I’ve written before about Lester Bangs. He’s a hero of mine. Forget that he was a rock critic. Hell, forget that he was a critic. He was a writer. A great one. He did work as a critic, however, so those of us that remember him do so because of the unique voice he used to tell us about music we should and should not be listening to.
Percy Shelly once said, “Reviewers, with some rare exceptions, are a most stupid and malignant race.” I would think that even Shelly would grant Lester Bangs one of those rare exceptions. Some of the artists that he critiqued might not have been as generous, although few had the capacity or wit to fight back effectively.
He very famously reviewed a Chicago album by lavishly praising the packaging and even the depths of the grooves on the LP, before slyly suggesting that it was too important to open so therefore no one should actually listen to it. Brilliant, but Chicago was low-hanging fruit. Very good musicians playing mediocre music for the masses and pretending to be artists may be the easiest pickings. But Lester wasn’t content with low-hanging fruit. He also went after his heroes, and sometimes with a fury that cast aside his wonderfully wicked sense of humor.
Bangs died of an overdose in 1982, earlier this year an artist who inspired and infuriated him, seemingly in equal measure, died. Lou Reed was someone who I am proud to call a hero and a man who probably would have wholeheartedly agreed with Shelly’s opinion of critics. If there is an afterlife, I hope that somewhere out there in the cosmos there is a table with a bottle of great whiskey and two glasses that never empty where these two giants can forever spar and debate, hopefully much more amicably than they did in life, for as long as it amuses them.
You see, Reed was one of Lester Bang’s biggest heroes too. But he was a born critic, one of the best that has ever lived. Reed was his natural prey, a great artist. Perhaps that is why Lou lived to be 71 while Lester never saw 40; Bangs was actually an artist too, but maybe not in the way or area that he wanted to be. Being a predator and one’s natural prey is a heavy burden.
So much of the soundtrack of my life is beholden to these two men. Their influence on music still reverberates to this day, despite a seemingly constant assault on all that is good and right about art. Anti-intellectualism, corporate greed, public apathy, no talent pieces of shit like Simon Cowell foisting even less talented pieces of shit on us, and “artists” chasing cash instead of art have all conspired to weaken those vibrations, but they can still be felt.
As a kid, my best friend had an older brother who easily had the best record collection in the neighborhood. Whenever he would leave the house we would sneak into his room and go through his collection and steal stuff to listen to. He always knew and we’d get a well-deserved ass whipping. He should have either learned to hit harder or else taught us how to take better care of his records, because we never stopped until we were older and could afford our own collections.
What we would steal the most initially were stuff like the Stones, T-Rex and David Bowie, but eventually we began to go for the Velvet Underground and especially Lou Reed’s Transformer album. What an aptly named record.
Every obit and article written about Lou Reed since his death has used the very same quote from Brian Eno where he famously said, “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.” Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but I can tell you that not only did my friend’s brother go on to play in many bands, so did my best friend, and so did I. In fact, nearly everyone in our neighborhood played in bands, and we all loved that record. Take from that what you will.
His approach to music has informed my tastes, my opinions, and my life for as long as I can remember. I have felt a very deep sense of loss and emptiness since I heard the news that Lou Reed had died. I never met the man, but it feels like a beloved relative that you haven’t seen in decades, or a dear childhood friend that you always hoped to see again is now gone. If I had Lou’s talent I would probably take those feelings and make an album so profound that it might take a listener years to grasp, but I don’t have that ability. But because Reed had that talent he gave me the ability to grasp thoughts and concepts that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. He gave me an appreciation for nuance, wordplay, complexity of thought and simplicity of expression. He made me know that it was okay to use all of the words in the English language, even the big ones and the ones some people say we shouldn’t use because they are “bad” or “dirty.” The Sunday morning I read that he died I said, “Aw fuck…” because it was the right word to use, perhaps the only right one. I would have said the same word if I still wasted my time in church. It. Was. The. RIGHT. WORD.
