I Saw God and/or Tangerine Dream

I decided it would be a real fun idea to get fucked up on drugs and go see Tangerine Dream with Laserium. So I drank two bottles of cough syrup and subwayed up to Avery Fisher Hall for a night I’ll never forget. For one thing, emerging from the subways into this slick aesthete’s Elysium is like crawling out of a ditch into Jackie Onassis’s iris — a mind-expanding experience in itself. A woman there told me that the management had quite soured on rock clientele, and it was easy to see why: here’s this cornersteel of cultural corporations, and what staggers into it but the lumpy, zit-pocked lumpen of Madison Square Garden. And when worlds collide, someone has to take the slide.

What kind of person goes to a Tangerine Dream concert? Here’s a group with three or maybe even four synthesizers, no vocals, no rhythm section; they sound like silt seeping on the ocean floor — and this place is sold out. Freebies are rife, yet I don’t think that kid in front of me wiped out in his seat for nothing. So I ask some of the Tangs’ fans what they find in their music, and get a lot of cosmic, Todd-Rundgren mulch-mouth. I tell one guy I think they’re just a bunch of shit, a poor man’s Fripp and Eno, and he looks me over and says: ”Well, you gotta have imagination …”

Everyone is stoned. Some converse re the comparative merits of various items in the Tangs’ oeuvre — one guy declares the double album Zeit a masterpiece, another is an Alpha Centauri man. Three times as many males as females at least. A thirtyish guy sitting next to me in ratty beard and ratty sweater reminisces about 1968 forerunner Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, and tells me about the time the Tangs played the Reims cathedral in France. (”6000 people cram the ancient building with a 2000 capacity,” boast the program notes.) ”They didn’t have any bathrooms in the cathedral,” he laughs, ”so the kids pissed all over it. After it was over the high fathers, monsignors or whatever, said it was the devil and asked for an exorcism of the church.”

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Alison Steele comes out, a fashion-modelish silhouette in the dimmed green light, and says that the management does not allow smoking in the theatre. As soon as she says her name, people around me scream out, “Eat shit!” and, curiously, “You’re a prune!” The microphone she spoke through will stand there unused for the rest of the evening, a thin, black line cutting into the psychemodal otherness of Laserium from where I sit.

The music begins. Three technological monoliths emitting urps and hissings and pings and swooshing in the dark, little rows of lights flickering futuristically as the three men at the keyboards, who never say a word, send out sonar blips through the congealing air. Yeah, let’s swim all the way out, through the jello into the limestone. I close my eyes and settle back into the ooze of my seat, feeling the power of the cough syrup building inside me as the marijuana fumes sift through the cracks in the air, trying to conjure up some inner-eyelid secret movie. Oh lawd, I got the blues so bad I feel just like a cask of Amontillado. Yes, there it is, the swirls under the surface of my life are reconfiguring into: Daniel Patrick Moyn­ihan, caricatured by Ronald Searle. He dissolves like a spectre on a window shade, and is replaced by neon tubing writhing slowly into lines and forms until I think it is going to spell out a word, but no, it doesn’t quite make it. Goddamn it, I guess I’ll have to try harder. On the other hand, maybe no news is good news.

I open my eyes again. Now the Laserium, which I had forgotten all about in my druggy meanderings, has begun to arise from the deep and do its shtick on the screen above the synthesizers. First, a bunch of varicolored clots slowly sludging around each other; they could be anything from badly seeded clouds to cotton-candy cobwebs to de­composing bodies. Then two pristine laser circles appear afront the muck, one red and one blue, expanding and contracting and puckering at each other. They get larger and larger until they are gyrating and rubberbanding all over the place with a curiously restful freneticism. The synthesizers whisper to them as they bounce. The music goes on for a long time, varying in tempo and volume­ — Tangerine Dream is Salmane, not even Valium, on record but when they’ve got you enclosed in their cool room they can be almost bombastic at times. The music seems to ebb off rather than end.

Intermission. Many audience members seem uncertain whether it actually is intermission or if they should just pick up their stethoscopes and walk.

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Back for more of the same, but more aggressive this time, if that’s a way to describe quicksand. The Laserium begins to flash more violently, exploding in dots and points and lines that needle your retinae as the synthesizers suck you off and down and the towering mirrors at the sides of the stage turn slowly, reflecting beams of white light that are palpably irritating but by and gone and by again in a flash. I close my eyes to check into home control, to see if any little twisted-wax visions might be coagulating. Noth­ing. Blank gray. I open them and offer myself up totally to the Laserium. Flash, flash, flash — the intensity grows until I am totally flattened; I feel like an eight-track cartridge that has just been jammed home. After that, I become slightly bored and restless, although the other bodies around me are rapt. I have seen God, and the advantage of having seen God is that you can always look away. God don’t care.

So, finally, picking up my coat and lugging my clanking cough-syrup bottles, I push my way through the slack and sprawling bodies — out, out, out into the aisle. As I am walking up it, I am struck by an odd figure doddering ahead of me, doubled over under raggedy cloth and drained hair. I don’t trust my Dextromethorphaned eyes, so I move closer until I can see her, unmistakably, almost crawling out the door … a shopping bog lady!

What’s she doing at a Tangerine Dream concert? Did someone at CBS give her a ticket, or did she find one castoff by a jaded rock critic in some 14th Street garbage can? Never mind — there will be a place for her in the wiring of this brave, new world. I myself had earlier considered giving one of my extra tickets to a wino so he could get a little sleep in a comfortable chair. Look. there’s got to be some place to send these whipped dogs so we don’t have to look at them, and where better than Avery Fisher Hall? Let them paw through the refuse of a better world, listening to the bleeps and blips and hisses and amusing their faded yes with the test patterns and static that our great communications combines have no better use for anyway. Just before I left, I turned around for one last taste of the Tangs and Laserium, and by gum, I had my first real hallucination since drinking the Romilar that afternoon: I saw a whole audience of shopping-bag la­dies.

1977 Lester Bangs article in the Village Voice_I saw god and or tangerine dream


With Malice Toward Everything Below 14th Street

As far as I’m concerned, 14th Street represents the limit of the civilized world. Now don’t get me wrong: it’s not above but below this thoroughfare that the hin­terlands begin, among the charming streets that fit within no grid, where it always seems colder than any other part of town. Yes, it’s about time that someone said out loud what New Yorkers who live north of Luchow’s tell each other privately: I wouldn’t mind hearing that I never had to go below 14th Street again.

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Let’s not even speak of Soho, a pre­posterous address, which for some years has been fit only for those who maniacally insist on behaving as though they were characters in a Paul Mazursky movie, to say nothing of Tribeca, Nobeca, et al, all those doleful havens for stockbrokers with the most desperate symptoms of mis­placed nostalgie de la boue, and other lost souls. Luckily, these dismal locations whose inhabitants live not in apartments but in “spaces” can be avoided altogether. It took me a while to realize this. Of course I never went down there of my own free will, but I used to reluctantly accept occa­sional invitations to those parts. After half a dozen miserable expeditions I decided once and for all that nothing would ever make me return to Spring Street. After all, one might as well go to, say, Cincinnati: it’s easier to get there, the food is better and cheaper, and the art shows infinitely superior.

Of course, one has to learn to say no. If you live uptown and are troubled as I once was by discommoding requests to throw away a day of your life (it always takes up an entire day, what with traveling time and brooding before and after), here is the strategy to follow: If you discover that a new acquaintance actually lives in that region, or if a previously trusted old friend betrays all standards of deportment by moving there, do not hide your dismay. Simply announce, sadly but firmly, that you will not ever, ever visit, although you are perfectly willing to continue the rela­tionship as long as the Nobeca resident agrees to travel uptown. Be generous: offer to meet at a midtown restaurant, by way of compromise. If your acquaintance timidly insists, or shamelessly begs, that you make just one exception, all you need to do is to joke about it. Any joke will do, even a recycled one. “Me, go down to Nobeca! Why I’d just as soon go to Cincinnati!” These people are socially insecure and they will laugh with you while they’re secretly wondering whether it wasn’t a mistake after all to move down there.

But the Village is another matter. Not­withstanding how carefully one plans, the Village, East and West, cannot be avoided in perpetuity. First of all, among the eight million (plus or minus) stories in this naked city, at least several hundred thousand take place in the Village (that area has a particularly high concentration of stories since the apartments tend to be small and overcrowded), and despite all precautions, some of them are bound to be those of close friends. No matter how careful you are, you’ll wind up being obliged to go there several times a year.

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Don’t even attempt any Nobeca-type strategy, that’s worthless in this instance. If you try to palm off an invitation with an old Cincinnati joke, you’ll only lose a good friend. No, these people are too polished for that sort of thing. There’s no point in laughing since Village inhabitants are not only secure about their address, but, in­deed, they themselves exhibit subtle but unmistakable compassion for those poor uptown squares who live in exile from what Villagers consider the city’s socio-­cultural heart.

So every once in a while, against all of your better instincts, you board a taxi headed downtown. You try to ignore the driver’s glee when you give him the ad­dress on Perry Street and he chuckles because he’s adding another digit to his bank account after doing a quick calcu­lation of the number of miles he will cover getting down to Sheridan Square and then endlessly circling the area looking for Per­ry Street. Naturally, there is a “No Smoking — Driver Allergic” sign in Son-of-Sam lettering neatly taped to the seat, and you spend the half-hour ride observing the effect of the collapse of your smoke-starved lungs while you ponder the cruelty of life in the naked city, enduring the driver’s cheerful chitchat about how these goddamn one-way streets are always going the wrong way, but we gotta be getting close to Perry now,” while your sight is becoming impaired as a result of your hypnotic stare at the ever growing figure on the meter.

And when you finally arrive, it’s not as though anyone will be grateful. No! For those who live there, the Village is a destination, and you’re made to feel that you should be grateful to have been admitted. No one will emit the slightest expression of appreciation for the fact that you’ve torn yourself away from the real world and braved the perils of the elements and of financial destitution to go and drink jug wine or its equivalent in an eight by 10 living room with an exposed brick wall or its equivalent.

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What is it about that area that makes people who seem perfectly rational in ev­ery other way want to live up to tradition of living down? Why are the seats never comfortable in Village apartments? Why are the chairs too hard and the couches too low? Why are the dining rooms too small and always overheated? Why is the plum­bing invariably inadequate and noisy? Why are there never locks in the bath­room? Why would anyone prefer to live in a neighborhood with no Central Park, no museum, no comfortable movie theatre, no normal coffee shops, and no available taxis as you discover when you walk back down the five flights of stairs from your friend’s apartment and stand on a drafty corner for 45 minutes while the only vehicles driving past you have New Jersey license plates and are filled with hordes of beer-swilling youngsters who yell ob­scenities at you as they cruise by.

I’ll tell you why: these people are nostalgic for Bohemia, whether they admit it or not. Secretly, if they consider themselves sophisticated, or openly, if they don’t, they’re perversely proud of the trad­ition of their neighborhood. The fact that the tradition was dead before most of these people were born seems to bother them not one bit.

Personally, they remind me of Hollywood folks; they’re just somewhat less vulgar. In L.A., people will say, “This was Charlie Chaplin’s house, you know,” or “Preston Sturges lived here.” What’s the difference between that sort of namedropping and the unspoken evocation of Eugene O’Neill, Edna St. Vincent Millay, e. e. cummings, Carson McCullers, and the East Village Other? Only the urban leaning toward the literary.

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After all, many of use associate the Village with our youth. Those old enough to remember the Depression look back fondly at the speakeasies on 8th Street and the bowls of spaghetti they used to get for a nickel at Mori’s. Now, Mori’s is the ­Bleecker Street Cinema. Aging housewives can still recall how they arrived in New York in the late ’40s, suitcase in hand, and headed straight down to the Village, in the style of My Sister Eileen. Now, the drug-stores where young career girls used to sip their cherry lime rickeys at the soda fountain are 69¢ stores, Orange Juliuses, and chain shoe stores featuring Day-Glo cowboy boots. Once there were parties where guys wearing sweatshirts really did read poetry. Now young singles invite a date to dinner in their studio apartment. And why shouldn’t they? So once there were green fields and now there are sleazy junkie-filled all-night delis. So what?

Allow me to say that I am not impervious to the sort of sentimentality many New Yorkers harbor about the Village. Even I have a wistful memory or two of traipsing down to MacDougal Street with my friends, absurd nymphets dressed all in black wearing Fred Braun shoes and carrying Greek bags (those of us at the High School of Music and Art who thought of ourselves as nonconformists wore all black and Fred Braun shoes but carried leather bags) to meet guys with beards at the Cafe Figaro who were always just about to make it as folksingers, poets, or chess champions. But that was in the early ’60s, when the Fifth Avenue traffic still ran both ways, when Kennedy Airport was still Idlewild, and Charles Mingus was playing at the Village Vanguard.

But even that was ridiculous. I mean, let’s face it, the Greenwich Village Bohemia moved to Connecticut in the ’30s. If you want to see James Baldwin, take a trip to the south of France. We may all have bittersweet yearnings for the aesthetic of our youth, but living in a $700-a-month one-bedroom apartment in one of America’s best-known tourist attractions seems a bit like overkill.

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Of course, there are those who’ll say that a nice $700-a-month apartment is a good find anywhere in the city, whether or not it is visited by the illustrious ghosts of the Beats. True enough. But then, let’s please curtail this “sociocultural heart of the city” business. After all, if you get down to specifics, the pickings are pretty slim. A theatre or two, a little music, the New School, a Japanese film festival now and then. What else is there: Balducci’s?

No, as far as I’m concerned, there are only two valid reasons to venture down­town. One of them is the second-hand bookstores, undeniably the best in the city. The other is the obligatory trek down to The Village Voice to hand in one’s copy under the duress of a deadline. When I heard last year that the Voice was moving, I had a moment’s delight. “Ah,” I thought, “they’ll finally move uptown to a grown-up location”; and the ’60s, my ’60s, would be over at last. Alas, I was sadly mistaken; they only moved the operation a few blocks east. “It’s not all that bad,” said my editor, trying to console me. “At least we’re closer to the subway now. And besides, we’re just a block away from the Strand. And we’re still within walking distance of Balducci’s.”

Balducci’s again. They’re always brin­ing up Balducci’s. Why, I remember when Balducci’s was just another Italian produce stand where fruits and vegetables were left to ripen in outdoor stalls in the summer. Well, it doesn’t matter. The years go by and it’s winter now, and much too cold to ever want to travel down to 14th Street again. And so what if I remember the days when there were no curfews in the city parks and boys and girls would stroll among the trees on warm nights and lie down on the grass together to neck for hours under the violet summer skies. ■

From The Archives Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Everything Above 14th Street Is Gila Bend, Arizona

Everything Above 14th Street Is Gila Bend, Arizona
March 18-25, 1981

Recently I read the most offensive arti­cle I can ever remember encountering in the pages of the Voice. I refer of course to “With Malice Toward Everything Below 14th St.” by Marcelle Clements. Now I can understand that the Voice is a liberal paper and thus obliged to present all points of view no matter how pustulent, but I must call the Voice‘s liberalism into question when it prints a piece so obvious­ly elitist, an obscenely yawning wound of terminal neuroses, venom-urping jealousy, and outright class snobbery so hincty stifl­ing it feels like you’re trapped in a para­lyzed elevator crammed fulla 38 function­ing Mentholatum vaporizers cranked to the max and an epileptic cocaine-OD yammering at you about the water on his knees. There is such a thing as journalistic responsibility, after all, First amendment or no (shut up, Hentoff).

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Taking Mr. Clements’s (I presume it is a Mr. — no woman, no one, in fact, but a pathetic male specimen with Travis Bickle-like virility malaria could ever write such a swimming pool full of vi­triolic spew) points one by one, he makes such easy pickings I should just turn him over to Frank Perdue if not the Second Ave. Hell’s Angels (who incidentally have seen to it that THERE IS NO HEROIN ON THAT BLOCK; if a junkie or pusher comes ’round they simply kill him).

Before disposing of this walking corpse myself, however, I should perhaps mention that I am proud to reside at Sixth Ave. and Fourteenth St., which is the ideal vantage point on every level. I get to walk outside every day and immediately run into junkies, winos, pill pushers, shop­ping bag ladies, wasted street hookers, cripples and mutilations, and ripoff artists of every description. It’s a nightmare, but it never pretends to be anything else, unlike everyplace else in this fucking city which as everybody knows is the only place on the planet to live. I’m more comfortable with my mutanthood here than I would be in, say, San Diego where I grew up, or even Detroit where I did time. Because Fourteenth St. is, of course, No Man’s Land, the demarcation line ev­erybody uses. Strictly speaking, I live in no definable neighborhood, which obvious­ly is the best neighborhood. South there’s the Village, about which admittedly both good and bad can be said, North there’s everything else, about which nothing good can be said. So I, as well as the Village, Soho (even? Jesus, this is worse than I thought!), Lower Manhattan, the Bowery, etc., win hands down by simple arithmetic.

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Unfortunately, however, bonehead math is not among the disciplines Mr. Clements has yet mastered. He says that our streets “fit within no grid.” Apparent­ly this pathetic specimen is so retarded he has to have all streets laid out in absolute­ly rigid rectangular patterns or he gets hopelessly lost if he tries to venture out to the corner deli.

Next, Mssr. Clements decries our Low­er Manhattan “spaces.” Well, here at least (only here) I agree with him: I hate that particular usage of that fucking word too. Just the other day I was attempting to digest a $7.95 tuna-on-toast in a little “boite” on West 76th St., when my date, a woman who resides only a few blocks away from there, in an orange crate stuffed inside an ironing board closet for which she brags to all her “friends” she only pays $900 a month (I pay $240 a month for an equally huge living room, bedroom, kitchen, bath, and bowling alley), said to me, “I can only take relationships for three weeks at the most, then I gotta blow the guy off no matter how much I like him, because I need my space!

Now we are all familiar with this type of neurotic, male or female, straight or gay, what’s the difference? The reason we are familiar with them is that both the Upper East and West Sides are infested with them, and all too many of us have had the misfortune of falling into “relationships” which shoulda stood in bed reserved for one night stands. Whereas we in the Village and points South have total­ly solved the problem of 6000 years of sexism and attendant hangups by recog­nizing and living by the obvious fact that except for singles’ bar habitues and johns who really oughta tip more SEX NO LONGER EXISTS. That’s right, we never fuck. We create deathless works of art instead.

