Who's That Banging at My Dori?

I've tried everything, right here in this fucking diatribe I've tried gratuitous insults, scatology, high school flashbacks, plain invective, homicidal fantasy in one instance, and even though I feel good about the latter at least I know that no matter how much I rant things ain't gonna get better till it's time for 'em to.

And that time will come, make no mistake, it's never been stopped yet, and when our number comes up we can all get back to the Party in the real way we know it should be wailing joy from coast to coast just as Martha and the Vandellas prophesied in "Dancing in the Street": "Callin' out, around the world / Are you ready for a brand-new beat?"

And, until it comes, there's always myth.

-- "James Taylor Marked for Death" by Lester Bangs

The late critic and recent alternate-universe hero Lester Bangs wasn't responsible for me listening to rock, but he's largely responsible for me fussing too much about it. He made it a way of thinking (thus, life), without sacrificing any intelligence and without covering up the slobbery nature of the beast. This may not be an entirely positive achievement -- Bangs was ambivalent about it -- but he seemed like a good idea at the time.

Bangs's death affected me more than Elvis's or Sid's: he left no one worthy of handling the obituary. And Bangs had so concentrated, during the last five years of his life, on blowing up the counterculture Death Star that his moronic self-snuff seemed a greater betrayal than anything Neil Young or Johnny Rotten were able to come up with in the next decade. It was as if some impossibly cool Han-Luke cross had rushed right into the arms of his big black daddy to start off "Revenge of the Jedi," the triumphant five-minute conclusion to the "Star Wars" saga.

When I heard about Bruce Sterling's story, "Dori Bangs," starring Lester Bangs and fellow young corpse Dori Seda, I thought it was a great idea. After all, even if sex and drugs are the usual side-dishes with live rock, geographic isolation and stingy budgets often associate the music with those other bastions of geek revolt, comic books and SF. It seems like every other '80s SF novel features a rocker as hero, and it's nice to have someone fess up to Bangs and underground comix as influences.

Maybe what we have here is a two-widows-squabbling-over-the-grave situation, but "Dori Bangs" ended up irritating me. Bangs is treated in a way that seems more Swiping Out of Mom's Purse than Killing the Father. And Dori Seda hardly seems there at all; anyway, I didn't get any feeling for her good-natured clear-focused B&W Polaroids of lowlife from Sterling's story.

Not that there's much room for Seda in the prose; in fiction as in life, Bangs takes up space. For starters, his work provides a lot of the actual prose content of the story:

I have a simple question: What am I supposed to make of this? Am I supposed to take it as characterization -- as saying that Bangs had a bad habit of reciting himself in bars? Or was I not supposed to recognize it? I understand the use of illustrative quotes in criticism, but in fiction, it smacks confusingly of plagiarism.

Dori's little singles-bar speech (repurposed from Krystine Kryttre's tribute in Weirdo No. 22) was at least a more-or-less eyewitness account, so I can count the swipe as docudrama, though I'm not into docudrama so I don't know why I'd do that either.

The most offensive aspect of docudrama, its reduction of characters to the size and resolution of a TV screen, is even worse here in "the Land of What Might Have Been" (as Robert Killheffer calls this SF subgenre in NYRSF #26), where everyone is a celebrity but all the celebrities have gone through some sort of Warhol-diarization into generic dullards or buffoons. In contrast, rock criticism (School of Bangs) magnifies, even if only by the extent of the aggression it displays (cf. "Hey Lou, why doncha start shooting speed again? Then you could come up with something good!" - "Deaf Mute in a Telephone Booth," Creem, Vol. 5, No. 2).

Bangs's narrative failures in "Maggie May" (Psychotic Reactions, p. 344) and Blondie may rest in the uncharacteristic shrinkage of the subjects. Similarly in Sterling's story, Bangs the hero seems diminished next to the blowhard style. It would be a failure if Bangs had written it, and he might as well have, since the blowhard style is Bangs's.

One of his styles, anyway. It's hard to pick up from his literary remains as executed thus far, but Bangs was a master of control, producing scholarly jazz overviews and investigative reportage at the same time as his frothiest ravings. Bangs has this posthumous rep as a fou-savant, but the lout was crafty. His adaptability is something to bear in mind when you deal in what-coulda-beens.

Admittedly, the Boom-Crash-Bangsian style is what we aging cranks usually pull out of our rotting stacks of Creem and New York Rocker and The Village Voice to press on younger aging-cranks. It resembles its Beat forefathers and its brother R. Meltzer in its streaming-semiconsciousness, but it surpasses even them in spunky fecundity. Pick up any copy of Forced Exposure or Chemical Imbalance, or dip into pseudopunk net chat, and you'll find a wide spread of ages still doing Lester like there's no tomorrow and no today.

You know, you're soaking in it. It's the Bangs Curse. He's like Nabokov or Derrida in reducing critics to parodists. I'm not about to get on Sterling's case for catching the disease, just for how he tries to to treat it, with passages like "but when you actually READ a bunch of Lester Bangs Rock Reviews in a row, the whole shebang has a delicate hermetic whiff, like so many eighteenth-century sonnets. It is to dance in chains; it is to see the whole world through a little chromed window of Silva-Thin 'shades..." (One of Sterling's nicer pastiches, that, with its Mock-Rhetorical Use of Capital Letters, the slide between slang and eddycated discourse and the sunglasses probably borrowed from "Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves," the first of the Bangs vs. Lou Reed wrasslin' matches reprinted in Psychotic Reactions.)

