. . . Lester Bangs

. . .

Movie Comment:

All I have to say about Saving Private Ryan is:

Man, with that helmet on him, don't Tom Hanks look just like Tony Curtis?
If Eric Schlosser hadn't got there first, I'd also have to say that Spielberg remains 4-ever Spielberg: Indiana Jones with blood, Jaws with a tank, it's all one consistently characterless outpouring of finnicky sludge. As Lester Bangs said about Lou Reed (look-down-a-ways link via Metascene), he can't help it; it's like B.O.

... wait, just a sec, come back, uh, OK, one more thing, then that's all. If as a thought experiment (and you'll need one to stay awake through this mess) you try to separate Steven Spielberg's schmaltz and John Williams's schmaltz from what's purportedly happening on screen, you'll note that the screenplay begs to be played as black-to-the-bone satire, a kind of follow-on to Catch-22 or The Americanization of Emily: 25 minutes of first-act slaughter, then cut to some pompous general reciting Lincoln to justify a grotesquely inappropriate publicity stunt that eventually results in the third-act slaughter of pert near everyone except the guy publicly cursed by his survival....

OK, it might not have been a great movie -- none of the other war satires have managed, and Spielberg's right to be humor-shy after 1941 -- but at least it would be a movie that kind of made sense.

From that point of view, Saving Private Ryan expensively muddles the path blazed by Don Siegel's more genuinely harrowing Hell Is for Heroes, whose screenwriter began with a light-hearted romp ("He had, you know, a duck as one of the leading characters") and whose director ended with a zoom into unseeable death "so that there was nothing they could do about it. There wasn't anything else to cut to." (Don Siegel quotes via Peter Bogdanovich)

Bottom line: Great sound design. And the bullets look neat!

. . .

I forget how I found the Art Fein site, but anyone this mean to Ann Powers is OK by me! Fein is kind of like a rockabilly version of Paul Williams: short on analysis but high on life and America and, of course, their offspring, Elvis.

Which puts me in mind of that old Elvisphage, Lester Bangs, who just got a new biography aimed at him. Since Bangs's own writing already covered everything of any possible interest that ever happened to him (plus a whole lot more), publishing a second collection seems like a better idea than having some other guy come in and paraphrase, but I guess that's not the way publishers think. Definitely the way that publishers do think is to have a Trouser Press editor write about Bangs's life, which is like Abe Rosenthal writing about I. F. Stone, or -- I was gonna say a zoo keeper writing about the monkeys, but sometimes those zoo keepers are pretty insightful.

. . .

"a specialized shop, department of a store, etc., usu. catering to fashionable clients"

On Best Behavior Pamphleteer Juliet Clark writes:

Re the Guide to Feeling Hip Because You've Heard of John Updike:

I'd like to point out that Eggers misspelled "aficionado," and the copyeditor didn't catch it.

I think your copyediting/programming analogy is apt in a lot of ways. In fact the whole Salon Guide reminds me to a painful degree of startup culture: young people who won't be young much longer demanding to be taken seriously for not being serious; seeking the Big Time while clinging to a fantasy of countercultural identity; using strained irony, self-created urgency, and an excess of spin to mask a fundamental laziness.

All I can suggest is that you sell your author copy and use the money to buy a good book. Wouldn't that be, like, "ironic"?

And David Auerbach weighs in more fatalistically:
I do think that the Salon guide fills a void. We currently have no one to tell us which of the many, many idiomatically similar novels are the real thing and which are the product of overheated middle-class ramblings. The academics can't be bothered with it, since they're too busy keeping their own little flame alive. People like Lewis Lapham hate it all, and people like Michiko Kakutani are either indiscriminate (if you agree with them more often than not) or too harsh (vice versa), and they lack consensus-building skills. The remainder of the book-reviewing populace don't have enough credibility to be reliable. So I think contemporary mainstream book reviews, if there's a strong enough drive to hold people's interest, will go the way of movie reviews and devolve into capsule reviews, top ten lists, and "personality-based" reviewers. I don't think I can blame anyone for this process; it just happens when the collective standards of the producers and the consumers are low enough that the work being produced becomes undifferentiated.

