"The most striking of all the Birdland songs was 'There's a Man in There.' Lester told Billy Altman he wrote the lyrics without realizing what they were about. Later he showed them to his therapist, Phil Sapienza [Mitch Leigh's & Joey Ramone's stepfather], who praised them as an artful depiction of the death of his father. ... Two decades later Sapienza still remembered the song's imagery. 'That was the most haunting episode in Lester's entire life,' he said. 'He came back to it over and over again--death by fire, and of all people his own father.'" [Let It Blurt, Jim DeRogatis, p 183.]
And first I listened to Lester Bangs and Birdland, Track 6, "I Fought the Law" and ARRRRRRGGGGGGGGGG! With a shriek I woke up again--I shook my head--was I in 1979 again or still in the NOW?--if it was 1979 it was just too close to home--"God-damn, what the hell is that--Matty! Matty! What the hell!" I shook my head harder. "God-damn, what the hell is that?" was still jumbling around my cranium, my brain was writing away--and I was back in '79, shaking my head back then, shaking my head up off my bed, a double mattress supported by large wooden palettes, they were thick as hops in those days in that neighborhood, a neighborhood of printing plants, lots of loading platforms, and always around these loading platforms were tons of wooden palettes and they made perfect beds, got you up off the floor of your loft, too, you never knowing what might be crawling around in the dark in those old loft buildings. I had so many mice in my loft I kept a "Mickey" count on my bathroom wall, like the old WWII fighter pilots listed the kills on the side of their planes with little Hitlers or Tojos, and every mouse I trapped, I drew a little Mickey Mouse head on the wall; "Oh, this is interesting," one of my seductions squealed from my bathroom one morning. "What's that beauty?" "This piece of art with all these little Mickey Mouse heads on your wall in here." "Yeah, I draw a Mickey Mouse head on the wall there every time I trap one, you know, crack it's little neck in one of those great little wooden babies, Victory's their brand name, and that's my Victories over those little devil beast brat bastards; God, I hate them, I hate them worse than I hate cockroaches--but I kill too many cockroaches to draw them on the wall; hell, if I drew them on the wall I'd have no walls left for my mouse heads--though at one time I thought of pinning the cockroach bodies up on the wall as I killed them--though that became as disgusting to me as Sam the Shit Artist's work--I'm serious, this guy created Godzilla, he did, a Japanese artist who lives down in TRIBECA there somewhere lonely because he's always locking himself in these little rooms he builds in his loft--but anyway, he's painting in shit these days and a SOHO gallery is going to show his shit--disgusting--and I'm not a disgusting man." She came out of the bathroom fully dressed, grabbed her bag and made a mad trot for the door, struggling with the lock trying to twist it open, getting it opened, and then thundering down the stairs and out to the street, leaving the damn door opened. So you needed to be up off the floor at night, though mice can hop up onto beds and things--I've seen a mouse zip up an electrical cable leading up to one of the electronics gadgets I have near my loftbed where I live now--yeah, the little bugger zipped right up that cable and up onto my bed, under the bookcase that forms the head of my bed though the way I sleep in the bed the bookcase is the foot of my bed, where my feet sleep. Yeah, that god-damn mouse, lookin' for my weed stash--I used to clean my weed out, shake it on down, in an shoebox lid, and I'd leave the seeds and shit there in the shoebox or the shaked clean weed and that's what had attracted this mouse. I saw his ass and I immediately, the animal in me, went after his little ass, and he saw me coming and leaped from the bookcase toward an open space to escape me and I saw the little bastard as he leaped and with a perfect like-Ted Williams swing of my hand and arm, I belted that little flying son of a bitch a home run out my open window--the top of my floor-to-ceiling window--I live in a top-floor suite of an old hotel, the hotel the oldest still-standing structure on the whole street of Broadway, the Great White Way, that runs like a heart-operation zipper down the middle of Manhattan, a crazy street really, once the longest street in the world, though I don't know if it still is.
