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The low spark of a rock hack

Mainlines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader, Edited by John Morthland, Anchor: 410 pp., $15 paper

September 07, 2003|Jon Caramanica | Jon Caramanica is a writer whose pieces have appeared in GQ, Rolling Stone and the Village Voice.

In 1968, when he was just 20, Lester Bangs completed his autobiography. "Drug Punk," as he titled the never-published manuscript, chronicled a life that traded a youth marked by repression and cultural vacuity for a not-quite-adulthood full of musical and narcotic-al abandon. Bangs wrote about the politics of the day with mordant wit, about his unbroken stream of drug intake with fascination and about his personal limitations -- from his paralysis at witnessing a Hells Angels gang rape to his concerns about his skills as a writer -- with uncommon candor.

At times, he felt useless in front of the typewriter. "I'll probably never produce a masterpiece," Bangs wrote. "But so what? I feel I have a Sound aborning, which is my own, and that Sound if erratic is still my greatest pride, because I would rather write like a dancer shaking my ass to boogaloo inside my head than to be or write for the man cloistered in a closet somewhere reading Aeschylus while this stupefying world careens crazily past his waxy windows toward its last raving sooty feedback pirouette." The supernova had begun.

In his introduction to the first Lester Bangs anthology, 1987's "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung," editor Greil Marcus asserted, "[W]hat this book demands from a reader is a willingness to accept that the best writer in America could write almost nothing but record reviews." And Bangs had a voice that could suspend said disbelief. He wrote about music the same way most ardent fans think about it: passionately, fitfully and with a foot-on-the-gas-pedal sense of subtlety. Bangs could be jaded, for sure, but even his hit jobs on artists or albums took on the tone of a scolding by a loved one.

Following "Psychotic Reactions," "Mainlines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste" is the second anthology of Bangs' work, and editor John Morthland -- a close confidant of Bangs' during the critic's life and co-executor of his literary estate -- is confronted with a long shadow to work around. Marcus cherry-picked many of the very best Bangs pieces for his set -- "The White Noise Supremacists," an analysis of racism in the punk scene; a suite of articles that track Bangs' admiration for, revulsion to and jousting with Lou Reed; an epic personal account of a road trip with the "insufficient" Clash -- but still left vast gaps in his version of history, ignoring altogether Bangs' early work for Rolling Stone, as well as his first, unpublished personal writings.

Morthland's selection of pieces aims for broader context, opening with logorrheic excerpts from "Drug Punk" (from which the selection above is drawn), then sweeping through Bangs' reviews -- from Rolling Stone, Creem and several other titles -- and closing with a series of travel fantasias (with "travel" defined extremely broadly). "Mainlines" is, by design, something of a schizoid experience, and reading Bangs en masse can be numbing. In a sense, the proper nouns -- the actual objects of critique -- don't matter, so long as they provide a kernel of an excuse for Bangs to riff.

In general, good criticism demands an impassioned response. However, driving without a seatbelt has its limitations, and Bangs was almost always on, even when it was clear the subject matter at hand didn't merit his mania. In "Blood Feast of Reddy Kilowatt!" a 1974 skewering of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Bangs shines when describing the group's stage show as a "martial array of percussion" and calling their percussionist a "beamy sod." Yet, when face to face with them for an interview, he can't even muster the energy to wittily parry the group's lame responses to his questions.

Let's face it, then: Bangs was a hack. A hack of unusual skill and vision but still a pen-for-hire. And like all working schlubs, sometimes he ran out of gas. Bangs wrote in a stream-of-consciousness style -- or, more accurately, a stream-of-semiconsciousness style -- that served him poorly as often as not. He was known for changing his mind, usually a complete about-face, and did so on albums ranging from the MC5's garage-punk primer "Kick Out the Jams" to Miles Davis' fusion experiment "On the Corner." In a series of articles about the Rolling Stones, he veers from exultant admiration to sneering dismissal, lauding them for putting on the best concert of his life and shaming them for their complicity, however inadvertent, in the Altamont tragedy. "Why don't you guys go fertilize a forest," Bangs concludes.

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