Consequently, tho, Carol Emshwiller will certainly be ignored, and even someone like Disch, who has needed to work his material into ostensible potboilers for the last 20 years. There is a need for something of a unified conception, and Carol Emshwiller may as well be Les Blank for all they care. (Which might make Michael Brodsky Kenneth Anger.) There definitely is a "celebration of shared limited knowledge", but who were the Salon editors to deny those who looked towards them for guidance?

Oh, I don't really blame the Salon editors; I imagine it's pretty hard to resist the temptation to milk the cash cow when it's looking up at you with those big brown eyes. I just wish I hadn't seen the result. And I probably wouldn't have if the usual uncentrifugeable muddle of curiosity, vanity, and sense of responsibility hadn't talked me into becoming a contributor.... Being a critic, of course, although I blame myself, I attack them.

If Auerbach's right about the editors' ambitions, the match was doomed a priori, since I'm even less of a consensus-builder than Michiko Kakutani. (Case in point: For the last twenty years every single time I've tried to read the NYTBR I've ended up throwing it across the room, and so I didn't even recognize her name.) When it comes to art, I don't see that consensus is necessary, or even desirable. That's probably what attracts me to the subject: I wouldn't be so exclusively an aesthete if I were a more enthusiastic politician.

One clarification / pettifoggery as regards "personality-based" reviewing: It's true that I believe a critic can only speak as an individual, and that criticism is most useful when individual works receive close attention as individual works. That means that I consider generalities issued from a presumed position of consensus to be bad criticism. It doesn't mean that I consider class-clown-ism a guarantee of good criticism. In my tantrum I emphasized voice because voice was being emphasized by the book's publicity and reviews, but what really set me off was the 400-page-long lack of new insight into individual works: a generic free-weekly voice was just the means to that dead end.

In my own practice I use an overtly performative voice only because I have to. When I attempt a detached tone, I become too stumble-footedly self-conscious to move; when I do the jutht a darn-fool duck shtick, life seems better. That's a personality flaw, not a deliberate choice. Behind the Dionysian mask, I'm ogling those Apollonians plenty: I empathize with Jean-Luc Godard's film criticism but I'm in awe of Eric Rohmer's; Lester Bangs is a role model but I'd be so much more uncomplicatedly proud of something like Stephen Ratcliffe's Campion; my favorite Joycean is eyes-on-the-page Fritz Senn; my favorite historian is no-see-um Henry Adams; I loathe the bluster of Harold Bloom and Camille Paglia....

What matters is whether you communicate anything of what you see. If you don't have to keep twitching and waving and yelling "Hi, Mom!" while you do it, all the better.

. . .


"But things don't last forever
And somehow, baby,
They never really do.
They never really do."

Joey Ramone's is the first rock death since Lester Bangs to affect me personally, but the affect is happy-happy-happy. Not that I'm happy about Joey Ramone dying. It's just it makes me think about Joey Ramone, and thinking about Joey Ramone makes me happy. (And now maybe the solo album he's been talking about for twenty years will get released.) Anyway it would've been hard to maintain proper respect for mortality, since the two records I played after getting the news ended with "Why Is It Always This Way" ("Now she's lying in a bottle of formaldehyde") and "Every Time I Eat Vegetables It Makes Me Think of You."

The debut album was about sound and songwriting, the vocals merely a fantasy of strangled Liverpudlians. But when the boys left home, Joey's adenoids became true-blue all-American and I became a fan. ("Suzy Is a Headbanger" especially brings back those halcyon Kirksville days....) Later that year, I attended college and my first club show, where I was stationed directly in front of Joey. I remember feeling awed by the magnitude of his discomfort. The ensuing two days of tinnitus lent authority to "THE RAMONES ARE GOD" sign someone'd carried.

