Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic: Rock 'n' Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock 'n' Roll by Lester Bangs
reviewed by Courtney
Best known from the over-the-top cameo portrayal by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Almost Famous, Lester Bangs made an indelible mark on music writing in the 1970s with his work for Rolling Stone and Creem Magazine. Bangs wrote in the tradition of Gonzo journalists like Hunter S. Thompson, eschewing the tropes and conventions of rock and roll journalism, which often pandered to the artists and industry, in favor of brutally honest, rambling prose. Bangs' articles were often works of literature in their own right, occasionally surpassing the artistry of their musical subjects.
This collection's title article, written in 1971, which contains one of the first applications of the label "punk" as a reference to a kind of music, details the extended and entirely fictional career of the rock band the Count Five, who in reality dissolved after their debut album. Most of the other articles are more grounded in the reality of the music they discuss, including excellent pieces on The Clash, Van Morrison ("Astral Weeks"), John Lennon ("Thinking the Unthinkable About John Lennon") and Iggy Pop ("Of Pop and Pies and Fun: A Program for Mass Liberation in the Form of a Stooges Review, or, Who's the Fool? " and "Iggy Pop: Blowtorch in Bondage"), among others. Bangs was obsessive about his heroes (especially Lou Reed, who gets an entire section, titled "Slaying the Father") but he did not hesitate to hold them accountable. His drunken, antagonistic interviews with Lou Reed are the stuff of legend, particularly "Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves (or how I slugged it out with Lou Reed and stayed awake), " published in 1975.
His honest portrayal of the punk rock scene includes a forthright depiction of the negativity, drug addiction, and violence prevalent in his own life as well as those of the musicians he idolized. His writing was explicitly fueled by amphetamines and barbiturates, even as he wrote passionately about his disgust for the death-wish he observed among his contemporaries. He made no attempt to justify or disguise this contradiction, and articles like "I Saw God and/or Tangerine Dream," which catalogues his experience of cough syrup-induced hallucinations during a Tangerine Dream concert, are found in the same section as others like "Peter Laughner," in which he writes passionately against the self-destruction he saw as rampant within the music scene. Bangs never conquered his chemical dependence, and his tragically premature death in 1982 was the result of a combined overdose on Darvon, Valium and Nyquil.
The volatility of his writing, and his clear passion for the music he discussed made his work stand out among his music journalist contemporaries, and his pieces seem even more relevant given the prevalence of homogenized, industry driven reviews in music magazines today. This book is a classic for lovers of rock and roll music, who will be drawn to the exciting portrayal of legendary musicians in their prime, but is distinguished from other collections of music journalism by the strength and originality of his writing, which captured the spirit and passion of that music in literary form.
As Bangs explains in a profile on The Clash, "The politics of rock 'n' roll, in England or America or anywhere else, is that a whole lot of kids want to be fried out of their skins by the most scalding propulsion they can find, for a night they can pretend is the rest of their lives, and whether the next day they go back to work in shops or boredom on the dole or American TV doldrums in Mom 'n' Daddy's living room nothing can cancel the reality of that night in the revivifying flames when for once if only then in your life you were blasted out of yourself and the monotony which defines most life anywhere at any time, when you supped on lightning and nothing else in the realms of the living or dead mattered at all." That visceral quality is as or more present in Bangs' writing as in any of the music he discussed, and it is difficult to think of a better explanation for the appeal of his best work.Posted by at June 20, 2011 02:20 PM