Wednesday, February 08, 2012

"Transfixed between rapture and anguish."

As I wrote the other day, I'm writing the story of a band. From their very first rehearsal right through their last show. I've done a lot of research. The role of management. The difference between a band's manager and their road manager. What record contracts look like, and how they have, traditionally, screwed artists. What promoters do, and their role in the game of arranging concerts. What roadies really do. Stage and lighting techs, instrument techs, the live sound mixers. This is all important stuff that helps tell the story, because it is a part of the world of contemporary music. You can't write about music with intelligence and verisimilitude if you don't get that the world of management and promotion are vital.

The trick, however, is not to lose focus. These are elements of contemporary music that need to be understood in order to make the whole story sound real. I'm not writing a story about managers and record company executives and promoters, though. In fact, I go to great pains to portray all these support systems - as necessary as they are for the whole clunky machinery of pop culture to function - as making the great mistake of believing they are the true key and heart of the success of the band about which I'm writing. Each step along the way I try to make these folks real enough, and have them do what real people in these roles do. I also try to make sure the focus is on the only story I really want to tell.

The other part of doing research is reading about music. Reading the critics. Reading the stories about bands and musicians. My small, and now growing, library of books about music, has been a huge help in this regard. My life-time love affair with music has been, by and large, an unreflective one. Rather than sit around and think about what it is that makes me prefer, say, Jeff Beck as a guitarist to Jimmy Page, I've just let it be what it is.

When I first tried to summarize my feelings about the writings of Lester Bangs, I was struggling with what I called my love-hate relationship with what he had to say. As I've been moving forward with the story - I'm on the downhill side now, over half-way done; I've got at least one eye focused on the rewrite stage now - I've returned to the thin collection of Bangs' writing his friend Greil Marcus published, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. There's another volume of Bangs' collected writings out now, and I look forward, in the near future, to adding that to my library as well. In the meanwhile, returning to Bangs after a long hiatus, I discovered how wrong I was, as the Emperor is Star Wars tells Luke Skywalker, about a great many things.

The first two essays, the one that give the volume its title, and a ten-year retrospective essay on Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, were placed up front for a simple reason. While it is easy enough for the uninitiated to come to Bangs looking for the little gems, either of appreciation or derision, in the hundreds of album reviews he published in Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, or his long home in Creem Magazine, no one can understand what lay deep within Lester's heart unless that reader has read those two essays. Not just read, but chewed, swallowed, digested, made a part of one's mental architecture. What these two essays reveal is that behind all the bluster and scatology, the pomp and self-righteousness, the occasional bouts of good humor that interspersed a general indignation at the music of the 1970's, Lester was a person whose whole life revolved around the music he loved.

Anyone who could write the marvelous, drug-addled praise of The Count Five that he produced could only do so if he meant every single word. While he became famous, or perhaps infamous, for praising The Guess Who's Live at the Paramount, you cannot understand how he came to that position without first reading his deep love for The Count Five.

His essay on Astral Weeks, however, is another thing all together. Reading it through last night, I wanted to cry. We writers are a funny lot. Doing it well, a thing with which I still struggle, means having the courage to let the whole world in to the most deep, most secret parts of one's life. If you aren't willing to jump off the bridge over that chasm, go back to knitting, or welding, or making airline reservations, because the only way really to write well is to be willing to stand naked and let people either laugh or cry or come up and congratulate you.

When he writes about Morrison's masterpiece, Bangs rips away all the masks - the clown, the provocateur, the drug-addled ironist - and lets you see that Lester Bangs loves music, and this album in particular, because not to do so might well kill him. Maybe loving music that much, loving anything as much as Bangs' does music, is also a death wish. You don't write what follows unless you really mean it From pp. 25-26:
"Madame George" is the album's whirlpool. Possibly one of the most compassionate pieces of music ever made, it asks us, no arranges that we see the plight of what I'll be brutal and call a lovelorn drag queen with such intense empathy that when the singer hurts him, we do too. . . .

What might seem strangest of all but really isn't is that it's exactly those characteristics which supposedly should make George most pathetic - age, drunkenness, the way the boys take his money and trash his love - that awakens something for George in the heart of the kid whose song this is. Obviously the kid hasn't simply "fallen in love with love," or something like that, but rather - what? Why, just exactly that only sunk in the foulest perversions could one human being love another for anything other than their humanness: love him for his weakness, his flaws, finally perhaps his decay. Decay is human - that's one of the ultimate messages here, and I don't by any stretch of the lexicon mean decadence. I mean that in this song or whatever inspired it Van Morrison saw the absolute possibility of loving human beings at the farthest extreme of wretchedness, and that the implications of that are terrible indeed, far more terrible than the mere sight of bodies made ugly by age or the seeming absurdity of a man devoting his life to the wobbly artifice of trying to look like a woman.

You can say to love the questions you have to love the answers which quicken the end of love that's loved to love the awful inequality of human experience that love to say we tower over these: the lost that love to love the love that freedom could have been, the train to freedom, but we never get on, we'd rather wave generously walking away from those who are victims of themselves. But who is to say that someone who victimizes him- or herself is not as worthy of total compassion as the most down and out Third World orphan in a New Yorker magazine ad? Nah, better to step over the bodies, at least that gives them the respect they might have once deserved. Where I live, in New York (not to make it more than it is, which is hard), everyone I know often steps over bodies which might well be dead or dying as a matter of course, without pain. And I wonder in what scheme it was originally conceived that such action is showing human refuse the ultimate respect it deserves.
While I typed the above, I had "Madame George" playing in the background. It was easy enough to do; the song is almost ten minutes long, an insistent, nagging song that demands we hear what Morrison is saying about love, about humanity. It is everything Bangs says it is. The album itself is one of those rare artifacts - Joni Mitchell's Blue, Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, Ray LaMontagne's Trouble - that are so beautiful it is difficult to listen to them. "Madame George" challenges the listener precisely because Morrison demands we consider the ugliness and violence that is a part of human life to be beautiful, too. Because it is human, because it is real.

I should be clear. I'm not writing about Lester Bangs. I'm not writing the book Lester might have written. I am, rather, reading Bangs to find a way to say what I want to say without fear. I want to be able to tear away away the trappings that make up the armor we all use to protect ourselves, and say, as simply and directly as I am able, what it is about this thing called "music" that I love so much.

Virtual Tin Cup

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