Here’s a thing on this book that I wrote on my Agony Shorthand blog 11 years ago…


I’ve now completed two posthumous books and one entire magazine (Throat Culture) written by, and another book written about, Mr. LESTER BANGS. I guess you could say that I, like many, am an admirer of the guy who truly put the rrrr in rock critic. Someone made the point in the forward to the “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung” collection that a lot of Bangs’ pieces read even better as straight-up prose than as vanilla “rock criticism”, and I whole-heartedly agree.

It’s probably redundant to make the point that this guy, when ON, was one of the finest and most funny writers of his century, all genres included. That he also had strong and well-defined taste in outside-the-lines rock music as it was being created was a nice side benefit, given that Bangs was cheerleading for the Velvet Underground, Stooges and MC5 (after his much-celebrated false start with “Kick Out The Jams”, which is included here) in the late 60s/early 70s with the same bug-eyed intensity that people do today. Finally, Bangs had the humility to write follow-up articles proclaiming his initial ignorance whenever he’d slam something that later grew on him, as he did with both “Kick Out The Jams” and, in this collection, “Exile On Main Street”. And his plaintive justifications for “mis-hearing” them actually held water, too.

One of the surprises of this recent collection of essays and scattered writings, circa 1967-1983 is that Bangs was one of the few writers I’ve seen who could write about jazz with the same amount of feeling and passion (and knowledge! Bangs was no dilettante) he brought to rock and roll. Some of the best work in here is his cold dismissals of MILES DAVIS’ 1970s fusion and funk meanderings in comparison with the glories of the 50s and 60s, and his willingness to call Davis on his callous and ornery disdain toward his fans.

There also a few riotous essays and/or reviews on Bob Dylan, Wet Willie and their shy search for groupies, more LOU REED worship/baiting, and a fantastic piece on THE DOORS deflating the Morrison myth while keeping his longtime love for the music intact. The 1979 CAPTAIN BEEFHEART essay, which includes snippets of interviews with the good and good-hearted Captain, is easily the single best thing I’ve read on Beefheart anywhere. Bangs also makes up for his slobbering CLASH obsession with a correct (i.e. mocking) take on Jello Biafra and the Dead Kennedys in real time.

Finally, there’s a well-mannered travelogue of Bangs’ paid junket to Jamaica along with a bunch of other rock journalists, there to report back on reggae culture and interview Bob Marley. Bangs approaches the whole thing with a great deal of healthy skepticism and comes away marginally impressed, if not a changed man. It’s terrific reading, and arrives at the perfect intersection of music fandom and gonzo travel writing.

There are also areas of this book that call for a quick breezing-through, rather than a deep read. Bangs wrote much of his material while high, drunk or both – and was legendary for first-take-is-the-best-take, stream of consciousness blabbering. That so much of it so intelligent, funny and insightful is in itself amazing. But much of it isn’t, and editor John Morthland was smart to include some of the more rambly and difficult stuff to help keep a sense of perspective in check. So even though a good chunk of the book is unpublished material, I wouldn’t get too lacquered up about it. A lot appears to be drugged-fueled journal entries on nights when things weren’t going so well, some of which hits brilliance in places, but much of which begs for the same sort of half-hearted speed reading as the spirit in which it was written.

I was also surprised to see an over-intellectualization of the ROLLING STONES in places; at time Bangs succumbs to Ivy League navel-gazing about this most primal of rock groups, then veers off into gossip about how much he dislikes Mick’s wife etc. Yeah, Bangs was a pretty tortured guy with a lot of inner demons, but he appears on whole to have been a very decent and at times lion-hearted man. It would have been great to grab a beer with him, ask a few strategic questions and just watch him go. Consider this collection an adjunct to the superior “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung”, but if you loved that one, there’s no reason to think you won’t dig this too.

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