An open letter to Lester Bangs


Hey Lester,

It’s been awhile, I know. I’m finally old enough to distinguish shit from shinola. Or so I’d like to think. You died at 33? Hell, I’ve outlived you by a decade… but to what end? That’s why I’m inconveniencing you today.

I’m here to talk with you about your precious Lou.

A little context… I’m sitting here with what I feel is a pretty respectable stack of vinyl: Transformer, Sally Can’t Dance, Rock And Roll Heart; Rock N Roll Animal; Growing Up In Public; Berlin; The Bells; Coney Island Baby; Street Hassle; New York; Live; a bottle of Courvoisier and some of those crunchy rice snacks you find in every convenience store in Japan. All original. They were my old man’s (save the booze and the snacks). He’s still alive, but these days he’s a different man compared to when he was my age. Or your age. Let me take his LP collection last time I visited him. Damned near 550 LP’s, at a guess. I think you’d be proud. He also gave me some resources on the internet (you’d never leave the house if you were still alive) for selling the albums. I just looked at him with a mystified look and told him there was no WAY I planned to sell ANY of these albums… not the Beatles… not the Frank Zappa… not the Leon Russell… and certainly not the Lou.

Hold on… need more ice…

So since you’ve been gone, we’ve had parachute pants and new wave; 80’s metal and pointy guitars; flannel and grunge in the 90’s; and then some crap from 2000-2010. It’s kinda been a mess. You’d have had a fit. Probably quit altogether. Today there’s all kinds of retro stuff out there… boutique artisans building custom amps with tiny wattages so you can sound good at low volumes… custom guitars that play beautifully but only cost a fraction of the fancy guitars… and tons of crap music. The airwaves are no longer the highway for music… now it’s the internet. Downloading MP3’s for free… sampling… bit rates… We seem to have gotten more preoccupied with the packaging and delivery than with the actual goods. Like I said, it’s a mess.

Anyone with an internet connection and some software can fling themselves into the running to be the Next Big Thing. For better or worse, everyone’s a musican/singer-songwriter/producer/music critic these days… yours truly included.

So this stash of vinyl is a godsend… it’s like a time machine. That’s what I told my dad. A window into the classics. And these days, Lou is oh so en-vogue. Evolution has brought about the rise of a species called the ‘hipster’… an animal characterized by self-righteous pretentiousness and condescension. Ironic trucker hats worn with a straight face. Hank Williams III c.d.’s. A case of PBR. And, of course, an undying love for ‘old’ rock and roll, Lou being the King. (I may be slightly guilty as I order new inner sleeves for all my beloved vinyl. One of my favorite hipster jokes pokes fun at a guy who is too cool even for vinyl; he prefers wax cylinders…)

I figured I’d throw some on and see what all the fuss was about. I knew about Walk on the Wild Side and Satellite of Love (wonder what you’d think of Velvet Goldmine), and I guess I’d figured that it was all just as magical.

But what I keep hearing is tone deafness. Plenty of ‘attitude’, but not much musicianship. It’s almost like he’s not actually ‘doing’ anything, and I don’t mean that in the complimentary ‘zen’ sense of effortlessness. Not to split hairs, but there doesn’t seem to be much meat there. I’m not quite sure you could get away with this shit today. Wait… I take that back. Of COURSE you could… people are doing a lot better with a lot worse these days. Lou’s current god status might be a reflection of just how far down the hill we’ve let things slide.

I know on a personal level I’ve been working my ass off to write some decent music… I’ve put out 6 albums so far. I try to sing in tune. Make my guitar go ‘wheedly-wheedly’. But my voice is lost in the black hole, along with about 7 billion other voices. Twenty-eight years later, times have changed. If you’ve got a cool photo of yourself for the cover, you’re halfway there. We all want to be the next Lou.

So what was it that your Sweet Lou had? Was it just the right time? The right place? The right subject matter? The right drugs? Whose living room did he stumble into, and how did it get translated into magic? I can’t seem to figure out exactly what it was… the stars aligning once in a millennia or something… but no matter. Lou, of course, is a Rock God. A Legend. Even today, (especially today!) there’s no touching Lou Reed. And just like when you interviewed him, he can still just walk into a room, sit in a chair, and drink a cup of (fill in the blank) and make waves.

I know it’s not fair to judge history by today’s standards… pulling things out of context and all. But how else are we to tell whether an album is timeless?

If I want to follow him, I guess I need to start writing simpler chord progressions and just talking through them. Fake conversations… like on Street Hassle. Forced rhyme. If you’re lucky.

Or is it too late for that? Would following his apparent recipe just lead to frustration because now it’s been done? Is that the secret to Lou’s magic? That he was doing something new? Or was he pantomiming someone else’s gig to see if he could jump on the wagon? And if so, whose? Today we see Lou copping Lou, and it’s really not very pretty.

What the hell were you thinking? What would you say today? I shake my head because I know you’ll just keep grinning in silence. You bastard. We need you now, more than ever.

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