My Writers: Lester Bangs

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When I arrived at college, it took me some time to use the university library for academic purposes. That’s not wholly accurate. I spent an adequate number of hours in that bulky building partaking in endeavors that were associated with assignments, whether researching for papers or claiming a quiet cubby to study for a looming exam. But my strongest memories revolve around the times I stalked the stacks in search of books that would never have made their way into the local library of the small Wisconsin town I called home during my high school years. One of the first tomes I sought out was a compendium of the writing of Lester Bangs.

This was 1988, well before Bangs was immortalized on film in a beautiful performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman, but in the wake of him being memorably namechecked in R.E.M.’s monumental “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Bangs, who died in 1982 at the tender age of thirty-three, was already a mythic figure. He famously (or infamously) wrote about rock ‘n’ roll music with an opinionated fervor that was too challenging for Rolling Stone. The venerable magazine’s publisher, Jann Wenner, fired Bangs over a scathing review of a Canned Heat record, which only cemented the writer’s legend.

By the time I picked up the collection of Bangs’s reviews, entitled Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic, I’d already been reading rock reviews with a mortifying intensity for years. Accordingly, I knew the names of many rock writers, mostly in the Rolling Stone stable — Anthony DeCurtis, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh among them — but aside from a couple of artist preferences, I couldn’t identify distinctive traits associated with any of them. They represented a monolithic example of how to write about rock and pop.

Bangs was different, immediately and immeasurably. I disagreed with some of his opinions — sometimes vehemently — but I recognized that they were written with a headlong urgency, a haphazard freedom that could only be indulged by someone with a vivid command of the language. The rock writing I to which I was accustomed was comparatively dutiful and serene. That writing was, in short, antithetical to the raucous rebellion of rock ‘n’ roll itself. Bangs was different. He channeled the tense exuberance of the music he loved and transformed it into words on a page. Other writers might have been better at describing how a song sounded, but Bangs was peerless in describing how it felt. Other writers strained to make rock ‘n’ roll into art. Bangs knew it was better, brighter, rawer, realer if the music was met as something more primal.

Some writers I emulate and some I adore. Bangs is one of those writers who I simply stare at his words, agog that the mechanics of assembling ideas and tapping them onto a page can be accomplished in quite that manner. I could never do that. I’m glad someone could.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.

From the Archive — Flashback Friday: 1978

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I think I’ve already dug through and shared all the old reviews I have that detail the usually dire outcomes with film adaptations of Stephen King’s work. In order to tie-in with this weekend’s big new movie — which reportedly falls right in line in terms of its quality — I need to look to the “Flashback Fridays” feature I had for a few weeks at my former online home. It basically gave me a chance to write about whatever I wanted, as along as it related to the year I’d reached in a chronological procession. For 1978, I wrote about the King novel that I long maintained was his very best.

1978: Stephen King’s The Stand is released

I was a sucker for Stephen King when I was younger. He was probably the first author who wrote books for adults that I followed with a collector’s intensity. It started with a copy of The Shining that sat unread on my bookshelf for a long time because I had trouble getting past the fact that the persecuted, paranormally gifted little boy at the center of the story shared my name. I eventually overcame that discouraging factor, and consumed the book as rapidly as I could. The Shining may have been my first, but The Standwas my favorite.

That was in part because of the heft of the book. I was just over 800 pages in its original version, and the little brick of a paperback somehow made it seem like it was even longer. All those pages gave it the veneer of something that was a little more important than King’s other typed-out creepshows. That combined with the novel’s story of societal breakdown and reformation in the face of a devastating illness gave it a sense of literary weightiness, at least to my still juvenile palette. Every plot intricacy, every burrowed-in character detail, every broadly drawn theme felt imperiously significant to me. It was, I was sure, King’s masterpiece, the book that proved he deserved recognition beyond his reputation as a proficient, prolific crafter of genre bestsellers.

King revisited the novel for a “Complete & Uncut Edition” in 1990 that added around another 300 pages to its length. There was also a 1994 miniseries, and, more recently, a succession of comic book miniseries adaptations that strike me as utterly pointless. The tinkering and the variants have only served to diminish the memory of the original book for me. It’s made it feel more like a product than the book that I once loved. Selfishly, I want it to be just what it was when I first read it, a comparatively lesser known work from a writer who everyone knew with a daunting length that made it the province of the true fan. I want it to be that book I raced through in my basement bedroom, conjuring up the archetypal battle of good and evil in my mind. Of course, as I type that wish out, it strikes me as exactly the sort of thing I think we all want from those books that first captured us. We just want to find a way to preserve that feeling of immersion, of transformation, of ownership. I know there are the other versions out there, but for me there’s only one The Stand.

