This is a hell of a way to kick off a record review:
This album made me so morose and depressed when I got the advance copy that I stayed drunk for three days. I didn't go to work. I had a horrible physical fight with my wife over a stupid bottle of 10 mg. Valiums. (She threw an ashtray, a brick, and a five foot candelabra at me, but I got her down and sat on her chest and beat her head on the wooden floor.) I called up the editor of this magazine (on my bill) and did virtually nothing but cough up phlegm in an alcoholic stupor for three hours, wishing somewhere in the back of my deadened brain that he could give me a clue as to why I should like this record. I came on to my sister-in-law: "C'mon over and gimme head while I'm passed out." I cadged drinks off anyone who would come near me or let me into their apartments. I ended up the whole debacle passing out stone cold after puking and pissing myself at a band rehearsal, had to be kicked awake by my lead singer, was driven home by my long-suffering best friend and force fed by his old lady who could still find it in the boundless reaches of her good heart to smile on my absolutely incorrigible state of dissolution...I willed her all of my worldly goods before dropping six Valiums (and three vitamin B complexes, so I must've figured to wake up, or at least at the autopsy they would say my liver was OK). Well, wake up I did, after sleeping sixteen hours, and guess what was running through my head, along with the visual images of flaming metropolises and sinking ocean liners foaming and exploding in vast whirling vortexes of salt water...
"Watch out for Charlie's girl...
She'll turn ya in...
Ya gotta watch out for Charlie's girl..."
Which is supposed to be the single off Coney Island Baby and therefore may be a big hit if promoted right, 'cause it's at least as catchy as "Saturday Night"...if they can just get four cute teens to impersonate Lou Reed.
Those once-read-never-forgotten words are from an ostensible review of Lou Reed's Coney Island Baby, by Peter Laughner, which appeared in the March 1976 issue of Creem magazine. I've been thinking about this piece on account of a little internet kerfuffle I've been involved with, which now spans two separate sites not counting this one.
Ever since I first read that piece back when it was published, I've recalled it with a mix of, yes, admiration and, yes, of course, horror. I'm no idolator of Laughner's—if you don't know his name, well, I'll get to it, but right now I'll inform you, and I doubt you'll be surprised, that he died of acute pancreatitis in June of 1977, at the age of (and this might in fact surprise you) 24. But there are reasons that portions of his prose are (thank you Guy Maddin) branded on my brain, and while they have some relation to the appalling behavior that is chronicled therein, there's something else. A something else that is working harder (thank you Peter Blegvad), and that really makes all the difference.
To get back to the kerfuffle. A few days ago, an indignant friend brought to my attention a post on the (largely exemplary) film website The House Next Door by Lauren Wissot, whose infelicities w/r/t the English language and critical judgement I have observed, and occasionally commented on, before. The post's topic was a pertinent one, putatively addressing condescension to the movie-going public. Toward the end of it Wissot wrote:
For example, a few weeks back I had fantastic afternoon sex with a hot bodybuilder—the tryst ending badly afterwards when we got into a heated debate over John Barrymore and Marlene Dietrich (who he feels are both vastly overrated). This former stripper/current personal trainer is the movie-going public.
I responded at first with an admittedly all-snark comment—Penthouse Forum was mentioned. I subsequently invoked Pauline Kael. I then got served up some smack by another commenter I'm convinced was a sock puppet. And so on.
A few days later, over at Spout, Steven Boone posted something called "Film Critics and the Audience: Peeing on the Professionals" (wait, it gets better) in which he defended Wissot and addressed one of her detractors (not me) thusly: "I want Anonymous, if he or she is reading this, to imagine [Manny] Farber howling in pain from the beyond at my using such a crude bathroom word as 'pee' in reference to the profession he devoted his life to," a directive which, among other things, is a bit confused over what it was that Farber actually devoted his life to. Idiot that I am, I got into that mess, too, and for my trouble, was tsked-tsked by Mr. Boone:
I disagree with your opinion of Lauren’s talent and how well/poorly it served her argument. She and I both talk about how films relate to our lives. I got the sense that some of the negative reactions to her piece were more about her life than her prose or even her point. How dare she include strange, incongruous episodes from her life in a film discussion? How dare she describe a sexual encounter without apologetic preamble or apology? Maybe cuz she’s a grown-ass woman and expects you to react as a grown-ass man?
As you can imagine, I'm still licking my wounds over that whole "grown-ass woman/grown ass man" business. (Indeed, Mr. Boone is striking fatal wounds like mad: "I was destroying the Farber of [Anonymous'] imagination." If only he could have got up in Anonymous' face and shouted "That just happened!" to put the cherry on top.) Sticking in my craw is Boone's insistence that the only possible objection I could have to the above quoted passage in Wissot has to do with my being a white heterosexual male who can't stand a strong woman being frank about her sexuality. The theme didn't start with him, of course, but he was particularly insistent that this was the only way I could not dig Wissot. And he also gave me shit for posting vacation pictures, here, and for having once hosted a blog whose title used my first name in a play on a movie title.
