Lester Bangs and Rock Music As The Eternal High School Girlfriend

Did you ever want to kill what weaned you? Well, don’t try too hard. The next generation will not live for no burnout myth and how will we all look clinging to and rationalizing this shit? Eight-year-olds are gonna demand that somebody say something pretty soon. This album will not endure, but neither will Blonde on Blonde. They will never surf again. So maybe we should appreciate the noise they make drowning, friends.  

 

Dear Mick

 

You always play ignorant. Why?

 

You’ve been projecting yourself on me all along.

 

You remind me of a certain apathetic antibody. But that’s all right.

 

There is a certain resignation about you. But you’re not stagnant.

 

You hate pretension in all forms, so you overcompensate.

 

You like things for the wrong reasons. Always.

 

If you ever got sick I would never be around you. I would never see you. Why take chances?

 

We haven’t known each other that long.

 

The best things are the ones that start slow, uncertainly, and build.

 

 I don’t love you. I just like being around you.

 

-Lester Bangs, “It’s Only the Rolling Stones,” in The Village Voice, October 31, 1974

 

 

More than reviewing albums or critiquing music, Lester Bangs had a very public and messy personal relationship with rock & roll. In this essay declaring the Stones lost and irrelevant, he breaks into a free-verse poem to Mick Jagger, which sounds more than anything else like a break-up poem to a high school girlfriend. It degenerates quickly from vague but recognizable criticisms into the kinds of things one would only expect to say to a lover with whom things had gone horribly sour:  “If you ever got sick I would never be around you. I would never see you. Why take chances?” Being with someone when they’re sick is among the most intimate possible human interactions; it is not one we usually consider having with the music or literature we care about. But Bangs imagines what he would do if Mick-were-sick as naturally as he would his own kin.

 

Bangs was as much a professional mourner as a rock critic. His essays are long, rollicking funerals, and he comes to the albums, and then the writing about the albums, with an expectation of–even a hope for–grand and explosive sadness. It’s the same way we come to relationships as teenagers: Getting to feel big, important feelings is more the goal than is actually making something work.

 

But Bangs’ sadness is effective because mourning is the essential action of rock music. It’s a genre defined less by particular chord progressions or musical requirements than  by sadness. Rock and roll is happy music about sad things. As Bangs says in an earlier essay, explaining why Exile on Main Street may be the Stones’ greatest album,

 

 

Exile is dense enough to be compulsive: hard to hear, at first, the precision and fury behind the murk ensure that you’ll come back, hearing more with each playing. What you hear sooner or later is two things: an intuition for nonstop getdown perhaps unmatched since the Rolling Stones Now! and a strange kind of humility and love emerging from a dazed frenzy. If, as they assert, they’re soul survivors, they certainly know what you can lose by surviving. As they and we see friends falling all around us, only the Stones have cut the callousness of ’72 to say with something beyond narcissistic sentiment what words remain for those slipping away.

 

 

 

Exile is about casualties, and partying in the face of them. The party is obvious. The casualties are inevitable.

 

 

 

– Lester Bangs, “I Only Get My Rocks Off When I’m Dreaming: So You Say You Missed the Stones Too? Cheer up, We’re a Majority!” Creem, January 1973

 

 

Even at its most morose, at its slowest, most dragging, rock music transforms sadness by putting rhythm and noise to it. It defies sadness by forcing it into an extroverted form. Rather than crying alone, it calls up all its friends and throws a party about sadness. When The Rolling Stones write a song about loss and numbness and ten thousand kids dance to it, the genre has briefly defeated the emotion by forcing it into the language of sex and celebration.

 

Bangs wanted to be a rock star, not a rock critic. He admits this freely in his writing—like the asshole at a party, he’s always referring to a band that no one’s ever  heard play and which never materializes. His writing is an admission of insufficiency, a love affair with the less attractive cousin of the girl he really wants. But it’s his own sadness at this insufficiency that brings his writing closer to the music. It’s why he has to have a high-school romance with bands like the Rolling Stones, and it’s why we’re still turning to him to explain, by means of a ridiculous, unexpected free verse break-up poem, why we still care that the Rolling Stones wrote some records and why it breaks our hearts when some of those records suck.

 

There’s something unavoidably and seductively adolescent about rock & roll in the same way there’s something unavoidably and seductively adolescent about sex and love. That’s why rock music is almost always about love and specifically love that doesn’t work out, and why it’s an essentially adolescent art form. Bangs therefore cleaves his writing to its subject matter by writing about rock & roll as though it were his lying, cheating, hated-and-loved on-again, off-again high school girlfriend. In this way, his criticism is not just about rock & roll, but is itself rock & roll in prose form.

 

 

I’ll never forget that day. My girlfriend and I took the bus all the way from our suburb into downtown San Diego, went right to the concert hall ticket windows, and suddenly I said: “Fuck it! Fuck them! Who needs ‘em?” And went staggering erratically in the general direction of Skid Row, dropping tears as big as cantaloupes.

 

 

 

Since we’d had our troubles, my girlfriend thought I was crying over her and me. When she found out I was crying over for the Stones, she was pleased as puke!

 

 

 

“You’re so immature!” she said. “Here I thought it was because you loved me, when it’s really because you’re mad at the goddamn Rolling Stones.

 

 

 

Damn straight I was! […] The day of the concert found all my blustering disdain drained to sheer distilled sorrow. A fan in mourning! Oh Stones, Stones, how could you do this to me?

 

-Lester Bangs, “I Only Get My Rocks Off When I’m Dreaming: So You Say You Missed the Stones Too? Cheer up, We’re a Majority!” Creem, January 1973