Gawddddddd! I was still shaking my head back in 1979, a Sunday morning, yes, it was, I know it was because Barretti's garbage hauling joint wasn't running, his Macks were silent--though not for long--they'd fire up again at 3 am later--but this was different, this was music, this was coming formidably through a double brick wall. "I fought the law and the law won...." And they kept playing it over and over--and then I shook my head again and realized it was Matty and Lester and Mitch and David, God, it was Lester Bangs and Birdland--Holy Shit, and wham, and roll, wham, Matty was drumming, I could hear his thunderous rolls as they started "I Fought the Law"--rrrrrrrrrrrrupppp, bam, then Mitch's guitar--then, oh hell, that's Lester Bangs--God, I can hear Lester singing--I've died and gone to musical hell, that same place where Charlie Parker leads the band that plays the "Star Spangled Banner" over and over eternally--you know that old musician joke?--Saint Peter says to the arriving just-passed musician, "You've got your choice 'tween Heaven or Hell; they both have bands and are always lookin' for musicians. Let's see here, the leader of the Heaven band, why it's John Tesh, nice boy, blond Frankenstein, but a nice boy." "John Tesh! Jesus X. Christ. And who leads the Hell Band?" "Hmmmm, let me check this brochure here, why it's Charles Parker, Jr., that's what it says here, one of those 'hot' musicians, a musician from the jungle where savagery is tolerated, somethin' we can't tolerate in Big Pappa's Heaven--no jive music in Heaven, Praise the Lawdy Lawd." "Charlie Parker's the Hell Band leader?" "That's what I said, here's his 8 x 10 glossy." "Jesus, that's him, Charlie Parker, so hell yeah, I mean what serious musician wouldn't want to play in a band led by Charlie Parker, man--and the other choice is John Tesh--give me a break, I'll take Hell, suh, just show me the way." "Are you sure, I'm writtin' it down in the book, 'Brother Wolfie Wolf hath chosen the pathway to Hell, sobeit' and so it is written. Down Escalator Number 400, it's five miles that way--Cerebus will lead you to it--'Here boy, show this musician where to go.'" So the musician gets down to hell and hell it ain't so bad, it's cool, he doesn't see any fires, instead the first thing he sees is this concert hall and people lining up for tickets. The billboard reads, "Tonight, Charlie Parker and his Orchestra will be performing--tenor player needed, see Dizzy Gillespie." Holy shit, the musician says, and he runs into the hall and he's escorted to backstage and damn, there's Dizzy Gillespie, "Damn, Diz, is that you?" "None other, who you?" "I'm your new tenor player." "OK, cat, just walk over there, front row, your chair's in there and the music's on the stand--Fletcher Henderson did the chart we're playin' tonight." "Wow." And the musician goes over and takes his chair, damn, man, there was Zoot Sims, damn there's Hawk, holy shit, Prez, "Prez, wow, some skin," and damn, there's Sonny Stitt--anyway, to make a long story Jell-O, the musician sits down, opens the sheet music, Charlie Parker comes out and says, "OK, gentlemen and ladies, ah-1-ah 2-ah-3-ah-4" and the musician immediately recognizes he's playing "The Star Spangled Banner"--and he slides the sheet music off the next chart and that chart's "The Star Spangled Banner," too--on and on for eternity. That's hell to a musician. But then musicians go through hell on earth, too, so it's just a joke to make musicians laugh their blues away, while they're together with their band, with their group, with their kind.
That morning my hell would have been Charlie Parker was replaced by Lester Bangs. I swear, it was disastrous-sounding music coming through that wall, disastrous, like an out-of-pitch tornado slamming through it to rattle in my ears and into my head--on and on they rehearsed, "I fought the law and the law won..." "YOU BASTARDS, YOU'LL SOON BE FIGHTIN' MY ASS." I was stirred.
