The first call was letting me know he was dead.
The second was asking if I could come over and help clean out his apartment.
The landlord was not the sentimental type and wanted to rent the place soon as possible.
I showed up at 10 a.m. There were four of us: writer John Morthland, who lived right in the building, guitarist Robert Quine, journalist Billy Altman, myself.
All the papers, his writings, chapters of books that would never be finished, that probably never would have been finished, no matter what, those had been swooped up, gathered up for posterity or what passed for posterity in the early 80’s, but….the typewriter? Had that been gathered up too? I remember all the records on the floor, some in their sleeves, some not, more jazz than expected, Miles & Coltrane & Mingus & The Psychedelic Saxophone of Charlie Nothing, and The Stooges, Van Morrison, Cheap Trick, Kiss, and the books, New Directions paperbacks, City Lights books, those small black & white ones, and once-glossy magazines, some in stacks, piled up, most in disarray, though there might have been a logic, a poetry in the chaos, just as there was a chaos in the poetry, an order waiting to happen; and then the promotional t-shirts, some that had never been worn but still were dirty, maybe used on the floor instead of a mop, though you wouldn’t know, and if it had been a yard sale, all of it, the records, tapes & books & shoes & the table & the other table, all told might’ve gotten you $80, $100 tops, and that was that.
We walked around each other, Quine & Altman & I, since Morthland was busy in the kitchen, standing there, and since there was no plan, we picked things up off the floor then put them back down on the floor in a slightly different order, maybe a little neater, though not much. Quine opened the window, but there was too much wind and the sound of car horns was annoying, so he slammed it shut, almost shut, and stood looking out. There was a Cuban Chinese place nearby, maybe he could see it from there. Just ten o’clock in the morning, the traffic was already bad, and the sound of salsa, the sour bleat of Latin horns and those fucking claves or cowbells keeping the offbeat, once those had gotten in through the window they weren’t leaving.
If I’d been listening, it would have been annoying.
Next to a coffeecup, probably used as an ashtray, there was a harmonica. I picked it up. Quine shrugged and looked over at Morthland, who nodded his head. I put it in my pocket.
I was in college, living on Waterman Street. I’d started writing for CREEM, and I couldn’t believe how much fun it was. It wasn’t work. They’d print whatever I sent, more or less, and pay me.
We’d never met, but Lester would call at midnight, one in the morning, not to talk about the magazine, just to talk. About the impossibility of girls and the possibilities of sex, about Ford Maddox Ford and Paris in the 20’s, about how some clothes shrank in the wash and some didn’t, about the radio, about radio as Tarot or translator into the framework of the day’s menu of space and time and divine logic, how the first song you hear - not by choice, records, tapes didn’t count - the first song on the radio determines what that day will bring, sets you up or sets you down : if that first song is one of lost love, then the coffee will be burnt, your checks will bounce, every call a wrong number or worse, and the pretty woman at the checkout counter will turn away. If the first song is an oldie, pre-Beatles, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, The Four Tops, then the future will echo the past, your numbers will all come even. If the song’s too chirpy, too sweet, your feet will smell. If it’s actually joyful, if it has a farfisa, lights up like Sir Douglas or roars like Bob Seger, then love is just around the corner and the sun is going to shine on your backdoor someday.
We talked….well, he’d talk, I’d listen.
The calls would start the same way, more or less.
“I just drank half a bottle of tequila,” he’d say. And then he’d think a moment. You could sort of hear him counting on his fingers. “Oh, and I had three reds and a qaalude.”
“Me too,” I’d say.
I was usually in bed. Reading. Or about to go to sleep. Maybe I’d had a beer. Maybe not. But it seemed important to be agreeable.
A few years on, and I finally met him in person at a neighbourhood bar in the Village, The Bells of Hell. It was still early, people who worked were at work, and there were 5 or 6 of us there, slouching at the bar or next to the bar, making sure it wouldn’t go away.
He circled me, walked ‘round me three times, like a dog trying to figure where to sit down, where to pee. Then he took hold of my shirt ‘tween thumb and forefinger, held it up to his nose, to each nostril, and he had a confused, disappointed look, deflated, and he let go of my shirt, shook his head, leaned back against the wall and exhaled. It sounded like the fade on a Phil Spector record, something The Ronettes were leaving behind for good, like a small dog exploding, the air going out all at once.
“You lied,” he muttered. “You’re not fucked up.”
He said this sadly, quietly, more statement of fact than accusation. He was looking at a lottery ticket printed in the wrong language. And he turned away, wouldn’t speak to me the rest of the night. But a few days later, I ran into him in front of CBGB’s, and it was like we’d always been friends.
There was a bed, maybe it was a mattress on the floor, and if there’d been sheets, they no longer looked like sheets but were just dirty laundry, all of it the colour of lint. And when you got past the surface clutter, the paper cups and paper plates, those cardboard boxes they sent promotional records in and the assorted paraphernalia, the bios that nobody reads, the 8 x 10 glossies nobody looks at, the stickers, the posters, the giveaway toys sent to overgrown boys, there wasn’t much there, you had to bring your own memories.
