Black Ribbon Award

Month: April, 2018

THE MONOTONY OF DARBY CRASHISM

Darby-Crash

The first show the Germs played was at Hollywood’s Orpheum Theater in April of 1977. They were to open for the nascent Weirdoes, who picked the Germs because they were even more nascent, having only just formed that month with no rehearsals, no songs, and no knowledge of their instruments. Their set lasted 10 minutes before they were removed from the stage. The band, with guitarist Pat Smear, bassist Lorna Doom, and drummer Donna Rhia, blared feedback at the audience (which included The Damned) while singer Darby Crash wrapped himself in licorice whips, that soon melted, and slathered himself in salad dressing and peanut butter on top of that. For a later show, the band would tell their friends to bring food of their own; during a rendition of The Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar,” they poured bags of sugar on the audience.

In every regional scene one was likely to know at least one band purely by reputation. Even if its members were not the most proficient musicians, and their songs were rudimentary at best, their shows were not to be missed. They were more social experiment or life sculpture than musical act, demolishing the invisible wall between spectator and spectacle, along with actual walls. Seattle had The Mentors (among others), San Francisco had Flipper, Detroit had The Meatmen, Austin had Scratch Acid (among others), and DC had No Trend. One band for my cohort was The Ultimate Warriors, from Nazareth, PA. When they played our town’s recreation center in 2000, they (or their entourage) donned luchador costumes and other wrestling-themed gear and wreaked havoc in the pit. I believe they also brought fruit as the venue smelled of bananas after they played. They are now Pissed Jeans.

Within this ilk the Germs were very much among their number, even their ancestor. Even at their best they never played technically well. Slash writer Claude Bessy described their debut single “Forming” as “beyond music … inexplicably brilliant in bringing monotony to new heights.” But at the same time, the Germs were able to shake off their “joke band” status, in part because getting constantly banned from venues was a net negative, but also because something more powerful was at hand. By September 1977, the Germs were headlining shows with massive turnouts. As Geza X recalled later, “it was the buzz on the Germs as a social force more than a musical one that caused a line to form outside The Masque for the first time.”

Darby Crash (née Bobby Pyn, née Jan Paul Beahm)[1] was born and raised in the Los Angeles area. His childhood was one of routine instability. He lost a brother to a heroin overdose. His mother struggled with minimum wage jobs, often working nights. The closest thing he had to a father figure was a stepfather who died when he was 13. His education, which he neglected, included an experimental program that combined Werner Erhard’s est with Scientology. Darby was precocious, however, with his mother carving out sections of her stringent budget to appease his voracious intellectual appetite with books and a typewriter. He developed interests in Nietzsche, Charles Manson, Herman Hesse, Hitler, and Oswald Spengler. Typical interviews included the following: “Fascism is not a philosophy. It’s a way of life. Fascist is totally extreme right. We’re not extreme right. Maybe there’s a better word for it that I haven’t found yet, but I’m still going to have complete control.” And: “I can respect Hitler for being a genius in doing what he did, but not for killing off innocent people. [His genius] lies in his speech. What he could do with words.”

Darby Crash’s vocal style relied on barely annunciated snarls and screeches. Perhaps you’d rather not imagine a cat being processed by a wood chipper, but that is the image conjured for me whenever I hear him. Yet the words were there. Indeed, the quality of Darby’s lyrics was a surprise even to those who liked the band. “Standing in the line we’re aberrations/Defects in a defect’s mirror/And we’ve been here all the time real fixations/Hidden deep in the furor,” goes the first verse of “What We Do is Secret.” But so, too, was the personal charisma to which chaos and music alike were subsumed.

“I completely control a number of people’s lives,” Darby Crash said. “Look around for the little girls wearing CRASH TRASH T-shirts and people like that.” Darby had a gift for branding. In a way, the Germs became a serious enterprise for him not with the refinement of their artistry but with the aesthetic identity he crafted around it. “Everything works in circles,” he said. “[L]ike something you’ve done maybe eight years ago, but all of a sudden it feels like you’re in the same place doing the exact same thing.” They adopted as a symbol of a clean blue circle, to match Darby’s eye color, which appeared on their merchandise, flyers, and recordings. Germs fans were collectively called “Circle One,” who wore “Germs burns” on their wrists, which came from a cigarette. “I think we should make a new shape for flags. Round flags.”