That was a Sunday in March 1979 and the boyz sneaked into Jimi's Palace of Electric Lady Sound and recorded this Birdland With Lester Bangs on April Fool's Day of that year and that's I'm listening to NOW, today, as I type this out; today, now, though with writers, there is only one day and one night forever. And I've mellowed over the years. Lester has no pitch--and he took singing lessons for this--he has a sweet voice and occasionally he hits it, but his voice is so pansy and weak and sometimes he sounds like he's barking and then swigging down a quick bottle of Romilar to quell the barking and he sweetens out again and actually for a bar or two has the right pitch.
I was later in this really great band, a band that was downtown famous for about 5 years and then poof it was over and it was gone, but for those 5 years it was the best damn band I'd ever seen evolve, I mean a clean jean band, with a book of arrangements, playing everything from blues to jazz arrangements of Bach and that crowd, each member of the band so talented, each member of the band writing originals for the band and then we did the old flamers, too, like "Burnin' Love," the Elvis hit, and Lowell Fulsom's "Man on the Run," whew, what a band, and we had this violinist in the band and this dude was so hip and cool and playing an electrified violin that was fiberglass or somethin' spacey like that--I remember his violin had a blue lightning bolt down its middle--and at the height of one of our bonfire nights of bowlin' 'em over, I mean this band packed this joint we played in, had 'em hangin' off the rafters, packed, so packed when you danced it was like close enough to fuck, so packed, though people still managed to dance and drink and make good ole fuckin' times and I was juiced to the gills on my own stellar performing that night, and I went up to the violin player and I acclaimed, "God-damn we sound good tonight--we're hot, man, you're hot, I'm hot, we're burnin' up, my man, Royalty." He looked at me sadly--he didn't drink so he was stone sober--and he said, "You know the best we'll ever be?" I shook my head. "The best we'll ever be is we're a great bar band." You motherf-er, I thought--I'm workin' my ass off and here you are throwing water on my fire, my stoned fire, yeah, 'cause I ain't sober, son of a bitch, I'm high as hell--and I didn't say that to Royalty 'cause I loved the MF-er, but I thought it and that's how things bad and splitting up start in bands, especially bands that might have a chance except all the members of that band were on parallel lines--a la Debbie Harry's poem and her joy at knowing Euclid said "Parallel lines shall ne'er have conversation with each other" meaning they'll never connect. The striving to be stars; everybody wants to be a star. That's true. That's a dream we all have whether we know it or not.
"In fact, Lester didn't distinguish between writing a song such as 'There's a Man in There' and an article like his Clash epic. 'In both cases he had something important to say and he wanted people to hear it,' John Morthland said. 'It was really just different mediums.' But his bandmates came to believe that Lester's notoriety as a writer--which they'd initially seen as an asset--was beginning to hold them back." [Let It Blurt, Jim DeRogatis, p 185.]
And you see, back in '79 I already knew they were fighting with Lester, he was cranky, set in his stardom ways, set in his own type, worded so convolutedly beautiful yet it didn't fit Matty's and Mitch's and David's Rock 'n' Roll, it dragged them down--you could hear it in Matty's drumming--you could hear it in Mitch's guitar work--David Merrill, by the way, was a damn fine bass player but he wanted to wail and Lester's form of wailing was like at the Wailing Wall, very deep and full of the religion of Lester Bangs and the boyz no longer saw Lester as an icon but just a Romilar-head-drunken-wonderful-writer-but-lousy-musician--and now I listen to this one track where Lester blows harmonica--a bad Bob Dylan imitation.... I fell asleep.
"The night was awful but the food was good
We all stood just where we should
Everybody comin' in the congregation
Come to watch the conflagration
It was the finest fire I ever seen
Don't mistake just what I mean
A real eighth wonder of a manmade pit
Till I saw a hand wave so deep in it
I said there's a man in there
He's peeling near shapeless bubbling fat...."
[The opening lines to Lester's "There's a Man in There," a great song, really it is, and only Lester can sing it right; the boyz in the band, however, can't seem to play it right.]
Parallel lines will never connect.
for The Daily Growler
Private Note to thewomantrumpetplayer, "Doth thou not know when I jest?"
Young Lester Bangs at home.