Unlike many of my compeers, I kept buying Ramones records after the Spector debacle, mostly 'cause Joey kept loping up the vocalese slopes (albeit sweaty and pale and looking like he was about to faint). At the pinnacle, he managed to cut the originals of both "Little Bit o' Soul" and "Time Has Come Today," which is more than Elvis or Smokey could say.

And through the years, as drummer after drummer was adopted by Ma Ramone and then disinherited, Joey's appeal proved bedrock. Shy, moody, with flowing locks, clammy girlish hands and generous hips, adorable and determined as a mangy abused mutant puppy, he was the ideal bubblegum heartthrob, an all-too-biological object of fascination that still managed to block any thought of physical contact.

A couple of weeks ago, "Space Ghost" re-ran a Ramones appearance. Johnny and CJ did the talking, but every time the camera showed Joey, obviously terrified and obviously delighted, like Daphne's geek brother escaping ravishment by turning into a blighted willow, my heart throbbed loud as ever.


Trivia: When Allan Arkush had Rock 'n' Roll High School's cast and crew spraypaint their choice of graffiti, Joey's contribution was "HELP ME!!!"

. . .

Hauled to the stars with enough rope to end three lifetimes, Presley trailblazed new methods of failure as he had new methods of success.

Although show biz had cast up amateur singers before, they had first achieved celebrity by other means. (Still plenty of Louis Prima over there, by the way.) Presley's Dean Martin fixation may seem unaccountable at first, but aside from the shared baritone and the movie acting, I think Dino supplied a model for anti-professional showmanship: a pretense of casual contempt for the artificiality of the situation, conveyed via goofed-on or forgotten lyrics and idiot patter.

In Elvis's adaptation, minus, of course, any genuine sense of security. Such insolent nonchalance was something a show-biz pro earned through a lifetime of hard work and hard heckling; it wasn't something to ape directly. Elvis Presley, like that later king Rupert Pupkin, applied himself to the aping as if it was the point of the work.

And, like Pupkin, he proved that the audience couldn't tell the difference. No wonder the Rat Pack despised him: his version of "cool," like his version of "Hound Dog," was "frenetic," "nervous," "lame," and very successful.

Quite a few rockers since have taken that stance toward public appearance, albeit with different influences (ranging from the Goons to Burl Ives) or with more open hostility (Johnny Thunders, now there was a showman!). Elvis was a studio creation, though, and it's on the studio that his influence really clung.

Lieber and Stoller again:

"The thing that really surprised us was we were used to working in the studio where we had to get four sides in three hours, and here were these guys who came in and, on studio time, they would take a break, they would have peanut butter sandwiches and orange pop and joke around -- we would sing other people's songs, do a gospel number just to loosen up, there was no clock. Frequently we'd have what we thought was a take, and he would say, 'No, let me do it again,' and he would just keep doing it. As long as he felt like doing it.... In many ways he was a perfectionist, and he could be very insecure, but in other ways he was very relaxed in the studio -- a strange combination."
It may have seemed strange in 1957, but it would get awfully familiar. The rats had taken over the lab.

Though he didn't live long enough for a full-out Dr. Jeckyll, Buddy Holly was tinkering with home recording even before the decade ended. Eminent later examples include the "what do you wanna do?" "I don't know; what do you wanna do?" songwriting of the Beatles post-1965*, Bruce Springsteen (who explicitly cited Elvis to justify his own extravagant quest for the absolutely perfect accident), and the post-punk Clash. Even basic training at a hit factory as strictly run as Motown couldn't guarantee immunity: witness the horrific ends visited on the very different spontaneities of self-expressing Marvin Gaye and dancing machine Michael Jackson. All forgetting that their favorite records were bashed out quick, first-to-fourth take, everyone in a room together....

Presley's attempts at re-enacting the fortunate chance began at Sun; he even dramatized the process in his first self-parody. There were more to come.