R-1107962-1317595483.jpegDarby’s proposals did not stop there. He dreamed of putting “allies in key positions,” in such places as the postal service and newspaper presses who, with little more than flicking a rubber band, could jam the gears of society and bring it to its knees. When appearing on a radio show, Darby rang off a series of satellite numbers that would allow anyone to make long distance calls for free. He became obsessed with L. Ron Hubbard and, according to the Screamers’ K.K. Barrett, “talked about how religion was just basically a funnel for lost souls.” “Darby Crash completely resocialized me,” F-Word singer Rik L. Rik recalled. “He taught me to question everything and how to make up my own mind by evaluating reality and drawing my own conclusions. … He did this for everybody he came in contact with. It was a whole retraining program.”

These ambitions were quickly derailed; first by Darby’s abrupt sabbatical in London, which broke up the band, and then by his death at age 22 by intentional heroin overdose once he returned. It is on this morbid crux that Darby’s legacy is balanced. As he’d often voice his intention of dying young, sometimes at the exact age when he did, I can’t say it is altogether unfair—but it is also too simple.

Darby returned from London in 1980 sporting a Mohawk haircut and face paint. He’d met and become enamored with Adam and the Ants, much to the bewilderment of his friends. Indeed, when Adam and the Ants were doing an in-store appearance at Tower Records around the same time, Black Flag disrupted the proceedings, throwing around their trademark flyers reading “BLACK FLAG KILLS ANTS ON CONTACT.” The Hermosa Beach-based band formed a year before the Germs, and promoted a stripped-down version of punk that favored brutality over—or rather, in addition to—chaos. The Hollywood scene did not appreciate it as it attracted a more aggressive police response and repelled their female fan base. But like Darby Crash, Black Flag’s Greg Ginn had his own ambitions, involving hours-long daily practices, endless touring, and sustaining his own record label. Darby never even held a job. Ginn’s efforts helped make hardcore a national concern, eclipsing the more nuanced Hollywood scene. Ultimately the flag shape was to be deconstructed rather than changed outright.

Whether longevity was ever a possibility for the Germs, its undesirability is less arguable. Darby Crash was a genius. He was among the first to understand that this youth phenomenon was more than a temporal market demographic. He understood that its adherents’ idealism and energy could be concentrated into an overwhelming counterattack against the predominant culture, so long, of course, as their cry came from his voice. “Whatever it is people like that have in them that enables them to attract a following, he had it in him,” Pat Smear said. “I’m talking about some guy coming from a log cabin and ending up being president of the USA.” Darby Crash was the earliest, and perhaps the only, self-made cult of personality in punk, at least the cult that was focused on an individual. His vision of punk was ceremonial, historical, and abstract, but it was not ethical.

Not that Darby Crash should be forgotten. He was too right and too wrong in equal measure to be damned either to obscurity or infamy. And the path he chose made his gifts too evident after more than half a lifetime of deprivation. Whether or not punk’s more ethical turn was the correct one, is a debate that may never be settled. Nor should it be, for punk is in all respects a movement against monotony. It is also a movement that, having embraced Darby Crash’s world-historic call to greatness, was quite efficient in finding it disappointing at best. Punks have travelled too many shapeless roads and found too many permutations of themselves along the way to abide by the dull logic of a circle.

1 For background of this piece, I am indebted to this article, these books, and the liner notes to this album.

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THE ANONYMOUS PUNK

giphy

I.

“Look at us today/We’ve gotten soft and fat/Waiting for that moment/It’s just not coming back.” So sang Ian MacKaye in the Minor Threat song “Salad Days.” The song stands out in Minor Threat’s small but monumental catalog for a few reasons. First it is among the last songs they ever wrote. It was performed only once at their final show in 1983 and not released until 1985. Second is that it is one of the five songs, out of a total original output of 23, that exceeded two-and-half minutes. And third, it marked a complete tonal and operational shift from that which established the band two years before. Yet because of all this, it is crucial to our understanding of why Minor Threat is remembered at all.

