Cultivating the Bustle of Anthony DeCurtis

By Richard Riegel

"It's true that the Beats have been romanticized--and even sentimentalized--far too much. But we must never succumb to what Joyce Carol Oates has described as 'pathography,' the reduction of artists' lives to their flaws, neuroses and illnesses. That's nothing more than a cheap, smug way of making ourselves feel superior--conveniently, without the burden of having to produce work of such significance that it would make us the object of the same type of unforgiving public scrutiny."
--Anthony DeCurtis, from his essay "Spontaneity Through Time: Why the Beats Have Lasted," in the anthology, The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats (Hyperion, 1999), p. 344.

Anthony DeCurtis's "Busting the Cult of Lester Bangs: Rethinking the Legacy of Rock's Most Celebrated Critic," which ran in the May 13, 2000, online edition of Rolling Stone, has always repulsed me. Ostensibly a review of Jim DeRogatis's Let It Blurt biography of Bangs, DeCurtis's piece is actually a spleen-drenched attack on Bangs's character and the whole body of his work, a bitter screed obsessed with some of the more unfortunate details of the late writer's earthly life.

I'll admit right off that I've long been prejudiced in favor of Lester Bangs, as his early-'70s masterpieces of pop criticism, especially "James Taylor Marked for Death" and "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung," inspired me to take my own stab at rockwriting, and then Lester gave me my biggest break of those formative years, when he invited me to write for Creem in 1973. That in turn led to my rockwriting "career" of sorts, which persists to this day, already twenty years beyond Lester's death. Yes, I loved the guy and always will, but I've never insisted that everyone else has to share my regard for Lester Bangs; what I continue to ask his detractors (if they're bent on degrading his writing) is that they make specific criticisms of the writing itself, rather than constructing pseudo-critical tabloid scenarios from the debris of Lester's mortality.

Anthony DeCurtis's piece libels even Lester Bangs's lonely death, "from an overdose of Darvon, one of his many cheesy drugs of choice," though all available evidence has always suggested that Bangs had taken that prescription painkiller on the afternoon of April 30, 1982, to try to ward off a bad case of the flu. Obviously Lester had already endured many toxic and painful years self-medicating via cough syrup, alcohol, and other substances (as he was the first to confess), but he had cleaned up his act by early 1982, just in time to die from something (apparently) as routine and bourgeois as treating the flu. And while we're dissecting Lester's corpse, Mr. DeCurtis, so what if Lester once asked his compatriots Nick Tosches and Richard Meltzer, "Did you ever get off better jerking off to pictures than fucking?" That may have been Lester's motif that particular day, but (judging by his eternal reappraisals and reversals of feeling about his musical obsessions Lou Reed and the Rolling Stones), he could just as easily have celebrated monogamous coitus the next week, when a new woman had entered his life. The important thing is that Lester was never afraid to explore his ideas to see where they would lead. Let he who is without handjobs cast the first stone.

And no, I was never quite comfortable myself with Lester's use of racial and sexual epithets in some of his mid-'70s writings and (intoxicated) monologues, but I assumed that ribald language was such a pervasive virus coursing through his soul, that it couldn't help spewing out in an insensitive vocabulary sometimes. As even DeCurtis notes, Lester later recanted these remarks. Just as Lester probably would have reversed himself on rap and hip-hop if he'd only lived longer; his "Rap is nothing, or not enough," remark, as excoriated by DeCurtis, comes from Lester's essay response to the Village Voice Pazz & Jop Poll for 1981, written in early 1982, just as the rap scene was starting to boom, when few critics were quite sure where it would eventually go. Someone who died in 1954 might have predicted a similarly quick extinction for rock'n'roll (as many jazz critics did at the time), never dreaming what glories Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and so many others would soon bring to the new style. But from these pathetically incidental scraps of Lester's worldly existence, Anthony DeCurtis constructs a straw rock critic, a bogeyBangs who produced "a Beat-derived spew of words that aims for Kerouac and occasionally rises to the level of the execrable Charles Bukowski. It's insultingly indulgent, the kind of adolescent self-aggrandizement--now widely influential in music publications--that makes it impossible for most literate human beings to take rock criticism at all seriously."

We Bangsians could only wonder at the twisted provenance of Anthony DeCurtis's explosion of venom at Lester back in 2000, as its bitter tone didn't match DeCurtis's usual rockwriting profile, which was nearly always agreeable and celebratory, especially when the subject was some superstar musician. How could Mild Anthony have become so insanely jealous of a long-dead "rival" at this late date? Had Rolling Stone publisher/sun king Jann Wenner ordered a critical "hit" on Lester Bangs, to retaliate once more for the "disrespectful" review of Canned Heat that got Lester banned from the magazine back in 1973? Stone mainstay Anthony DeCurtis, always complaisantly adept at staying in his boss's good graces, undoubtedly would have fulfilled such an assignment with distinction, but why would Wenner (with all his ongoing global business triumphs) still have cared about Lester Bangs by 2000? To Citizen Jann, Lester was probably just another schlump freelancer who had once passed through the pages of his category-killer journal. Anthony DeCurtis's quarrel with Lester Bangs seemed far more personal, but I didn't pursue that in 2000--as far as I was concerned, his attack could simply stew in its own bile on the Web, where anybody could access (and apprehend) its ignorance with the proverbial keystroke. Anyone who really cared about Lester Bangs (or rockwriting in general) could find enough other print--and cyber--sources to learn the bigger story.

