Let’s talk about Lester Bangs

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. 


In the neighborhood of small tending

On this afternoon’s walk I had to tell three people Freire is dead and that’s why I was walking alone. Two of them are women with their own dogs, and I knew I’d run into them sooner or later because we walk similar routes and their houses are usually on our way – depending on Freire’s mood. The time. The weather.  I have been actively avoiding the two crossing guards Freire loved to see in the mornings. They loved him back. I never have to walk at the times they’re out  now – the timing of our walks was mostly Freire’s idea – still, still … I want to tell them Freire is gone even though it will be awkward and sad.

I’ve lived in this town – it’s a borough, to be accurate – for 17 years and even though I hate to admit it I feel deeply at home here. Not so much as I once did – or maybe I should say not as much as I tried to, and I tried very, very hard. I was on borough council for four years and all the things you might expect to encounter in such circumstances — stupidity, hatefulness, pettiness, betrayal — all of those things happened. But when you walk, especially when you walk with a dog, you weave back and forth through the fabric of place several times a day, even when you’re not trying; even when you don’t pay attention. You trail scent and footprints and impressions. People who would never talk to other people will talk to a dog. Dogs notice other dogs. Dogs lay down their scent and strut among each other, roaming cats, rabbits, the deer who live down by the ravine. Everyone is seen. You, too. Even if you’re not always acknowledged.

When I was on council I saw everything missing during my walks – crumbling public stairs with rusted handrails. Impassable weeds in the park. Downed trees. Uncollected garbage. I hardly notice those things now.

Just about a block away from us is a house on the corner where they’ve let portions of their grass grow high, and the little girls that live there have painted signs on clay pots and discarded wood that say “pollinator sanctuary” and “native plants meadow” and they’ve stuck them about the yard. They’ve planted herbs and woven colored pipe cleaner flowers into the post for the stop sign. There’s a rock that very simply says: “unless.”

Down the street in the other direction, at the entrance to the long skinny park that was once a railroad corridor, there’s a small plot of flowers and a flag. The flag seems to have been added by the man tending the plot this year. I saw him down there just the other day planting and weeding. He lives in the funny building that was once a car dealership, once a gas station. Once.

This is an old neighborhood and that’s part of why I like it. Change comes slowly and there are lots of things that stay in place giving some small comfort. Down on Crafton Boulevard there’s a short block of businesses mostly empty now. There’s a dentist and there’s a new photography studio. Spring a year ago Freire waited while I unwrapped the burlap from a thriving fig tree just outside of the empty hair salon. You can’t count on any of the trees to stay, though. People are always cutting down some of the oldest and most beautiful ones for no reason I can discern. But the fig was fine until this past bitter winter – whoever owned the hair salon sold the property and no one wrapped the fig.  We passed it on the most bitter of days and there was nothing to do. It was too late; the fig was already stunned by the bitter cold. Today on my way home it was just another sad thing to realize that the fig was clearly  dead. Then a small green leaf, just at the roots. Then this.



Writing as Dog Part 2, Saunter and Glimpse

It is one month already since we said goodbye to Freire.

The last time I posted about him – about writing as dog – was in September.  He bounced right back from his surgery. We had a great winter – every day. Really. Every single day was a good day. We had a routine of runs and walks and breakfast, treat, dinner and his I’m Yunnity to help keep the tumors away. Going to bed and waking up in the same way at the same times. The routine was a sacred pact. The only thing I could control.


I don’t walk our regular routes daily now. It is summer and I’m trying to do other things. Walk other places. Still I worry that quite a bit has happened while we’ve been off patrol. And that’s part of what writing as dog entails: noticing.

For Thoreau, walking was an art – a sacred and spiritual mission that required you to saunter, a word whose French root means looking for the holy. For Freire walking was all plunge and dash and do-si-do with every single bush in town.

Me, I’m a slipping glimpser, a term I lifted from the painter Willem de Kooning. I like a good saunter but it’s what I catch just out of the corner of my eye that holds me. Roy in his window, laughing, or nodding, or eating ice cream in front of the TV. The spot at the high crest of Willard Avenue where you can see clear across several valleys to the old airport. The horses live in that direction. All across town there are certain views – quick glimpses through tall branches, you cannot stop to stare – where everything looks as it must have 50 years ago, or 25.  Or even 5 months ago, last winter,  on a day that was bright and cold and true.

It’s easy to imagine your best self with a dog in the same way that it’s much easier to brood over something than it is to hash it out on the page.  Writing requires clear intention, and ritual. And joy.


