Posts Tagged ‘Lester Bangs


Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader by Lester Bangs

Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs ReaderMain Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader by Lester Bangs, edited by John Morthland

I have a few cornerstones when it comes to music writing: two that immediately come to mind are Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train and the Rough Guide to Rock. Both do different things: one seeks to explain the cultural connections between America and music, the other’s a cheekily written, highly opinionated compendium of every band you’d want to read about, plus a bunch you don’t (The Pooh Sticks, for example).

But a big one is the collected works of Lester Bangs. His career was relatively brief, lasting less than 15 years, but he wrote a ton: reviews for Rolling Stone, essays for The Village Voice and just about everything in Creem. While there are parts of his writing I’m not really huge on – I don’t think it was unfair when Sara Marcus called him a homophobic speed freak in the LA Review of Books – other parts of his attitude still ring out to me. He refused to compromise, calling artists out as he saw them  for releasing awful music. Hell, he was once fired for being disrespectful to musicians, since I suppose critics should be nothing but respectful and polite. He wrote a handful of memorable essays, including two which are as relevant today as they were in his lifetime: Where Were You When Elvis Died, for my money the best remembrance of Elvis’ legacy, and The White Noise Supremacists, a scathing attack on racism in punk rock.

Neither essay is in this second collection of Lester Bang’ writings: Main Lines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste. But this volume isn’t the leftovers from a short career in music journalism. It offers a more even look at Bangs career than the other collection out there, with a little bit of everything: prehistory in the form of excerpts of a novel written by a teenaged Bangs, his first reviews for Rolling Stone, long features for Creem Magazine and some material published posthumously.

By and large, Bangs is remembered as a music critic who was sometimes harsh when reviewing records. And maybe if you’ve read his other collection, you know he was really into Lou Reed and The Clash, too. But Main Lines… shows how wide-ranging his writing was. Even right from his first published reviews one sees his wide interest in music: who else went right from writing about the MC5 to jazz? These are interesting in an academic sense, but it’s only when he starts bashing people that his reviews stand out from the pack.

The book really takes off when Bangs stretches out into feature writing: there’s fun looks at the mid-70s Rolling Stones, an interesting profile of Captain Beefheart (complete with unprovoked slams at Frank Zappa!) and a great account of him travelling to Jamaica to experience reggae first-hand, spending time at recording studios and record stores and at the English labels who ripped these artists off.

Two that really stand out to me are his essays on Miles Davis’ electric albums. The first, written in the wake of Davis’ 1973 album On The Corner, captures the prevailing mood towards that album in the mid-70s: it was a sellout at best, a strange and failed experiment at worst. Bangs goes after him, stretching back several albums to Miles in the Sky, and experiencing a Davis gig in New York, trying to sort out what he calls the cancer in the music and slamming Davis for playing with his back to audience.

The second, published around the time Bangs died, takes a nuanced look at Davis’ electric period as the musician reemerged from a self-imposed retirement. By this time, Bangs has caught up to the album: listen to On the Corner while watching people move on the sidewalk, he writes, and feel the inherent energy, the vibrating rhythms both have in common. He was the rare critic who admits to his mistakes, to when he was wrong: he was part of the crowd that trashed Davis in the mid 70s, the chorus of voices who followed him into a retirement, but he was also among the first who came to meet those albums on their terms and realize how groundbreaking they were, too. It’s a shame Bangs died so young: I can only imagine what he’d have made of the rise of college radio, hip-hop and electronica.

Still, even now, when music criticism has seemed to devolved into ratings on a 1-10 scale and Klosterman-esque thought experiments, Bangs’ essays stand out. He was a unique voice in music writing, the rare critic whose love for music is matched by his brash opinions of what really mattered in music. Whenever I get stuck on something for Bearded Gentlemen Music, Bangs is the first writer I turn to.

Rating: 7/10. Some of the writing here is kind of hit and miss – the reviews don’t really stand out, but what Rolling Stone reviews ever will? – and some of his more out-there stuff in the latter sections (Trapped By the Mormons comes to mind) didn’t do anything for me, although I recognize their value as insights into his personality. Still, on the whole, this is a great collection by one of the more entertaining writers in rock criticism. Recommended. 