Great Moments in Literature

“None of us could stand it if every place were a grizzled Chicago or a bilgy Los Angeles — towns, like Gotham, of genuine woven intricacy. We all need our simple, unambiguous, even factitious townscapes like mine. Places without challenge or double-ranked complexity. Give me a little Anyplace, a grinning, toe-tapping Terre Haute or wide-eyed Bismarck, with stable property values, regular garbage pick-up, good drainage, ample parking, located not far from a major airport, and I’ll be the birds up singing every morning.”

—Richard Ford, The Sportswriter, 1986

 

 

“AS WE PART, JIM SQUEEZES MY SHOULDER AND GRINS. ‘YOU JUST NEED A WOMAN,’ HE SAYS. …WHILE IN MY GUT THE CREATURE WRITHES AND SNARLS AND TELLS ME WHAT I NEED… I LEAVE MY CAR IN THE LOT. I CAN’T STAND TO BE INSIDE ANYTHING RIGHT NOW. I WALK THE STREETS OF THIS CITY I’M LEARNING TO HATE, THE CITY THAT’S GIVEN UP, LIKE THE WHOLE WORLD SEEMS TO HAVE. I’M A ZOMBIE. A FLYING DUTCHMAN. A DEAD MAN, TEN YEARS DEAD…”

—Frank Miller, BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT, Vol. 1, No. 1, “The Dark Knight Returns,” 1986

My Writers: Carl Hiaasen

strip tease
Image taken, as always, from Library Thing.

I lived in Florida for six years. Before I got there, Carl Hiaasen acquainted me with the haphazard charms of the Sunshine State. More precisely, he sketched out just how much craziness resided on that over-baked peninsula.

As was the case with many of the authors whose wares I first sampled in the nineteen-nineties, I arrived at Hiaasen because of the movies. With some regularity, I bought novels that the entertainment press informed me were being adapted in high-profile films. I liked having the comparison at the ready when it came time to deliver my movie review, even if most of those exercises in criticism were mostly being delivered to friends over the phone or this new-fangled communication method called electronic mail.

Hiaasen’s 1993 novel, Strip Tease, was being made in a movie that borrowed the name but oddly omitted the space. Striptease was preemptively famous — or maybe a little infamous — because the lead role, a stripper named Erin Grant, had been bestowed upon Demi Moore, who got a dump truck full of money backed up to her house in exhange from the promise of doffing her top. As intended, that built some buzz around the project. Thankfully, enough of the chatter took pains to insist to the potentially interested that Hiaasen’s novel was quite good.

The movie proved to be a bust at the box office — and pretty lousy — but the appreciative assessments of the novel were spot on. Strip Tease is sharp, funny, slyly insightful, and plotted with purposeful expertise. It reads like a classic Elmore Leonard crime novel with a loonier edge. It’s hard to scrape together grander praise.

I return to Hiaasen’s novels from time to time after that, always engaged and amused. And, almost with fail, my perception of his native Florida was solidified with every page. I was certain the state was colorful, off-kilter, and many a little dangerous, if only because just enough people there operated as if  the very concept of consequences didn’t cross the border from neighboring states. Hiaasen’s investigative takedown of the Disney corporation, Team Rodent, compounds this thesis while showing off his reporter’s chops from his formative days at Cocoa Today and his longtime day job at the Miami Herald.

If the creative vision of Hiaasen didn’t quite match up with my personal experience in Florida, it’s probably for the best. But maybe his bracing assessment of his fellow well-tanned citizens helped me properly prepare for my days there, recalibrating the strangely sensational into comparative acceptable following my time tracing the exploits of those characters bounding across the page.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.

Great Moments in Literature

“Barbara used to say that he didn’t phrase things strongly enough when he visited his doctor. She’d ask, ‘Did you tell him about your back? Did you tell him you were in agony?’ and Liam would say, ‘Well, I mentioned I was experiencing some discomfort.’ Barbara would roll her eyes. So now he leaned forward in his chair. ‘I have a very, very serious concern,’ he said. ‘I really need to talk about this. I feel I’m going crazy.’”