Boon Doggles Made Here

Walking in Schenley Park today, my friend and I came across one of the walls constructed there by the W.P.A.  You might be interested to know that the W.P.A. just turned 81 years old (it began on May 6, 1935).


 That’s Work Projects Administration, by the way, not the original Works Progress Administration. It’s easy to miss the distinction. Turns out that Works became Work, and Progress became Projects on July 1, 1939. The reason for this switch was likely procedural (so far I can’t find any rhetorical reasoning behind it ), but the resulting change in meaning is significant. To my way of thinking, turning from progress to project transforms the whole enterprise into something less fluid. Projects require planning and specificity. They are managed. Progress is hopeful movement in a positive direction, but not conclusive. The whole point of progress is that there’s still something more to come – while in progress you are moving toward a destination. Projects, however, usually get completed. In this way they are final and they usually produce something tangible. Like a wall.

A well-built stone wall is a joy to encounter. This one especially so because it bears the patina of old Pittsburgh: smoke, coal dust, years of rain and ice concretized. There are soaring retaining walls all around the city holding up erratic hillsides but these smaller ambling walls are harder to come by and easier to miss, especially tucked inside the park.

Still, there’s something lovely about dwelling in progress that is left in the dust of projects and their very particular aims.

I have always loved the notion of the W.P.A. because it seemed  – in the most liberal and romantic of ways – an acknowledgement of the good work many hands can do.  But it also acknowledged the artist as citizen, in spite of constant haggling over  projects and their quantifiable purposes and the less clear-cut values of murals and photographs and other non essentials.

A humorous account of this conflict appears in an article from the New York Times dated April 4, 1935  (you can find a link to it here).  City Aldermen were up in arms about who should and should not be on relief. More specifically, an investigation was launched regarding $3,187,000 of relief appropriations spent on paying unemployed people to provide dancing lessons—including tap, ballet, and  eurythmic (the description of which especially unsettled the Aldermen)—to teach the proper manipulation of shadow puppets, and finally, to teach other unemployed people how to make “boon doggles.”

The eurythmic dancing was bad enough. Then Mr. Henry O. Dresser (teacher and maker of boon doggles) had his turn to describe their purpose to the Aldermen. He described them  “braided leather gadgets – “things that men and boys do that are useful in their every day operations or recreations or about their homes.”  But he failed to convince his interrogators of any broader purpose – and he seemed to find no joy at all in his making.

Although boondoggles- braided leather lanyards used by boy scouts in Britain and the United States used for decorative and practical purposes – were nothing new, the word was unfamiliar and in the aftermath of the article boondoggle became the term for a wasteful or unnecessary project.

It’s likely that Mr. Dresser’s work teaching others how to make “boon doggies” was, perhaps, devoid of much significance.  But in the dancing and the puppets and a slew of other seemingly useless activities taught by and to the unemployed, surely there was progress.

Porky Chedwick is not dead

My  father, who turned 84  in April, still goes to work every day. Since my mother died he’s been left to his own devices but as always he makes his rounds based on going to and coming from the car dealership where he is currently employed.  He comes home, eats his dinner,  tends his clothes, and decides what he will wear the next day. In the morning he makes a single cup of coffee and takes his medicine. He has some cereal and gets on his way.

The story I want to tell about my father happened almost ten years ago. We were second in line at the Social Security Office. Porky Chedwick—the Daddio of the Raddio, your Platter Pushin Pappa, The Boss Man—and a woman I assumed was his wife, were first. That’s Porky Chedwick, my dad said.  But I wasn’t so sure. I thought he might be dead. When number 1 was called, Pork shuffled up to the counter to ask his question, and the people on the other side of the window kept telling him the same thing over and over again. It was clear the office staff is trained to do this until you give up and go away. The capacity for repeating yourself mechanically is not a bad skill to have in such circumstances.

We were there so my parents could sign up for Medicare. Actually you do not have to sign up for Medicare, but my parents had opted out of theirs years before because my dad was still working. My father has been working all of his life. So they had to apply for Plan “B” all over again, before they could apply for Plan “C.” The plan with all the options.

We got our forms into the hands of a woman who promised to get them into the hands of Mrs. Donnley, who knew all about our situation. But Mrs. Donnley was off sick – she’d been sick all week – so she could not be consulted. The woman staring intently at the computer screen instead of at us asked my father when he was going to quit working. My father looked at her as if she’d asked him when he was going to die. “I hope to work for a couple more years,” he told her. She had him write that on a yellow post-it note for Mrs. Donnley.  “I hope to work for a couple more years,” he wrote, dutifully, carefully, and signed his name. He added his cell phone number in case Mrs. Donnley had questions or needed to call him. It is best to call him on his cell, my father told the woman who was not Mrs. Donnley, because he is not at home during the day waiting for phone calls. He is at work, and while at work he is usually not at his desk. The woman looked confused. All she  wanted to know was when he would stop working.

