I’ll Be Your Mirror: Lester Bangs’s Naked Grunge
Here’s one way of explaining what Lester Bangs did. You could locate him according to the same vectors that diced up Mark David Chapman’s identity, and finally reduced him to killing a Beatle — a murder he mistook for a suicide. But instead of being victimized by the dislocations of self that take shape as pop fandom, Lester wrote about them, and turned expressing them into one life-affirming shitstorm.
From 1969 up to his death at 33, five years ago, Lester expressed many things: anomie, hostility, gleeful scorn, a love-hate relationship with excess, pratfalls of the heart, intimations of grace. He did so in a style that ran from the shock of great graffiti to pages so receptive to each new turn of thought and emotion that articulating those turns became an act of compassion.
Most of his work, though not all, took the form of writing about rock and roll records. Partly because that got him labeled a “rock writer,” and partly because he constantly overstepped the boundaries of being one, his huge achievement was also fugitive. He was banging away in the cellar of journalism, let alone literature. Lester was exiled by Jann Wenner from the review section of that great iconoclastic publication Rolling Stone for, according to Greil Marcus, “disrespect toward musicians.” Scribbling for the Voice, his major outlet after moving to New York in 1977 — from Detroit, where he had created a vortex of unrequited turbulence in the stillborn mid-’70s music scene at Creem magazine — was as close to a respectable forum as he got.
No doubt that bedeviled him: no writer who cares about his or her work wants it to stand forever on such slippery ground. But given how much Lester’s writing was not only a response to pop culture but an enactment of it, the mongrel circumstances of his work may have been appropriate. To have him between hard covers and claimed for literature, as he is in Marcus’s anthology Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, is a satisfying validation and a major event. On the other hand, even when the selection is as conscientious and astute as Marcus’s, such a presentation is also a diminishment. It can’t duplicate experiencing Lester’s work as a swarm of contingent, one-shot responses — as immediate in its improvised rudeness as the music he loved.
Another thing about Lester: Lester produced. Marcus mentions assembling five million words of published and unpublished essays, reviews, polemics, fantasies, screeds. The total output may be considerably larger. Any corpus that size is going to include dull writing; Lester committed some. The amazing part is how much is magnificent. My first reaction to the table of contents was to remember a dozen or a hundred extraordinary pieces left out, which is said in sympathy with what Marcus was up against.
There’s still an awkwardness about calling any critic a great writer. Writing about the popular arts can at least feel more central to one’s culture than the literary kind. The way records and movies and TV jell social life — the way people use them to jerry-build reasons to believe — means that writers almost can’t help broaching and, if they’re good, illuminating politics, class, democracy, capitalism, fucking, whatever.
That’s the intellectual defense — where you’d start from to evaluate most of the best pop critics, most of whom also understand that pop culture is a dialogue, not a canon, and put their personalities as much as their intellects on the line, in their responses. The intellectual defense, however, has next to nothing to do with Lester. Whatever value his work had as cultural analysis, or cultural history, was by inference only, as witnessing, not exegesis. If he’d lived a little more vicariously, he’d be alive today.
I don’t think it occurred to him that a critic couldn’t be a great writer. He was writing about the life around him, and in him, and rock and roll was the best refractor for it. What Lester never bothered to argue, but simply embodied, was that for this society the flotsam and effluvia of pop were spiritual determinants. The map shows a land of a million chapels, all spackled up differently from the bones of Saint Crud’s left little finger.
So Lester testified. “If love is truly going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each other’s objects of reverence. I thought it was Iggy Stooge, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to speak for your private, entirely circumscribed situation’s many pains and few ecstasies. We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis’s. But I will guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis.”
Lester was a religious writer — the pop era’s first, and most likely the pop era’s only. But conventional literary pigeonholing, even assuming it could accept that Lester took all this grunge seriously, would never know what to make of the fact that he knew it was grunge; he recognized that finding one’s teleology in the fried cross-circuits of pop was such an absurd endeavor that farting in church was one of the votive offerings. Or: HAW HAW HAW, as Lester used to transcribe said recognition.
Anyone in love knows that the deepest bonds are schizophrenic — you ping-pong from worship to jeering like the number-bubbles that bat around when they pick this week’s Lotto. Lester’s all was predicated on the notion that pop, as a relationship, was just that volatile and close. The bumptiousness, which is simply immediacy, is much of what literature has lost even for those who’ve plighted their troth to it.
