ONLY NOISE: Like A Summer Thursday

One of my favorite descriptions of summer, particularly its languid, melancholy months, comes from Don DeLillo’s first novel, Americana: “Summer unfolds slowly,” DeLillo writes, “a carpeted silence rolling out across expanding steel, and the days begin to rhyme, distance swelling with the bridges, heat bending the air, small breaks in the pavement, those days when nothing seems to live on the earth but butterflies, the tranquilized mantis, the spider scaling the length of the mudcaked broken rake inside the dark garage.”

This of course is not the summer of your childhood, spent racing to the river, camping out on the trampoline, and picking salmon berries in the woods. It’s a slower summer; the passage of time stifled by heat and concrete, and the knowledge that as an adult, the only distinguishing aspect of the season is its boiling sun andif you’re luckyan abbreviated Friday at the office. During these months I tend to favor tunes that match the heat in grime and delirium, rather than turn up to the tempo of summer jamz (who really needs to cue those up anyway, when they’re blaring from every idling car come August?). For me, summer is a season of slower music, mimicking the sluggish pace of trudging through the sweltering city, and dreaming of a place with more treesor at least cheaper booze. For all the like-minded, hot weather sloths, here are five records to get lost in this summer.  

Van Morrison, Astral Weeks, 1968

For me this record is synonymous with waking early up in a sun-filled room and shaping a slow and quiet day; making a pot of coffee, scrambling some eggs, and lazing about. Van Morrison’s 1968 freeform masterpiece blooms with verdant imagery so beautiful it is agonizing, and while I’ve probably listened to it in full more than any other record, its transportative nature always manages to take me to a place I’ve never been before. The meandering phrases of flute, saxophone, guitar, and bass make you feel like you’ve wandered an unknown region of the world without so much as stirring from your couch. Perfect for the days when it’s too hot to venture outside.

Astral Weeks feels as much a part of the sky as and stars as it does the earth. On its centerpiece “Cyprus Avenue,” spare bass roots the song into the dirt, while plinks of harpsichord and fluttering woodwind lift it skyward. It is an aching portrayal of love so painful that its narrator endures multiple bouts of complete paralysis: “And I’m conquered in a car seat/Not a thing that I can do,” Morrison sings. “Cyprus Avenue” is one of the most precise depictions of new lovesomething that summer can rot just as easily as ripen. The title track, which opens the eight-song cycle, is a (slightly) less heartbreaking soundscape, arranging strings, celestial flute, and brushes of guitar into a solar system of sound, at the center of which is Morrison’s voice, beaming like the sun.

Townes Van Zandt, Our Mother the Mountain, 1969

Maybe I’m so drawn to this record in the sunny months because that’s when it first came to me. Townes Van Zandt’s second album Our Mother the Mountain is filled with tales of gambling saints, witchy women, and enough booze to power a dam. Van Zandt’s lyrical mysticism made his songs sound as if they were born in an era when folklore was taken at face valueand yet his interpretation of country music was completely original. Perhaps he was so ahead of his time that he sounded ancient.

Our Mother dances between deep, undeniable melancholy, and slightly sad songs that merely sound chipper. Opening ditty “Be Here to Love Me,” falls into the latter category, in which a drunkard entreats his woman to stay. Van Zandt paints summertime depictions of a small town with his distinct twang: “The children are dancing, the gamblers are chancin’ their all/The window’s accusin’ the door of abusin’ the wall,” he drawls, depicting a bawdy saloon scene. Cowboy ballad “Like a Summer Thursday,” meanwhile, is a sombre tale of love lost, in which Van Zandt recounts the stunning traits of a long gone lady. “Her face was crystal, fair and fine,” he sings, before revealing her cold disposition. “If only she could feel my pain,” he continues. “But feeling is a burden she can’t sustain/So like a summer Thursday, I cry for rain/To come and turn the ground to green again.” It is one of the most aching summer love songs, Van Zandt blaming the heat as much as the heart for all of his grief. If anything, Townes Van Zandt might just be the best summer companion for the sweaty and miserable.   

Smog, A River Ain’t Too Much to Love, 2005

Bill Callahan’s final offering under his Smog moniker turned out to be his masterpiece. A River Ain’t Too Much to Love is an hour of slow simmering folk songs brimming with naturalistic poetry. It’s hard not to associate this album with summertime, simply for the fact that its descriptions of woods and rivers and horses and valleys are so colorful and numerous. “Drinking at the Dam” recalls a particular kind of smalltown summer, where adults are absent and the brambles are the place to hang out and flip through “skin backs.” The sun is as much a part of this record as broken hearts and booze are to Our Mother the Mountain, and its rays fall upon rivers, bedrooms, and forests of pine, adding a waking melancholy to Callahan’s pensive lyrics. It is a record so stifled by heat, all there is to do within it is lie around and think. “It’s summer now, and it’s hot/And the sweat pours out,” Callahan sings on “Running the Loping.” “And the air is the same as my body/And I breathe my body inside out.” A River is replete with this kind of imagery, and that’s exactly what makes it a pleasant companion for the sweltering season.

