"Some sliver of authenticity from the truckloads of stinking garbage"

After reading Lester Bangs' collection, you have to wonder: What would the legendary critic, who believed that music mattered, make of today's Britney and P.Diddy ludicrousness?


Andrew Leonard
September 3, 2003 11:00PM (UTC)

I was sorely tempted, after reading the first 50 pages of "Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste," a new collection of ranting and raving from the late, much-lamented rock critic Lester Bangs, to pull out my old Olivetti Lettera portable typewriter from the closet where it is moldering and start BANGING away. Because you can't really pound on a computer keyboard, no matter how hard you try, and in tribute to Lester (and I feel like I can call him Lester, because I know that if I started knocking back shots of tequila with him in a seedy bar we would be on a first-name basis forever after just 10 minutes of hollering about the relative cultural significance of 'N Sync vs. the Backstreet Boys), I knew that I needed to make some NOISE, I needed to get all worked up in a frothy, gibbering frenzy of excitement and start "slashing away at the typewriter until occasionally a great clot of keys would become hopelessly entangled, would refuse to untwist and fall back into their berths from the action of my whiplash fingertips and my energy would explode in fists pounding on the frame of the machine."

I can see some blank looks out there. There are some of you reading this who are going, what the fuck? This guy is talking about a typewriter? What crypt did he just limp out of? And why should I care about a dead writer who killed himself with his own excess just like some stupid bloated '60s rock god and who has already had one collection of his writings published anyway ("Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung"), back some 15 years ago when maybe somebody still remembered who he was or his speed-and-alcohol-infused babblings retained even a modicum of relevance?

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Well, I'll tell you why you should care. Because Lester cared, goddammit. Lester believed music mattered, and even in this age of facile overproduced musical commoditization, of Britney Spears and Toby Keith and p-diddy-puff-daddy ludicrousness, of manufactured controversy and preprogrammed stardom, of music-as-fashion and fashion-as-cultural-critique, even now we should still be furrowing our brows and raising our voices and slamming our fists on the table and declaiming to anyone and everyone in earshot that music still matters. Sure, it might be harder than ever before to push our way through the shrouds obscuring us from the real shit, to try to pry out some sliver of authenticity from the truckloads and truckloads of odious stinking garbage that surrounds us at every remove, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't make the effort. And it does mean that now, more than ever, we need Lester.

"Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste" is jampacked with Lester at both his most cogent and his most incomprehensible. Lester was not the kind of writer whose prose was amenable to careful editing -- there's a reason one of his favorite words was "emetic" -- and there are plenty of occasions when whatever cocktail of uppers and downers was impersonating his muse led him right off the deep end into swirling streams of consciousness that would make even Jack Kerouac blanch. But there are enough nuggets, enough gems lavishly strewn about to make this collection of essays, record reviews, profiles, travelogues and autobiographical tidbits essential reading.

If you're a fan already, you need this book like a junkie needs a fix. Lester on Black Sabbath is a revelation, Lester on punk is magisterial, Lester on Jamaica is a tour de force of brutal honesty. He's profound, just plain silly, incisive, and ecstatic all at the same time; when someone types as fast and as much as Lester Bangs did between 1969 and his death (at age 33, the fucker!) in 1982, a lot of ground gets covered -- from Captain Beefheart to Blondie, from Sid Vicious to Wet Willie -- tales of race and class and alienation and a kitchen sink's worth of everything else.

He can be mean. On the post-breakup Beatles: "If he [Paul] was just a little more gutsy, he might almost be Elton John"; on Jefferson Starship: "The Marin County Cocaine Casualty Musical Auxiliary"; on the entire state of California: "California has in the course of the Seventies managed to convince itself and at least part of the rest of the world that this 'pleasure,' 'happiness,' 'contentment' stuff might actually be attainable on a day-to-day basis. All you have to do is sign an affidavit forswearing forever any resistance to being a moron." (And even he couldn't have imagined Arianna vs. the Terminator!)

And he can be funny. On Emerson, Lake and Palmer: "I went, I saw, I drowned." On Helen Reddy: "All men are weasels. The only use they have for women is to get their rocks off, and half the time the only reason they want to do that is to prove something. Which is why all women hold them in such utter contempt ... But everybody knows that. What everybody doesn't know is the hot pulsating goodies Helen Reddy's got to offer up." On late Miles Davis: "Kind of Grim."

