by Joe Bonomo
Charles Lamb and Lester Bangs have little in common. Lamb was born in 1775 and raised in London, the son of a clerk; Bangs was born in 1948 in Escondido, California, the son of a truck driver, and lived also in Detroit and Manhattan. Lamb clerked for a living at the British East India Company, and wrote in his spare time for London Magazine; Bangs wrote mostly album reviews for a living for Creem, Rolling Stone and other magazines, and wrote all day and all night. Lamb was generous-hearted, compassionate, wry; Bangs could be a bad drunk, was sometimes mean, and was often aggressive. Lamb wrote about poetry and the theater; Bangs wrote about rock and roll. Lamb skirted direct confession while writing under a persona (“Elia”); Bangs was nakedly autobiographical. Lamb died at age 59; Bangs at 33. E.V. Lucas called Lamb “the most lovable ﬁgure in English literature”; Lou Reed (among others) said to Bangs, “You really are an asshole.” Lamb’s colleague and rival William Hazlitt, that old misanthrope, probably had more in common temperamentally with Bangs than did Lamb.
There are some similarities: both Lamb and Bangs were unmarried, and had no children; both suffered from mental duress; both practiced what they preached (Lamb wrote sonnets and a play; Bangs formed a band and released a single); both were passionate about writing; both deeply distrusted smugness.
Each wrote an essay titled “New Year’s Eve.” Here’s the opening of Lamb’s, which appeared in London Magazine in January of 1821:
Every man hath two birth-days: two days, at least, in every year, which set him upon revolving the lapse of time, as it affects his mortal duration. The one is that which in an especial manner he termeth his. In the gradual desuetude of old observances, this custom of solemnizing our proper birth-day hath nearly passed away, or is left to children, who reﬂect nothing at all about the matter, nor understand any thing in it beyond cake and orange. But the birth of a New Year is of an interest too wide to be pretermitted by king or cobbler. No one ever regarded the First of January with indifference. It is that from which all date their time, and count upon what is left. It is the nativity of our common Adam.
Of all sound of all bells—(bells, the music nighest bordering upon heaven)—most solemn and touching is the peal which rings out the Old Year. I never hear it without a gathering-up of my mind to a concentration of all the images that have been diffused over the past twelvemonth ; all I have done or suffered, performed or neglected—in that regretted time. I begin to know its worth, as when a person dies. It takes a personal colour; nor was it a poetical ﬂight in a contemporary, when he exclaimed
I saw the skirts of the departing Year.
It is no more in what than sober sadness every one of us seems to be conscious of, in that awful leave-taking. I am sure I felt it, and all felt it with me, last night; though some of my companions affected rather to manifest an exhilaration at the birth of the coming year, than any very tender regrets for the decease of its predecessor.
Here’s the opening of Bangs’s, which appeared in Village Voice on December 26, 1979:
Lately every time you turn around somebody’s saying: “The eighties are coming!” Like at the stroke of midnite on New Year’s it’s all gonna be different! And when you tell ‘em, “Come on, you know everything’s just gonna keep on slowly sinking,” they get downright mad! Spoilsports! No sense of social duty! It’s true that I am antisocial! But so is my whole crowd. When our fave bar the Bells of Hell closed down a few months back we all stayed in our apartments instead of seeking out a new watering hole. (Perhaps suggesting that, like the buffalo, we are soon to disappear.) I told my shrink this and he said: “You’re all pathetic.”
I suppose you think I’m being negative. All right, if I’m negative you go tell Mother there’s something wrong with the womb! Ha, gotcha! Besides which, as the eighties loom I suspect that my antisocial minority will soon be a majority, and we’ll have an antisociety! Imagine that! Will Rogers the ultimate outlaw! And what better time to inaugurate this ghost town than New Year’s Eve! Ring out the old, ring in the old! And older and older. I ask you, have you ever had a New Year’s Eve you enjoyed? Of course not! Why? Because you’ve persisted in this insane delusion that somehow things are supposed to keep getting better, or that the cyclical nature of the ying-yang means that the earth is supposed to replenish itself or some such horseshit! Horseshit doesn’t even replenish itself. Do these sidewalks? This peeling paint, crumbling plaster, backed-up plumbing? A replenishable landlord? Fuck no!
There are two directions in which extants can go:
- stasis or (b) decay. And New Year’s Eve is the biggest bummer yet, because we all go out with these expectations and get totally soused just so we can stand to be around each other because we’ve spent the late fall and winter’s ﬁrst blush sinking deeper into TV Guide, and now we’re expected to positively revel in proximity to these globs of hideous humanity. So OF COURSE horrible scenes ensue.