Minor Threat were one of the more peculiar bands to arise out of the 1980s post-punk milieu. They were one of innumerable acts then embodying the hardcore scene that was overtaking all of America’s major cities and not a few of its minor ones. Compared to their peers they hardly qualify as originators or refiners. They were not as foundational as The Middle Class, as nuanced as Hüsker Dü, as technical as Bad Brains, as angry as Negative Approach, as clever as Dead Kennedys, or as provocative as MDC (Millions of Dead Cops). Yet the 20 minutes that comprise their first two EPs, Minor Threat and In Your Eyes, are among the most revered by the genre’s fans, almost rivaling Catcher in the Rye in fervor of imitation and abuse. Contrarianism plays a role here certainly, with MacKaye’s rejection of punk self-destruction in favor of self-preservation that saw the hazards of recreational drug use and promiscuous sex. But that was nothing without the band’s larger accomplishment: their cohesion. What Minor Threat lacked in technical or creative prowess, they more than made up for both in their synchronization. Minor Threat stands as one of the tightest units in rock music. A typical Minor Threat song combines four separate sources of youthful energy to emit a brief but riveting jolt of power. It is more engine than song.

Salad Days” is the exception that proves the rule. By 1983 the engine was not so much out of steam as it was breaking down altogether. The band was at cross-purposes. Members Jeff Nelson, Lyle Preslar, and Brian Baker were pushing for a more accessible sound, rather inexplicably along the lines of U2, a change which included the option of signing to a major label. MacKaye disagreed and they opted instead to go their separate ways. “Salad Days” shows the extent of the disintegration. The music is the most polished of Minor Threat’s oeuvre, including a slow-building—some might say ponderous—intro with bass and the tolling of a bell that ascends to a properly crafted hook. But MacKaye, who had recorded the song under duress and laid down his vocals quickly, is having none of it. Where he put any effort into his singing at all it was to convey the disillusionment that had overcome him in those short two years. He saw what was best in hardcore—its expressive freedom—accelerate in the wrong direction while the worst in hardcore—its mindless aggression—fused itself in place. The strange cross of evolution and inertia understandably propelled a reflective mood of purity corrupted and good intentions set aside.

MacKaye’s laments were premature, of course; not simply because he was 21 when he wrote the song but because he would eventually find footing again in subsequent bands, refining the style and stretching the reach of his message to the extent that it shapes more than just punk. Nevertheless, “Salad Days” typified a widely shared feeling among his cohort. “At the time everyone was bummed at how stagnant and separated and elitist everything had become,” Marginal Man guitarist Kenny Inouye said. “When that part came in that says, ‘Do you remember when?/Yeah, well so do I,’ I just lost it.” And it continues to be felt.

II.

Nothing quite prepares punks for when their first bout of nostalgia sets in, but many know it when they see it in someone else. That punk, whom I will call Alex, is nigh on the ripe age of 27. Just 10 years before, Alex gained prominence as a bassist in at least three bands and one basement “side project” that doesn’t really count. Alex may be a fixture on demos but not on debut EPs, let alone proper albums. Alex eventually moves to a larger city to attend college, leaving the gear at home. Alex takes up graphic design or communications or “comparative literature”, though, in hopes of giving back to The Scene. Alex dreams of starting a label or a zine, or at the very least joining an ethical public relations company. Alex interns at a nonprofit to gain some experience. Alex gets hired to the junior staff of a prominent firm, and commits all spare time and funds to fostering any project, or tries to. Alex makes account manager and tries to focus on “community awareness” rather than just “hot brands.” But Alex wants a bigger apartment. Alex makes account executive and starts “building relationships” with microbrews, influencers, and venture capitalists. Alex finds a partner and a dog.

