Thoughts of Lester Bangs at 39000 Feet and 444MPH

Lesterbangs While sitting on the tarmac in Toronto waiting for my plane to be de-iced I did the only thing any bored airline traveler could do in the situation except for screaming at the top their lungs, I grabbed one of the books I had packed for my business trip and hunkered down to read a chapter or 2. Luckily I had dragged along with me a book that has sat neglected for some time but seemed perfectly appropriate for the situation. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung is an anthology of writings by Lester Bangs edited by Greil Marcus and collects a number of his prolific writings on rock and roll, life on the edge and the need for a revolution now. How does he hold up in these days of blogs, podcasts and instant microwaveable pop? Pretty damn good in my humble opinion.

It’s unfortunate that we live in a time where we are not so much interested in instant gratification as we are in instantaneous answers. We want to know now why that movie sucks, or that CD is good or that band is worth seeing. We don’t have the time to wade through pages of prose in order to get our answer of whether we should buy or more likely download the stuff. Just give us a yes or no, we don’t have the time or the inclination to have to think for crying out loud. The difference between a critic like Bangs and what we supposedly need now is that he took the time to formulate an opinion by elaborately and artfully setting up his argument while most probably deconstructing everything you liked at the time. I don’t think in this day and age anybody wants to be told they’re full of shit and this is unfortunate because Lester Bangs had no problem telling us that we are all in fact full of shit. Never one for a simple answer, he needed the time and space to elaborate on why we are full of shit and that luxury is unfortunately not available to most unless you count those esoteric blogs hanging off the edge of cyberspace that no one reads anyways.

Take for example his review of Funhouse by The Stooges that was published in Creem through November and December 1970. Titled “Of Pop and Pies and Fun: A Program for Mass Liberation in the Form of a Stooges Review, or, Whose the Fool?” most people today would not have the patience to read that review. They would skip to the end to see how many stars he rated the album or his general two line conclusion but they would have been disappointed and pissed off and probably would have just complained that this guy is too damn wordy and maybe just a little bit over the top. Bu they would be missing the whole point. Good critics are not here to tell us whether something is good or bad. A good critic is somebody who makes you think “holy shit, what is this lunatic talking about? I need to investigate this for myself because it may just mean something to me, good or bad.” A critic is not there to tell you how to spend your money but to help you decide why you should experience something for the sake of the experience. Lester Bangs would be the first to argue that he could very well be full of shit himself and the last thing he would want is a complete acceptance of his truth as the truth. Far from it. When I read anything that Bangs wrote half the time I’m shaking my head thinking he’s the one who is full of it. Monotony is not music and what the hell does he have against Led Zeppelin anyway? But at least he unleashes some passion, some emotion as the reader strives to justify to themselves why they like what they like and maybe, just maybe that album which you claim is so great is really a piece of crap and deep down you just know it. Lester Bangs wrote record reviews like little novels. There was passion in his art. He was a joy to read because he was so opinionated. He probably wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a mainstream magazine today.


1 Comment

  1. Hi Mark,

    Searching the web for like minded rock and roll soul is a thankless job. I triped over a link to you and found this great commentary on
    lester bangs.

    Back in the day (way before Big Daddy Kane) my friends and I would spend whole evenings aruging about what he meant and how he really felt about this record or that. As much as I hated him one month I’d love him the next when his opinin aligned with mine.

    Some music journalists still care and some still have opinions but how many more are only writing about the fringes in a futile effort to stay ahead of the pack instead of formulating well thought out critiques of pop masterpieces?


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