Saturday, September 13, 2008

Lester Bangs rant

I picked up a copy of ‘Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung’ by Lester Bangs a while back. I decided to see what all the fuss is about. I like what I’ve read so far but Bangs has an element of the people from that generation that always bugs me. They pretty much topped the medium off and didn’t leave anything else to say or do with it. Hunter S. Thompson did the same thing, he pretty much wrote the pinnacle “crazed drug story that’s actually good because it makes a point about resisting authority” and trying to recreate that experience is missing the ultimate point. Part of what makes Bangs good is what an outrageous spit in the face of organized journalists and writing was back then, and how that ultimately symbolizes the nature of rock n roll itself. At least the stuff back then. Which is what always bugs me about people copying those guys, it’s the damn forest for the trees.

But a lot of it is also how much fun it is to write like this. Yes, I admit it, I’ve decided to try writing a Lester Bangs style essay. I’m just posting it on my private blog. They have standards at Popmatters, a bar you need to sail above to get posted. Or at least I apply one to myself. It’s a weird relationship you have with the webzine that pays you no money but makes you feel important and publishes whatever crazy crap you want. I think the reason I like it so much is that their video games section isn’t shoved off into a corner. It’s not like Newsweek where they shove it off in some damn kiddy section. You have to hit a tab to see their info, but you can hear about the upcoming movies because they get to be up front. Screw that. Popmatters, a video game article will be front page, we’re right smack in the middle of the magazine, and we got our own blog too. I like having my work stand next to other mediums and writers. It reminds me of the bigger stakes going on here, one beyond the usual Gamerati banter. We’re competing with these guys for people’s time and money now. The medium we represent, the artistic medium of my generation really, the first thing we really did ourselves and doesn’t have some Baby Boomer breathing down our neck, is video games. There’s no Bob Dylan in my generation and there never will be, there’s no point. Its been done. Its been done countless times and in countless ways, from fake artsy people to artsy people with as much depth as Dylan and arguably better. As much as my generation’s culture puzzles me it also makes sense to me in a lot of ways. It’s just a giant quest to do something, ANYTHING, different. Even if it pisses people off, hell because it pisses people off, we’re gonna start telling them video games are a kick ass art form and achieve new levels of human experience. Yes, including the crazy violent ones. Tom Wolfe was freaking right…you create a society that inhibits a vice, that vice will become their porn. Since sex has certainly opened up a bit for people, it’s completely rational that we would find some other indulgence and violence porn seems reasonable. Since violence is totally forbidden in America in terms of people actually doing it, they instead relish it in films and other media. Like video games. Lets talk about that.

Or maybe not just yet. I always have to remind myself about George Bernard Shaw’s quote, “If you’re gonna tell someone the truth, make sure it’s funny or they might kill you”. I long ago figured out that being funny was key to good communication, because you’ll get someone interested in the rest of it if there’s the promise of entertainment. I’ve actually been blogging for about 3 years now and that whole photo comic gimmick is something I developed because I was trying to find a new way of writing for the internet. It was about 2005 and I was at a Writer’s Conference. I’d just graduated college and had some ludicrous idea about money falling out of the sky when I went to this thing. I didn’t have a job or a clue. And while I was there a story I wrote was reviewed by a bunch of wanna-be and real writers. I barely remember the story, some crazy ass thing about a guy cleaning up an old summer camp and finding meaning by clawing his way through a bunch of metaphors. And one of the writers said something that sorta shook me up. He said that he met kids like me all the time. Top of our writing class, studied prose, methodical and crafty, but we all had one distinct flaw. We didn’t have shit to write about. I’m just some stupid kid putting flowery language and clever prose on a bunch of meaningless, suburban crap. And he looked me in the eye, and told me to find something worth writing about and just do it. That’s all a writer worth a damn ever does. So I freaked out. I was offended, I drank whiskey, I quoted Salinger, I bitched at people about classics majors. And I went to a bunch of lectures somewhere in-between all this. And I’ll be damned if it wasn’t a publisher as red cheeked as anyone giving an impromptu speech on how the printed medium is dead. He told a story about publishing a book about someone’s grandma who’d survived the Holocaust and watched it sell a few thousand while some self-help book that involved only eating chicken soup sold millions. I mean, Christ, self-help books? One of my frat brothers wrote one and the guy paid for grad school with the revenue. I told him if he needs ideas for a sequel, I’m a Huckleberry for a percentage.

