Spotting John Morthland’s recent Lester Bangs anthology by my side, my brother-in-law asked, disbelieving, “Is he an actual person?” Yet even after my usually purgative (and always regrettable) verbal smackdown detailing his myriad pop cult failings, the question nagged. Certainly the benevolent, Yoda-like Bangs of Cameron Crowe’s unbearably smug Almost Famous was a construction (as, I assume, was Crowe’s own wide-eyed, “aw shucks” self-portrait). And even given its many juicy factoids and revealing vignettes, was the Bangs of Jim DeRogatis’ 2000 bio Let It Blurt any more “real” or “true”? After all, popular legend sells, and too often the born writer is dwarfed by his own persona.
To his credit, Greil Marcus states his agenda up-front in the intro to his much-lauded Bangs collection, Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung: “This book is my version of the work Lester Bangs left behind.” True to his mythopoeiac bent, Marcus’ compendium chronicles one man’s struggle to wrest meaning from the void, an epic journey from talented (and guarded) young punk to questing humanist. Morthland wisely cedes Marcus the timeline approach, instead attempting the task (perhaps by now more imposing) of normalizing Bangs’ lifework.
After three well-chosen, early autobiographical snippets from the unpublished Drug Punk, Morthland ditches the noise boy exploits, instead focusing on Bangs the writer — in large part, successfully. A hundred-odd pages in, the sometimes noisome persona fades, foregrounding the enjoyable company of an obviously gifted, sometimes insightful, always provocative rock critic. His more considered pieces (e.g. the Beatles, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Talking Heads) are especially compelling, inviting the reader to reconnect and reconsider via the writer’s extended verbal explorations.
The centerpiece of Carburetor Dung is an extended series of dispatches from Bangs’ very public battle royale with Lou Reed (suggestively headed “Slaying The Father”), with Reed cast as the physical embodiment of the writer’s darkest, most troubling demons. This book’s sizable “Pantheon” section reveals a more personable Bangs, the writer as fan surrogate. Detailing his tortured relationship with the ’70s-era Stones, Bangs enacts the expectation-disappointment-reconciliation cycle ad infinitum. Just as he dismisses Jagger’s empty (not even jaded) star posturing, he notes a glimpse of humanity in Richards’ death mask. And when he finally bids farewell, circa 1976′s Black And Blue, the reader notes a true, palpable and tellingly familiar sense of loss.
In his probing recent Village Voice remembrance, Richard Hell invokes yet another Bangs, the fallen comrade — his innocence, good will and seemingly incessant stream of verbiage easier to love now than when he was alive. Hell also demythologizes; Bangs is hardly the “best writer in America,” as Marcus indirectly suggests, but rather an enduring, unique talent, a torrent of words and ideas that refreshes and inspires.
Surprisingly, Hell also claims that unlike most other name rock scribes, Bangs “seems to like the music more than he liked himself.” Given his near-constant back-and-forth wrangling, Bangs’ critical take is often erratic and unreliable. Though I admire his deconstruction of Nico’s nightmare temple, try as I might, I’ll never hear his version of The Marble Index.
Not that Bangs is any more of an egoist than his esteemed peers, but more often than not, his best pieces chronicle his struggle to find a place in the music. He begins his searching, earnest reevaluation of Miles Davis’ post-Jack Johnson catalog with an admission of resigned confusion (“I still haven’t gotten it figured out”) before wrestling at length for a kernel of truth, the process ultimately becoming the message.
As much as Bangs admires the artists in question, his discussions of David Johansen’s enormous heart, Captain Beefhart’s refusal to communicate and, in a tour de force posthumous interview, Jimi Hendrix’s in-the-moment creation may just as well serve as a compendium of his lifelong obsessions. In fact, one of Bangs’ most enduring (and endearing) virtues is just how much of himself he invests in his criticism, whether questioning his (very limited) involvement in the Sid Vicious debacle or (from Carburetor Dung) hitching his tattered hopes to the Clash’s bright, shining star.
An enduring image from the “Drug Punk” section in Mainlines, Bangs wrestling with the jammed keys of his typewriter, recalls Bill Lee’s contentious, oddly symbiotic relationship with his insect-typewriter in David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch adaptation. Picture a late-night, alcohol-soaked harangue between Bangs and his mechanical doppelganger, bitching about California’s sickening feel-good veneer or riffing on a dispiriting affair between Jimmy Carter and Jane Fonda. The writer’s discursive, free-flowing prose encourages the impression of ongoing dialogue, a rare intimacy between himself and the reader. The truth is I harbor an imagined Bangs of my own, specifically, a living one — certainly as alive as any of the many other writers I admire and will never meet.
What would his take be on punk’s surprising endurance? The rich wellspring of African music over the past two decades? Reed’s generous-spirited maturity? Would he finally break from the rockcrit sphere into the world of the novel and beyond? How would he prune and shape his career anthology? Morthland’s version is largely excellent, and with likely thousands-upon-thousands of published and unpublished pieces still extant, future collections seem a near-certainty, each championing a different facet of the fecund writer’s personality and craft. Let a thousand Lesters bloom! The sad fact is though, each will end the same way, on April 30, 1982. Conversation over.