The title of the one-man-show about Lester Bangs– How To Be A Rock Critic –is taken from a snarky self-deprecating piece the infamous music critic wrote for a Buffalo publication called Shakin’ Street Gazette in 1974. But on the heels of the production arriving in Boston this week, we were delighted to find out that this piece originally appeared in Boston alternative newspaper The Real Paper in 1973, albeit under a different title. Former Boston Phoenix editor Carly Carioli found the piece in the archives back in 2013, and we’re reproducing it here for your enjoyment.
In this sense, we feel like we’re welcoming the title, concept, and writer back to where the idea first landed.
“Famous Rock Critics School: Test Your Talent” – October 24, 1973, by Lester Bangs
I bet you get damn tired of seeing all those pompous smartasses raking in cash, glory and free records for scrawling about the latest heavies in rags like Creem, Rolling Stone, Phonograph Record and Awake. I bet you wonder what makes these cats so allfired omniscient, what gives them the right to expound on all this stuff as if they knew what they were talking about or the whole thing wasn’t just a matter of taste anyway. The answer is NOTHING. Being a rock critic is the easiest thing in the world, talent has nothing to do with it, so why don’t you give it a try? And don’t worry if you don’t know how to write. Don’t even worry if you can’t put a simple declarative sentence together. Don’t worry if you sign your name with an X. Anybody can do this shit, all it takes is a high level of unconsciousness and some ability to sling bullshit around. Also the bullshit is readymade, you don’t even have to think it up, all you gotta do is invest in a slingshot. So instead of telling you what it’s like to be a rock critic in this space, I’m gonna let you experience it yourself firsthand. All the word type stuff you need has already been written anyway, it’s in old yellow issues of Creem, Stone and all the rest; if you’re like lotsa rock critix I’ve known and loved you’ll just sit around reading and rereading the damn things all day and pretty soon you’ll have whole paragraphs of old record reviews memorized, which is not only a good way to impress people at parties but allows you to plagiarize at will. And don’t worry about getting caught, because nobody in this business has any memory and besides they’re all plagiarists too and besides that all record reviews read the same. I learned to write ’em outa Down Beat, and it’s the same shit in Rolling Stone; it’s the same shit all over. Just stir and rearrange it every once in awhile. Take one riff and staple it to another; and if you get tired of thinking about how you’re a rock critic, remember William Burroughs and the cutup method and think about being avant-garde. I do all the time.
Okay, now it’s time for you to write YOUR VERY FIRST ORIGINAL RECORD REVIEW. It’s easy, all you gotta do is point. First, pick a title for the album.
1. Oranges in Exile
2. Outer City Blues & Heavy Dues
3. Cajun Sitar Dance Party
4. Hungry Children of Babylon
5. Eat Your Coldcream
Got it? Okay, the next part’s just as easy. Just fill in the blanks: This latest offering from ___________
1. Harmonica Don and His Red Light District
2. The Armored Highchair
3. Ducks in Winter
4. Jonathon Bug
5. Arturo de Cordova
1. a clear consolidation of the artistic moves first tentatively ventured in his/ her/ their/ its last album.
2. a real letdown after the masterpiece album and single that carried us all the way through the summer and warmed us over in the fall.
3. important only insofar as it will delineate the contours of the current malaise for future rock historians, if there are any with all the pollution around now.
4. definitely the album of the year.
5. a heap of pigshit.
(How you doin’ so far? See how easy it is!) (Choose one of the following for the next sentence:)
1. In dealing with such a record, the time has come to at last talk about the responsibilities, if any, which any artist making rock ‘n’ roll bears to his audience, and specifically how those responsibilities relate to the political situation which we, all of us, and perforce rock ‘n’ roll, are compelled to come to terms with by dint of living in the United States of America today.
2. I don’t really think these guys/ this dude/ the chick in question/ a singing dog can defend musical output which has proven increasingly shoddy by referring to such old handles as “personal expression,” “experimentalism,” “a new kind of artistic freedom,” or any other such lame copout.
