Monday, November 4, 2013

Lester Bangs Lou Reed (Pt. 2 of 2)


Blackout. The TV theme to "The Odd Couple" plays as young British rock journalist Nick Kent appears onstage, dressed in scarves like a glam rocker. He addresses the audience between sneezes, sniffles, and nose-dabs with a ball of Kleenex. Lou Reed circa 1973 -- white makeup and black lipstick -- slouches in a lounge chair behind him, trying to stop his hands from shaking.

Kent  Lou was like Keith Richards in that he had the mark of death about him. Meaning: Those who come in contact with him tend to die, but never vice versa. Gram Parsons. Meredith Hunter. Nico. Peter Laughner. Lester smelled the scent of death on Lou. Christ, for Lester, that was like ringing the dinner bell.

Holiday Inn Suite, Detroit, Michigan, Winter 1973

The "Odd Couple" theme is coming from a hotel-room TV that nobody seems to be watching. Lester is sitting opposite Reed, getting in his grill, but Reed ignores him, talking instead to Kent.

Reed  ...yeah, that was me in drag on the back of Transformer. Oh, and I really admire Burt Reynolds a lot. (noticing Kent's scarves) Hey, aren't you hot in those things?

Kent (intimidated) Uh, no. I've got a cold.

Lester  Stop trying to seduce my protege, Lou. Try to focus on the issues at hand.

Reed (continuing to ignore Lester) Try Vick's VapoRub. I came down with a nasty cold in Boston and it definitely helps. Somebody just has to have the nerve to reach into the bowl of that shit and rub it in. Like I remember, when everybody was taking acid up at the Factory -- Andy never indulged, of course -- someone came across a jar of Dippity-Do, and we said, 'It's just like a cunt!' So we all ran into the bathroom to finger the Dippity-Do jar. (laughs uproariously)

Lester  So we're getting "Mad Libs Lou" tonight? Hey, when do you intend to die anyway?

Reed (taking Marlboro from pack) I plan to live to a ripe old age and raise watermelons in Wyoming. Besides, I'm outdrinking you two to one. (tries to light cigarette but his hands are shaking too badly)

Lester  And you're proud of yourself for this? (points to Lou's hands) What does it do to your nervous system?

Reed  Oh that? It completely destroys it.

Lester  Then how do you intend to raise your watermelons?

Reed  My time will come, I guess.

Lester  Good, you finally got that butt lit. Speaking of which, let's talk about gay sex, Lou.

Reed  What would you like to know?

Lester  Well, things are a bit more out of the closet now right? The whole androgynous thing, Bowie, long hair, glitter and makeup, glam rock, you kissing your musicians on the mouth onstage... (indicates Kent, who has fallen asleep on his feet) People dressing like this poor kid.

Reed  I don't know. The makeup thing is just a style thing now, like platform shoes. If people have homosexuality in them, it won't necessarily involve makeup in the first place. You can't fake being gay, because being gay means you're going to have to suck cock, or get fucked. A lot of people will have one or two experiences, and that'll be it. Things may not change one iota.

Lester  That's sounds very Fifties for a guy who helped usher in the Seventies, Lou.

Reed  Yeah, well ask my parents about that. In the Fifties, they found out I was bisexual and sent me in to Rockland State Hospital for electroshock.

Lester  Yeah! You're the ultimate closet queen in that you came out of the closet and then had to go back in. So after taking one for both teams, doesn't it bother you that homosexual think you're some kind of tourist, exploiting their culture for your own ends?

Reed  No. But that reminds me: I may have to come out with a hardhat album. Come out with an antigay song: 'Get back in the closets you fuckin' queers!' That'll really do it!

Lester  Why not go deeper and attack their icons, Lou? I mean, doncha think Judy Garland was a piece of shit and better off dead?

Reed  No! She was a wonderfully wise and witty lady!

Lester  Doncha think David Bowie's a no-talent asshole?

Reed  No! He's a genius! He's brilliant!

Lester  C'mon! "Space Oddity"? That's just Jefferson Airplane's afterbirth!

Reed  It is NOT! It's a brilliant masterpiece! Oh, you are so full of SHIT.

Lester  Why don't you try being banal for a change, Lou? There's so much less pressure! Why doncha write a song like "Sugar, Sugar"! THAT'D be something worthwhile.

Reed  I WISH I'd written that song!

Lester  Start shooting speed again! Then you could come up with something good!

Reed  You're a deaf mute in a telephone booth!

Lester  You look like a gay Nixon!

Freeze and Blackout. A football referee enters and blows his whistle and does some sort of hand signal.

Referee The judges have ruled! Round One goes to: Leslie Conway Bangs!