Over the years most of my favorite artists have been heavily influenced by Lou Reed and the Velvets, so even if I’ve gone spells without listening to him as much, he was always there. I suppose that means that he always will be, but that seems like some sort of trite bullshit one says to comfort the bereaved because no other words come. The kind of thing Lou would have despised. Whatever.
The past couple of months however, I have listened to an awful lot of his music. Mostly by myself because no one wants to see some sorry old punk sobbing and sniffling over some musician that was probably little more than a curiosity to most people, if they thought of him at all. The one album I haven’t been able to listen to is Magic and Loss, an album so painful and brutal that it devastated me when he was alive. I may not be ready to hear that one yet, but the phrase seems to perfectly describe how it feels to listen to his music now.
There will come a time when doing so will produce way more magic than loss for me. All of the lessons learned from his body of work will all be with me. A lifetime of perception and taste is mine, a gift he gave me whether he meant to or not, and can’t be taken away by his death.
Patti Smith is an artist who followed in Lou’s footsteps, and is the real inspiration for this post. I sometimes wish that I had started this site as a place to write about anything that came to mind, and while it may often seem that way, I try to always have a way to tie it back to wine and food. A few days after Reed died I was picking up some samples at the UPS store and the song Dancing Barefoot came on in the car as I drove home. She sings the line “Some strange music draws me in, makes me come on like some heroine/heroin.” This lyric never fails to make me wonder which word she meant there. I don’t ever look it up because I want to continue to wonder. It makes me think of the possible meanings either way. It’s brilliant. Maybe you prefer some inane lyric that doesn’t make you have to think, but that’s your issue, it doesn’t make me a snob.
They say that ignorance is bliss, and there is probably a lot of truth to that statement. If I hadn’t grown up when and where I did I may not have heard of Lou Reed, and then the sound of most of the music produced today wouldn’t make me physically ill. I probably wouldn’t automatically deduct 20 points from someone else’s estimated IQ for liking some shit like that insufferable Robin Thicke grave-robbing ripoff of a real artist’s music either. Okay, now that last sentence does make me a snob, but I am more than okay with that, because it wasn’t born of some blissful ignorance.
I tend to take the same approach to food and drink, albeit with what I hope is a somewhat gentler style. And while I may sometimes take on the more acerbic tone of Lou and Lester towards some stupid trend or direct it at the cynical and the users among my own tribe, I rarely ever go after the primary subject of this site. I also try never to say or write something that will make someone else feel bad about what they like or dislike about wine or food. But I know that sometimes I do. My real goal is to let other people in on what I’ve learned. And the more I learn, the simpler it is to share.
Just like with music, the more I learned, the more I listened, the more complex things became. The same happened with wine. The phases of understanding were almost identical. Wide-eyed interest in everything, then becoming a noob letting other people who seemed to know more than me shape my ideas with their perceptions and prejudices, moving on to being someone who really did know quite a bit, then moving on to where I find myself now.
So, in the same way that I eventually abandoned the massive complexity of Progressive Rock and Jazz Fusion to return to my roots and only listen to Punk and Garage Rock, and then to get back to just looking for anything good-by shunning all labels except good and bad, so I find myself now doing the same with wine.
Now what I care about wine these days is answered by asking two very simple questions: Do I like how it tastes? Does it pair well with the food on my plate? That’s all that matters in the end. Yes, I love the complexity and can wax poetic about how well some wine pairs with a certain food, but is it important that I stop to think about phenols or what the alcohol level is, or heaven help us all, what the brix was? That’s for the winemakers, or for people who are trying to impress the winemakers with their vast knowledge.
Telling someone that King Crimson’s Neurotica is played in 17/16 time will not increase their enjoyment of it, but playing Berlin or New York for someone might change how they see music forever. The same goes for sharing practical knowledge of food and wine.
Thanks Lou…for everything.