An essay has elastic boundaries. What it cannot or will not do is up to the essayist. An essay starts as a blank blueprint for, say, a house; the essayist has no idea how many ﬂoors or rooms there will be, or if there will be an attic, or a basement, or on how many acres the house will sit. That is: an essay goes where it goes, forward, and back, and to the side, motored by the essayist’s own thought engine. Elastic, a blueprint, a motor: If I’ve mixed my metaphors here it’s because I’m excited, and because an essay is hard to deﬁne—I’m groping for the right language now to deﬁne the unknowable, as an essayist must. Lamb’s and Bangs’s essays about the last night of the year share the propulsion of a voice illuminating shadowy corners of personal experience. Here I sit, Lamb sighs, Bangs grumbles: let’s go.
It’s interesting to note what two essayists can do with similar subjects. Joan Didion and Phyllis Barber both write about the Hoover Dam, Didion in “At The Dam” from The White Album (1979), Barber in “Oh Say Can You See,” the opening chapter of her memoir How I Got Cultured (1992). Didion moves through her essay characteristically: her argument is thoughtful but spare; thesis- driven but questioning. “At The Dam” is brief, modest even, and asks more questions than it answers, though at the end it comes close to solving the dilemma, Why do I keep picturing the Dam? (Hint: it will outlast us all.) Barber is essaying the same question, though she isn’t aware that she is. Her piece is strikingly different from Didion’s, obsessive where Didion’s is cool, hyper-emotional where Didion’s is intellectual, impulsive and segmented where Didion’s is smooth and linear. The dissembling at the heart of Barber’s essay—I don’t think about the Dam much—is greeted skeptically by the essay itself: the image of a menacing cloud keeps ﬂoating to the surface, revealed to be a mushroom cloud from a nuclear bomb test that Barber witnessed as a child, out in the desert with her family, near the Dam. Her attempts to forget that unsettling night and its sinister connections to the Dam are subverted by an essay that insists, You can’t forget. As opposed to Didion’s willful and deliberate attempt to understand the Dam’s signiﬁcance, Barber does all she can to look away, to block a memory. But that dam can’t hold.
When Lamb, via Elia, turns his attention to New Year’s Eve and sets “upon revolving the lapse of time,” he ﬁnds himself gravitating to thoughts of mortality, which is, along with self-examination, his essay’s real subject. Lamb gets there by traveling backwards: an admission of current regrets and self-loathing dissolves into a nostalgic remembrance of his adolescence, when thoughts of death were rare, and semi-understood. “Not childhood alone, but the young man thirty, never feels practically that he is mortal,” Lamb acknowledges. “He knows it indeed, and, if need were, he could preach a homily on the fragility of life; but he brings it not home to himself, anymore than in a hot June we can appropriate to our imagination the freezing days of December.” Soon enough after turning thirty, Lamb, who was forty-seven when he wrote the essay, began to feel the unhappy stirrings of his own mortality, and his antipathy toward New Year’s stems from that holiday’s tendency to bring gloomy thoughts to the surface of his thinking. He can only escape into memories of the child Elia for so long, at one point questioning the value, and the maturity, of pining for the past: “That I am fond of indulging, beyond a hope for sympathy, in such retrospection, may be the symptom of some sickly idiosyncrasy.” (Take note, all essayists.) Soon enough the pealing bells of New Year’s bring him back to the ever-diminishing present.
Lamb’s joie de vivre and capacity for cheery sentiment rescue the essay from morbidity. “I am love with this green earth” he gushes. “The face of town and country; the unspeakable rural solitudes, and the sweet security of streets. I would set up my tabernacle here.” He adds, “I am content to stand still at the age to which I am arrived.” Blind guesses at the afterlife chill him: he wonders, can you hug a ghost? Are there books there? Are my books there? Can I be ironic in front of angels? What about ﬁelds, dinners, drink, friends? Are they in Heaven or are they lost forever at death? Lamb grimly accepts that there are no answers to such questions, but we ask them anyway. This line of thinking leads to the most startling and affecting sentence in the essay, one of Lamb’s great confessions: “A new state of being staggers me.”
Early in “New Year’s Eve” Lamb gives vent to some pretty intense self-criticism, admitting to deep disgust with Elia:
If I know aught of myself, no one whose mind is introspective—and mine is painfully so—can have a less respect for his present identity, than I have for the man Elia. I know him to be light, and vain, and humorsome; a notorious
* * *; addicted to * * * *; averse from counsel, neither taking it nor offering it ; — * * * besides; a stammering buffoon ; what you will; lay it on, and spare not; I subscribe to it all, and much more, than thou canst be willing to lay at his door
— — — —….
Ironically, and funnily, the invective’s made more potent by what’s removed—the ellipses, which Lamb coyly admits in his notes signiﬁed nothing. The reader ﬁlls in the blanks, by imagining the worst, probably. I always do, anyway.