Hilton Suite, Detroit, Michigan, Spring 1975

Herbie Hancock's "Quasar" plays over the following scene. Lou Reed reappears, lying on a bed, this time his head shaved with the stubble dyed blonde and wearing giant, bug-eyed sunglasses. He is being attended by Rachel, a tall half-Mexican Indian transsexual.

Reed (indicating the music to Rachel) I tell you, this is the stuff I really want to do, that I meant by heavy metal. I had to wait a couple of years before I could get the equipment, now I've got it and it's done. I could have sold it as electronic classical music, like Stockhausen or Xenakis, except the one I've got that I've finished heavy metal, no kidding around. Most people will be able to take five minutes of it. (pause) Even though I wouldn't even bother to shit in his nose, I believe Lester will listen to the whole thing all the way through. Twice.

Lester reappears, drink and notebook in hand. He is wearing wraparound Silva-Thin sunglasses, a parody of the pair that Reed wore on the first Velvet Underground album.

Lester  Hi Lou! I believe you remember me.

Reed  Unfortunately.

Lester pulls up a chair and rattles his empty glass.

Lester  Lou, who do I have to get you to blow so that I can get another Johnnie Walker Black?

Reed  That's my drink. Stop. Enough of your boozing. You can't handle it. I don't want you to get wasted.

Lester (singing) "Oh pardon me, suh, It's fuh-thest from mah mind" HAW HAW HAW!!

Reed  You know, Lester, I basically like you in spite of myself. Common sense leads me to believe you're an idiot, but sometimes the epistemological things that you come out with sometimes betray the fact that you're kind of onomatopoetic in a subterranean reptilian way.

Lester  Goddamn, Lou! You sound just like Allen Ginsberg!

Reed  You sound like his father. You should do like Peter Orlovsky and go have shock. You don't know any more than when you started. You just kind of chase your tail.

Lester  That's what I was going to say to you. Do you ever feel like a self-parody?

Reed  No. If I listened to you assholes I would. You're comic strips.

Lester  I don't mind. Transformer was a comic strip that transcended itself.

Reed  Oh for fuck's sake SHUT UP.

They sit there, staring each other down, for a few tense moments.

Lester  OK Lou, we're gonna have to do this straight. I'll take off my sunglasses if you take off yours.

Reed  Fine.

Not wanting to be the first one, they both SLOWLY take off their sunglasses.

Lester  You actually have very beautiful eyes, Lou. You should show them off more often.

Reed  You look exactly the same. Maybe more bloated than last time we met. Feel free to use the shower. In your suite.

Lester  Never mind that. Here's the Big Question, Louland. (clears throat) Do you resent people for the way that you have lived out what they might think as the dark side of their lives for them, vicariously, in your music or your life?

Reed  No. Yes. I have no idea what you're talking about.

Lester  You know: "shootin' smack, shootin' speed, committing're all fucked...I can do anything I want...putdown, putdown...drag queens, the gutter, New York New York blahblahblah."

Reed  That's three percent out of a hundred songs.

Lester  Bullshit! NONE of this hard-boiled glam shit would have happened without you.

Reed  I didn't have anything to do with it.

Lester  Bowie ripped off all shit that's decent from you, you and Iggy!

Reed  What does Iggy have to do with it?

Lester  You were the originals.

Reed  The original WHAT? Look, Iggy is stupid. Very sweet, but very stupid. If he’d listen to Bowie or me, if he’d ask questions every once in awhile…He’s just making a fool of himself, and it’s just going to get worse and worse. He’s not even a good imitation of a bad Jim Morrison and he was never any good anyway.

Lester  When you recorded Berlin, did you think so many people would laugh at it?

Reed  I couldn't care less.

Lester  That's a double-negative, Lou. So you DO care. The one thing I kinda resent about Berlin is that you never give Caroline's point of view. it was a very selfish album. 'I'm beating you up, bitch.' 'You're dead, bitch.'

Reed  Well, she was making it with her dealer.

Lester  One thing I like about you, Lou, is that you're not afraid to lower yourself. For instance, "New York Stars." I thought you were lowering yourself by splattering all these people like the Dolls with your freelance spleen, but then I realized that you've been lowering yourself for years.

Reed  You really are an asshole. You went past assholism into some kind of urinary tract. The next time you come up with a phrase as good as 'curtains laced with diamonds dear for you' instead of all this Dee-troit bullshit, let me know.

Lester  Obviously, what you're selling under your name now is pasteurized decadence. In the old days you were really a badass, Lou, but now you're playing to an audience that wants to buy a reprocessed form of decadence.

Reed  Wow, you're not even good at being professionally jaded.

Lester  Yeah? You've made a career out of being a degenerate, and I think you should fess up to that. You have not primarily distinguished yourself as a musician; although you have come up with some great riffs, and I don't know why you keep trying to play me all this high-tech music jazz muzak crap, because basically you're a lit. In your worst moments you could be considered a bad imitation of Tennessee Williams.

