LET US NOW KILL WHITE ELEPHANTS
THE SHORT LIFE, LONG SHADOW, AND ENDURING BRILLIANCE OF LESTER BANGS
Sui generis critic and painter Manny Farber stated, “I can’t imagine a more perfect art form, a more perfect career than criticism.” Such a declaration must sound nuts if your points of reference pattern their careerism after such fast-growing fields as termite control, postmodern interior decorating (“This edgy Radiohead end table will perfectly complement your fabulous featherette Björk recliner”), and buzzword processing (every speck of expression forced though the finer-than-thou filters of a proper Esperanto machine). On the other hand (sporting half a Night of the Hunter tattoo), if you think of contentiously addictive voices from the past like the now-retired Farber or the late Lester Bangs, you may recall a time when such notions were self-evident. The fearless, heady, armor-piercing vernacular of “Carbonated Dyspepsia” or “Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves,” “Hard Sell Cinema,” or “James Taylor Marked for Death” amounted to more than off-the-rack jobbery, gushing politesse, consumer guidance counseling. Each new piece was an adventure in thought, language, feeling, and sensibility: meeting art and life on equal terms, it was the kind of writing that opened up whole underground vistas of tough-minded possibility.
“He was a romantic in the gravest, saddest, best, and most ridiculous sense of that worn-out word.” So said Nick Tosches, no lightweight as a critic himself, eulogizing his friend and comrade Lester Bangs: romantic in a punk rock/Naked Lunch sense of the term, the kind who thought the only love worth having was one where all parties involved saw exactly what was on the end of every fork. He was the rock critic as simultaneous true believer and loyal apostate, someone who wanted to save rock ’n’ roll, Blank Generation youth, and the world at large from themselves. His rambunctiously free-associating first-person prose has spawned a host of Lesteroids over the last few decades (less recognized is the way his insistence on the intimately personal as the political helped pave the way for more assertive, irreverent female voices in rock criticism). But as with Pauline Kael, his followers have tended to latch onto the more obvious and narrow aspects of his style, centering around no-bullshit attitude and an amped-up canon embracing the guilt-free pleasures of “trash.” (Brian De Palma/Iggy and the Stooges serving as the standard-bearing yardsticks of their respective aesthetics, but instead of shaking up well-bred folks from within the venerable confines of The New Yorker, Bangs found his calling as writer and editor for Creem magazine—under his aegis, a cross between Hit Parader, The National Lampoon, and The Partisan Review if Susie Sontag had only been a glue-sniffing headbanger.)
Since his death in 1982 at age thirty-three, his notoriety and stature has gradually outgrown the strict insider status of rock cultdom: The posthumous 1987 collection Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung (Knopf), edited by Greil Marcus, has become a modern touchstone that ranks with I Lost It At the Movies, Negative Space, Mystery Train, and Studies in Classic American Literature. Think of it as “Studies in Beautifully Unreasonable Noise,” for “classic” is too stately a word for its Garageland environs and outlying districts, not merely launching pads for the best pure rock criticism ever written but criticism as pure rock ’n’ roll. That this hardy truism has become the bedrock cliché in the Legend of Lester—and no less accurate for it—has been helpfully nudged along by Jim DeRogatis’s reverent but unflinchingly detailed keeper-of-the-flame Bangs biography Let It Blurt (2000) and in particular by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s deeply affectionate portrayal of Bangs in Cameron Crowe’s rapt valentine to early seventies rock, Almost Famous. The mystique of his writing and persona hasn’t worn thin with the passing of time; that tightrope sense of writing without a safety net retains its capacity to move and amaze. Resolutely human-scale yet larger-than-life, Bangs’ work had a warts-über-alles, kitchen-sink candor that made every tumultuous wrestling match with the high and low mucky-mucks of rock (right along with his own tag team of highly personalized demons) into a form of screwball heroism. A Shadows-of-Knight-errant Quixote and Sancho Panza rolled into one logorrheic typewriter junkie, he tilted at white elephants, sacred cows, boredom, and rampant mediocrity with a ravenous mixture of perception and bloodshot glee.
