About Lester Bangs

Astral Weeks, insofar as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves, paralyzed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend. It is a precious and terrible gift, born of a terrible truth, because what they see is both infinitely beautiful and terminally horrifying: the unlimited human ability to create or destroy, according to whim. It’s no Eastern mystic or psychedelic vision of the emerald beyond, nor is it some Baudelairean perception of the beauty of sleaze and grotesquerie. Maybe what it boils down to is one moment’s knowledge of the miracle of life, with its inevitable concomitant, a vertiginous glimpse of the capacity to be hurt, and the capacity to inflict that hurt.

That Astral Weeks review is awfully pretty, gorgeous even. Too bad it’s complete horseshit. It has nothing to do with what the album sounds like and everything to do with Lester Bangs. Not that Lester Bangs wasn’t an interesting guy, but if you’re reviewing a record you should leave yourself at the door. I don’t care how many English classes you’ve had or if you’ve read Baudelaire or can do more acid that Philip K Dick, I just want to know what the album sounds like. The vast majority of music critics seemed to ignore that idea. Lots of pretty words that don’t give you a clue about what the music actually sounds like. If you want to write about yourself, write your memoirs. If you’re going to review an album, let the music do the talking. And if you can’t do that in prose, you’re in the wrong business. Because when you write about music, the only thing that matters is the music. You the critic don’t matter at all.

Here’s a rule of thumb…if you’ve completed a review and it’s one of the best things you’ve ever written in your life, dump it. You probably wrote about yourself.

(Comments posted to a New Yorker piece about Lester Bangs, 8-30-2012)

You need to write as well as they play.

Ran into Louis Van Taylor last nite. Damn what a player. Had one of those casually intense conversations that are the hallmarks of jazz players, and I remember how I had to earn my way into those conversations by writing like a motherfucker. I gotta say I miss that rarified air. I vividly remember the moment I realized I’d been accepted into the fold when me and some of LA’s finest players were sitting in a Glendale bar between sets, surrounded by drunks and Armenians and insulting each other. You’re one of us, they said. Fuck you, I said. Mutual respect, be bop style. If you’re gonna write about jazz, you need to write as well as they play.

You say potato, and I say peruna.

So I tried boiling the potatoes until soft and then dunking them in a bowl of ice water for ten seconds and then peeling off the skins. It worked. Life just got a little bit easier. The skillet already had the diced onion, bell pepper, sweet pepper and collard greens. Dropped in the spuds and let them, brown and make an unholy mess out of the bottom of the pan and hot damn, Irish-German heaven. Spuds, baby, Kartoffels, pomme de terre, papas in a brand new bag. Well, recipe. Well, old recipe, new technique. Thank god for the Incas. Without them we might still be eating gruel. Though I don’t know who the lazy bum was who brainstormed on this boiling and dunking thing. A Finn maybe, leaping from the sauna into a ice cold lake. Peruna they call a potato. Comes from Swedish, something to do with pears. Probably Swedes fucking with their minds. Here, Aarni, have a pear. Though the Germans used to call then earth pears. At some point they became kartoffels, from the Italian. The French called them earth apples. The Swiss still call them earth apples. A little too close to road apples. I wonder about Europeans sometimes.

The Finns eventually Finnicized it into peruna. That crazy language has fifteen cases. Each one changes peruna into something else, and same for plurals. By itself a potato is a peruna. More than one is perunat. But as they were mine they were perunoiden. When I dropped them into the pot they were perunoihin. Once in the pot they were perunoissa. As they were boiling they were perunoita. When they were finally softened they were perunoiksi. As I took them out of the pot they were perunoista. When I removed the skins they were perunoitta. In the skillet with onions and peppers they were perunoineen. When I took them off the fire they were perunoilta. As I put them on the plate they were perunoille. As they sat there on the plate they were perunoilla. And when I gave them to my wife they were perunat again. (For those of you taking notes, those were the plural declensions for the nominative, genitive, illative, inessive, partitive, translative, elative, abessive, comitative, ablative, allative, adessive, and accusative cases.)

Luckily we ate them in English.


