Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Lester Bangs’

The first time I encountered Lester Bangs’ writing was in college, when a musicology professor assigned a shit-kicking little essay called “James Taylor Marked for Death,” which, while threatening grave bodily harm to said folk musician, is primarily a paean to the rock and roll atavism of The Troggs (yes, they of “Wild Thing”).  I don’t really have anything intellectually notable to say here, I just wanted to highlight for you the brilliance of this man’s writing, and suggest that you go out and learn yourself just how thoroughly it is possible to experience music.

Here’s a particularly inspired passage from the above-mentioned essay, which is not what I intended originally to quote for you, but, things being what they are… :

“I could listen to Chicago or Santana anytime… I don’t think anybody as crass and commercial as they are could possibly be the Enemy.  My spleen is reserved for Elton John, James Taylor, all the glory boys of I-Rock.  I call it I-Rock, even though I just made up the name, because most of it is so relentlessly, involutedly egocentric that you finally actually stop hating the punk and just want to take the poor bastard out and get him a drink, and then kick his ass, preferably off a high cliff into the nearest ocean.

Matter of fact, if I ever get down to Carolina I’m gonna try to figure out a way to off James Taylor.  Hate to come on like a Nazi, but if I hear one more Jesus-walking-the-boys-and-girls-down-a-Carolina-path-while-the-dilemma-of-existence-crashes-like-a-slab-of-hod-on-J.T.’s-shoulders song, I will drop everything (I got nothin’ to do here in California but drink beer and watch TV anyway) and hop the first Greyhound to Carolina for the signal satisfaction of breaking off a bottle of Ripple (he deserves no better, and I wish I could think of worse, but they’re all local bands) and twisting it into James Taylor’s guts until he expires in a spasm of adenoidal poesy.

EXTRA! TRAGEDY STRIKES ROCK! SUPERSTAR GORED BY DERANGED ROCK CRITIC!! “We made it,” gasped Lester Bangs as he was led by police from the bloody scene.  “We won.”               — Rolling Stone

But fantasies and jokes – none of that is really any good.  If they just don’t seem to be playing your song much right now, well, stop feeling sorry for yourself, scout the terrain and see if we can figure out where to go next.  Because there’s always gonna be something around in the tradition.  But fuck the tradition, I want the Party!” (Bangs 1987, ed. Greil Marcus, pp. 71-72)
——————————

Mighty entertaining stuff, right?  Well anyway, what I really wanted to direct your attention to was the following inspired burst of writing, from a 1971 essay entitled “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: A Tale of These Times.”  Reading this passage really struck a chord with me, and perhaps it might resonate with you as well:

“…nothing more nor less than a record, a rock ‘n’ roll album…could ever pulverize my lobes and turn my floor to wormwood.  I knew, ’cause I had a brief though quite similar spell of disorientation once over the Question Mark and the Mysterians album!  I was at a friend’s house, and I was high on Romilar and he on Colt 45, and I said: ‘Yeah, I bought the Question Mark and the Mysterians album today,’ and suddenly the equilibrium was seeping from my head like water from the ears after a sea plunge, a desultory vortex started swirling round my skull and gradually spun faster though I couldn’t tell if it was a breeze just outside or something right between the flesh and bone.  I saw my life before my eyes, and that is no shit – I mean not that I saw some zipping montage from birth to that queasy instant of existential vertigo, but that I saw myself walking in and out of countless record stores, forking over vast fortunes in an endless chain of cash-register clicks and dings at $3.38 and $3.39 and $3.49 and all the other fixed rates I knew by heart being if never on the track team unquestionably an All-American Competitive Shopper, I saw litter bins piled high with bags that stores all seal records in so you won’t get nabbed for lifting as you trot out the door.  I saw myself on a thousand occasions walking toward my car with a brisk and purposeful step, turning the key in the ignition and varooming off high as a hotrodder in anticipation of the revelations waiting in thirty-five or forty minutes of blasting sound soon as I got home, the eternal promise that this time the guitars will jell like TNT and set off galvanic sizzles in your brain ‘KABLOOIE!!!’ and this time at least at last blow your fucking lid sky-high.  Brains gleaming on the ceiling, sticking like putty stalactites, while yer berserk body runs around and slams outside hollering subhuman gibberish, jigging in erratic circles and careening split-up syllables insistently like a geek with a bad case of the superstar syndrome.

But that’s only the fantasy.   The real vision, the real freaking flash, was just like the reality, only looped to replay without end.  The real story is rushing home to hear the apocalypse erupt, falling through the front door and slashing open the plastic sealing ‘for your protection’, taking the record out – ah, lookit them grooves, all jet black without a smudge yet, shiny and new and so fucking pristine, then the color of the label, does it glow with auras that’ll make subtle comment on the sounds coming out, or is it just a flat utilitarian monchromatic surface, like a schoolhouse wall…?  And finally you get to put the record on the turntable, it spins in limbo a perfect second, followed by the moment of truth, needle into groove, and finally sound.

What then occurs is so often anticlimactic that it drives a rational man to the depths of despair.  Bah!  The whole musical world is packed with simpletons and charlatans, with few a genius or looney tune joker in between…

I realize that this sounds rather pathological – although I never thought so until laying it out here – and this Freudian overtones are child’s play, I guess.  But what I don’t understand is what it all signifies.  Don’t get the idea that my buying of and listening to records per se has always been marked by such frenzy and disorientation, or even any particular degree of obsession and compulsion.  It’s just that music has been a fluctuating fanaticism with me ever since – well, ever since I first heard “The Storm” from the William Tell Overture on a TV cartoon about first grade… and hearing for the first time things like John Coltrane and Charlie Mingus’s The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and the Stones and feedback and Trout Mask Replica.  All these were milestones, each one fried my brain a little further, especially the experience of the first few listenings to a record so total, so mind-twisting, that you authentically can say you’ll never be quite the same again… They’re events you remember all your life… And the whole purpose of the absurd, mechanically persistent involvement with recorded music is the pursuit of that priceless moment.  So it’s not exactly that records might unhinge the mind, but rather that if anything is going to drive you up the wall it might as well be a record.  Because the best music is strong and guides and cleanses and is life itself” (Bangs 1987, ed. Greil Marcus, pp. 11-13).
———–

Anyway, if you ask me, that’s some pretty white-hot writing, and it’s pretty much exactly the kind of thing I was thinking about recently when I wrote this post.  It seems to me that although Bangs never uses the word ‘nostalgia’, his phrase “the pursuit of that priceless moment” is a way of getting at the same sort of thing.

The anthology of Bangs’ writing from which these quotes are drawn is available here, and surely loads of other places.  Good music writing, I think, can approximate (if not quite surpass) the experience of good music, and music writing rarely gets better than this, so check it out.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »