Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader.
Edited by John Morthland
1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019 USA
Music Critic Lester Bangs, who died of a Darvon overdose in 1982 had (and continues to have) a reputation for being obnoxious, outrageous, raunchy, acerbic and hilarious. This book does nothing to dispel that notion. In fact, it goes a long way toward proving it. Much of his writing takes on a visceral quality that too often gets dismissed as the inevitable result of combining excessive amounts of cough syrup and methamphetamine (or whatever cheeky-sounding, rock-star drug combo you can conjure ... horse tranquilizers and vicodin, peyote and diesel fumes, etc.). It is, actually, much more than that. Bangs has the uncanny ability to transmit through his words an urgency and excitement that, in many cases, is more interesting than the subject matter on which he writes. If he is reviewing an album, good or bad, that album must be heard ... and soon! If he expresses outrage at the Rolling Stones or joy at the Shaggs, the reader cannot help but feel those emotions right along side him.
However, as one soon discovers, while Bangs lives up to his reputation (and then some), he is no one-trick pony. This collection unearths a point of view that is more complex than the mythic archetype of the uncompromising journalist-gadfly, defiantly blowing the whistle on the vapid, bloated aristocracy of the pop-culture elite. Bangs demonstrates the unique ability to advocate a staunchly idealistic perspective with a voice that, at its best, can be described as sardonic, and at its worst, is downright caustic and confrontational. His writing style can run the gamut from Hunter S. Thompson-inspired prose to lucid New York Times editorial to George Carlin-like observational comedy to seventh-grade diary all in the span of 500 words. This neurotic style also pertains to the vehemence and facility with which he argues his pop-culture hypotheses. At times he argues with the rigor and tenacity of Matlock and Perry Mason combined, while other times he meanders around his suppositions as if trying to prove to himself that he believes what he is writing. Nowhere in this book is the latter more apparent than in the sequence of four reviews (originally published in Creem Magazine and The Village Voice) on the mid-'70s activities of the Rolling Stones.
The sequence starts with a piece originally published in the January issue of Creem, 1973. Early on, Bangs sets the tone by declaring his love for the Rolling Stones. He says:
[the Rolling Stones are] The greatest rock and roll band in the world ... and my heros since I got my first look at Mick's leer way back in '64: the decadent badass princes we'll never put down or lose.
It doesn't take long, however, for the tone of this glowing appraisal to drift into less affectionate territory. He confides in the reader that once, before a concert in 1965, he had to be dragged kicking and screaming by his girlfriend out of a Coney Island hotdog joint because he was so distraught at what he perceived as the Stones' abandonment of the "true faith" of pure R&B for the "crass commercialism of rock." He was, in fact, so overwrought that he was crying. As Lester put it (as only Lester could), he was "dropping tears as big as cantaloupes." The negative title quickly reverses itself, though, when after being physically forced into the auditorium the Stones played what he described (in a much more colorful manor) as a tour de force. The article continues on to ping-pong between youthful hero-worship of the Rolling Stones and the cold realization that they are no longer able to move him in the way they once did. It doesn't quite serve as an obituary for his starry-eyed affinity for the band, however. He is unable, by the conclusion, to convince himself that he has totally given up hope. It reads more like a diagnosis of a patient, and the prognosis is negative.
As this sequence continues to unravel, the reader looks on as Bangs negotiates his way through a mine-field of emotional states. From anger and disappointment caused by the band's role in the infamous Altamont concert (in which he likens Mick Jagger's attempts to defuse the situation to "Betty Boop trying to quell a race riot"), to acceptance of his final conclusion that the Stones are in bondage to "some stupid idea of themselves" and are therefore irrelevant. His cold cynicism patiently dissects and suppresses every desperate attempt by his fandom to avoid his inevitable conclusion. In the end he is left with what he tries to pass off as a kind of zen-like serenity. As he puts it:
... the heat's off ... which is certainly lucky for both them and us: I mean, it was a heavy weight to carry for all concerned. This is the first meaningless Stones album, [referring to Black and Blue] and thank god. No rationalizations--they can now go out there and compete with Aerosmith, or more precisely ... the "adult pop" market. Barry Manilow even.