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“Of course I never went down there of my own free will”: would that this were only true! But Mr. Clements admits he is afraid of us. With good reason. We are human. But we’ll let him come down any time he wants, because our humanism is only benevolent. He’ll go to all the wrong stores, buy all the gauchest and most overpriced merchandise anyway, thus making our atmosphere all the more aesthetically stimulating and untainted by tourist-trap ripoff except for suckers like him who as any true New Yorker will ­tell you deserve it.

“The food is better and cheaper” up­town: I might direct your attention, to single out only one among myriad ex­amples, to Asia DeCuba (190 Eighth Ave.), where you can get a fantastic huge plate of shredded beef, rice, and beans for only $3.50, plus overheard next-table conversations a good deal more interesting than the standard (“Well my acting ca­reer’s not going so good and my lover joined the Divine Light Temple but my analyst says I can blame it all and the destruction of Cambodia on my parents … “) chatter one gotta endure up in Marcelle’s environs. Hell, you can’t get food that good that cheap in Mexico, man! The one time I decided to try and cele­brate my mastery of the Homer & Jethro blue yodel by risking my alimentary canal on a certain “Mexican” place due east on 71st, the menu on the window said $13.95 for (their inventive terminology) “Texas Chili,” so I just said fuck it and split a 16-oz. jar of protein powder with Olde English 800 malt liquor with my date instead.

“The art shows infinitely superior”: Okay, so you got all the hotshit museums up there. We got lots of galleries, and besides, didn’t you ever see that devas­tatingly de Chirico-like depiction of a black leather street hoodlum Bleecker Bob used to have over the entrance to his store, not to mention those squiggly lines in homage to Joan Miro the speedfreaks scribble all over the trees in Washington Square Park? Proving yet again your putrid highbrow elitism, which is such instant proof you all got serious problems of gallstone-deep nature you might as well hang a sign around your neck sez “I have an inferiority complex,” or more appositely “WORM.”

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The bottom line fact re all this brouhaha is that the farther North you get the worse it all gets. No lie! Chelsea is okay, nice cheap restaurants, ethnic polyglot which’s always healthy, but too damn many sweatshop factories and ware­houses to be really interesting. And speak­ing of uninteresting, you ever been stranded in hotshit MIDTOWN? Macy’s/Gimbel’s. Big deal. There is noth­ing in the former you couldn’t find on Canal Street at 1/3 the price except things no one in their right mind would buy, and the latter is just like the former except more expensive. Better you should shop at Korvette’s — a little taste of Middle Ameri­can tasteless ersatz kultur for all you Sta­tus Fans! Of course if Korvette’s is your scene, better you should show some balls by taking the PATH to Jersey and digging America for real. It’s like crazy, daddio, a real long-gone L-7 cubecrib from No­wheresville. Reminding me of course of the lovely brownstones of the Middle East Side where some of the people who inflict all this crap billed “culture” on us live their well-appointed lives. Best of luck to ’em! They have ZERO SOUL but that’s not even the point. If I wanted my hostess in a hot-off-the-lathe designer gown serving shakersfull of suburban martinis I’D LIVE IN THE SUBURBS AND GET IT OVER WITH!

In terms of more palatable alternatives, I admit Times Square and 42nd St. be­tween Sixth and Eighth are pretty great, but there is one slight problem: every time you walk out of your double feature and try to score a few Quaaludes, here’s all these jerks in furs and three-hundred-­dollar cravats lining up for theatre tickets when everybody knows Broadway ain’t been worth a shit in a decade and a half. Everybody but them so here they are, so paranoid from all the sensationistic so-­called exposes they’ve seen on TV where some six o’clock jock thinks it’d be a real bright provocative idea to go down and show everybody how shockingly sleazy Times Square is that they’re tottering off the curbs, quivering if you but reach in your pocket for a cigarette, meanwhile looking at you like “Well I may be mort­gaged up the ass but I’m dressed to the teeth tonite like a real authentic genuine Rich Person so FUCK YOU SCUM.” Kill them all is what I say. But then I think Danny Fields should be Mayor.

Meanwhile look who you gotta walk among if you wanna go buy something between there and the Park: all those hideous FIFTH AVENUE people who rich or not look like their bodies never carried a speck of dust in their whole damn lives. Yuck! Mannikins! Showroom dummies! Oh, forgot Hell’s Kitchen. Never been there, actually. What is it, a good place to go if you wanna get beat up?

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All right I’ll go there. Because the other direction the horrors really begin: that lovely area around the Fifties and Second Third Park Lex. Walk down Third Ave. in the Fifties. Go eat an overpriced eye­-dropper fulla soup at Zum Zum. Right across from you sit guess who? None other than 45-year-old Mrs. nouveau riche from Scarsdale and her 19-year-old daughter; they’ve both just spent the whole after­noon compulsively barging through Bloomingdale’s trying to create more pater ulcers with their damn credit cards. They radiate pure unadulterated HATRED for all living things. Men (they’re all bastards). Other women (they’re all out to steal your bastard). Shopclerks (they’re uppity). Me (I dress like a slob).

As for Bloomingdale’s and Fiorucci: Wet magazine chic, which means you package the shit garish and trendy enough I’ll buy it the more expensive the better. Personally I get my fill of this at places like Hurrah’s. One of the supreme ambi­tions of my life is to live to be 120 years old and be able to say on my deathbed I never set foot inside Bloomingdale’s.

Of course if you’re a real moron you can go just a little bit higher into Twinkieland and try out Maxwell’s Plum, the Adam’s Apple, etc. etc. etc. ad lobotomatum. Now of course we have reached the Airline Stewardess Gulag. It’s bad enough having to endure these zombies on planes, where the fact they all got paperclips and ballbearings where eyes supposedly once lived can somehow be filed under service.

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Ah yes, the romance of the Upper East Side. Needless to say everybody in this area is even more psychotic than anybody in Midtown even. This may in fact have the highest per capita psychosis quotient of any part of the city. An old girlfriend of mine once worked in one of the many thriving businesses in this area. She said it was a big office all curvy no fucking corners and white white white in EVERY respect and everybody who worked there all they did was process computer code info which had some kinda effect on mil­lions of lives somewhere they had zero idea what or who or how or why. What was she doing there? TEMP WORK, which is what you should say if you go to a party in this neighborhood and somebody waltzes up with the inevitable opener: “What do you do?” Watch em panic as they bolt. Great fun. Best part about this place was all the employees had taken EST. She heard a woman on the phone hysterically cackling at her 70-year-old mother she’d just strong-armed into taking her first EST course: “Oh Mother, listen, I’m manipulating you, isn’t that wonderful, hahahahaha!”

Central Park. Very nice. Trees — so what? New York City has nothing to do with trees. Besides which there’s plenty in Washington Square, the dope dealers are better, and you might run into somebody interesting like Arto Lindsay instead of a rapist or his little brother who’ll pinch your twat and snicker. Never go there. If I want a fuckin’ tree I’ll buy a picture of one and hang it up in my living room!

After that the action thins to the deadly dugouts of that long backyard known as the United States of America, first por­tents of the horrors in store taking the forms of Harlem (America un­-reconstructed) and the Bronx (pretending to be reconstructed, besides why kick a cripple?). The only thing standing be­tween us and the savages hunkering in all those Great Plains ragweed shopping cen­ters dreaming of our scalps is the Cloisters, which admittedly is one of the most beau­tiful spots on the continent. That’s why a bunch of us from Lower Manhattan are gonna come in there next week with bull­dozers and cranes and helicopters and trucks and just PULL IT RIGHT UP OUTA THE EARTH by the roots and transport it South a ways to be set down exactly where the old Mercer Arts Center fell in on itself after the Dolls got finished with it. Then we’ll bring in Suicide and DNA and Mars and Lydia’s Devil Dogs and all the other magnificent groups living downtown and let ’em crank up and BLOW OUT THE COBWEBS! If they play loud enough it oughta reach the ears even of Marcelle and all his cronies in Disney World North, whereupon all of them on the Upper East Side can hightail it to Boston and those on the Upper West Side to San Francisco, since you can buy all the same shiny garbage advertised in New York magazine in those two cities as well. Then we can finally secede from the Union for real and hell even the sidewalks won’t be so crowded. ■

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The Rolling Stones Cruise on Eighth Street

I was talking to a friend of mine one night a couple of years ago, after ten thousand varyingly voluntary rehearings of Some Girls had convinced us it wasn’t so bad after all, that in fact we really actually liked it: “Do you think the Stones should break up now while they’re tem­porarily ahead,” I asked, “or play it out to the very end?”

“Oh, no!” he fairly cackled. “l think they should stay together till they all drop dead, a little more pathetic and decrepit each time, out there grinding away at the same Chuck Berry licks when they’re 60 years old!”

Go ahead and laugh, but they’re proba­bly going to do exactly that, and after panning just about everything they re­leased in the ’70s I’ve had a change of heart. You tell me whether it has something to do with turning 30 and all that, but what I said to another friend the other night in a similar conversation was, “Shit, yeah, let’s all grow old with the Rolling Stories, I can think of worse things.”

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Every time they released an album last decade we went through the same process: expectation, the exhilaration of hyping ourselves up, mainlining hope, then the crashing, crushing disappointment when we first heard each of the damn things, followed by the weeks or months in which we accommodated ourselves to and sooner or later usually fell in love with them. In that very process there was an existential drama being played out, for them and for us, that made them in a way far more interesting and even crucial than they’d been in their ’60s prime. And just how great were a lot of those ’60s albums any­way? Putting aside Satanic Majesties, which I always loved myself, people tend to forget that Aftermath was almost all the same song in a way, and that if you clipped off the framing anthems and the first cut on side two of each, Beggars Banquet (a bit cut and dried to my taste from the beginning) and Let It Bleed were effectively the same album, in terms cf sequencing, song styles, subject matter, etc. I think “100 Years Ago” from the dreaded Goat’s Head Soup (a severely underrated album whose love songs and general lushness made it the logical black­-and-white successor to Exile) is a far more interesting tune both musically and thematically than (take your pick) “Cool, Calm, Collected,” “Who’s Been Sleeping Here?” or “Something Happened to Me Yesterday.”

As individual peaks the magnitude of, say, “Let’s Spend the Night Together” grew fewer and farther between, the peril both we and the Stones believed them to be in rendered them more the auteurs than ever. Where once they’d been so good in a field of many great groups and most of their songs were about fucking and 1001 Ways to Snub a Broad, now they clung onto the insistence that they still were The World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band, and more and more of their songs were about the difficulty of remaining that while growing up/old, maybe even the point­lessness of rock ‘n’ roll itself in the 1001 new contexts of dread the ’70s offered us. So in a way, in their decline, they mattered more than ever, especially since ev­erything else seemed to be declining with them.

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Now, I’m not sure exactly when this stopped being true — whether it was Black and Blue, Some Girls or Emotional Rescue that was their first Long Awaited Major Release that was also just a piece of good old-fashioned product, but I do know that with this new album it’s come all the way home for me. I just couldn’t get that worked up in anticipation of it. Probably because of that, I found myself liking it almost iminediately. With the exception of Keith’s song, “All About You,” it has absolutely no Existential Significance, is in fact a real nice fun summer album, kinda light and fluffy and playful. The Stones don’t matter any more, at least in the way rock critics are always talking about how this or that artist “matters,” and if they feel this themselves — and I think, whenever they started to, they do now — then it’s probably that both the Stones and that portion of their audience who even -bother to think about these things are breathing one huge sigh of re­lief.

See, because they really have got this stuff down to a science, yet they’re still having fun with it, they haven’t gone em­barrassingly cold and dead like, say, the Post-Whos Next Who. Before I ever heard it, people were talking to me about Emo­tional Rescue in terms of “Well, the first song’s ‘Miss You,’ they got a ‘Respectable’ right after that, there’s a ‘Beast of Burden’ in there somewhere too … ” But that’s missing the point. Which is that, like Chuck Berry, the Stones may have stopped progressing, but in a way what that means is that they can always be counted on for a good solid ride or at least a little fun. Unlike Chuck, they still write decent songs even if they’re not about anything special. Hell, the Stones were never all that progressive to begin with. And all of this is why l believe now that they still will be not only around but making good records (the stage, well … ) for plenty more years yet. They’re cruising.

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The fact that they’ve become old reliables makes it easy to pick out the weak points on any new Stones album, but not that easy to find anything particularly new or significant to say about some of the best songs they’re corning up with now, things like ”Summer Romance,” “Let Me Go”, and “She’s So Cold.” It’s all stuff you’ve heard a million times before but it still feels good and that’s all there is to it. Shit, the best songs on the album are “Dance” and “Down in the Hole,” respec­tively a near-jam with almost no lyrics and a standard blues. Nobody looking for any kind of “relevance” is gonna settle for things like “Indian Girl’s” reference to Angola, and really tile only bit of the old gritty, “real” Stones on the album is Keith’s song, which is genuinely nasty — he even throws you a curve ball at the end (“How come I’m still in love with you?”), like Jagger’s beautiful cascade “liar liar liar”s at the end of Goat’s Head Soup’s “Winter.” Some people think there are more gay references than usual on this album, and “Where the Boys Go” is in­teresting (if that’s what it’s really about) in that the flipside or the really down and dirty stuff like “Cocksucker Blues,” “Memo From Turner” and “When the Whip Comes Down” in the Stones’ con­cept of homosexuality was this kind of smarmy leering· ,offhandedness which basically reminded you of that guy in Tropic of Cancer who said he’d given up women because it was “less annoying” to masturbate.

The glaringly weak spots are, as usual, Jagger’s attempts at (non-blues) ethnici­ty, and there are more of them here than ever. The Stones should give up trying to do reggae forever, though once you get used to the fact that it’s absolutely nothing, “Send It to Me” is an inoffensive little number that doesn’t hold up the flow of the side particularly (and I suppose “alien” refers to the movie, oh well). Just like the compassion in “Indian Girl” comes off fake as Mick’s accent at first, but you force yourself not to notice how fake it is and pretty soon the song sounds fine and you’re not even embarrassed by the way he sings “Mr. Gringo” or that he says it at all. As for the title cut, most say Bee Gees but I say let him have Curtis Mayfield even though he sounds sorta ridiculous. Can there be anybody in the world who actual­ly thinks that rap about “I’ll be your knight in shining armor … on a fine Arab charger” is sexy? I mean it doesn’t matter, it’s okay that it isn’t, I’m just wondering if anybody’s fooled. And does Mick care, or is it just a goof for him too? Because if it is, then he’s healthier than we thought, healthy as he and all of them sound, and if you think the idea of the Rolling Stones being nothing more than a goof is depress­ing you oughta consider the relative-hide­ousness of possible alternative scenarios, like say Bob Dylan. Me, I’m looking for­ward to all the Stones· future albums for the same reason a friend of mine dug “Everything’s Turning to Gold!”: “I like it because it’s just really garbagey.” ■


Dylan Dallies With Mafia Chic: Joey Gallo Was No Hero

Whenever Bob Dylan puts out a new album, it is sure to generate a lot of talk. What is he thinking, what is he saying, what does he mean? A cynical person might respond that he releases these things, no matter how sloppy they are and no matter how long we might have to wait for something half-baked, precisely so people will keep talking about him. History is, after all, a rather gray address. It is automatically assumed that every Bob Dylan album is an event, but there are times — the Rolling Thunder tour is probably a good example — when our sense of the enterprise in question as an event eclipses whatever signifi­cance and integrity it might possess.

As for Desire, much has been made of Dylan’s support of Hurri­cane Carter’s defense, and of his return to topical songwriting in general, but I think there are grounds for questioning his mo­tives. Does Bob Dylan really care about Hurricane Carter, Joey Gallo, and, in retrospect, George Jackson, or might not our same hypothetical cynic contend that he is merely using all these people to insure his own continuing “rele­vance”? The answer can only he found in Dylan’s handling of these people in the songs which purport to convey the folk/street truth be­hind the headlines. I am not so much interested in Rubin Carter — ­and I think most listeners would have to admit that they feel the same way — as I am in whether Bob Dylan is being straight with me or not. The man does, after all, have a reputation second only to David Bowie’s for image-mongering, and second to none for mythmaking. One tends to wonder if the myths he has made, even when they deal with actual historical personages, might not devolve to an endless alienated outlaw narcissism; if he has not, in fact, been talking about himself all the way down the road. I believe that; I don’t think he is being straight with his audience anywhere on Desire, but is rather exploiting both them and the subjects of his songs to keep his own image polished.

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I think you can find all the evidence you need in Desire’s longest cut, the ponderous sloppy, numbingly boring 11-minute ballad “Joey,” about yet another folk hero/loser/martyr, mobster “Crazy Joey” Gallo, who was murdered by other mafiosi in Lit­tle Italy in 1972.

During the ’60s, there were five Mafia “families” dividing up the pie of various turfs and rackets in New York City, under the control of one Godfather-like “boss of bosses.” Although the modern Mafia encourages more of a “busi­nessman” image and tries to play down the bloodletting, the families are usually fighting among themselves for greater power and influ­ence, and one of the most successful families during the ’60s was the Profaci family, which later be­came the Colombo family. In in­termittent but very bloody opposition to them was the Gallo family, led by the brothers Larry, Joey, and Albert “Kid Blast” Gallo, who were never quite able to attain equivalent power even though they remained the overlords of one small section of Brooklyn. Accord­ing to a detailed analysis of mob warfare by Fred J. Cook in the June 4, 1972, New York Times, “The severe bloodletting in the Profaci-Colombo family began when the greed of the Gallo brothers set them lusting after [the former’s] power. Indeed it touched them with the kind of madness that drives a shark berserk in a blood-stained-sea,” and the Gallos tried every lethal ploy that they could think of to muscle their way into a bigger piece of the action. In October 1957, according to some reports, Joey Gallo acted on a Profaci contract and blasted the notorious Albert Anastasia, one time lord of Murder, Inc., out of his barber’s chair in a celebrated rub-out, thus paving the way for Carlo Gambino to become, and remain, boss of bosses through the ’60s and early ’70s. But the Gallos never found any more favor with Gambino than they had with his predecessors, so they embarked on an all-out war with the Profacis that lasted from 1961–63; though there were no real winners, the Gallos were no match either in numbers or tactically for the Pro­facis, and the war ended in early 1962 when Crazy Joe Gallo was sentenced to seven to 14 years in prison for extortion, and, a few months later, Joseph Profaci died of cancer.