What the Hell was I talking about? Right, so I was sucking at life. Somehow in that crazed week, I ended up with a copy of Gustav Dore’s collected illustrations for the Divine Comedy. I’m a huge book nerd, let’s get that out of the way upfront. Wait, we’re past introductions…you get my point. Anyways, they’re these really animated and exciting illustrations that this German made for a book about an Italian walking around Hell. Good trilogy, read the first two but the third was boring as…uh, Hell. And for some reason, I started thinking about how hilarious it would be if someone put cartoon captions to it and had these two figures saying insane crap. And thus ‘Modern Tours of Hell’ was born. I took inspiration from Penny Arcade as I was putting together the idea, because they have a Shakespearean approach to their columns. You have the comic be a dumb show for what the column is about, and then that segueways into a broader topic. So I decided to use the image comic as a dumb show for the story and then get to slip in some actual writing. The comics were written first and had the most effort put into them, then I wrote out the story to explain things in more detail. The old version actually no longer exists, I finally sat down and revised it heavily a year or so ago. But in its raw form, it was a bizarre but interesting narrative. Well, I’m harping on my own crap now, which is always a bad idea, but I like it. Me and William Faulkner getting drunk while we peruse the foibles of society and the idea of damnation still gets a smile from me.

Wait..what was I talking about? The internet. Books were no longer being published. I decided I’d write for it. The internet, that is. Ticked me off, that opinionated writer did, and I ended up buying a copy of his book and busting out my thinking cap. I was going to find something to write about, I was going to do it in a medium that was new and not doomed, and I wasn’t going to take any shit from old men who argue with me about ‘The Great Gatsby’. The damn book was a huge salute to wealth and our love-hate relationship with the costs that come. Nick was goddamn saluting Gatsby, not saying goodbye, and screw the stupid Billboard metaphor. Anyways…writing style. I’d actually been experimenting with a blog for a couple of months before this. It was like…having someone give me a new instrument or paint color I’d never seen before. I was just screwing around with it, writing huge 5,000 word essays and then reigning that down to short paragraphs and sentences. It was weird. A different way of chatting with my audience, that was viewed with a mouse for 15 minutes during work instead of in a class room or in bed before you go to sleep. So the photo comic idea was technically founded on a lot of experimenting that finally clicked when I was staring at Gustav Dore, dejected, and desperate for something to write about.

You know, this is off topic but I get the impression from Bangs that this is encouraged, I remember distinctly the first time I totally independently discovered and enjoyed a form of media from my Dad’s generation. I was sitting in my room, visiting home from college, and Woodie Guthrie was blasting out of my computer’s speakers while I wrote a paper that was late. Some people in my frat had been introducing me to old Blues and Bluegrass music and the itch eventually led me to exploring its roots. And my Dad just knocked on my door, stared at me for a minute, and then asked if it was Woodie Guthrie. I said yes and he just kept standing there. He asked me how long I’d been listening to him, and I said a few weeks. And he got this weird look in his eye, like his Frankenstein had just started speaking English to him or something. He asked me what I thought of him. I said he was okay but I liked Leadbelly more. That weird look stayed in his eye.

Which is sorta hilarious if you take it in context. I listen to a lot of Punk Bluegrass now and one of my friends who started a band was telling me about the irony of it with his own folks. How we’re taking the music of their parent’s generation and doing interesting things with it. On some bizarre level, the punk bluegrass movement is my favorite simply because it’s the only real ‘Fuck you’ to adults that I see in our culture. How else do you insult a baby boomer except finding something they never did and doing it better? Gads, can I even call them adults? I’m 25 years old and in law school, why do I sit contending with the will and ideas of a once removed culture and society? Whether you want to chalk this up to improved healthcare or the fascinating desire to live forever that their generation possesses, I’d like to be the first to say that this is a first for people my age as well. Such charming books as ‘The Dumbest Generation’ may reflect how big the gulf is between us, but like it or not gramps we’re gonna have to learn how to get along. I don’t get the shit kicked out of me by grouchy old men via the Socratic method all day in school so I can be told that I’m “Not ready yet”. Your job looks awesome and I’m starting to chomp at the bit for a shot at it. You did it yourself at my age, so don’t give me that look. I want health insurance too and Fannie Mae ain’t got my back anymore.

Which is why I’m living in staggering paranoia of this election season, really. Any generation that adamantly adopts the ‘Rapture’ as a belief and thoroughly expects it to happen at any second disturbs the hell out of me. Did you really think it was all just going to end when you checked out? That you could just ring up a gigantic debt and have a great party and then no one was going to have to clean it up? That you’d magically get beamed away and find out none of this stuff is real anyways. Hell, maybe it isn’t. There’s no point in dragging politics into this. They went the same route as Thompson’s drug crazed take on society: it’s done. It’s a dead end. There will never be another FOX news because conservatively slanted media while have become cultural dead end. Information control will become irrelevant because even having an opinion will eventually become moot. It’ll just boil down to communication, saying something to a person, and then letting them deduce it for themselves.