Alex ventures back home for a holiday or an anniversary or something and meets up with an old bandmate who never left. He is gainfully employed at a local bar that requires suspenders, gingham, denim, and regular gym visits. One arm is covered in clouded tattoos; the other is around a woman decidedly younger than both of them. She is the designated driver, and she takes them to an old haunt of theirs: a ragged, barely livable house that was a meeting point for denizens of The Scene. Attendance never required explicit invitation yet everyone always knew who would be there and who wouldn’t. The neighborhood looks slightly more cleaned up than Alex remembers and there is a FOR SALE sign on the front lawn. Inside Alex recognizes no one, though they bear hints of familiarity in manner and dress. The continuity is comforting until the younger occupants talk admiringly of bands Alex never heard of or dislikes and indifferently about bands that meant everything to Alex at their age. Almost worse is when they talk obsessively about those latter bands, which they probably never saw live and never listened to the first seven-inch Alex cherishes despite not being able to find. But Alex hits it off with someone who says all the Correct Opinions, is full of energy and idealism, and who is not there just to party. She and her friends have a group blog that promotes positive action and calls out negative vibes. But then she hands Alex something: a demo cassette. “It’s a throwback, I know,” she says with a self-conscious giggle, before mentioning that the email address in the insert is not run by her but she checks it if s/he has feedback. Alex thanks her and motions his/her companions to leave. In the high school parking lot the two agree to listen to the demo while their chaperone smokes outside. Neither of them say anything as one song transitions seamlessly into another. They don’t have to say anything. They just face forward in silence. Alex isn’t sure if the demo is actually good, but is nonetheless overcome by a dread that had long been on the cerebral periphery. A dread of time passing and new generations ascending, not doing anything differently but somehow doing it better. That dread would have its hold on Alex all night had it not been broken by the fermented stench of the friend’s vomit that appeared all over the glove compartment and his fancy work denim.

The malaise of punk nostalgia always has the air of a rite of passage. The final rite, that is, in which one realizes one’s own shelf life. One ideally hopes to grow out of punk while staying somehow within it, often as a kind of elder statesman. All projects are not projects in themselves as they are means to achieve that end. The end is often deferred, however, whenever one encounters those whom elder statesmen would seek to minister. They seem arrogant, speak more readily on any matter regardless of knowledge, and denounce the errors of the past without admitting any of its virtues. It hits home once one realizes that one did the very same thing years before, and the malaise is of one’s own making. And it’s going to hit much harder when one finds the very fount of that nostalgia entirely erased.

III.

When one has been involved in punk long enough, one often speaks as if they had been punk since birth. The idea of existing before or without punk is unthinkable. That person would have been beneath contempt, a hopeless and hollowed-out shell of a human. But such is the passion that comes from conversion. The appeal of punk is rooted in understanding, or rather in being hypersensitive to, what is not punk. It is, to be sure, a tundra with many routes: the boredom of suburbia, the meritocratic bloodlessness of modern education, the upending of divorce, a sudden and inexplicable gulf between one and one’s peers, really any kind of trauma. Many manage to bear with these obstacles as best they can, but some cannot accept the landscape as is and long for an oasis. Punk is one such oasis and to find it one must often look very intently for it.

The cultic element of punk has long been a matter of contention for its critics, and punks have flirted with this from time to time. Germs frontman Darby Crash instituted the “Germs burn,” administered by pressing a lit cigarette onto one’s wrist—always by someone who already had one—as a sign of allegiance to the band. But in truth the majority of punks do not prefer a zero-sum initiation. One either encounters punk by sight or by sound, and if one is compelled they begin immersion: going to shows or buying an album or two. If one is immersing with friends, which is the preferable method, they would naturally trade tapes or CDs.

If nostalgia is the final rite of passage then immersion is the first. But it grew out of necessity. Punk long functioned in scarcity, with mass media attention being intermittent and fleeting. Its perpetuation and maintenance has been left almost entirely to those who listened to it. The journey into punk was predicated on what one heard and what one was able to get. A punk, whom I will call Pat, hears about an album. Great! How is Pat supposed to get it? Buying the album. Does Pat have the disposable income? Pat will pay Mom back. Is the album distributed at Wal-Mart? No. At Sam Goody? No. At the 10 sq. ft. record store 30 miles away next to a body shop and has no parking lot? Yes! Does Pat have a car? No. Do any of Pat’s friends have a car? Yes! Do they have gas money? No. Does the internet exist? It’s 1998. Can Pat’s friends make a tape with their copy? Pat’s friends are high right now, they promise to do it later. (Repeat.) Special order that motherfucker locally and wait 14–21 business days.