The publication of Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader (Anchor) finally provides the long overdue follow-up to Psychotic Reactions. The book positions itself as a logical extension of its predecessor, but as the slightly self-conscious title indicates, there’s also a wish to play to the red-meat, Wild Man aspects of the Bangs myth-cum-brand-name. (Hey, Kids! It’s the Amazing New Pocket Lester! Now with Extra Nova-Expressionism & Twice the Gonzo Scrubbing Bubbles of Hunter S. Thompson!) Given its bitter ruminations on the mortality of music as well as all things human, Death May Be Your Santa Claus might have been a better title, one belonging to a magnificent old Mott the Hoople rant (prevailing inarguable sentiment: “You’re all too fuckin’ slow”) which Lester took for the headline of his exclusive 1976 interview with a very late Jimi Hendrix (“Because one thing I learned while killing myself,” Jimi ruminates from beyond the grave, “was that a hell of a lot of that shit was just sound and fury kicked up to disguise the fact that we were losing our emotions, or at least the ability to convey them.”)
Mainlines features a good deal of corrosive material that can stand with the best of the earlier collection, along with a wider, more uneven spectrum of workaday pieces ranging from inspired to autopilot-entertaining to a few genuflecting, all-too-human duds. But even his much too solemn and dewy-eyed review of Patti Smith’s Horses is a useful object lesson, a testament to the unavoidable occupational hazards of the profession: the awful, honest temptations of hyperbole and needful thinking, especially in barren times like the mid-seventies (or now), though many have made whole highly respected careers out of far more egregious, uninspired treacle. Compare this Joan of Art treatment to his “Jim Morrison: Bozo Dionysus a Decade Later” about the great Doors Revival: It’s not that he was initially off the mark about Smith’s soft parade of pent-up ambitions and influences, only that he glossed over the half-cocked, loony-tune tendencies which made Miss Smith as much the provocateur-clown-headcase second cousin to Valerie Solanas as noble heiress to Rimbaud or the Ronettes. (Of course, she was also a friend he happened to have a hopeless crush on, but even factoring that in this seems more a case of giving in to the savior fantasy: She was a better conceptual fit for him than Bruce Springsteen, the other big, street-angelic candidate for Rock Messiah circa 1975.) Taken all in all, though some of editor John Morthland’s choices will doubtless be “heatedly debated,” by encompassing the respective Babylons of Bob Marley and David Johansen, impassioned testimonials on behalf of Black Sabbath (“Bring Your Mother to the Gas Chamber!”) and the Weimar-era Comedian Harmonists (take the A train!), the undersea world of Eno and The Marble Index of Nico, some inspired Dylan and Beatles debunking, plus naturally more of his running battle with spiritual godfather Lou Reed, no Bangs fan is going to feel cheated by Mainlines.
As the kind of incendiary book that could make a person want to become a critic, or remind one why he became a critic in the first place, it is also meant to separate the initiated from disinterested observers and intellectual dilettantes. Like Psychotic Reactions, and in the great cultural tradition of “Sister Ray,” these Mainlines are dares drawn in the sand: emphatically not nice little slices of music appreciation nor Dean’s List honors seminaries nor funhouse slumming for squeamish gentlefolk who require a formal introduction to Raw Power (“I say, Jeeves, these Iggy and the Stooges characters really are dashed clever fellows.” “Indeed, sir?” “Just listen to this corker: ‘I am the world’s forgotten boy/The one who’s searchin’ to destroy.’” “If you say so, sir.”) Bangs practiced criticism as a hilarious form of guerrilla class warfare, the revenge of the starving underclass (as much in existential as economic terms) against the proudly oblivious Overclass, the bourgeois-boho-yoyos, the Middle-C brows furrowed in rigid anal-retentive concentration, and indeed the High ideals of Class itself, understood as a plumy nexus of ego-massaging rationalizations, humorless self-importance, affluent pretensions, good table manners, solid musicianship, starched professionalism, and an insatiable appetite for respectability at all costs. Discomfiting the comfortable and afflicting the affected was what he lived for—“you cannot kick intentional cripples awake,” but gee, Officer Krupke, it sure is fun to try anyway—but there was something more at stake than just being a gadfly freelancing boils or a chaotic court-jesting nuisance. (Dear me, what’ll that darn Lester say next?!) The guiding suspicion behind his work was that the language of assurance and reassurance most art is couched in was a way of insulating audiences from their own lives: By substituting overdetermined pseudo-emotions and numb freeze-dried ideas for precarious human exchange, the next thing you knew you’d wind up in a Keir Dullea pod, slippery-sloping into Kubrick’s remake of The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, with music by Kraftwerk and “emetic narcissism” by Stevie of Bel Air (a manicure worse than the disease). Hence Lester Bangs’s writing contains more scar tissue and stealth vulnerability per square inch in than anything this side of Mo Tucker singing “After Hours” to finish the Velvet Underground’s third LP: “Oh, but people look well in the dark.”
