Posts Tagged ‘Lester Bangs’
I just learned about the latest book from music writer, teacher, and performer Elijah Wald, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music. I haven’t read it yet, but here’s part of the publisher’s summary:
Following the approach of his groundbreaking and controversial blues history, “Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues,” Wald examines the expanse of mainstream popular music from ragtime to disco, trying to separate the realities of the music, dance and culture from a centuries’ accumulation of familiar myths.
As its blasphemous title suggests, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll rejects the conventional pieties of mainstream jazz and rock history. Rather than concentrating on those traditionally favored styles, the book traces the evolution of pop styles through developing tastes, trends and technologies–including the role of records, radio, jukeboxes and television–to give a fuller, more balanced account of the broad variety of music that captivated listeners over the course of the twentieth century.
Among the themes:
Most music histories concentrate on jazz or rock, and on artists the writer thinks are great, rather than on the most popular and influential stars (for example, we get Louis Armstrong rather than Paul Whiteman, and Buddy Holly rather than Pat Boone). These canons are fine as far as they go, but leave us with a warped sense of the world that produced all of those artists. Wald tries to leave his own tastes out of the picture and instead understand the tastes of mainstream dancers and listeners, and the changes in lifestyles and technologies that shaped the evolution of American popular music…
Women (or girls) were almost always the main audience for popular music, and their tastes to a great extent have determined the course of pop history…. Pop music is almost always driven by female tastes, but almost all the history has been written by men–and not just by men, but by the sort of men who collect records rather than going dancing, and consider most mainstream pop to be junk. This book puts women’s tastes at the center of the story, from the flood of young female office and factory workers who sparked the dance crazes of the Jazz Age to the early 1960s when “twisting girls changed the world.”…
The Beatles’ success brought an unprecedented segregation of American music, which continues today…. The Beatles’ success marked a split between older rock ‘n’ roll and modern rock–and the moment when the interracial world of rock ‘n’ roll was divided into rock (white) and black (soul) styles. Wald argues that this ended a pattern of interracial give-and-take that had produced every previous major American pop style, from ragtime to rock ‘n’ roll.
This sent me to my library of pop and rock music histories. Was there throughout these books a conventional history and narrative? Was it all mostly written by guys, about guys, for guys—guys who didn’t think and talk much about dancing, who didn’t like dancing, maybe because they couldn’t?
Before thinking about those and other questions, it is notable how many talented and original writers and thinkers have turned to writing about pop and rock music over the past forty years or so. Also notable is the number who were already or who became musicians, or who went on to related pursuits (Jon Landau as Bruce Springsteen’s manager—yeah, I know, he had seen the future; Cameron Crowe as music-centric film director).
And yes, the writers are mostly men. White men. The Penguin Book of Rock & Roll Writing (1992) includes 43 writers, six of them women. (And weirdly, one fake woman, Theresa Stern, which was a pseudonym used by Richard Hell.)
Did these writers share some conventional historical perspective, some mythology, either because they were the earliest writers who created it, or the later writers who bought into it without examination? I don’t know.
What I do guess is that some of these guys did share a certain perspective on the significance of the music and the specialness of saying something profound about it. Could this sort of worldview have skewed their vision, blinding them to the kinds of real world cool/uncool phenomena Wald focuses on, like girls dancing and teen idols being important? It’s worth thinking about.
Here’s part of that that perspective, as played out in two movies about the music.
In Almost Famous, pioneer rock writer Lester Bangs mentors an aspiring young writer (who grows up to be the movie’s director Cameron Crowe):
If you’re a rock journalist, a true journalist — first you will never get paid much. But you will get free records from the record company.
And they’ll buy you drinks, you’ll meet girls… they’ll try to fly you places for free…. offer you drugs… I know. It sounds great. But they are not your friends. These are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of the rock stars and they will ruin rock and roll and strangle everything we love about it.
They are trying to buy respectability for a form that is gloriously and righteously — dumb! And you’re smart enough to know that. And the day it ceases to be dumb is the day it ceases to be real. Right? And then it will just Become an Industry of Cool.
High Fidelity is a film about a music-obsessive record store owner named Rob. It is adapted from the novel by Nick Hornby, who in his own life and literature seems to share this sort of deep driving affinity for the music and its meaning. The movie is filled with obsessed guys exchanging critical assessments and lists of records. Even (or especially) in his private misery, it is all about the records for Rob:
I’m reorganizing my records tonight. It’s something I do in times of emotional distress. When Laura was here I had them in alphabetical order, before that, chronologically. Tonight, though, I’m trying to put them in the order in which I bought them. That way I can write my own autobiography without picking up a pen. Pull them all off the shelves, look for Revolver and go from there. I’ll be able to see how I got from Deep Purple to The Soft Boys in twenty-five moves. What I really like about my new system is that it makes me more complicated than I am. To find anything you have to be me, or at the very least a doctor in Rob-ology. If you wanna find Landslide by Fleetwood Mac you have to know that I bought it for someone in the fall of 1983 and then didn’t give it to them for personal reasons. But you don’t know any of that, do you?
Anyway, I look forward to reading Wald’s new book. And if you’re one of those people who may have spent way more time than probably healthy thinking about how the music you love (or used to love but don’t anymore, or can’t understand how anyone could love) got that way, or if you are, God forbid, someone who actually did reorganize their records in autobiographical order, maybe an alternative history is just the thing to open your eyes. Or as the publicist for the book wrote “shake up our staid notions of music history and help us hear American popular music with new ears.”