In Reverence of Lester Bangs
I’m focusing on Lester Bangs this week – one of our most trenchant, edgiest, provocative, often beguiling, cantankerous, unreasonable, off-kilter, and sometimes dead-wrong critics. Yet, rock writing and criticism died with Lester Bangs when he died in 1982. Look around you these days. When you go into a newsstand or bookstore and see the glossy cover of Rolling Stone staring out at you, it’s hard to distinguish it from the Maxim or Cosmopolitan or Vanity Fair sitting next to it on the shelves. Its cover announces some mediocre set of articles about politics, movies, television, and other cultural happenings.
I use Rolling Stone as an example simply because it was, in its early years, one of the best music magazines. It only had two rivals, Creem and Circus, though there existed plenty of local alternative papers in various communities – The Great Speckled Bird in Atlanta, for example. The people working on that paper would have thought of it as an underground paper, the word “alternative” not having come into vogue.
Once upon a time, Ben-Fong Torres, Greil Marcus, and Lester Bangs (who started his own anti-Rolling Stone columns at Creem) brought the tales of drug and sex-soaked excess into our mailboxes. More than that, these writers helped provide aesthetic criteria – a label that none of them would have embraced at the time – for a newly emerging music genre.
Music – The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Darlene Love, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Eric Clapton, The Stones, Patti Smith, Van Morrison, or Neil Young – provided some kind of universal language that brought us together when we were protesting the Vietnam War or some political issue relating to the environment. Music brought people together in the 1960s and ’70s in a way that it doesn’t seem to do, at least not in the same way, today. Apart from the banal spectacle of American Idol, of course, and even that has lost its appeal; but it’s not the music that brings people together on that show; it’s the bloodthirsty sport of the coliseum that brings them together. It’s their chance to provide the Neronic thumbs-down gesture to the latest contestant who has entered the coliseum.
When the crowd at Woodstock chanted “No rain” to drive away the rain that afternoon, they really believed in their connection to each other and the Earth, and their communal power to make a change. The music did that.
Lots of us who were drawn together by music were also drawn together by books. Hesse’s Siddhartha, Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan and Slaugtherhouse-Five, Kerouac’s On the Road, Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Mao’s little red book, and many others had us discussing the roots of our cultural dilemma. Then, when intelligent and forceful writers started offering up opinions about the music to which we were listening, a whole new world of reading opened up to us.
Among all of these early writers, Lester Bangs possessed the most distinctive voice and the most forceful pen. He was the Susan Sontag of rock music criticism. He didn’t simply offer an opinion on rock musicians and their latest album; he made pronouncements on rock culture.
In Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung:
“THE LESSON OF ‘WILD THING’ [The Troggs’ most famous song] WAS LOST ON ALL YOU STUPID [PEOPLE]. Sometime between the rise of Cream and the fall of the Stooges, and rock ‘n’ roll may turn into a chamber art yet or at the very least a system of Environments.”
On The Troggs themselves, he’s even more commanding.
“All right, punk, this is it. We’re gonna settle this right here. You can talk about yer MC5 and yer Stooges and even yer Grand Funk and Led Zep, yep, alla them carved out a hunka turf in this town, but I tell you there was once a gang that was so bad that they woulda cut them dudes down to snotnose crybabies and in less than three minutes too.”
The titles of Bangs’s articles are lessons in themselves. He takes a cue from James Agee and Walker Evans in his comments on the Velvet Underground in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Dead Dwarves; Or, How I Slugged It Out With Lou Reed and Stayed Awake.”
Here are some other gems: “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: A Tale of These Times” – also the title of a collection of his essays and reviews.
“Jim Morrison: Bozo Dionysus a Decade Later”; “Death May Be Your Santa Claus: An Exclusive, Up-to-Date Interview with Jimi Hendrix”; “Stevie Nicks: Lilith or Bimbo?”
Bangs emblazons our consciousness with the meanings that various musicians and songs sear in our memories. Bangs is at the top of his game in his essay on Van Morrison’s first album, Astral Weeks.
Morrison’s album stunned a whole culture with its spirituality, its uncompromising beauty, its cosmic blend of jazz, blues, and rock. Bangs’ comments on one of Morrison’s performances of “Cypress Avenue” from the album were:
“With consummate dynamics that allow him to snap from indescribably eccentric throwaway phrasing to sheer passion in the very next breath he brings the music surging up through crescendo after crescendo …It is truly one of the most perverse things I have ever seen a performer do in my life. And, of course, it’s sensational: our guts are knotted up, we’re crazed and clawing for more, but we damn well know we’ve seen and felt something.”
According to Bangs, as Morrison performs:
“he paces back and forth in a line on the stage, his eyes tightly shut, his little fireplug body kicking its way upstream against what must be a purgatorial nervousness.”
Anyone who’s seen Morrison kicking out the jams in “Caravan” in The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s film about The Band, can relate to this image of Morrison on stage. (He’s a bit more sedate these days; he stands immobile in front of his band done up in dark shades and porkpie hat.)
Morrison, in Bangs’s view, would never again equal the achievement of Astral Weeks. Bangs wrote this piece in 1979, pre-dating Morrison’s many incarnations over the past 20 years. Morrison has grazed through pop, jazz, and country, and much of it has been banal and uninspiring. He’s certainly never achieved the depth of his early work. From Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung:
“No wonder that Van Morrison never came this close to looking life square in the face again, no wonder he turned to Tupelo Honey and even Hard Nose the Highway with its entire side of songs about falling leaves.”
Bangs deeply admired Patti Smith’s Horses:
“Patti’s music in its ultimate moments touches deep wellsprings of emotion that extremely few artists in rock or anywhere else are capable of reaching. With her wealth of promise and the most incandescent flights and stillnesses of this album she joins the ranks of people like Miles Davis, Charlie Mingus, or the Dylan of ‘Sad-Eyed Lady’ and Royal Albert Hall. It’s that deeply felt, and that moving: a new Romanticism built upon the universal language of rock ‘n’ roll, an affirmation of life so total that, even in the graphic recognition of death, it sweeps your breath away.”
Much the same could be said of Lester Bangs’s rock writings.
Yes, we miss Lester Bangs. There’s no one writing in rock criticism these days who is his equal. Fortunately, we can still read his work in two collections: Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader, edited by John Morthland (Anchor Books, 2003) and Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, edited by Greil Marcus (Vintage, 1988).