Mainlines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste /
A Lester Bangs Reader
Review by Django Jones
I started reading Lester Bangs back in the Creem days, and to me, Creem
was a kind of like a jerky, acting-out, adolescent kid brother to the hipper, smarter, more respectable Rolling Stone. I would read Rolling Stone, or better yet, The Village Voice, when I wanted to know the real deal musical dope, I wouldn't look for it in Creem. Creem seemed more like Tiger Beat, only edgier – fan-based, insular and way too chummy. Creem gushed over Blue Oyster Cult and Alice Cooper, it had the Creem girls and the Boy Howdy beer can and OK, I get it, it’s all in good fun, but I ain’t gonna take it seriously.
So reading him in that context, Lester didn’t really get to me. Everybody
was always saying Lester Bangs this, Lester Bangs that, but I saw his stuff
as cartoonish, and he was just a music critic who sounded like a weak Hunter Thompson wannabe. When I started reading pieces of his in The Village
Voice, though, I thought, “Hmmm, well… maybe I judged him too soon.”
Not that anything he wrote in the Voice was significantly different than what he’d written in Creem, it was simply a matter of context, where it appeared.
I admit, I was a literary snob.
In the process of becoming more of a serious writer myself, I’d revisit Lester periodically, and just like the old joke about the 25 year old who couldn’t believe how his father had learned so much in the last few years, Lester got better each time I’d read him. His cartoonish outrageousness morphed into
a fearlessness in telling the truth, even if it was a mercurial truth and he changed his mind two months later. His knowledge of music was encyclopedic, and what had initially seemed like merely frenetic hysterical ranting on closer examination appeared carefully constructed, full of memorable lines, dead-on in its assessments, as fresh as if it was written yesterday. All characteristics of
Mainlines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste / A Lester Bangs Reader, is the second compilation volume of Bangs’ writings, companion to Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. It was published in 2003, so this review
is neither timely nor linked to any recent Lester Bangs anniversary. I just wanted to write about it, since I recently revisited the book again.
As far as me saying that he’s a great writer, let me try to prove the case
a little by quoting him.
On David Johansen :
We all loved him because he was a palooka with irony… the cocky neighborhood pug who was also the nicest guy in town and man enough to show it… he seemed to be riding the crest of career turbulence with a sort of Top Cat insouciance…
On Helen Reddy :
All men are weasels. The only use they have for women is to get their
rocks off, and half the time the only reason they wanna do that is to prove something. Which is why all women hold them in such utter contempt. But everybody knows that. What everybody doesn’t know is the hot, pulsating goodies Helen Reddy’s got to offer up.
On Nico and The Marble Index :
Nico is so possessed by ghosts she seems like one, but there is rather the clear confrontation of the knowledge that she had to get that awfully far away from human socialization to be able to write so nakedly of her love for damn near anyone, and simultaneously and so crucially the impossibility of that love ever bearing fruit, not because we were born sterile but directly the opposite, that we come and grow even fiercer into such pain that we could sooner eat the shards of a smashed cathedral than risk one more possibility of the physical, psychic, and emotional annihilations that love between two humans can cause, not even just cause but generate totally
as a logical act of nature in its ripest bloom. Strange fruit, as it were.
Not a crazed ranter, but an existential philosopher examining the mechanism of love and lust and our mid-level evolutionary state of development in a record review. Like I said, better with age.
What kills me about these articles, though, is the one about Bob Dylan’s Desire and the way Bangs rips apart, demolishes what is undoubtedly Dylan's worst song, his magnun dopus, "Joey." In the piece that originally ran in The Village Voice in March, 1976 called “Bob Dylan’s Dalliance with Mafia Chic,” Bangs completely decimates Dylan’s folkloric/heroic fantasy of gangster Joey Gallo, showing it for the false and utterly romanticized pack of half-truths and outright lies that it is. Bob has a blind spot occasionally when it comes to heroes. He found one in Jesus, remember. Dylan’s sense of loyalty to his heroes is total, though, which causes the blindness, since every human being, including Jesus, has had his or her flaws. Jesus let his anger get the best of him at the temple, for instance. A little more prudence, he might have lived out his years. When it came to flaws, Dylan's hero Joey Gallo was a walking flaw, a psychotic mobster who took part in a gang rape in prison, beat his wife and brutally killed people. However, he also happened to read a bunch of philosophy when he was in prison and so did Hurricane Carter, who Dylan
was trying to spring from prison at the time. The two dissimilar personages conflated somehow in Dylan’s mind and became these overlapping layers, which blurred Bob's vision as far as the reality of Joey Gallo. In any case, as soon as Bangs begins to pull out his journalist chops and rip apart Dylan’s rosy Hollywood movie version of Gallo’s life piece by piece with notated facts, all that’s left lying at the end is Bangs’ bravery and the awful truth. Dylan himself has in recent years blamed "Joey" on Jacques Levy, his collaborator on the song, claiming Levy wrote all the lyrics to it. Bullshit. Bob can be as slippery
as wild mercury when he wants, and has been known to revise history as deftly as Winston Smith. I'm positive you could get confirmation from his various women and ex’s about that.
Anyway, Mainlines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste / A Lester Bang Reader, transcends it original content and has inexorably changed by our viewing it through time, Borges-like. We come to it with decades in between, and now nothing in it is stuck in any one period anymore. Nothing succumbs to trends or faddishness, whatever the subject matter, a steady truth prevails and it becomes obvious that the work has gained that most precious of qualities, timelessness. It’s not just great writing about music anymore, it’s great writing. Which it was at the beginning, and so on.