Saturday, December 4, 2010

Fear of a Blank Page

Writing about rock music is silly, it's an extraneous digression from reality, but it's also fun.  Anybody that writes about rock music,  started out reading about rock music.   I want to introduce you to my favorite writers, some wrote about rock music and a couple did not.  Hunter S. Thompson invented a totally different way of writing, gonzo journalism.  Lester Bangs changed the way a rock journalist could or should write.  Ira Robbins introduced intelligence to American rock journalism. Greg Shaw chronicled a library's worth of rock history and music during his lifetime.
Ring Lardner never wrote about music, rock or otherwise. His style of writing now seems dated yet still worthy of admiration and imitation. He was in his prime writing for the Saturday Evening Post in  the years after WW1.  Lardner wrote about sports, but not in an ordinary way, he wasn't about stats or balls and strikes, he focused on the human angle.  Ring Lardner was far more than just a sports columnist, as he dabbled in poetry, prose and short stories as well.  He made good use of vernacular slang, misspellings, grammatical errors and run-on sentences.  This gave his articles a down to earth, homespun feel that endeared him to his readers.   Lardner blended sarcasm, cynicism and sardonic wit with warm affectionate observations of everyday events.  He died of a heart attack in 1933 after a long battle with alcoholism. Hunter S. Thompson was the originator of gonzo journalism, a style of writing wherein the writer involves himself in what he is reporting to the point of almost becoming a part of the event being covered.  Hunter became a journalist  while serving in the United States Air Force.  However, his deep rooted contempt for authority soon led to a recommendation for an early honorable discharge from his commanding officer, who noted: "In summary, this airman, although talented, will not be guided by policy"  Following his discharge from the Air Force, Thompson drifted in and out of a variety of jobs, before being hired at The National Observer.  In 1965 an article he wrote for The Nation about the Hell's Angels motorcycle club led to Hunter living and riding with the Angels for a year, gathering material for his first book.  "Hell's Angels" was published in 1966,  the book caused a sensation, The New York Times described Hunter as a  "spirited, witty, observant and original writer; his prose crackles like motorcycle exhaust."  Hunter paid a heavy price for his fame. A falling out between himself and the gang led to a brutal beating at a Hell's Angels gathering.
In between books, Hunter joined the staff of Rolling Stone magazine which, would publish his most iconic articles and stories.  Hunter's next book took us on "a savage journey to the heart of the American Dream"  published in 1971 "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was a combination expose and myth buster.  It was made into a movie in 1998, directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Johnny Depp.  His next book was a brutal take on the 1972 Nixon-McGovern presidential campaign. Fueled by his long-standing hatred of Richard Nixon, he deconstructs the notion that either   man could  lead the nation.  In his later years, Hunter managed to stay relevant if not always fashionable, while holed up at his home in Woody Creek,Co.   Unfortunately, he was hard wired to self destruct, gonzo journalism demanded that you live a gonzo lifestyle.  That life would take a toll on Hunter in his later years.  Troubled by a number of health problems, he committed suicide on Feb. 20, 2005, at the age of 67. 
Greg Shaw's first serious attempt at publishing was Mojo-Navigator Rock & Roll News, a fanzine that covered the Haight-Asbury music scene in his hometown of San Francisco.  He moved to Los Angeles after landing a job at United Artists as Assistant Head of Creative Services.  His job was to write artist bios, press releases and reviews for all artists on the U.A. roster.  When U.A. launched an in house music publication, Phonograph Record Magazine, he was named as editor. The magazine sold no advertising and was handed out to FM stations to use in promotions. This enabled Shaw to turn it into a kind of fanzine, covering all kinds of obscure music, cult favorites, critics’ bands and new trends. In addition to his job at U.A., Greg continued to publish Bomp Magazine.   Bomp featured exhaustive discographies, band history profiles and detailed reviews. By 1979 the cost of publishing outweighed revenue coming in and Shaw was forced to fold  Bomp.  Greg now focused on Bomp Records, inspired by Lenny Kaye's Nuggets album, he began working on a sequel to Nuggets that he called Pebbles.  This collection of  60's garage punk and psychedelic bands would grow to 30 volumes.  After years of health issues, Greg Shaw passed away in 2004.    
Ira Robbins, Editor Emeritus  of Trouser Press never met a big word he didn't use. He helped raise the bar, for all album reviewers and music writers in general.  Ira brought college level writing skills and vocabulary to people who read at a seventh grade level, god bless him.   His ability to dissect albums with the skill of a practiced heart surgeon, makes him near and dear to my own heart. Trans-Oceanic Trouser Press (America's only British rock magazine) suffered from an identity problem, Early on the magazine championed prog rock bands like Gentle Giant and Hawkwind, then they tried to convince everyone that Pub Rock was the next big thing. Finally they jumped on the Punk Rock bandwagon, and beat that horse to death.  Trouser Press would overcome Ira's pretentious anglophile tendencies to become a decent fanzine and nothing more. The real legacy left behind by Trouser Press is the large volume of album reviews that they published.  Each review is concise, well researched and usually dead on the money.  Ira Robbins  is currently Editorial Director of Premiere Radio Networks.   Which now makes him a corporate tool.
 Lester Bangs, got his start reviewing albums for Rolling Stone. However his abrasive style and manners grew tiresome and Editor Jann Wenner fired him over a negative review of a Canned Heat album.   Canned fucking Heat!!!   If I ever had to listen to Canned Heat long enough to give an honest critique of any of their albums, I would just shoot myself instead. Lester then landed a job in Detroit at Creem magazine where his legend would grow. He became an editor, and mentor to the younger writers at Creem.  However a falling out with Publisher Barry Kramer resulted in Bangs being forced out.  To make matters worse, Kramer owned the rights to everything Lester wrote while at Creem.  He left for New York City, bitter but hopeful of better things.  His life quickly went to shit, unable to control his use of drugs and alcohol, his work suffered, he wrote sporadically and kept missing deadlines.  He crossed over from music critic to musician  by performing and recording with Texas punk band, The Delinquents. He would also record an album with a New York City based band, Birdland, neither resulted in earthshaking music or success.  His fall from grace went from a few stumbles to an all out free fall.  In 1982 he died from an overdose of cough syrup in New York City. They found him wearing headphones with The Human League spinning on the turntable. I've often wondered what happened to his record collection?, r.i.p., keep your stylus sharp.    
Lester Bangs