September 20, 2003


The Sound and the Fury: Lester Bangs and the relevance of rock criticism (David L. Ulin, 9/05/03, LA Weekly)

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 Bangsí 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 ó between the artist and the system, and both of them and the audience. ì[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."

Psychotic Reactions is an excellent guide to how godawful and pretentious mainstream rock music had become by the 70's and how enjoyable that made punk rock when it came along to humble it.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 20, 2003 7:22 AM

I have difficulty believing you understand anything about rock 'n' roll. Honestly.

Posted by: Mar Borough at September 20, 2003 9:54 AM

"Pyschotic Reactions" was a basic tome of reference back in college -- along with Marcus' "Lipstick Traces", which is a pretty brilliantly self-indulgent tour de force of sustained highflyin' BS.

For record reference, the Trouser Press music guide & the Rolling Stone Record Guide. Two editions of the RS guide; one more "post-punk" than the other. Interesting things would change in the write-ups -- such as the Doors going from geniuses meriting five stars for multiple albums, to being treated as somewhat sketchy charlatans with maybe one five star platter & a slew of two-and-three star disks.

Favorite put-down review, of Mac Davis, went something like this: "No single figure has done more to set back the cause of popular music in America than Mac Davis".

As for Mr. Borough, I guess his take might be that R&R is "rebel music" & the Judds aren't "rebels".

Posted by: Twn at September 20, 2003 2:38 PM

I just find it amusing to hear a square social conservative like the author of this blog waxing sociological about the rise of punk. (Even if his prose is such standard, cliched boilerplate as "punk was a reaction to pretentious rock.")

The idea of Orrin Judd walking into a punk club, or listening to a punk record, at any point in his life, is an image that brings many chuckles. How does it work -- does he pierce his nose with a safety pin and start spouting off about creationism?

I'm not being a rock snob. I'm just being realistic.

Posted by: Mar Borough at September 20, 2003 2:57 PM

Mr. Borough;

We've at least gotten him to appreciate Black Sabbath.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at September 20, 2003 4:28 PM

Rock 'n' Roll DID change everything. It just didn't get us to the Age of Aquarius.


Orrin is not as square as you think. He has surprisingly round corners. Stick around.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at September 20, 2003 10:56 PM


Just as cretins in punk clubs are capable of realizing that Bach rocks, so too we fogeys are capable of recognizing that the Clash saved rock.

Posted by: oj at September 21, 2003 2:55 PM

I'm glad my rock consciousness started in the
eighties when it had fewer pretensions.

Even the so-called "artsie" groups like R.E.M.
admitted that there songs were usually about
nothing and lifted from bubble-gum wrappers
or billboards.

Listening to a Mick Jagger or Jerry Garcia
interview from a 70's Rolling Stone is like
a Tom Wolfe parody.

Posted by: J.H. at September 22, 2003 9:40 AM


Rock Opera, Kansas, ELP, concept albums, "We're bigger than Christ", etc., etc., etc....never have people of less importance taken themselves more seriously. Then the Sex Pistols came out on stage, doing two minute songs with no idea how to even play their instruments and openly antagonizing their audience, instead of trying to pretend they were playing an opera house. It was sublime.

Posted by: oj at September 22, 2003 11:18 AM