How to Be a

ROCK CRITIC

A Megatonic Journey

with

Lester Bangs

(Shakin’ Street Gazette #15, 10/10/74)

Lately I’ve noticed a new wrinkle on the American landscape: it seems as if there’s a whole generation of kids, each one younger than the last, all of whom live, breathe and dream of but one desire: “I want to be a rock critic when I grow up!”

If that sounds condescending let it be known that I was once just like them; the only difference was that when I held such aspirations, the field was relatively uncluttered--it was practically nothing to barge right in and commence the slaughter--whereas now, of course, it’s so glutted that the last thing anybody should ever consider doing is entering this racket. In the first place, it doesn’t pay much and doesn’t lead anywhere in particular, so no matter how successful you are at it, you’ll eventually have to decide what you’re going to do with your life anyway. In the second place, it’s basically just a racket in the first place, and not a particularly glorious one at that.

It almost certainly won’t get you laid. (Rock critics are beginning to get groupies of a sort now, but most of them are the younger, aspiring rock critics--like the kind on Shakin’ Street--of one sex or another.) It won’t make you rich: the highest-paying magazine in the rock press still only pays thirty bucks a review, and most of the other magazines fall way below that. So you’ll never be able to make a living off of it. Nobody will come up to you in the street and say, “Hey, I recognize you! You’re Jon Landau! Man, that last review was really far out!” A lot of people, in fact, will hate you and think you’re a pompous asshole just for expressing your opinions, and tell you so to your face.

On the other side of the slug, though, are the benefits. Which are okay, if you don’t get taken in by them. The first big one is that if you stay at this stuff long enough you’ll start to get free records in the mail, and if you persevere even longer you may wind up on the promotional mailing lists of every company in the nation, which will not only save you a lot of money on payday and ensure that you’ll get to hear everything and anything you want, but help to pay the rent on occasion when you sell the albums spilling into your bathroom to local used records stores, at prices ranging from $.05 to over a dollar apiece. Plus on Christmas you don’t have to buy anybody any presents if you don’t want to: just give your mother the new Barbra Steisand album Columbia sent you because Barbra’s trying to relate, your big sister one of the three copies of the new Carole King that you got in the mail, your little sister that Osmonds double live LP you never even opened because you’re too hip...all down the line, leaving you with enough money saved to stay fucked up on good whiskey over the holidays this year.

Another fringe benefit which will sooner or later accrue if you hew steadily on this jive ass scrawl, is that you will be invited to press parties for the opening of new acts in town. It helps to live in places like L.A. and New York, because they have more of them there; I know some people, in fact, who have almost literally kept themselves from starving for months at a time by eating dinner at a different press party every night. (I know other people who have made entire careers out of attending these things, but that’s a different story.) The food’s usually pretty good to magnificent, unless it’s some bluejeaned folkie and the company’s trying to be with-it by serving organic slop unfit for the innards of a sow; even in such an extreme case as that, though, you can content yourself with sopping up the booze, which is plentiful and usually of high quality. So even if you live at home or haven’t had any trouble lately keeping the wolf from the door, you can get drunk free a lot and that’s always a pleasure, even if you do usually have to sit through some shit like John Prine or Osibisa just for a few glasses of gin. Sure you’re prostituting yourself in a way, but so are they, and what are most modern business, social or sexual relationships if not a process of symbiotic exploitation? It’s the same tub of shit no matter where it perches, so you might as well kick back and enjoy yourself while you can.

The next big step up after press parties is that you’ll start receiving invitations to concerts, events and record company conventions in distant cities. Free vacations! The record companies will pay your plane fare, put you up in a swank hotel with room service (usually), and wine and dine you like mad for the duration of your stay, all just because they want you to write about some act they’re trying to break. This is where things get a little cooler and less of a hustle, because once you’ve had enough stuff published that they’re willing to drop a few hundred smackeroos to get you to do a story on somebody in their stable, you can pretty much pick and choose who you want to write about. Well, not totally, but everybody finds their own level, and it finds them. Like if you're a redhot flaming-eared heavy metal fanatic, they’ll call you up one day and offer to fly you to Chicago or New York to see, oh, the Stooges, maybe. Or at least Jukin’ Bone.

The final benefit (and for some people, the biggest) is that during most of these stages and at an increasingly casual level as time goes on, you’ll get to hobnob with the Stars. Backstage at concerts, in the dressing room drinking their wine, rapping casually with the famous, the talented, the rich and the beautiful. Most of ’em are just jerks like everybody else, and you probably won’t really get to meet any real Biggies very often since the record companies don’t need publicity on them so why should they inflict you on ’em, but you will become friends with a lot of Stars of the Future. Or at least also rans.

Okay, so that’s the rosy vista. I painted it for true, and if you want it, it’s yours, becuz after almost five years in this racket I finally decided I’m gonna break down and tell the whole world how to break in. I could get a lotta dough for this if I wanted to--some of us have talked for years about starting a Famous Rock Critics’ School--but fuck it, I’m too lazy to take the time to set up some shit like that, and besides it’s about time everybody got wind of the True Fax of Rock ’n’ Roll Criticism. Listen well, and decide for yourself whether you wanna bother with it.

