To hell with Ziggy Stardust, which amounted to starring Judy Garland in The Reluctant Astronaut. — Lester Bangs
You never know what you’re getting into when you decide to write about a major subject in rock history.
The next thing you know, you’re in the thick of it and the scrap is flying and the verbs stop working and every song you’re looking for on Grooveshark is grossly mislabeled. (Who the hell puts Van Morrison under the mysterious label VA? Who the hell is VA?)
And that’s when you really start cursing, but good.
Tonight is a perfect example of fine intentions gone terribly, hideously awful.
I’m trying to write about rock critic Lester Bangs. (Yes, please do focus on the trying part.)
Before I even considered this particular Bluebird Sessions, I had to ‘fess up to myself that I don’t know Bangs as well as I should, and that I am really near crazy for trying to write about him in the first place.
Here we are.
It’s impossible to give an overview of Bangs or his work as a critic without sliding sideways on greased wheels right into the flippant over-the-counter drug fueled patois of El Bangs himself.
So, to that end, I’ve given up and given in to the impulse to just be Bangs for the day. I’m going to use a lot of irony-free italicized statements and a WHOLE bunch of overexcited capitalized ones. And soupçon of rhetorical questions. Why not? If we’re going to go there, let’s go there, right?
Yeah, I thought so.
Lester Bangs, in brief: Rock critic extraordinaire. Wrote briefly for Rolling Stone and was fired, according to legend, for writing a bad review of Canned Heat.
Big man at Creem, but shared mental space with his protégé, fellow rock writer and musician, Peter Laughner— who died in 1977, five years before Bangs himself would overdose in New York City on a combination of pills. (Bangs had recently quit drinking.)
Portrayed quite reverentially in Almost Famous by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who captured the weird combination of coolness, clarity and hyper-chaotic excitement that Bangs exuded in person and on the page.
Whew! How’m I doing folks? Am I holding it together?
In truth, when I started writing The Bluebird Sessions and doing Bluebird Blvd.’s patented 5-Minute Dance Parties on my page, I have to be honest— I was quite terrified. Music is not my area of expertise. I am a fan of music. Not an expert. Never have been an expert.
Yeah, I studied piano for eight years, but to tell you the tricky little truth— my gifted piano teacher didn’t want to fool with someone who picked up everything by ear and appeared to refuse to learn how to sight-read music properly.
(Personally? I think my inability to read music was another form of my dyscalculia.)
ANYWAY. Let me stop listening to The Clash here for a second in order to get down ‘n’ dirty serious with you. The thing that kept me thinking and writing and talking about music was LESTER BANGS.
Yeah, I know that he’s was an encyclopedic genius with the ability to toss out these long, funny and strange reviews and covers of new music.
(And kids? Know that he had a host of editors, copy editors and fact-checkers to catch his errors. Bangs also revised like a madman. He was a professional writer after all. Tossing out is a turn of phrase, not a big reveal on the way the man wrote.)
Yeah, I know that he got in on the ground floor of not one, but two different music magazines— Rolling Stone and Creem— penning a type of music writing we take for granted today as literary institutions of the contemporary cultural world.
But, daaaaaamn, do you know what I love about Bangs? Do you?
The man was a fan. Down to his most-assuredly unwashed socks. He LOVED music— new music. Old music. Big music. Small music. Stupid music. Smart music.
Bangs went and heard everything. If he hated it, he listened to it two or more times. He hated albums that he later loved enough to start a counter-argument against his own prior emphatic opinions, throwing the whole blody down on the metaphorical table in front of us, his readers.
A few words about reading Bangs. It’s kind of like taking medication. Use only as directed. Too much of Lester Bangs’s writing and you will see a freaky fifth-dimension and start yearning for plasticized Beatle boots.
Sometimes reading his work is like reading a bunch of hyperactive middle-of-the-night emphatic verbs running around sweat-nasty on the page tripping over proper nouns and BIG CAPITALIZED PRONOUNCEMENTS and weird constructions of whatnots that may cause nosebleeds if you try to examine them any closer.
His obsession with Lou Reed drives me to guzzling mixed nuts at the kitchen counter while glowering at the turquoise clock tocking away behind the stove.
Bangs could be cruel and funny and terrible.
“James Taylor Marked for Death” came up recently in one of those PBS specials that seems to repeat on the worst possible nights when The Husband wants to watch Downton Abbey and he finds Peter, Paul and Mary warbling through another one of their Special Concerts to Support the Making of Concerts that Are Affiliated With Important Charities That Build Windmills. End stop.
In the PBS special I suffered through that night, James Taylor himself brought up Bangs in that laconic drawl of his, a voice that involuntarily causes my eyes to roll back in a squamous flutter.
At that exact moment, I realized that Taylor would bring Bangs back from the dead, if he could, by any means at his laconic disposal, for the sole purpose of killing Lester Bangs for writing not only “James Taylor Marked for Death,” but also the meanest album review (800 words or fewer) ever written—” James Taylor: One Man Dog.”
Having never been a big James Taylor fan myownself, I found Taylor’s response fascinating.
Was Taylor expressing a human emotion besides that chickory-tainted folksy earnestness?
Is it possible?
I dog-eared that moment in my head and got on with my work in another room.
I was thinking about writing a Lester Bangs tribute back then, but I couldn’t get up the nerve. I can’t say I have the nerve now. What I have is the deadline.
I know I set out today to write about Lester Bangs, and I ended up writing about him in a way that barely touches the tip of the Bangs experience, but I don’t know how to get you any closer. He was such a white-hot star of blazing music-fueled originality that it is still hard to grasp the gut-soul of the man, ya dig?
The man had heart is all I’m saying. A big heart.
And he believed that rock and roll and jazz and soul and country and all that new music changed how we thought about ourselves. About each other.
Bangs wrote a lot about that a lot, too, tucked between his hyperbolic and encyclopedic discussion of music and his raving and scathing sharp-shooter reviews.
But, the big thing here is that he had heart to spare. It’s Lester Bangs that’s on my mind tonight as I think about music. (Well, Lester Bangs and that terrifying James Taylor with bloodlust in his drawl.)
To read Lester Bangs is to know Lester Bangs. I highly recommend Psychotic Reactions and Carburator Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic: Rock ‘n’ Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock ‘n’ Roll, edited by the fab-o Greil Marcus. You’re probably going to want to read the New York Times obituary for Lester Bangs, but the real deal is music writer and professor Robert Christgau’s lengthy obituary for The Village Voice. titled, simply Lester Bangs, 1948-1982.
Other Lester Bangs books I own and recommend: Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader and Let it Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic
WHAT?!? NOT ENOUGH LESTER BANGS FOR YA? HERE YOU GO, YA DOG— Instant Bluebird! Make the Song Go Bang! (A Quick Lester Bangs Primer).