In Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe's cinematic ode to his bygone days in the early 1970s as a young writer at nasty ol' Rolling Stone magazine, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the role of Crowe's journalistic mentor, the notorious rock critic Lester Bangs. Hoffman brings a gentle touch to the role. He portrays Bangs as sensitive, thoughtful, soft-spoken, harmlessly anti-establishment, enormously accommodating and ever armed with the wisdom of the ages. "Don't get chummy with the rockers," he advises his painfully innocent protÃ©gÃ©, "they'll only screw you in the end." Naturally, in the film that will compete later this month for four Oscars (and now out on video), the kid goes right out and cozies up to the boys in the band. And does he get screwed in the end? Of course he does, but the fun along the way negates much of the pain of being a blundering adolescent in the fast, dirty world of rock & roll. From such precious, bittersweet memories, Big Screen blockbusters are made.
I vacated the theater with a light '70s buzz and Bangs heavy on my mind. For me, even if the movie was only a romantic fairytale draped in the guise of nonfiction, it was well worth the price of admission to see the greatest rock scribe of them all hauled into the consciousness of 21st-century American pop culture. So Bangs was probably whitewashed a bit. Whitewashing is a time-honored Hollywood tradition. Only through the lens of some hopeless Tinsel Town romantic, after all, could a truly dangerous firebrand like Jerry Lee Lewis be depicted as a handsome, pure-of-heart, Southern loverdoll, as he was in "Great Balls of Fire." Still, the question lingers: Is it better to be whitewashed for posterity's sake or simply forgotten forever? And then there's the larger question: What's it matter either way if, like Lester Bangs, your body has long since been cremated, your ashes scattered unceremoniously into the unremitting tides of the Pacific Ocean?
Posterity is a conceit for the living to consider. The dead could give a shit.
Late one evening about two years ago I was reading about one dead man, Elvis Presley, when I encountered the work of another, Lester Bangs. I was well into the endnotes of "Mystery Train," Greil Marcus' popular treatise on rock music. Following a couple dozen pages of detailed notes on Presley, Marcus arrives at what he calls "the finest, or the most final, words of obituary spoken on the occasion of Elvis Presley's death. Lester Bangs was writing in the Village Voice, Aug. 29, 1977, in a piece titled 'How Long Will We Care?'":
If love is truly going out of fashion, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each other's objects of reverence. I thought it was Iggy Stooge, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to speak for your own private, entirely circumscribed situation's many pains and few ecstasies. We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis's. But I can guarantee you one thing; we will never agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won't bother saying goodbye to his corpse. I will say goodbye to you.
Those were the first words of Bangs' I had ever encountered and they numbed my brain for a while. The prose was nebulous, but it also had heft. It was at once elusive and direct. As cultural critique, it was a masterful stroke. There it was, not only the death of a potent cultural icon but, more to the point, an unusually perceptive and accurate assessment of the splintered and withering society from -- and, strangely, into -- which the icon passed. The words reverberated in my mind for days. In the following weeks and months, I would break out "Mystery Train," flip to the back of the book where I had underlined the passage in black ink, and read it aloud to anyone who looked like they might be remotely receptive to whatever cold, haunting spell those words cast.
In a preface to the quote, Marcus mentioned that the full article was available in an anthology of Bangs' work called Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. I soon laid hands on the book, and I've felt something akin to blessed ever since. Reading Bangs, I recalled what Sun Records founder Sam Phillips once said of the great bluesman Howlin' Wolf: "When I heard him, I said, 'This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.'" Lester Bangs was that full of life. At least his writing was.