I’m being somewhat reductive, but this was broadly the process by which immersion took place. And punk culture was shaped by it. At its best punk was a deeply social cultural formation in which peers at once refined their own tastes and instilled communal bonds through the local scene. At its worst, however, particularly enterprising punks could build didactic walls around sections of the scene separating, arbitrarily, those with “correct” formations from those without. This predominantly comes from my own experience. My own formation was regrettably done in isolation, which produced an unusual palate and made me more of a satellite in the scene. My formation was dependent largely upon reference books, oral histories, anything I could buy or check out.

But it was also a time of transition in which technological progress made access somewhat easier. One friend had a CD burner on his computer and was offering to provide CDs from his own library for a small price, maybe even nothing at all; he even provided an inventory list. From him I got several Hot Water Music albums I haven’t listened to in ages, as well as Cave In, Botch, Bad Brains, and others. Message boards did as much to empower word-of-mouth as set the stage for memes. And this is to say nothing of Napster, the legacy of which is better seen as a hands-on consumer guide than as a treasure trove of free goods of consistent quality. But technology, like most scientific applications, is not a moderating one.

Steve Albini notoriously lambasted CDs as “rich man’s eight-tracks.” They threatened his aesthetic sensibilities, which were analog in the extreme. He was partly right in that CDs are now these cumbersome, space-wasting reflective circles. But the fervor to vinyl remains a niche concern. Most of the purchasing public, as James Poulos wrote, prefer access to ownership, which digitization has provided in unprecedented depth and change so far-reaching in punk as to utterly mutate it.

IV.

At the conclusion of his memoir Your Band Sucks, former Bitch Magnet guitarist Jon Fine lamented that “nothing I’d hoped for twenty-five years ago had happened. The weirdos hadn’t taken over. Our bands hadn’t changed the world, or destroyed the big, bad major labels. (That was the Internet’s [sic] job.) Or even changed the mainstream that much.” His parenthetical is a significant one. Fine is no critic of the web, which “provided a central place—more precisely, a decentralized place—where many small campfires could be tended, around which widely dispersed but unusually ardent audiences traded tales and live recordings.”

20 years ago, a nascent punk like myself had to undertake considerable sleuthing in order to find even the most basic information about even a contemporary obscure band. Many bands, in fact, seemed more like cryptozoological legends. Deadguy, a short-lived and still ferocious New Jersey band, impishly shrouded themselves in so much mystery that I suspected them of being a shady front operation. But the increasing sophistication of the internet provided for an extensive lifting of veils. If one wants to listen to The Faith’s influential Subject to Change EP, two versions of it are on Spotify. If one wants to watch 25-year-old footage of Universal Order of Armageddon, there’s YouTube for that.

That is territory well-trodden compared to the greater change that has come to punk culture as a result. As the internet decentralized the music industry it, too, decentralized punk. More than that, it delocalized, demystified, and, in a way, destigmatized it. It sewed shut the word-of-mouth and replaced it in the code of algorithm. It purged the gatekeepers and replaced them with “curators.” Punk’s scarcity has given way to extreme abundance, its hidden nature is now fully transparent, almost naked. For bands this might not actually change much. Though this at first saves many more bands from being “criminally overlooked,” the nature of the search has mostly changed from a treasure hunt to landfill scavenging. But the implications to the punk on the street are immense and the implications should be divisive. Indeed, this moment has a peculiar and, I think, illustrative parallel.

I am led, in other words, to the mid-20th century, Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, SJ and his theory of the “anonymous” or “implicit” Christian. It proposes that one can accept God’s salvation without ever having heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “The person who accepts a moral demand from his conscience as absolutely valid for him embraces it as such in a free act of affirmation—no matter how unreflected—asserts the absolute being of God,” Rahner wrote, “whether he knows or conceptualizes it or not.” Its central inclusivity was popular in the heat of the Second Vatican Council, even leaving its fingerprints on some of its documents; it also reflects some of punk’s highest ideals, which are now more applicable than ever before.

V.