Coyness and modesty disguised as vividness. Compare to Bangs, who enumerates his faults in epic, lurid detail. I don’t know that there’s a greater illustration of Michael de Montaigne’s “obedient servant of naive frankness” than Bangs. His “New Year’s Eve” is rollicking where Lamb’s is measured, a confessional piece of raw, funny autobiography, equal parts arrogant, sheepish, profane, and semi-repentant. Bangs takes his reader along on a bumpy chronological journey through a decade’s worth of New Years’ escapades (the majority of which are actual; one or two are ﬁctionalized), blurting out his ill-mannered, adolescent behavior, especially where women, sex, hard drugs, and loud, aggressive rock & roll are involved, which is on nearly every page. Bangs drags us along to bars and to parties in the suburbs and cities, and we’re captive to his bull-dozing narratives and boorish behavior, nodding, wincing, laughing, rolling our eyes.
What rescues the essay’s considerable lewdness, even meanness, from fatal self-indulgence is Bang’s acknowledgements of his own weaknesses. Two sorry related incidents capture his guilt beneath his incivility: on New Year’s Eve 1973, drunk at a party with his ex-girlfriend, Bangs dances dirty with the hostess. This upsets his ex, and “[l]ater in the car in savage ugly liquored sexual frustration I dug one of my nails into her wrist until it bled. She told me I was a sissy. I was.” A few years later, Bangs commenced a period where he stayed drunk “and practically [took] up residence at CBGB’s,” where he “played the role of Bukowskian bohemian/artiste in ze big sitcom.” On New Years Eve 1979 Bangs hit it off with a British media writer at a party. She was spectacularly drunk, and at her apartment later that night after she passes out on the couch, Bangs robs her. “I dug in her purse for the vial, actually found myself looking for a moment at her wallet, either couldn’t go that far or realized how silly this whole charade was, grabbed the ﬁfth of Pinch on the way out the door, stomping down just a little meaner in my badass Frye boots. Still as tough and mature obviously as the ’73 night of the famous ﬁngernail-dig.”
Bangs’s decision to write honestly about his lousy behavior doesn’t necessarily redeem that behavior. But I ﬁnd his essay moving. Like Lamb, Bangs takes the occasion of New Year’s Eve to take stock of himself, his caustic, self-mocking tone a ﬂipside to Lamb’s more august stroll through life’s messiness, and no less human. Near the end of his piece, Bangs writes that New Year’s Eve “just seems to bring out the worst of ourselves, probably deriving from repression of the clear knowledge that we’re another year older and deeper in debt but ain’t accomplished hackshit and in fact are likely backpedaling; hatred of the rest of the human race because they’ve got our number in this department.” Feeling grim, he closes the essay: “The only alternatives re this ‘human dignity’ stuff are that old saw about crossing the International Dateline, total isolation (always a good move anyway), or perhaps most sensibly JUST GIVING INTO THE THING AND ACTING LIKE TOTAL WRETCHED DISGUSTING BEASTS.”
Lamb hears pealing bells from church towers, Bangs hears the Bells of Hell; Lamb quotes poets Samuel Coleridge and Charles Cotton, Bangs the Ramones and the Dictators; Lamb’s tone is nostalgic, his language searching, Bangs’s is coarse, plundering; Lamb ultimately ends his essay in a robust, generous mood; Bangs is in a churlish, nihilistic funk. Both writers are candidly personal, but differently so. Lamb’s editors note that his essay likely “shocked the moral sense” of his contemporary and friend, poet Robert Southey, who complained about the “absence of a sounder religious feeling” in Essays of Elia. Lamb’s self-examination pales in intensity to Bangs’s, but it can be argued that it’s more rigorous and self-effacing, where Bangs’s struts with bluster. And what of persona? Lamb was deliberately writing behind “Elia”; might Bangs, in the guise of vulnerable confessing, be celebrating his macho behavior. Their essays are wildly contrasting in tone, circumstance, and degree of revelation, but share the essayistic quality of allowing the mind its inimitable shape on the page, each attempt originating in reﬂection on a man-made date which purpose is to look both backwards and forwards. The vistas in each direction are as wide as the men are unique.
Read Charles Lamb’s “New Year’s Eve” in Essays of Elia (University of Iowa Press, 2003). Read Lester Bangs’s “New Year’s Eve” in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, edited by Greil Marcus (Vintage, 1988).
Joe Bonomo is the author of numerous books, including Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band, Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found, and, most recently, This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began. He also edited Conversations With Greil Marcus. He is an Associate Professor of English at Northern Illinois University and the Music Columnist at The Normal School, andappearsonlineat No Such Thing As Was (www.nosuchthingaswas. com) and @BonomoJoe.