In stark contrast to his agonizing ruminations on the Rolling Stones is Dandelions in Still Air: The Withering Away of the Beatles. Published in The Real Paper on April 23, 1975, the article opens with a challenge to the reader:
Name me one Sixties superstar who hasn't become a zombie. Dylan doesn't count, because he's been revivified, at least in terms of being a hot contender, by Blood on the Tracks. And Lou Reed is a professional zombie who can cackle in the grooves instead of up his sleeve. But Mick Jagger, Joe Cocker, Steve Stills ... they're all washed up, moribund, self-pitying, self-parodying has-beens. And the more I thought about it, the more it seems the four splintered Beatles may well have weathered the pall and decay of the Seventies the worst.
After this opening salvo, Bangs masterfully skewers the post-breakup activities of the Beatles. He lampoons each member one at a time, as he puts it "in order of descending credibility." He starts with Paul, in reference to Band on the Run:
In its vapid way it was a masterful album. Muzak's finest hour. Of course, he is about as committed to the notion of subject matter as Hanna-Barbera, and his cuteness can be incredibly annoying at times.
He'll do anything, reach for any cheap trick, jump on any bandwagon, to make himself look like a significant artist.
Harrison belongs in a daycare center for counterculture casualties ... His position seems to be I'm pathetic, but I believe in Krishna, which apparently absolves him from any position of leadership while enabling him to assume a totally preachy arrogance toward his audience ...
and last (but also least) is Ringo:
[Starr] is beneath contempt. He used to be lovable because he was inept and knew it and turned the whole thing into a good natured game. Now he is marketing that lameness in a slick Richard Perry-produced package.
Believe it or not the point of this article is not to destroy the ex-Beatles' self esteem (I don't think Lester has any delusions of grandeur in that regard). Bangs' hypothesis here is concerned with a bigger picture. He asserts that the Beatles filled the void left by the assassination of John F. Kennedy because they "were the perfect medicine ... to obliterate the grief with a tidal wave of fun for its own sake." He also posits that the leadership void left by JFK's death forced Americans (youths especially) to re-contemplate their concept of leadership. The Beatles were also appealing in that regard since they were a real rock group with no clear cut leader. They were a democratic entity making decisions with the good of the group as their primary concern. He goes on to state that:
... they were never John, Paul, George and Ringo half as much as they were the Beatles. And that stood for something that they could never achieve apart or even separately within the band.
This piece represents the best of Bangs' writing. It tells the truth (at least as he sees it), it's hilarious, and it is able to effectively uncover the good, by pointing out (oh so skillfully) the bad. Through seemingly endless castigation and merciless criticism (much of which intentionally borders on blasphemy) of his subjects and their short-comings, a new optimism is achieved. This isn't your mom and dad's optimism either. It's an optimism that grows from knowledge that you can wade, chest-deep through the post-apocalyptic radioactive swamp of rock and pop music and still (if you keep your wits about you) find diamonds and pearls.
Beyond the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, this collection includes articles on a wide-ranging variety of topics. For instance, the raw, awesome sexual power of Anne Murray (an article in which he refers to Kenny Loggins as a "hippie panda" and attributes the difference between Murray's voice and Barbara Streisand's to "schnozzonasality"). Or, a group of girls called the Shaggs who's first album, Philosophy of the World, is hailed by Bangs (with utmost sincerity I assure you) as a landmark of rock 'n roll history. An "anti-power trio" of pre-teen sisters that taught themselves to play. He describes the drums as, "sounding like a peg-leg stumbling through a field of bald Uniroyals." And the guitar work is, "like 14 pocket combs being run through a moose's dorsal, but very gently. Yes it rocks. Does it ever ... God bless the Shaggs." Other subjects include a short interview with Captain Beefheart where Bangs poses frank questions about creativity and artistry, and six theories about Lou Reed's album Metal Machine Music (#4 posits simply, "This is what it sounds like in Lou's circulatory system). These are just a few examples of the prolific writing contained within this book.
This collection of Lester Bangs' writing affords the reader an honest and (at times) up close and personal look at Bangs' strengths and weakness as a writer and as a human being. What is most striking is his ability to make the reader feel what he feels through his words. He is able to invoke chuckles of agreement, guffaws of disagreement, and laugh-out-loud moments of sublime comedy while uncovering new perspectives from which to hear your favorite music.