Reed  That's like saying in your worst moments you could be considered a bad imitation of you.

Blackout. The referee reappears, blowing the whistle and doing his wild hand signals.

Referee  The judges have ruled. Round Two goes to: Lewis Allan Reed!

The referee exits. Rachel the Transsexual steps up and addresses the audience.

Rachel  I watched them go back and forth all night, just screaming at each other and accusing each other of being sellouts. Lester was in his element, but Lou was just humoring him. I believe he cared for him and was trying to warn him: If you want to walk in these circles, fine. But be forewarned: you down a few more pills than necessary, and you fall on the floor and go all blue, the people who know you and that you know will not call the police, they will not call the ambulance, they will not perform CPR, they will step over your body. They’ll leave you on the floor and let you die and escape back into the night. Those are the kind of people who inhabit the world you so want to be a part of. Lester wasn’t like that, but when he arrived in New York, he was surrounded by everyone who was. In a sense, he was outnumbered. To be truly successful, you have to be one of the walking dead. You have to be marked. Wounded with a blessing.

She turns to exit the stage, but pauses and turns back.

Rachel  In photos, Lou almost always wore sunglasses. Lester never did. Make from that what you will.

The grating sounds of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music increase in volume as a spotlight goes up on Lester, looking like a mess and typing furiously. He stops typing and pulls the sheet out, reading it aloud. As he reads, he stands and approaches a lectern.

Lester 'Peter Laughner is dead. Perhaps the name means nothing to you. If it doesn't I would hope that you would read this anyway, because one of the reasons I am writing this is that there is more than a little of what killed Peter in me, as there may well be in you. The last time I saw him, the day after he got kicked off the stage at CBGB's by Patti Smith, he looked terrible, all at once ghastly and pathetic. I got really angry and lit into him: "You're killing yourself just so you can be like Lou Reed and Tom Verlaine, two people who everybody in this town knows are complete assholes!" I told him I could no longer trust myself around him and not get drunk and take drugs, so I had no choice but to never be around him. It was the last time I ever saw him. Now he's dead, and I would just like to preserve some of the meaning of Peter's life and death, mostly directed at a certain asshole who laughed when I went to CBGB's the night of Peter's death and told everyone about it. Because this kid's death is not meaningless, he wasn't just some fool who took too many drugs. Peter Laughner had his private pains and compulsions, but at least in part he died because he wanted to be Lou Reed. This certainly was not Lou's fault; it was Peter's. Though he was a casualty of the times, he brought it all upon himself.'

Metal Machine Music fades and is replaced by a live recording of a stoned Elvis Presley babbling incoherently onstage, cracking up, fucking up the lyrics, making fun of his backup singers. etc.

Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting, Greenwich Village, Spring 1982

Lester quietly folds the sheet of paper and puts it in his pocket.

Lester  Hello, my name is Lester, and I am an alcoholic and a drug addict.

Offstage Voices  Hello, Lester!

Lou Reed appears behind Lester, smoking a cigarette.

Reed  Hello, my name is Lewis and I am an alcoholic and a drug addict.

Offstage Voices  Hello, Lewis!

Lester turns and regards Lou.

Lester  Really?

Reed  Got my year chip.

Lester  I'm almost up to a week.

Reed  Day at a time. You know the drill.

Lester  No, I don't. I don't know if I can do this.

Reed  You want to be dead?

Lester  Of course I don't.

Reed  You sure write about it enough.

Lester  Just following your lead.

Reed  That's fair. When did you realize things had gone too South for comfort?

Lester  Mmm. Might be a bunch of things. Landing in the pokey in Austin. Waking up on the street around the corner from my apartment. Barry Kramer putting a plastic bag over his head.

Reed  I heard. I'm sorry. You did your best work for CREEM, I think. Even if you got a little too vicious.

Lester  Quine told me you hired him for your new band.

Reed  Yep, got a new album, new tour, new wife. You?

Lester  I'm going to finally sit down and write that novel. 

Really. What's it about?

Lester  I don't know yet. My mother died recently. My father was burned alive when I was nine. Maybe it'll be about being a 34-year-old orphan.

Reed  I always start with a single image and then it grows exponentially. Like the opening shot in billiards. The balls just erupt around the table and you just watch in amazement where they go, where they end up.

Lester Yes. I think I can name that tune in two notes. My therapist told me that the reason I called Metal Machine Music "the greatest album ever made" so much was that it reminded me of my father's death. But I told him he was wrong. One night, I fell asleep with that playing, right after I wrote my obit about Peter Laughner. And I had this dream -- although I swear my eyes were still open, so how could it have been a dream -- where my father and my mother were going out to a restaurant in my hometown. I was the age I am now. We were seated at a red leather booth with a white tablecloth and candlelight. I remember looking at my father with amazement: there he WAS. I couldn't believe my luck. I have so much to say to you, I said. I can't believe you're here! He smiled and pulled me into a bro-hug. I know, he said, I know. My mother looked at her men and just beamed.