Which might be the point of video games for me, really. Or how I ended up writing about them. I ended up moving to California, Vermont…I blogged about my travels for a while. I’ve got it all backed up on a flash drive…somewhere…and maybe I’ll throw them back up someday. I’d love to get a job before I do anything crazy though. But eventually I settled down and the blog had to adapt to the fact that my life was now fairly boring. I’d been writing about whatever media I consumed for a while, just random critiques or observations, until the Popmatters invitation rolled up. The first couple of months were shaky because I honestly had never even conceived of thinking about games beyond Boom, Zap, Pow. I played them a ton, mind you. Loved adventure games as a kid, played every single Sierra On Line game ever made. But when the Wii came out, I remember watching some Youtube videos and just being enchanted by the thing. I was playing bargain bin PC games and emulator stuff…but as soon as I saw the motion controller I realized that was it. That was going to explode. My good friend was putting together a scam on buying a bunch of PS3’s and selling them for a high price on Ebay and I told him to invest in Wii’s instead, to give you an idea. Don’t get me wrong, I bought a PS2 a few months ago and have been playing old console games. But I knew when I saw that little white box that the damn thing really could be played by anyone. That they’d done something entirely new and more importantly, I wanted to be a part of it.

It’s weird explaining video games to my folks. They just sorta give me this weird look when I show them stuff. They like the Wii, naturally, and my Dad has gotten into computer gamers before, but it’s only when it really interests him. I guess it’s sorta like how I see the stuff his generation did, really. It’s interesting and I enjoy it but…it’s not quite the same. It doesn’t speak to me, I just sorta observe and study it and then I’m done. Like reading an old book from another era, I appreciate it but it’s not actually talking to me. There’s still plenty of music I DO listen to from the past because it does speak to me and is great music, but you kinda grasp what I’m saying. It ain’t something that’s a part of me in terms of my experience as an individual in this existence. It’s something that’s just…it doesn’t have some towering figure in it that is the golden standard. Because don’t get me wrong, I read old books and watch old movies and I enjoy seeing this towering triumphs. But the climbing part…I want to do that. Participate, anyways. Climb at something. And somehow video games just seemed like an interesting place to do that. A place to express this conflict and meditation of my generation, by proving that something older people said was a waste was, in fact, just as good as what they did. Sorta like Rock ‘n’ Roll, really.

So yeah, I sat down and decided to write an essay imitating the style of Lester Bangs. I’m not sure how good it is, I get the impression I just post it and don’t look back when it comes to revision. I’m just experimenting, playing another instrument that someone handed me. Honestly, writing is my first love. I don’t actually ever remember not writing, one of the first memories I have as a kid is banging on a type-writer, making gibberish pages, and smiling at what I’d produced. Video games aren’t so much a love for me…they’re much more just an aspect of my identity. Just an expression of my generation and the frustration I feel growing up. I just sorta started doing them as a kid and it fit as easily in my pantheon of artistic experience as watching a movie or reading a book. Still does. So as I get more involved in writing about them and hanging out at Popmatters, I find myself becoming more and more excited about the subject matter. The thing I’ve decided to write about. So the photocomics, the blogs, the language, the quest for communication, is not just about explaining an artistic medium to other people. It’s about explaining my entire generation to people, it’s about explaining myself. For better or worse, video games are what we created and it’s time to start defending that.


Ben Abraham said...

More. Of. This. Shit.

L.B. Jeffries said...

hahahahahaha...I'll have to down another bottle of bourbon and get right on it man.

Craig said...

Indeed, indeed on the above staccato comment.

And I actually think the idea that video games are our "rock n roll" is a much better way to get at that "are games art" question. Rock was a cultural product that got turned into "art" by the way people started paying attention to it, turning into its own tradition, etc. You didn't have to have big "artistes" do prog rock in order to treat it like art.

Same with video games: treat it like rock, start taking it as art, and the new kinds of appreciation will get articulated out of that. No one (at least no one good) listens to rock like you listen to classical music. But you can get just as subtle reactions/criticisms/analyses. So we don't need a Jon Blow to make an art game before we can start developing a better way to talk about games. stuff.

Craig said...

(Oh, and "Craig"'s real name is mummifiedstalin...) heh

pixelvixen707 said...

This is a tangent to just one part of your fantastic personal essay - but don't you think the model of a modern gonzo Internet writer isn't Bangs, but Christgau? His gift for cramming clever arguments and elaborate namechecks in <100 word blurbs almost makes him a precursor to Twitter, or at least Gawker.

Plus, he's still alive.

As game crit matures - mostly online - the critics will work in short bursts, not long blathers.

Also, big shame PopMatters doesn't pay you, or Michael Abbott. That bothers me to no end.

L.B. Jeffries said...

I'll check out Christgau...I'd never heard the name before but I'm curious to see smaller critiques in action. Honestly, I'm so used to writing that way that part of these blogs was just to get me to explore bloated, unwieldly paragraphs a bit more.

My sad empty wallet agrees with you otherwise but...I have to admit, a very interesting thing happens when you don't pay your writers. They tend to write stuff they really care about and the webzine, in turn, is very willing to publishing any crazy thing I want to say.

pixelvixen707 said...

Too true - freedom's addictive. And you've clearly taken advantage of it over there.

Christgau lives at He's put thousands of bite-sized rock rants at your fingertips.

Ben Abraham said...

Look out L.B.! There's a sea of visitors heading this way via RPS's Sunday Papers!

(Thought you might like to know we few commenter's are not your only appreciative fans)