Once upon a time, in 1971, Lester Bangs was angry at James Taylor. This happened a lot; in fact, it never really ended. But Winter of 1971 could reliably be described as when it began. So it was, in the hallowed pages of seminal LA-based fanzine Who Put the Bomp, that Bangs penned the now legendary "James Taylor Marked For Death."
A sprawling, 9,000 word, multi-issue takedown of what Bangs saw as the weakening of the rock n roll ethos began with 2,000 words on the Troggs, and somehow made its way, finally, to the likes of Taylor, Neil Young and Elton John, a trio of introspective songwriters that Time had recently dubbed "The New Troubadours." Had Taylor been simply presented as another singer/songwriter, Bangs would likely have never given him a second thought. But the fact that publications like Time were daring to package that particular threesome as the new direction of rock n roll was more than Bangs could stomach. Throughout the 1970's, Bangs would see this continued blending of the pop and rock genres in the eye of social consciousness as an affront, and one that he was determined to take personally.
Taylor in particular would bear the brunt of Bangs' vitriolic pen, including a blisteringly deadpan review of "One Man Dog" in Creem. But we're getting ahead of things. We're talking about 1971, and Bangs' insistence that James Taylor was the harbinger of rock n roll's death. As the decade began to unfold, Bangs saw rock moving in two, equally uncomfortable directions. On one hand, you had the likes of Taylor: milquetoast navel gazers for whom a duet with Linda Ronstadt was considered edgy. On the other, there were the likes of Bowie and Led Zepplin: artist for whom Bangs had no particular ill will, other than an overriding feeling that their schtick was too practiced and fake. What galled Bangs most about Led Zep was not anything particular about their arena rock sound, but rather how insincere it all seemed. To Bangs, guys like Bowie were committing the cardinal sin of taking themselves too seriously. However, in 1971, at the slow, awkward beginning of this trend, Bangs didn't blame Taylor or Young or even Led Zep personally for any of this. He blamed us.
"James Taylor Marked for Death" has often been described as a magnificently vicious, deeply personal takedown of Taylor himself. But that misses the larger point; one that Bangs actually manages to bury almost exactly at "Marked for Death"'s midpoint.
"The one common constant of our variegated and strung-out peer groups was a pervasive sense of self-consciousness that sent us in grouchy packs to ugly festivals just to be together and dig ourselves and each other," he writes, 4000 words into his thought process. "The trend toward narcissistic flair has been responsible in large part for smiting rock with the superstar virus, which revolves around the substituting of attitudes and flamboyant trappings, into which the audience can project their fantasies, for the simple desire to make music, get loose, knock the folks out or get 'em up and dancin'."
At some point, Bangs opines, good music stopped being enough for us. It had to touch us in some way. It wasn't enough for an album to simply be quality; an artist now had to find some way to make it personal for each and every one of us. Which is not to say that music never touched anyone before the 1970's, of course. It obviously always has. But those personal moments were always a secondary byproduct of good music; of good art. Now, suddenly, they needed to be the raison d'etre. Oh, you're a songwriter? Great. What have you written for me? As Bangs said, making an album just to get people dancing or happy or laughing was not enough for an increasingly narcissistic listening audience. You needed to either involve your audience, or distract them, like dangling keys in front of a crying baby. And it is within the summation of this thought, that we pull our name: "It's not enough to just do those things anymore;" he wrote. "What you must do instead if you want success on any large scale is either figure out a way of getting yourself associated in the audience's mind with their pieties and their sense of "community," i.e., ram it home that you're one of THEM; or, alternately, deck and bake yourself into an image configuration so blatant or outrageous that you become a culture myth."
Des Moines is, in many ways, a strange little town. It is a place that is still very much growing and finding its own cultural identity. As such, there are plenty of groups and people who would like to convince you that their sense of community is the one for you. In fact, you're already a member.
It can be easy to look at the festivals and publications and would-be cultural centers in town and think "yeah, there IS a community here. I see where I could fit in." But if you take too long of a look around, you'll start to see the same faces, over and over and over again. Everything that feels like a larger community, is mostly just the same table of cool kids in different locations. That's fine. I'm not saying there's not a place for any of it. But when you peel the top layer back and look at Des Moines for the weird, quirky, growing town that it really is, you often see that the things pitching themselves as "community," are more likely just placeholders for something that we haven't figured out yet.
Welcome to the Culture Myth.