Somewhere over the slough of despond, Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste includes his debut review for Rolling Stone in 1969, dismissing the MC5’s Kick Out the Jams (he later famously reversed himself on the album, but in Bangs such diametrical opinions weren’t self-canceling: they were Polaroids of the running love-hate argument with music and life that constantly went on inside his head) and the Canned Heat review that got him bounced from its yellowed pages. Fittingly, too, there’s the last piece published in his lifetime, “If Oi Were a Carpenter,” sizing up minuscule punk offshoots. The book starts with a few instructive chunks of wrought-up teenage angst, rites-of-passage pieces drawn from his unpublished autobiographical tome “Drug Punk”: “A Quick Trip Through My Adolescence” et al lay out an picture of early influences, tantrums, and formative traumas. In “Two Assassinations,” William Burroughs looms larger than any of the other Beats as an influence (Kerouac would show up in his more fulsome and tender paeans). Young Lester incorporates a vintage naked lunchbox slogan—“Fuck ’em all, squares on both sides, I am the only complete man in the industry”—to serve as a nineteen-year-old hipster’s holy grail, but the façade is already being undercut by his own grievous sense of estrangement, isolation, and doubt. When the kid from El Cajon gets cosy with the San Diego Hell’s Angels and winds up as a passive, guilt-stricken bystander to one of their come-one-come-all rapes, the horror kind of takes the bloom off the whole outlaw-rebel pose for Lester. Hipster cool held an immense attraction for him, but his determination to break through that attitude of reptilian detachment and reach for some kind of human connection no matter what is what would ultimately make him an indelible writer.
There’s also a tour through what Mainlines designates as the “Pantheon” (an I. M. Pious wax museum perhaps better left to Madams Sarris and Christgau) which includes four pieces on the Rolling Stones (about two and a half too many—dutifully forcing himself to muster a response to the supremely indifferent likes of Black and Blue) and a couple nice exercises in ambivalence devoted to Miles Davis’s queasy-listening electric period (“Kind of Grim” and “Music for the Living Dead,” funk in both senses of the word). A long profile of Captain Beefheart does veer off into awestruck, witch-doctor hagiography, but a good Kierkegaard-laced review of Public Image Ltd. (belying Bangs’s anti-intellectual rep) counteracts such tendencies. There’s achingly fervent, can-I-get-a-drowning-witness testimony on behalf of Nico’s The Marble Index, as well as “Deaf Mute in a Telephone Booth” on Uncle Louie entering his Scrooge McFucked decline, and an epic, positively wistful evocation of Black Sabbath. Encountering Ozzy back in 1972, when The Osbournes was not even a gleam in the all-seeing TV Eye, the piece is at once a completely sincere, mostly convincing attempt to find the humanist impulses secreted in “War Pigs” and “Children of the Grave,” and a disarming visit with a Prince of Darkness who already is halfway to his shrewdly befuddled husband-and-father persona, right down to the wholesome sitcom wackiness when Ozzy sans Harriet attempts to avoid the breathy clutches of a chick who calls herself the Blow Job Queen.
