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The late rock critic Lester Bangs was, like many of his colleagues, a frustrated musician. He even recorded a handful of records: the single “Let It Blurt” and hard-to-find LPs with his New York group Birdland and the Texas-based Delinquents. But his finest hour may have come when he played typewriter at Cobo Hall in Detroit with the J. Geils Band.
I’m serious—he played typewriter. The details are contained in a hilarious piece, “My Night of Ecstasy With the J. Geils Band,” part of the recent posthumous collection of Bangs’s writing, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. At the behest of the Geils Band, Bangs appeared onstage with the group, pounding out his clickety “licks” on a miked Smith-Corona (sample riff: “VDKHEOQSNCHSHNELXIEN(&H-SXN(E@JN?”) before destroying the machine in a frenzy of Pete Townshend-like theater. He even took a curtain call.
This strange routine is much like Bangs’s writing—it’s funny, dumb, inspired, fantastic, and self-aggrandizing all at once. As a critic commenting on his chosen field, popular music, Bangs was a creature of polar opposites—genius and buffoon, observer and participant, fabulist and mundane reporter, sober analyst and drunken fantasist. He stood apart from his colleagues by virtue of his willingness to take a creative dare. That daring, which may be seen in his stage shot with the Geils Band, is also vastly apparent in the 370-plus pages of Psychotic Reactions, collected by fellow critic Greil Marcus.
Most rock criticism doesn’t travel very well; Frank Zappa’s remark that it is written “about people who can’t play for people who can’t read by people who can’t write” is unfortunately quite true the majority of the time. There have been only a handful of collections of other rock writers’ published work in the past, and the ones that come readily to mind—Jon Landau’s It’s Too Late to Stop Now and Dave Marsh’s Fortunate Son—contain much that is mawkish, juvenile, and simply dated.
Bangs’s work is another matter. Although he began his career like many of his peers, explicating the vinyl texts of the day for post-Altamont knuckleheads in the pages of Rolling Stone (his first review—a devastating, later recanted pan of the MC5’s Kick Out the Jams—appeared there on April 5, 1969), he took the form to bizarre new heights in his later work for Detroit’s Creem and England’s New Musical Express, as well as dozens of lesser and more obscure journals. He simultaneously became a figure of legendary proportions and equally legendary excess on the rock scene; in misguided emulation of the beat writers he so admired, his work was fueled by giant infusions of alcohol and street drugs. He was on his way to cleaning himself up when he died suddenly, the victim of a flu virus medicated by Darvon, on April 30, 1982, at the age of 33.
“Perhaps what this book demands from a reader is a willingness to accept that the best writer in America could write almost nothing but record reviews,” Greil Marcus says in his introduction to Psychotic Reactions. While the “almost nothing” in that sentence betrays a problem with the work of editor Marcus (of which more later), the general claim is not a spurious one. Bangs took the format of the rock ‘n’ roll album review, which at its worst fuels the lowest order of hip consumerism, and imbued it with much of the potency of the best fiction. His rambling, tangent-filled pieces brewed fantasy, philosophy, autobiographical sidebars, and rare insight into a frequently undisciplined yet vigorously energetic style that was leagues beyond the sterile, bland, and often misguided work of his rock-crit contemporaries.
The title piece in Marcus’s collection is among Bangs’s best-remembered works (I still have a tattered copy of the June 1971 issue of Creem in which it appeared), and it’s a fine example of Bangs’s stylistic and aesthetic approaches. The subject of this particularly deranged piece is Count Five, a 60s garage-punk band whose “Psychotic Reaction” is the definitive Yardbirds rave-up rip-off. (Bangs and Marsh coinvented the term “punk rock” to describe such primordial bashers, more than half a decade before it became a rallying banner for late-70s rock primitives.) Bangs tells the story as an aged grandpaw, relating rock’s prehistory to his rambunctious grandkids. His “history” of these suburban musical cavemen eventually mutates into an elaborate fiction, in which Bangs creates a nonexistent discography (including such fancifully titled “albums” as Carburetor Dung, Cartesian Jetstream, and Snowflakes Falling on the International Dateline) for the band, which in fact recorded one LP for the Double Shot label in 1967. Bangs’s elaborately faked saga was so richly detailed that some credulous readers refused to believe that the fictitious albums didn’t exist.
In pieces like this, Bangs created a valuable aesthetic that eventually was accepted by other rock writers—that musical crudity and violence, the primacy of noise, was to be valued more highly than the flatulent excesses of “more serious” rock bands. He praised the electric qualities of grungy music effectively in any number of pieces, from his magnum opera on the Stooges (“Of Pop and Pies and Fun”) and the Troggs (“James Taylor Marked for Death”) to his salute to Lou Reed’s two-record monolith of shredding feedback Metal Machine Music, which he proclaimed “The Greatest Album Ever Made.” Bangs had little patience with pretense or self-importance in rock; the music he admired and lived for hit with the force of a blow to the solar plexus. Small wonder that he was an early advocate of the English and American punk of the late 70s.