While Joe Gallo was in prison, he read extensively, becoming a sort of jailhouse intellectual, and when he was finally released in 1970 he began to cultivate contacts in the literary and show business worlds, who welcomed him to their parties and obviously considered him an exotic amusement indeed. Jimmy Breslin’s book, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, had been inspired by the legendary inepti­tude of the Gallo family in their early-’60s bids for power, and Joey developed close contacts with Jerry Orbach, who played a char­acter corresponding to him in the movie based on the book, and his wife Marta, with whom, in the last months of his life, Joey began collaborating on various autobiographical literary projects. Out of Radical Chic bloomed Mafia Chic; he became something of an above-ground social figure, and told col­umnist Earl Wilson that he was ‘”going straight.”

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Apparently that was a lie, howev­er. While Joey was in prison, his gang languishing and awaiting his return, a new figure had arisen from the Profaci ranks to bring New York mob power to a whole new, all but avant-garde level: Joe Colombo. Colombo founded the Italian American Civil Rights League, an organization ostensibly devoted to deploring and “legiti­mately” opposing the “prejudice” which caused most Americans to link mob activities with citizens of Italian descent. Between 150,000 and 250,000 Italian-Americans ulti­mately joined the league, and the impact on politicians was consi­derable, which was how Nelson Rockefeller and Louis Lefkowitz ended up having their pictures taken with underworld toughs. Joey Gallo returned from prison with his power on his own turf intact but of course completely cut out of the Colombo empire. On June 28, 1971, Joe Colombo was gunned down by a supposedly lone and uncontracted black man in front of thousands of his horrified followers at a rally in Columbus Circle. The consensus was that Crazy Joey was behind it, espe­cially since he’d perplexed other mafiosos by hanging out with black prisoners during his stay in the joint, and ostensibly aimed to start a black mob, under his control, when he got out. According to many inside sources, there was a contract out on Gallo from the day Colombo was shot, and on April 7, 1972, as he celebrated his 43rd birthday in Umberto’s Clam House on Mulberry Street in Little Italy, an anonymous hit-man walked in off the street and shot Crazy Joey to death much as Joey himself claimed to have murdered Albert Anastasia. It was the end of a gang war that had lasted almost a decade and a half — a few more of their henchmen were disposed of, and the Gallo family was decimat­ed, their power gone. Mobsters in general breathed a collective sigh of relief — the Gallos had always been hungry troublemakers — and went back to business as usual.

It is out of this fairly typical tale of mob power-jostlings that Dylan has, unaccountably, woven “Joey,” which paints a picture of Joey Gallo as alienated antihero reminiscent of West Side Story’s “Gee, Officer Krupke!” lyrics — “He ain’t no delinquent, he’s misunderstood.”

Always on the outside of whatev­er side there was
When they asked him why it had to be that way
Well, the answer — just because

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Joey Gallo was a psychopath, as his biographer, Donald Goddard, confirms, although the analyst who examined him while he was in prison diagnosed Joey’s disease as “pseudopsychopathic schizophren­ia.” Joey’s answer: “Fuck you. Things are not right or wrong anymore. Just smart or stupid. You don’t judge an act by its nature. You judge it by results. We’re all criminals now… Things exist when I feel they should exist, okay? Me. I am the world.” Toward the end of his life, his wife routinely fed him Thorazine, which he docilely took, even though it still didn’t stop him from beating the shit out of her.

Dylan then goes on to paint a romantic, sentimental picture of Joey and his brothers in the gang:

There was talk they killed their rivals
But the truth was far from that
No one ever knew for sure where they were really at.

Well, according to the DA at Joey’s early-’60s extortion trial, “In the current war taking place between the Gallo gang and es­tablished interests, there have been killings, shootings, stran­gling, kidnappings, and disappearances, all directly involving the Gallos. Interestingly enough, since the defendant’s being remanded on November 14 in this case, there have been no known offensive ac­tions taken by the Gallos in this dispute. This would give some cre­dence to the belief that Joe Gallo, is, in reality, the sparkplug and enforcer of the mob.” But who believes DAs, right? Okay, try his ofttimes enormously sympathetic biographer:

“Almost all the charges ever brought against him, even in the beginning, were dismissed. No witnesses. Once people got to know that careless talk was liable to bring Joe Gallo around to remon­strate and maybe make his point with an ice pick, witnesses in Brooklyn became as scarce as woodpeckers. Once the story got around that Joey had gripped a defaulter’s forearm by the wrist and elbow and broken it over the edge of a desk to remind him that his account was past due, the Gallos had very few cash-flow problems with their gambling, loan-sharking, and protection business.”

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Later in the song Dylan asserts that “The police department hounded him.” Considering the number of rackets that the Gallos were involved in, nothing could be further from the truth. Goddard:

“Right from the start, relations between the Pizza Squad [NYC anti-Mafia cop team] and the Gallo gang had been imbued with a grudging professional respect, which, in certain cases, shaded into something close to affection. They played the game by the rules.” Adds a cop:

‘They’re a peculiar mob… They knew what we had to do and they weren’t going to question it. They treated us like gentlemen. That don’t make them good guys, but they had a little more savvy [than the Colombos]. It was like ‘Why stir the pot? If you’re going to be down here, let’s make it pleasant for both of us.’ It’s a game. If you get caught, you get caught.”

Perhaps most curiously of all, Dylan says that “They got him on conspiracy/They were never sure who with.” Funny, because everybody from Goddard to the courts and cops agree that Joey’s down­fall came when, early in May 1961, he tried to muscle in on a loan shark named Teddy Moss. Moss resisted, and, in the presence of undercover cops, Joey said “Well, if he needs some time to think it over, we’ll put him in the hospital for four or five months, and that’ll give him time.”

But how can Dylan have a mar­tyred Mafioso without an evil judge:

“What time is it?” said the judge to Joey when they met
“Five to ten,” said Joey
The judge says, “That’s exactly what you get.”

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This is what, for want of a better phrase, must be termed poetic license. The truth is that Joey’s lawyer was as lame as his gang, and never made it up from Florida for his trial, and Joe refused to have anything to do with the two other lawyers appointed to repre­sent him, choosing to stand mute while the DA delivered a steady stream of evidence that was pretty solid in the first place and never disputed. That Joey allowed this to happen suggests, not that he was railroaded, but merely that he was incredibly stupid. Goddard:

“Readily concurring that Joey was ‘a menace to the community,’ Judge Sarafite chalked up the first victory in the attorney general’s [Robert Kennedy, who once branded Joey Public Enemy No. 1] assault on organized crime by handing down the maximum sentence of seven and one-quarter to fourteen and one-half years’ imprisonment.”

Dylan: “…10 years in Attica/Reading Nietzsche and Wilhelm Reich.” He also read Freud, Plato, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer, John Dewey, Bergson, Santayana, Herbert Spencer, William James, Voltaire, Diderot, Pascal, Locke, Spengler, Wilde, Keats, Shakespeare, Goethe, Will Durant, Oliver Crom­well, Napoleon, Adenauer, de Gaulle, Lenin, Mao Tse-tung, Clarence Darrow, and Louis Nizer, as well as taking part in a homosexual gang rape about which he bragged at a cocktail party after his release:

“He described how, with several other convicts, he had spotted a pretty young boy among a new batch of prisoners and laid in wait for him. Dragging him into the Jewish chapel, they ripped his pants off and were struggling to hold him down when one of them heard the rabbi talking in the next room. A knife was immediately put at their victim’s throat with a whispered warning not to cry out, and the rape proceeded in an or­derly fashion, each man taking his turn in order of seniority. They wanted this kid, Joey said, while his asshole was still tight.”

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This was most likely not, howev­er, the reason that (according to Dylan) “his closest friends were black men.” It was “Cause they seemed to understand what it’s like to be in society/With a shackle on your hand.” And also, as pre­viously stated, because Joey for a while entertained dreams of launching a black Mafia when he got out. The psychoanalyst who interviewed Joey in prison voices agreement with Dylan in more clinical terms, but adds “Joey was a terrifically prejudiced guy… on a strictly, and deeply, personal level, he was a knee-jerk nigger-­hater,” and also allows that it was “entirely possible” that “I was conned by one of the greatest con artists of all times.”

After Joey is finally sprung, Dylan has him blessing both the beasts and children: “’Twas true that in his later years/He would not carry a gun.” Of course not; no Mafia chieftain ever has, unless in unusually dire fear for his life. The cops would like nothing better than to send one of these guys up on a carrying concealed weapons rap, and anyway that’s what the wall of protective muscle that accompan­ies them everywhere is for.

“ ‘I’m around too many chil­dren,’ he’d say/‘They should never know of one.’ ” Again true — mob leaders have always been scrupu­lous about keeping their wives and children universes removed from the everyday brutality of their work. Anybody who saw The Godfather knows that. But as for Joey’s magical touch with children, let his daughter, Joie, speak: “He would come home and say, ‘Make me some coffee,’ And I would say, ‘Daddy, I have home­work. Can I do it later?’ ‘No. Now.’ It was like I was refusing him, and nobody ever did that. He was the king, and I couldn’t stand it… He used to abuse Mommy terribly, and I resented him coming be­tween us. He broke her ribs once… I used to complain to Mommy about him and bug her to leave him. ‘What a man you picked,’ I’d say. ‘Who’d want to live with that maniac? You’ve got to be crazy to put up with this.’ So then I’d divorce him as my father. I’d take a piece of paper and draw a very fancy certificate that said, ‘I, Joie Gallo, hereby divorce Joey Gallo as my father.’ ”

Joey, Joey… what made them want to come and blow you away?

There are several theories in answer to that question. The most prevalent was that, since most people took it for granted that Joey was behind the shooting of Joe Colombo almost a year before, there was an open contract out on Gallo by the Colombo family, meaning that Joey had effective­ly committed suicide in having Colombo shot. Two other theories advanced by investigators ex­tremely close to the case have Gallo once again trying to muscle in on territory occupied by other, more powerful mob factions. In one case, he could have told two thugs to crack a safe for $55,000 in Ferrara’s Pastry Shop in Little Italy, a landmark frequented by Vinnie Aloi, at that time a very powerful capo in the New York Mafia. This would certainly have been the straw that broke the camel’s back in regards to the mob bosses’ patience with Gallo’s hust­les, as would another incident reported in the June 4, 1972, New York Times:

“Three weeks prior to Gallo’s getting killed, he, Frank (Punchy) Illiano and John (Mooney) Cutrone went out to the San Susan nightclub in Mineola, L.I., in which John Franzese [another powerful capo in the Colombo family] is reported to have a hidden interest. Joey is reported to have grabbed the manager and said, ‘This joint is mine. Get out.’ In other words, he was cutting himself in. This was the first sign we had that Crazy Joe was acting up again.”

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In any case, any of these courses of action (and Gallo may well have undertaken all three) amounted to signing his own death warrant. An interesting sidelight is that at this time Joey was broke, practically reduced to the shame of living off his bride of three weeks; his mother had already mortgaged her house and hocked her furniture to pay for bail bonds. Meanwhile, of course, he had begun to hang out with what Goddard calls “the show-biz, tablehopping cheek­-peckers’ club”: Jerry and Marta Orbach, the Ben Gazzaras, Neil Simon, David Steinberg, Joan Hackett and her husband — people that, as his bride Sina warned him, “might be exploiting him for the thrill of having a real live gangster empty their ashtrays and talk about life and art.” Marta Orbach told him Viking Press was interested in publishing whatever liter­ary collaboration he could cook up with her, so they began making daily tape recordings of his reminiscences at her house. At first it was supposed to be a black comedy about prison life, but then there was talk of an outright autobio­graphy and even a meeting with an MGM representative to discuss selling it to the movies — so there is also the remaining possibility, as a final theory, that just about any­body in the underworld, getting wind of this might be nervous enough about possible indiscre­tions to want him snuffed.

The two key points here are that (a) by this time he was totally pathetic (Goddard: “He had outgrown the old life. To allow himself to be forced back into it was unthinkable — a submission to circumstance, a confession of fail­ure. As for his new life, the pros­pect was hardly less humiliating. It entailed another kind of surren­der — to show-biz society and public opinion. His self-esteem would depend, not on his power and sover­eign will, but on how long an ex-gangster could stay in fashion. Like an ex-prizefighter, he might even be reduced someday to mak­ing yogurt commercials.”), and (b) Dylan got even the very last second of Gallo’s life wrong: “He could see it coming through the door as he lifted up his fork.” Gallo was shot from behind. So all that remains now is the question to Bob Dylan: Why? Although that is one that I doubt he is going to answer, I was able to get through to his collaborator on “Joey” and the rest of Desire, Jacques Levy, who explained the way he and Dylan had worked on the album, and had a ready defense for the lionization of Joey Gallo: “Bob liked the work I’d done with [Roger] McGuinn, said, ‘Let’s get together and see what happens.’ So we’d sit around tossing ideas back and forth until a song was finished. Bob would have an idea, or I would have an idea, and we would write the songs together, throwing lines, words, rhymes, plot schemes back and forth. It wasn’t even a case of writing every other line.

“I suggested the Joey song to Bob; I took him to dinner with Jerry and Marta Orbach, we told him about Joey, and he became excited about the prospect of the song. I don’t think he ever read much more about Joey than what most people did; but we had all known Joey very well, and told Bob all about him. You know, Bob has always had a thing about outlaws, people on the outside of whatever side there was. Would you call John Wesley Harding [sic] a small-time hoodlum? I think calling Joey that is labeling someone unfairly, and he wasn’t a psychopath either. He was just trying to build something, to help his people and family, and I don’t mean family in the Mafia sense. Yeah, he was a victim of society — of growing up poor, and if you look at the results of the Gallo-Profaci war, say, you’ll find that it’s never been proved that the Gallos killed anybody, but plenty of Joey’s people got killed. And I don’t think he set up Joe Colombo. If there was a vicious side of Joey, I think that people like myself, the Orbachs, people who were around him for at least a year before he died, would have seen it come out.”

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But, I interjected, Joey himself bragged that he had killed Albert Anastasia. Levy almost laughed: “That was Joey’s wise-guy side bragging about something like that is not proof of having done it. That was Joey posing as the tough guy, the Hollywood Richard Widmark–Jimmy Cagney stereo­type.”

Levy and I ended up agreeing that we would never agree on this subject. He had known Joey; all I had were the biased accounts of Donald Goddard, Joey’s ex-wife and first daughter, journalists, cops, and judges. The reader can draw his own conclusions, although I do think that Dylan can stand accused of not doing his homework. But then he’s a poet, and poets aren’t expected to do homework, right? It seems to me that the reason why Dylan’s Joey is so at variance with most ac­counts of Gallo is the same as the reason Dylan doesn’t like to do retakes of his songs — he is simply lazy. I also think Desire is an exploitation record, that the answer to the question, “What is Dylan thinking? is that he is not thinking at all, and that the only thing remaining is to suggest antihero fodder for future Dylan compositional products: Elmer Wayne Henley, William Calley, Arthur Bremer, and that kid who tried to rob a bank at 13th Street and Sixth Avenue and ended up drunkenly requesting replays of the Grateful Dead on the radio. Certainly they all qualify as alienated victims of our sick society, every bit as much on the outside as Joey Gallo.

One does wonder, however, what Gallo would have made of Dylan’s tribute to him; and one receives a possible answer in Goddard’s book, where Gallo’s ex-wife describes borrowing a hundred bucks from Joey’s father to buy records so that the Prince of Brooklyn, always a fan of contemporary music, could catch up on what had been happening in soundsville during the decade he’d been away reading Reich in the slams: “He got especially mad over a Byrds album called ‘Chestnut Mare’ that I wanted him to hear. ‘Listen to the lyrics,’ I said. ‘They’re so pretty and well done.’ ‘I don’t want to hear any fags singing about any fucking horse,’ he says — and he’s really venomous. ‘It’s not about a fucking horse,’ I said. ‘If you’ll listen, it’s about life.’ But he doesn’t want to hear about life either.… Next thing I know, he jumps out of the bathtub, snatched the record off the machine, stomps out in the hall stark-naked, and pitches it down the incinerator.”



Blondie Is More Fun 

Punk rock was kind of a joke in the first place, as a listen to Count Five or the Seeds makes clear, and given the campily ironic distance most CBGB groups bring to it, it becomes a joke once removed, which is like seeing the punch line approaching from a mile away. It’s been said that the punk rock “renaissance” is really just an invention of media in desperate need of something new to pretend to be saying about American youth; the trouble with that theory is that most of the bands seem to be buying the hype. If that’s the best anybody can come up with to say about this generation, then this generation may not be very interesting in the first place.

But all of that might be a blessing in disguise. Because, as we all know, if you’re not expecting anything from a record, you’ll be doubly pleased and surprised if it’s wonderful. Blondie is the second group from the New York “underground” club scene (discounting Patti Smith and the Dictators) to get recorded, and when I called up my friends to tell them what a delight I thought their album was, they sniffed, “Oh come on, haven’t you seen ’em live?” No I haven’t, but then I don’t care much for most live rock anyway and I know a great album when I hear one.

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Like most of the other stuff coming out these days, Blondie’s album (produced by Richard Gottehrer, who wrote “My Boyfriend’s Back” and produced the original “Hang On, Sloopy”), is a pastiche of ’60s rock moves. Debbie Blondie herself has the Shangri-Las/Crys­tals girl group sound down to a perfect snotty whine, but unlike Patti Smith, she never comes across as snotty or pretentious, and, as “Man Overboard” and “In the Flesh” respectively demonstrate, she knows it’s not uncool to sound like Cher or Kathy (“A Thousand Stars”) Young once in a while. She gets off her best Shangri-Las moves in the single “[Se]X Offender” and “Rip Her to Shreds,” where I’m sure all of us of whatever sex will be able to empathize with her reaction to an urban archetype: “Red eyeshadow, green mascara/Yecch! She’s too much!”

