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October 19, 1980 - Image 6

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1980-10-19

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Bangs' Blondie:

Owen Gleiberman
By Lester Bangs
96 Pages, $6.95, Simon
and Schuster
ACK IN 1978 or so, a lot of people
gave New Wave rock an un-
qualified thumbs-down because
ey simply didn't "get it." Suddenly,
here were all these bands singing about
brain damage and de-evolution and No
Future For You-and being pretty
damn nasty about it. To the average
poli-sci major, it must have looked like
somebody'd unlocked the loony bins
and issued every inmate a guitar.
Of course, intellectual rock critics
(leading a new breed of pop-culture,
sophisticates) ate it up. The music had
a special appeal to them, because in or-
der to like it, you had to understand
where it was coming from. Like Beat
poetry, Rocky Horror, or whatever,
punk's cultism was a chic turn-on; if
some of the music was among the
greatest rock and roll that's ever been
played, it also represented a new hyper-
awareness (on the part of musician and
fan alike) of culture change and all the
social goings-on behind it.
These days, even some of the most
passive schoolkids can spout out the cat-
ch-phrases that drip off the rock-
criticism pages of Rolling Stone and
The Village Voice. Most of that criticism
bears small relation to the modest
record-reviewing of yesteryear. A
typical crit is liable to analyze where
any given group is "at" on one of their
records, charting their spiritual crises
and piecing together the "story" of

their career. Forget Be-Bob-a-Lula. It's
1980: Portrait-of-the-artist time.
Some groups, though, are harder to
pin down than others. And I don't mean
Pere Ubu and all those conceptual No
Wave bands; they're so deliberately,
self-consciously weird that no self-
respecting pop academician would be
without two ready theories to explain
their significance (or at least explain
why they can't be explained). But New
Wave groups that venture into the great
beyond of popular success are another
ballgame, because when you've got a
record on the charts it means you've
struck a nerve with (gasp!) the mass
audience. This sort of thing tends to
blow cult battle-lines to smithereens.
And it gets rock critics real confused.
Blondie, Lester Bangs' glossy, pic-,
ture-filled, paperback bio/critical
analysis of the group, is written in a
state of desperate, delirious confusion.
Bangs is a rock-crit heavyweight who
invented his own circusy, tough-
minded, stream-of-consciousness
school of rock journalism at Creem
Magazine in the early Seventies. (He
now writes primarily for The Village
Voice and Musician.) For sheer kinetic
wordplay, I can't think of another
reviewer I'd rather read. Bangs also
enjoys playing with attitudes,.and most
of his pieces are animated by a Lenny
Bruce-like mixture of high-brow
sophistication and boho-hipster flights-
of-fancy. At times, he can be nakedly
honest; in Blondie, though, his honesty
only reveals a batch of bitter, com-
pulsive prejudices.

B ANGS LAYS his venom ri
on the table: He passional
wants to hate the group. Te
age Blondie fans who think they
buying a typical big-print picture-bi
their latest rock heroes probably w(
know what to make of the way Ba
piles up accusations. But even m
probing readers may be taken aba
because he never really puts his fin
on what he resents. Bangs may not
tirely understand that himself, bt
think he half-realizes how Blond
particular brand of popular suc
(commercially, their association v
New Wave could only have wor
against them) blasts such a gaping Y
through everything he's saying.'
book is an iconoclastic revel; it's a f
filled diatribe against not only Blon
but its fans-against whole segment
the rock audience with whom Ba
has claimed a sense of commun
Between the lines, he keeps cry
"Why, why, why are they
popular?"-as if the answer w
anything else but that Blondie i
great, punchy, slick, joyous rock'n
The first half of the book (tabloi
more like it, actually; the whole tl
takes an hour-and-a-half to read
devoted to a clunky, method
chronology of Blondie's car
Recounting the early history of
band, including the clubdates and
sonnel changes, may be a snc
proposition, but Bangs seems
prolong his Story of Blor
deliberately; it's as if he's tryin
show what an ordinary band we r
The closer we get to the "Hea
Glass" breakthrough, the more out
seeps into Bangs' prose. He
cleverly cast himself in the role
Fan Betrayed, exempting himself f