Pop came about, in part, as a quasi-accidental substitute for social verities whose authority had ebbed more than the people running the store suspected. Because pop was still part of the store, whatever emotional truths you latched onto in it came fractured and distorted, cheek by jowl with all sorts of inane vacuity — sometimes closer. In fact, the mix itself took pride of place among the emotional truths.
Lester didn’t make the choice of reveling in the mix. It just didn’t occur to him to leave it out of his transcription of what life felt like. His appreciation of grunge was often farcical — the mark of a sensible man. Marcus reprints one typical Creem review — of a long-forgotten ’70s goon-rock band — which is mostly devoted to gleefully tracing one band member’s face, through all the permutations of rock posturing, back to “that same dork … that used to sit in the seat right in front of you in Driver Training.” (He only gets around to wondering what the band sounds like in the last paragraph, and answers himself, “Great!” — his equivalent, at the time, for asking who gave a fuck.) He got the kind of laughter that racks you as unexpectedly as vomiting, but sure feels like an improvement on it.
Lester’s appreciation of grunge was never camp. Partly, he saw the way it dealt in stuff art wasn’t supposed to as an enlivening yawp, one his own career participated in. Partly, he saw that it reached back, in suitably half-assed fashion, to simulate the primitive: If we couldn’t have blood knowledge, we could have howling electronic grunge knowledge. Mainly, though, grunge was what had best expressed his experience and answered his cravings as a teen in one of those completely atrocious California suburbs of nowhere that come on a little like Los Olvidados on an allowance, the last qualifier removing any potential for catharsis and dumping you flat-out instead in a moronic torpor to which no music speaks so aptly and indeed avidly as the Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction” or the Music Machine’s “Talk Talk,” two of the classier, believe it or not, of Lester’s submental So-Cal garage-band faves.
They answered some of his cravings, I should say. His other cravings were answered by putting on Coltrane real loud and declaiming “Howl” in his bedroom. It takes something like the equivalent of genius in personality to grow up without denying either legacy.
Lester ennobled the ludicrous inner life of pop fans by telling the truth about it — by discerning that inner lives, and not music, were what pop music was about. But the most difficult quality to communicate about his writing is how whole-souled it was. Everything that affected him — and he believed that what affected people at the lowest and most embarrassing levels was as worthy of consideration as whatever evoked their highest conceptions and hopes — was engaged in passionate earnest with the whole self. Lester once wrote a piece, not reprinted by Marcus, about the British band the Au Pairs, caught up in humane admiration for the women’s gutsiness, and heartfelt, moving wishes for an era not of genders but of human beings. Then he cut it all off with the declaration that now he was going to go jerk off to Celebrity Skin. It was brave; you were face to face with the page. For Lester, it was nothing special — wasn’t that what writers were for?
Lester was unable to confine himself within the essay, the review — even journalism. It’s revelatory to turn from his first piece on Iggy and the Stooges, “Of Pop and Pies and Fun,” near the beginning of Psychotic Reaptions, to “Women on Top,” a previously unpublished fragment near the end. The first is earnest and perceptive, but too much of it is written in the deadly, sonorous — and in this case, almost eloquently inappropriate — style of the jazz critics Lester emulated early on. The second, composed 11 years later, may be the most extreme foray into language he ever made.
He sat down to write a book proposal — the subtitle is “Ten Post-Lib Role Models for the Eighties.” But within a dozen sentences, having typed the name “Andy Warhol” and leaped from that to Amos ‘n’ Andy, he’s off on an entirely subterranean, private goof, making characters from Warhol’s Factory tell shaggy-dog stories in brain-fried King Fish accents: “iz jazz cummon cartessy but diz iz alzo drue dat daffrunt sexshinz av de town gut dawfrint moo-rayze n moadez a be-in an karyin yosevz psnly oi jiz woke awraiown in MAN MOI AWN BAZNAZ … ” A goof the piece stays; but as a transcription of the stumblebum rhythms of junkie talk, not to mention an excavation from the bottom of the mine shaft of the national idiom, it’s almost on a par with the broken English of the great closing passages of Naked Lunch.
The genesis of “Women on Top” suggests other ways Lester looked for more. His brain, and his files, teemed with ideas and beginnings for books, treatises, manifestos; none completed, I suspect because he despaired of finding a single framework that would somehow say it all. Even his published work pushed the outside of the envelope. Psychotic Reactions moves from a preponderance of casual music reviews and interviews from Lester’s early career to an equal preponderance of crammed, sweeping sieges on meaning. “The White Noise Supremacists,” his epic essay/report/castigation/soul-searching of punk racism, is one such siege; “New Year’s Eve,” packing a decade of personalized social history into a basically frivolous Voice assignment, may be an even better example of Lester always trying to say it all.
