PSYCHOTIC REACTIONS AND CARBURETOR DUNG By Lester Bangs Edited by Greil Marcus Knopf. 386 pp. $19.95
It has been a long time since I cared much about rock 'n' roll, but what Lester Bangs had to say about rock 'n' roll still matters. Five years after his death, an anthology of Bangs' work has finally been published. If "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung" isn't the testament Bangs deserves, it's at least a step toward it.
Bangs first gained notoriety as a contributor to Creem magazine in the early 1970s; at the time of his death, he was widely acknowledged as "the rock critics' rock critic," as "The Book of Rock Lists" had it, "a man gifted verbally in much the same way James Brown is gifted as a dancer." He was that and more. He started out as a professional wild man -- hooking down amphetamines and Romilar D while banging out 10,000 words about the cosmic significance of "Wild Thing" by the Troggs (three chords, 27 words).
By the end of his life, he was still a master of rant, but more and more of his published pieces were serious and somehow melancholy -- though the seriousness had always been there; you just had to cut through less to get to it. He wrote movingly of the death by overdose of his friend Peter Laughner, swearing himself the enemy of "those who glamorize death." He was trying to repair his life -- maybe it was too little too late; maybe it was just bad luck. Bangs died in 1982 from complications brought on by influenza and ingestion of Darvon. He was 33.
His article on the Doors in "The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll" (not included here, unfortunately) is one of the few sensible things that have ever been written about Jim Morrison, but looking at it now, Bangs seems almost to be writing about himself. Morrison's music, Bangs said, was often "morbid in the most obvious possible way, and thus cheap. The whole nightmare easily translated into parody -- and there was a supremely sad irony here. But when Morrison hit straight and deep ... you knew he felt the chill and lived it, and that was perhaps the saddest part. Because in time he became a true clown ... with the same desperation that drives millions of far less celebrated alcoholics ..."
There are plenty of stories about Bangs the desperate clown, but it's the Lester Bangs who "felt the chill and lived it" who is worth remembering, and in those moments his kindred spirit is not Jim Morrison, but Van Morrison, the closest thing to a lyric poet rock ever had. Writing about Morrison's "Madame George" -- which might be about an abused and abandoned drag queen, or about something else altogether -- Bangs said, "If you accept for even a moment the idea that each human life is as precious and delicate as a snowflake and then look at a wino in a doorway ... you stop feeling. But you know that then you begin to die." Bangs could be self-pitying, he could be morbid, but anybody who knew his work (and if you knew his work, you knew him, that was the amazing thing) forgave him that, because the morbidity came out of the fact that he never stopped feeling.
Before proceeding too far into the canonization of Saint Lester, though, it should be remembered that, to the casual fan of his work, Bangs was the guy who liked noise. He loved the MC5, Iggy Stooge, even Lou Reed's "Metal Machine Music" -- a two-record set of microphone feedback. He understood that rock 'n' roll is basically mindless garbage, loved it anyway, and saw no contradiction between the two notions.
Maybe that's why Bangs was the best critic of punk -- the safety-pin crowd fused his twin obsessions of noise and nihilism. He was simultaneously fascinated with and horrified by somebody like Richard Hell, who claimed to love death, who called love phony and life "an addiction." "I suspect almost every day that I'm living for nothing," Bangs wrote. "But there are glints of beauty and bedrock joy that came shining through from time to precious time ... and all the Richard Hells ... trash the precious gift."
Greil Marcus, editor of this volume, is probably the only rock critic who deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with Bangs and, given the time lag between Bangs' death and the appearance of this book, he deserves our grateful thanks for a collection that simply wouldn't have existed without him. That said, a lot of what he's done here verges on the incompetent -- especially the title. "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung" is the title of an early Bangs piece for Creem, but giving that title to Bangs' collected work makes the man sound like a fool.
Marcus' principles of selection also seem somewhat addled. He claims to have made "not a representative selection" but "my version of the work Lester Bangs left behind." The result is that much of Bangs' best work is not here -- for example, not one piece Bangs wrote for Rolling Stone or Musician magazine is included.
Nevertheless, what's wrong with the book isn't nearly as important as the fact that it exists at all. Somehow, in everything Bangs wrote, a spirit came through that denied the terrible things that separate us from one another. When Elvis Presley died, and so many hacks tried to sort out the meaning of his life, only Bangs saw the meaning of his death:
"If love truly is 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 others' objects of reverence ... 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 can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won't bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you."
But he didn't say goodbye to us, at least not then. He remained the enemy of "our nurtured indifference to each other" to the end.
The reviewer is a Washington writer.