The band have hauled all their ’60s readymades out of the toy chest, polished them up so they don’t sound like nostalgia or some horrible “tribute,” and set them spinning around one [an]other like so many tops in solid two- ­and three-minute cuts. “Rifle Range” spotlights Jorgen (“Apache”) Ingmann style guitar, while in “Rip Her to Shreds” I count (besides a fine mixture of Velvets and Shangri-Las vocal flourishes) some “Shakin’ All Over” guitar, a Question Mark and the Mysterians organ break that will reappear in various contexts throughout the album, and ensemble touches highly reminiscent at various times of the Doors, the Seeds, and the Strawberry Alarm Clock. And I mean good Strawberry Alarm Clock! The Spectorish “X Offender” contains the best roller rink organ since the Sir Douglas Quintet, the best drums since “Born to Run,” the best castanets since “Mother of Pearl,” and the best surf guitar break since “I’m Set Free.”

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What makes Blondie’s first set more than just a fanzine-mentality collection of 10-year-old styles by 25-year-old diehards is that it consistently conveys the same energetic conviction in its dumbness as the original punk rockers, yet like, say, the New York Dolls, the group are implicitly intelligent enough not to ram their understand­ing of earlier rock ‘n’ roll down your throat. Like the Ramones, they have both drive and a sense of humor. Unlike the Ramones, they don’t condescend to their material, even when Debbie Blondie’s singing, over a Latin beat and “Arriba!” type cries, “Giant ants from space/stuffed the human race/Then they eat your face/Never leave a trace/La la la la…” Cap that one and the album with an ending that perfectly parodies Neil Young’s “Broken Arrow,” and you’ve got what rock ‘n’ roll has always really stood for: the sort of unselfconscious fun that transcends both scenes and generic restrictions.


The White Noise Supremacists

The White Noise Supremacists
April 30, 1979

The other day I was talking on the phone with a friend who hangs out on the CBGB scene a lot. She was regaling me with examples of the delights available to females in the New York subway system. “So the train came to a sudden halt and I fell on my ass in the middle of the car, and not only did nobody offer to help me up but all these boons just sat there laughing at me.”

“Boons?” I said. “What’s boons?”

“You know,” she said. “Black guys.”

“Why do you call them that?”

“I dunno. From ‘baboons,’ I guess.”

I didn’t say anything.

“Look, I know it’s not cool,” she finally said. “But neither is being a woman in this city. Every fucking place you go you get these cats hassling you, and sometimes they try to pimp you. And a lot of the times when they hassle you they’re black, and when they try to pimp me they’re always black. Eventually you can’t help it, you just end up reacting.”

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Sometimes I think nothing is simple but the feeling of pain.

When I was first asked to write this article, I said sure, because the racism (not to mention the sexism, which is even more pervasive and a whole other piece) on the American New Wave scene had been something that I’d been bothered by for a long time. When I told the guys in my own band that I was doing this, they just laughed. “Well, I guess the money’s good,” said one. “What makes you think the racism in punk has anything special about it that separates it from the rest of the society?” asked another.

“Because the rest of society doesn’t go around acting like racism is real hip and cool,” I answered heatedly.

“Oh yeah,” he sneered. “Just walk into a factory sometime. Or jail.”

All right. Power is what we’re talking about, or the feeling that you don’t have any, or how much ostensible power you can rip outta some other poor sucker’s hide. It works the same everywhere, of course, but one of the things that makes the punk stance unique is how it seems to assume substance or at least style by the abdication of power: Look at me! I’m a cretinous little wretch! And proud of it! So many of the people around the CBGB and Max’s scene have always seemed emotionally if not outright physically crippled — you see speech impediments, hunchbacks, limps, but most of all an overwhelming spiritual flatness. You take parental indifference, a crappy educational system, lots of drugs, media overload, a society with no values left except the hysterical emphasis on physical perfection, and you end up with these little nubbins: the only rebellion around, as Life magazine once labeled the Beats. Richard Hell gave us the catchphrase “Blank Generation,” although he insists that he didn’t mean a crowd with all the dynamism of a static-furry TV screen but rather a bunch of people finally freed by the collapse of all values to reinvent themselves, to make art statements of their whole lives. Unfortunately, such a great utopian dream, which certainly is not on its first go-round here, remains just that, because most people would rather follow. What you’re left with, aside from the argument that it beats singles bars, is compassion. When the Ramones bring that sign onstage that says “GABBA GABBA HEY,” what it really stands for is “We accept you.” Once you get past the armor of dog collars, black leather, and S&M affectations, you’ve got some of the gentlest or at least most harmless people in the world: Sid Vicious legends aside, almost all their violence is self-directed.

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So if they’re all such a bunch of little white lambs, why do some of them have it in for little black lambs? Richard Pinkston, a black friend I’ve known since my Detroit days, tells me, “When I go to CBGB’s I feel like I’m in East Berlin. It’s like, I don’t mind liberal guilt if it gets me in the restaurant, even if I know the guy still hates me in his mind. But it’s like down there they’re striving to be offensive however they can, so it’s more vocal and they’re freer. It’s semi-mob thinking.”

Richard Hell and the Voidoids are one of the few integrated bands on the scene (“integrated” — what a stupid word). I heard that when he first formed the band, Richard got flack from certain quarters about Ivan Julian, a black rhythm guitarist from Washington, D.C., who once played with the Foundations of “Build Me Up Buttercup” fame. I think it says something about what sort of person Richard is that he told all those people to get fucked then and doesn’t much want to talk about it now. “I don’t remember anything special. I just think that most people that say stuff like what you’re talking about are so far beneath contempt that it has no effect that’s really powerful. Among musicians there’s more professional jealousy than any kind of racial thing; there’s so much backbiting in any scene, it’s like girls talking about shoes. All musicians are such scum anyway that it couldn’t possibly make any difference because you expect ’em to say the worst shit in the world about you.”

I called up Ivan, who was the guy having trouble at the pinhead lunch counter in the first place. “Well, I was first drawn to this scene by the simple fact of a lot of people with musical and social attitudes more or less in common. No one’s ever said anything to my face, but I overheard shit. A lot of people are just ignorant assholes. I don’t think there’s any more racism at CBGB’s, where I went every night for about the first year I lived here, than anywhere else in New York City. Maybe a little bit less, because I find New York City a million times more racist than D.C., or Maryland and Virginia where I grew up. There’s racism there, outright killings around where I lived, but here it’s a lot more insidious. You get four or five different extremes, so many cultures that can’t stand each other. It’s like, when we toured Europe I was amazed at the bigotry between people from two parts of the same country. They’d accept me, but to each other they were niggers, man. And at CBGB’s it’s sorta the same way, sometimes. Mutants can learn to hate each other and have prejudices too. Like Mingus said in Beneath the Underdog: 40 or 50 years ago, in the ghetto, the lighter you were the better you were. Then you’d turn another corner and if you were somewhat light, like Mingus, there’d be a buncha guys saying ‘Shit-colored mutha’ ready to trash your ass. My point is, regardless of how much people might have in common they still draw away. There are certain people on the scene, like say this girl in one band who’s nothing but a loudmouthed racist bitch — it’s obvious we want nothing to do with each other, so I stay away from her and vice versa.

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“I’ll tell you one thing: the entrepreneurs, record company people and shit are a hell of a lot worse. People like Richard Gottehrer, who produced our album, and Seymour Stein and a lot of the other people up at Sire Records. They were totally condescending, they’d talk to you differently, like you were a child or something. I heard a lot of clichés on the level of being invited over to somebody’s house for fried chicken.”

I was reminded instantly of the day I was in the office of a white woman of some intelligence, education, and influence in the music business, and the subject of race came up. “Oh,” she said, “I liked them so much better when they were just Negroes. When they became blacks.…” She wrinkled her nose irritably.

“Race hate?” says Voidoids lead guitarist Bob Quine. “Sure, it gives me ’n’ Ivan something to do onstage: The Defiant Ones.”

But the ease and insight of the Voidoids are somewhat anomalous on the New York scene. This scene and the punk stance in general are riddled with self-hate, which is always reflexive, and anytime you conclude that life stinks and the human race mostly amounts to a pile of shit, you’ve got the perfect breeding ground for fascism. A lot of outsiders, in fact, think punk is fascist, but that’s only because they can’t see beyond certain buzzwords, symbols, and pieces of regalia that (I think) really aren’t that significant: Ron Asheton of the Stooges used to wear swastikas, Iron Crosses, and jackboots onstage, but I don’t remember any right-wing rants ever popping up in the music he did with Iggy or his own later band, which many people were not exactly thrilled to hear was called the New Order.

In the past three years Ron’s sartorial legacy has given us an international subculture whose members might easily be mistaken at first glance for little brownshirts. They aren’t, for the most part. Only someone as dumb as the Ramones are always accused of being could be offended when they sing “I’m a Nazi schatze,” or tell us that the first rule is to obey the laws of Germany and then follow it with “Eat kosher salami.” I’ve hung out with the Ramones, and they treat everybody of any race or sex the same — who they hate isn’t Jews or blacks or gays or anybody but certain spike-conk assholes who just last week graduated from The Rocky Horror Picture Show lines to skag-dabblings and now stumble around Max’s busting their nuts trying to be decadent.

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Whereas you don’t have to try at all to be a racist. It’s a little coiled clot of venom lurking there in all of us, white and black, goy and Jew, ready to strike out when we feel embattled, belittled, brutalized. Which is why it has to be monitored, made taboo and restrained, by society and the individual. But there’s a difference between hate and a little of the old epater gob at authority: swastikas in punk are basically another way for kids to get a rise out of their parents and maybe the press, both of whom deserve the irritation. To the extent that most of these spikedomes ever had a clue on what that stuff originally meant, it only went so far as their intent to shock. “It’s like a stance,” as Ivan says. “A real immature way of being dangerous.”

Maybe. Except that after a while this casual, even ironic embrace of the totems of bigotry crosses over into the real poison. Around 1970 there was a carbuncle named Wayne McGuire who kept contributing installments of something he called “An Aquarian Journal” to Fusion magazine, wherein he suggested between burblings of regurgitated Nietzsche and bad Celine ellipses that the Velvet Underground represented some kind of mystical milestone in the destiny of the Aryan race, and even tried to link their music with the ideas of Mel Lyman, who was one of the prototypes for the current crop of mind-napping cult-daddies.

On a less systematic level, we had little outcroppings like Iggy hollering, “Our next selection tonight for all you Hebrew ladies in the audience is entitled ‘Rich Bitch’!” on the 1974 recorded-live bootleg Metallic K.O., and my old home turf Creem magazine, where around the same time I was actually rather proud of myself for writing things like (in an article on David Bowie’s “soul” phase): “Now, as we all know, white hippies and beatniks before them would never have existed had there not been a whole generational subculture with a gnawing yearning to be nothing less than the downest baddest niggers… Everybody has been walking around for the last year or so acting like faggots ruled the world, when in actuality it’s the niggers who control and direct everything just as it always has been and properly should be.”

I figured all this was in the Lenny Bruce spirit of let’s-defuse-them-epithets-by-slinging-’em-out — in Detroit I thought absolutely nothing of going to parties with people like David Ruffin and Bobby Womack where I’d get drunk, maul the women, and improvise blues songs along the lines of “Sho’ wish ah wuz a nigger/Then mah dick’d be bigger,” and of course they all laughed. It took years before I realized what an asshole I’d been, not to mention how lucky I was to get out of there with my white hide intact.

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I’m sure a lot of those guys were very happy to see this white kid drunk on his ass making a complete fool if not a human TV set out of himself, but to this day I wonder how many of them hated my guts right then. Because Lenny Bruce was wrong — maybe in a better world than this such parlor games would amount to cleansing jet off-takes, and between friends, where a certain bond of mutual trust has been firmly established, good natured racial tradeoffs can be part of the vocabulary of understood affections. But beyond that trouble begins — when you fail to realize that no matter how harmless your intentions are, there is no reason to think that any shit that comes out of your mouth is going to be understood or happily received. Took me a long time to find it out, but those words are lethal, man, and you shouldn’t just go slinging them around for effect. This seems almost too simple and obvious to say, but maybe it’s good to have something simple and obvious stated once in a while, especially in this citadel of journalistic overthink. If you’re black or Jewish or Latin or gay those little vernacular epithets are bullets that riddle your guts and then fester and burn there, like torture-flak hailing on you wherever you go. Ivan Julian told me that whenever he hears the word “nigger,” no matter who says it, black or white, he wants to kill. Once when I was drunk I told Hell that the only reason hippies ever existed in the first place was because of niggers, and when I mentioned it to Ivan while doing this article I said, “You probably don’t even remember—” “Oh yeah, I remember,” he cut me off. And that was two years ago, one ostensibly harmless little slip. You take a lifetime of that, and you’ve got grounds for trying in any way possible, even if it’s only by convincing one individual at a time, to remove those words from the face of the earth. Just like Hitler and Idi Amin and all other enemies of the human race.

Another reason for getting rid of all those little verbal barbs is that no matter how you intend them, you can’t say them without risking misinterpretation by some other bigoted asshole; your irony just might be his cup of hate. Things like the Creem articles and partydown exhibitionism represented a reaction against the hippie counterculture and what a lot of us regarded as its pious pussyfooting around questions of racial and sexual identity, questions we were quite prepared to drive over with bulldozers. We believed nothing could be worse, more pretentious and hypocritical, than the hippies and the liberal masochism in whose sidecar they toked along, so we embraced an indiscriminate, half-joking and half-hostile mindlessness which seemed to represent, as Mark Jacobson pointed out in his Voice piece on Legs McNeil, a new kind of cool. “I don’t discriminate,” I used to laugh, “I’m prejudiced against everybody!” I thought it made for a nicely charismatic mix of Lenny Bruce free-spleen and W.C. Fields misanthropy, conveniently ignoring Lenny’s delirious, nigh-psychopathic inability to resolve the contradictions between his idealism and his infantile, scatological exhibitionism, as well as the fact that W.C. Fields’s racism was as real and vile as — or more real and vile than — anybody else’s. But when I got to New York in 1976 I discovered that some kind of bridge had been crossed by a lot of the people I thought were my peers in this emergent Cretins’ Lib generation.

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This was stuff even I had to recognize as utterly repellent. I first noticed it the first time I threw a party. The staff of Punk magazine came, as well as members of several of the hottest CBGB’s bands, and when I did what we always used to do at parties in Detroit — put on soul records so everybody could dance — I began to hear this: “What’re you playing all that nigger disco shit for, Lester?”

“That’s not nigger disco shit,” I snarled, “that’s Otis Redding, you assholes!” But they didn’t want to hear about it, and now I wonder if in any way I hadn’t dug my own grave, or at least helped contribute to their ugliness and the new schism between us. The music editor of this paper has theorized that one of the most important things about New Wave is how much of it is almost purely white music, and what a massive departure that represents from the almost universally blues-derived rock of the past. I don’t necessarily agree with that — it ignores the reggae influence running through music as diverse as that of the Clash, Pere Ubu, Public Image Ltd., and the Police, not to mention the Chuck Berry licks at the core of Steve Jones’s attack. But there is at least a grain of truth there — the Contortions’ James Brown/Albert Ayler spasms aside, most of the SoHo bands are as white as John Cage, and there’s an evolution of sound, rhythm, and stance running from the Velvets through the Stooges to the Ramones and their children that takes us farther and farther from the black-stud postures of Mick Jagger that Lou Reed and Iggy partake in but that Joey Ramone certainly doesn’t. I respect Joey for that, for having the courage to be himself, especially at the sacrifice of a whole passel of macho defenses. Joey is a white American kid from Forest Hills, and as such his cultural inputs have been white, from The Jetsons through Alice Cooper. But none of this cancels out the fact that most of the greatest, deepest music America has produced has been, when not entirely black, the product of miscegenation. “You can’t appreciate rock ’n’ roll without appreciating where it comes from,” as Pinkston put it.

Musical questions, however, can be passed off as matters of taste. Something harder to pass off entered the air in 1977, when I started encountering little zaps like this: I opened up a copy of a Florida punk fanzine called New Order and read an article by Miriam Linna of the Cramps, Nervus Rex, and now Zantees: “I love the Ramones [because] this is the celebration of everything American — everything teenaged and wonderful and white and urban…” You could say the “white” jumping out of that sentence was just like Ornette Coleman declaring This Is Our Music, except that the same issue featured a full-page shot of Miriam and one of her little friends posing proudly with their leathers and shades and a pistol in front of the headquarters of the United White People’s Party, under a sign bearing three flags: “GOD” (cross), “COUNTRY” (stars and stripes), “RACE” (swastika).

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Sorry, Miriam, I can go just so far with affectations of kneejerk cretinism before I puke. I remember the guy in the American Nazi Party being asked, “What about the six million?” in PBS’s California Reich, and answering “Well, the way I heard it it was only really four-and-a-half million, but I wish it was six,” and I imagine you’d find that pretty hilarious too. I probably would have at one time. If that makes me a wimp now, good, that means you and anybody else who wants to get their random vicarious kicks off White Power can stay the fuck away from me.

More recently, I’ve heard occasional stories like the one about one of the members of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks yelling “Hey, you bunch of fucking niggers” at a crowd of black kids in front of Hurrah one night and I am not sorry to report getting the shit kicked out of him for it. When I told this to Richard Hell, he dismissed it: “He thinks he’s being part of something by doing that — joining a club that’ll welcome him with open arms, trying to get accepted. It’s not real. Maybe I’m naive, but I think that’s what all racism is — not really directed at the target but designed to impress some other moron.”

He may be right — Frank Collins looks a lot like that to me — but so what? James Chance of the Contortions used to come up to Bob Quine pleading for Bob to play him his Charlie Parker records. Now, in a New York Rocker interview, James dismisses the magical qualities of black music as “just a bunch of nigger bullshit.” Why? Because James wants to be famous, and ripping off Albert Ayler isn’t enough. My, isn’t he outrageous? (“He’s got the shtick down,” said Danny Fields, stifling a yawn, when they put James on the cover of Soho Weekly News.) And congrats to Andy Shernoff of the Dictators, who did so well they’re now called the Rhythm Dukes, for winning the Punk magazine Drunk as a Skunk contest by describing “Camp Runamuck” as “where Puerto Ricans are kept until they learn to be human.”

