A review I did for TalkingWriting.com back in January of 2011 has been reposted as part of their summer “Writing and Music” feature. “Deep By Sound Alone,” (a magically crafted headline by Martha Nichols, founder and editor in chief at Talking Writing) is a review of The Anthology of Rap.

I recall being quite happy with the final state of this review. Typically, writing book reviews freaks me out. The more I publish the harder it gets to be critical of someone else’s work. I know firsthand what it takes to bring a book to press. I also know that the blood, sweat, and tears a writer and her team put into producing a book is not about looking to be criticized. 

But this review is about more than whether I liked The Anthology of Rap as an anthology. It’s about me learning to appreciate a form of music that I haven’t given a chance over the years. I’ve even said that rap isn’t music. In fact, I sort of say that in my review: 

I don’t agree with the premise that rap is poetry. Combined with its beat and sampled tape loops and all the other technological magic set to accentuate rhythm and meter, I’d say we’re listening to a new form that’s only beginning to understand itself.
The idea of new forms of expression, new perspectives on art, forms that go beyond our expectations, is so important to be aware of these days. New ideas about art and the human experience tend to portend big swells of societal change (look what rap did). We see our current economic malaise as this noose around our necks, but the truth is all the problems of commerce in this country (in the world!) are just symptoms of the need for change, or, as some are now saying, evolving. 
What we need to guard against now as this change begins to solidify is our innate irony and cynicism. Irony and cynicism can twist the logic of change and the excitement of possibility into self-referential flippancy. I was strongly reminded of that yesterday while reading an excellent New Yorker online essay by Maria Bustillos called “What Lester Bangs Taught Me.”

Lester Bangs is the legendary rock critic version of Hunter Thompson. He straddled the waning days of rock “as cultural expression” when it was morphing into New Age and punk. Bangs often wrote chunky, seemingly profound essays that began with questioning a rock star about, say, some fairly esoteric song but then went on for paragraphs linking every aspect of culture in his eyesight to the first question. Reading Bangs was like a mixture of words on the page by William Burroughs, Spalding Gray, Margaret Mead, and Johnnie Rotten all climbing on each others shoulders. 

Lester Bangs (Source: The New Yorker)
I was struck though, reading Bustillos’ wonderful reminiscence on experiencing Bangs’ words when she was growing up, that in the end he still put a big X across his mouth more often than not. He would spend whole essays profoundly wandering around the frontier cutting edge of social change and the meaning of life only to scribble it all into oblivion saying something like, “…but in the end, who the fuck am I to actually think I know what I’m talking about?”
Yeah. Well, who the fuck is anyone? We’re not stuck in some rut these days. Everything is changing as fast as hell. The only thing we’re not getting good at, yet, is figuring out how to create new meaning on the fly. It would be easy to just let it all shift and turn and not make decisions about what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is utter bull shit. But that doesn’t work after a while. You get confused and vague like a lot of The Occupiers, or angry and insane like many of The Tea Partiers — or like the media is today with respect to the upcoming elections…and the politics of self-centered propagandists for greed in general.
I wrote a comment on The New Yorker website when I finished Bustillos’ Bangs piece. I want to share it here. If it doesn’t make any sense, that’s okay. It does to me. Read her piece! It’s all deep by sound alone. If you don’t get that yet, keep trying.
I grew through the Bangs Era absolutely clueless of him, but not what he addressed. That was our End Time…for a time. He was, it seems, it’s maw and soundtrack. Years later I bought Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. I was floored. I am grateful to Maria Bustillos for this rememberie. Besides the content of this essay, the writing itself is so perfectly twisted, I can see how someone with no bend or twist might get lost or frightened. In the end, I do think Bangs took the easy way out as a critic. He sort of Mobiused on himself. When you point at all the crazed revolution, and marvel at it (and its SOUNDS), but then make fun of yourself for drooling and say, in the end, it’s all bullshit and carburetor dung, well, yes, you are mimicking the Three Stooges quite well. There is meaning though, or anyway, or despite the Mobius cuteness Bangs arrived at. Yes, culture is all a joke and a plaything (especially rock music), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also dripping with the darkness of our unconscious. I totally agree that “the first mistake is to assume Art is serious.” But the second mistake is to think that means you disregard its comedy as frivolous. Twist the Mobius brain a half more and you learn that the sublime and the ridiculous combine into the power of emotional intelligence and informed curiosity. Bangs led himself to the edge. I think David Foster Wallace figured out how to get out there over the edge, but it’s a stretch…the creative human mind is truly so much more powerful than we give it credit for and there is something you might call a New Way of Reasoning. It’s just still stuck on the tip of our tongues…or forks.
-Look for me on your local baseball field

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