Anne Tyler, Noah’s Compass, 2009

“CONFUSION CURLS LIKE A VISCOUS FOG ABOUT THE REINSTATED MIND OF DR. ALEC HOLLAND — HE KNOWS NOT HOW HIS HAPLESS FRIENDS HAVE COME TO JOIN HIM IN THIS DANK AND DARKLING CHAMBER — HE KNOWS NOT THE NATURE OF THE SCABBED AND SCALY HORROR THAT CONFRONTS THEM — HE KNOWS ONLY THAT THE ONE THING THAT CAN HOPE TO STAND BETWEEN THE TWO IS — HIMSELF…

–David Michelinie, SWAMP THING, Vol. 4, No. 15, “The Soul-Spell of Father Bliss!” 1975

My Misspent Youth: Doomsday by Marv Wolfman

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

ff doomsday

I can’t overstate how magical it was the first time I walked into a comic book shop. My age was barely into double-digits and it was an era when most comics were sold at supermarkets and drug stores, given plenty of real estate over by the magazines, so it was a strange notion, this whole storefront devoted to nothing but these colorful periodicals populated by super-powered beings.

Thrilling as it was to see the new comic books meticulous arranged alphabetically (as opposed to shoveled randomly into a spinner rack) and the piles upon piles of old issues, I think what impressed me most was the array of ancillary products decorated with popular superheroes. At the time, it was a humble lot. There were no bankbook-breaking statues or life-size replica character accouterments. Still, these were items that I’d never seen before and couldn’t imagine finding anywhere else.

On one of those first trips to the comic book shop, I picked up a slender and enticing paperback featuring my favorite characters: the Fantastic Four. It was part of the Marvel Novel Series, which gave some of the most prominent writers employed by the publisher an opportunity to try out some straight prose rendering of the wildly imaginative adventures that set the fictional universe churning. Written by Marv Wolfman, the book was entitled Doomsday. I can see with a slightly mortifying level of certainty that is the one novel that I have read repeatedly in my lifetime.

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The story pitted Marvel’s first family against their chief adversary, the malevolent, megalomaniacal Victor Von Doom. The ruler of Latveria was known the world over by his shorter, more pointed moniker: Doctor Doom.

Wolfman’s tale was filled with details I loved from the Fantastic Four comics, including a pronounced sense of the shared fictional history (Doctor Doom’s staging of a college reunion figures into the plot, as does his fierce desire to retrieve his deceased mother from the netherworld) and a crackling commitment to the well-developed character, particular the familial foursome with a penchant for saving the planet from evildoers.

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Wolfman was writing the Fantastic Four monthly title when this novel was published, in 1979. He structures the story with a welcome commitment to honoring who these characters are, teasing out what made them foundational to Marvel, even if they’d long since been overtaken in popularity by other denizens of the wondrous world.

As I noted, the Fantastic Four were my favorite characters, so the fully recognizable depiction of them was important to me. It gave me another avenue to connect with them, to revel in their heroics. And there was the added benefit that it was the written word rather than dialogue and narration layered atop drawn images. I’d get grouched at if I opened up a comic book in class, but this little paperback — simply by virtue of its format — represented acceptable recreational reading.

And read it I did. I lost count of the number of times I returned to the book, rereading and savoring every last bit of it. I eventually picked up other entries in the Marvel Novel Series from that same comic book shop, but none of the others commanded my attention — fully and repeatedly — like Doomsday.

back cover

The images for this post were found elsewhere and used with gratitude. 

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

My Writers: Ann Beattie

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I have a foolish aversion to short stories. I’m perplexed about its origins. It may stem from the fact that my time chipping away at an undergraduate English major forever associated the form with the toil of assigned text. (I swear “Hills Like White Elephants” was on the syllabus of every third class I took.) I also worry that I have some strange, snobbish guilt that triggers a lurking, unshakable sense that I should be working on a weightier novel when I’m reading a short story, under the so-many-books-so-little-time provision of life as a consumer of written fiction.

Ann Beattie is one of the writers who decisively demonstrates the shortsightedness of my knee-jerk rejection of the form. Although she’s written enough novels to take of a sizable portion of a shelf, it’s her short stories that totally transfix. They are about incident more than plot, the rippling of emotion more than the shock of the unexpected twist. Beattie captures people moving through mundane lives and illuminates the triumph and heartbreak of simply existing. I don’t know that I could recount the specific happenings of any of her stories, rattling off the details the link into one another. But I can easily recapture the feel of reading them, mostly informed by the sense I’m eavesdropping on individuals who have entire histories I will never know and futures I won’t see.

In her attentiveness to the intricacies of life — the moments that can easily be overlooked but often perplexingly stick in the memory more firmly that the grander tumult — Beattie reminds me of Anne Tyler, the first author who taught me that a story doesn’t need to have a big, obvious hook to be important and meaningful, that fiction’s strength is less in its invention than in its truthfulness. Beattie reminds me that it doesn’t take pages upon pages upon pages to achieve that honesty. Sometimes a few words will do.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.