But to pull out a sentence or a phrase here and there, marking up the galleys as I did on a crowded New York subway car, the noise and humidity and overall chaos of an August rush hour as oppressive as anything mankind has managed to concoct but managing to cohabit with the dense profusion of Lester's words in awesome familiarity, is to do an injustice to the whole. The sentences pile on top of each other, the attention wanders frenetically ... to read his essays is to lose your breath; it's like hanging on for dear life as the toboggan hurtles downhill -- you don't really know where it's headed and you've lost all ability to steer, but the adrenaline rush from the experience is enough, the racing heart is its own reward.

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I was downing one scotch after another with a journalist who also cares about music the night before I wrote these words, and the question inevitably came up: If Lester Bangs were alive today, what would he be writing about? Would he have fled in disgust from the whole publicist-controlled charade that is pop music today? Would he have retreated to indie rock, championing obscure underground bands who would never have the chance to loom, Colossus-like, over the whole culture like the Stones or the Beatles or even frigging Talking Heads? Would he still be obsessing about Lou Reed?

Or would he be taking the bull by the horns, would he be down with hip-hop and electronica and Britney -- would he be figuring out how to make things matter even when stacked up against a whole industry dedicated to the proposition that the proper packaging of dissent and rebellion and rock 'n' roll need not mean anything at all?

I like to think he would. It's not as if he didn't see it all coming. As he wrote in "The Roots of Punk, Part 1" in 1977, "It's harder 'n hangnails to be a deviant or even have a little moronic fun these days without some codifying crypto-academic or (worse yet?) the fashion industry (seen the recent Macy's ads for punk couture?) swooping down to rape your stance and leave you shivering fish naked in the cultural welfare line." And it's not as if he would let any punk-ass publicist stop him from saying whatever he wanted to say. If he had to, he would just make it up, anyway, as he did with a hilarious interview with Jimi Hendrix conducted years after the guitar genius's death.

It doesn't even matter that the cultural landscape today seems so barren, or at least the portion of it that dominates the mainstream -- the video channels and the radio stations and the billboard charts -- because with Lester, it wasn't so much the content itself that mattered, or the quality thereof, but what that content inspired in Lester. Thus, he could decide that "Exile on Main Street" was the worst Stones album ever and then, a few weeks later, the best, and as readers we don't care whether he's right or wrong, because we're along for the ride.

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There's a lesson there, which is that it's not the culture that's all screwed up, but us, because we're afraid to take on the mess that blares at us from 500 TV channels and 1,000 Clear Channel radio stations and a billion beer ads. Caring, or being sincere, or getting mad, just seems like too much of an effort, or even worse, it's just not cool. So much easier to be ironically detached, to protect ourselves with our own prefabricated playlists, to load up on antidepressants and just try to weather the storm, instead of laughing madly as the wind and rain lashes our faces while we boldly declare that the latest album by [INSERT NAME HERE] is IMPORTANT, goddammit. And here's why!

But then the question arises of where would this poor man, almost unknown in his own time except by other rock critics, be published? His best work was done in Creem in the mid-'70s, and even that was a pretty fringe publication then. Today, it's hard to see ANY print publication that would dare to be the enabler of his nuttiness.

Of course, by the time the third scotch had loosened the vocal cords of my friend and me to the point that we didn't even notice anymore how we were yelling to make ourselves heard above the awful jukebox soundtrack in the lame bar we found ourselves (my gawd, but do I wish I could read Lester on the subject of the Dreadful Hegemony of Boomers and Classic Rock -- I was forced to listen to "Freebird" again last night!) the answer to who would publish Lester was obvious.

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Lester would have the best blog of all time.

The Web, without timid editors, without word-length restrictions, without censors, would be Lester's playground. How would he pay the rent? you wonder. Surely we, his readers, would find a way to keep him afloat. We'd have to, because Lester's blog would be essential to our cultural sanity. Enough with the ironic detachment, enough with the breakdown of pop into minuscule niche categories, populated by their own commodified demographics. I wanna know what would be the playlist on Lester's iPod right now -- I wanna be his blog dog! -- and even though I barely remember reading anything he wrote while he was alive, I miss him dearly now.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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