First the "real," drawn from the unprofessional. Then the professional simulation of the real. On the Memphis album, he managed the most remarkable artifact of his career: a self-portrait (in covers) of a hollow mask; the emperor stripping down to his clothes. After Memphis, the real had its revenge. Simulation became parody; parody became upstaged by the reality of its imperfections; reality constricted to frustration, embarrassment, and fear.

In his final signature numbers, there was no more reaching for ease or grace or goof. Instead, he bellowed against the closing of the light like a barfly Mario Lanza. A last ditch effort to prove he did have talent, this adulation could be justified....

What a mess.

* No coincidence that Elvis Presley's best LP and John Lennon's best LP are both spiritual autobiographies of (in Lester Bangs's phrase) "gauche and wretched majesty." No coincidence, for that matter, that rockers Bangs and Meltzer found it impossible to stretch the semi-documentary form of the blurt to book length. Or, probably, that I find it so difficult to wrangle any prose-shape longer than might fit comfortably into a conversation.

. . .

He could play guitar like ringing a bell

Even during live stretches, Television's guitars seemed more sing-the-damn-song than look-ma-I'm-expressing-myself. But I wonder if Tom Verlaine moved away from extended solos partly to avoid the misunderstanding.

... just a bunch of cats who didn't know how to improvise playing scales basically ...
Lester Bangs

Odd for a Troggs fan, but Bangs made the same mistake here as Shaw made on Shakes. Although their structures may seem arbitrary or trite, those plots are just to grab the groundlings. The poetry's in the timbre of the lines.


It only took me four clicks from the Bangs quote to find out Bob Quine was dead. What a brave new world we live in when bad news bleeds over via free association. Renfrew.

. . .

Summa contra juxta Gentiles

  1. Feminism's face-shove into repressed works and lives seemed pure good to me, as did similar redirections by other scholars in and out of the academy. No one had burnt Milton or Dickens or Hemingway; Dead White Heterosexual Guys were as eagerly available as ever. Only on the preset battlefields into which conscriptees were force-marched, canon to right of them, canon to left of them, were losses incurred.
  2. Barthes's groundskeeping didn't (and can't) erase the irrepressible notion of motivated utterance, or bar citation of a writer's, publisher's, director's, or performer's conflicting reports of intent. It simply made room.
  3. I kept "my" poststructuralists for their apparently inimitable expressions of previously unexpressed experiences. I never felt an impulse to layer their crazy clown costumes over my own or interpose them like Tom Snout's Wall in front of other peculiar personal expressions.
  4. In 1993, I began catching up with contemporary (post-behaviorism, post-expert-system, post-my-youth) cognitive sciences, and have followed them since, always with an eye to aesthetics.

    Long before 1993, I'd thought of art(-in-the-most-generalized-sense-possible)-making as a human universal, and since I don't believe homo sapiens was formed de limo terræ on the sixth day by that ginormous Stephen Dedalus in the sky, I must perforce believe the inclination to have evolved(-in-the-most-generalized-sense-possible).

    But scientists' applications of neuroscience, neural nets, and comparative zoology to art were sheer inanity, and with a few very welcome exceptions the "neuro-aesthetics" and "evolutionary turns" which migrated to humanities journals and popularized books catered no better fare. As Paul Bloom put it in a recent issue of Critical Inquiry:

    Surely the contemporary human's love of literature has to have some evolutionary history, just as it has a cultural history, just as it has an instantiation in the brain, just as it emerges in the course of child development, and so on. Consider, as a concrete example, the proposal by the English professor Lisa Zunshine. She argues that humans have evolved a taste for stories because they exercise the capacity for social reasoning or theory of mind. Suppose, contrary to my own by-product view, Zunshine is correct. Why should this matter to your average Jane Austen scholar (to use a common synecdoche for English professors everywhere)? It would seem to be relevant in exactly the same way as finding that stories are processed in a certain part of the frontal lobe that is, not at all.

    While literary critics can safely ignore those interested in theories of the origin and nature of stories, the converse isn't true.