3. It’s such a thrill that this album finally came, that I am finally actually holding it in my hands, looking at the fantastically beautiful M. C. Escher drawing on the cover whilst trembling all over to the incredible strains of the music on the record from inside it which even now are wafting from the old Victrola, that I really don’t know if I am going to come or cry.
4. It’s so goddamn fucking boring to have to open all these pieces of shit every day, you waste your time, you break your fingernails, half the time it’s just a repeat of an album that came yesterday, that I can hardly bring myself to slit open the shrinkwrap once I get ’em outa the cardboard (which piles up in a big mess all over the house after it gets dragged outa the corner by all my asshole friends!), and I really can just barely stand to put the goddamn things on the turntable after that, I wish it would break anyway so I wouldn’t have to listen to ’em anymore. (Good one, huh, more than one sentence in this one!) But anyway, I put this piece of shit on just like all the other except the ones I never get around to, and right now I’m listening to it and you know what? I was right. It is a piece of shit!
5. I don’t remember how I got here, whose house this is or where this typewriter came from, but anyway this album by the greatest fucking rock ‘n’ roll band in the whole wide world/ most talented sensitive balladeer of his generation whom many of us are already calling the New Dylan/ sweetest songbird this side of the Thames has saved my life again just like all the others did, so I don’t even care if this place gets busted right now, I don’t care if the world comes to an end because the cosmic message of truth and unity which this music is bringing to me has made me feel complete for the first time since 1968.
Well, that wasn’t hard at all, was it? A whole paragraph written already! But this is no place to stop: the most fun’s yet to come. Tally ho!
The first song on side one, ___________(choose one):
a. “Catalina Sky”
b. “Death Rays in Your Eyes”
c. “I Wish I Was a Rusty Nail”
d. “Lady of Whitewater”
e. “Nixon Eats”
(choose again) __________
a. is a rousingly high spirited opener in march tempo
b. starts things off at an extremely high energy level
c. sets the pace and mood of the album most atmospherically
d. won’t win any Grammies this year
e. reminds me of my Grandmother puking up her sherry into the bathtub the night we had fish that had gone bad for dinner when I was three years old
The first thing you notice is ___________ (choose one)
a. the vicious, slashing guitar solo
b. the deep, throbbing bass lines
c. how mellowly the sensitive, almost painfully fragile vocal is integrated with the mesmerising Spanish chords from those four line hollowbody Gibson guitars
d. that the cymbals aren’t miked right
e. that the entire mix is a washout and this album has what is probably the worst production of the year.
The full impact of what’s going on in this cut may not reach you the first time, but if you keep listening a couple of times a day for a week or two, especially through headphones, it will come to you in a final flash of revelation that ___________ (choose one)
a. you were wasting your time
b. you are listening to a masterpiece of rock which so far transcends “rock” as we have known it that most people probably won’t recognize its true worth for at least ten years
c. all the instruments are out of tune
d. you should have bought the Band instead
e. you’re deaf in one ear.
Cut two is ___________ (choose one)
a. a nice change of pace
b. more of the same pigshit
c. a definite picker-upper
d. interesting, at least
e. insulting to the human ear (my dog didn’t like it either)
by virtue of the fact that ___________
a. it was produced by Phil Spector’s cousin from Jersey
b. it’s only two seconds long
c. the lyrics say more, and more concisely, about what we have done to our natural environment than anything else written in the past decade
d. Babby Keyes, Jim Price and Boots Randolph sit in for a real old time “blowing session”
e. I spilled Gallo Port in the grooves and it made it sound better.
In spite of that, I feel that the true significance of its rather dense and muted lyrics can only be apprehended by ___________
a. the purchase of a hearing aid
b. reading the sheet enclosed with the record
c. going back and listening to “Memphis Blues Again,” then come back to this and see if it doesn’t blow you right out the door!
d. taking a course in Spanish
e. throwing the incoherent piece of pigshit in the trash and going out for a beer, where something good is probably on the jukebox.