As I have written elsewhere, punk has long been an ethical and creedal endeavor. Its ethics have helped to assure its survival against the predation of the mainstream rock industry and the decadence of its culture. “Fuck your trends, fuck your friends/Fuck your groupies who try to pretend that you’re down/You’re fucking not,” goes the Nails song “You Will Never Be One of Us,” “Nobody wants what you’ve fucking got.” But translated at the local level it’s cold dogma—rules, restrictions, and pedantry. It doesn’t so much keep the scene pure as it makes it socially uniform and aesthetically anemic all for the end of purging posers. Post-analog punks have never been freer from this stranglehold than at this moment. Even if they can’t hear everything, they can hear anything at their own discretions and set their own limits. After Spotify, everyone is a punk.

The most positive result, then, is a total reversal of Ian MacKaye’s initial concerns about hardcore. The authoritarian tendencies are gone, and expression is finally flourishing. But the erosion of authority also leads to the erosion of the community and its immense benefits. Peer relationships will be less instrumental in immersion. Immersion won’t be tempered by the guidance of a mutual explorer, but will be overwhelmed in aimless indulgence. Punk then vindicates its most vulgar critics by becoming what they always said it was: noise. The anonymous punk risks becoming an atomized punk.

Rahner’s anonymous Christianity was controversial in its day, and remains so among those who remember it. It has its critics on the traditional wing (it’s relativistic!) as well as the progressive wing (it’s paternalistic!) of the Church. His most thoughtful critic, though, has been Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who responded to Rahner’s project with a clarity and a commitment to striking at the heart of the matter that I find both familiar and helpful. “Is it true that Christianity adds nothing to the universe but merely makes it known?” he wrote while still a Cardinal. “Is Christianity really just man as he is? Is not man as he is that which is insufficient, that which must be mastered and transcended? … A Christianity that is no more than a reflected universality may be innocuous, but is it not also superfluous?”

Outwardly at least, little seems all that different. Bands still form, shows are put on and attended, merch is made and purchased, and music is at least made. Communities, of a sort, still convene, though they do so largely online. Rather what I am arguing has changed is the intimacy that punk engenders. That indescribable sense of belonging fostered away from the crowds and within the microcosm of friendship. There were limitations in that enclosure, sure, but there were no rules imposed from on high or procedures to follow. Not everyone was punk, perhaps, but punk could be anything, whether a shriek of catharsis, a moral reinforcement, the courage to say something one cannot yet say themselves, or a reason merely to live.

It’s possible that despite the static, that intimacy is maintained, that its custodians are aware of the static’s volume, and are now committed to its abatement. It’s possible that I, like everyone else, am just old and should forget. And for once that would be nice to do, difficult though it is.

LUXURY VS. CULTIVATION

lesterbangs

Last summer I was visiting a friend, another writer, and we got almost immediately to doing what writers do when writers are in the same room: talk about writing. Perhaps because I was the guest, I recall having considerable sway over the course and tone of the conversation. It centered largely on anxieties related to being a writer: whether one is ever as good as one imagines in one’s own mind, whether one has done enough to provide evidence for the case, and whether one will be justly remembered regardless. Something along those lines. Anyway, in the course of talking, my friend made an observation that, generally, collections of writings by a single author seldom contain work from the first 10 years of their career. Fair enough, but of course there are exceptions to this. One is the iconic author, who tends to encourage completism among publishers if not readers. The other is the prematurely deceased author.

There are many examples of the second kind; Rimbaud is probably the most obvious, and maybe infamous. But her point connected me immediately to an author who’d been on my mind for much of that year.

“I suppose I am not a truly dedicated artist, whatever that is. I’ll probably never produce a masterpiece, but so what?” So Lester Bangs assessed of himself in 1968, at the age of 20, the year before he came into prominence as a contributor to the fledgling rock magazine Rolling Stone, and later Creem and The Village Voice.

Few would disagree with that assessment. Bangs never did write a masterpiece as commonly understood. Though it was not for lack of trying. In early the 1980s, Bangs was writing a book called Rock Gomorrah/Tales from Beyond the Grooves. Bangs had written two previous books, on Blondie and Rod Stewart, but they were more like unauthorized hackish fan guides. Rock Gomorrah was more ambitious, a musical complement, it seems, to Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. Bangs completed a draft in 1982 and submitted it to its publisher. He celebrated later that day with Valium and an over-the-counter cold medicine. He went into a coma and never recovered. He was 33 years old. Rock Gomorrah was shelved and, going by what his biographer read of it, will remain so in its present condition.