ght charges that he never gave the band a the band'
tely chance. He even calls their first album Worse tha
een- "an inspiring piece of American Now it'
y're rock'n'roll." But, he writes, by the time arty to
o of of Plastic Letters, the follow-up LP, "I and-yec
on't began to 'wonder what was going conceit
ngs through their heads." Parallel Lines, members
ore their rocket-to-glory (and by far their band's. L
ack, best album), is the coffin-sealer: with laye
ger "The thing that makes Parallel associatio
e- L ines assuredly avant-garde is single pa
ie's precisely that it's so airtight and of what
cess multiple-varnished, such a pristinely For exam
with slick piece of product it's not even producer
ked vapid like Barry Manilow, who at the Beat,i
hole least can embarrass/make you throw studio wiz
The up once in a while with an "At the like Bub
bile- Copa. " Nope. This is it. The Bangs co
die, masterpiece. Gotta be, because it's Blondiec
ts of dimensions are so perfect; no bot- commer(
ings tom, no top, no sides, no rides, no is that it
ity.ng, new nows no how. Each song is a mthat ha
so perfectly constructed concave die's succ
vere system in which every single piece of Blondie,
s a information offered up in the lyrics some vin
'roll cancels out another corresponding ceives a
piece of information, kinda like a system b
id is jigsaw puzzle except at the end in-
Iing stead of a picture you get a perfect S
) is blank. And that blank is of course 0
ical nothing less than Deborah Harry's eve V
any face' trol-boar
per- I don't want to mince metaphors, bring ou
oozy but what does this mean? The master group's s
to explains a little farther on: Because only hini
ndie Blondie's members always pose un- euphori
g to smiling on their album covers, he says, shellack
have and because their typical interview is a tegrated.
hodgepodge of jaded, post-modernist to the ov
rt of cliches, they must consider themselves them rid
rage forerunners of the avant-garde. producti
has Therefore, unless you can locate some vivacity.
of a super-unearthly hip-mysterioso But Le
from statement beyond the musical facade, good-guy

of venom

s tunes are worthless. A blank.
an Barry Manilow.
s true that Blondie goes in for
ouches, obscure quotes
h! !-video cassettes. But the
about their "avant-garde"r
ship-cards is Bangs', not the
Lester embellishes his theory
Ors of insinuation and guilt-by-
on-with everything, in fact,
record themselves. (Not one
ge is devoted to a description
Blondie's music sounds like.)
.ple, because Mike Chapman,
of Parallel Lines and Eat to
is a slick, commercial-minded
zard (it's true; his credits read
bblegum's Greatest Hits),
oncludes that his work with
can't be anything but venal
cial product. The key giveaway
never even occurs to Bangs
pman's sterling musicianship
ve something to do with Blon-
vess. Bangs isn't writing about
about a bunch of songs on
nyl, but about what he per-
s the corrupt, soulless value
ehind their music.
IT HAPPENS, the group's
ollaboration with Chapman
was absolutely crucial to their
-ent. Chapman's a slick con-
d operator, but he was able to
t a rich, airy density in the
sound that the first two albums
.ed at (most notably in their
c cover of "Denis"). He
ed the cymbal tracks, in-
Jimmy Destri's keyboards in-
erall texture instead of letting
e on top, and gave the entire
on a bright, sun-spangled
ester Bangs is locked into his
y/bad guy vision of the Pop

Dream. And he's projected his worst
image of himself onto Blondie's fans.
The book contains some very legitimate.
criticism of the way the band has ex-
ploited Debby Harry's cheesecake.
image. However, when Bangs writes
that "if most guys in America could
somehow get their faverave poster girl
in bed and have total license to do
whatever they wanted with this legen-
dary body for one afternoon, at least 75
percent of the guys in the country would
elect to beat her up," is he really
talking about mass-market resentment
(where did he get 75 percent anyhow?)
or his own?

