Online Edition: Winter 2003/2004

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Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste

A Lester Bangs Reader

edited by John Morthland

Anchor Books ($15)

by Adam Hall

To write rock criticism having never read the work of the late Lester Bangs is a bit like attempting to ignite an audience never having heard of Iggy Pop: you can do it, but you'll have no idea how much better your predecessor was. Bangs's pyrotechnic, adrenaline-fueled diatribes are rife with jarring cultural references, unpopular and unexpected opinions (from anointing Anne Murray a sex goddess in his review of Danny's Song to labeling Bob Dylan as craven opportunist in "Bob Dylan's Dalliance with Mafia Chic"), and infectious passion for the music which consumed him. These elements fulminate into such a heady brew that the reader is invariably taken aback by Bangs's relentless, electrifying ode to rock.

Admittedly, this unceasing soliloquy occasionally degenerates into muddled stream-of consciousness rambling; segues derail into train wrecks and references fly at your face like so much shrapnel. But even as John Morthland, a longtime friend of Bangs and editor of Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader, cops to Bangs's inconsistencies, he points out that "his ability to move his most electric thoughts from the brain to the page without interruption" endowed Bangs with the power to create truly extraordinary work. None of the writing contained in this new collection of reviews, fiction, and essays drifts into the copacetic euphemism which is part-and-parcel of rock criticism today. No "jangly guitars," "lush soundscapes," or "melodic croons"--vague terms which populate as many record reviews as press releases these days--inhabit any space in Bangs's oeuvre. Instead, Bangs paints descriptions so vivid that even albums never heard take on a tangible formation in the reader's mind. Witness his description of John Cale's instrumentation for Nico's The Marble Index: "Through a pale morning's arctic sunlight glinting dimly off the snow, a bank of violas emits one endless shrill note which eventually becomes electronically distorted by points of ice panning back and forth through the space between your ears."

One of Bangs's most endearing traits as a critic is the pleasure he took in defacing the pedestals of his own favorite idols, the aforementioned Dylan piece being but one example. Bangs's most cherished sacred piñata takes the shape of the Rolling Stones, who the author reveres as saving his soul in one paragraph and decries as peddlers of mediocrity in the next. Four articles charting the progress of Bangs's growing disillusionment with the band are included in the "Pantheon" section of Mainlines, from his glowing summation of Exile on Main Street, in "I Only Get My Rocks Off When I'm Dreaming" ("When so many are working so hard at solipsism, the Stones define the unhealthy state, cop to how far they are mired in it, and rail at the breakdown with the weapons at their disposal: noise, anger, utter frankness") to his merciless dismissal of Mick Jagger in "State of the Art: Bland on Bland," a review of Black on Blue ("So thank you for not aspiring: you are an inspiration to the blank generation whole."

Bangs, in short, was more than a rock critic; he was a writer, in the truest sense of the word. Instead of taking the pose of the faceless tastemaker dispensing snide "truths," he effortlessly weaves his own pathos, his own joy, and his own personal disappointments into the fabric of his prose. Furthermore, under Bangs's speed-driven fingertips, the typewriter becomes an erratic instrument of social reparation: rock criticism transcends itself and becomes a revolutionary act, a living commentary not just on this record or that band, but on the society and culture from which they spawned. Nowhere is this more evident than in his rant on the death of Sid Vicious, where Bangs decries the Punk Generation for failing to find "valid, non-copout alternatives" to nihilistic, self-destructive punk excesses. "And this isn't like If You Can't Say Anything Nice Don't Say Anything At All," he writes, "it's more like . . . . why restate what's been said and refuted already?"

So much talk about the state of rock music today has led this generation to question whether anyone can save rock and roll. From my admittedly biased vantage, a more cogent question to ask might be "Can anyone save the state of rock criticism?" After reading Bangs, it is tempting to wonder what he would have had to say about the depressing state of modern radio, the proliferation of irony and apathy trumping the actual expression of emotion in music, or the appalling decay and desiccation that has turned his beloved Rolling Stones into even more of a parody of themselves than when he last wrote about them. It is tempting to wonder, because if Bangs were still around, rock critics might actually inflame passions and fuel debate rather than support a status-quo party line for fear of their own cool index. To save rock criticism, we need another hero. We need another Lester Bangs.

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Winter 2003/2004 Table of Contents