  5. Like generations of analytic sensualists, I've mapped, diagrammed, and sought patterns in bare lists without forsaking delight in prior arrangements.
  6. And, like generations of readers before me, I've felt no compunction about deploying historical anecdotes against an artifactual field. Looking into Sir Thomas Bertram's slave trade connections hardly violates the spirit of the novel ("I was in hopes the question would be followed up by others"), and hardly necessitates casting protagonist or author as villainous collaborators or heroic liberators. What it must do, I think, is deepen our ambivalence toward Fanny's fallout-shelter reward. And if ambivalence doesn't sound appealing, you're denied access to far more than Mansfield Park.

To a published-or-perished team-player, my little biographia literaria may sound naïvely promiscuous: tacking to each newly prevailing wind without a glance at the charts, discarding yesterday's party allegiance in the face of today's confident campaign ad.

I swear, however, this ever unrulier tangle springs from one integrated ground, albeit of well-manured soil rather than bedrock: a faith born at pubescence in the realization that mumbling through Shakespeare's King John was a different thing, a different incarnate thing, than speed-reading Isaac Asimov or Ellery Queen; a faith which developed through adolescence and reached near-final form by age twenty.

This chapel's sacrament is aesthesis, sense-perception, rather than "high art":

For it is false to suppose that a child's sense of beauty is dependent on any choiceness or special fineness, in the objects which present themselves to it, though this indeed comes to be the rule with most of us in later life; earlier, in some degree, we see inwardly; and the child finds for itself, and with unstinted delight, a difference for the sense, in those whites and reds through the smoke on very homely buildings, and in the gold of the dandelions at the road-side, just beyond the houses, where not a handful of earth is virgin and untouched, in the lack of better ministries to its desire of beauty.

But honest attention to sensibility finds social context as well as sensation. Words have heft; the color we see is a color we think. And art(-in-the-most-general-sense-possible) wins special interest as a sensible experience which is more or less bounded, shared, repeatable, and pre-swaddled in discourse.

Pluralism is mandated by that special interest. Any number of functions might be mapped into one chunk of multidimensional space. Integer arithmetic and calculus don't wage tribal war; nor do salt and sweet. We may not be able to describe them simultaneously; one may feel more germane to our circumstances than another; on each return to the artifact, the experience differs. But insofar as we label the experiential series by the artifact, all apply; as Tuesday Weld proved, "Everything applies!" And as Anna Schmidt argued, "A person doesn't change because you find out more." We've merely added flesh to our perception, and there is no rule of excluded middle in flesh.

Like other churches, this one doesn't guarantee good fellowship, and much of the last decade's "aesthetic turn" struck me as dumbed-down reactionism. But The New Aestheticism was on the whole a pleasant surprise. Its reputation (like the reputation of most academic books, I suppose) is based on a few pull-quotes from the editors' introduction; the collection which follows is more eclectic. Howard Caygill sets a nice Nietzschean oscillation going in Alexandria, Gary Banham's "Kant and the ends of criticism" nostalgically resembles what I smash-&-grabbed from the display case back in college, and Jonathan Dollimore snaps at ethical presumptions with commendable bloodlust.

The contributors keep their disagreements well within the disciplinary family, however. They cite Adorno, Kant, and Heidegger very frequently, Wilde once, and Pater never, and disport themselves accordingly. After all, Adorno was a contentious fussbudget and therefore makes a respectable academic role model, whereas Pater was an ineffectual sissy.