Mind you, I like a cheap laugh at somebody else’s expense as well as the next person. So I got mine off Nico, who did “Deutschland Uber Alles” at CBGB’s last month and was just naive enough to explain to Mary Harron, in a recent interview in New Wave Rock, why she was dropped by Island Records: “I made a mistake. I said in Melody Maker to some interviewer that I didn’t like negroes. That’s all. They took it so personally… although it’s a whole different race. I mean, Bob Marley doesn’t resemble a negro, does he?… He’s an archetype of Jamaican… but with the features like white people. I don’t like the features. They’re so much like animals… it’s cannibals, no?”

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Haw haw haw, doncha just love them dumb kraut cunts? And speaking of dumbness and krauts, my old pal Legs McNeil has this band called Shrapnel, who are busy refighting World War II onstage in dogtags, army surplus clothes, and helmets that fall over their eyes like cowlicks, while they sing songs with titles like “Combat Love.” Personally I think it’s not offensive (well, about as offensive as Hogan’s Heroes) that they’re too young to remember Vietnam — it’s funny. The whole show is a cartoon (it’s no accident that they open their set with the Underdog theme) and a damn good one. Musically they’re up there too — tight dragstrip guitar wranglings that could put them on a par with the MC5 someday, combined with a stage act that could make them as popular as Kiss. The only problem, which has left me with such mixed feelings I hardly know what to say to them, is that the lyrics of some of the songs are nothing but racist swill. The other night I sat in the front row at CBGB’s and watched them deliver one of the hottest sets I’ve seen from any band this year while a kid in the seat right next to me kept yelling out requests for “ ‘Hey Little Gook!’ ‘Hey Little Gook!’ ” the whole time. Christgau, who considers them “proto-fascist” and hates them, told me they also had lyrics on the order of “Send all the spics back to Cuba.” I mentioned this to Legs and he seemed genuinely upset: “No,” he swore, “it’s ‘Send all the spies back to Cuba.’ ”

“Okay,” I said (Christgau still doesn’t believe him), “what about ‘Hey Little Gook?’ ”

“Aw c’mon,” he said, “that’s just like in a World War II movie where they say ‘kraut’ and ‘slants’ and stuff like that!”

I told him I thought there was a difference between using words in dramatic context and just to draw a cheap laugh in a song. But the truth is that by now I was becoming more confused than ever. All I knew was that when you added all this sort of stuff up you realized a line had been crossed by certain people we thought we knew, even believed in, while we weren’t looking. Either that or they were always across that line and we never bothered to look until we tripped over it. And sometimes you even find that you yourself have drifted across that line. I was in Bleecker Bob’s the other night, drunk and stoned, when a black couple walked in. They asked for some disco record, Bob didn’t have it of course, a few minutes went by, and reverting in the haze to my Detroit days I said something about such and such band or music having to do with “niggers.” A couple more minutes went by. Then Bob said, “You know what, Lester? When you said that, those two people were standing right behind you.”

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I looked around and they were out on the sidewalk, looking at the display in his front window. Stricken, I rushed out and began to burble: “Listen… somebody just told me what I said in there… and I know it doesn’t mean anything to you, I’m not asking for some kind of absolution, but I just want you to know that… I have some idea… how utterly, utterly awful it was…”

I stared at them helplessly. The guy just smiled, dripping contempt, “Oh, that’s okay, man… it’s just your head…” I’ve run up against a million assholes like you before, and I’ll meet a million after you — so fucking what?

I stumbled back into the store, feeling like total garbage, like the complete hypocrite, like I had suddenly glimpsed myself as everything I claimed to despise. Bob said, “Look, Lester, don’t worry about it, forget it, it happens to everybody,” and, the final irony, sold me a reggae album I wondered how I was going to listen to.

If there’s nothing more poisonous than bigotry, there’s nothing more pathetic than liberal guilt. I feel like an asshole even retelling the story here, as if I expected some sort of expiation for what cannot be undone, or as if such a tale would be news to anybody. In a way Bob was right: I put a dollop more pain in the world, and that was that. There is certainly something almost emetically self-serving about the unreeling of such confessions in the pages of papers like The Voice — it’s the sort of thing that contributed to the punk reaction in the first place. But it illustrates one primal fact: how easily and suddenly you may find yourself imprisoned and suffocated by the very liberation from cant, dogma, and hypocrisy you thought you’d achieved. That sometimes — usually? — you’ll find that you don’t know where to draw the line until you’re miles across it in a field of land mines. Like wanting the celebration of violent disorder that was the Sex Pistols, ending up with Sid and Nancy instead, yet realizing the next day that you still want to hear Sid sing “Somethin’ Else” and see The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle, and not just because you want to understand this whole episode better but to get your kicks. These are contradictions that refuse to be resolved, which maybe is what most of life eventually amounts to.

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But that’s begging the question again. Most people, I guess, don’t even think about drawing the lines: they just seem to go through life reacting at random, like the cabdriver who told me that the report we were listening to on the radio about Three Mile Island was just a bunch of bullshit dreamed up by the press to sell papers or keep us tuned in. And maybe if you go on like that (assuming, of course, that we all don’t melt), nothing will blow up in your face. But you may end up imploding instead. A lot of people around CBGB’s are already mad at me about this article, and the arguments seem mostly to run along the lines of why don’t you can it because there’s not really that much racism down here and all you’re gonna do is create more problems for our scene just when this Sid Vicious thing had blown over. I mentioned Pinkston’s experience and was told he was paranoid. Like the people at Harrisburg who didn’t wanna leave their jobs and actually believed it would be safe to stick around after the pregnant women and children were evacuated, these kids are not gonna believe this stuff exists until it happens to them. Hell, a lot of them are Jewish and still don’t believe it even though they know about the neighborhoods their parents can’t get into.

When I started writing this, I was worried I might trigger incidents of punk-bashing by black gangs. Now I realize that nobody cares. Most white people think the whole subject of racism is boring, and anybody looking for somebody to stomp is gonna find them irrespective of magazine articles. Because nothing could make the rage of the underclass greater than it is already, and nothing short of a hydrogen bomb on their own heads or a sudden brutal bigoted slap in the face will make almost anybody think about anybody else’s problems but their own. And that’s where you cross over the line. At least when you allow the poison in you to erupt, that can be dealt with; maybe the greater evil occurs when you refuse to recognize that the poison even exists. In other words, when you assent by passivity or indifference. Hell, most people live on the other side of that line.

There is something called Rock Against Racism (and now Rock Against Sexism) in England, an attempt at simple decency by a lot of people whom one would think too young and naive to begin to appreciate the contradictions. Yippie bullshit aside, it could never happen in New York, which is deeply saddening, not because you want to think that rock ’n’ roll can save the world but because since rock ’n’ roll is bound to stay in your life you would hope to see it reach some point where it might not add to the cruelty and exploitation already in the world. In a place where people are as walled off from one another as we are in America now, all you can do is try to make some sort of simple, humble, and finally private beginning. You feel like things like this should not need to be said, articles like this should perhaps not even be written. You may think, as I do of the sexism in the Stranglers’ and Dead Boys’ lyrics, that the people and things I’ve talked about here are so stupid as to be beneath serious consideration. But would you say the same thing to the black disco artist who was refused admittance to Studio 54 even though he had a Top Ten crossover hit which they were probably playing inside the damn place at the time, the door-man/bouncer explaining to a white friend of the artist, “I’m not letting this guy in — he just looks like another street nigger to me”? Or would you rather argue the difference between Racist Chic and Racist Cool? If you would, just make sure you do it in the nearest factory. Or jail.


What If They Gave a New Year and Nobody Came?

Lately every time you turn around somebody’s saying: “The eighties are coming!” Like at the stroke of midnite on New Year’s it’s all gonna be different! And when you tell ’em, “Come on, you know everything’s just gonna keep on slowly sinking,” they get downright mad! Spoilsports! No sense of social duty! It’s true that I am antisocial! But so is my whole crowd. When our fave bar the Bells of Hell closed down a few months back we all stayed in our apartments instead of seeking out a new watering hole. (Perhaps suggesting that, like the buffalo, we are soon to disappear.) I told my shrink this and he said: “You’re all pathetic.”

Another time when I complained I was getting weirded out around other people because I never saw ’em because all I did was lay in bed with the covers over my head because I truly believed as the mighty Ramones quoth that there was “nothin’ to do and nowhere to go” so I just wanted to be sedated, my shrink suggested I call up all my friends in all their separate little cells and see if we couldn’t figure out some way to repatriate ourselves in the human race and enjoy it. So I conducted this plebiscite, and when I came back he said: “So what’s the consensus?” I said, “The consensus is, ‘Whaddaya wanna be around people for? Most of ’em suck anyway!'”

I suppose you think I’m being negative. All right, if I’m negative you go tell Mother there’s something wrong with the womb! Ha, gotcha! Besides which, as the eighties loom I suspect that my antisocial minority will soon be a majority, and we’ll have an antisociety! Imagine that! Will Rogers the ultimate outlaw! And what better time to inaugurate this ghost town than New Year’s Eve! Ring out the old, ring in the old! And older and older. I ask you, have you ever had a New Year’s Eve you enjoyed? Of course not! Why? Because you’ve persisted in this insane delusion that somehow things are supposed to keep getting better, or that the cyclical nature of the ying-yang means that the earth is supposed to replenish itself or some such horseshit! Horseshit doesn’t even replenish itself. Do these sidewalks? This peeling paint, crumbling plaster, backed-up plumbing? A replenishable landlord? Fuck no!

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There are two directions in which extants can go: (a) stasis or (b) decay. And New Year’s Eve is the biggest bummer yet, because we all go out with these expectations and get totally soused just so we can stand to be around each other because we’ve spent the late fall and winter’s first blush sinking deeper into TV Guide, and now we’re expected to positively revel in proximity to these globs of hideous humanity. So OF COURSE horrible scenes ensue.

The first New Year’s I have a clear memory of was probably the first one I was old enough to get drunk for: I got stoned on nutmeg instead. All my friends did get drunk tho and exiting this teenclub full of depressed zit-lumpen reduced to flat colas we drove aimlessly around El Cajon, inevitably ending in the line at Jack in the Box where, as people vomited all over the inside of my car, I said “Welcome to 1967.” We shoulda known right away Hippie wouldn’t work.

1968: I went to a party where everybody drank too much vodka too fast and pawed each other or tried to while Donovan trilled of fat angels. Only saw one person vomit: my girlfriend, all over her brand-new white hiphuggers. (Earlier in the evening I had told her, re said fem-trousers: “You look like a Tijuana whore.” A downy lad I was and twee.) I was on Marezine and kept seeing little men with axes and hammers chopping naked gabbling pigmy demons to death in other people’s lapels. When I got home I hallucinated all kinds of people coming into my room and reached out to them screaming, “Don’t dissolve! Don’t dissolve!” But sure enough they did. Then I thought I saw a friend of mine silhouetted behind the windowshade whispering from the garden: “Lester! Lester!” I leaped out of bed and yanked up the shade, pathetically grateful for some human companionship. There was nothing there but the empty street with leaves blowing.

I went into the bathroom to take a piss and hallucinated that my mother was ogling my dick with one huge roc eyeball through a crack in the door. Then I went back to bed and dreamed that narcs in steelgrey suits were stationed at strategic points all over my school watching me through slowly swiveling Silva-Thin shades. For the first two months of 1968 I couldn’t look anybody in the eye.

1969: Me ‘n’ a buncha buddies went cruisin’ in some dude’s jalopy. We beered awhile to no avail. One pal who later joined the navy where he majored in underwater demolition (exhorting me to enlist by his bonded side: “It’s real fun blowin’ up stuff!”) said, “Let’s go out ‘n’ git us sum scrunt.” Nobody else said anything. Eventually we all went home too depressed even to feel drunk and fell asleep. The whole evening shoulda been written by (or inflicted on) Robbe-Grillet.

1970: New Year’s Eve I spent getting drunk on beer watching TV at my girlfriend’s parents’ house, periodically ducking out to drive by the motel bungalow of some needle-freak friends because I wanted to buy some heroin, which I had never tried. Finally they were home and sold me some. When I got back to my girlfriend’s house I ran in the bathroom and tried to snort it. Not yet hep to rolled-up bills, I dumped the stuff onto a mirror held at a precarious angle over the sink, balanced it an inch from my nose, and honked amighty. Nothing happened except later I drank some Country Club Malt Liquor, went home, and wrote a review for Rolling Stone (which never got printed) of a Bob Dylan bootleg. Next day I bragged to all my friends: “I wrote a record review on heroin last night!” Being too lame to ingest the shit was the only time I ever got lucky on a New Year’s Eve.

1971: I stayed home and read the Bible. No, that’s a lie. What I did was go to the drive-in with my girlfriend — all hopped up (me, that is) on vodka and her mother’s thyroid pills, totally unable to concentrate on the double feature of I Drink Your Blood (starring Ronda Fultz, Jadine Wong, and somebody merely billed “Bhaskar”) and I Eat Your Skin (William Joyce, Heather Hewitt) which would have been impossible under any circumstances anyway, thinking all night how next morning I was gonna do like Jack Kerouac and just jump in my car eating speed with one hand while flicking the starter with the other and drive drive drive till I plashed through Blakean breakers of light on the golden prows of the Rocky Mountain Shield. Of course I didn’t, woke up with a muzzy hangover instead, which is probably just as well: I coulda ended up being John Denver.

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1972: New Year’s I spent dead drunk and gutpit-depressed at my mother’s house in California. Called up my friend Nick in NYC and miserably groaned through several leagues of whiskey, “I think I’m becoming an alcoholic.” He didn’t wanna hear that because he was just about to spend New Year’s Day making his way down Broadway from 99th Street having one drink in every bar along the way until he ended at Broadway and Third, the very last bar, St. Adrian Co., also known as the Broadway Central Bar, being an adjunct of the Broadway Central Hotel, a flophouse. He called back the next day: “Sorry Les, I’m too depressed to talk.”

1973: Went to a party with my ex-puppylove­-girlfriend (she of the greened hiphuggers) and her sis and brother-in-law. Most everybody else there was a swinging single, or trying to be. I danced dirty with the hostess. It was right out of Doctors’ Wives. My ex-galf’d got mad at me for rubbing up agin said hussy and huffed a bit. I bet Gore Vidal never came out with anything as deft as, “Whattayou care? You won’t fuck me!” She cried. Later in the car in savage ugly liquored sexual frustration I dug one of my nails into her wrist until it bled. She told me I was a sissy. I was.

1974: Back in California again, staying at my old girlfriend’s deserted tho furnished apartment, as, unbeknownst to Mom, she’s off livin’ with some forty-five-year-old businessman who when he stands next to ya drink-in’ at the bar always keeps a fistful of dollars taut-gripped so he can shoot ’em out as he snoots it up. That kinda guy. So there I am enjoying her empty apartment, lying around listening to Raw Power and Berlin all the time, when I get this bright idea: I’ll take all these sleaze-rock LPs to this night’s singles/married/whatever-they-think­-they-are party, and blast ’em. Ey-pa-TAY, MUTHAFUCKA! So I scoop up all the discs ‘n’ off we go ‘n’ all nite long I keep slipping ’em on the record player bumming everybody out tho they was also kinda fascinated, like this room got kinda quiet at times, waxen even, p’raps understandable this being California suburbs everybody’s dressed to the fillings in all kinda chains and whatnot, taco tanktopping it with frappe de la Yardley on the side, big hoop earrings, all the guys got sideburns so sharp they smoke, when Lou wafts thru: “Caroline says … as she gets up off the floor … ‘Why is it that you beat me? … It isn’t any fun … ‘ ”

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Meanwhile all these folks is loungin’ around ’bout to broach a dolce vita thru the looking glass. Frozen moments, all of them bad. Icy lips and frigid sunglasses.

“It’s not me that’s frigid it’s my Foster Grants!”

“It’s not me that’s impotent it’s my English Leather!”

“Well let’s swap!”

“Wow! Okay!”

“Hey, this decadence stuff up my butt is fun!”

Sadly, it never happened that way. I can’t remember this New Year’s Eve and hadda make something up. But the stories you make up the next day are always better than what actually happened.

1975: Sensible for once. I dropped some speed and Valium, went to the office, which was deserted, and stayed up all night writing a story for the February issue of Creem. Devotion to duty? No. Retreat from Gehenna.

1976: I had been going out with this girl for a couple of months kinda scene-makin photog­-lolligagin around Detroit. She’d decided I was a fag since one nite in Oct/Nov thereabouts at a Barry White concert when we’z sittin behind Ohio Players, the world’s worst opening act, and she sez, re the bass player, “He’s got a nice ass” and I sat up a bit to look and she gave me a weird stare and that was that. So anyway me and this snope-lobe keep a-datin’, but no sex. I was clumsy and shy and she, well, I guess her cameras woulda got in the way. Anyhow here come New Year’s Eve, the biggun, and lord if fuckin Creem magazine don’t rent a whole suite in this postrundowntown hotel just to, ah, entertain all the important folk’t might just happen to tum up like, say, local disc jockeys or Martin Mull who’d done his shtick downstairs and did it upstairs too. For some dumb reason I kinda liked this girl. I dunno, well actually I do know: in front she looked like somebody I used to love named Judy, and in back she looked like somebody I did love but wouldn’t see me at the time named Nancy. So MEA CULPA MUHFUH, etc. Anyhoo, come to find out that the only reason she even went to dis bash wid me was that I jus’ happenda work at the same magazine as this guy name Charlie Auringer who ALL the broads thereabouts were hot for cause’n he jes set back so indifferent all the time, eyeball-to­-snowboot, that kinda thing. When I saw her blatantly USING me to get to Charlie I got pissed. And did what any other righteously upstandin Rasta woulda done: slunk downstairs ‘n’ drunk muhsef tuh nullhood. But I was not alone in this endeavor, and long about midnite her ‘n’ me miraculously ended up side by side, right there stageside table in the lounge downstairs, balloons enuff to snuff Steve Martin agozzlin thru the air, treacle paper everywhere, Flo and Eddie runnin’ around grabbin’ all the asses they could JUST EXACTLY like in that Fugs song “Dirty Old Man,” confetti falling, and me and Lee Anne (for that was her name) both of us in li’l tinsel tophats, socute, herecum midnite, whammo, out go the lites.

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I sling my drunken arm around her shoulders and go to kiss her. She turns away tautlipped.

“Hey! I take you out all the time! I like you! We do things together! Boy and Girl! And you won’t even kiss me on New Year’s Eve!!!!!!??!!!!! What is this shit?”

