Where we left ALMOST FAMOUS was with a question I say the film deliberately raises:
How is a rock-writer like a groupie?
1)In the film, the rock-writer character is made very similar to them: William is “on the bus” and is underage. Yes, the latter fact is from Cameron Crowe’s life, who really was a writer for Rolling Stone at age 15.
2) The groupie can gain her minor fame only by being in the proximity of, and really, mainly by having sex with, the rock stars. Her talent is her desirability and “free-spiritedness.” What draws her is the musical beauty and fame of the rock band. The rock writer’s talent is obviously far more complex, and yet, as is particularly underlined in William’s case, his ability to gain any fame from it likewise depends on interaction with the band. And he is likewise driven by a love of the beauty and an excitement about the fame.
3) Penny Lane wants groupies to be more focused on musical excellence. To be “band aides” and “muses.” Hence, her special dedication to Russell, who could be “really great.” In a world of only Penny-style groupies, the rockers would find their tour mistresses somewhat like rock-critics, albeit encouraging ones. William, by contrast, is “the enemy,” part of the larger rock critic project of making the music better by means of a “brutal honesty” that is a kind of presumed hostility; Penny’s project has the same end, but works by means of love.
4) However, for both, the love comes first. William and Penny have fallen for Rock, and now seek to find a place in it. In terms of Stillwater, this means they are attracted to the band’s music before they think about how it could be even better; in terms of the Tour, this means they both need to be in the band’s favor. That’s where it gets tricky for the rock writer in particular.
5) William is charged by Rolling Stone to get details, via interviews and observation. So wouldn’t the critic who is simply reviewing a band’s latest album from a distance avoid the “conflicts of interest” that William is subject to? Perhaps, but notice that the Lester Bangs character describes the heart of this conflict as wanting cool friends, of the rock writer wanting to be what he cannot be, cool. He says that since William is smart and has moral “spine,” he can never be cool the way the rockers are. And the conflict actually goes deeper than that. Bangs may say he’s given up on being cool, and in the simply social sense that may be true, but the fact is he did become as famous and as influential as a rock writer can be. He changed the world, and future “Bob Dylans” wanted to rap with him. None of that fame and culture-shaping was possible for him without Rock. Nor would it have been possible without his making from the start the assumption that Rock was, and ought to continue to be, a very great thing. That’s why mediocre and sold-out rock had to be denounced so passionately. And why Bangs would recommend the shock-techniques of Iggy Pop and other proto-punkers as necessary medicine. Bangs and other rock critics were capable of every sort of critical consideration except one—the possibility that Rock might not be that great, and not deserving of being that big a deal.
6) This is why my Rock Songbook is a step beyond. Seriously. It holds that Rock’s artistic value has been over-estimated, particularly in comparison with fine-arts music it turned its back on and the down-home dance music it developed out of. It accepts that it has been a big deal, and that it thus matters culturally. But it does not accept that it has culturally mattered in a positive way. And since I write the Songbook for free, I am not beholden to the rock-promoting agendas that a Creem would implicitly impose on Bangs, or that a Rolling Stone would explicitly impose on William/Crowe. Bangs was free to criticize most 70s rock bands harshly…he was not free, if he wanted to keep his writing gig, to say, “forget rock…let’s talk about classical, or let’s talk about poetry, philosophy, or theology,” the way I really am.
7) And yet…I’m not so unlike the William character. I alluded to this a bit last time. It’s easier to see this with the younger me: I was an award-winning college-radio DJ, and I did get at least two articles and band-interviews into starting a garage-rock oriented fanzine with this other fellow before we folded the project. “Cavebeat” would have been its name. The primary reason I backed out was my realization that becoming a fanzine editor was to commit yourself to the entire scene in a way that I, particularly as a Christian, simply couldn’t. I was getting just old enough to really notice the sexual sickness, a reductive and porny Cramps-like attitude towards erotic matters, that many in the garage scene were connecting to their musical primitivism, and to understand why this was not an incidental thing. I was beginning to see how starting a fanzine or a rock band, while on one hand a beautifully young and innocent thing to do, could entangle one in a hidden set of questionable commitments and tolerances. So as Bangs (and Penny) say of William, part of my lack of true “cool” was my moral spine, which made me balk. But, and this is key and the key to it may have been Jesus, I balked quite a bit more than he does in ALMOST FAMOUS.
8) But let’s consider where I am now, twenty-five years later, no longer capable of becoming as hip as I was then, with lots of philosophic Great Books reading under my belt, and some everyday hard-knocks of life, too. Why am I writing the Songbook posts? There’s the basic writer’s itch, of course, and my official explanation of the Songbook is available here, with more explanation here, but I can say that a quite basic motive has been to intertwine my intellectual work with something less abstract, something genuinely beautiful. I have written a number of Songbook posts on mediocre or even bad songs, due their nonetheless mattering culturally, or serving as some sort of poetic signpost about our culture, but my favorite posts are the ones where I think I have entered into an already beautiful song, like “Waterloo Sunset,” and then added my critical appreciations and socio-cultural meditations.
9) And it would be nice if I could also get some fame out of the deal. If Rolling Stone or Pitchfork were to start talking up the Songbook as important, as a questionable but interesting new perspective on rock, hey, I would be just fine with that. Were I to learn that those with claim to be today’s “Bob Dylans” were reading the Songbook, I would be even more thrilled, and were they to invite me to one of their shows or parties, I would go all right.
10) Indeed, while I enjoy writing it and developing my thoughts, I accept the argument that the Songbook will turn out to be a partial failure if it never gets any of the sort of attention I’m talking about here. So to a degree I actually need the rock-types to heed my writing, even if my writing cannot but suggest that those types are far too committed to rock. That’s probably a paradox that poses too prickly and “not-cool” a barrier for most, but there it is.
11) So Crowe was right to suggest that all rock-writers are a bit like groupies, although I can say I’m less so than most. But perhaps that means my lil’ Songbook is never going to get checked out by those who would benefit from it most. In a sense, I need some groupie-like ally, my “Penny Lane,” to get me past the door.