But even when writing about music proper, Lester’s dynamic was to veer off into fantasy, imaginary dialogues and encounters, whole scenes which anthropomorphized pop-figure public images into the presences they had become in his mind. Lester, deciding the reason he can’t stand Jethro Tull is that they remind him of Vietnamese folk music, jets off to war-torn Saigon for confirmation, and gives us Thieu declaring, “I’m no folkie.” When he tried fiction outright, it was shaped by the same impulse. Marcus reprints an imaginary account of the real-life affair behind the song “Maggie May” which is oddly, credibly, poignant — and also so slanderous the proper names had to be omitted and a legal disclaimer inserted, after the book was in proof.
Lester’s hyperactive expansions were never just jokes. (You laughed your head off.) They were true imaginative renderings of the emotional reality of pop culture — a human relationship, not an aesthetic one, for all that the other person involved is entirely in your own head. Lester took the extrapolations and identifications and daydreams whose real significance is normally denied by their expression in trivializing fan-mag drivel — My Dream Date With Phil Collins — and found what exists there, in different versions, for each member of the audience: his own Yoknapatawpha County.
Lester wrote many heartfelt tributes to the artists who had given him reasons to believe. Some, like the essay on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks included in the anthology, are quite beautiful. At other times, as Marcus notes, awe — or gratitude — tied his tongue. Still, he never succumbed to Chapman’s fallacy, because what gave Lester hope was that men and women as bamboozled as himself had yet been able to produce such stuff.
To him, that meant they’d been touched by grace; it also meant that they could let grace down, or just be full of shit. Midway through one of Lester’s celebrated battle-royal interviews in Creem with the mid-’70s Lou Reed, several of which Marcus includes — bitch Lou, acrid with fatigued ironies, baiting, parrying, waylaying; engorged Lester lunging, demanding; both men drunk on their ass — the avatar says, defending Bowie, “David wrote some really great songs.” “Aw c’mon!” Lester hollers back, “anybody can write great songs! Sam the Sham wrote great songs! Did David ever write anything better than ‘Woolly Bully’?”
It’s a pitched moment — suddenly they’re cellmates, or married, or maybe the lover and the cuckold: any two people in a relationship whose intimacy is a given, not a choice. It’s also a defenseless moment — the voice of an obsession that no longer cares what it says so long as it arrives at what it believes. And it’s also an uproarious moment — Sam the Sham! Of course he belongs there.
The other thing about Lester’s pieces on Lou, and a lot of his other hectoring, obsessed pieces besides — though few other of his subjects let him do the hectoring in person — is that they’re scary. Lester obviously hung on to who he was a lot better than Mark Chapman did. But he was still confronting, quite consciously and doggedly, for the sake of truth, the identical risky duet of the psyche — how much we let our pop heroes put names and labels to our private stance, style, morals, fundament. To feel defined, and worse, betrayed (and some of Lester’s greatest writing was his most unfair, pillorying some former Great One who’d turned his or her back on grace) by people who are, after all, not your cellmate, or spouse, or cuckolder, is to court the psychotic. But Lester never seemed more heroic, or public-spirited, than when he’d lay out how much they’d gotten to him. “I would suck Lou Reed’s cock,” Lester the confirmed heterosexual wrote, and there wasn’t any embarrassment in it, because he didn’t believe his human dignity was compromised by such a statement.
It was never just for the sake of his particular inner drama that Lester felt let down or pissed off by his avatars, but for a cause — a hard one to define without sounding too bald, which Lester chanced when he called it “the war for the preservation of the heart” (it’s much less sententious in context, because so plainly felt, no mere generality). He was old-fashioned about responsibility, believed in things like compacts; he knew how urgent were the promises these people dealt in. That understanding is the touchstone of one of his best-remembered pieces, an obituary for his friend Peter Laughner, who “killed himself for something torn T-shirts represented in the battle fires of his ripped emotions.” Lester knew that was pathetic and hideous; he was right to think it still mattered.
Lester craved beauty — believed in it, unaffectedly, as an absolute. Hence his love not only for Van Morrison but for the early Eno, later to become a fit subject for war-of-the-heart rancor. Both examples suggest how much he only trusted beauty when it was also absolutist — invented solely out of the nonnegotiable demands of an entirely individual grip on wonder, without regard or recourse to the conventional claptrap signifiers that pass for beauty. But his deeper precondition, as ever, was that the music materialize emotions which might otherwise have had no witness; given his time, it’s no surprise that he was best known instead for being; and, may even have been most valuable as the champion of elemental racket. (Note: “Grunge” and “elemental racket” are not the same thing, though the overlap between them is made clear by the wonderful, hilarious old-geezer monologue on the lost glory of the Count Five which gives Psychotic Reactions its title.)
