August 4, 2019

The Art of the Rant


The rant, that almost subconscious torrent of angry, semi-poetic verbiage usually aiming to denounce this or that, has a way of getting people riled up, even if they don’t fully comprehend how all those words fit together. There’s simply something about hearing or reading that flow of angry words—it’s akin to hearing someone speaking in tongues—which, when done well, when constructed and delivered with a little improvisational style, can be both exhilarating and maddening.

            Whether written or screamed, the rant as a form of human communication can of course be traced back centuries, particularly among political and religious extremists. Consider Jonathan Edwards’ 1741 “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”:

…That world of misery, that lake of burning brimstone, is extended abroad under you. There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell’s wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor any thing to take hold of. There is nothing between you and hell but the air…

            Oh, and how he goes on and on. It was as much a bit of shocking Colonial Era performance art as it was a sermon. Edwards toured that sermon around the colonies for years the same way bands today tour in support of an album, and it not only made him a rock star in his day; it inspired more than a generation’s worth of lesser, angry fire-and-brimstone preachers. The breathless, frothing, relentless attacks on the church and the state in the writings of Mikhail Bakunin and other bomb-tossing 19th century anarchists (especially those in Russia, France and Italy) are still pretty amazing to this day. In the 1930s and 1940s rants took a turn for the literary in Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s correspondence and later novels, as well as in the opening pages of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. In the Fifties and Sixties, propelled by what was happening in and to the nation, literary ranting moved into poetry and music—consider Ginsberg’s “Howl” and “America” and pretty much everything Gil-Scott Heron did. Hell, even though it lacked the righteous anger of a true rant, there was still something of a ranting quality to the jazzy flow of Kerouac’s prose. On the whole it took an artist or madman of some ability to rant well.

            This is of course a woefully incomplete account, but I’m simply trying to give things a bit of perspective and context. For a much broader and far more entertaining overview, I would recommend tracking down a copy of Rants and Incendiary Tracts: Voices of Desperate Illumination 1558–Present, a 1989 anthology edited by Bob Black and Adam Parfrey. It’s really something.

            Now where was I?

            Then came the late Sixties and early Seventies, and everything went to hell. As exemplified by the likes of Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, the New Journalism, as it came to be dubbed, offered up reporting that employed more literary, narrative techniques and a decidedly subjective approach, in which the reporter himself often made his way into the story, if not becoming the story’s central protagonist. Over at Rolling Stone, Hunter Thompson’s brilliant and occasionally drug-fueled vitriol pushed the New Journalism deep into rant territory, and it began leaking over into younger writers. While Thompson was ranting about politics and sports and the culture surrounding both, the style was adopted by a new breed of music journalists infecting magazines like Crawdaddy, Creem, and, not surprisingly, Rolling Stone.

            Tracing its origins back to Richard Meltzer’s 1970 book The Aesthetics of Rock, the New Music Journalism, as it unsurprisingly came to be dubbed, borrowed heavily from the model of the New Journalism when it came to critiquing the latest releases from Blue Oyster Cult or James Taylor. Doing away with the dry, informational editorializing of earlier music criticism, the new writing became more personal and narrative, with the author writing about, say, what he was doing while listening to the album he was reviewing, or rambling off on tangents that had nothing to do with the band or record in question. And like Kerouac’s attempts to bring the rhythms of bebop to his prose, Meltzer and those who followed attempted to bring a wicked rock’n’roll vibe to their own writing. And there is a very small step from writing with a rock’n’roll vibe to ranting.

            While magazines like Creem and Crawdaddy did produce some fine, even extraordinary talents, like Meltzer (who was kind of an intellectual smartass with a philosophy degree) and Nick Tosches (who even early on was a wise and dangerous literary stylist), they also gave us Lester Bangs, who was a semi-coherent sloppy mess, slavishly attempting to ape Thompson, but in small-scale rock fanboy terms. As prolific as he was, a majority of his pieces might justifiably be termed rants.

            Here’s a sample from an early Bangs piece for Creem ostensibly about The Stooges second album, Funhouse:

…since conditions are in the present nigh irremediable mess, with innocent listeners led and hyped, and duped and doped, taught to grovel before drug-addled effeminate Limeys who once collected blues 78s and a few guitar lessons and think that that makes them torch-bearers; a hapless public, finally, of tender boys and girls pavlov’d into salivating greenbacks and stoking reds at the mere utterance of certain magic incantations like “supergroup” and “superstar,” well, is it any wonder your poor average kid, cruisin’ addled down the street in vague pursuit of snatch or reds or rock mag newsstands, ain’t got no truck with the Stooges?

            Yes, you get the idea. And that’s still reasonably lucid for him.

            Unfortunately for writing (and ranting) in general, Bangs had the good career sense to die of an overdose in 1982 at age thirty-three, which immediately made him the most revered rock critic in the country. This sadly misguided perception was only exacerbated five years later, when Random House released an anthology of his writing, declaring him the most important music critic ever, and a major literary force. So of course every young white boy wannabe writer who came along after him began slavishly aping Lester Bangs. This meant, of course, that they all started ranting. Badly. Thanks to Bangs (and Thompson, and Bukowski, and other disaffected white boy touchstones), the result was a mountain of abominable derivative writing which continues to stink the place up to this day.

            There were a few exceptions, young writers who rose above not only the mob of wannabe Angry Young Men, but also above their influences. Byron Coley from Forced Exposure magazine comes to mind, as does Rev. Norb at Maximumrocknroll.

