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Crochety Nagging: Notes on Lester Bangs

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Michael Crumsho attempts to get to the bottom of famed rocked critic Lester Bangs through John Morthland's new anthology of his writings, Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader.

Crochety Nagging: Notes on Lester Bangs

Towards the beginning of his introduction for the first collection of the late Lester Bangs’ writings, editor Greil Marcus offered up the following statement with regards to viewing the legacy of his departed friend and colleague: “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.” And therein lies the crux of a central problem in attempting to approach the work of one Lester Bangs – can one actually separate the physical output of this writer from the myriad of perceptions that are commonly held about him (in no small part because of posthumous editing)? To be sure, the nature of his writings is such that any serious examination of them would normally be precluded by the subject matter (i.e. that they are mostly dated reviews, interviews, and the like). However it has to be noted that one cannot make a judgement call like that (or is forbidden from doing so) because of the almost revered status he is given in the pantheon of rock critics. The problem, then, becomes much deeper than what I have already surmised – namely, where does the genre of “popular music criticism” belong in the literary canon? Can (or should) people like Marcus, Bangs, or Nick Tosches be considered on the same level of critical scholarship as others like Adorno, Bahktin, Sontag, Postman, or Chomsky? Probably not. Pop music criticism resides in a realm removed from musicology and in one that is fundamentally linked to consumerism. The reason this form exists, at its very core, is to sell records. The sheer capitalist nature inherent to this process removes it entirely from a truly valid comparison to the previously mentioned authors. Sure, there is no shortage of really great pieces on contemporary music. But for the most part much of what Bangs engaged in was twisted fundamentally with a desire for profit. Record companies give out free stuff in the hopes that someone will talk it up, thus increasing sales and profit margins. So in the case of Bangs being on the same level as Hemingway and Faulkner, I dare say that I don’t buy it for a second. His art lacks a quality that is fundamental to many great pieces of writing – an ability to stand alone. But make no mistake about it – Lester Bangs was truly one of the most gifted music critics to ever tread our hot and salty planet. And that, my friends, you can take for better or worse.

Upon his death in 1982, Bangs left the world with thousands of pages of his writings and myriad of conflicting images of his own visage. Following fourteen years after the Marcus-edited Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, colleague and literary executor John Morthland offers up his companion piece to that first tome, Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader. What with hindsight being 20/20 and all, sifting through the work of Lester Bangs can be a daunting proposition mostly because of the place he holds in the world of rock criticism. Undoubtedly he should be revered in parts. After all, at his best his intense dedication to the art of a rock scribe at times elevated the bar held out to all critics. But then again, at his worst his words remain mired in a solipsistic haze that blurs valid boundaries between criticism, autobiography, and relentless bitching. To wit, he is influentially responsible for as much great, transcendent music writing as he is for some of the most inward and piss-poor of this particular form of journalism. And there is still the whole ridiculous issue of meta-criticism to approach – namely, why the fuck should you care what one critic has to say about what another critic has to say about what, at this point anyway, has mostly ceded into public knowledge?

When he was on point, however, Bangs’ writing was uniformly excellent and shone with an unmistakable talent. His reviews ran from amusing put-downs of popular faves like Anne Murray to passionate prose about records like Horses. Sure enough, with the former he established a willingness to dismantle pop icons, while with the latter he ably communicates his devotion to the music he loved so dearly. His methodical piece debunking Bob Dylan’s tune “Joey” and the mob implications thereof revealed neat cohesion and an emotion that brought out some his best writings: disappointment. This particular sentiment manifests itself more in his critiques of generation shifts as signified through music. He dismantles the commercialized legacy of the Beatles as adeptly as he calls to light the hollow intergenerational pining for Jim Morrison ten years after the fact. Psychotic Reactions more notably documents his in-print love/hate relationship with Lou Reed, but Morthland’s volume snags another in his line of pieces regarding his fondness for Metal Machine Music (and music simply as a bold statement) as well as a more diplomatic interview with his messiah turned pariah and back again. Granted the climate of popular music and thus the writing about it have changed, but it’s still heartening to know that Bangs was unflinching in his “cut the bullshit” manner and that it often appeared in the major publications of the day.