Here you catch a glimpse of the Lester Bangs who befriended a barely teenage Cameron Crowe and offered cranky encouragement to Crowe’s alter ego in Almost Famous: While he positioned himself as the enemy of the whole scene-making “I am a Golden God” rockstar trip, Bangs had his own streak of wayward idealism and sentimental tenderness. It was more likely to express itself in a communing sing-along to “Ballerina” or “Beside You” rather than “Tiny Dancer,” but so much of the rage and despair in his work came from a sense of possibilities betrayed, hope deferred or destroyed, good things turned into breathtaking travesties of themselves. (Crowe’s adolescent chivalry towards beatific distressed damsels reflects an aspect of the romantic in Bangs as well.) It’s not hard to imagine an alternate version of Almost Famous where Lester is the star, emerging from a far grungier, more stifling background, with a Jehovah’s Witness mother and no prospects of an interesting, bearable life at all—his autobiography written in the albums he discovered and the books he found, which were signs not only of another world but another self he would construct from the traces they left. Music—and writing—was his deliverance, hence the desert island album essay included in Psychotic Reactions about Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks:
It was particularly important to me because the fall of 1968 was such a terrible time. I was a physical and mental wreck, nerves shredded and ghosts and spiders looming and squatting across the mind. My social contacts had dwindled almost to none; the presence of other people made me nervous and paranoid. I spent endless days and nights sunk in an armchair in my bedroom, reading magazines, watching TV, listening to records, staring into space. I had no idea how to improve the situation, and probably wouldn’t have done anything about it if I had.
The big epiphany voice-over would go something like this:
But in the condition I was in, it assumed at the time the quality of a beacon, a light on the far shores of the murk; what’s more, it was proof that there was something left to express artistically besides nihilism and destruction. (My other big record of the day was White Light/White Heat.) It sounded like the man who made Astral Weeks was in terrible pain, pain most of Van Morrison’s previous albums had only suggested; but like the later albums by the Velvet Underground, there was a redemptive element in the blackness, ultimate compassion for the suffering of others, and a swath of pure beauty and mystical awe that cut right through the heart of the work.
There was always that alternating current in him which oscillated between destructive-nihilist character traits and the deep-seated beauty-awe component, a tension that was easier and more salutary to manage in writing than a life of self-mocking, self-medicating excess. Lester the Movie: Almost Bilious would therefore traverse circumscribed beginnings handing out The Watchtower in El Cajon, his humble start sending record reviews to Rolling Stone (The Watchtower redux), the glory days in Detroit as the conscience and soul of Creem, his move to New York where he submerged himself in CBGBs’ burgeoning lemming-demimonde (Richard Hell and the Voidoids more or less serving as his Stillwater) and freelanced for the Village Voice. (Though in order to survive, he wrote for anyone who’d take his byline: Stereo Review, Musician, Rolling Stone once again, New Wave, New York Rocker, Music and Sound Output, Contempo Culture, Back Door Man—publish or perish wasn’t an idle threat, but an imperative on several distinct levels.) The movie would brim with obligatory romance and heartbreak up the wazoo (cf. Psychotic Reaction’s love-as-absurdity classic “New Year’s Eve”), but Lester’s most lasting lifelong relation outside of music was with masturbation, so there’d have to be one of those gauzy memory montages of the way we wanked: from early boyhood stirrings before the telephone-book-sized Sears catalogue (ladies’ undergarments section) on to Hef’s plasticine Playmates to Runaways album covers to the pastoral nostalgia of Celebrity Skin. But besides sentimental journeys, you’d get action ’n’ adventure (remember “Jethro Tull in Vietnam”?—our correspondent goes upriver to get the skinny on a Kurtzian pied piper), rockin’ intrigue (remember “Screwing the System with Dick Clark”?—I see Michael Douglas doing a perfect cameo as Mr. American Bandstand), and even Lester’s ingratiatingly mortifying attempt to become a singer himself (Andy Kaufman and the Blues Brothers had nothing on our boy).