”You’ve got bad breath,” she said.

It could only get better. Having finally won the heart of the aforementioned Nancy, we moved to New York where we starved Barefoot in the Park and huddled together against this city watching Donny and Marie every single Friday nite. New Year’s Eve we watched Jimmy and Rosalynn instead. Their preinaugural ball. We teardropped together when Loretta Lynn sang “One’s on the Way.” We felt hope for society. We were young and idealistic and in love. We were walking sugar comas too stunned to find our way to a diabetic ward should all that glop we ate back up into our lymph ducts. Six months later she left me to listen to the Sex Pistols in peace.

I went through a couple of minor affairs after that whilst mostly staying drunk and practically taking up residence at CBGB’s where I played the role of Bukowskian bohemian/artiste in ze big sitcom. It got me some real great women — the kind that sit crosslegged on your floor after you’ve both been up all night on bad drugs and won’t fuck you but are perfectly amenable to describing in linoleum detail their various suicide attempts and highly complex postexistential Weltanschauung derived from Richard Hell and countless auditions of dear Sidney warbling “My Way,” a philosophical stance reducible to Life is not worth living and everything stinks but killing yourself is too much effort so what the fuck you got anything else to drink?

It sooner or later became apparent that any women who shared my tastes in music might be predicted miles ahead as burnt-out hunchbacked mutes, half-retarded drug repositories given to heavy facial tic action. It was not that I sought something out of Fascinating Womanhood. I can whip up a Stouffer’s Spinach Soufflé deft as Régine herself, but I did feel there might be some slight possibility that something existed somewhere in between these two outposts of you’re-right-gimme-the-gun-I-wanna-blow-my-­brains-out-first. In fact I was ripe as Li’l Abner in full flushblush, and fell in love Xmas ’77 with the first of what would turn out to be a succession of women who, like myself, were gainfully employed in various aspects of media and were not about to end up aborting a broken vodka bottle on the steps of CBGB’s. These were to be women of refinement and urbane cachet. Some of them took cabs everywhere they went! I also noticed a propensity toward the employment of what they laughingly referred to as “my faggot houseboy,” making little jokes about how handy his imagined infantile-fixated compulsions were when it came to scrubbing the bathroom. The first one I engaged even had a doorman, who thought I was a hoodlum and hated my guts because no thirty-year-old man walks around jobless in a black leather jacket alla time, and who knows but what he may have been right.

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As for my new love, hardly had we finished giggling fantasies about “honeymooning” in that heartshaped bathtub in the Poconos when that bastard Reality (who oughta be terminated with extreme prejudice) set in. It took exactly one week for it to become clear though thick with silence that we had absolutely nothing in common, were in fact the mindlessly magnetic attraction of plupolar opposites. I was still into nothing but platters of shrieking anomic noise while her favorite form of leisuretime wowzow was watching endless made-for-TV movies about occultists bending sinister in obscure New England hamlets. It was nobody’s fault and nothing we could do about it but spend the next months torturing each other. Our New Year’s Eve: We awoke to find ourselves sitting on her couch in the deepening silence watching Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians play “Auld Lang Syne” without even a nod to Jimi’s revolutionary interpolations. And then the big ball dropped on all those cheering idiots slow as a senile meteorite. It was the only time in my life I have ever observed this I am told quite popular ritual (though I am a definite Yule Log fan), and it certainly will be the last, inasmuch as it was one of the possibly four or five dreariest experiences I have known. We didn’t even have any drinks, though we had money. Guess we were so gone we forgot to drink, marijuana would needless to say have been much more deadly than usual. I felt like an E string adrift somewhere in the nether gulfs of the second Dire Straits album.

Next day I went to a dinner party with five of my oldest and dearest friends where absolutely nobody could think of a single word to say. Best line of the afternoon: “Does anybody know any good jokes?” (Delivered at dinner table, quantifying silence to brink of catatonia.)

1979: New Year’s things seemed to be looking up. I had plenty of money, got wired up on beer and bennies and showed up at a friend’s party at the exact instant I’d been informed the jumpin punkins’d be lifting off. Only trouble was nobody else was there yet but the host and his girlfriend/roommate and a cousin from Buffalo or somewhere and we all sat nursing tepid beers, our massed alpha-waves bouncing off Randy Mantooth’s forehead on “Emergency One!” An hour or so of such terror and the bennies itched me right outa my chair and down to the since-shut fave bar the Bells of Hell where I made a pretty good job of picking up this woman I’d never met before till the bartender Phil walked over and said to me, “Do you realize that for the last half hour every other thing you’ve said has had something to do with homosexuality? What’s your problem, Lester?” She much less I hadn’t seemed to notice if such were fact but I was just drunk enough for liberal guilt so I blurted out this real vitreous solution about how I’d had a deadly relationship the previous summer with another media maiden who was a self-declared faghag so gee whiz I didn’t mean to be prejudiced against anybody but maybe I really did harbor some previously unsussed resentment … Naturally this had a real salutary effect on the nascent whoknows mebbe truelove beside me. I took her number and split.

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Later I went to a party where I met a British socialist-type girl who gave me her number as well as wrote at the bottom of the scrap “I liked you.” Of course I called her and we saw each other for about three months, earnestly discussing the Clash vs. The Guardian over Japanese dinners. The full extent of our physicals was a peck g’nite on the cheek as she departed at her subway stop headed for Iceland or Brooklyn I forget which. I soon grew to hate her, and we parted in ash-curdling acrimony. But later on that same New Year’s Eve nite I really lucked out by going back to the Bells where this totally comatose thirty-year-old stranger who worked for UPI hung all over me to my manifest indifference and the embarrassment of everyone else at our table. I could have told her to go foist her slumbrous blandishments elsewhere, but I was too much of a wimp. Finally I got up to leave. I was just a ways past the door when I heard these steps following me down the sidewalk.

“Wait … ”

I waited, stood gallantly propping the creep up till I could hail her a cab. Meanwhile I lectured her in my best Bill Cosby voice. “Listen: you are truly foolish. You don’t know me. I could be David Berkowitz, the Boston Strangler, Richard Speck with a new set of contacts. You really oughta be more careful.” I swear, sometimes I wonder if I’m not Jewish, and a Jewish mother at that.

When I went to put her in the cab, she asked, “Aren’t you going to take me home?”

All right, that’s it, I said to myself like Richard Burton looking at his paycheck for The Medusa Touch, and got into the cab. All the ride to her Upper East Side Laura Mars swankpad she kept prattling about the black leather jacket I was wearing.

“Are you a member of a motorcycle club or something?” I laughed.

“Hell no — I’m a media hack, just like you!”

She didn’t get the joke. When we got out at her corner (where believe me I had no thought in ten purgatories of paying), she kept up this leather routine, persisted at this spume of dogs till finally in a rage I tore the jacket off and flung it at her.

Here, take the damn thing if that’s all you’re interested in!”

“NO, no … ”

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Up in her digs the footlights was boss. She had Grand Marnier night-capwise while I opted for the more proletarian Pinch-with-water. I commenced the usual routine and she pushed me away, blubbering incoherently about some guy she loved who’s stationed with Reuters in Bangkok She tried to call him. He wasn’t home. We hung out in her kitchen awhile and somehow, suddenly, from the way she was acting towards me and my clothes I got the creepy feeling for the first time in my life that just maybe this one wanted me to slap her around a little bit or maybe a lot or who knows what beyond that. This was some time after having been flashed back to the scene in City of Night where the customer throws the hustler out of his house in a rage because this supposed steerhunk truck driver committed the unpardonable gaffe of letting drop that he too had read D. H. Lawrence. I’d had the feeling that something was expected of me, but up till now hadn’t a clue what and doubted she did either. She kept baiting me verbally, weird little zingers from the twilight zone bouncing off the fact that I was about as butch as a college professor who has been sedentary for thirty years. This talk alternated with zonkout google slurs.

It got boring in spite of all freak appeal after a while so I went over and looked through her record collection. The only album she owned that I could remotely relate to was Surrealistic Pillow. I put it on. It sounded nice. We ended up on the couch again where she recommenced to drool aloud. I seem to remember at one point telling her that it really didn’t make any difference to me whether we had sex or not, especially considering the deadening effects of all the speed and booze inside me. Later I grabbed her head between my palms and forced her waxen eyes to look straight into mine sorta and I said in measured dramatic tones, “Do you know what I see when I look into your eyes? Stark, naked terror.” What an asshole I was. A bit later I snapped, “You got any drugs?” By now I was actually beginning to enjoy playing the role. She brought out this vial of pain pills left over from previous misadventure, asked me what use I could possibly have for them. I said that when I had a real bad combination hangover this stuff was the only thing that eased it. Then she decided maybe she’d better hold on to them after because this supposed steerhunk truck driver committed the unpardonable gaffe of letting drop that he too had read D. H. Lawrence. I’d had the feeling that something was expected of me, but up till now hadn’t a clue what and doubted she did either. She kept baiting me verbally, weird little zingers from the twilight zone bouncing off the fact that I was about as butch as a college professor who has been sedentary for thirty years. This talk alternated with zonkout google slurs.

It got boring in spite of all freak appeal after a while so I went over and looked through her record collection. The only album she owned that I could remotely relate to was Surrealistic Pillow. I put it on. It sounded nice. We ended up on the couch again where she recommenced to drool aloud. I seem to remember at one point telling her that it really didn’t make any difference to me whether we had sex or not, especially considering the deadening effects of all the speed and booze inside me. Later I grabbed her head between my palms and forced her waxen eyes to look straight into mine sorta and I said in measured dramatic tones, “Do you know what I see when I look into your eyes? Stark, naked terror.” What an asshole I was. A bit later I snapped, “You got any drugs?” By now I was actually beginning to enjoy playing the role. She brought out this vial of pain pills left over from previous misadventure, asked me what use I could possibly have for them. I said that when I had a real bad combination hangover this stuff was the only thing that eased it. Then she decided maybe she’d better hold on to them after all, giving me two and stuffing the vial down her purse, which was interesting. About five minutes after that she passed out curled sitting up in a foetal ball on the couch as the sun came up through the curtains. What the fuck, I said, I’ll give the bitch the B production she wants: I robbed her. I dug in the purse for the vial, actually found myself looking for a moment at her wallet, either couldn’t go that far or realized how silly this whole charade was, grabbed the fifth of Pinch on the way out the door, stomping down just a little meaner in my badass Frye boots. Still as tough and mature obviously as the ’73 night of the famous fingernail-dig. I wished I could call up Dotson Rader for a Merit Badge. Out in the street I hailed a cab; the driver was a middle-aged black guy. I said, “Jesus, man, I’m so glad to be around another human being at last! Can I tell you a story?”

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Sure, he says, so I belched up the mess, capping it with the declaration that when I got home I was gonna call her and tell her that she was a sicko weirdo Goodbar so-‘n’ -so and yeh baby I stole your pills ‘n’ booze but you stole a li’l bit o’ my soul.

When I finished my story, the driver, who had laughed uproariously throughout, turned and said: “Aw, hell, man, why go to all that fuckin’ trouble? Look, here’s whatcha do. Wait till bout two o’clock in the afternoon when you know she’s up, then phone her and real calm and polite say, ‘I just called to see if you were all right.’ Then after she answers tell her to go fuck herself an’ hang up!”

I realized immediately that he was right and I was still halfway up a horse on some backlot in Hollywood. I thanked him profusely. When I got home I drank her Pinch, took more speed, listened to the Clash through headphones feeling the righteous wrath of all us boots-in-the-alley working class minorities. Then I dialed her number. She wasn’t home. When I told a friend of mine about it a couple days later he just laughed and said: “So you let some barfly take you home, so what?” So I got to be Rough Trade for a Night, something I can tell my apple-eyed grandchildren about around the hearth, so fuck you, you’re just jealous because you never got mistaken for Sonny Barger. I did learn one valuable lesson, though, which convinced me that what all those hippies called karma actually does exist. That very next New Year’s Night, twenty­four hours later, somebody stole my black leather jacket out of the cloakroom at the Bells.

So here I sit, contemplating a coming New Year’s Eve which is gonna usher in a whole new decade doubtless brimming with little surprises beyond the usual roster of economic/spiritual depression, romantic wrong-ways unto entropy, comforting lapses into autism, etc. I guess I could ring up one of those wayout punk philosopher girls and ask her if she wants to drop by with a couple razor blades, dutch treat. Or enlist in the New Army and ask to be stationed in upper Greenland. Or even move back to Detroit and ask Lee Anne to marry me while I returned to work at Creem, in the mailroom. The possibilities are endless. Don’t guess this piece is gonna help my standing with the ladies much New Year’s or any other night. But that’s cool too; I could marry my mother. If she would have me. Go ahead and feel distaste for my antics with the lush, call me misogynous, misanthrope, Mr. Rogers. Just don’t call me late for my Zoom ‘n’ Locker Room! Every single one of you has acted every bit as oafishly base some New Year’s or other or several or all of them. And you’re gonna do it again this year. The occasion just seems to bring out the worst in us: hatred of ourselves, probably deriving from repression of the clear knowledge that we’re another year older and deeper in debt but ain’t accomplished hackshit and in fact are likely backpedaling; hatred of the rest of the human race because they’ve got our number in this department, especially including women if you’re a man or vice-versa, ’cause that’s just like neighborhood gang war, “beating up the kids from Spain” every weekend like the Dictators said. Whoever’s on the other side of the wall gives you something to do in the form of mashing their skulls, don’t really matter a damn which special-interested group they belong to, all interchangeable when you get right down to it. There’s a lot of free-floating rage in the air these days and New Year’s Eve is just one better excuse to vent it. ‘Course that means you’re gonna wind up rendered a crawling slavering subhuman dog yourself, but that’s half the fun. The only alternatives re this “human dignity” stuff are that old saw about crossing the International Dateline, total isolation (always a good move anyway), or perhaps most sensibly JUST GIVING INTO THE THING AND ACTING LIKE TOTAL WRETCHED DISGUSTING BEASTS. And maybe if we all get drunk enough we’ll all have blackouts so trackless and remarkably sustained that we’ll never remember all the reprehensible things we said and did to each other, hence no guilt. Either that or we’ll all wind up killing each other at last. Though that may be the dream of a blind optimist. If so, an alternate experiment in participatory democracy might be arranged whereby we’d all agree to stockpile beforehand so when we wake up on New Year’s Day we’ve made sure there’s a thousand whiskey bottles around the bed, and then we can start over again immediately, quick as a Wheaties Olympian, before a single one o’ them ghastly memories sifts back in. And what’s more, don’t anybody get up, from sea to shining sea, don’t get up ever but just keep on like that under or over the covers, your option, en masse till New Year’s 1990. We’ve worked hard at wrecking after degrading everything we ever cared about, and deserve a good Puritan rest. Like Gore Vidal said when Tennessee Williams told him he’d slept through the sixties: “You didn’t miss a thing.”


Lester Bangs’s Naked Grunge

I’ll Be Your Mirror

Here’s one way of explaining what Lester Bangs did. You could locate him according to the same vectors that diced up Mark David Chapman’s identity, and finally re­duced him to killing a Beatle — a murder he mistook for a suicide. But instead of being victimized by the dislocations of self that take shape as pop fandom, Lester wrote about them, and turned expressing them into one life-affirming shitstorm.

From 1969 up to his death at 33, five years ago, Lester expressed many things: anomie, hostility, gleeful scorn, a love-hate relationship with excess, pratfalls of the heart, intimations of grace. He did so in a style that ran from the shock of great graffi­ti to pages so receptive to each new turn of thought and emotion that articulating those turns became an act of compassion.

Most of his work, though not all, took the form of writing about rock and roll records. Partly because that got him labeled a “rock writer,” and partly because he constantly overstepped the boundaries of being one, his huge achievement was also fugitive. He was banging away in the cellar of journalism, let alone literature. Lester was exiled by Jann Wenner from the review section of that great iconoclastic publication Rolling Stone for, according to Greil Marcus, “disrespect toward musicians.” Scribbling for the Voice, his major outlet after moving to New York in 1977 — from Detroit, where he had creat­ed a vortex of unrequited turbulence in the stillborn mid-’70s music scene at Creem magazine — was as close to a respectable fo­rum as he got.

No doubt that bedeviled him: no writer who cares about his or her work wants it to stand forever on such slippery ground. But given how much Lester’s writing was not only a response to pop culture but an enactment of it, the mongrel circumstances of his work may have been appropriate. To have him between hard covers and claimed for literature, as he is in Marcus’s anthology Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, is a satisfying validation and a major event. On the other hand, even when the selection is as conscientious and astute as Marcus’s, such a presentation is also a diminishment. It can’t duplicate experiencing Lester’s work as a swarm of contingent, one-shot respons­es — as immediate in its improvised rudeness as the music he loved.

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Another thing about Lester: Lester pro­duced. Marcus mentions assembling five million words of published and unpublished essays, reviews, polemics, fantasies, screeds. The total output may be considerably larger. Any corpus that size is going to include dull writing; Lester committed some. The amaz­ing part is how much is magnificent. My first reaction to the table of contents was to remember a dozen or a hundred extraordinary pieces left out, which is said in sympa­thy with what Marcus was up against.

There’s still an awkwardness about calling any critic a great writer. Writing about the popular arts can at least feel more central to one’s culture than the literary kind. The way records and movies and TV jell social life — ­the way people use them to jerry-build rea­sons to believe — means that writers almost can’t help broaching and, if they’re good, illuminating politics, class, democracy, capi­talism, fucking, whatever.

That’s the intellectual defense — where you’d start from to evaluate most of the best pop critics, most of whom also understand that pop culture is a dialogue, not a canon, and put their personalities as much as their intellects on the line, in their responses. The intellectual defense, however, has next to nothing to do with Lester. Whatever value his work had as cultural analysis, or cultural history, was by inference only, as witness­ing, not exegesis. If he’d lived a little more vicariously, he’d be alive today.

I don’t think it occurred to him that a critic couldn’t be a great writer. He was writing about the life around him, and in him, and rock and roll was the best refractor for it. What Lester never bothered to argue, but simply embodied, was that for this society the flotsam and effluvia of pop were spiritual determinants. The map shows a land of a million chapels, all spackled up differently from the bones of Saint Crud’s left little finger.