Lester filled the space when he was home, filled it with words, with noise, with questions that couldn’t be answered, with answers to questions no one had asked, and he sprawled out on the floor, his shirt too small, his pants too big, his words too fast for whatever he was decoding, and he sprawled with a fierce frenetic languor, he might fall asleep at any moment, but if he didn’t, he might climb the walls to find what the sound was like up on the ceiling .
And when he found out, of course, he’d let you know.
I had three wooden chairs and a couch, replete with cushions and an India Imports throw, but Lester hunkered down on the floor, back to the wall. That way, if he fell asleep or passed out he was already more than halfway there, gravity would do the rest.
He’d come over to hear an African record I’d been raving about, Bob Ohiri & His Uhuru Sounds. Ohiri had been one of the guitarists in King Sunny Ade’s band, he was the one with the over-active wah wah pedal, and when they first toured the States, the band was dressed in dashikis and African-print clothes, all except for Bob Ohiri who favoured black leather pants, wraparound shades and a chocolate pull-down newsboy cap, looking like a refugee from Sly & The Family Stone. That one record, the only record he ever made, was a wild mix of futuristic African funk, what Ornette Coleman might've recorded if he’d turned right at Paris and gone to Lagos by mistake: overdriven, murky in the best possible way, mixed like a Stooges record, pure noise, exuberant, cheerfully out of tune, like the horn sections on Stax records, like they’d all gotten dressed in the dark, put their pants on any which way and forgotten to tune up because they just couldn’t wait to start and weren’t ever going to finish.
I could go on. I probably did.
“It’s just a fucking record,” Lester said.
He was bored by any enthusiasms that weren’t his own.
I put on the first track, and it roared to life in a clatter of desperate voodoo, all the spirits falling all the way down the stairs, one after the other, falling in synch, like they meant to do that and they’d probably do it again, and I held my breath. It was even better than I remembered.
Lester was slouched against the wall, head thrown back, and his eyes were closed, but he wasn’t near asleep, one hand was holding a beer, the other was beating a tattoo against his leg, not in time, though in time with itself, finding a pulse and keeping it, finding it, holding it steady, his fingers curling round like he could grab it, pull it close to himself, and he opened his eyes, threw his head back against the wall, hard and then harder, till I thought the plaster might crack.
And he lurched this way and that, maybe he poured what was left of the beer over his head, maybe he didn’t, but he was hooked. The world exploded and rearranged itself.
“Brian Eno would shit himself,” he said. “He’d shit himself!”
He sat there stunned.
The record finished.
“You want me to make you a copy?” I asked.
‘No,” he said. He picked himself up off the ground, leaving the bottle on the floor.
“No. I heard it.”
I saw him on the subway at Union Square.
“I’m going up to CBS,” he said. “Columbia Records. Come on along.”
Once you got into the building, there was a maze of floors and hallways and fluorescent lights, men in white shirts with silly ties, skinny women with big hair and short skirts, everyone busy being busy. The songs coming out of various offices were all about guitars and love; the conversations were all about lunch.
We made our way to the office of a publicist who seemed unsurprised to see two of us and who no longer feigned enthusiasm for records and artists being discussed, but treated them and treated us as a necessary annoyance.
She began handing us records from stacks on her desk while reciting the names of the artists like ingredients in over-the-counter pain medication:
Tits & Bonnie
I dutifully stared at the front and back of each album and tucked them under my arm one by one. Lester let the pile slip through his fingers and fall to the floor, and he stared at them with undisguised indifference. He shrugged and made no attempt to pick them up, but regarded the publicist with the curious respect paid someone who has successfully named each and every one of the seven dwarfs.
“Jesus, Marilyn,” he laughed. “You don’t think I’m going to listen to any of this crap, do you? Really? These and one or two more might buy me dinner.”
“I only have one REO Speedwagon t-shirt left.” She waited, hoping for some show of enthusiasm or disappointment. When none was forthcoming, she went on. “We’re all very excited about the Speedwagon tour. They’ll be headlining in 35 cities. And I think I can tell you, there’ll be a very special guest…”
“Hey,” Lester was beaming. “You have any idea what you spend on postage? Just on me, every month? What about sending me $75 every month? Skip the records. $75 a month! We’d both come out ahead! “
“Like I said, I only have one REO Speedwagon t-shirt left.”
She held up a bright shiny quarter, ready to flip.
“Who’s feeling lucky?”
Brian Cullman is the Journal's West Village Editor. And so much more.
In 1980 music writer Lester Bangs traveled to Austin, Texas where he met a surf/punk rock group, "The Delinquents." In early December, they recorded an album as "Lester Bangs and the Delinquents," titled Jook Savages on the Brazos. Bangs died two years later at 33.
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