Time for paragraph three already! Smooth sailing, bunky! You’re almost there:
This record has inspired such ___________
a. ambivalent feelings
b. helpless adoration
c. bile and venom
d. total indifference
e. a powerful thirst
in me that I can’t bring myself to describe the rest of the cuts. Track by track reviews are a bore anyway, and the album only costs $3.39 at the right stores, so go down and get it and find out for yourself whether you’ll like it or not. Who am I, who is any critic or any other sentient being on the face of the earth, to tell you what a piece of music sounds like? Only your ears can hear it as only your ears can hear it. Am I right or am I wrong? Of course I am. I do know that I will ___________
a. go on listening to this album till I drop dead of cancer
b. walk out into the backyard and toss this offense unto mine eyes into the incinerator soon as I finish typing this spew
c. never forget the wonderful chance I’ve had here in the pages of Fusion to share this very special record, any my own deepest dredged sentiments about it, with you, who whether you know it or not are a very special person whom I love without qualification even if we’ve never seen each other, I don’t even know your name, and am so righteous that I don’t even care if you look like a pig
d. break this elpee over the head of the very next Jesus Freak or Hare Krishna creep I see in the street, just for the thrill!
e. go to sleep now and awaken upon a new morning in which I may be able to appreciate this unbridged poetic outpouring with fresh ears.
So before I sign my name at the bottom of this page and pick up my check I would like to leave you with this thought:
a. Today is the first day of the rest of your life
b. There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
c. The red man lost this land to you and me
d. Rock ‘n’ roll is dead. Long live rock ‘n’ roll.
e. Since these assholes that’re stupid enough to print this shit don’t pay me anything, why don’t you? I’ve probably turned you on to a lot of good records over the years, and what do I get out of it? Nothing but a lot of grief! A lot of stale eardrums from listening to reams of garbage! A lot of abuse from cretins who can’t understand that rock ‘n’ roll IS the Revolution! A lot of cheap bloodsuckers like hellhounds on my trail! I got “Yer Blues!” I’ve paid my body and soul! So send me some $$$$, goddammit, or I’ll never write a word again for as long as I live!
Your faithful correspondent,
(Just sign your name here)
(And write your address here!)
You did it! You really did it! There, you see, that wasn’t so hard, was it? Now YOU TOO are an officially ordained and fully qualified rock critic, with publication under your belt and everything. Just cut out the review, if you’ve finished filling in all the blanks, and send it to the rock magazine of your choice with a stamped self-addressed envelope! If they send it back, send it to another one! Be persistent! Be a “go getter”! And if you send it to all the rock mags in America, one of them is bound to print it sooner or later because most of them will print the worst off the wall shit in the world if they think it’ll make ’em avant-garde! You could send ’em the instruction booklet on how to repair your lawn mower, just write the name of a current popular album by a famous artist at the top of the cover, sign your name at the bottom of the last page, and they’ll print it! They’ll think you’re a genius! And you are! And when all the money you asked for in this review starts pouring in from your fans, you’ll be rich! Rocco Langinestra will invite you out to his house in the Catskills for the weekend! Miles Davis will step aside when you walk down the street! Seals of Seals & Crofts will tip his hat to you and sing “Bah’aiii!” as you walk down the street! David Peel will write songs about you! So will John Lennon! So will everybody! Andy Warhol will put you in his movies! You’ll tour with David Bowie, Leon Russell and Atomic Rooster, reading your most famous of reviews to vast arenas full of rabid fans! You’ll be an international celebrity and die at 33! You made the grade! You are now a rock critic, and by tomorrow you will be one of the most important critics in America! You’ll make Esquire‘s Heavy Hundred in 1974! Congratulations, and welcome to the club!