just an old sort of conventional wisdom.
As a critic, do you think you can be objective about your own music?
Hmm, yes and no. I always say that I can't, that nobody can be objective about anything they create themselves. Like artists are always the worst judges of their own stuff. But, on the other hand, I tend to be kind of hard on myself and dismiss things that I do if they're not very good. When other people... maybe that's just another way of being non-objective.
What about the idea that critics are just all frustrated musicians?
Everybody's a frustrated musician. Look at whenever a band's playing or a record's playing, these people playing invisible guitars. That's frustrated musicianship. And all critics aren't frustrated musicians. I certainly don't think Christgau is. And I mean, I'm not frustrated because I've done it. [laughs]
Well would you rather be writing or playing?
I'd rather do both. I don't see any reason why you can't. It's like, look, the whole thing as far as making an album or whatever was I had a dream, and I dreamed about it for a long time and I did it. And I'm gonna do it again. And it carries you through a lot of things if you have something like that. It doesn't matter what it is. It doesn't have to be a record. As long as you fulfill it. It means a lot. After you've done it, it gets you through a lot of times when you're feeling like, "What am I doing this for?"
A lot of times in print, I've seen you called a nihilist, an iconoclast, an anarchist. Are you all these terrible things they lump on you?
No, if anything I'm too moralistic and pompous. I'm always preaching. I should knock that shit off. Don't you think so?
That you're too pompous?
Not in an obnoxious way. I thought the hook article with interviewing the bluesman, it was preaching, but in a really good way.
Hmm, well, I tend to beat people over the heads with things a lot of times. That's just something I'm trying to work on, to get better.
What do you think the current state of rock literature is today?
Dismal. Criticism, you mean?
Creem, the stuff in the Voice.
Dismal. There's only a few writers who are any good and I'm not saying who they are. What it is is people who, they were going to journalism school or something, and they realized that being a rock critic was an easy way to get a foothold in a journalistic career. So they're opportunists and that's kind of why they're writing. They don't have the passion for the music that somebody who gets into because they really love music has. I've seen their record collections-a few Bonnie Raitt albums and that's it. And then the next thing they go out and buy the Public Image, Ltd. because that's the thing they're supposed to do. I hate that kind of shit. That's what I hate anywhere, people who are just being trendies or opportunistic.
See Part 3 (of 4) of the Bangs interview
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