Lester (continued) The waiter wasn't arriving. I decided to go to the lounge to get drinks for all of us. Standing at the bar, nothing seemed right. The very air felt evil. The restaurant had transformed into CBGB's. People kept buying me drinks, more than I could keep up with, with people saying, "Say something outrageous, Lester!" I was terrified they would leave me behind yet these were the wrong people to be that around. We ordered shot after shot with beer chasers, slamming the glasses back down on the bar and going Ahhrrr like a bunch of pirates. I spotted you winding through the crowd wearing an old Superman costume. I asked you if you remembered me interviewing you at the Whisky A Go-Go in '69. I asked you, Why did you move to El Cajon? and you replied, Because I'm not in The Biz anymore. I wanted to go somewhere where no one knew me. Unfortunately, in the corner were a bunch of Jehovah's Witness Elders and they were staring burning holes in both of us. It was getting late. I thought I'd better call home and see if mom and dad had made it back okay, but someone had pulled the phone out of the wall. I went outside the bar and saw that the early morning mist off the Pacific had completely engulfed El Cajon. I could not see one building, one streetlamp, one person past that gauntlet of white mist. I felt desperate and terrified. I couldn't go out there. I couldn't leave this bar. Where was Dad? Where was Mom? I hadn't done anything wrong and yet I felt that I was guilty of something. I couldn't see any other way out. I didn't want to go home without any friends. There was something terrifying about going back out there. I looked a the wall of mist as it continued to swallow up the city. Pure dread and terror. Unreal. Pulsating.

Lester (continued) I woke up in my chair at my desk, the needle on the record was at the end. I could hear it scratching and popping and rolled over in bed and felt like my entire day had been ruined by my dreaming night. Lou, I don't want to ever dream anything like that again. But I knew I would, someday.

Reed  I think I've always wanted to do that.

Lester  Do what?

Reed  Write a novel.

Lester  You already have, Lou. Every album you've ever made is a new chapter.

Reed  Mmm. I like that.

Lester  You wanna share a cab? I showered this time.

Reed  No. We both have work to do. (reaches out hand) Goodbye, Les. Take care of yourself.

They shake hands.

Lester  Goodbye, Lou.

Enter the GEEK CHORUS: William S. Burroughs, Robert Quine, Nick Kent, a Jehovah's Witness, Rachel The Transsexual, Angela Di Guglielmo.

Jehovah's Witness  New York killed Lester, just like it did John Lennon, and Andy Warhol. I think that’s why Lou named his best album New York.

Burroughs  In January of 1989, Lou Reed released New York. In the liner notes, Lou directed his audience to listen to the whole album s if it were a novel or a movie. He started performing wearing frameless spectacles and with a music stand in front of him, like he was Ferlinghetti or Delmore Schwartz giving a reading. Two years earlier, Anchor Press released Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, a collection of Lester’s writings. Both projects wound up introducing both men to whole new audiences.

Quine  Both these men wanted to write the Great American Novel. Both of them realized it when they met. They saw it in each other. It became a race. Instant competition. Lou got there first. But both of them were also on a death trip. Lester got there first, albeit completely accidentally. Lou would go on to be the godfather of punk. He would make a commercial for Honda Scooters and American Express cards and travel to Europe to sit with its leaders and statesmen. By living, he also had a chance to keep making a complete ass out of himself. Lou loved Lester. How could he not? Lester kept Lou alive in the 1970s. It took all the strength Lester had. Only to have Lou say later, “Who is Lester Bangs?” That was their difference: the more serious Lou gets, the funnier he is, albeit completely unintentionally. The more funnier Lester got, the more serious everything around him seemed.

Andrea  They’ll be a reckoning, though. You can bet on it. When Lou’s liver fails, he’ll go right up to the pearly gates, and there will be Lester with a little clipboard, laughing like a hyena with a deviated septum. ‘Sorry, we’re all full up here, sir. But feel free to wait beyond the red velvet ropes!’

Kent  Until then, Lou is pursued by Lester, the fat little goblin who he can’t outrun or outshake. At every interview, at every public reading or performance, someone is gonna bring up Lester. That’s Lou’s penance. He’ll be enduring it for the rest of his life. He knows who the real writer was.

Rachel  Meanwhile, down below, in the world we all are damned to keep inhabiting, thousands upon thousands of Little Lesters are firing up their blogs, ready to tackle the New Little Lous.

End on video footage of Lester Bangs live onstage at CBGB's.

SOURCE MATERIAL: Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs; Mainlines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader edited by John Morthland; Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic by Jim DeRogatis; Punk: The Original edited by John Holmstrom; The Best of Punk Magazine edited by John Holmstrom; Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain

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