A Hunka Hunka Hot Mess: Greil Marcus’ Dead Elvis

Dead ElvisDead Elvis by Greil Marcus

A collection of previously published writings on Elvis, Greil Marcus’ Dead Elvis is an attempt to put Presley in a greater context, to reconcile his place in American culture. I’m not sure it’s entirely successful, but I’m not sure it’s something any one person can do, too.

The pieces range from book reviews to in-depth criticism to obituaries, published in places like The Village Voice, Artforum and Rolling Stone. Some look at works about Elvis: Joni Mabe’s collages; Albert Goldman’s trashy biography. Others have a looser connection, like the review of Nick Tosches’ biography of Jerry Lee Lewis. Some of Marcus’ impressions are insightful and intelligent, sometimes they’re a little academic (like when he quotes Vaneigem). Throughout, it’s juxtaposed by images of Elvis: fine art, bootleg record covers and underground comics. Taken as a whole, they show society’s fascination with someone who meant something to nearly everyone. But what he meant isn’t quite clear.

With all the breakdowns of culture, the looks at myth-making and the role of art, Marcus’ book is weighed down by its own criticism. He spends so much time tying together the disparate elements of popular culture, it’s easy to lose sight of the subject itself: Elvis often vanishes here, washed over by Melville, UK punk and art theory. The book builds to a climax, but what’s the climax? Elvis is still dead, Elvis is still alive. Yes and…? It never seems to get that far.

Oddly, it’s a quote by Lester Bangs that he runs early in the book which hits the mark best:

“I can guarantee you one thing: we will never agree again on anything as we agreed on Elvis.”

And that’s the rub: Elvis mattered to everyone, once. His role has changed so much since his death and continues to change, making Marcus’ Ahab-like quest to nail down a meaning futile. What does Elvis mean? Depends on who’s asking, I suppose.

Rating: 3/10. No wonder there’s a gushing quote by David Foster Wallace on the back: like his bloated Infinite Jest, this book pads out it’s thesis with unneeded juxtaposition, analysis and, ultimately, rings hollow. Compared with his essay on Elvis in Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll, this book feels superfluous. You might as well read that one again.


Three quickie book reviews

Michael Chabon – The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

This was a really cool book. It’s kind of a combination of Mordecai Richler and Raymond Chandler, a hard-boiled detective story set in a Jewish settlement in Alaska in it’s end times, before it reverts back to the US and it’s population is kicked out. Meyer Landsman, a dectective imploding into his own vices tackles a murder that takes him deep into conspiracies, a sect of orthodox Jews looking for a messiah and dwarf police chief who rides a 2/3rd scale motorcycle.

While Chabon could have easily let this book  become a parody of pulp lit – Bukowski fell into this trap – his work doesn’t even feel like a tribute, just something that is what it is. It’s wisecracking, stuffed with memorable characters – Berko, the Jewish Native is a standout – and clever wordplay and is compulsively readable.

Hip: The History – John Leland

Leland’s book doubles as both a narrative history of what is hip in America and as a look at how race, language and culture have intermingled to become known as hip over the past century. Hip, argues Leland, runs almost right through from novelists like Herman Melville to performers like Notorious BIG, with stops along the way in Beat and Jazz culture. Leland’s account is detailed, although he tends to move around from topic to topic, and at times almost feels like a textbook.

Still, he does a great job cataloging just how language and ideas are redefined and pushed to extremes, letting the mainstream come to them before they push out again into uncharted waters. For one interested in how and why the culture of America is pop culture, Leland’s book is a must.

Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung – Lester Bangs

A sampling of Bang’s work as a rock critic, the bulk of it in the 70s for Creem, this collection is decent, if a little uneven. As a critic, Bangs wasn’t afraid to call a band or an album bullshit, which is an admirable enough trait. And he wasn’t afraid to rave about what he did like, either: this book has fantastic reviews of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music and Van Morison’s Astral Weeks.

Bangs was also a pretty good feature writer too: his pieces on travelling with The Clash, on racism in the punk rock community and his infamous interview with Lou Reed are worth the price of admission. And while some of his pieces drag, usually when he writes the kind of self-aggrandizing bullshit that Hunter Thompson used to specialize in, overall it’s an interesting collection.