Bangs limits his analysis of what's
actually on Blondie's four albums
almost entirely to a discussion of their
lyrics. This, incidentally, is the bane of
current rock criticism; reading literary
analyses of rock and roll is about as
rewarding as listening to your high
school English teacher explicate "The
Sounds of Silence." And the conclusion is
that Blondie's songs aren't "about"
anything. They may sound good, says
Bangs, but what do they mean?


I'm not crazy about a lot of Blondie's
lyrics myself, but this is the last
question anyone should be asking about
.a rock band. What's so heartening
about the success of a great pop group
like Blondie is that a bunch of kids can
get off on their albums without
worrying about the content. For some
reason, Lester Bangs wants to assign
meanings to the most intangible sorts of
joy and energy and to music that, above
all, celebrates physical release. This
book is a testament to how far rock
writing has strayed from its true sub-

Owen Gleiberman
Daily Arts editor.

is a former

Sunday, October 19, 1980

I t

Page 6

By Kevin Tottis
OLLOWING HIS third presi-
dential debate with Vice Presi-
dent Richard Nixon, then-
assachusetts Sen. John Kennedy
arrived at the Michigan Union, where
he was to spend the night before begin-
ning a nine-city campaign tour of
Michigan. Kennedy arrived more than
an hour late-at 1:40 a.m.-yet more
than 10,000 people were waiting outside
the Union to hear him speak. The future
president, tired ,from his debate and
flight, spoke briefly to the crowd and
asked if the people in the crowd would
be willing to volunteer their time to
work in Third World nations. Shortly
thereafter, the senator ended his talk.
"I came here to sleep," he said.
Whether Kennedy intended for the
University to be the starting block for
his foreign service organization, or
whether he suggested it merely to coun-
ter accusations Nixon made earlier that
night, the as yet unnamed idea caught
Despite the brevity of his speech, in-
terest grew on campus. In a letter to the
Daily a few days later, two graduate
students said they advocated Ken-
nedy's proposal and started a letter-
writing campaign to the senator in
favor of his plan. Nationwide, initial in-
terest in the Peace Corps was similar to
that shown by the 10,000 people who
waited outside the Union to hear Ken-
nedy speak, said Sargent Shriver, the
first director of the Peace Corps. When
Kennedy first proposed the corps "we

had 30,000 people apply-before we
even had applications printed," he said.
But while that initial interest was
there, it was, after all, an initial in-
terest, so "some aspects (of the Peace
Corps' formation) were a little nerve
wracking." Shriver described a chart
he kept "behind my door." The chart
outlined the increase in the number of
people interested in the organization
from December of 1960 to February of
1961. On March 1, 1961, the Peace Corps
officially opened its doors; by June of
that year, the drawing on Shriver's
chart plummeted.
"I never let anyone see (the chart),"
Shriver, who is also the late president's
brother-in-law, said. "I was always
afraid we wouldn't have enough volun-
But they managed to maintain
enough volunteers. On Aug. 30, 1961, the
first Peace Corps volunteers left for
Ghana. And on Sept. 22, Congress
passed the Peace Corps Act which
states the organization's purpose:
"Help people of developing countries
meet their manpower needs;
"Help promote better understanding
of other peoples on the part of
"Promote a better understanding of
other people on the part of Americans."
By the end of 1961, 900 volunteers ser-
ved in 16 different countries.
" OW MANY of you are willing
to spend 10 years in Africa or
Latin America or Asia work-
ing or the U.S. and working for free-
dom? How many of you who are going
to be doctors are willing to spend your