Bob Dylan, Nashville Skyline, 1969

Along with Astral Weeks, I’ve listened to Dylan’s country delight Nashville Skyline so many times in my life, it automatically qualifies as a “Desert Island Disc,” god forbid I ever have to pack that suitcase. Aside from its beatific album cover, featuring Dylan tilting is hat like a southern gentleman against a blushing sunset, Nashville Skyline is bursting with the stuff of rural summer: Bluegrass fingerpicking, lazy lovers, and backwoods euphemisms involving every type of pie you can name. Opener “Girl From the North Country” (a duet with Johnny Cash that reimagines the original version from 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan) features the lone mention of cold weather and winter coats before the record bursts into the jubilant guitar duel, “Nashville Skyline Rag.” This album is a lively companion for cooking summer meals and drinking beer on the front porch. Heck, it’s so homey and warm, it can even make you feel like you have a porch.  

Amen Dunes, Freedom, 2018

Damon McMahon’s fifth studio album as Amen Dunes may have been released in the dead of winter, but the 11-song suite is radiant and lushfar more suited to aimless summer strolls than March hibernation. The entirety of Freedom is rendered with production details that place you seaside, on a boardwalk in shirt-wilting temperatures. The bright riffs of guitar, the breezy reverb, and McMahon’s languid delivery all move with the pace of light waves bending on hot air. While the previous albums I’ve mentioned might lend themselves best to lounging around light-filled rooms or dank taverns, Freedom begs you to walk around town and project its sun-faded imagery before you. Whether it’s the nostalgic twang of “Skipping School” or the beachy bent of “Miki Dora,” this is a record that can weave silvery summer blues into tapestries of hope.

REVIEW: How to Be a Rock Critic

All Lester Bangs wants to do is listen to his favorite record: Van Morrison’s 1968 masterpiece, Astral Weeks. If only he could find his copy. It’s got to be around here somewhere, beneath the splayed magazines, take-out containers, and just a few thousand other LPs. Such is the inciting dilemma of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s one-man play How to Be a Rock Critic.

I couldn’t resist the irony of a dead white guy telling me how to do my job, so I got a ticket immediately. How to Be a Rock Critic is not a pedantic or instructional title, however, but one referring to an early Bangs article first published in a small-circulation college zine. The one-act play – starring Jensen as the ill fated and infamous music journalist – is largely concerned with its subject’s gospel. Its full title reads: How to Be a Rock Critic: Based on the Writings of Lester Bangs.

Part of what drew me to the play was sick intrigue; I was positive it would be a shit show, or reductive and formulaic at the very least. And I have my reasons. Historically the portrayal of rock ‘n’ roll via visual narrative has not gone so well. Flicks like The Runaways and What We Do Is Secret (about LA punks the Germs) fell prey to laughable clichés and fabricated idealism, imbuing their main characters with far more nobility than the real people deserved. These biopics are the inverse of books like We Got the Neutron Bomb, which was unmerciful in its portrayal of rock ‘n’ rollers. There was no glamour or honor when Bob Biggs of Slash Records said of the Germs frontman, “I once saw Darby shoot up with gutter water!”

If there is one thing worse than the fictionalized depiction of rock stars, it is the fictionalized depiction of writers. Whether it’s Javier Bardem’s anguished “poet” in Mother! or Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway in Baz Luhrmann’s extended disco-remix of The Great Gatsby, the characterization of writers is often bloated with grandeur. Given that Lester Bangs was a stalwart of both rock and writing (not to mention bloated grandeur), I wasn’t sure if How to Be a Rock Critic could escape a trite fate.

A living room awaits at the Public Theater’s Martinson Hall on Saturday. It is littered with pages and beer cans and yes, stacks of records like angular layer cakes. If I didn’t know any better I would write this off as a stereotype, only it looks exactly like my friend’s apartment, and that friend is in fact a writer. It also looks exactly how my apartment would look if I had the freedom to live alone and be the slob I truly am. So they got me there.

The play begins with a grunt. Offstage bathroom noises collect our attention and soon enough Lester Bangs is before us. “Oh, fuck,” he says, before asking us to wait in his hallway for just, like, 20 more minutes while he finishes “this review.” “Ok… ” He stalls, “What about 15 more minutes?” To appease us he doles out magazines from a milk crate, and chucks cans of beer to a lucky few. In this little preamble, one thing is quickly established: Jensen-as-Bangs is one charming motherfucker.

Bangs entertains us briefly, rattling off motor-mouthed nonsense and informing us that he’s been up for 32 hours straight. He’d love to stay and chat, but he’s gotta “finish this review.” Stumbling over landmines of albums, he urges us to talk amongst ourselves. He reaches his desk, yanks an old page from his Smith Corona typewriter, and does exactly what you think he’s going to do with it.