So Lester testified. “If love is truly going out of fashion forever, which I do not be­lieve, then along with our nurtured indiffer­ence to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each other’s objects of reverence. I thought it was Iggy Stooge, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to speak for your private, entirely circumscribed situation’s many pains and few ecstasies. We will con­tinue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis’s. But I will guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis.”

Lester was a religious writer — the pop era’s first, and most likely the pop era’s only. But conventional literary pigeonhol­ing, even assuming it could accept that Les­ter took all this grunge seriously, would never know what to make of the fact that he knew it was grunge; he recognized that finding one’s teleology in the fried cross-circuits of pop was such an absurd endeavor that farting in church was one of the votive offer­ings. Or: HAW HAW HAW, as Lester used to transcribe said recognition.

Anyone in love knows that the deepest bonds are schizophrenic — you ping-pong from worship to jeering like the number-­bubbles that bat around when they pick this week’s Lotto. Lester’s all was predicated on the notion that pop, as a relationship, was just that volatile and close. The bumptiousness, which is simply immediacy, is much of what literature has lost even for those who’ve plighted their troth to it.

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Pop came about, in part, as a quasi-acci­dental substitute for social verities whose authority had ebbed more than the people running the store suspected. Because pop was still part of the store, whatever emo­tional truths you latched onto in it came fractured and distorted, cheek by jowl with all sorts of inane vacuity — sometimes closer. In fact, the mix itself took pride of place among the emotional truths.

Lester didn’t make the choice of reveling in the mix. It just didn’t occur to him to leave it out of his transcription of what life felt like. His appreciation of grunge was of­ten farcical — the mark of a sensible man. Marcus reprints one typical Creem review — ­of a long-forgotten ’70s goon-rock band —  which is mostly devoted to gleefully tracing one band member’s face, through all the permutations of rock posturing, back to “that same dork … that used to sit in the seat right in front of you in Driver Train­ing.” (He only gets around to wondering what the band sounds like in the last para­graph, and answers himself, “Great!” — his equivalent, at the time, for asking who gave a fuck.) He got the kind of laughter that racks you as unexpectedly as vomiting, but sure feels like an improvement on it.

Lester’s appreciation of grunge was never camp. Partly, he saw the way it dealt in stuff art wasn’t supposed to as an enlivening yawp, one his own career participated in. Partly, he saw that it reached back, in suit­ably half-assed fashion, to simulate the primitive: If we couldn’t have blood knowl­edge, we could have howling electronic grunge knowledge. Mainly, though, grunge was what had best expressed his experience and answered his cravings as a teen in one of those completely atrocious California suburbs of nowhere that come on a little like Los Olvidados on an allowance, the last qualifier removing any potential for cathar­sis and dumping you flat-out instead in a moronic torpor to which no music speaks so aptly and indeed avidly as the Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction” or the Music Ma­chine’s “Talk Talk,” two of the classier, be­lieve it or not, of Lester’s submental So-Cal garage-band faves.

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They answered some of his cravings, I should say. His other cravings were an­swered by putting on Coltrane real loud and declaiming “Howl” in his bedroom. It takes something like the equivalent of genius in personality to grow up without denying ei­ther legacy.

Lester ennobled the ludicrous inner life of pop fans by telling the truth about it — by discerning that inner lives, and not music, were what pop music was about. But the most difficult quality to communicate about his writing is how whole-souled it was. Ev­erything that affected him — and he believed that what affected people at the lowest and most embarrassing levels was as worthy of consideration as whatever evoked their highest conceptions and hopes — was en­gaged in passionate earnest with the whole self. Lester once wrote a piece, not reprinted by Marcus, about the British band the Au Pairs, caught up in humane admiration for the women’s gutsiness, and heartfelt, mov­ing wishes for an era not of genders but of human beings. Then he cut it all off with the declaration that now he was going to go jerk off to Celebrity Skin. It was brave; you were face to face with the page. For Lester, it was nothing special — wasn’t that what writers were for?

Lester was unable to confine himself within the essay, the review — even journal­ism. It’s revelatory to turn from his first piece on Iggy and the Stooges, “Of Pop and Pies and Fun,” near the beginning of Psychotic Reaptions, to “Women on Top,” a previously unpublished fragment near the end. The first is earnest and perceptive, but too much of it is written in the deadly, sono­rous — and in this case, almost eloquently inappropriate — style of the jazz critics Les­ter emulated early on. The second, composed 11 years later, may be the most ex­treme foray into language he ever made.

He sat down to write a book proposal­ — the subtitle is “Ten Post-Lib Role Models for the Eighties.” But within a dozen sen­tences, having typed the name “Andy War­hol” and leaped from that to Amos ‘n’ Andy, he’s off on an entirely subterranean, private goof, making characters from Warhol’s Fac­tory tell shaggy-dog stories in brain-fried King Fish accents: “iz jazz cummon cartessy but diz iz alzo drue dat daffrunt sexshinz av de town gut dawfrint moo-rayze n moadez a be-in an karyin yosevz psnly oi jiz woke awraiown in MAN MOI AWN BAZNAZ … ” A goof the piece stays; but as a tran­scription of the stumblebum rhythms of junkie talk, not to mention an excavation from the bottom of the mine shaft of the national idiom, it’s almost on a par with the broken English of the great closing passages of Naked Lunch.

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The genesis of “Women on Top” suggests other ways Lester looked for more. His brain, and his files, teemed with ideas and beginnings for books, treatises, manifestos; none completed, I suspect because he de­spaired of finding a single framework that would somehow say it all. Even his pub­lished work pushed the outside of the enve­lope. Psychotic Reactions moves from a pre­ponderance of casual music reviews and interviews from Lester’s early career to an equal preponderance of crammed, sweeping sieges on meaning. “The White Noise Su­premacists,” his epic essay/report/castigation/soul-searching of punk racism, is one such siege; “New Year’s Eve,” packing a decade of personalized social history into a basically frivolous Voice assignment, may be an even better example of Lester always trying to say it all.

But even when writing about music prop­er, Lester’s dynamic was to veer off into fantasy, imaginary dialogues and encoun­ters, whole scenes which anthropomor­phized pop-figure public images into the presences they had become in his mind. Lester, deciding the reason he can’t stand Jethro Tull is that they remind him of Viet­namese folk music, jets off to war-torn Sai­gon for confirmation, and gives us Thieu declaring, “I’m no folkie.” When he tried fiction outright, it was shaped by the same impulse. Marcus reprints an imaginary ac­count of the real-life affair behind the song “Maggie May” which is oddly, credibly, poi­gnant — and also so slanderous the proper names had to be omitted and a legal dis­claimer inserted, after the book was in proof.

Lester’s hyperactive expansions were nev­er just jokes. (You laughed your head off.) They were true imaginative renderings of the emotional reality of pop culture — a hu­man relationship, not an aesthetic one, for all that the other person involved is entirely in your own head. Lester took the extrapola­tions and identifications and daydreams whose real significance is normally denied by their expression in trivializing fan-mag drivel — My Dream Date With Phil Col­lins — and found what exists there, in differ­ent versions, for each member of the audi­ence: his own Yoknapatawpha County.

Lester wrote many heartfelt tributes to the artists who had given him reasons to believe. Some, like the essay on Van Morri­son’s Astral Weeks included in the antholo­gy, are quite beautiful. At other times, as Marcus notes, awe — or gratitude — tied his tongue. Still, he never succumbed to Chap­man’s fallacy, because what gave Lester hope was that men and women as bamboo­zled as himself had yet been able to produce such stuff.

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To him, that meant they’d been touched by grace; it also meant that they could let grace down, or just be full of shit. Midway through one of Lester’s celebrated battle­-royal interviews in Creem with the mid-’70s Lou Reed, several of which Marcus in­cludes — bitch Lou, acrid with fatigued iro­nies, baiting, parrying, waylaying; engorged Lester lunging, demanding; both men drunk on their ass — the avatar says, defending Bowie, “David wrote some really great songs.” “Aw c’mon!” Lester hollers back, “anybody can write great songs! Sam the Sham wrote great songs! Did David ever write anything better than ‘Woolly Bully’?”

It’s a pitched moment — suddenly they’re cellmates, or married, or maybe the lover and the cuckold: any two people in a rela­tionship whose intimacy is a given, not a choice. It’s also a defenseless moment — the voice of an obsession that no longer cares what it says so long as it arrives at what it believes. And it’s also an uproarious mo­ment — Sam the Sham! Of course he belongs there.

The other thing about Lester’s pieces on Lou, and a lot of his other hectoring, ob­sessed pieces besides — though few other of his subjects let him do the hectoring in per­son — is that they’re scary. Lester obviously hung on to who he was a lot better than Mark Chapman did. But he was still con­fronting, quite consciously and doggedly, for the sake of truth, the identical risky duet of the psyche — how much we let our pop he­roes put names and labels to our private stance, style, morals, fundament. To feel de­fined, and worse, betrayed (and some of Lester’s greatest writing was his most un­fair, pillorying some former Great One who’d turned his or her back on grace) by people who are, after all, not your cellmate, or spouse, or cuckolder, is to court the psy­chotic. But Lester never seemed more hero­ic, or public-spirited, than when he’d lay out how much they’d gotten to him. “I would suck Lou Reed’s cock,” Lester the con­firmed heterosexual wrote, and there wasn’t any embarrassment in it, because he didn’t believe his human dignity was compromised by such a statement.

It was never just for the sake of his partic­ular inner drama that Lester felt let down or pissed off by his avatars, but for a cause — a hard one to define without sounding too bald, which Lester chanced when he called it “the war for the preservation of the heart” (it’s much less sententious in context, because so plainly felt, no mere generality). He was old-fashioned about responsibility, believed in things like compacts; he knew how urgent were the promises these people dealt in. That understanding is the touchstone of one of his best-remembered pieces, an obit­uary for his friend Peter Laughner, who “killed himself for something torn T-shirts represented in the battle fires of his ripped emotions.” Lester knew that was pathetic and hideous; he was right to think it still mattered.

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Lester craved beauty — believed in it, unaffectedly, as an absolute. Hence his love not only for Van Morrison but for the early Eno, later to become a fit subject for war-of-­the-heart rancor. Both examples suggest how much he only trusted beauty when it was also absolutist — invented solely out of the nonnegotiable demands of an entirely individual grip on wonder, without regard or recourse to the conventional claptrap signifiers that pass for beauty. But his deeper precondition, as ever, was that the music materialize emotions which might otherwise have had no witness; given his time, it’s no surprise that he was best known instead for being; and, may even have been most valu­able as the champion of elemental racket. (Note: “Grunge” and “elemental racket” are not the same thing, though the overlap between them is made clear by the wonderful, hilarious old-geezer monologue on the lost glory of the Count Five which gives Psychotic Reactions its title.)

Lester was the first to crow over what real rock fans always knew. Just like those ’50s fogeys and their modern descendants have always said, and as the music’s prissier de­fenders have been at such pains to deny, it was racket. Messy, unsoothing racket. As usual, there’s an intellectual defense. Lester revered artists of acute intelligence, acutely intelligent instinct, or plain nonspecific acuteness, like the “Sister Ray” Lou, or Iggy, or the Ramones, who used elemental racket purposefully, to get at elemental things. He also saw that valuing it was the hidden link between the most feckless garage guitar-bashing and the avant-garde titans, from Albert Ayler to antititan Arto Lindsay. But as usual, the intellectual de­fense won’t do. Lester loved racket because it was racket: ”illiterate chaos gradually tak­ing shape as a uniquely personal style,” he wrote early on of Iggy, maybe too elegantly; “horrible noise” he summed it up.

He was right again — nothing’s so galvan­ic. It has to do with tracking down the spiro­chete in the blood, the bacilli rubbed into the vaccination. No stimulus like racket to animate you up onto the sensation of ramparts. It feels surgical. Contrary to what parents used to say, racket doesn’t give you a lobotomy; it apostrophizes, and treats, your feeling that you’ve already had one. Energizing the negative is the polite way of describing this. “The yowlings of missing links around the purple fire” was one of Lester’s many ways.


Partly because of the distance imposed by hard covers, Psychotic Reactions and Car­buretor Dung makes it possible to see the larger patterns and congruences of Lester’s work. I’d say that 98 per cent of what Mar­cus has done is first-rate. One flaw is that no accounting is given of the cutting and reshaping Marcus performed on some choices, which was most likely necessary — particu­larly with the unpublished stuff, an elucida­tor’s nightmare — but which should still have been acknowledged right up front.

An early section devoted to Lester’s work on Creem, which he all but invented in the early ’70s, feels scattershot. As Marcus sug­gests, Lester’s creativity at Creem wasn’t just a matter of doing great pieces, but of making exhilarated use of the magazine’s whole apparatus, from headings and picture captions to replies to reader mail, to purvey a gestalt. Creem was Lester’s own Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Selecting only the Creem work that can stand on its own loses the effect of swarm, and maybe there wasn’t any way around that — though I’d have liked to see some of the picture captions and replies to readers.

The anthology is designed to make visible a series of trajectories, most notably Lester’s evolution from chaotically irreverent, anything-goes debunker and joker at Creem to increasingly open and adamant moralist (and debunker, and joker) later on — plainly a development, not a change. What Lester paradoxically always looked for in extremes was the corrective balance. Pissing on every­thing, sending it up, boosting nihilistic rage, were unquestionably the most ethical and sane contributions a moralist could make to the prepunk ’70s. But once Johnny Rotten had appeared to take over that job, and the battle had been joined in both senses, it was a gesture of optimism to argue about values and thrash out doubts. Lester’s concern for the punks was tender — a lot of his dreams, which like most good ones had begun with nightmares for honesty’s sake, were bound up with them. By the end, though he didn’t indulge in recriminations, he knew that punk had gone down the toilet like everything else; that made the search for values still more urgent, unmediated even by mu­sic, and utterly solitary.

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The book also enables you to see Lester’s own literary lineage much more clearly: Ginsberg’s long line, and telegraphic modern resurrection of forceful early-English rhythms. Burroughs’s inspired stand-up routines and disease-telethon dada. Some Mailer in the happiness of plunging into thickets of contradiction, and finding one’s way out by inventiveness and will. The gath­ering-up of emotional textures into bunchings of pure compassion that moved him in Tennessee Williams. Not to mention a style of unfolding, gravely enunciatory plain speech, which sounds Lincolnesque but has a more likely origin in Lester’s having gone to elementary school back when kids still had to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning.

The most common take on Lester’s lan­guage was that he found the equivalent in writing for the dynamics of rock and roll; there’s jazz in it too, in the improvisation of solos over a progression which itself mu­tates in response to them. The freight of second thoughts and recollections and asides which Lester was able to add to the main line of his ongoing reaction has the effect not of dispersion but of tributaries running into a river, adding their push to the current. Still, Lester never seemed to be working out a conceit; all his best moments felt blurted, pure serendipity. Here’s one modest example, found at random not only by me but I suspect by Lester (he was writ­ing during the Iranian hostage crisis): “Two nights ago my friend John Morthland was over and we talked about Teheran and the future of this embassy we live in.” The shift to metaphor is quiet — blink and you’ll miss it; the effect reverberates. Lester discovered shit like that all the time.

Probably the most astonishing piece in the book — not only for itself, but for its demonstration of the escalating quality, even from the most chorelike start, of Les­ter’s imagination — began life as background notes for a review of Peter Guralnick’s book Lost Highway. Lester’s just plugging away at first, sorting out impressions. Soon he be­comes engrossed, ruminating on Sam Phil­lips as shaman, conformity and rebellion, the discovery of America. Then something triggers a recollection of Geraldo Rivera de­manding, on TV, that Elvis’s body be ex­humed to check for traces of drugs; Lester loathes Geraldo, and so imagines that his real craving is to make off with the actual half-digested pills from Elvis’s decomposing insides. That brings to mind the Golden Bough legends of primitives ingesting the best qualities of their enemies by eating them — the perfect metaphor for tabloid necrophilia, and he doesn’t even have to say so.

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But it’s too late to stop now. Either Lester or Lester-as-Geraldo, it’s hard to tell which, swallows the pills; suddenly he is speaking as Elvis, feeling out his new identity. The rant is knockabout abusive and funny (“Guess I could get one of my rifles off the shelf and shoot out a few TV picture tubes. Lemme get the TV Guide and see who’s on I wanna shoot”). But then it climbs into pitches of dread made tangible (“I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I can’t get high”). The piece just keeps on mushrooming until it explodes as a half-comprehending scream of stop eat­ing me that finally stands as the deepest, most heartbreaking rendition of that poor lost dumb slob, P.F.C. Jesus H. Presley, ever caught in words. Its source, its absolutely necessary beginning, is as a ghoulish, dopey sick joke. And yet these crass, grotesque, and driven pages deserve permanent en­shrining in our literature. Of course Lester could never get it printed.

Psychotic Reactions shows the freewheel­ing nature of Lester’s responsiveness, how many polyglot things fed his preoccupations. A long account of the Clash on tour in England reels in an encounter with a handi­capped woman in an airport, Lester’s read­ing at the moment (The War Against the Jews), snippets of road life, how Lester’s dressed, William Blake, how Teds dress, etc., into a pilgrim’s progress that really is about nothing but the Clash, and their im­pact on him. Yet Psychotic Reactions also shows the unsuspected extent to which his mind kept revolving around the same few preoccupations, or maybe just one: the fight with death.

Death could be literal, or death could be figurative — it’s typical of how Lester’s mind worked that he saw no distinction, and had only one vocabulary for both. His belief in sexual union as the rebuttal to it could be literal or figurative; even when figurative, it was no metaphor. It all came down to Les­ter’s words for how he felt when first seeing Elvis on stage: “an erection of the heart.” A world is in that phrase; a lot of writers would have retired on it. Lester was just being descriptive, and moved on.

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His own end centers all melancholy on wondering what more he might have done. Marcus disputes the theory that he’d have quit writing about music. My bet is the shift was quite probable, partly because a big chunk of what motivated Lester was the belief that there was an audience out there that felt as he did, and that belief was get­ting harder to sustain, at least about rock and roll. People hadn’t just stopped looking to the music for reasons to believe; what appalled and frightened Lester was that in the main they seemed to feel no need to compensate for it elsewhere. His conception of his work’s worth, as of the records he loved, was that it was an offering, part of a communal back-and-forth. He was willing to be a crank, but had a horror of being one in a vacuum; that was too much like solipsism, always one of his words for death.

