Sunday 14 July 2013

The Psychotic Reactions of Lester Bangs

It's good Lester Bangs was such a good writer because the opinion's he had on the music of his time never quite gel'd with the mainstream. He championed The Velvet Underground in the late 60s, and said himself he was one of the few who did; it took so long for the band's reputation to grow in the mainstream to where Bangs had always held them that he didn't witness most of it due to his death at 33 in 1982 from an accidental drug overdose, not from the cough syrups he had used to get high for most of his life but from valium tablets of all things; treating a flu.

That shouldn't get ya down tho, bangs story, at least the one I salvaged from Psychotic Reactions, a collection of his writing selected by fellow famous music journo Greil Marcus released back in '87, is inspiring, at least in a music writing sense. The most obvious of this inspiration is Bangs' MC5 review which landed him a full time job at Rolling Stone and still stands as a beacon of hope to all aspiring rock critics; although the review itself, like all of Bangs' Rolling Stone material, is only mentioned in passing during the books introduction. The book mainly focuses on his time at Creem, a defunct music mag during the mid-70s and later as a freelancer. It's all good stuff, and mostly done in chronological order which allows you to see Bangs' writing style change and evolve over time, and also allows for that rarest of journalism; a writer referencing an older piece he's done and telling you why it's rubbish.

While reading I was infected with the wannabe journalist tendencies, trying my hand at music reviews and checking online vacancies all over town, a lot easier to catch while reading Psychotic Reactions than reading most modern journalism. Bangs' reviews tended to focus on the music in question a little less than one would expect; the sub-heading of the book says it perfectly "Rock 'n' Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock 'n' Roll" Bangs used his place as a music critic to talk about anything; politics, women, celebrity, and lots and lots of Lou Reed among others; it was a Gonzo style for sure, but it explained the music better than any stuffing of music stereotypes and recycled tropes could.

And Lester Bangs did have a lot to say. His reputation isn't for his writing, which was a fantastically sleazier version of Hunter S. Thompson, but for his ability to understand music and what made it work, which extended a lot further than his foresight of the Velvet Underground. Bangs is usually credited with inventing punk, not the musical style of course but the term at least. Mostly stemming from The Stooges, another one of Bangs' beloved that spent years in the red before the mainstream eventually apologized for their mangling. He talks here about punk, and in one specific case of Stooges' Fun House, and manages to bring a genre at the time accused of being lower art and show why it stands next to any other music of the time. He doesn't make the case for it as high art, but it does show how low-art and the raw, amateurish style therein were important in their own way.
Despite this cover Lester Bangs didn't look like a 70s pornstar in real life
Highlights include Bangs' famous interview with Lou Reed; a late night grudge match between two people who were happy to say exactly what they think of each other, and a tour log with The Clash where the punks are painted as saviours to all rock n roll. If there is a flaw to the book it's the final quater, specifically the section titled "Unpublishable" where the chronology is ditched to show a collection of unfinished works or diary scribbles. They make sense in the editing; showing you all of the different sides of the Bangs' writing, but I was half way through short story Maggie May, inspired but not about the Rod Stewart song, when I noticed there was a severe lack of music talk going into my brain. In the end we are returned to a final piece Bangs' wrote not long before his death that finally gets us back to the music and ties the whole thing, including what we know of his life, up into one neat package. Although I did struggle to find a bigger incentive to read when the subject wasn't music; not that all of these pieces are bad, a short excerpt from All My Friends Are Hermits, Bangs' first planned non-fiction, is interesting to say the least.

As for Bangs' take on music, he had a hard time with the music of the seventies, at least til punk arrived. He resented big bands of the time like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, not because they were big but because to him they represented going in the complete opposite direction of the raw emotion and rebellious spirit of the rock that was introduced in the 60s. The endless jam session guitar solos of Zeppelin and the self-imposed importance of the Floyd albums were symbols of all that was wrong with modern rock to Bangs. He got Zeppelin wrong, not who they were, they were the self entitled pricks he thought they were and not as good as anyone was willing to admit at the time, although this self-indulgence did sometimes bring home good results. Surely only a band that thought of themselves as highly as Zeppelin did could feel a song as long and unadvertising as Stairway To Heaven was what the world needed. I'm sure others will make a similar defense to Pink Floyd, although while reading it's hard to disagree with Bangs; he doesn't get bogged down with technical jargon and he lacked any offside agenda, he made a good case for what he thought, be it the popular opinion or not. He managed to separate the music and the politics behind it, but he was big on both; a band with good music could only be so good if they didn't treat their fans right or have some sort of personality behind the bravado.