I would like to see one portrayal of a writer, just one, that does not involve a sheet of paper being crumpled up into a ball and hurled across the room. Piss on it, eat it – set it aflame on your stove for god sakes – just please don’t crunch it into an angry little ball and toss it behind your back. When a new sheet is rolled into the machine Bangs stalls. He huffs, and puffs, and bangs on the keys. When the words still won’t materialize, he concedes. “Fuck it… let’s listen to some records!”

Within its first ten minutes, How to Be a Rock Critic erects two totems of Lester Bangs that will duel for the rest of the play. The first being Bangs as critic, fan, and fanatic. The second: Lester Bangs, tortured writer. I’m a fan of the former guy. Jensen’s ability to distill Bangs’ impassioned and vast catalogue of music criticism is admirable. His monologues are delivered with the same dizzying wit and lightning-speed stream of consciousness that Bangs was known for, and the amount of writing Jensen has synthesized is downright impressive.

Blank and Jensen spent years getting in touch with the Bangs archive, reading, researching, and turning thousands of pages of print into a play. Their success in shaping Bangs’ voice for the stage might have something to do with the duo’s background in acclaimed documentary plays like The Exonerated, which grew from firsthand interviews with over 40 released death row inmates. What shines in How to Be a Rock Critic are the long-winded, multi-syllabic manifestos on music, rock stars, critics, James Taylor (who Bangs so famously wrote should be “Marked for Death,”) childhood, girls, fandom, and of course, Van Morrison.

Bangs’ hunt for Astral Weeks punctuates the entire play, acting as the hub connecting countless spokes of praise and diatribe. It is the talisman he needs to justify his claims about art, and if he could only “just find this record, [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][he] could show you!” When Bangs is talking about music, you believe his every word. There’s a contagious excitement Jensen conveys while putting on records and churning out rants, the same excitement Bangs was known to infect people with. The little details in Jensen’s performance, like cueing up a Carpenters album and slightly gesturing toward his favorite part of the song with raised fingers, are nuanced and spot-on.

Like Bangs himself, the play is charismatic, funny, and absurd, but at times deeply flawed. It is well known that Bangs died of an accidental pill and NyQuill overdose at age 33. His party animal habits and taste for drugs were as famous as his hatred for Led Zeppelin. This dark side of Lester – that “tortured writer” side – surfaces in my least favorite parts of the play. It’s not that I mind darkness, but Jensen’s rendering of Bangs-as-cough syrup philosopher can feel degrading at times. His sermons on writing feel like they were written by a writer, and not necessarily in a good way. I was reminded of Jeffrey Sweet’s introduction to his book, What Playwrights Talk About When They Talk About Writing, at one point. Namely that, “Playwrights don’t talk about writing with each other much.” Elvis Costello is often credited as saying, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” I say writers writing monologues about writers talking about writing is like a man self-addressing his dick pics.

There is also the issue of pandering. Several times throughout How to Be a Rock Critic, Jensen begins a sentence, only to trail off expectantly so the crowd can fill in the blank for him and pat themselves on the back. It’s a gross little episode of rock ‘n’ roll trivial pursuit that probably pissed off me and me alone, because I’m a critic (and nobody likes a critic). I cringed when Jensen began a story about “a club called???” And the audience dutifully answered in unison, “CBGB!!!” “That’s right! CBGB!” he said with the intonation of a children’s show host. Little things like this, of course, do not amount to a bad play. Nor do Jensen’s depiction of Lester’s tantrums, or scraps of monologue that grated my skin with their commoditized dissent. These are matters of taste.

In a final, half-hearted attempt at finding Astral Weeks, Lester Bangs fishes the LP out of another record’s sleeve. He’s on the floor. After gabbing for 80 minutes straight – pausing only to guzzle beer and two bottles of cough syrup – he toppled over and landed in a pile of 12”s. We’ve heard about his overbearing mother, he’s lamented the death of his father, and he’s reduced Elvis Presley to two identities: “Force of nature… and turd.”

Bangs strolls over to his turntable with the rescued wax and cues up “Cyprus Avenue.” At long last, we can understand what all the fuss is about. For me, it’s easy to understand. By a sheer stab of coincidence, Astral Weeks is one of my favorite records, too. There was a period of time during which I listened to it at least once a day, and it would certainly be in my luggage en route to a desert island.

In these final moments, Jensen and Blank (and I suppose Van Morrison) have nailed the spirit of Lester Bangs, and all the things he sought in music. But what was that? In 1980, Lester Bangs sat for an interview with his pal Sue Mathews, who asked him, “Are you aware of changes in the sorts of things that you look for as a critic? Or in the way that you listen to music?” “Hmm,” he said, “that’s a good question. Basically all I look for is passion, and I don’t care what form it comes in.”