days in Ghana? Technicians and
engineers, how many of you are willing
to work in the foreign service and spend
your lives traveling around the world?
On your willingness to do that . . . will
depend the answer to whether we as a
free society can compete," Kennedy
had told the crowd in front of the Union,
20 years ago. These remakrs may have
been made to help "make the world
safe for democracy," but the Peace
Corps itself was never political, Shriver
"People didn't join the Peace Corps
for political purposes from the very
beginning," he said. "They didn't join
it to combat communism. But they
thought they would increase the chan-
ces for peaceful changes."
Domestically, the program was not a
political front, either, Shriver added.
Volunteers were both Democrats and
Following Kennedy's death in 1963,
however, the influence of subsequent
presidential administrations began to
show in the Peace Corps. During the
Johnson years interest in the Peace
Corps increased. In 1967, the Corps
boasted its biggest volunteer force
ever-with 14,968 volunteers in 50 coun-
tries. But in the following year, during
the Nixon administration, the Peace
Corps suffered some of its biggest
blows. "In the early seventies the
Peace Corps went into a decline,"
Richard Celeste, the current Peace
Corps director said. "For five or six
years it didn't have any public
"Nixon tried to submerge it," Shriver
In March of 1971, Nixon combined the
Peace Corps with VISTA (Volunteers in
Service to America) and seven other
service organizations and called them
ACTION. The total ACTION budget was
$176.3 million plus $20 million for "in-
Both Celeste and Shriver agreed that
during this time, the Peace Corps was
swallowed up by the larger
organization. "These programs were
no longer in the forefront of people's
minds," Shriver said. "During that

TION budget of $173.6 million in 1971,
this was a positive move, but con-
sidering the 1964 budget was $113
million, the increase could be higher.
"Money isn't everything," he said, "but
$100 million today isn't what it was in
More and more, people are becoming
aware of the program, Celeste said.
"There's a lively interest in the Peace
Corps once people are aware that it is
alive and well."
changed internally during the
past 20 years. Volunteers now
are much older than when the program
began. At that time many of the volun-
teers were just out of college. But now,
Celeste said, the average age is 27,
although many volunteers are in their
"early 20s." He added that today it
"sometimes takes a year of two" after
college graduation, before someone
But Shriver cited the reasons for this
as being "the same as the changes in
college students" themselves. "I don't
think there's anyone alive who could
get 10,000 college students to wait for
him until two in the morning"' as they
did for Kennedy, he said. "I don't think
they'd come to see the second coming of
the Lord. I think the Vietnam War, and
Watergate, and the pressure to earn a
living which has come about due to in-
flation have all combined to make
people like this," he said.
But despite this, both Shriver and
Celeste feel attitudes today are
positive. "People are now concerned
about themselves as part of a
group-the people who say we've
moved from the 'me' generation to the
we' generation are right," Celeste
said. "The new generation of
Americans has a much more practical
The Peace Corps focus has changed
over the past 20 years also, Celeste
said. "We've moved away from the
very large focus on education-par-

Sargent Shriver: At the 20th anniversary celebration last week (left), and in
1960, as the first Peace Corps director

ticularly on teaching English as a
second language," he said. "Basic
human needs are now stressed." For
example, programs in food production
and health care are now considered
essential. And today, even more than in
the early sixties, the political aspects of
the Peace Corps are deemphasized. In
fact, according to Celeste, Peace Corps
volunteers are barred from any
political involvement.
"Peace Corps volunteers are not
(working) on a government-to-gover-
nment basis-they're on a person-to-
person basis," he said.
Last July, for example, the Peace
Corps announced its return to

Nicaragua after a 17-month absence
from the.Central American nation. The
country's leftist junta rquested volun-
teers to help in special education,
agriculture, forestry, and environment
tal protection. Bill Reese, acting deputy
director of the agency's Latin
American region, said last summer
that the Peace Corps' work in
Nicaragua, as well as Honduras and
Costa Rica, will be non-political.
"We're there to help the country work
on its development problem and to fur-
See PEACE, Page 7
Kevin Tottis covers Academics
for the Daily.



UV ~ ~ .

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