It's this focus on the other aspects floating around the music that made Psychotic Reactions such a fun read. Don't go in for best music guides and "Lester Bangs' Top 10 Albums" type articles because they're not here, and the format is more focused on the articles he wrote than the reviews; the online rolling stone archives will serve you better if that's what your after. One article was research into racism found in the whole new wave scene. I'd never connected the two previously; not that it's the kind of thing you'd expect people to be remembering, which is probably what makes the whole thing such an interesting read. Another one of the best in the book is an obituary written for Elvis, it's both a good example of Bangs' Gonzo style in his story of the only Elvis show he ever saw live, and a showcase of one of Bangs biggest writerly obsessions; solipsism. The word is repeated over and over through the book, especially in the late 70s articles. Bangs said many things that took fruition long after his death; his hilarious quips in the late 70s that The Stones should just pack it in and avoid the embarrassment cracked a smile, but it's his assertion that solipsism was the future, that the age of agreement was over and from now on everyone would have their own taste of music, oddities and all differentiating from everyone else, that rings the most true.
You could make the case that we're in another 70s, a music industry who holds the cards, all of them with big dollar signs right across them, and we're desperately in need of another punk invasion, or whatever the 21st century equivalent of that would be. I wouldn't argue, although having tastes that oppose the mainstream isn't cool anymore; hipsters are so much the norm now they no longer exist. You could look at the past of music as a collection of smaller eras; the birth of rock 'n'n roll with Elvis and Berry and the likes in the 50s leading to early 60s bands like the Beatles and Stones which they inspired, who gave birth to the Psychedelic era which itself was were heavy metal was born, first with guitar bands like Cream and The Yardbirds and later the real thing with Zeppelin and Sabbath. It seemed like a never-ending evolution; new wave and post-punk and grundge and everything else. Somewhere along the line, before the turn of the century, it all got muddled and blurred together. Now everyone has their weird tastes and oddities, nothing new here. So in the same way a person might claim the exaggerated satire of a 70s film like Network makes it look so much like the modern world it's still relevant, so too is Psychotic Reactions more approachable today than lots of ramblings on older music that people have already made up their minds on.

As for the writing itself Bangs was a good prose artist. He clearly heralded from the 60s counter-culture side of things with William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. I read Fear and Loathing right before and the conversational style of both authors stuck out most; both were journalists who had bigger ambitions than a lifetime of weekly reviews, and both brought a sense that all of what they were saying was exactly how they felt, no over-familiar phrases and writing cliches to trick readers into think what they were reading had anything more than surface value. Bangs isn't the best writer in a technical sense, but he's my personal favorite; much easier to look up to a writer who let the creative juices flow out, fearless, than a self-questioning expert, forever finding the numerical nature of a set of words. Marcus, in the introduction, explains that Bangs was an all night writer, spilling feelings onto the page, but in his later years, after moving to New York in the late 70s, started re-writing his work more, found in the writing in a much more organized sense of structure and purpose. There is self-indulgence, but Bangs aim was always true; even the indulgence seems to add up in the end.
Phil Hoffman as Bangs in Almost Famous
But back to the man himself. In that final article of the book, the one from his notes that sums things up so nicely, Bangs tries to figure out why it's been his goal all of this time to review rock music, or more precisely to elevate the reputation of underground, under-loved bands like The Velvet Underground. Before reading the book I read an article about Bangs, possibly by another journalist who used to know him although I couldn't swear by it, that Bangs mission to persuade the opinions of others stemmed from his childhood as a Jehovah's Witness in a religious family that didn't take kindly to rock music. His frequent use of capitols to EMPHASIZE POINTS all from that early door to door persuasion, and the drive to be a rock critic spurred on by the rebellion of listening to rock music when he shouldn't've been. Bangs own explanation doesn't quite match, although there's probably truth in both; instead Bangs tells of his days in the late 60s, forced to listen to the endless Cream albums his friends would play, another band Bangs had reservations about, when all he wanted to play was White Light/White Heat. Of course this was the late 60s and his friends, like everyone else, just dismissed The Velvet Underground as fag music. Bangs had musical ambitions before this but he recounts this time of his life as the one that set him off. There's a whole book full of the career he made into a response. It's pretty long, although Blood Lines the second collection of Bangs work should be enough to show this is only a small showcase of his writings, although this is were to start and it's all interesting stuff. The writing elevating any subjects that might not interest you. Bangs death was a tragedy, and while reading my mind couldn't help but drift into thoughts of what he would have thought of all music since. Although I have no doubt he would have made sense of the jumble of modern music better than anyone else. 10/10

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