Only the last reel would have to be rewritten: overdosing on Darvon after getting relatively straight and sober is the by far the worst cliché he ever perpetrated and his one unforgivably corny stunt, going out in what he would have surely mocked as a shamelessly cheap career move. (The old die-and-become-immortal routine—the stalest joke in the book.) Maybe a Twilight Zone finish would be more in order: since Bangs has already entered cinema’s nether realm of cultural fantasy alongside such luminaries as Sid & Nancy, Valerie & Andy, Charles Bukowski, Naked Lunch’s William Lee, Jim Morrison, Hunter S. Thompson, Kaufman, John Belushi, and 24 Hour Party People’s Tony Wilson and Ian Curtis, why not convene a roundtable of the living and the dead, a meeting of the minds and the mindless. Have P. S. Hoffman’s Lester and Lili Taylor’s Val and the Thompson twins (Bill Murray and Johnny Depp) and the rest of ’em hash out the liberties taken by film biographies, the consolations of philosophy as spelled out in the Sex Pistols’s version of “No Fun,” the perils and ecstasies of nostalgia, and the nigh-unto-insurmountable task of not turning into the very thing you despised, especially once you’ve been projected onto the silver screen as some kind of suitably iconic/ridiculous figure. One minute you’re the Elephant Man on stampede (“I am not an animal!”) and the next you’re another shiny white death-mask on display in a showroom window: smile, says the plastercaster, you’re on Candid Camera! But Lester is unfazed: he goes into bemused Rod Serling mode and addresses the camera as a battle-of-the-stars melee erupts behind him (Andy has Val in a headlock, Bukowski’s holding a pillow over Morrison’s big mouth) and calmly intones, “Is there a happy ending? I don’t think so.” Roll credits as the mandolins play and Mott the Hoople’s “I Wish I Was Your Mother” serenades you out of the theater humming a pretty epitaph.
No matter how you look at it, with all the exuberance and crazed comic poetry and hot/cold running insight of Psychotic Reactions and now Mainlines, there’s an aura of sadness beyond simple untimely loss (as a wisegal said to me, “Whaddayouwannaliveforever?”): the unremitting sense beneath all that beautifully overwrought manic desperation of how fragile and futile the constructs underpinning art and life really are, a rising awareness of the steep toll of all that persistent grappling with the inadmissible. No surprise then that Lester Bangs wrote some of the best obits in the business, his own dress rehearsals: for Elvis (whom he didn’t much care for, and wrote all the more movingly about what that disconnection meant), Peter Laughner (a musician and writer who if he hadn’t self-immolated trying to live out a fantasy camp version of alcoholic-druggie nihilist stupor might have grown up to surpass either Lou Reed or Bangs himself), “Bye, Bye, Sidney, Be Good” (for punk rock and all its slam-bam illusions, his own most of all). In addition, he invented the preventive obituary in his Lou Reed opuses and “Richard Hell: Death Means Never Having to Say You’re Incomplete,” bait-and-switch tracts which attempted to lure/jolt their subjects out of downward-spiraling self-hate with a carrot of praise or a cattle prod to their numb genitalia. (His answer to the Clash’s “Ya need a little dose of electrical shockers,” I expect.)
And then there were those reconnaissance flights that were hard to tell from kamikaze missions, diving into a record as he does on Mainlines’s “Your Shadow Is Scared of You: An Attempt Not to Be Frightened by Nico.” Which is about trying to get past all the baggage of Pavlovian-dinnerbell art, chic dehumanization, overweening significance, cheap thrills, working instead towards a definition of art as something as personal as the most intimate, wrenching flesh and blood encounter. Clearing away the distractions of secondhand fashion and vicarious kicks, he then elicits a long string of Joycean dictation from an old love over the phone, a seance which ends with the woman comparing doomstruck chanteuse Nico to “Beckett’s play Breath, she’s trying to find the last breath so she can negate breath, love, anything. A soft look would kill her.” Then he hunkers down with the vast hosts of the dead he hears on the album:
She’s quite a rock critic, that old girlfriend of mine—sometimes she scares me even more than Nico. But then, I’m scared of everybody—I’m scared of you. My girlfriend’s eloquence was one reason I loved her almost from first sight, but not why I had to get halfway around the geographical world to write a song that said how much I loved her. It was because of something obviously awry in me, perhaps healing, at least now confronting itself, which is one way to perhaps not rot. There’s a ghost born every second, and if you let the ghosts take your guts by sheer force of numbers you haven’t got a chance though probably no one has the right to judge you either. (Besides which, the ghosts are probably as scared of you as you are of them.)