            I should pause a moment to consider the case of Rev. Norb, about whom I’ve written before. Norb, whom I’ve known since at least first grade, traces his writing career back to around the time he was twelve and sent two letters to Creem magazine. The first, he said, tried to ape the style of Creem’s writers (like Bangs), and was an embarrassment. For the second, he decided to simply be his ridiculous self, and the results were much better. Around the same time he was doing that, he wrote a review of Ralph Bakshi’s animated fantasy film Wizards for the Allouez Elementary School newspaper. I was his editor at the time, and remember thinking that there was no way Norb’s eight-page screed could ever fit into a four-page paper. That noted, I could find no place in his story to make cuts—it had such a unique, unstoppable flow to it there was no way to cut it without completely destroying the rhythm and the stream(s) of consciousness prose. It was that style—and while today he still cites Creem as much as Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee as his primary literary influences—he developed into the mad rush of free association that came to mark his monthly four-thousand word MRR columns, recently gathered together into book form as Fear of a Norb Planet. He took the sort of thing Bangs was doing and jacked it into the stratosphere. At the same time, his rapid-fire monologues (which can be heard on most Boris the Sprinkler albums) blow Bangs out of the water.

            Elsewhere in the mid-Eighties, Selwyn Harris—whom I always admired even though he seemed to loathe me—took the hipster rant over the transom from music magazines into porn, where at the likes of Hustler he made porn reviews a literary form all his own.

            By the mid-Eighties there seemed to be something in the air, and I can’t blame Bangs for all of it. Maybe I can blame Reagan. Starting in the early Eighties ranting became a standard form of expression within the American underground, and not just among young male writers. Performance artists like Lydia Lunch, Karen Finley, Brother Theodore and Joe Coleman all made poetic, literary rants part of their performances. Tesco Vee, front man for the hardcore band The Meatmen, was known for his free-form ranting skills, both written and performed. A lot of Jello Biafra’s songs for the Dead Kennedys, and his spoken word pieces, took the form of righteous, chest-thumping rants. And if you picked up any of the countless homemade ‘zines being produced at the time, a big percentage were produced by sixteen-year-olds who used their ‘zines as a platform in which to put their developing ranting skills on display. Most were just kind of sad, and only became sadder still once these kids started working their way into the alternative weeklies, where there seemed to be a rule demanding that each alternative paper in the country have at least one designated ranter on staff.

            Everywhere you looked back then, some punk or another was ranting about music, politics, religion, racial issues, men, women, children, cops, Yuppies, gentrification, the economy, old people, foreigners, whatever was pissing them off at the moment.

            Ranting was cool and dangerous, and began sneaking into the mainstream with comedians like (former preacher) Sam Kinison, who became hugely popular as a result of his shrieking, hour-long misogynist rants. At least until he died in that car wreck. You also saw the emergence of competitive poetry slams at the little downtown cafes, which were essentially improvisational ranting contests.

            Speaking of preachers, in that same era you could turn on the TV on Sunday mornings and have your pick of ranting religious zealots, from Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to the sweaty arm-flapping of Jimmy Swaggart and Gene Scott.

            Religion aside, TV was also rife with ranters of other kinds, like Morton Downey Jr. and that guy in California whose name I can never recall.

            It was right around that same time that I fell into the writing business. And what did I immediately start doing? Ranting. I had never read Lester Bangs, so I can’t blame him. I’d read a lot of Celine, though. In college Grinch and I had done a good deal of public ranting, having no idea it was a trend. We were just pissed at the world and literate, so it seemed a form that made sense. When we encountered other people (like Byron Coley or Joe Coleman or Tesco Vee) doing much the same thing, we simply considered them kindred spirits, not further examples of a hipster trend we were latching on to. So when I started writing, that’s the angle I chose. Looking back on it now, even what I consider the precursor of the “Slackjaw” column to come—a piece called “How to Build a cheap Bomb,” which never ran anywhere until ten years after it was written—took the form of a rant.

            And you know, it served me well. I think I was a pretty good ranter, and best of all I was so fucking pissed at everything I meant every word of it. The torrent of bile and vinegar and acid simply spilled out of the keyboard naturally. If I hadn’t been a decent, foul-mouthed ranter, no one would have paid the slightest attention to me.

            The problem, for me anyway, was that after a few years I got tired of stringing together these tsunamis of vitriol which may or may not have made sense. It was exhausting hard work, especially since the youthful rage which had initially fueled them was burning itself out to a warm ash of general contempt and disdain. You can’t stay that angry for that long without things getting a little one-note and tired. As a style it had served me well, but if I kept trying to push it week after week, it’d just get dull for everyone, and the inauthenticity would have been apparent. Look at Charles Bukowski’s final years, when, although film adaptations of his work had allowed him to live in a nice house and drive a new BMW, he was still pushing the whole “drunken skid row bum” shtick. It was kind of sad.

            Ranting as a common and popular form of cultural expression seemed to fade in the Nineties, when things for the most part were comfortable, stupid and a little dull. I do wonder, though, about the coincidental decline of white boy ranting and the rise of gangsta rap. In fact that’s what got me started to thinking about this whole issue. I remember sitting in the office of Entertainment Weekly’s music editor one afternoon circa 1990. He was on the phone talking with another music writer, and they were both amazed to have just learned that suburban sixteen-year-old white kids were suddenly listening to Public Enemy and Run-DMC. These two middle-aged music critics, men who knew all the ins and outs of the sociology of pop music, had no idea why white kids would be doing such a thing. The answer seemed pretty obvious and simple to me.

            Oh, but that’s another long story, and I didn’t get the job.

            Needless to say, in 2019 ranting has again become a fundamental form of American discourse, and it’s not just for underground hipsters anymore. From the president on down through public officials and journalists and yahoos on YouTube and online trolls, ranting seems to be the way in which information is now disseminated. And you know what? Everyone’s really bad at it.


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