Lester was the first to crow over what real rock fans always knew. Just like those ’50s fogeys and their modern descendants have always said, and as the music’s prissier defenders have been at such pains to deny, it was racket. Messy, unsoothing racket. As usual, there’s an intellectual defense. Lester revered artists of acute intelligence, acutely intelligent instinct, or plain nonspecific acuteness, like the “Sister Ray” Lou, or Iggy, or the Ramones, who used elemental racket purposefully, to get at elemental things. He also saw that valuing it was the hidden link between the most feckless garage guitar-bashing and the avant-garde titans, from Albert Ayler to antititan Arto Lindsay. But as usual, the intellectual defense won’t do. Lester loved racket because it was racket: ”illiterate chaos gradually taking shape as a uniquely personal style,” he wrote early on of Iggy, maybe too elegantly; “horrible noise” he summed it up.
He was right again — nothing’s so galvanic. It has to do with tracking down the spirochete in the blood, the bacilli rubbed into the vaccination. No stimulus like racket to animate you up onto the sensation of ramparts. It feels surgical. Contrary to what parents used to say, racket doesn’t give you a lobotomy; it apostrophizes, and treats, your feeling that you’ve already had one. Energizing the negative is the polite way of describing this. “The yowlings of missing links around the purple fire” was one of Lester’s many ways.
Partly because of the distance imposed by hard covers, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung makes it possible to see the larger patterns and congruences of Lester’s work. I’d say that 98 per cent of what Marcus has done is first-rate. One flaw is that no accounting is given of the cutting and reshaping Marcus performed on some choices, which was most likely necessary — particularly with the unpublished stuff, an elucidator’s nightmare — but which should still have been acknowledged right up front.
An early section devoted to Lester’s work on Creem, which he all but invented in the early ’70s, feels scattershot. As Marcus suggests, Lester’s creativity at Creem wasn’t just a matter of doing great pieces, but of making exhilarated use of the magazine’s whole apparatus, from headings and picture captions to replies to reader mail, to purvey a gestalt. Creem was Lester’s own Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Selecting only the Creem work that can stand on its own loses the effect of swarm, and maybe there wasn’t any way around that — though I’d have liked to see some of the picture captions and replies to readers.
The anthology is designed to make visible a series of trajectories, most notably Lester’s evolution from chaotically irreverent, anything-goes debunker and joker at Creem to increasingly open and adamant moralist (and debunker, and joker) later on — plainly a development, not a change. What Lester paradoxically always looked for in extremes was the corrective balance. Pissing on everything, sending it up, boosting nihilistic rage, were unquestionably the most ethical and sane contributions a moralist could make to the prepunk ’70s. But once Johnny Rotten had appeared to take over that job, and the battle had been joined in both senses, it was a gesture of optimism to argue about values and thrash out doubts. Lester’s concern for the punks was tender — a lot of his dreams, which like most good ones had begun with nightmares for honesty’s sake, were bound up with them. By the end, though he didn’t indulge in recriminations, he knew that punk had gone down the toilet like everything else; that made the search for values still more urgent, unmediated even by music, and utterly solitary.
The book also enables you to see Lester’s own literary lineage much more clearly: Ginsberg’s long line, and telegraphic modern resurrection of forceful early-English rhythms. Burroughs’s inspired stand-up routines and disease-telethon dada. Some Mailer in the happiness of plunging into thickets of contradiction, and finding one’s way out by inventiveness and will. The gathering-up of emotional textures into bunchings of pure compassion that moved him in Tennessee Williams. Not to mention a style of unfolding, gravely enunciatory plain speech, which sounds Lincolnesque but has a more likely origin in Lester’s having gone to elementary school back when kids still had to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning.
The most common take on Lester’s language was that he found the equivalent in writing for the dynamics of rock and roll; there’s jazz in it too, in the improvisation of solos over a progression which itself mutates in response to them. The freight of second thoughts and recollections and asides which Lester was able to add to the main line of his ongoing reaction has the effect not of dispersion but of tributaries running into a river, adding their push to the current. Still, Lester never seemed to be working out a conceit; all his best moments felt blurted, pure serendipity. Here’s one modest example, found at random not only by me but I suspect by Lester (he was writing during the Iranian hostage crisis): “Two nights ago my friend John Morthland was over and we talked about Teheran and the future of this embassy we live in.” The shift to metaphor is quiet — blink and you’ll miss it; the effect reverberates. Lester discovered shit like that all the time.