On our way out, my father went over introduced himself to Pork and shook his hand. He mentioned a mutual acquaintance and Pork nodded – clearly pleased to have been recognized that fall morning. The woman he was with mouthed Thank you.


You can read a little about the life of Porky Chedwick  here, in his Pittsburgh Post Gazette obituary. Or here, at WYEP’s website. Photograph is by Darrell Sapp of the Post Gazette.

Just at the brink of the alley

At the top of our back steps, just at the brink of the alley, you can turn your head to the right – that’s west-southwest, more or less – and watch the rising sun inflame the buildings of Foster Plaza, an office complex built atop some old rolling hills between the highway and the neighborhoods that grew up behind, before, and around it.  One could easily walk to Foster Plaza from here – it’s just across a ravine, a small creek, a side road, and up a steep hillside still scattered with deer beds and sumac. After all these years the development is still incomplete. The bottom of the hill rimmed with cattails.

I used to work in Building 11 of Foster Plaza, where I competently, as my boss once told me, assisted with complex transactions involving the buying and selling of hotels, monitored certain litigation related to hotels, ate horrible doughy lunch food, and decided I would go to law school because I was working very hard doing those things and I thought I could do better.

But law school is a blog post for another day.

If you are walking along the street above our house, or you are driving out the alley, you can track the progress of the morning from those Foster Plaza windows. The light is bright pink early on, nearly effervescent when the sun is just breaking the horizon. Then it shifts to a hard white, blazing up quick and sharp before slowly softening into shadow. The building light perfectly traces the beginning of the work day  – gauzy rose awakening, then stark white consciousness, then______.

Historically, the term settled work referred to clergy; to engage in it meant connecting with and immersing oneself in a community. So settling was not a compromise but a commitment. Not a chore but a sensibility, a slowing, an agreement on perimeters.

photo copy


Also, I wanted to be grass when I was little ….

“Also, I wanted to be grass when I was little, and that is not entirely possible at this moment.”

One of the freshman engineering students I work with wrote this in his “Engineering and Me” paper – the assignment asks students to explore what kind of an engineer they want to be – and why.  He wants to be a biomedical engineer, but also: grass.

What I love best is the possibility underneath his brash and honest statement. It’s not entirely possible to be grass.  And it’s not possible at this moment. But … perhaps it is possible, when the time is right.

It’s a good assignment, and usually enjoyable to read because the students aren’t trying to sound like someone they are not. And I like students writing about becoming because I am always in that turning place myself.  On the threshold.

Years ago I visited the Blackfoot Nation and the Museum of the Plains Indian, where I first learned about counting coup, the daring exercise of a warrior riding up to an enemy, touching him with a “hand or a weapon or a coup stick,” then riding away. The whole point of counting coup was not killing but the bold charge – the swift touch – the quick escape. Counting coup was the highest honor a warrior could achieve.

Another of the museum displays explained that the native people who lived on the plains wanted to be seen as tall grass, always in motion.  On the way there I drove through acres and acres of grass nodding in the purple shadow of late August. Somewhere online I read the Blackfoot Nation encompasses 1.5 million acres.

An acre was not always a measurement, it says in Home Ground, the reference guide by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney. Long ago, an acre meant movement – “specifically the movement of flocks driven over open ground.”

I went out to ride my bike in the middle of writing this, going down a small slope I took my hands off the handlebars and remembered the morning I rode my red Schwinn bike down, down, down Ute Pass, all the way from Green Mountain Falls to Colorado Springs. It was colder than I expected – bracing and clear like riding through ice – mountains rising up on either side,  creek spilling over boulders in between the highways going north and south.

A bobcat ran right across my path, and I screamed at the top of my lungs for it to go, go, go, to get to the other side. It scrambled down into the central canyon where the creek roared.

What did you want to be when you were little, before you knew what the answers to that question were supposed to sound like?

Here is what the amazing Terry Tempest Williams says on page 168 of her book, When Women Were Birds:

We borrow. We steal. We purchase what we need and buy what we don’t. We acquire things, people, places, all in the process of losing ourselves. Busyness is the religion of distraction. I cannot talk to you because I have too much to do. 

I cannot do what I want, because I am doing what I must. Must I forever walk away from what is real and true and hard?


Photograph by Tim Bray, licensed under Creative Commons