He championed bands that fellow critics either maligned or ignored. At length and glowingly, he wrote about ? and the Mysterians, the Godz and another forgotten band of the mid- to late-1960s era, Count Five, whose first album was called "Psychotic Reactions." Bangs approached these bands from a peculiar angle. Disregarding standard critical concerns regarding professionalism, musicianship and the like, Bangs saw in a band like Count Five a glowing reflection of his own deeper concerns. "But chillen," he wrote in a 1971 article for Creem magazine, reprinted in "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung," "I'm tellin' ya that it took me many weeks of deliberation, and many an hour's sweat hunched over a record counter, before I finally got up the nerve to buy that album `"Psychotic Reactions"`. Why? Well, it was just so aggressively mediocre that I simultaneously could hardly resist it and felt more than a little wary because I knew just about how gross it would be. It wasn't until much later, drowning in the kitschvats of Elton John and James Taylor, that I finally came to realize that grossness was the truest criterion for rock 'n' roll, the cruder the clang and grind the more fun and longer listened-to the album'd be. By that time I would just about've knocked out an incisor, shaved my head or made nearly any sacrifice to acquire even one more album of this type of in-clanging and hyena-hooting raunch. By then it was too late."
There was a nagging void in the heart of Lester Bangs for the sweet sound of dissonance cranked to the max. Whether writing about an obscure New York outfit like the Godz or a more popular act of his day -- Lou Reed, David Bowie, Van Morrison, Grand Funk, Jethro Tull, etc. -- he reserved his highest praise, if not always his best writing, for those who stayed closest to the original raw-boned spirit of rock music. Just keep it raunchy and real and the rest will take care of itself. Rock & roll was a big party, Bangs contended, nothing more and, if it was any good at all, certainly nothing less. Too much contrivance and it all goes to hell.
"When I get really dour sometimes," he wrote in "James Taylor Marked for Death" in 1971, "I wonder if it'd be possible at all to write a song today like, oh, say, 'Wild Thing.' People are just too superconscious of every creative move made in their lives of infinite possibilities and friendly niceness to do anything anymore that's ... just a simple expression of something with no real ramifications, at least none that the creator consciously put there: if some clown like me wants to come along and tell you that 'Wild Thing' is the supreme manifestation of Rock and Roll as Global Worldmind Orgasm plus Antespurt to the Millennium, you have the privilege of laughing in his face and telling him to shut up and go back to his orgone box. But if the writer of 'Wild Thing' had actually had any considerations in mind even remotely related to that kind of stuff when he sat down and made it up, you can bet it would have been a terrible song."
"Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung," edited by Marcus, was first published in 1987, five years after Bangs died -- "accidentally," according to Marcus, "due to respiratory and pulmonary complications brought on by flu and ingestion of Darvon." It is the only book of Bangs' writings in print, the only book of his ever in print aside from a tossed-off Blondie biography, and just about everything I or anyone of my post-Baby Boom generation or younger knows of Lester Bangs we garnered from its nearly 400 pages. (The book constitutes but a small fraction of Bangs' complete oeuvre. A bit more is available on the Internet. Also, last year, Broadway Books published a fine biography of Bangs. Rather straightforwardly written by Chicago Sun-Times rock critic Jim DeRogatis, "The Life and Times of Lester Bangs," "America's Favorite Rock Critic" includes as an appendix the entire text of Bangs' wickedly funny "How to be a Rock Critic.")
You don't have to admire or even like rock & roll to enjoy what Bangs unearths and wrestles with in "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung." A mere interest in one man's struggle with the sick but occasionally tolerable world around him will suffice. You might not agree with all or even most of his tastes and contentions -- i.e., "the Beatles were nothing" -- but Bangs didn't write for anyone other than himself. The feature articles and reviews, mostly culled from the pages of Creem and the Village Voice and all written between 1970 and 1981, are a distant cry from what generally passes today as rock journalism, which, by most appearances, is a thinly veiled, fully incorporated extension of the propagandistic swill passed down to the ever-gullible masses by major-label conglomerates who trumpet every ignoble release by every run-of-the-mill hack "artist" on a precisely calculated promotional budget as an "event," a "timeless, unprecedented masterpiece," a "deeply personal confession from one of the most compelling voices or our time ... Jewel." In his day, when the rock industry was not much different than in our own, Bangs railed against such phony conceits.