The first thing to understand and bear in mind at all times is that the whole thing is just a big ruse from the word go, it don’t mean shit except exploitatively and in the zealotic terms of wanting to inflict your tastes on other people. Most people start writing record reviews because they want other people to like the same kind of stuff they do, and there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s a very honest impulse. I used to be a Jehovah’s Witness when I was a kid so I had it in my blood already, a head start. But don’t worry. All you gotta do is just keep bashin’ away, and sooner or later people will start saying things to you like “How do you fit the Kinks into your overall aesthetic perspective?”

Well they won’t really talk that jiveass, but damn close if you travel in the right (or wrong, as the case may be) circles. Because that old saw is true: most rock critics are pompous assholes. Maybe most critics are pompous assholes, but rock critics are especially--because they’re working in virgin territory, where there’s absolutely no recognized, generally agreed on authority or standards. Nor should there be. Anything goes, so fake ’em out every chance you get. Rock ’n’ roll’s basically just a bunch of garbage in the first place, it’s noise, it’s here today and gone tomorrow, so the only thing that can possibly trip you up is if you begin to reflect that if the music’s that trivial, can you imagine how trivial what you’re doing is?

Which actually is a good attitude to operate from, because it helps keep the pomposity factor if check. Half the rock critics in the country, no, 90% of the rock critics in the world have some grand theory they’re trying to lay on each other and everybody else, which they insist explains everything in musical history and ties up all the loose ends. Every last one of ’em has a different theory and every last one of the theories is total bullshit, but you might as well have one as part of your baggage if you’re going to pass. Try this: ALL ROCK ’N’ ROLL CULTURES PLAGIARIZE EACH OTHER. THAT IS INHERENT IN THEIR NATURE. SO MAYBE, SINCE WHAT ROCK ’N’ ROLL’S ALL ABOUT IS PLAGIARISM ANYWAY, THE MOST OUT-AND-OUT PLAGIARISTS, THE IMITATORS OF THE PRIME MOVING GENIUSES, ARE GREATER AND MORE VALID THAN THOSE GENIUSES! JUST CHECK THIS OUT: THE ROLLING STONES ARE BETTER THAN CHUCK BERRY! THE SHADOWS OF KNIGHT WERE BETTER THAN THE YARDBIRDS! P.F. SLOAN’S FIRST ALBUM WAS A MASTERPIECE, WAY BETTER THAN BLONDE ON BLONDE (I know one prominent rock critic in Texas who actually believes this; he’s a real reactionary, but so are most of ’em!)!

Pretty pompous, huh? Well, that just happens to be one of my basic theories, although I don’t really believe all the stuff I said in there (not that that makes a diddley damn bit of difference), and you can have it if you want it to bend or mutate as you please. Or come up with your own crock of shit; anyway, it’s good to have one for those late-nite furious discussions leading absolutely nowhere. See, the whole thing’s just a big waste of time, but the trappings can be fun and you always liked to whack off anyway. Like, look, you can impress people you wanna fuck by saying impressive things like “John Stewart Mill couldn’t write rock ’n’ roll, but Dylan could have written ‘An Essay On Human Understanding.’ Only he would have called it ‘Like a Rolling Stone!’” (Dave Marsh of creem Magazine actually said that to me, and everybody else who lived with us, and everybody he talked to on the phone for the next month, once.) Just imagine laying that on some fine little honey--she’d flip out! She’d think you were a genius! Either that or a pompous asshole. But in this business, like any other, you win some and you lose some. Persevere, kid.

Where were we? Ah yes, you should also know that most of your colleagues are some of the biggest neurotics in the country, so you might as well get used right now to the way they’re gonna be writing you five and ten page single spaced inflammatory letters reviling you for knocking some group that they have proved is the next Stones. It’s all very incestuous, like this great big sickoid club full of people who were probably usually the funny looking kid in class, with the acne and the big horn rims, all introverted, and just sat home every night through high school and played his records while the other kids yukked and balled it up. Tough luck, genius is pain. Or frustrated popstars, all rock critics are frustrated popstars and you should see ’em singing to themselves when nobody else is around. Boy, do they get corny! Melodramatic? Whooo!! Some of them actually go so far as to invest their entire life savings in trendy popstar wardrobes, and others are so monomaniacal as to go beyond that to the actual steps of forming a band of their own. And you can rest assured that all of them write songs, and have constant daytime and nightdaze fantasies of big contracts with ESP-Disk at least.

