J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

Playlists, podcasts and music from WQFS Greensboro's J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Notes From Underground - #31
Through the Looking Glass

Lately I've been enjoying critical/reflective work that turns the mirror in all sorts of directions - critics that save some of their best critiques for themselves. So below are three short descriptions of pieces that have moved me in one way or another. Reflection, especially in pursuit of (or to augment) another topic just adds to the ultimate sum of the parts. These are pieces that wander down the path of the universal in the specific. Have any more examples of these? Add them to the comments, or, should you think any of my favorites were awful, say so.

1) "Peter Laughner" by Lester Bangs : This piece, originally from New York Rocker magazine (and collected in the wonderful Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung), was Bangs' formal goodbye to the co-founder of both Rocket from the Tombs and Pere Ubu who had just died that year (1977). It's almost expected to hear a would-be music critic espouse a love for Bangs' work, but there truly haven't been many critical writers like him. He wrote with every ounce of pompous, pretentious, self-deprecating, foot-in-mouth ounce of bile that he had in his body and would skewer everyone and anyone, including himself, in order to write a piece that oozed with passion, if not pure, unadulterated snark.

His piece about Laughner is especially touching because of their friendship and it makes his nakedly wounded exclamation of "I don't care that he's dead" all the more honest. It reads like the grieving process crammed into a seven-page article, raging against the dying of the light, only to find something to cling to amongst the ashes. And it's not the only piece he wrote that shows his intensity - his long piece about traveling on the road with the Clash, his paens and piss-ons of Lou Reed - all show a really wonderful mind at work. The true inspiration of Bangs' writing is the fact that it never seems anything less than genuine, even when it's as sarcastic as humanly possible. It's something I pull out over and over to revisit and feel the warmth of its pages.

2) "Transit Byzantium" by Joe Hagan: An article that appeared in the June/July 2007 issue of The Believer, it tells the story of Cleveland musician Bill Fox, a man whose brief recording career and nearly Salinger-esque disappearance into the ether has made him a legend among certain, very small, circles of music fans. This was The Believer's 2007 music issue, so the accompanying CD featured Fox's song "My Baby Crying" (Click to download). His story is told by Hagan, a writer who found his way into Fox's world in the usual way - someone hipped him to the music. In this case, his wife.

Hagan balances the narrative of Fox's life and musical past between chunks of his own Odyssian attempt to track down Fox, to meet and interview him, along the way meeting his brother, friends, acquaintances and so forth. The article is such a well written ode to both Fox's music and the nature of our collective obsession with music, it's impossible not to get almost sick with sympathy for the author. Sadly, because of the wishes of Fox, the article is not available on The Believer's website.

3) "Defending The Searchers (Scenes in the Life of an Obsession)" and "You Don't Know Dick" by Jonathan Lethem: Both of these essays come from Lethem's essay collection The Disappointment Artist. These pieces differ from the other two in that they don't examine music, but examine a film and literature, respectively. "Defending.." is one of the best examples of our culture of the canon - Lethem details his numerous attempts to appreciate the John Ford film, The Searchers. Why does he work so hard to like and 'get' the movie? Because it's canon? Because he's supposed to? From a botched attempt to lecture a theatre full of laughing viewers, to getting into a heated verbal argument, Lethem lists a series of interactions with and about the movie that ultimately lead to an uneasy and unsatisfying conclusion to his journey. Feeling like you have to like something, or that you should like something, is a pressure that a lot of people who deeply immerse themselves in one form of art or another feel at some point in time.

"You Don't Know Dick" details a similarly obsessive search through the work of Philip K. Dick, an exhaustive journey that eventually lands him at a job searching and sorting the personal letters and files of the late author. Given that Lethem is an expert on Dick's work (he shows up in the DVD commentary of Richard Linklater's film adaptation of A Scanner Darkly), it's insightful in a way that only someone who has become thoroughly knowledgeable about, and eventually exhausted by, a body of work could be.

Works Cited:

Bangs, Lester. "Peter Laughner." Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. Ed. Griel Marcus.New York, NY: Vintage. 1988. 217-223.

Hagan, Joe. "Transit Byzantium." The Believer. June 2007: 7-15.

Lethem, Jonathan. The Disappointment Artist. New York, NY: Doubleday, 2005.

P.S. If you can name the painting that the picture in this post is from, email me and I'll select at least one person to receive a free copy of the WQFS Consensus: Celebrating 36 Years of College Radio at WQFS Greensboro compilation, released by Red Strings Records back in 2006. Good luck. We've got winners! Thanks for the emails!



  • At 3:56 PM, February 01, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said…


    Just sent you an email with my guess for which painting that is... :-)


  • At 7:52 PM, February 02, 2008, Blogger kelp said…

    good reading for sure.

    that bill fox article in particular was really great. it hit me hard, because i am a huge, huge fan and have actually been in touch with him by phone a couple times over the past 6-8 years.

    at one point, i tried to convince him to come to ottawa to play a show, but he said "i don't even own a guitar anymore" and said he wasn't really interested in music anymore.

    definitely track down his two great records on spinart, and the mice (his former band with 16-year old brother tommy on drums doing his best keith moon) album/ep. one of the great power pop bands of the 80's!

    i still hold out hope that bill will do more, and i know that scat records is sitting on a whole other album or two of his/the mice's work, that bill has asked to not be released. our loss!


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