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Lester Bangs: Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic: Rock’N’Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock ‘N’Roll (1988)

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Review I never actually met the guy. But I devoured every published word of his between 1974, when I first discovered his work in CREEM , to his untimely passing in New York in 1982.

He was the last of a sorely-missed breed, a writer who played the English language like a honking saxophone, launching into soaring solo avalanches of prose and jamming all over the place like John Coltrane on a good night. Through his work in Creem and later Rolling Stone and the Village Voice, he influenced and inspired me to create my words with a rock & roll attitude, with my mental amp turned all the way up to 10, operating with total disregard for the niceties of style and conformity and making a big noise on paper. Lester taught me that a guy with a typewriter can jam just as well as a guy with a guitar and a Marshall stack. I remember laughing my ass off at Lester’s legendary “feud” with Lou Reed.

I remember being slightly pissed at his negative reviews of ELP, but the sheer exuberance in his writing more than made up for it. He taught me how a tune by Miles Davis could be just as musically valid as one by the Sex Pistols. I remember snatching the latest issues of CREEM when they hit the newsstands, eagerly flipping through them for the latest anything from Lester. On two occasions they actually published my letters in the letters section, which just made my day and gave me a taste of what it was like to have one’s words in a national publication. His witty replies to reader’s letters were of Oscar Wilde quality, and he was largely responsible for the demystification of rock stars, providing my star-struck generation with our first clues that rock stars were fallible humans just like the rest of us.

Lester claimed to have invented the term “punk rock”. He certainly had his own laundry list of personal failings too, but don’t we all? He was a critic whose lifestyle was similar to his audience’s, speaking to his readers like confidantes rather than at them, often at a level of unexpected personal intimacy. He refused to be swayed by record-company hype. Reading a Bangs review was like hearing somebody discussing their favourite band in a bar. He made a point of listening to the records he reviewed on regular crappy K-mart stereo systems, the better to connect with how the regular folks heard them.

Musical genius, he realized, would shine through any playback medium. His level of integrity and honesty in his writing will not be seen again. All I have left of Lester’s work now is a stack of ancient yellowing Creem magazines and a hard-cover collection of his best work, edited by Cameron Crowe, entitled Psychotic Reactions & Carburetor Dung, which I highly recommend to anyone who realizes rock & roll can exist in a place other than an audio recording or a stage. The title is borrowed from the Count Five’s (“Psychotic Reaction”) debut album. It is a glimpse inside the soul of a man for whom rock & roll was the fuel of life.

To read it is to be transported to a higher level of understanding and enjoyment of the sounds coming out of your speakers, much the same way you feel when you’re in the presence of a band which is really cookin’ onstage. The links below are to pages containing the reviews and articles which made Lester so much more than just another hack PR scribe. He died in New York City in April of 1982 of the flu (of all things) checking out of this life at the eerily prescient age of 33, just ahead of the advent of MTV and CDs. You have to wonder about the timing, but one thing is for sure: he left us much too soon.

Review This book is the chronicle of a great writer who never wrote a great book. Instead, Lester Bangs spent his unfortunately short life writing about rock music for magazines like Rolling Stone and Creem.

He wasn’t your average record reviewer, nor even your rarer thoughtful, analytical critic. He was a genius; he invented a new style of criticism, or at least brought it to its highest, most inimitable form. Casual, even sloppy; ragged, full of weird slang and weird mood swings, some obviously drug-inspired rambling, and some of the sharpest commentary any music critic has ever written. This book collects some of his work – a very small part of it – into something that may, perhaps, give us an idea of what kind of writer Bangs was, and why he mattered so much. He was one of the first rock critics to really delve into noise-rock, the art of not playing your instrument well.

Bangs followed the underground (velvet) movement all through the Seventies, listening to old garage bands, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, the Ramones, free jazz, the New York Dolls, and everything else noisy and free and wonderful, while everyone else was snoozing to James Taylor and wondering when the next Beatles would come along. In 1977 the Sex Pistols tore apart the rock scene and Bangs was vindicated; but they left it in ruins and heading, inexorably, for the emptiness of New Wave and the decade-long winter of the Eighties. Lester Bangs, dead in 1982, is alive and well in this book, which opens with the title essay and his ‘Stranded’ review of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, two of the greatest pieces ever written about rock.

It goes on through such memorable landmarks as “James Taylor Marked For Death” and that infamous, endless ‘interview’ with Lou Reed – actually, a whole section on Reed, including cryptically rambling notes and the hilarious ‘The Greatest Album Ever Made’, Bangs’ review of Reed’s Metal Machine Music – a double album of feedback noise – before getting to the really unforgettable, emotional stuff: a long, brilliant piece on the Clash, “Where Were You When Elvis Died?” and “Thinking The Unthinkable About John Lennon” for the two most famous deaths in rock history; “The White Noise Supremacists”, a stunning attack on racism in rock; and finally the Unpublishable stuff: Lester has this bizarre fantasy about becoming the dead Elvis and rotting away in his Vegas hotel room, and then there’s a fine short story based on Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May.”

All in all, it’s essential reading for anyone at all interested in rock as something beyond elevator music, something that reaches out and grabs you. Once it catches you, Lester Bangs knew all too well, it never lets go.

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May 10, 2013 Posted by | Book Lester Bangs Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic: Rock'N'Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock 'N'Roll | , | Leave a comment