Bangs’s legacy has since rested on his shortform work, which spans two collections. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, edited by Greil Marcus, is seen as the authoritative collection. It amasses his most accomplished pieces, including his tense feature on Lou Reed and his survey of racism—ironic and otherwise—in New York’s burgeoning punk scene. It also features some of his failed attempts at “serious” narrative literature. This was followed by John Morthland’s Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste, the authentic collection that expanded upon the first, including more fugitive pieces but also his Rolling Stone debut: the hatchet job on MC5’s Kick Out the Jams.

While it’s one book more than Robert Warshow, Bangs, as a result of his brevity, joins a long line of writers who are esteemed almost exclusively on style points. It’s the kind of inverted hex that renders a writer all but invisible to a larger public while being fiercely polarized among specialists. As a writer with a knack for criticism of a pop cultural bent, I am no exception. I own a poorly printed copy of Psychotic Reactions, which I bought not after watching Almost Famous, but after putting “rock critic” into Google (or whatever I was using circa 2003). The purpose was then to explore the form I was intent on pursuing at the time. I studied his work with caution. I had already understood the spell of imitation being caught from other “impassioned” stylists of very recent antiquity, and the Bangs style was and is especially potent.

In 2016, Art Tavana wrote a column for LA Weekly on Sky Ferreria. It received backlash from other websites for its exaltation of the singer’s “sex appeal” at the expense of her actual music. It has all the markings of a deliberate troll, given that “sex appeal” was in the title, but also of being poorly written. The piece froths over with tacky imagery (“Sky Tonia Ferreira … has a name that reads like a turbo-charged Italian sports car.”), pedestrian comparisons (“When I say Ferreira looks like Madonna, I also mean to say she has the same kind of innate charisma that most normal people lack.”), and equivocating abstractions (“Male subjectivity aside, the cosmetic potency of Sky Ferreira’s sex appeal shouldn’t be objectified …”) But so intense was the ire of readers that he wrote a formal apology for writing the piece. “As a disciple of Bangs and [Richard] Meltzer,” he wrote, “I have cultivated an intentionally provocative prose style that thrives on enacting a certain disregard for the conventions and protocols of polite society.” The word cultivate is significant, because Tavana’s piece is a case study in precisely how it should not be done, in the sense that it was not done at all.

More than his own writing, Bangs lives on in those who invoke his name in an amalgam of tribute and protection. He gives power to a certain kind of nerd with a certain kind of self-confidence to remove the shroud of Tavana’s dreaded “protocols of polite society” so that their opinions charge free like wolves through an opened gate of a sheep enclosure. Bangs is not so much a writer as a Promethean figure, a motivational speaker. It’s a representation that reminds me of Dave Grohl’s lecture at SXSW, which pounded in the skulls of every listener, with Grohl’s trademark indelicacy, a single theme:

There is no right or wrong. There is only, YOUR VOICE. Your voice screaming through an old Neve 8028 recording console, your voice singing from a laptop, your voice echoing from a street corner …. It doesn’t matter. What matters most is that it’s YOUR VOICE. Cherish it. Respect it. Nurture it. Challenge it. Stretch it and scream until it’s fucking gone.

Despite, or because of, the positive intonations of self-actualization inherent in it, writing of this kind is divisive. For the haters it is self-indulgent, vulgar, and/or pretentious. For its admirers it is authentic or uncompromising. I prefer the more all-encompassing term luxuriating, for that is what it is, whether good or bad. It is the championing of the singular voice, and the strident self against the trembling many. It is a mud bath in one’s total subjectivity. It is the triumph of and unflinching allegiance to lived experience. At its best it reveals writing’s immense flexibility and can clarify or simplify ideas for any lay reader where more restrained writing may obscure or flatten. Montaigne was of this bent, as were Thomas De Quincey, Friedrich Nietzsche, G.K. Chesterton, Virginia Woolf, Eric Hoffer, and James Baldwin. Good contemporary examples include Annie Dillard and Jessica Hopper.