(This piece was also posted on BricksScience.com)


Write what feels right

When it comes to rules regarding usage, grammar, punctuation, writing and language, I am an anarchist. And being an anarchist on usage, grammar, punctuation, writing and language allows me to write circles around most people, as constrained and rule bound as their writing is. Language rules are just that, rules, usually established by people to turn long dead upper class affectations and mannerisms into law. Fuck that. Freedom of language goes hand in hand with freedom of expression and the Freedom of Speech. All three go together, as a package, and you can’t have one of those freedoms without the other two. So write what feels right. Because knowing the rules does not make you a good writer. It just means you have memorized some arbitrary rules. And rules are made to be broken.

Don Waller

Just heard that Don Waller died.

I met him at a party at Greg Burk’s resplendent pad in Los Feliz. I was already pretty well known in LA jazz circles by then, but this was like a coming out party with the local critic literati for me. All these intellectuals and poets and writers and music critics. Burk–my editor at the LA Weekly–introduced me to Waller. He trapped me by the table with all the Australian red and proceeded to lecture me on Thelonious Monk for what must have been two hours. Every time I drained my glass he refilled it. Even if I hadn’t drained it he refilled it. Drink up, he said. He was a font of quotes, opinions, insight, advice and wine. Things quickly got blurry, then hazy, then disappeared altogether. A couple hours later the wife and I were outside on the sidewalk waiting for a cab–brilliant move that turned out to be, taking a cab so to not worry about parking–and I realized that I was the drunkest I had been in forever. I could barely stand. The earth beneath me reeled. The red wine hangover was savage. That was the one and only time I ever hung out with the great Don Waller. I remembered wondering if all critics were like that. Sadly, they are not.

Leonard Cohen

I never had a Leonard Cohen album and though I could probably recognize his voice easily enough the only song I knew by him for the longest time was Suzanne, and only because it was on a Joan Baez album that got a lot of airplay back in the day. I always liked the song, and seem to recall using it in a piece I wrote in a writing class with Barry Farrell at UCSB. That must have been 1978. I was assigned to interview this luscious raven haired beauty, we sat on her bed in her dorm and she talked and talked and then I went home and wrote a piece and think I quoted Suzanne a couple times, probably because she did. I remember the piece was called Laura, her name, and it was later one of the first things I ever transcribed on computer, tossing the typed and white-outed original, and then the computer ate the essay and it sank back into electrons like a stone.

Decades later I heard a raven haired friend sing Hallelujah and it blew my mind. I thought she had written it. She corrected me. No bed was sat on.

I remember seeing the Isle of Wight flick in a hippie movie theater as a kid but I have no memory of him in it then. Family I remember. Much later–decades, actually–I bought a copy of the flick and watched it and only liked a couple things–Family, Ten Years After, Kris Kristofferson and Leonard Cohen, who did a rather extraordinary take of Suzanne. Even the loutish yippies were hushed. Everything is hushed, the hippies hang on every word, and Leonard’s hippie chick back up singers look disturbingly like Manson girls but you don’t even notice. It’s as perfect a performance as you’ll ever see.

I suppose if they hadn’t called him a poet I might have picked up a record or two back then. I mean they called him that because he was a poet, a real poet. That word always gave me the willies, though. Not sure why. Maybe because I played drums.

Listening to Suzanne again here, the verses driving the chords on to unrealized endings, stumbling over the bridge as if stoned, music following words instead of words trapped by music, I deja vu back to that dorm room, that bed, and see now how I used the song to structure that piece, I can almost read it, almost remember it, but I can feel it. Maybe a roommate had the LP, I must have listened to this song over and over and over and wrote the first good thing I ever wrote in my life.

Funny, though, how I spent an evening alone on a bed with a dark haired beauty and all I could think about was words. That never occurred to me till now. Oh, Brick….

Tony Gieske, writer


Tony Gieske is gone.

So sorry to hear this. Heartbreaking even. Great guy, hardworking journalist, wonderful story teller. In my opinion, Tony Gieske (who died in February 2014, aged 82) was the best jazz writer on the planet. Perhaps the best ever. I’ve never read anyone better. He knew jazz, he knew language, and he knew how to combine the two. I can think of no higher compliment for a jazz journalist than that.