I later read Steven Ward's interview with Anthony DeCurtis here on, and was fascinated to find out more about DeCurtis's writing background, even as I snickered at his recurrent puffs of self-satisfaction (smug and tentative at the same time) over his own importance in the grand scheme of things. But my need to answer his attack on Lester Bangs didn't assert itself until the summer of 2002, when, in Robert Christgau's online exchange on this same site, a reader asked his opinion of Anthony DeCurtis, and Bob responded, "Detested his priggish, status-conscious Lester Bangs piece." The status/class obsessions driving his assault on Lester hadn't fully occurred to me before, but seemed to explain a lot when I looked back at the piece, especially DeCurtis's paranoia that Lester's messy life and ever-growing posthumous popularity somehow threatened the entire profession of rock criticism, as practiced by thoughtful intellectuals like himself.

And then shortly after that revelation, while pursuing my own 40-year study of the Beat writers, I ran across the quotation from Anthony DeCurtis that now opens my response. It's a provocative concept, one in which DeCurtis explicitly warns writers NOT to do exactly what he did in his Rolling Stone reaming of Lester Bangs ("a Beat-derived spew[er] of words," no less), execute high-minded literary criticism that ends up littered with smashed Vicks inhalers. DeCurtis has explained the likely motivation of such "pathography" better than I ever could, so I refer you back to his well-wrought words at the top of this essay.

But I don't want to just leave it there, with that fortuitous and damning critical gotcha! One of the aspects of DeCurtis's attack on Bangs that has always bothered me the most is that DeCurtis apparently made no in-depth study of Lester's writing before condemning him, but merely skimmed Let It Blurt for clods of dirt he could fling at Lester's ghost. In his interview, DeCurtis actually admits to this oxymoronic style of literary scholarship: "Bangs I found useless most of the time. I read him in the Voice, so maybe I missed his good stuff, which people say was in Creem, which I didn't read." After seeing that idiotic disclaimer, I decided that I didn't want to write anything about Anthony DeCurtis without first giving his own oeuvre a more thorough study than he had allotted to Lester's writing, so I visited the public library and borrowed the existing anthology of DeCurtis's critical pieces (most originally published in Rolling Stone), Rocking My Life Away: Writing about Music and Other Matters (Duke University Press, 1998)--I've now read every word of that book, and I've reviewed DeCurtis's interview several times, as I wanted to get a better sense of exactly who this guy is.

I've found Anthony DeCurtis to be an intensely ambitious sort, and he's come a long way--he grew up in the Italian neighborhood within Greenwich Village, and quickly surpassed his working-class parents in his educational attainments. They didn't finish high school, but Anthony graduated from Hunter College of the City University of New York, and then earned a Ph.D. in American Literature at Indiana University. He had less luck in finding steady employment in his chosen field of academics, but various contacts he made in Bloomington, and then in Georgia (while he was teaching at Emory U.) led to the rockwriting career he's enjoyed for over twenty years now, mainly with Rolling Stone. DeCurtis always expresses booster pride in his writing and in the magazine which has given him his prominence, and yet there often seems to be a companion, nagging fear that he's followed a calling less "serious" than the priesthood of academia he prepared for--he's disturbed by all the "bad or silly writing" about pop music he sees in the daily papers these days.

Anthony DeCurtis seems to be a good liberal politically, with much animus toward the corruptions of the Reagan years, and he certainly works hard to be a thoughtful, careful fellow in everything he writes. Rocking My Life Away is a decent book as these things go, but it rarely gave me the kind of stimulus and excitement a single paragraph of Lester Bangs always has. I felt no impulse to jump off the couch and cue up a CD or LP while reading it. The problem is that DeCurtis's musical taste (at least as reflected in the selection of pieces for the anthology) runs to the safest choices, to those long since validated by wide-ranging popular and/or critical success and major-label recording contracts: Springsteen, Sting, the Rolling Stones, U2, Mellencamp, Prince, R.E.M. You get the picture: It's what some radio stations still call "Classic Rock," with its boomer-centered '60s creation-myth that the twin magnificences of The Blues and The British Invasion led inexorably to that whole long trail of hippie and post-hippie FM acts that followed. Though DeCurtis gives nods to the slightly more marginal 10,000 Maniacs and Robyn Hitchcock in his book, and defends Ice T's right to free speech in the "Cop Killer" controversy, there's precious little notice of any punk-and-its-progeny or indie-label acts--there would be no mention at all in the book of the Ramones (a pretty fab four for lots of us writers, Anthony) if R.E.M.'s Peter Buck hadn't brought up the group in his dialogue with DeCurtis.

