I met up with Warhammer Online's Paul Barnett last week in London for an interview. We talked about... well, a lot of stuff. We spent three hours in a pub, drinking all the while. It's going to be an interesting transcript. However, one of the things we touched upon was Gary Penn and his importance. And it's got Paul writing...
"Computer games and computer game hardware had as much importance in my youth and formative years as any amount of music. The game labels, games and the people who made and reviewed them took on the same mystique, fanatic devotion; belief and philosophical answers than anything I managed to dredge out of the radio and records that where available at the time".
He then explores what much-cited music critic Lester Bangs actually was - rather than his myth - how this applies to games, and how his very own Lester Bangs was Zzap!'s Gary Penn, now of Denki. His point being, Lester Bangs isn't some platonic perfect state - it's a relationship between reader and writer born at a specific space.
I think he's got a point.
If you've been following the whole WHERE IS GAMES' LESTER BANGS/PAULINE KAEL/WHOEVER debate, it's hung up on some kind of Gold Standard. The idea of a writer who speaks to the masses and communicates what's interesting and worthwhile about the medium. Not sure that's going to happen, at least in the short term. We may eventually get a Kael, but she was writing about movies, a form that had been existent for a long time previous and was as mainstream as sunlight. Lester Bangs is more interesting for me, because he was writing about a new form - modern pop music - which had been existent for relatively little time and not considered something serious by the adult population at large.
And Bangs didn't speak to the mainstream at all. Bangs spoke to the obsessive, the weirdo, the crazed-in-love creature who licked vinyl and put their head inside speakers so they could feel closer to Iggy. He influenced critics and musicians, but he certainly never influenced sales - the acts he's most totemically connected to sold jack shit, even though most of them have become massively important over the years.
What mattered about Bangs, as Barnett argues, is that he spoke to people who gave a toss. And when you're full of these strange feelings about something the world isn't really talking about, happening across someone who is writing about what you believe, articulating things you're having trouble with and able to offer a little insight onto your fever-pitched brains... well, that connection is what makes someone a Lester Bangs.
Paul's was Gary Penn. Mine? Amiga Power's Stuart Campbell. Yours? Oh, I dunno. That's your call. But looking around the world today, I can see people who I suspect were I still in need of a Lester Bangs, would fill the role.
Where's gaming's Lester Bangs? It's wherever you place them. And if the world doesn't agree, it doesn't matter. Lester Bangs is for you.