"The plain fact is that 99 percent of popstars do not have the true charisma, style or stature to hold their bastion (Bastille) stage without the artificial support they've traditionally enjoyed," Bangs wrote in a 1970 article for Creem titled "Of Pop and Pies and Fun." "Most of them, were they splat in the kisser with a pie or confronted with an audience composed of sane people demanding calmly (crude militant bullshit is out), 'What the fuck do you think you are doing? Just what is all this shit?' -- most of your current 'phenomenons,' 'heroes' and 'artists' would just fold up a stupefied loss, temperamentally incapable ... of dealing with their constituency of wised-up marks on a one-to-one basis."
In the current media-wide atmosphere of sheepish pandering to the hyper-inflated egos of modern pop stars and their handlers, the question is not whether there exists a writer with sufficient pluck to launch a Lester Bangs-type assault on these people -- there are several -- but rather what mainstream music magazine would be willing to print an overt attack on the dubious artistry of what constitutes, after all, the magazine's chief commodity? In the old days, of course, no one wrote about Bing Crosby or Sinatra the way Bangs often wrote about Lou Reed -- which is to say, with absolute malice and complete disregard for one man's carefully cultivated reputation. Neither did many critics make a living expounding on the chicanery and false pretenses that imbued much of the recording industry itself. But somewhere in the receding pipeline of history, right around the advent in the late 1960s of what was then touted by Tom Wolfe as New Journalism and what is now touted by its detractors in this renewed, sterile age of facts and "objectivity" as Bad Journalism, all that began to change.
Influenced by the Beat writers of the 1950s as well as by the liberalizing effects of America's rapidly changing political and social climate in the 1960s, dissatisfied journalists such as Wolfe, Truman Capote, Joan Didion and Hunter Thompson cast aside traditional notions of objectivity and began searching for "the truth" on more personal, visceral levels. "Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism," Thompson wrote in a damning eulogy for Richard Nixon, which, along with English music writer Nick Kent's post-mortem assault on Sid Vicious and H.L. Mencken's obituary for William Jennings Bryan, is probably the nastiest eulogy ever written about a man who wasn't a serial killer or an acknowledged leader of a fascist regime. But, Thompson continued, "it was the built-in blind spots of Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. ... You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly."
Lester Bangs was one of many exponents of the form. In fairness, few of these New Journalists were as innately hostile toward their subjects as Hunter Thompson, although Bangs could often be counted among the small number of writers who were. Reading through many of his essays and reviews, one can imagine the frumpy Bangs sitting in some messy office at Creem, speed and booze close at hand, pounding away on the Olivetti, harboring all the ill will in the world for a slick, bloated recording industry that to his particular sense of smell fairly reeked of sophistry and wholesale fraudulence.
"What we need," he wrote, "are more rock 'stars' willing to make fools of themselves, absolutely jump off the deep end and make the audience embarrassed for them, if necessary, so long as they have not one shred of dignity or mythic corona left. Because then the whole damn pompous edifice of this supremely ridiculous rock 'n' roll industry, set up to grab bucks by conning youth and encouraging fantasies of a puissant 'youth culture,' would collapse, and with it would collapse the careers of the hyped talentless nonentities who breed off of it."
Why did so many worthless bands and worthless records get the positive spin? That's what Bangs wanted to know. Money only explained so much. He found more satisfying answers embedded in Western culture's gullibility, its confoundingly low expectations, and its related willingness to warmly embrace and celebrate so much that was merely banal, mediocre and uninspired. Why, for example, was everyone so smitten with Led Zeppelin when it was obvious to Bangs that the band was nothing but a spoiled, pompous pack of silly-assed poseurs?