Speaking of investing your life savings, another good way of letting on to everybody on the block that you’re a rock critic is to go out and waste a lot of money buying old albums in bargain bins. They have these turd-dumps in most drugstores or supermarkets, full of last year’s crap and older stuff at prices ranging from as low as a quarter all the way up to $2.50 and more. If you patronize these scumholes regularly, you will soon begin to build a Definitive Rock ’n’ Roll Albums Collection, which is of course a must for anybody who’s into this way of life really seriously. The object is simple: you gotta have EVERYTHING, no matter how arcane or shitty it is, because it all fits into the grand bulwark of Rock. So just go out there and throw all your money away, it’s a good investment. You’ll be filling your room with mung, but so what: how many other people do you know who have the Battered Ornaments album? Right. They don’t know what they’re missing.

I know one rock critic who actually drew out his life’s savings and drove from St. Louis, where he lived, to New York and back, by way of Chicago, Detroit and New Jersey, AND STOPPED AT EVERY BARGAIN BIN ALONG THE WAY. That was the entire purpose of the trip, to visit bargain bins. Now this guy is obviously a real doofus and totally out of his mind, but you can see where this business can lead you if you’re lucky and apply yourself: down blind alleys.

Speaking of this same doofus reminds me of another riff that is essential to have if you’re gonna be a hotshit rock critic. You gotta find some band somewhere that’s maybe even got two or three albums out and might even be halfway good, but the important thing is the more arcane it is the better, it’s gotta be something that absolutely nobody in the world but you and two other people (the group’s manager and one member’s mother) knows or cares about, and what you wanna do is TALK ABOUT THIS BUNCH OF OBSCURE NONENTITIES AND THEIR RECORD(S) LIKE THEY’RE THE HOTTEST THING IN THE HISTORY OF MUSIC! You gotta build ’em up real big, they’re your babies, only you alone can perceive their true greatness, so you gotta go around telling everybody that they’re better than the Rolling Stones, they beat the Beatles black and blue, they murtelyze the Dead, they’re the most significant and profound musical force in the world. And someday their true greatness will be recognized and you will be vindicated as a seer far ahead of your time.

Sometimes this scheme can really pay off, like if you happen to pick a Captain Beefheart or Velvet Underground way before they get widely known, although they’re not really eligible because this group has gotta be so obscure that they can put out all kindsa albums and nobody pays any attention to ’em but you, they’re just off mouldering in a cutout rack somewhere if not for your devoted efforts.

Doofus (of the preceding paragraph) came up with a lulu in this department, couple of ’em in fact: All he ever talks about is Amon Duul II, Bang and Budgie. Ever heard of any of ’em? That’s what I thought. And you probably never will except if he’s around to pester you about them. Amon Duul II are this psychedelic experimental avant-garde chance music free jazz electronic synthesizer space rock group from Germany. They got all kinds of albums out over there, there’s even two groups with the same name, Amon Duul I and Amon Duul II, but they only got three albums out here and hardly anybody ever heard of ’em, although a whole shitload of people sure will if Doofus keeps up his one-man propaganda campaign on their behalf! They happen to be real good, but that’s beside the point. And Bang and Budgie, his other two pet monomanias, are a couple of Black Sabbath imitations, one from Florida and one from England, one pretty good and one not so hot. So he and this other critic from Texas (also previously mentioned) send big long hate letters back and forth to each other telling each other what morons they are, because the Texan don’t like Budgie or something like that. Get the idea?

Also I turned Doofus onto the Can, another German psychedelic schnozz-ball that has lotsa 17-minute electroraga jams, and he listens to one side of their album one time and sez to me: “Don’t you think the Can are better than the Stooges?” See what I mean? When all week he’s been asking me things like “Don’t you think Amon Duul II are the greatest group in history?” and “Don’t you think Dance of the Lemmings (one of their albums, featuring such standards as “Dehypnotized Toothpaste,” “Landing in a Ditch” and “A Short Stop at the Transylvanian Brain Surgery”) is the greatest album of all time?” and I keep saying no, but he won’t take no for an answer, he’s a man with a Plan! A crusader on behalf of Neglected Genius. So you see the key: persistence. Make a total nuisance of yourself, and people will begin to take you seriously. Or at least stop regarding you as not there. And if he wants to continue on this obscuro roller-coaster ride, there are zillions of German bands: take Guru Guru or Floh de Cologne, for example--these qualify as two of the finest choices in the Arcane Masterpiece department in history, indeed they do, because both are imports and you can’t even find a single Floh de Cologne or Guru Guru album anywhere in the United States except by ordering it special from Germany! So nobody knows what it sounds like so they gotta listen to Doofus. So as you can see Doofus copped himself a real hot item, but chances like that come only once in a lifetime.

That pretty much takes care of the qualifications. Like what you see? Wanna give it a try? Well, get ready, because the big time is just around the corner. The only thing left to mention before you embark on your career as a rock critic is that talent has absolutely nothing to do with it, so 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 can sign your name with an X. Anybody can do this shit, all it takes is a high level of unconsciousness (and you just got done reading an unconsciousness expanding session) 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. All the word-type stuff you need has already been written anyway, it’s in old yellow issues of Shakin’ Street, Rolling Stone, creem and all the rest; 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 and girls you’re trying to pick up with your erudition, 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 methods and think about being avant-garde. I do it all the time.

 

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