DeCurtis's mainstream-or-else taste has obviously been a good fit with Jann Wenner's relentlessly market-driven vision of music writing. And DeCurtis has a rationale for going with the charts; in the Preface to Rocking My Life Away, he promises us right off, "I grow more curious about something the more popular it gets." Whatever turns your tape recorder on, I guess, but DeCurtis's obsessive curiosity about the rich & famous rockers tends to make him more of a courtier than a critic in some of the pieces in his book, especially those devoted to superstars as long-established as Jagger-Richards and Eric Clapton. The interviews which capture Prince while he was in the midst of stealing his own identity, or John Mellencamp during his bitter millionaire-painter phase, are more compelling, but I could live without another self-declaration by Sting of his sheer fabulousness amid the gritty universe. All of DeCurtis's interviews are a very long way from Lester Bangs's legendary mid-'70s Creem confrontations with his idol Lou Reed, which read like Beat novellas, and, I think, really gave Reed the challenge to reclaim his own best self in his solo music, which steadily increased in power after Lester had gotten in his face.

Beyond the star-crossed interviews, the record reviews and other selections in Rocking My Life Away are uniformly thoughtful and well-crafted, but except for DeCurtis's colorful impressions of the U.S.S.R. when it was beginning to melt down under Gorbachev's perestroika, and his speculations on Kurt Cobain's state of mind just before his suicide (as intimate as though DeCurtis had already contemplated the Big Existential Question on his own time), I found few strikingly original concepts in the book. I agree with DeCurtis's contention that "popular music criticism should be driven by the power of the writer's ideas," but that's just it, I want the writer's personal, naked-lunch confessional ideas, not just received & microwaved wisdom from the Classic Rock status quo. In fact, it was Anthony DeCurtis's beloved Rolling Stone that originally drove me away from the C.R. canon, with that repulsive ca.-1971 schmaltzbath feature about how James Taylor and his many privileged & pale-souled siblings were now "The First Family of the New Rock"--I nearly threw up when I saw that, as I'd found James Taylor's whiny mewlings not only NOT remotely related to rock'n'roll, but not even serviceable as folk-pop. Was coming from wellbred WASP stock now going to be the prime criteria for determining which musicians mattered? Miraculously I discovered Lester Bangs's "James Taylor Marked for Death" in Who Put the Bomp right at this fateful juncture, and I knew I was no longer alone within the ever-more-rigid aesthetics of the counterculture, I had an escape hatch that eventually led me through the applied-class wars of Creem and punk rock.

The topic of class war is where Anthony DeCurtis really gets his boxers in a twist. In the Preface to Rocking My Life Away, he absurdly asserts--in regard to his role as a high-profile authority on rock'n'roll--"Not that I'm snobbish about it, mind you. Not only have I written for virtually every mass market publication in existence, but, as I mentioned, I also worked in cable television." Well whoop-de-do, Anthony, you da slummin' crit, but those are only mediums of exchange, and they guarantee nothing about the snob quotient of ideas expressed there. Fortunate son George W. Bush is on the tube shilling for his We-are-Wealthy-and-MUST-have-Our-way! call for an attack on Iraq, even as I write this. And I would also take issue with DeCurtis's assertion in his book that rock criticism grew out the "New Criticism" literary movement that was so prevalent in academia in the 1950's and early 1960's. I may be on shaky ground here since my English degree is just a B.A., in comparison with DeCurtis's Ph.D., but still I think if he really cracks the literary history books, he'll find that John Crowe Ransom and the other Kenyon College crowd of I'll-take-my-stand-for-white-male-tradition New Critics were hostile to pop culture of all kinds, and also preached a text-only approach to criticism, so DeCurtis's Rolling Stone and its enshrined pop-celebrities fetishism would no doubt offend the tut-tutting New Critics all around. For better or worse, rock criticism derives far more from Tom Wolfe's and Hunter Thompson's New Journalism. But of course those pedigrees would never give Anthony DeCurtis the gravitas he wants to claim for his quasi-sacred calling. Now I see why he hates Lester Bangs so much.

In parting, Anthony DeCurtis, I'd like to quote a Lester line that's been one of my favorites for years (and one which will probably disturb you on several levels too). In his "I Saw God and/or Tangerine Dream" review, originally published in the Village Voice in 1977, and later reprinted in the Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung anthology, Lester describes his journey to Avery Fisher Hall to see Tangerine Dream: "For one thing, emerging from the subways into this slick esthete's Elysium is like crawling out of a ditch into Jackie Onassis's iris--a mind-expanding experience in itself." I find that line's compressed & surreal simile not just a perfect orb of pop existence, but one that scans really proudly (as does almost any Bangs line picked out at random), with that bop-prose rhythm Lester learned from Kerouac and then made his own in the age of rock'n'roll. If you can't see the beauty of Lester's writing in that line, Dr. De, then I guess you'll just go on your merry-melodies way as the Elmer Fudd of rockwriting, perpetually knocked off balance and exasperated as Bugs Bangs's hipster soul keeps popping out of one rabbit hole after another to tweak and knot your "serious" shotgun. Is your hunting-for-significance trip reallynecessary?!?

  • Read Anthony DeCurtis's response

  • Read Richard Riegel's interview
  • Read Anthony DeCurtis's interview