But his writing up to that point, as repre­sented in Psychotic Reactions, also feels like there’s nothing more to add to it. My own belief is that Lester saw this as his appren­ticeship; the task of defining one’s world, and establishing the terms of one’s identity, that precedes the foray into creation. Mar­cus reports that he was about to leave, ro­mantic in earnest to the last, for Mexico, there to get down to work on the big book of his life. You can’t know whether to mourn or marvel that this magnificent body of work, as far as he was concerned, had only cleared the decks so that he could begin.

One other thing: Practically every past and serving rock critic in the country — in­cluding yours truly — is listed in the book’s acknowledgments. Some are weighty names, at least in our benighted guild; some of the others make everything you’ve heard about rock critics sound true. We aren’t a bunch much given to fellow-feeling, or for that matter activity. But this once, we all came out of our Grub Street holes, blinking like bats from how white the page is. Everyone wanted to stick in two cents — the big guns and the jerkoffs, and the crowd in between. It’s the guild’s testimony, for whatever it’s worth: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Lester.

By Lester Bangs
Edited by Greil Marcus
Knopf, $19.95


Elton John: A Bitch Is Born

In 1976, when Elton John announced his first farewell tour, the singer was in the midst of one of the most successful streaks in the history of pop music, having released seven straight No. 1 albums in less than four years. Almost four decades later, John is saying goodbye again, bringing his “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour to Madison Square Garden and the Barclay’s Center this week.

The Village Voice wrote about Elton John numerous times over the years, poking fun at his flamboyant frivolity while recognizing his musical genius. In a 1975 assessment of John’s perch atop the pop-rock heap, Robert Christgau wrote, “No matter how you deplore his sloppiness, or his one-dimensionality, or his $40,000 worth of rose-colored glasses, you will find yourself humming ‘Take Me to the Pilot’ or ‘Bennie and the Jets’ or ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.’ Not all of them, perhaps; maybe not any of those three. But the man’s gift for the hook — made up whole or assembled from outside sources — is so universal that there is small statistical likelihood that one of them hasn’t stuck in your pleasure center. Or your craw. Or both.”

Four years later, when Lester Bangs wrote about John’s eight-night stand at the Palladium, the singer was no longer on his hot streak. In 1976, John had come out of the closet in a Rolling Stone interview (a moment that illustrator Edward Sorel depicted in the Village Voice table of contents on November 15), and described 1975 as one of the worst years of his life. But even the ever-prickly Bangs could recognize John’s brilliance.

John may have never again reached his Seventies peak, but as the fans seeing him on this latest farewell tour can attest, and as Bangs wrote in 1979, “He’s still a great entertainer, and for all his superhack’s calculation of the marketplace he’s never seemed cynical.” Anyone who’s attended more than one of John’s “final” tours might disagree about the cynicism part, but no one can deny that he’s still a great entertainer. So long, Captain Fantastic, until next time.

Elton John: The Little Hooker Who Could
‘Hooks are what makes DJs and listeners remember a record. Elton’s gift for the hook is so universal that there is small likelihood that one of them hasn’t stuck in your pleasure center. Or your craw.’

By Robert Christgau
November 24, 1975

There is something wondrous about Elton John, and something monstrous. The preeminent rock star of the ’70s seems out of time, untouched by the decade’s confusion. Unlike most of his compeers, he consumes music omnivorously — his tastes suggest fuel rather than food — and he pursues this fame with such single-minded compulsion that to accuse him of escapism sounds silly, like accusing a runaway freight train of antisocial tendencies.

Always the metaphore that arise are mechanical. As the great inheritor of Philadelphia pop-rock, in which rock and roll ceases to be an uncontrolled natural force and turns into a product understood and exploitable, John’s records are artifacts rather than expressions of a palpably vital individual. Of course, they share this artifactual quality with some of the best popular music of our time — he exquisitely crafted recordings of Randy Newman or Paul Simon or Steely Dan, or of the current kings of Philadelphia soul, Gamble and Huff. But with such artists the metaphors are from nature — what they create is like a fly preserved in amber. What Elton John creates is more like a Coca-Cola sign.

Not counting a soundtrack and a live album and a greatest hits and a collection of early efforts as yet unreleased here, John’s newest LP, Rock of the Westies — number one, of course, containing one number-one single so far — is the ninth album (including one double) the singer-songwriter has loosed upon the American public since the time of his debut at the Troubadour in Los Angeles in August, 1970. By the standards established for today’s pop, such productivity is gross, proof in itself that Elton must be doing something wrong, and the alacrity with which he works is equally suspect. The songs begin with lyricist Bernie Taupin, whom Elton met in 1967 by answering a want ad; although the two once spent a lot of time scuffling and still tour together, they rarely see each other socially any more. Taupin will write the lyrics for an album over a two-week flurry, spending perhaps an hour on each one, and send them on to Elton, who works out chords and melody for each lyric unchanged, a process that usually takes less than an hour. Recording takes a few weeks at most. John has said he believes pop music should be disposable; the way he grinds it out, he might pass for a garbage processing plant.

Yet there are few people who like rock and roll, or any pop music, who remain unreached by Elton John. It’s not just that he’s so pervasive, although that helps; quite simply, the man is a genius. No matter how you deplore his sloppiness, or his one-dimensionality, or his $40,000 worth of rose-colored glasses, you will find yourself humming “Take Me to the Pilot” or “Bennie and the Jets” or “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” Not all of them, perhaps; maybe not any of those three. But the man’s gift for the hook — made up whole or assembled from outside sources — is so universal that there is small statistical likelihood that one of them hasn’t stuck in your pleasure center. Or your craw. Or both.

For of course a good hook does not guarantee aesthetic merit — it is merely a means to aesthetic merit, and far from a foolproof one. The chorus of “Take Me to the Pilot” is as compelling a melody as John has ever concocted, but the lyric is gibberish, and every time the melody leads me to the gibberish I resent it more. Or again: John’s affected pronunciation of discard (“disz-gard”) is a kind of hook in itself, and also a turn-off in itself. In “Bennie and the Jets,” on the other hand, the way some fairly standard notions about rock stardom are embodied in the music — the whole damn song is one enormous hook — makes them vivid and convincing.

Hooks are integral to hit singles; they are what makes disc jockeys and radio listeners remember a record. The heedless fecundity of John’s recording habits tends to produce hit singles; one cut or another is bound to be right because it’s all so hit-or-miss. So when John is praised critically, it is usually as a singles artist. Inevitably, though, some of John’s monster singles present him at his most monstrous — not so many any more, granted, but you can’t just disregard (or diszard) those that do. His Greatest Hits is a hodgepodge. But there is a compensation — John processes so much music that it is possible to sort out the garbage on that jumble of long-playing discs by analyzing their hook content.

On his two worst albums, Madman Across the Water and Please Don’t Shoot the Piano Player, hooks are both rare and dull; the same goes for at least half of the double-LP, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and the second side of Caribou. On the two early song-poetry efforts, Elton John and Tumbleweed Connection, the hooks are often there, but the way they drip with nasal sensitivity (wiped by Paul Buckmaster’s orchestral embroidery) you wish they weren’t. A similar sensibility reemerges in a less fulsome musical context on Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, the autobiographical bildungselpee of earlier this year, but the concept fails, and its failure as a whole diminishes its better parts.

That’s already six and a half discs gone, but what’s left is at least five years worth of good rock and roll. Honky Chateau, album number four, which announced John’s and Taupin’s escape from the excesses of their own romanticism, sounds even crisper today, when you can be sure it wasn’t a fluke. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (number six) is uneven but goes places, including not only “Bennie and the Jets” and one of John’s two hit Rolling Stone rip-offs, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” but also the unheralded “Your Sister Can’t Twist.” This raver is one of John’s masterpieces, overlaying surf-sound harmonies and midway organ on an intensified send-up of Danny & the Juniors’ “At the Hop,” itself the most intense Philadelphia pop-rock record ever made. The first side of Caribou (number seven) leads off with an even nastier Rolling Stones rip-off, “The Bitch Is Back,” and never lets up. My favorite cut is called “Solar Prestige a Gammon”: “Solar prestige a gammon/Kool kar kyrie kay salmon/Hair ring molassis abounding/Common lap kitch sardin a poor floundin.”

Which brings us to Rock of the Westies, which I didn’t like when I first put it on and now think is Elton John’s best album. This is nothing new. Despite his considerable commercial skill and fabulous commercial success, John does not suit my (rather permissive) notions about how an artist should behave, and although (or perhaps because) he is five years younger than me, he is not a child of the ’60s the way I am. He threatens me, and like most people I know I tend to fear and distrust him, so I write him off all the time. On this record I took a blasé approach, comparing him to the Bic pen, a formerly dependable product which can no longer be counted on to write every time.

“Elton John: Prude of the Week” by Edward Sorel, 1976

Then, in a bad mood one night, I lay down and read the lyrics along with the music. I grew angry. Not that the lyrics were bad in themselves; in fact, they were Taupin’s best batch ever, maybe a real goodbye to the yellow brick road. Taupin had written about race and class before, but not with this sort of toughness and clarity and irony; there was even a contribution from a woman, backup singer Ann Orson, about the contradictions of working-class marriage, the first outside composition ever to appear on an Elton John album. But the music…arghh, the music. This Bic was not only writing, it was leaking on my shirt; between the band’s machine-tooled hard rock and Elton’s automatic good cheer, it was crossing the fucking words right out.

The next day, you guessed it, I found myself singing not one but three or four of the tunes — the “Take Me to the Pilot” effect, in a way, although rather than leading me to gibberish the music was, in effect, the gibberish itself. I’ll shake this off, I said to myself, but I could not resist playing the record again…and again. Both sides. Hooked again.

Only one of the nine songs on the album bothers me much any more, and even that one I’m not sure about. The title is “Billy Bones and the White Bird,” with lyrics that more or less match, and the hook is the only one I noticed before reading the words — Elton chanting “check it out” over an echo-ish Bo Diddley shuffle, very contemporary-sounding, and therefore irrelevant to the old-salt spirit of the lyric as I understand it. With Taupin, that last is an essential proviso — half the time he does not bother to make himself understood, which given the middlebrow claptrap he is capable of when he does (“Hollywood made you a superstar/And pain was the price you paid”) often seems a blessing — but what made this album different was that it applied in a new way. The difference was irony — the lyrics were clear to begin with, but shifted nuance over repeated listenings. And as I listened I found their toughness and clarity and irony enriched by the music and by John’s abiding high spirits.

“Grow Some Funk of Your Own,” is the greatest in a long line of south-of-the-border songs that began with the Robins’ “Down in Mexico,” because the nastiness of the slumming impulse underlying such tales is implicit in the marimba accent of the band’s own funk and the Spanish accent John assumes when quoting the avenging boyfriend (“he was so macho,” Elton whimpers). The faked-up Caribbean inflections, both oral and instrumental, of the hit single, “Island Girl,” imply a naive racism belied by the impassive but sage cruelty of the lyric’s conclusion — that is, the “inappropriateness” of the music ultimately elaborates the song’s irony. In contrast the temper of both “Street Kids” and Ann Orson’s “Hard Luck Story,” fired by the band’s drive, cuts through John’s arbitrary ebullience, giving us a glimpse of its works that only does the songs credit. And on “I Feel a Like a Bullet” Taupin finally justifies his penchant for mixed metaphor by providing Elton with an alibi: “You know I can’t think straight no more.” Some variation on that line would have improved a lot of their songs.

None of this analysis is meant to imply vision or intent. John and Taupin are such good partners because they share, over and above their commercial energy and a certain generalized ripe sentimentality, a blankness of artistic personality. Although it is only Taupin’s lyrics that can elevate John’s music to anything more than the most trivial aural diversion, John seems as indifferent to their quality as Taupin himself does to what they contain.

Don’t get me wrong — Taupin can be an excellent lyricist, and it’s a very good thing that he writes for John. Captain Fantastic excepted (and even that had its share of moments), his relative anonymity has saved his superstar mouthpiece from the onanistic banality of superstar lyrics; because he can walk the streets like a real person, it’s no strain for Taupin to write songs that are actually about things. But Taupin’s wide-ranging historical and cultural subject matter, added to the old romantic staples, serves only to redefine the meaning of commercial songwriting in this time; he treats the various social issues with no discernible commitment or consistency. For all we can tell, they might as well be moon-June-spoon.

And this, how-you-say, impartiality is perfectly suited to John’s singing, which is not interpretive in any ordinary sense of the term. The man has a ballad voice, which is adenoidal and sensitive-sounding, and a hard rock voice, which is adenoidal and insensitive-sounding, and he can simulate a few surface effects, like the accents which adorn this album. In its way, his style is quite distinctive — that is, his vocal timbre is unmistakable — but it is indubitably mechanical. Its automatism is best demonstrated by that song I quoted from Caribou, “Solar Prestige a Gammon,” which is written entirely in words that only sound like words or that can’t possibly mean what they seem to mean. Needless to say, John sings it with all his usual cheery conviction, which I assume is his way of telling us something.

If you like, what it tells us is monstrous. Such arrogance. That mindless cipher makes untold millions a year; that pudgy robot is a hero and an object of fantasy sex. But to say that Elton John lacks the lineaments of a conventional artist is not to say he is a cipher; to say that his singing is mechanical is not to declare him a robot. He is a star because people love his music and are immensely attracted to his immense vivacity. The best way to explain him is to steal an idea from Greil Marcus: Elton is the superfan, the ultimate music consumer. This is literally true — his collection of popular records is almost certainly one of the largest in the world, and he seems to listen to all of them. Who knows how much of his listening he puts to use? The most remarkable proof is on this record, which involves his first major personnel switch since the departure of Paul Buckmaster: a half-new Elton John Band. There is a tendency to forget Elton’s musicians; since he is a machine, it can’t matter who backs him. But that was a good band, and it does make a difference, because these guys kick more ass than the old guys. An especially useful addition is a second keyboard man, James Newton Howard, whom Elton found on an all-instrumental solo LP released awhile back on Kama Sutra. I played that record when it came through and dismissed it, but Elton heard something there. That is the superfan’s reward.

And finally, the superfan’s reward is the fans’ reward. Elton is our tabula rasa — the very sureness of his instinct for sales make him a kind of one-man Zeitgeist. If he can be maudlin or stupid or hedonistic or self-indulgent — the new album is very tight until the song endings, which tend to repeat the same riff ad tedium — so can we, and those of us who reject those flaws in ourselves will reject them in him as well. But if he can produce incisive music without even willing it, as seems possible, well, perhaps there is more room for optimism there than in the strivings of a lonely artist. Maybe, in fact, Elton John isn’t out of time at all. Maybe he is one small indication that some things about the times are already aright.

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‘Elton John: Prude of the Week’
by Edward Sorel, November 15, 1976

“Elton John: Prude of the Week” by Edward Sorel, 1976

‘Elton John: After the Fact’
By Lester Bangs, October 29, 1979

There’s no getting around it. Elton’s got problems. It seems churlish to date them from his coming out in the pages of Rolling Stone, but the fact remains that Rock the Westies, hardly a superior product, was the last album to display the old flash, and that Blue Moves and A Single Man, the albums released since then, both came on sober if not somber. Then you read the interviews where he says 1975 was one of the worst years of his life, and without wanting to dig too deep into his privacy it becomes apparent that he finished at least a musical cycle then. He’s seemed in semiretirement since, unsure whether to try being a “serious” artist or resurrect the formulas that served him so well of old. Even his Moscow coup earlier this year seemed after the fact.

Of course he’s never found a suitable replacement for Bernie Taupin, which sure feels weird for somebody who hated 90 per cent of Taupin’s lyrics to say. The two had an undeniable chemistry that made for classic radio fodder at least up through “Philadelphia Freedom,” which was also the first evidence of Elton’s interest in disco. Given (perhaps) his bisexuality and (for sure) his interest in all forms of pop, it was probably only a matter of time till Elton recorded an all-disco album, so Victim of Love, his latest, and the recent Thom Bell Sessions EP can’t be called rocker’s sellouts. What they can’t be called either is particularly exciting music.

Whether most rockers could stomach it or not, disco has been (at least up until very recently) as vital as any genre around, and whether their fans liked it or not, people like Rod Stewart and the Stones have displayed an understanding of it that worked in their favor. The Thom Bell Sessions is pleasant but pallid Philly soul from two years ago, while Victim of Love finds Elton turning to Donna Summer producer Pete Bellotte with truly dreary results. There’s nary an original on either record, which suggests that post-Taupin Elton may be drying up compositionally, but what’s most distressing is the absolute apathy of the vocals. Bellotte’s production lacks the spark of his Summer collaborations with Giorgio Morodor or any really good disco side, and you kinda end up wondering who brought who down for this dismal piece of product. Worst of all is an eight-minute discofication of “Johnny B. Goode” which isn’t even strong enough to be offensive, because ultimately it hedges its bets by including lame Chuck Berry guitar parts to keep it “rocking.” If you’re gonna desecrate a rock ’n’ roll classic like this you oughta at least show some all-out trashy nerve.

Elton may well know how bad this stuff is, because in his eight-night sold-out-on-one-Times-ad stint at the Palladium over the past week he did nothing from the Bellotte album. What he offered instead was a retrospective, from “Your Song” and “Take Me to the Pilot” through “Rocket Man” and “Daniel” to The Thom Belle Sessions’ “Mama Can’t Buy You Love,” with what seemed like a distinct emphasis on the earlier material. And no wonder, because that was what the audience of young couples, teenyboppers you’d think too young to remember “Your Song” and a goodly sprinkling of mom ’n’ dads, roared loudest for. Performing solo except for the percussion work of obnoxious professional English eccentric Ray Cooper, Elton delivered the goods: raucous pianistics and soaring vocals, proving he can still sing whatever lapwaters he’s recording these days. He dedicated one song to the audience, saying that “Loyalty is a very big concept with me,” and there was a sense of the act of faith or vote of confidence about the whole show. He’s still a great entertainer, and for all his superhack’s calculation of the marketplace he’s never seemed cynical. If he finds himself — or maybe even just the right lyricist — again, there’s no reason why his second decade shouldn’t be as bountiful as his first. God knows the radio can always use the vitality he’s shown at his peaks, and when it comes to super hacks, I’ll take Elton over the Knack any day.

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