Where was he when I needed him? It wasn’t his fault I didn’t know who he was, because he was very much around in 1977. But when I should have been reading his album reviews in Creem, or even Rolling Stone, I was tongue-tied in Cleveland with all the other poets who were writing nothing at all, just standing back and letting it all be. I didn’t know any better. I knew his name, somehow? I’d heard it. Somewhere that cool-sounding name registered in my brain but never held water. Lester. BANGS.
Now here’s Bangs, some 32 years dead, knocking to get my attention. I’m pretty curious to find out what he wants. He came up at a nice little dinner party last weekend – maybe via some discussion of Van Morrison. Then someone mentioned that there’s a collection of Bangs’s reviews titled Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. Well. I was a little sick that night – a snotty flu, plus I had no voice – and I’d had two whiskeys, which is about one and a half too many these days, but I came home at around 1:00 AM and watched Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, and then watched it again the next day.
If you’ve never seen it, Almost Famous is the roughly autobiographical tale of Cameron Crowe’s own adventures, while he was still a teenager, as a rock journalist for Rolling Stone. I’d seen it before and really liked it and remembered, I guess, that Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays Lester Bangs, whom Crowe had corresponded with in real life. What I didn’t remember is that Hoffman’s so damn good – astonishingly and heartbreakingly good, which is why I’ve been going back and watching his scenes over and over again for the last five days. I’m hardly the first person to have noticed Hoffman’s performance. But, listen: he’s on screen for maybe 10 minutes total and he grounds the whole film in a way that’s hard to describe. He also does something bigger, I think, something more transcendent.
You hear Hoffman’s voice before you see him – “here’s a theory …” he starts off “for you to disregard completely.” Then he’s Bangs, on the screen, pacing in a San Diego radio station: black leather jacket, Guess Who Tee Shirt, tousled greasy hair. “Music, true music, not just Rock n’ Roll; it chooses you.” He’s very animated. “Listen in your car or all alone. Listen in your headphones with the vast scenic ridges and angelic choirs in your brain. You know, it’s a place apart from the vast benign lap of America.”
Consider what it takes to speak those lines and have them make perfect sense. And if they are not Bangs they are Bangsesque.
The scene I love most comes right after the radio station. William – the Crowe character – has been waiting for Bangs and they’re walking along together. There are a couple of great lines I won’t quote because it’s too clunky to insert them here. Just at the rise of a hill Bangs asks William a few questions: what he types on, if he likes Lou Reed, if he takes drugs. William has all the right answers: Smith Corona Galaxie Deluxe, he likes the early Lou Reed, no, he doesn’t take drugs.
Smart kid, Bangs says.
Then he says this:
I used to do speed, you know, and sometimes a little cough syrup – stay up all night writin and writin 25 pages of drivel about the faces of Coltrane.
Just to fuckin write.
What Hoffman does here — the way he embodies these lines—just punches me in the heart. Set aside – if you can – about all the sad irony of Bangs dying of complications from too much cough syrup and Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s tragic heroin overdose. I’m not saying those facts are irrelevant or their untimely deaths weren’t terrible wastes.
But this. He makes the actual writing sound almost like fun. Not being a writer or having written but actually writing. In your room, alone, at night. Hoffman pauses, gets ready with a kind of athletic wind up to deliver these lines. Then he sweeps his upper body in a half circle – almost like a dance move, and stops. He does a little hocus pocus motion with his shoulders, chugs his right hand like he’s going to swig from a bottle. He pauses again, tossing in some small hand chops for emphasis. He laughs at himself a little about the faces of Coltrane and then he pauses one last time, quickly, squares off, and grins when he says:
Just to fuckin write.