The luxuriant voice can break bad in two ways. One way is in authority, a word-vested priesthood, if you will, where the voice is the doctrine. “This effect [of Emerson on his audience] was by no means due to the possession … of the secret of the universe, or even of a definite conception of the ultimate truth,” George Santayana wrote. “The source of his power lay not in his doctrine, but in his temperament, and the rare quality of his wisdom due less to his reason than to his imagination.” The other way is in performative detachment, where a writer livens up a given space by the gravitas his being there lends to it. Think David Foster Wallace on the cruise ship, or John Jeremiah Sullivan at the Creation festival:

I suspect that on some level—say, the conscious one—I didn’t want to be noticing what I noticed as we went. But I’ve been to a lot of huge public events in this country during the past five years, writing about sports or whatever, and one thing they all had in common was this weird implicit enmity that American males, in particular, seem to carry around with them much of the time. Call it a laughable generalization, fine, but if you spend enough late afternoons in stadium concourses, you feel it, something darker than machismo. Something a little wounded, and a little sneering, and just plain ready for bad things to happen. It wasn’t here. It was just…not. I looked for it, and I couldn’t find it. In the three days I spent at Creation, I saw not one fight, heard not one word spoken in anger, felt at no time even mildly harassed, and in fact met many people who were exceptionally kind. I realize they were all of the same race, all believed the same stuff, and weren’t drinking, but there were also 100,000 of them. What’s that about?

Tavana’s piece hewed closest to this kind. At bottom, what hinged most on his column was not what it said about Ferreria, though she was understandably unhappy, but simply that he was saying it. He could have written similarly steamy prose about bass fishing for all anyone cared. True, this is the essayist’s power, but it’s also the essayist’s responsibility not to drift into inanities and platitudes, which in this case it did at the very least. Of course this is only one piece, and singling him out overlooks that he’s apparently been publishing since 2013, and so is protected by my friend’s 10-year rule. Tavana, after all, did write an engrossing feature on Milo Yiannopoulos, the sadness of which verged on gothic.

But luxuriating one’s voice, whatever its timbre, is an affirmation rather than cultivation. Writing that is cultivated is not as passionately contested, but has its own line in the sand. For its haters it is studied, arch, cold, and, also, pretentious. For its lovers it is elegant, disciplined, witty, and respectful. It pays heed to past forms and is concerned primarily with following Swift’s dictum of “proper words in proper places,” so as best to illuminate the subject at hand. But the subject may not be one especially called for by others. Cultivated writing is no less idiosyncratic than luxuriant writing, but it is idiosyncrasy of judgment more than voice. The finest examples include Edmund Burke, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt (for the most part), Walter Pater (most of the Victorians really), Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, and Maggie Nelson. But also Lester Bangs.

“I feel I have a Sound aborning, which is my own,” Bangs continued in 1968, “and that Sound if erratic is still my greatest pride, because I would rather write like a dancer shaking my ass to boogaloo inside my head, and perhaps reach only readers who like to use books to shake their asses, than to be or write for the man cloistered in a closet where reading Aeschylus.” Certainly on the surface that rings like luxuriating pomp, but the word choices of “Sound” and “boogaloo” give the game away. Bangs’s style, in the end, is in his subject: rock and roll. His style was not mere opinion-dispensing or shit-shooting, but a compound of knowledge, passion, and a gift for turning sound into language. But there was much clarity as there was passion. He wasn’t so much a polemicist or an iconoclast as he was one to call things as he saw them. “Another reason for getting rid of all those little verbal barbs is that no matter how you intend them,” Bangs wrote in “White Noise Supremacists,” “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 Coked along, so we embraced an indiscriminate, half-joking and half-hostile mind-lessness 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 freespleen 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.

Eventually I drifted away from Lester Bangs as I drifted away from writing about music. But Bangs’s example never really left me. Bangs is at heart a model critic for those to whom analytic faculty comes easily but cultural pedigree does not. My personality makes it impossible to assimilate his attitude, but his senses are something to strive for. Maria Bustillos wrote that Bangs “had the most advanced and exquisite taste of any American writer of his generation, uneven and erratic as it was.” Where he was most free, radical, and interesting was in where he chose to look, letting his talents guide him to his conclusions. There is no uniform way to sharpen that sight, and there is no way to control one’s blind spots. The endgame is not to replicate Lester Bangs or any other critic, but to have a criticism, that continues to be as sharp, committed, and has fun as his was.