I responded, weakly, but you know, he had touched a nerve, and this set off a period of self-examination. I recalled the Laughner piece I quote above. How could I, at fifteen, have excused that...and how can I continue to excuse it now, while casting a stone at Lauren Wissot? You want self-indulgence? This guy is practically bragging about beating his wife (and for the record, the subsequent writings of Charlotte Pressler, the wife in question and a very engaging voice in her own right, suggest that she does not nurse a grudge), for feck's sake! That's not worse than, um, celebrating the life-affirming gift that is sex with a "hot bodybuilder"??? Where the hell are my priorities?
Hmm. Yes. I think I'm kind of belaboring the question. So, then.
Laughner gets a pass, first off—and not to put this too indelicately—because he could fucking write. His prose is lively, vivid, has an unforced velocity. He depicts himself as an uttely repugnant individual, but he takes the reader into his confidence so unabashedly that, in a sick way, you're on his side the whole while. It's not perfect copy—"visual images" is duh, redundant—but there it is.
Also,and this is in fact more important, the self-indulgence is completely genuine, but it's also a bit of a subterfuge. He is, as it happens, very explicitly describing his "direct experience" of Coney Island Baby, and in fact could have ended the review with that Bay-City-Rollers-directed punchline at the end of the passage I cite, and it would have been, well, perfect.
Point being, if anyone's interested, that merely writing "frankly," or whatever, about your own experience isn't enough. The Wissot post I commented on began, "Recently, a fairly innocuous comment posted to my scathing review of Traitor at The House Next Door made my blood boil." Here, let me turn around the uptight-sexist-het-male assumptions: If that sentence had been written/posted by anyone besides a dominatrix-cum-movie-critic (novelty really does do a lot for you these days), it would have been laughed off of the internet. Who the fuck refers to their own review as "scathing"? Oh, and something made your "blood boil"? Tell it to The Bickersons, or some other cliche-ridden enterprise. "Great afternoon sex with a hot bodybuilder" does not even, in fact, come up the standard of Penthouse Forum. I doubt it would pass muster in a TV Guide synopsis of a Cinemax picture.
It's the prose, stupid.
P.S. In fairness to Wissot, there is one nugget in her piece that I'm grateful for, involving tickle-fetishist cinephiles.
P.P.S. If I'm connecting the dots correctly, the "lead singer" who had to kick Laughner awake after he puked and pissed himself and passed out was David Thomas of Pere Ubu, with whom Laughner recorded the epochal singles Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo/Heart of Darkness and Final Solution. His Creem writings, many of which are collected here, contain plenty of goodies:
Jonathan Richman is nothing if not a Lou Reed protégé...apparently when the Velvets were sequestered in Boston's student ghetto in late '68, Jonathan found his guru in Lou. At least it wasn't Mel Lyman.
No, really, if you get the reference, that's hilarious. From the same review of the first Modern Lovers LP:
Reminds me of a conversation I had with a 15-year-old on a bus in 1968. She had just gotten out of the psycho ward after kicking a meth habit. "All I could listen to was the Doors. It was like Jim Morrison could see inside my head better than any shrink...now I can't stand their records." She later picked up a mild junk habit, and once when presented with the opportunity to ball her my own meth use negated my abilities. I digress, although somewhere in the larger digression lies some justification for the kind of people who can scrawl "I love my life!" on their shirts and get written up in The New Yorker.
Like our friend Mr. Boone, Laughner didn't mind cocking a snoot at the print elite:
Trying to describe Television in print has sent rock-print luminaries like James Wolcott & Lisa Robinson scurrying to their thesauruses for words like "dissolute" and "chiarascuro."
Wait, there's more:
Tony Williams once said that he and his group Lifetime made music for people who got into the sounds of their refrigerators turning on and off. Eric Carmen makes music for people who get into their regrigerators and find them stocked with lots of the "right" things (fondue, for instance, or filet of sole and the wine that the Guide to such things described as "perfect for that special evening"). [...]Eric doesn't rock at all, he could write a truly bright pop song if you gave him all the cocaine in Barry White's suitcase, and I come from his hometown and know for a fact that his mother still comes over to scrub out his apartment. The final touch is that a reputed sixteen grand was dropped by Arista for those glucose strings that coat this whole waste of time...and one should consider what Cecil Taylor might be able to create with even a third of that money.
His lede for a profile of Rory Gallagher—a completely self-conscious failure of a profile, but a thoroughly engaging read, and not just perversely so, although it seems so at first—isn't as funny now as when the fool was alive:
It's an obvious joke that I'm writing this from a rather jaundiced point of view; obvious, that is, if you know that I ended up this four-day junket with Rory Gallagher & company lying in a hospital bed with hepatitis aggravated by heavy abuse of chemicals and spirits.
The piece contains several references to a "mentor" in Detroit, and yes, that was Lester Bangs. Gallagher himself passed in 1995 after complications from a liver transplant.
I got all the Laughner prose here.