"Can you imagine Led Zeppelin without Robert Plant conning the audience: 'I'm gonna give you every inch of my love' -- he really gives them nothing, not even a good-natured grinful 'Howdy-do' -- or Jimmy Page's arch scowl of supermusician ennui?"
Stylistically, Bangs owed his 10 cents to the Beats, another dime to Charles Bukowski and at least as much to Hunter Thompson. There is contemplation and reflection in Bangs' work, but neither is of the deeply meditative Dali Lama-on-a-serene-hilltop variety. His were musings lifted straight from the maelstrom of whatever crazy storm he happened to be weathering at the time. And Bangs always seemed to be weathering a storm. Marcus touches on the point in his intro to "Psychotic Reactions": "Lester became a figure within the world of rock 'n' roll; within its confines, he became a celebrity. Doping and drinking, wisecracking and insulting, cruel and performing, always good for a laugh, he became rock's essential wild man, a one-man orgy of abandon, excess, wisdom, satire, parody -- the bad conscience, acted out or written out, of every band he reviewed or interviewed. He went to an interview ready to provoke whatever band was in town; whatever band was in town tried to provoke him. Thus by the time he moved to New York `in 1976` -- to find a burgeoning punk scene that seemed on the verge of fulfilling all his hopes and jeremiads -- he was a man to be lionized: a man you could be proud to say you'd bought a drink or given drugs."
One often senses while reading Bangs' words that the only thing that saved his head from exploding was the sure sense of purpose he brought to his work. If rock & roll was the people's salvation, as Bangs seemed to hope it would be, even in the late 1970s when solipsism held all the cards and cultural fragmentation was everywhere the order of the day, then he, the great Lester Bangs, would be rock's chief drum-pounding, bone-rattling Minister of the Word. A writer from the New York Times accurately assessed Bangs' work in a review of "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung": "With affection and rudeness and fury and mockery, with prose that moved in gusts and swirls and pratfalls, he showed how music could be -- for him as well as for less articulate, less self-conscious fans -- an arena of moral choices."
Among other things, life is a series of comings and goings, doing and undoings. Stasis is death.
Bangs might have been portrayed differently in "Almost Famous." Alternative options always abound, even if they're mostly ignored. Most of us want to find some meaning to our existence, something real beneath all the bullshit that clutters and obscures our lives every waking moment if we're not careful. Everyone has felt at least a fleeting moment of naked wonder at simply being a human being tossed for a precarious few years into the heaving tides of this beautiful world. Every so often, a breathless autumn evening comes along when the moon glows wild and the wind whispers softly in your ear, reminding you that life is more than what you buy and what you buy into. In the very scent of dawn, there is something real and true that we all must bear occasionally if we're to find any meaning at all to our strange lives. We are all immersed in brilliant music rarely heard.
The lords of popular culture tell us what to wear, what to hear, what to smell, what to taste, who to love and who to hate. They tell us what's in and what's out, what's lost and what's found, who to screw, how to do it and how to leave gracefully when we're done. None of it is necessarily to our benefit. We just grow more lost and desperate in our own fractured worlds. So much for the Pepsi Generation in the land of the Gap.
I never knew Lester Bangs, of course. He's been gone for nearly two decades and I've just begun to miss him. He wrote some enduring and important words about rock music and pop culture. By necessity, not all of it was nice or approving. For instance: "Elvis was a force of nature. Other than that he was just a turd."
Well, maybe Elvis was just a supernatural turd, some singularly complex ethereal composite of voice, presence and elemental waste beyond the reckoning of mere mortals. Even so, for a few fleeting moments before fame swept him away forever, Elvis was the purest expression of faith and freedom and yearning that exemplified rock & roll in its finest hour, and Lester Bangs was right: We have never agreed on anything as we agree on that. But, hell, what's it all matter now? The king is gone, as is, for that matter, one of the great torchbearers of rock & roll's original, uncompromising spirit.
Lester Bangs died on April 30, 1982. He was 33 years old.
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