The question Sterling brings up here has nagged Bangs-the-original and Bangs-wannabes since the first rush wore off: It's got a good beat and I can dance to it, but is it art? (As far as I'm concerned, the question is clearly answered by its first two clauses, but that's because I'm working off the critical values that Bangs himself used.)

As Sterling points out, that first rush is a sense of freedom, the sense that "we can talk about anything, can't we," not that much different from the rush of hearing Elvis Presley or Van Morrison, with the same promise of an infinitely flexible and thoroughly un-self-concious voice. Bangs achieved it by seamlessly darting through a motley of topics and monologue styles, held together by some assumedly shared background (rock music, usually). Music-collecting is the gymnast's bar around which his seemingly weightless twirls and flips are supported. Or, more accurately, given his intended audience and the complexity of his allusive network, it's the jungle gym. The transitions themselves afford the unique Bangsian pleasure.

The hermeticism Sterling mentions is one with the playfulness with which you settle into any web of understood rules, into any clique (that of cyberpunks, for example). In written literature as well as spoken, enjoyment of in-speak can raise a guilty feeling of retreat, of contempt for outsiders. I think this is one of the things a friend was getting at when she said, about Bangs, "The thing is, he seems so immature."

I think Bangs felt it, and tried to break out of the "too cool for you" trap by jettisoning that rock foundation and relying on narrative drive to keep his words stuck together. And they didn't stick. As Sterling says, Bangs's attempts at "straight" fiction are pretty poor, at least what's been printed so far. The more conservative ("Maggie May") are hoax roman à clefs, kind of embarrassingly minnow-sized; you can't keep raising the stakes and then toss something like that out. The more flipped-out ("All My Friends Are Hermits") hold magical passages (his Jane Fonda solos blow away Ballard's), but flail about helplessly between them.

So, admittedly, traditional narrative interfered with Bangs's 180-degrees-on-a-dime charm. But that's just to say that he had a discursive prose style. Bangs got that style to cover a lot of ground (the non-rock pieces for the Village Voice were wonderful), and why should he try to write a novel anyway? Even Mark Twain only really pulled it off once.

The odd thing is that good fiction is spread all through Bangs's discursive writing: autobiographical fiction, a lot of it; something very close to what Sterling is doing, another lot of it. Take (as Sterling did) Bangs's posthumously published fantasy of ingesting Elvis Presley's viscera: horror, hilarity, and gonzo tabloidism combine in topnotch speculative untrue nonfiction. Or take the piece that reminds me most of "Dori Bangs," the fantasy biography of Reg Presley, teen idol, spun out in "James Taylor Marked For Death".

What keeps those pieces from being fiction is the structural principle. It's narrative, but only in the way the most experimental comix and animation remains narrative art. "James Taylor Marked For Death" is structured by something other than the story it tells: by a purported review of a Troggs-for-chrissakes album. Left to its own devices, the story would probably turn out as vague and meandering as Bangs's "fiction." But it wasn't and it didn't and it deserves a little recognition. Not from the New York Times, as Sterling predicts and I admit, but measuring artistic worth by the space one gets in the New York Times seems like self-destructive behavior in an SF writer.

This is where I get to the throbbing nub of "Dori Bangs"'s mosquito bite: "What's the point?" is a question which trickles upstream to its source. If Bangs's aesthetic mission was for next to naught, where's that leave Sterling (or the rest of us)? Sterling wants to steal his cake and diet too. In this story, he's a literary bulemic, and comes across as more truly nihilistic than his slob hero could ever be.

What rock critics have (thanks to Bangs) is the opportunity to speak complexly of simple things (compare Barthe's complex treatment of Balzac's "perfectly clear" prose in S/Z, or Delany's of Disch's in The American Shore). What we have in "Dori Bangs" is an attempt to speak simply of something complex -- a rib-crushing injury with insult added by the awfully close stylistic relationship between the container and the thing it tries to contain.

I've had similar problems with some other "literary" SF, not to mention speculative mainstream stuff like E. L. Doctorow and John Barth. It's all reference and no lust. I know why I should read Ulysses even though the Odyssey is in print; I know why I should read R. Meltzer's pretty vicious memoir of Bangs ("Lester Bangs Recollected in Tranquility," Throat Culture #2) and Bangs's pretty vacant memoir of Vicious ("Bye Bye Sydney," Throat Culture #2) and Kryttre's plain pretty memoir of Seda ("Bimbos from Hell," Weirdo No. 22). They don't just refer: they teach me something new, and they touch me.

For that matter, I paid full price for Troggs albums and forced myself to get used to the flute on Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" because of the passion Bangs squandered on them, despite all the times his cultural shell game ripped me off. But I haven't heard of anyone seeking out Bangs or Seda material because of Sterling's story.

"Dori Bangs" lacks the lip-smacking which juices the best writing, whether fiction or criticism. Copping attitudes but keeping its distance, and finally throwing in with the big warm family of the intentionally mediocre, it has pity but no passion, and that wouldn't've been enough for Bangs.

I feel for the guy, dragging this monument up over himself 'cause it's cold outside, his big blue feet sticking out... I feel the same way, more than I want to. But if Sterling doesn't want to leave indelible graffiti in the concrete sidewalk of Time, then he should just GET OFF THE SIDEWALK. There's a lot to scrawl before it sets.

...It doesn't matter. Sterling just bumped an old itch. Today I wrote this bandaid to cover it up. Tomorrow I'll pull it off, with a bunch of hairs attached.

Copyright 1990 Ray Davis