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Faces in the Crowd: Lester Bangs

“Art, Bop and rock and roll and whatever is all just a joke and a mistake, just a hunka foolishness so stop treating it with any seriousness or respect at all and just recognize the fact that it's nothing but a wham-o toy to bash around as you please in the nursery... don't worry about the fact that it's a joke and a mistake and a bunch of foolishness as if that's gonna cause people to disregard it and do it in or let it dry up and die, because it is the strogest, most virulent, most invincible Superjoke in history, nothing could ever destroy it ever, and the reason for that is precisely that it is a joke, a mistake, foolishness. The first mistake of art is to assume that it's serious.”  - Lester Bangs, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung

Lester's biggest literary influence as far as other writers went, was the Beat Generation gang (Burroughs, Kerouac, Corso etc.) Much like the Beats, Lester himself often became the centerpiece of his writings.  Maria Bustillos, in a 2012 New Yorker magazine profile, Lester Bangs: Truth Teller, explains how some of Lester's family backround influenced the development of his unique writing style: "Bangs, who was born in 1948 and grew up in El Cajon, California, had been driven out into the wider world by a complicated, shambolic family: his mother, Norma, was a devout Jehovah’s Witness, and his father, Conway, was an incorrigible drunk. Many imaginative kids who feel trapped in oppressive surroundings find solace, pleasure, excitement, and every other kind of relief in music and literature: in Bangs’s case this tendency was exceptionally pronounced. The community of Witnesses Bangs’s family belonged to believed in an end-is-nigh ideology, and they disapproved of Christmas presents, birthday parties, and education beyond reading the Bible. Here is the root, perhaps, of the seductive ease and fluidity with which Bangs riffed on culture high and low."

Later in his career, Lester even started up a couple of his own bands and released a few records; Birdland and Jook Savages On The Brazos.  His reasoning behind all this seemed to be "How can I criticize something I haven't done myself!"  While his brief tenure as a musician failed to answer any of his own big questions about artistry in general, Lester continued to question the sounds that seeped out of his stereo speakers until he shuffled off his mortal coil back in 1982.

Since his death, Lester had indeed become a folk hero of sorts. Many folks invoke his name, claiming him as a true visionary.  This is usually par for the course when someone who's too cool for the room checks out early.  To my way of thinking, the best way to celebrate Lester is to simply read something he's written.  An excellent book to start with is Psychotic Reactions & Carburetor Dung (Anchor Press, 1988), an anthology of his work which was assembled after his death by his good friend, Greil Marcus.  While some folks have carped that Marcus tamed the wild spirit of Bangs a mite too much in this posthumous anthology, I think this collection has only improved with time.  My personal Bangs favorite is the Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung piece which had Lester interviewing a deceased Jimi Hendrix in heaven.  I recall when that was first published, it freaked a lot of people out because Hendrix was considered a deity.  I thought it was funny as hell.  Not many books can be said to capture the untamed spirit of a garage band but this one certainly does the job.

In 2000, Lester's legend began to spread to a wider audience with the release of the Cameron Crowe film, Almost Famous.  Crowe's take on the rock world in the early 70's is enhanced by the use of Lester Bangs as one of the film's supporting characters.  The use of Lester Bangs as a character in the film underscores the transition of rock music from a musical genre to a corporate business entity.  During the film, Lester Bangs, as played by the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, delivers several true to life monologues to the film's lead character, a teenage journalist named William (based on Crowe's real life experiences).  There's one monologue in particular that I does a great job of capturing the true essence of Lester Bangs:"You know, because once you go to L.A., you're gonna have friends like crazy. But they're gonna be fake friends. You know, they're gonna try to corrupt you. You got an honest face, and they're gonna tell you everything. But you cannot make friends with the rock stars...If you're gonna be a true journalist -- you know, a rock journalist -- first, you never get paid much.  But you will get free records fromt he record company...God, it's gonna get ugly, man.  They're gonna buy you drinks.  You're gonna meet girls, they're gonna try to fly you places for free, offer you drugs.  I know it sounds great, but these people are not your friends.  You know, these are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of rock stars.  And they will ruin rock n' roll, and strangle everything we love about it, right?  You know, because they're trying to buy respectability for a form that is gloriously and righteously dumb.  Now, you're smart enough to know that.  And the day it ceses to be dumb is the day that it ceases to be real, right?  And then it just becomes an industry of cool."

2000 was also the year that Jim Derogatis' excellent biography of Lester, Let It Blurt: The Life & Times of Lester Bangs, was published. If you hunger to learn more about Lester Bangs, this is a good place to start.  Derogatis conducted the last interview Lester ever did which was published in the online magazine, Perfect Sound Forever.  In the course of the interview, Derogatis says,"Just for posterity, can I have your definition of good rock & roll?"  Lester answered,  "I guess it's just something that makes you feel alive. It's just like, it's something that's human, and I think that most music today isn't. And it's like anything that I would want to listen to is made my human beings instead of computers and machines. To me, good rock 'n' roll also encompasses other things, like Hank Williams and Charlie Mingus and a lot of things that aren't strictly defined as rock ‘n' roll. Rock 'n' roll is like an attitude, it's not a musical form of a strict sort. It's a way of doing things, of approaching things. Like anything can be rock 'n' roll."

In 2003, Mainlines Blood Feasts & Bad Taste (A Lester Bangs Reader), a second anthology of Lester's writings was published.  Edited by John Morthland, another good friend of Lester's, this second collection doled out another heady sampling of Lester's wildcat journalism.
Lester's hopped-up genius lay not so much in his dexterity with the written language but in his tribal enthusiasm for music that he was able to covey to the reader. I've often thought that Lester resembled the last cowboys who roamed the wild west, you know... before it done got civilized. I Imagine it was probably a stroke of good fortune that Lester checked out just as the music biz was becoming a global machine that began to have less and less to do with actual music and much more about selling it as a product.  At this point in time, space & eternity, I'm sure Lester is annoying a roomful of folks in some little joint up there in the Great Beyond by playing the same Lou Reed song over and over and over and.... well, you get the point, don'cha? Here's to you, Lester...

Here's Some Things Lester Said:

"As far as this stuff being really new, really different that's something else again. Even the Sex Pistols were playing old Chuck Berry licks."

"Every great work of art has two faces, one toward its own time and one toward the future, toward eternity."

 "The ultimate sin of any performer is contempt for the audience."

 "I don't think rock 'n' roll is as important a force as it was in the '60's.... It's very much leisure-time activity right now. It's just something to consume."

“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you're uncool.” 

“Don’t ask me why I obsessively look to rock ’n’ roll bands for some kind of model for a better society. I guess it’s just that I glimpsed something beautiful in a flashbulb moment once, and perhaps mistaking it for prophecy have been seeking its fulfillment ever since.” 



This post first appeared on Rock & Roll Is A State Of Mind, please read the originial post: here

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Faces in the Crowd: Lester Bangs


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