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The Sound and the Fury 

Lester Bangs and the relevance of rock criticism

Thursday, Sep 4 2003
Illustration by Tra Selhtrow

For anyone who grew up reading Creem and Crawdaddy in the 1970s, when rock & roll still seemed like it could change everything, Lester Bangs was an unofficial avatar, the rock critic’s rock critic, his ability to make connections (who else would open a piece on the roots of punk by referencing literary critic Leslie Fiedler?) surpassed only by his honesty, his willingness to change his mind in public, as well as his own odd strand of empathy, his tendency to examine every nuance of an issue until he often ended up identifying with the very people he was arguing against. What you got from Bangs, in other words, was integrity, a sense that this stuff mattered, that anything could be the subject of serious consideration if you were willing to engage with it deeply enough.

Bangs died in 1982 at 33, the victim of an accidental Darvon overdose. In the generation since, he has come to occupy his own corner of the pop-culture pantheon, been mentioned in songs by R.E.M. and the Ramones, and even portrayed, in a bit of fact-meets-fiction reinvention, by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film Almost Famous. The more iconified he’s become, the greater the distance between his image and his writing, between the myth of Bangs as gonzo genius and the reality of what he had to say. It was at least in part to set the record straight that Greil Marcus compiled Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, a 1987 collection of Bangs’ writing, and it’s for the same reason that John Morthland has now edited Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste, a companion volume that gathers more than 50 pieces on, among others, Jimi Hendrix, Sid Vicious, David Johansen, Captain Beefheart and Patti Smith. Reading them again, you can’t help but revel in Bangs’ vitality as a writer, the acuity of his thoughts on music and American life. “Given that one of his pet themes concerns romanticizing,” Morthland points out, “or reducing to their most colorful caricature, pop figures (especially those who die young) rather than looking harder at the totality of their lives and the work that brought them to prominence in the first place, it’s the very least a book such as this should do.”

Like Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste is an attempt to show Bangs at his most incisive, as skeptical and idealistic, committed and disillusioned, at once. If that sounds contradictory, it is, and unapologetically so — a stance that emerges most profoundly when he takes on his heroes, who include Miles Davis, the Rolling Stones and Lou Reed. Some of the pleasure here comes from hindsight; you have to laugh as Bangs asserts that, in a 1973 poll “asking who would be the next rock person to die, Keith [Richards] came in first. Lou Reed was second” (or when he comments, “The Rolling Stones lasting twenty, thirty years — what a stupid idea that would be”). More to the point is his understanding that in an art as commercial as rock music, the acts we love are destined to disappoint and move us at the same time. Here is Bangs on the Stones’ Sucking in the Seventies: “The Stones confess they sucked for most of the decade, but we sucked too, hey just one big happy family, except guess who sucked the bigger one?” Or Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music (64 minutes of electronic screeching): “Most of the people who buy Metal Machine Music are going to be pretty mad at Lou, but it’s an even bigger joke on RCA, and the ultimate fall guy is the artist himself.” What Bangs is getting at is complicity — between the artist and the system, and both of them and the audience. “[L]ook around you,” he demands. “Do those look like people? Hell, they ain’t even good enough to be animals. Androids is more like it, mutants at best. They have become the machines they worship, successfully post-human. Now go look in the mirror. Like what you see? Think you’re pretty cool, eh? Well, reflect on the fact that they all think the same thing when they look in their mirrors. And you look just as grotesque to them as they do to you.”

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In the hands of a different writer, such a statement might become a weapon, a judgment, a way to stand apart. Bangs, however, turns the whole thing back on his readers and, by extension, himself. Again and again, he implicates us — artists, critics, fans — in the music industry’s hypocrisy and hype. “Innocents in Babylon” charts his ambivalence over a 1976 junket to Jamaica, where he met Bob Marley and checked out the reggae scene, only to come away feeling guilty and betrayed. “[A] whole bunch of people,” he writes, “were flown, all expenses paid, to Jamaica, so that we could look at these people, and go back and write stories which would help sell albums to white middle class American kids who think it’s romantic to be black and dirt-poor and hungry and illiterate and . . . sit around all day smoking ganja and beating on bongo drums because you have no other options in life. I know, because I am one of those kids, caught in the contradiction — hell, man, my current favorite group is Burning Spear.” This is brutally honest writing, writing that refuses to stand on reputation, that calls both subject and author to account.

 

Bangs does not appear in Barney Hoskyns’ The Sound and the Fury: 40 Years of Classic Rock Journalism — which features writers like Robert Gordon, Mick Farren and Nick Hornby on everything from the Beach Boys to Madonna to Marvin Gaye — but it’s impossible to read the book without thinking of him as a kind of fulcrum, a ghost in the machine. After all, the older efforts here, like Al Aronowitz’s 1964 report on the Beatles, suggest the milieu Bangs came out of, while the more recent can’t help existing in the shadow of his work. On both sides, however, we mostly get a sense of what is missing, of how this material does not hold up. It’s not that the writing is bad, exactly — pieces like Jon Savage’s “Sounds Dirty: The Truth About Nirvana” or Simon Frith’s obituary for John Lennon are thoughtful and intelligent — just that it lacks a certain blood and fire.

To be fair, this seems inevitable in the early stuff, which occupies a journalistic twilight zone, half straight reportage/half rock & roll attitude, the first awakenings of an emerging form. Yet, even in the newer writings, there’s a distance, a strange self-satisfaction, as if the writers were unable (or unwilling) to look deeply enough into their material or themselves. Among the few exceptions is Lenny Kaye’s lengthy take on Grand Funk Railroad, whose power, he claims, “lies with their audience, who’ll stay with them as long as the group remains true, as long as the group reflects a part of where they want to be, and then will split at the first sting of betrayal.” But Kaye has always operated from a Bangsian aesthetic; his piece, in fact, was originally published in Creem, where Bangs served as an editor and writer for many years.

In the end, The Sound and the Fury raises the question of why we should read old rock writing, for much of it feels like clippings from another age. The same is true of Bangs in places; 30 years later, his most gonzo turns — like a piece describing Anne Murray as “the real thing when it comes to popular music” — seem self-indulgent, and many of the bands he covers have come and gone. Still, what sets him apart is his insistence on the larger picture, the idea that he was not writing just about rock music, but about the world.

“I’ve had it up to here with bullies,” Bangs argues at one point, excoriating Johnny Rotten. “School was bad enough, where you were a fag if you read books or some asshole might just decide to beat the shit out of you if he even imagined you took a sidelong glance at his girlfriend — at 30 years old OR ANY AGE do I need this?” Johnny Rotten may have long since lost his relevance, but Bangs’ sentiment remains.

MAIN LINES, BLOOD FEASTS, AND BAD TASTE: A Lester Bangs Reader | Edited by JOHN MORTHLAND | Anchor Books | 432 pages $15 paperback

THE SOUND AND THE FURY: 40 Years of Classic Rock Journalism Edited by BARNEY HOSKYNS | Bloomsbury | 480 pages | $15 paperback

  • Lester Bangs and the relevance of rock criticism

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