Now most critics, whether good, bad, or humdrum, are usually doing their level best to suppress or deny such feelings, gloss over the awkwardness, the groping, the fear which John Cale may have said was a man’s best friend but you wouldn’t know ever know it from them. After all, that terror is weakness which in turn is a form of need which is just a shade removed from psychic disintegration and nervous breakdown—one slip on the stepping razor’s edge there and it’s back to the bedroom armchair, counting the spiders and staring into space forever, or worse. The difference between what Bangs is doing here and an equally personal (albeit in a more baroquely literary manner) writer Camden Joy is doing in his latest collection Lost Joy (TNI) comes down to risk. Not formal risk, idiosyncratic experimentation in structure and fantasy and syntax, which Joy’s work has in rhetorical abundance after a manner that suggests Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet remodeled as rock fan’s mash notes to his own delicious sensibility. Bangs’s work feels at risk in the same way the work it lauds is—in danger of coming apart at the seams, devouring its author and sucking its audience into the pit of disgust or hopelessness or fear with it. Joy’s approach has a disembodied, art-project halo: as though instead of listening to “The Greatest Record Album Singer Ever” (Al Green) or “The Greatest Record Album Ever Told” (Frank Black’s Teenager of the Year) or “The Greatest Record Album Band That Ever Was” (Creedence Clearwater Revival), you visited a gallery where they had been turned into ironic-obsessive-compulsive installations. Everything (performer, music, album jacket) becomes a pretext, each moved behind several layers of brilliant distancing devices; you marvel at the intricacy and thoroughness of every conceit, but they remain conceits, art for artifice’s sake. Bangs was convinced the only worthwhile purpose of music and criticism was to break through that artifice. If it didn’t implicate you, as coconspirator or shamed silent partner, then it wasn’t doing its job: It was just providing a glass-bottom service to gawk at the colorful creatures of the deep from a nice dry vantage point. The world as he saw it wasn’t so much divided between the hip and the square (“Fuck ’em all”) or even the haves against the have-nots so much as between those who had to live in whatever drowned world they’d been consigned to or made for themselves (if it was even possible to tell the difference) and the tourists who watched the show and then put on their warm coats and went back home.
In Mainlines, there’s a terrific 1976 piece called “Innocents in Babylon,” on the lures and traps of such tourism, going to Jamaica in search of Natty Dread while waiting for Bob Marley’s Godot at the Sheraton hotel. (The Clash could have cribbed notes for “Safe European Home” from it.) There’s a glimmer of utopia that looks a little like prophecy:
All the singles have an instrumental version on the B side, so the deejays can flip them over and improvise their own spaced-out harangues over the rhythm tracks. Since Jamaican radio plays so little reggae, most of the deejays come off the streets, where until recently you could find, periodically, roots discos set up. Out of these emerged deejay-stars like Big Youth and I-Roy, and along with producers like Lee Perry and Augustus “King Tubby” Pablo they have pioneered a fascinating technological folk art called dub. An album by I-Roy can thank six different producers on the back “for the use of their rhythms.” Don’t ask me where the publishing rights go. Don’t ask anybody, in fact. And, don’t ask how musicians might feel who play on one session for a flat rate, only to find it turn up on one or more other hit records. The key with dub is spontaneity, the enormous creative sculpting and grafting of whole new counterpoints on records already in existence. And this sense of the guy who plays the record as performer extends down into the record shops, where the clerks shift speakers, tracks, and volume levels with deft magicianly fingers as part of a highly intricate dance, creating sonic riot in the store and new productions in their minds: I control the dials.
But the reality beneath the pipe dream turned out to be predictably messier: exploitation, greed, racism, violence, lunacy, enough delusion to go around for everyone involved, the writing on the wall no one wanted to read.
The era Lester Bangs belonged to was unlike the present one in a key respect: A lot of people hadn’t learned the rules of the game yet. All garage bands like the Count Five and the Troggs and uncounted no-hit wonders were too dumb to know any better: They didn’t have a dainty neo-primitive paint-by-numbers instruction manual to work from. Punk was, briefly, a smarter free-for-all: anyone could join, and nobody had the slightest clue where it was going, oblivion or taking over the world as equally plausible consummations devoutly and simultaneously being wished. Then people internalized the rules or were assimilated by them—a process that was well underway before Bangs’s death and so turns the later pieces in Mainlines into the sound of a man tired of losing the good fight, and certain that the worst was yet on its way. The book is Lester’s Last Stand against the march of the lumbering artistic behemoths, Old Home Week back in the human wilderness: or as the girl on the phone once asked in the dead of night, “What good is music if it doesn’t destroy you?”
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