Bangs’s critical points were dressed in manic prose that attempted to duplicate the fervor of the music itself. At times his style took off on unexpected tangents (such as a stunning description of an innocently erotic caress in a ninth-grade class inserted in the middle of the Troggs piece) or pages-long parenthetical ruminations. He was frequently at his finest in sorties of rapturous imaginings. In a piece on Jethro Tull, he envisions himself flying to Saigon to interview President Nguyen Van Thieu on the relationship between Tull and Vietnamese music; in some unpublished notes for a review of Peter Guralnick’s book Lost Highway, he sees himself hallucinating after ingesting an unusual host—a piece of Elvis Presley’s dead, drug-soaked corpse. For Bangs, such fictions were another doorway into the meaning and the essence of the music.
Beyond these righteously lurid rambles, Bangs’s work often took on an almost confessional first-person tone. He was an unsparing critic, but he didn’t spare himself. Many of his pieces are informed by alternating currents of heavy braggadocio and deep remorse. This ultrapersonal approach is best seen in Bangs’s many pieces about his idol and nemesis Lou Reed, which are collected in Psychotic Reactions under the wisely chosen chapter title “Slaying the Father.” In Reed, former leader of the Velvet Underground and great/hideous proto-punk standard-bearer of 70s rock, Bangs saw everything in himself that was wondrous and appalling; his grapplings with Reed’s legend and with the artist himself (particularly in the vituperative and pathetic interview piece “Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves, or, How I Slugged It Out With Lou Reed and Stayed Awake”) are psychodramas in which Bangs veers from awe to hatred to self-loathing. No other rock writer ever revealed so much about himself while writing about someone else.
As the preceding might suggest, Bangs’s writing contained much that could be classified as drunken or drugged-out bathos. But he was also a battered humanist who, like many others of his generation, viewed rock music as a powerful soul force. His review of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, first published in Marcus’s “desert island albums” book, Stranded, takes a firm position for Morrison as a poet of the damned and closes by juxtaposing lyrics from the title track and a verse by Garcia Lorca. He writes seriously of the social and spiritual failure of punk rock, castigating the racists in the CBGB’s crowd (“The White Noise Supremacists”) and castigating the Clash for allowing their roadie to humiliate some idolatrous fans (in a New Musical Express piece from 1977).
To the end, Bangs wanted to believe in the notion of rock ‘n’ roll community—in spite of the individuality his writing so obviously espoused. He had a clear ambivalence about this notion, as two moving, elegiac pieces he wrote reveal. In “Thinking the Unthinkable About John Lennon,” written for the Los Angeles Times after Lennon’s murder in December 1980, he castigates Lennon’s mourners for rallying under a communal shroud that Lennon himself would have reviled. Yet in “Where Were You When Elvis Died?” penned following Presley’s death in 1977, he recognizes the mythic force of Elvis’s personality that drew a universe of listeners together. “I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis,” he writes. “So I won’t bother saying goodbye to his corpse. I will say goodbye to you.”
As a collation of Bangs’s reveries, obsessions, and soliloquies, Psychotic Reactions makes a pretty fair case for him as the most gifted, sensitive, and experimental critic of his era. Yet the book is not without a major fault. Editor Marcus, whose own writing has become as calculated and scholastic as Bangs’s was instinctive and unfettered, doesn’t appear to be satisfied with his own position that a great writer could write about just rock ‘n’ roll. Thus we are subjected to a terrible unpublished short story, some idle thoughts about sex, and various unsorted fragments better left in the steamer trunk whence they came. By finally subscribing to an academic’s idea of what “good writing” is—fiction and Higher Thought versus mere criticism—Marcus does the ultimate disservice to both his own conception and Bangs’s writing.
In spite of this significant editorial miscalculation, Lester Bangs emerges from Psychotic Reactions in all his vibrant, frequently sodden glory. It’s a valuable retrospective of high-impact criticism, and one that his misinterpreting stylistic clones (viz. the Boston punkzine Forced Exposure) might do well to curl up with. Beyond the pyrotechnic style and prickling attitude that Bangs put forward, there was much heart in his perceptive work—and that’s something that’s sadly lacking in this epoch of freeze-dried, almost corporate rock crit. Look to Bangs for a refresher course in emotive explication.
Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung—The Work of a Legendary Critic: Rock ‘n’ Roll As Literature and Literature As Rock ‘n’ Roll by Lester Bangs, edited by Greil Marcus, Alfred A. Knopf, $19.95.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.