More often than not, Bangs applied this same attitude to himself and his own beliefs as much as any musician or record he was covering; consider that he retracted his first published review, a blasé hipper-than-thou dismissal of the MC5’s Kick Out The Jams. I can only wonder how he would have reacted to finding out that, counter to his assertions in these pages, people still care about “Stairway to Heaven” years later and that there was a twenty-four disc Throbbing Gristle reissue shortly after the start of the new millenium. He applied the same standards to the music he was particularly fond of (“horrible noise” one supposes), and thus had no trouble panning punks like the Fall before they achieved untouchable status in the hipster pantheon. Even more so, other pieces in this new collection find him both angrily destroying works like Miles Davis’ On the Corner, and then years later coming to an understanding of one his favorite artists.

And far from ably critiquing records, there are pieces scattered throughout this new book that show just how talented of a writer Lester Bangs could be. “Innocents in Babylon” is a fairly straightforward retelling of his first trip to Jamaica at the hands of Island Records during the initial boom of reggae’s international success. His prose here reveals a deep debt to folks like Hunter Thompson or Terry Southern as he goes about retelling the story that came about during his whole process of reporting. Without making judgement calls or overly opinionated statements, Bangs still lets the reader in on some of the contradictions and problems he finds with both island and Island. “California” is a sad piece as well, documenting a trip to his home state and all of the boredom and ennui it manages to conjure in his mind.

The final segment of Mainlines, entitled “Raving Raging, and Rebops”, demonstrates an impassioned brand of writing that could reveal both the best and worst of Lester Bangs’ writing. Sure, “Everybody’s Search for Roots” is a hilarious itemization of everything that punk rock is (most of which is non-musical), but “Bad Taste Is Timeless” leaves a salty, cantankerous taste in my mouth with its curmudgeonly dismantling of the new new wave. Despite this, however, you can’t deny the fact that Bangs was a talented writer – his incredible attention to syntax, structure, colloquialism, et al. speak volumes on that. The major problem with assertions that he is one of the greatest writers of all time rests solely in the fact that the entirety of his published works were only about music. Furthermore, these writings tended to be about the types of horribly obscure/overlooked records and musicians that, say, your average ersatz New Yorker type wouldn’t really know what to do with. That is, of course, when he wasn’t completely taking the piss out of the “respected” musicians of his day. What probably complicates things more is that his target audience really doesn’t need him at this point. When you consider the ways in which various musical cultures have a knack for spinning their own codification over time, Bangs work can feel almost superfluous. After all, do you need anyone to tell you about DNA, the Mekons, or Miles Davis mid-seventies work at this point? Probably not. Those who would, under pretense of gaining information of certain styles or movements, be drawn to his work today are also of the types that don’t need history lessons.

As with any public figure, attempting to construct who Lester Bangs was relies heavily on the interpretations of those who knew him during his unfortunately brief life. In collecting the batch of essays and reviews for his first book, Marcus attempted to compile an image of the person he knew, which seemed difficult to convey through countless words written in a dialogue with various pieces of recorded music. Morthland’s editing this time out, however, seems more mathematical and less colored by personal sentiment. The pieces selected here are intended to pad the initial volume and fill-in some gaps that said book had created. So to some, he was a foul-smelling, cantankerous, curmudgeonly rock critic. To others, he was a passionate, caring, genius of a man. But you have to consider the sheer worthlessness of any of these considerations at this point. Upon his death at the age of thirty-three, Bangs left the world with a body of work that signified not a concerted effort at public reverence (although he sometimes maintained the contrary), but rather a deep and personal quest that for an understanding of music, that very thing which influenced his life more than anything else. Bangs made no effort to codify one particular style or ideology, but rather to approach as many as he could. He was rock’s ultimate outsider welcomed in – a man who bickered with icons and wrote harsh reviews of major commercial successes of the time before such things were expected in our post-ironic culture.

But at the end of the day music critics, like critics of any art form in general, are confronted with the fact that much of our time is spent trying to convey what are personal moments of introspection and meaning to a populous much better suited for figuring that stuff out on their own. For all his wordiness, Lester Bangs seemed to understand that. His writings represent a series of monologues about trying to come to grips with an obsession – at times witty and engaging, and yet also overly introspective and absurd. But what comes through the most is that his main goal just seemed to be getting you to shut up and listen, to make up your own mind – and not about him, but what really mattered: the sounds people make in the throes of passions, the very same sounds he was trying to reply to all along.

By Michael Crumsho

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