Thursday, April 13, 2006

Anxiety of influence.

I've been hanging out with some film fanatics recently and it's interesting how these folks seem to fall into certain camps under the intense sway of a particular critic. Those whose ideas about film spring from the catholic-but-kooky tastes of Jonathan Rosenbaum from the Chicago Reader. Or from the so-wrong-he's-not-even-wrong Dictionary of Film author David Thomson. Or from the brilliant writer and inspired argument-starter Pauline Kael, who Woody Allen astutely described as "having all the attributes of a great critic, except taste." And he wasn't being glib, folks. There's even one person under the sway of the current film critics of The New Yorker - if you can even call them critics. They're more like smug wanna-be comedians who audition their limp one-liners at the expense of the films they're reviewing; their pieces are an endless series of winks.

Anyways these people's fidelity to the tastes and ideas of a single critic struck me as, well, weird. I've come to film with no filter and no classes. I don't need no critic to tell me the movies of Harmony Korine are pure genius - and good thing, because I don't know of any critic who will back me up on that. And it doesn't bother me that every critic and their maiden aunt loves 'Vertigo' because that movie is genius too and there's no money in being contrary just for the sake of it. So here I am patting myself on the back for my rugged individualism in movie taste when I suddenly remember. Oh, shit. Maybe there was no critic who shaped my view of movies so completely, but there was one who did that for music. And I was just as much under the sway of his spirit as my friends were under the tutledge of their gurus.

Two guesses and first one doesn't count. Right: Lester Bangs.

The immortal Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung was foisted on me by an English prof during my impressionable first year of college. I went right to the essay on The Stooges "Funhouse" because my friend Ted had just lent me the album and I couldn't for the life of me figure out what the fuck was going on there. I mean, was this music or just BLEEEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAARRRRCCH!!!!! What did it all mean? Lester had some answers and good ones they were, too. Reading him gave voice to some of my pent-up inarticulate musical feelings and showed how obsessing about music didn't have to be a static and undigested thing. You could give some of that love back. Writing about music could be its own artform and creative expression. (Yeah, it hasn't been so much since Lester died and Greil ascended into Harry Smith Heaven, but that's neither here nor there).

That summer, after an operation left me with my jaw wired shut for eight weeks, unable to do more than grunt and salivate over solid food that I couldn't eat, I read Psychotic Reactions back-to-back twice. It was the summer of Lester Bangs, renting tons of foreign movies, and milkshakes. It was the summer of searching out every album Lester mentionned as if they were the holy grail: PiL's 'Metal Box,' Charles Mingus 'Black Saint and the Sinner Lady,' Sex Pistols 'Great Rock n Roll Swindle,' Patti Smith's 'Radio Ethiopia,' MC5's 'Kick out the Jams,' The Godz ESP recordings, Coltrane's 'Africa/Brass,' Otis Rush 'Original Cobra Recordings,' Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. And of course Richard Hell and the Voidoid's 'Blank Generation.' They weren't all solid gold, as witnessed by my copy of The Guess Who 'Live at the Paramount' (a rare example of criticism being better art than the art it describes). But fuck it, I'm glad I tracked down that expensive Dutch import of Lou Reed's 'Metal Machine Music' on CD. Years later, living on 2nd Avenue while some construction crew was jackhammering the street at 2 a.m., that album was the only thing that could drown out the racket so I could get some sleep!

And even though it seems like Lester became a bit of curmudgeon before he two-stepped off this mortal coil (see latest posthumous collection, the less impressive Bloodfeasts and Bad Taste), I like to think he was a pure spirit when it came to music. He dug what he dug, regardless of trends or non-trends, and trusted his gut so much that he was willing to revise his previously hard-fought opinions in public and in print. Maybe Lester was a pure soul but I know I can't say the same for myself. Because when I listen to a new album there's still a small part of me, the kid with his jaw still wired shut, wondering how Lester might've heard this particular platter. And I know I'm better for it.


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