Probably the most astonishing piece in the book — not only for itself, but for its demonstration of the escalating quality, even from the most chorelike start, of Lester’s imagination — began life as background notes for a review of Peter Guralnick’s book Lost Highway. Lester’s just plugging away at first, sorting out impressions. Soon he becomes engrossed, ruminating on Sam Phillips as shaman, conformity and rebellion, the discovery of America. Then something triggers a recollection of Geraldo Rivera demanding, on TV, that Elvis’s body be exhumed to check for traces of drugs; Lester loathes Geraldo, and so imagines that his real craving is to make off with the actual half-digested pills from Elvis’s decomposing insides. That brings to mind the Golden Bough legends of primitives ingesting the best qualities of their enemies by eating them — the perfect metaphor for tabloid necrophilia, and he doesn’t even have to say so.
But it’s too late to stop now. Either Lester or Lester-as-Geraldo, it’s hard to tell which, swallows the pills; suddenly he is speaking as Elvis, feeling out his new identity. The rant is knockabout abusive and funny (“Guess I could get one of my rifles off the shelf and shoot out a few TV picture tubes. Lemme get the TV Guide and see who’s on I wanna shoot”). But then it climbs into pitches of dread made tangible (“I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I can’t get high”). The piece just keeps on mushrooming until it explodes as a half-comprehending scream of stop eating me that finally stands as the deepest, most heartbreaking rendition of that poor lost dumb slob, P.F.C. Jesus H. Presley, ever caught in words. Its source, its absolutely necessary beginning, is as a ghoulish, dopey sick joke. And yet these crass, grotesque, and driven pages deserve permanent enshrining in our literature. Of course Lester could never get it printed.
Psychotic Reactions shows the freewheeling nature of Lester’s responsiveness, how many polyglot things fed his preoccupations. A long account of the Clash on tour in England reels in an encounter with a handicapped woman in an airport, Lester’s reading at the moment (The War Against the Jews), snippets of road life, how Lester’s dressed, William Blake, how Teds dress, etc., into a pilgrim’s progress that really is about nothing but the Clash, and their impact on him. Yet Psychotic Reactions also shows the unsuspected extent to which his mind kept revolving around the same few preoccupations, or maybe just one: the fight with death.
Death could be literal, or death could be figurative — it’s typical of how Lester’s mind worked that he saw no distinction, and had only one vocabulary for both. His belief in sexual union as the rebuttal to it could be literal or figurative; even when figurative, it was no metaphor. It all came down to Lester’s words for how he felt when first seeing Elvis on stage: “an erection of the heart.” A world is in that phrase; a lot of writers would have retired on it. Lester was just being descriptive, and moved on.
His own end centers all melancholy on wondering what more he might have done. Marcus disputes the theory that he’d have quit writing about music. My bet is the shift was quite probable, partly because a big chunk of what motivated Lester was the belief that there was an audience out there that felt as he did, and that belief was getting harder to sustain, at least about rock and roll. People hadn’t just stopped looking to the music for reasons to believe; what appalled and frightened Lester was that in the main they seemed to feel no need to compensate for it elsewhere. His conception of his work’s worth, as of the records he loved, was that it was an offering, part of a communal back-and-forth. He was willing to be a crank, but had a horror of being one in a vacuum; that was too much like solipsism, always one of his words for death.
But his writing up to that point, as represented in Psychotic Reactions, also feels like there’s nothing more to add to it. My own belief is that Lester saw this as his apprenticeship; the task of defining one’s world, and establishing the terms of one’s identity, that precedes the foray into creation. Marcus reports that he was about to leave, romantic in earnest to the last, for Mexico, there to get down to work on the big book of his life. You can’t know whether to mourn or marvel that this magnificent body of work, as far as he was concerned, had only cleared the decks so that he could begin.
One other thing: Practically every past and serving rock critic in the country — including yours truly — is listed in the book’s acknowledgments. Some are weighty names, at least in our benighted guild; some of the others make everything you’ve heard about rock critics sound true. We aren’t a bunch much given to fellow-feeling, or for that matter activity. But this once, we all came out of our Grub Street holes, blinking like bats from how white the page is. Everyone wanted to stick in two cents — the big guns and the jerkoffs, and the crowd in between. It’s the guild’s testimony, for whatever it’s worth: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Lester.
PSYCHOTIC REACTIONS AND CARBURETOR DUNG
By Lester Bangs
Edited by Greil Marcus