My Argument With Lester Bangs
This writing-about-music business has ushered all sorts of intriguing new experiences into my life over the past eight years. One that I'm hoping not to make a habit of, though, is the most recent -- picking a fight in my head with the fictionalized version of a real dead person.
In Cameron Crowe's autobiographical movie Almost Famous, noted '70s music writer Lester Bangs warns fifteen-year-old Crowe doppelganger William Miller that "you CANNOT make friends with the rock stars!" Bangs' warning is based on his firm belief that making friends with the musicians will corrupt a writer's objectivity and make it impossible for him (or her) to write honestly about the music.
The problem with being an absolutist on this point -- as illustrated by the movie -- is that getting to know the people behind the music is one of the great joys *and* dangers of writing about music. Joys, because it brings a whole new layer of texture and resonance to the music when the people playing it aren't total strangers. And dangers, because musicians are people too; some of the greatest artists in the history of rock and roll have been world-class assholes. Genius doesn't discriminate.
The real problem I have with Bangs' perspective on this question, though, is that he's trying to hang on tight to objectivity in the context of an act -- writing about music -- that is inherently subjective. It's all about how the music hits you -- and how it hits you is all about who you are and where you are and what else is going on in your life at that particular, specific moment in time.
The key -- as Bangs acknowledges in Crowe's script -- is to make whatever you write be honest. Ignore the voices of your audience, your subject, your spouse and family and friends, and just write from the heart. Your end product may be good, bad or mediocre, but at least it will have one thing going for it -- it will be true. If you've done your job well, that truth -- your truth -- may even resonate with your audience. And that's how any artist -- musician, writer, sculptor, dancer, painter -- makes meaningful art.
My personal stake in this question stems from the fact that I am more than passing acquaintances with at least two artists whose work I have reviewed for the Daily Vault on multiple occasions. In both cases the first review led to a correspondence that evolved over time into a friendship. And in both cases, I've done further reviews of the artists in question long after the friendship was established.
My approach to writing those reviews is the same as always. I react to the music, nothing more and nothing less. I write what I think and feel and trust that my friend knows I am honor-bound to do my job to the best of my ability, just as he is to do his. I believe most artists who you'd want to be friends with are pretty realistic about how their work stacks up. My friends are looking for an honest opinion, not a sycophantic one.
I will say also that there is a reason I try never to refer to what we do at The Daily Vault as "music criticism" or our staff as "music critics." Our purpose here is not to tell artists -- independent or mainstream -- what they're doing wrong (we all get enough of that from annoying family members). Our job is to deliver a frank, truthful opinion about what we hear, the good and the bad, filtered through our own unique personal experiences and rendered with whatever talent we possess as writers. We don't pretend to be "right" -- whatever that means in the context of casting a subjective judgment about a work of art -- but we do strive to be honest.
In the end I like to think of my friendships with these artists in these terms: we're grown-ups, and not only can we handle hearing each other's opinions, the honest sharing of ideas and opinions and aspirations is one of the things that brought us together. Sorry, Lester, but I wouldn't have it any other way. And -- looking back at how Almost Famous ends, with William Miller's musical hero accepting the validity of his perspective as a writer and renewing their friendship -- I'll venture to say that I think Cameron Crowe would agree.