Raucous Riffs on Rock
Feasts, and Bad Taste:
A Lester Bangs Reader
Edited by John Morthland
400 pages; $15
Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp
Carl Sessions Stepp (firstname.lastname@example.org), AJR's senior editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
It's too bad gonzo rock critic Lester Bangs didn't survive into the Internet age, because his pulsating prose tantrums would be style-setters in the anything-goes regions of cyberspace.
Bangs died of a reported drug overdose in 1982. He was 33. But he remains a central figure in the rise of rock criticism and won new attention three years ago when he was portrayed in the movie "Almost Famous."
He is already the subject of a biography and an earlier anthology, so it must be said that this second collection of his works is uneven and stretched thin, clearly feeding on Bangs' bad-boy image as much as on the merits of the material. Even the publicity letter accompanying the book promotes his "ravings" and "drug-addled scathing wit."
Still, Bangs has a devoted following, especially among many youngish journalists, and his writing resounds with passion. Bangs' work, like the rock milieu he was immersed in, is raucous, atonal and often crude, delivered in hyperamplified, chemically enhanced heaves. Yet, like the music, it throbs with energy and vitality, enfolding you in a stereophonic counterpoint to the downbeat of society, culture and sometimes life itself.
That intensity of feeling and expression draws in readers, and it exposes much of everyday journalism as pallid by comparison.
Bangs worked from a simple critical framework: "If the main reason we listen to music in the first place is to hear passion expressed – as I've believed all my life – then what good is this music going to prove to be?"
In "Almost Famous," he advised a fledgling critic to be honest and also merciless, and Bangs certainly seemed to write by that creed. For example, in a 1973 piece, Bangs called the Rolling Stones "the greatest rock and roll band in the world, for sure, and my heroes ever since I got my first look at Mick's leer way back in '64."
But his impatience quickly flared: "There is a sadness about the Stones now," he wrote later, "because they amount to such an enormous 'So what?' " By 1976, he was concluding, "they really don't matter anymore or stand up for anything."
Bangs was similarly harsh on the Beatles. On Lennon: "He'll do anything, reach for any cheap trick...to make himself look like a Significant Artist." On Harrison: "belongs in a daycare center for counterculture casualties." On Ringo:
"beneath contempt" and "marketing [his] lameness."
Often, Bangs' so-called honesty veered into excess and tastelessness. "I have been known to say that JFK's killing was a good thing, historically speaking," Bangs wrote in 1975. "[I]t opened a lot of things up.... The dream was over.... [It] forced us to find new leaders."
In a previously unpublished piece, he serves up a hallucinogenic fantasy sex marathon between Jimmy Carter and Jane Fonda. Another entry is nothing but a single elongated paragraph of nonstop scabrous fulminations, almost none of which could be quoted in this or most magazines.
But just when you are tempted to write him off for sophomoric self-indulgence, Bangs (much like Hunter S. Thompson, to whom he is often compared) sweeps you up with a mind-rattling riff. On early rock: "[A]ll those old classic rock'n'roll songs were fueled by one thing: sexual repression, and consequent frustration.... They were literally explosive with all that pent-up lust and fear and guilt and dread and hate and resentment and confusion. And it gave them a kind of anarchic power."
On (of all people) Anne Murray: "a hypnotically compelling interpretrix with a voice like molten high school rings and a heavy erotic vibe...keeps the heat up and brings you back again and again enraptured and slavering..."
He is a writer who can quote Kierkegaard and the Sex Pistols on the same page; dismiss Sid Vicious as "just an asshole"; or unroll a three-page lubricious and impressionistic spasm that both inhabits and eviscerates the spirit of punk.
But whether lionizing Black Sabbath and ex-members of the Velvet Underground or complimenting Stevie Nicks while calling her "a terminal mutation of the genus Superstar," he knew what he was doing. Bangs calibrated down the level of his mania for mainstream and semi-mainstream publications such as Rolling Stone and Creem, leaving himself free to smash all inhibitions elsewhere.
"I like writing for rags like this," he wrote in Back Door Man in 1977. "I can get lost and nobody cares, because you were lost in the first place, otherwise you wouldn't even be publishing a magazine like this, I mean what do you think 'punk Rock' and all attendant flapdoodle is about if not being lost...."
Sometimes Bangs merely seems a pottymouth in need of an editor, but at other points he dazzles with an overpowering fusion of substance and form, his style hauntingly matching the cadence and consciousness of the artistic life he so furiously internalized.
And there are moments when, like many writers, he seems so nakedly vulnerable and open that one is disarmed and affected. In a piece written when he was 19, Bangs seems self-prophetic: "I'll probably never produce a masterpiece, but so what? I feel I have a Sound aborning, which is my own, and that Sound if erratic is still my greatest pride, because I would rather write like a dancer shaking my ass to boogaloo inside my head...than to be or write for the man cloistered in a closet somewhere reading Aeschylus while this stupefying world careens crazily past his waxy windows toward its last raving sooty feedback pirouette."
Not all writers should grow up to be Lester Bangs. But journalism would rock a lot more houses if more dared give birth to their own Sounds, however erratic they might be.###