Tony Gieske was a double whammy, a brilliant writer who could also take some terrific photographs. Rarely do the two mediums meets as well as they do here. A jazz review hidden inside some story telling, wrapped around a thousand words worth of a photograph that absolutely nails what he says with the prose. Dig that opening: “You would never say that Sal Marquez was off the scene. He’d just be on some scene not yet up to you.” The way he takes a hipster cliché and twists it open, and you see just how much hipper Sal Marquez is than you could ever be, dear reader.

And then a couple hundred words later, the closing: “And he kept finding fresh paths past beautiful flowers, as did the rest of the players, converging often enough with each other to attain salutary bandhood.” You know, I wrote a quarter million words or more for the LA Weekly and never once did I think up ‘attaining salutary bandhood’. Not once.

Tony was one of those exceedingly rare creations…a jazz journalist whose skill with words was equal to the musical skill of the people he wrote about. I wish there were more like him, but those like him are novelists or short story writers or penning beautiful pieces for the New Yorker. Guys like him don’t write about jazz. Why would they. You’d have to absolutely love a music more than almost anything to spend a life writing paeans to it that will be seen by few and appreciated by fewer. It’s a ridiculous vocation, this jazz writing. We talked about that a few times. About how crazy it was to write jazz reviews. But then we’d change the subject, or a pretty lady would walk by, or somebody’d start soloing and we’d stop everything and listen. Listened and listened. Listened without saying a word, as the saxophone was doing the talking. Later he’d put it into words so you could hear that sax talking too, even if you were not there.

That’s what jazz writers do, and he was one of the very best.

The Sal Marquez Quintet at Spazio by Tony Gieske (International Review of Music)

You would never say that Sal Marquez was off the scene. He’d just be on some scene not yet up to you. So here he was now, and what a scene to be back on, at Spazio or wherever.

Rick Zunigar was playing a solo on guitar concerning “What’s New.”  Bright ideas were flooding down like seagulls on a sandwich. He has absorbed much from his hero, Joe Pass. It was not terribly far from the sublime.

But then so was the output from Chuck Manning’s tenor, more high velocity goodies in a sound somewhere south of Stan Getz and north of Lester Young, in a room of his own.

Neither soloist asked quarter from the rhythm section, drummer Steve Hass and bassist Chris Colangelo, and none were they given. Tight but bumptious, these two stayed pure and musical.

Marquez called the plays after brief huddles with his bandmates, naming such rich and seldom mined veins as Joe Henderson’s “Ice Truck,” a jump tune, or challengingly familiar ballad fodder such as “If I Were a Bell.” A veteran of the bands of Frank Zappa, Buddy Rich, the Tonight Show and many other enviable gigs, he has plenty in his pantry.

On “Bell,” Marquez eschewed the approach of his one-time idol Miles Davis. Now he was cavorting all over on a foundation we used to hear under Freddie Hubbard. But Marquez’ sound is warmer, gentler and more thoughtful than in the past.

And he kept finding fresh paths past beautiful flowers, as did the rest of the players, converging often enough with each other to attain salutary bandhood.

Sal Marquez and Chuck Manning at Spazio. A perfect jazz photo by Tony Gieske.

Sal Marquez and Chuck Manning at Spazio. A perfect jazz photo by Tony Gieske.

Writer’s block


Damn….like another six or seven hours spent on a column.  I think it’s 800 words.  How the hell can it take me that long?  I was busy almost that entire time.  Stopped at one a.m. to let the thing incubate a half hour and do some laundry, then came back and wrote it out.  Took another 15 minute break around 3 a.m. I think to regenerate for the final push. Otherwise straight through.  It always amazes me that so much time can transpire.  I know I am a perfectionist.  Weird.  Well, I can catch five hours sleep now and get working on other stuff.

It’s a shame I do my best stuff at odd hours.

Balzac could write for 16 or more hours at a stretch, fueled only by endless cups of coffee and onanism. He would bring himself to the brink of satisfaction and then stop and use the unreleased tension to give him the edge to write and write.

I have not tried his method myself.