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Lester Has Risen

New Bangs anthology gets nearly everything right

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We've seen this before. A posthumous collection of writings by rock critic Lester Bangs, that is.Well, sort of. While 1987's Greil Marcus-edited Bangs anthology Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, collecting as it did much of the Bangs creme de la Creem, is often likened to some quintessential Gonzo RocCrits' Bible, the reality, as the Village Voice once soberly pointed out, is that "the literary spark struck by that anthology wouldn't light a joint in the back of City Lights Books."

But 2003 ain't 1987. A Bangs mini-revival kicked off in 2000, with Philip Seymour Hoffman's, er, dead-on portrayal of Bangs in Almost Famous and journalist Jim DeRogatis' superb Bangs biography Let It Blurt. We've since seen no shortage of discussion on what rock criticism "means," the general opinion being that there's some sorry shit indeed out there trying to pass itself off as rock writing. Let's face it, the average Blender fluff piece has the mind wandering even as the eye is straying to yet another page of be-cleavaged pop poon. Even if you go 180 degrees in the other direction to an egghead journal like Britain's The Wire, you encounter so many compound sentences your eyes practically get compound fractures, and it's just as joyless a wank as Blender, too.

To its credit, then, Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste's much-needed arrival on the post-Bangsian crit-lit landscape marks neither an assemblage of Carburetor Dung dog-ends that Marcus passed on nor an attempt to cater to a particular element, gonzo or otherwise. Former Creem editor John Morthland, as co-executor of the Bangs literary estate, has not only compiled a selection featuring quite a bit of newly unearthed archival material that proved elusive to Marcus, he also succeeds in de-romanticizing the Bangs-as-gonzo image.

True, a handful of entries here are classic stream-of-consciousness Bangs, like a surreal, titillating meditation on punk rock from '77, "Back Door Men and Women In Bondage." But others, such as a 1980 interview with Captain Beefheart, are so dryly humorous and warmly humanistic (and, in the case of unpublished journal entries predating Bangs' early-'70s Rolling Stone work, painfully personal) that, taken with numerous classic Creem screeds so visceral they practically vibrate off the pages, a more balanced picture than we've ever had of Bangs emerges. Still MIA, though, is a handful of unseen pieces Bangs had reportedly set aside for an anthology while he was still alive, but other than that, Bad Taste borders on flawless.

Gawk, for example, at the Lester 'n' Lou show, a drunken, after-hours tete-a-tete between Bangs and Lou Reed ("Deaf-Mute in a Telephone Booth," Creem '73) that concludes with a rueful vision of Reed "plopped in his chair like a sack of spuds, sucking on his eternal Scotch with his head hanging off into shadow, looking like a deaf-mute in a telephone booth."

Marvel at the literary sleight-of-hand performed in a discussion on pop music ("Every Song a Hooker," Music and Sound Output '82): debate on Kim "Bette Davis Eyes" Carnes' dubious merits somehow transmogrifies into an indictment of Tom Petty's faux-populism -- with a shit-talkin' Bukka White to boot, appearing mid-essay like some Mississippian Greek chorus!

And prepare for a lesson in subversive criticism when Bangs "interviews" Jimi Hendrix from Heaven ("Death May Be Your Santa Claus," Creem '76). On the surface an extended schtick 'n' jive, it's actually a blistering reassessment of the Hendrix legacy, as tendered in distinctly unsentimental terms by the guitar god ghost himself. "I did manage to come up with a few new riffs and a few new ideas," Hendrix muses. "But there ain't much percentage in ego-tripping when you're dead, so I gotta cop that that was about it."

Bangs' genius lay in how he deftly connected the dots, sometimes between points you never even noticed might be connectible in the first place, and in language that was neither condescending nor aimed at some nebulous fraternity of fellow critics. For Bangs, it was all about entertaining the reader while imparting knowledge and enthusiasm. In Bad Taste, his writing comes alive, just like the hills are alive (and maybe even like Peter Frampton useta come alive...), with the sound of music.

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