Till at a corner of the way
We met with maid Bellona,
Who joined us so imperiously
That we durst not disown her.
My three companions coughed and blushed,
And as the time waxed later,
One murmured, pulling out his watch,
That he must go—'twas Pater.
- "The Traveller" by Arthur Graeme West

Some (Adorno for starters) might feel at home in a community of li'l Adornos; whereas a majority of such as Pater, "the very opposite of that which regards life as a game of skill and values things and persons as marks or counters of something to be gained, or achieved, beyond them," would admittedly be the heat death of the world. But there's more to existence than procreation, and aesthetic philosophers, of all people, should be able to appreciate the value of one-offs and nonreproducible results. We can no more say that Derrida "proved" Searle wrong than that Bangs "proved" the Godz brilliant musicians or Flaubert "proved" us all doomed to follow Frédéric Moreau. That doesn't mean Derrida was therefore best when dishing unset Jello like Glas and Lester Bangs was therefore best when writing fiction and Flaubert was therefore best avoiding emotionally hot topics. Every flounder to its own hook.

Back in the land o'Adorno, if false dilemmas and Mitty-esque battles against empire or barbarism were what's needed to drag some of these white bellies to the surface, well, I suppose that's no more ridiculous a procedure than our own, of constructing imaginary villages with real explainers in them. I wouldn't presume to say it's all good, but it is all that is the case.


giddy upon the Hobby-Horse

Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Aw, come on, horsey! Please, horsey? Please, whoa. Purty please? Doggone it now, horsey! Won't you please whoa?

Has Dollimore gotten less irritating since his days of applying Godwin's law to literature? ("Here essence and teleology are explicitly affirmed while history becomes the surrogate absolute. If we are used to finding this kind of utterance in our own cultural history it comes as something of a shock to realise that these were the words of Alfred Bäumler, a leading Nazi philosopher writing on race." etc etc)

He kicks off with Hesse, so probably not.

Dollimore kicked off Radical Tragedy with Hesse as well! So this is a rerun, I gather.

A preview of the third edition intro, looks like.

. . .

Open reply to a closed comment

I can be mediocre at greater length, if that'll put you at ease:

My tastes and preferred critical vocabulary overlap D'Agata's more than Deresewicz's, but taste is cheap (just look at my wardrobe) and vocabulary can be misused (just ask my editors). The, let's say, idiosyncratic D'Agata usage which bugs Deresewicz most is essay; the one which bugs me is lyric.

By the late 1970s I'd developed my own sturdy notion of "discursive lyric" from Lester Bangs and Thomas Nashe and to the amusement of my college professors. That notion describes a mode rather than defining a genre: a preoccupation with sound and structure reveals itself more or less blatantly in a subset of essays, but the impulse isn't associated with particular materials, markets, or audiences.

However that formal impulse manifests, facts are no more its enemy than words are. Like words, they inspire; they supply convenient handholds; they're a garden full of carrots and a briar patch full of paths. Fudging the facts amounts to faking the funk. When Bangs and Nashe make shit up, they make sure you know it. The sound of someone making shit up is a powerful structural device in itself, and they deploy it as such.

To quote a translation of Rancière paraphrasing Hegel which, ten hours after writing the above paragraph, I read at a bar between a library and a movie, "Art lives so long as it expresses a thought unclear to itself in a matter that resists it." Later in Dissensus, Rancière compares the stone-by-stone sentence building of Flaubert to the speaking stones of early archaeologists and geologists, and cites attacks on Flaubert's art-for-art's-sake art as degradation by the ignoble real.

Around and after Flaubert, we could easily multiply examples of artists, musicians, and writers who've borrowed the antiseptically desocialized terms of science or engineering to justify their practice. Words and colors and textures become fact-objects in themselves, and the job set the artist-scientist is to pattern those givens rather than to elevate the spirits of the powerful or keep the proles in their place.

The essays of Montaigne established an early limiting case for aestheticism/scientism by wrenching discourse itself the medium of the sermon and the political speech from its seemingly innate goal of persuasion.

To claim that lyric discursive prose forces you to ignore the enticingly resistant real in favor of off-the-Walmart-shelf whatevers is like claiming that lyric verse restricts you to vaguely maudlin epiphanies. Your craft has drifted out of the never-terribly-reliable lyric impulse and into discourse's powerful home current in this case, aiming to persuade us that an overstretched careerist is actually an irresistible su-per-ge-nius who has it... all... under... control...


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.