(Comments posted to a New Yorker piece about Lester Bangs, 8-30-2012)
Astral Weeks, insofar as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves, paralyzed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend. It is a precious and terrible gift, born of a terrible truth, because what they see is both infinitely beautiful and terminally horrifying: the unlimited human ability to create or destroy, according to whim. It’s no Eastern mystic or psychedelic vision of the emerald beyond, nor is it some Baudelairean perception of the beauty of sleaze and grotesquerie. Maybe what it boils down to is one moment’s knowledge of the miracle of life, with its inevitable concomitant, a vertiginous glimpse of the capacity to be hurt, and the capacity to inflict that hurt.Lester Bangs, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung
That Astral Weeks review is awfully pretty, gorgeous even. Too bad it’s complete horseshit. It has nothing to do with what the album sounds like and everything to do with Lester Bangs. Not that Lester Bangs wasn’t a fascinating guy, but if you’re reviewing a record you should leave yourself at the door. I don’t care how many English classes you’ve had or if you’ve read Baudelaire or can do more acid that Philip K Dick, I just want to know what the album sounds like. So many music critics to ignore that principal. Lots of pretty words that don’t give you a clue about what the music actually sounds like. If you want to write about yourself, write your memoirs. If you’re going to review an album, let the music do the talking. And if you can’t do that in prose, you’re in the wrong business. Because when you write about music, the only thing that matters is the music. You the critic don’t matter at all.
Here’s a rule of thumb…if you’ve completed a review and it’s one of the best things you’ve ever written in your life, dump it. You probably wrote about yourself.
All of what you say is true, Brick. Nonetheless, I miss writers like Bangs. Most of everything I read about music these days is so poorly written it makes me cringe. As far as understanding what the music might actually sound like, most of the current crop of writers have a pretty limited musical education and equally limited comprehension of recorded music and what artists that may have flourished over five years ago may have sounded like. Goes back to the Dancing about Architecture theory, I guess.
I thought it was fine. That particular album is at least as much about the words as the music, so he’s treating it as a literature review. There’s not that that much you can really say about the music here’ since it’s pretty simple (though something nobody every seems to mention is how out-of-tune it is). But anyway I’m not much of a fan of the thunderous drums and booming bass school of criticism, especially in the age of youtube. Good things to do if you can manage them are either pique my curiosity, or help me better understand what I’m hearing. Another good thing to do is entertain me.