June 20, 2011

Rock 'n' Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock 'n' Roll

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
Recent Entries
The Donovan Effect
Dirty Water
The Lifeboat
Escaping the Hollowgasts
Teleporting with George
Return to Pemberley
In den Alpen
Jeeves and Bertie
In the Calais Coach
Other Web Logs
Children's Room
Teen Book Buzz
August 2015
April 2015
March 2015
February 2015
December 2014
November 2014
October 2014
August 2014
July 2014
June 2014
April 2014
February 2014
January 2014
November 2013
October 2013
September 2013
August 2013
May 2013
March 2013
January 2013
November 2012
October 2012
August 2012
June 2012
May 2012
April 2012
February 2012
January 2012
November 2011
October 2011
September 2011
August 2011
July 2011
June 2011
May 2011
April 2011
February 2011
January 2011
November 2010
October 2010
September 2010
July 2010
June 2010
May 2010
April 2010
March 2010
February 2010
January 2010
December 2009
November 2009
October 2009
September 2009
August 2009
April 2009
March 2009
December 2008
October 2008
August 2008
July 2008
June 2008
May 2008
April 2008
March 2008
February 2008
January 2008
December 2007
November 2007
October 2007
September 2007
August 2007
July 2007
June 2007
May 2007
April 2007
March 2007
February 2007
January 2007
December 2006
November 2006
October 2006
September 2006
August 2006
June 2006
May 2006
April 2006
March 2006
February 2006
January 2006
December 2005
November 2005
October 2005
September 2005
August 2005
July 2005
June 2005
May 2005
April 2005
March 2005
December 2004
November 2004
October 2004
July 2004
June 2004
April 2004
Call the desk at 301-891-7259
Contact the director by e-mail