Thursday, May 17, 2007

Lester Bangs, A Great American Soul

Here is a great rock and roll read for anyone who has been asleep for the past twenty years and somehow missed it: Lester Bangs Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. The book is a collection of articles written over the course of Bangs' colorful downward spiral of a life, and was published posthumously in 1988. Irreverant, disgusting, hilariously funny, often sad, like Bangs himself the essays represent an era of American youth culture long gone.

For those who knew him personally, Bangs was a big teddy bear of a drunk, a rampant club-goer who ultimately just wanted someone to sit with him and listen to him rant. But clearly he was doing more than just drinking and ranting. Bangs was, if you’ll pardon the trite analogy, a kind of human sponge, showing up, absorbing, watching, categorizing, analyzing and theorizing the world around him in the moment. His writing reads like that of a wizened cultural historian looking back on a bygone era. But that moment was now.

He got music, completely. He didn't hesitate to lay bare the good, the bad and the ugly of those he wrote about and of himself. Part of his appeal is that he was never afraid to go out on a limb and say something illogical, angry and sometimes downright nasty. And this at a time when malicious journalism wasn’t commonplace, in an era of no internet, no blogs, no common medium for random bitching. Bangs wrote raw, ugly, passionate articles for relatively mainstream publications long before nasty was cool.

Lester Bangs is painfully of his time, a relatively innocent period of American culture when there was still a lot of ground to be broken and music to be made. Yet in retrospect he is also of the ages, a timeless and weary voice. His writing is poetic as well as ugly: disjointed yet coherent, pissed yet eloquent. In other words, his work mirrors the venom and passion of the music of the bands he writes about – Blondie, Velvet Underground, Brian Eno, the Ramones – as if the energy of the music had been translated into language. In a style reflecting the earthy poetic bop of the beat writers and a complex thought process akin to something penned by a critical theorist, Bangs reflects the raw and edgy qualities of these performers, as seen in this passage he wrote about Patti Smith's album, Horses:

What must be recognized is that she transcends bohemian cultism to be both positive and mainstream, even though her songs go past a mere flirtation with death and pathology. She just saw that it was time for literature to shake it and music to carry both some literacy and some grease that ain’t jive. The combination makes her an all-American tough angel, street-bopping and snapping her fingers, yet moving with that hipshake which is so like every tease you slavered after in high school. 

Bangs saw music as something more than just an isolated art form. He saw and seemed to understand the links between wildly disparate cultural markers – art, music, random rebellion, beauty – and the people who spawned them, proving himself to be one of those rare individuals who is able to glimpse the connections that link the cosmos. Lester Bangs understood the complexity of music and life at a level few people can even imagine, but it was his incredible breadth of scope that really made his writing unique. An article in which he beautifully expresses the relationship between free jazz and punk opens with this paragraph:

In a New York City nightclub, a skinny little Caucasian whose waterfall hairstyle and set of snout and lips make him look like a sullen anteater takes the stage, backed up by a couple of guitarists, bass, horn section, drummer and bongos. Most of his back-up is black, and they know their stuff: it’s pure James Brown funk, with just enough atonal accents to throw you off. The trombone player, in fact, looks familiar, and sounds amazing: you look a bit closer, and of course, that’s Joseph Bowie, brother of Lester, both of them avant-garde jazzmen of repute. But then the anteater begins to sing, in a hoarse yowl that sounds more like someone being dragged naked through the broken glass and oily rubble of a back-alley than even the studied abrasiveness of most punk rock vocalizations. The songs are about contorting yourself, tying other people up and leaving them there, and how the singer doesn’t want to be happy. After a while he picks up an alto sax, and out come some of the most hideous flurries of gurgling shrieks heard since the mid-Sixties glory days of ESP-Disk records. The singer/saxophonist’s name is James Chance, and you have been watching the Contortions.

Damn, that's good stuff.


Indietop20 said...

Your blog is pretty fantastic. I love the article on Lester Bangs. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

Julie said...

Thank YOU for reading and commentating, dear friend.