Back in the days when Rolling Stone was relevant and what was printed within it’s revered pages actually could sway opinion, fix fences, bring down walls and make or break a band, writing for Rolling Stone became a real feather in the cap of your average Joe or Johanna with a typewriter and a dream, a maraschino cherry on the icing of the great cake of success.
When getting fired or at least the very least, chewed out by the inimitable, far sighted and greatly innovative editor and creator in Chief Jann Wenner, became a right of passage for the very best writers that America had to offer, and the act of writing became a form of rebellion, and writers were rock and rollers too, this country seemed to have heart, bravado, guts and was able to inspire creativity. Now things are greatly reduced, scattered to the wind like the chorus of a Bob Dylan song, and nothing seems to really fly high any more.
All the best people got fired from Rolling Stone, and the reason for their firing was that they stuck the flaming sword of their words down firmly on the side of Truth and Freedom, instead of toadying and ass-kissing: in short, they wrote non flattering reviews of music that was, when all is said and done, a bit shit really.
Take Lester Bangs, my hero – if I was to have a poster on my wall like some half witted schoolgirl with a Jimin addiction and a folder full of dubious photos and semi pornographic fanfic, it would be of Lester in his dirty vest, a can of beer in his hand, and a glint in his eye that said “we don’t listen to bad music around here.” Lester never spoke down to us, never once dumbed down his words because he was writing about rock and roll. Music, to Lester Bangs, was a serious proposition, a worthy subject. Music was life, music was the beating heart of all that was good and curious, inspiring and comforting. To Lester, the muse deserved honesty. Lester was nothing but honest.
Lester got fired from Rolling Stone for a particularly scathing review of Canned Heat. Remember them? They were popular for five minutes, faded away into obscurity, and are but an embarrassing footnote in rock history: Canned Heat were shit and looking back they were never really worth getting excited over, especially not since there was a plethora of actually good music out there at the time. Lester, however, Lester is a gem, his writing still sparks and flies off the page. Choosing Canned Heat over Lester Bangs is like choosing a turd over Michelin star sushi.
I recently read Lester’s offending review. it’s published in the collection Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste A Lester Bangs Reader. It is scathing, but rightly so. Bear Hite did sing like a “scalped guppy”. Lester finishes off by warning the young people relying on him to tell him what to buy and what isn’t worth it:
Buy this album if you’ve gotta lotta money or don’t care much what you blow your wad on, but don’t pass up any of the really cosmic stuff like the Stooges for it, or the shadow of Blind Lemon Jefferson will come and blow his nose on your brow every night.
Lester made the original diss track, ripped a hole in Canned Heat’s rip off blues boogie woogie schtick, and did so with flair and aplomb. How was he rewarded for such valuable and entertaining content? Fired so that a toadying yes-man could talk up the new product, so the kids would all buy into it. Money over truth. Meaningless pap over fiercely bold rigerous gonzo truth-soaked brilliance. Ask yourself if you disagree with Lester? Looking back with all the benefit of hindsight, and ask yourself if Lester’s lowdown blackboned gutgrok funk-lurking album…..tibia-rattling in pursuit of yeehah countryisms precis was the best thing that ever came out of a Canned Heat product. You know I’m right.
This is why we are in the creative and cultural funk we find ourselves in, scattered by social media to the wifi-wind, cut adrift, and the closest thing we have to rock stars are youtube content creators making 3am sleazebag schlok-kiddy-horror and buying themselves mansions in Malibu on the back of our advertising clicks and inability to hold onto anything with any heart, anything that MEANS SOMETHING anymore.
It could almost make me want to throw my keyboard in the dumpster and take up knitting…. Keyboard, keyboard, there is something more satisfying even about writing the word typewriter. What I would give for a typewriter interface to this digital age, I might feel more connected to the words than I can currently muster groping my way around this piece of soulless black plastic that is my connection between Me and You….
Rolling Stone fired Lester Bangs, or at least put him in the naughty corner to think about what he had done for a while. They had their little issue where Jim DeRogatis, where he wrote an unfavorable review of Hootie and the Blowfish. Ouch. I mean can you imagine the ego crumpling action of being fired over telling the unassailable truth that Hootie blows. I was active in the 90’s music scene and they didn’t even register on my grunge soaked radar. They ranked somewhere below Barenaked Ladies and Kylie Minogue. What did their lead singer Darius Rucker do after Hootie? Mindless toothless covers of Bob Dylan cast offs that were originally done by the Old Crow Medicine Show. They threw away a perfectly good editor, who produced a good magazine, and had the wherewithal to say no to Hootie and replaced him with someone who would say ‘yes’ to Hootie. When DeRogatis was asked if he thought Mr. Wenner was a big Hootie and the Blowfish fan, he replied: “No, I think he’s just a fan of bands which sell eight and a half million copies.” Don’t worry Jim, all the best people get fired from Rolling Stone.
Take Hunter S Thompson, granted Mr. Wenner had the foresight to see greatness when it was handed to him on a plate: a platter that had been sent back to the kitchen by Sports Illustrated in a spectacular example of blindness to greatness, rivalled only by Decca turning down the Beatles in 1962. From there on in the relationship proved strained to say the least. I will say in Rolling Stones’ defense, Hunter turned in work piecemeal, at odd hours, late or not at all, and became eaten up by drugs and booze to the point that working with him was allegedly more wrangling than editing. By 1975 he was no longer treated like Rolling Stone royalty, the assignments dried up, and were even cancelled midway through writing upon occasion. Infamously Hunter was sent by Rolling Stone to Saigon to report on the final days of the Vietnam war, spent much of his time drinking with other correspondents, and the piece was scrapped by Rolling Stone while he was out there, leaving him in the war torn country high….and presumably dry.
I would say that the way back to relevance, to brilliance, to creative power and gonzo gourmandizing is via not being so scared to call out dull and derivative for what it is. Now, I am not calling for a return to a Stiv Bators style on stage self abuse, heck we don’t need a return, Post Malone is doing a pretty good job at auditioning for the part of honorary Dead Boy 40 or so years after they disintegrated. There is a difference between mundane banal Rollins’ style boring brutality, and thrilling the listener or the audience. What I am desperate for is a bit less fearfulness in creative endeavors, a bit more bite. What the world needs is Lester Bangs saying Canned Heat is shit, go buy a Stooges album, then maybe we will get the bands we deserve, rather than the oatmeal gruel we get fed because the Man knows no one has the balls to say it doesn’t fill the void in our modern existence, let alone provide any answers to the malaise!
If I was ever to have a dream, a goal, an ambition, it would be to get fired from Rolling Stone. I would frame the email on the wall like a platinum disc saying not only had I made it, I had also had the courage of my convictions and paid for them. It won’t ever happen – they will find Elvis alive on Mars before I get a shot at any big time writing gig, but hey, a girl has to dream!