Finding people you relate to in the number one mission for someone in their teens, but as you graduate and have to navigate the larger world around you, it becomes harder to find people who you can connect with. Some of that is practical; jobs and homes and regular life is very complicated, and for everyone. Soon enough, the people we know are already into their own thing, and as we all explore our interests, finding the edges where these things overlap can be difficult.
It was at this point in my own life and with this kind of mental state that I was casting about for something to read. A young man, in a big city (Portland), where I knew almost no one, and yet, did know that I loved one thing with an almost obsessive passion: records. And as you read reviews and start to collect, a certain name begins to pop up, over and over again.
So by the time I picked up a copy of the improbably named and yet brilliantly titled, “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung,” by Lester Bangs, I was fairly certain that, if nothing else, I was going to get a sort of shopping list of stuff that I should check out, which was enough for me to give it a shot.
What I was not prepared for was to read, to my mind, a collection of the best American Literature I have ever encountered in any form. And, to paraphrase Greil Marcus, why couldn’t the best thing ever written be a Lou Reed record review?
So, before I continue to stroke his long-dead ego, let’s be clear about something that the critics often overlook: Lester was opinionated, loud-mouthed, often wrong, belligerent when confronted about what he got wrong, and not always pleasant to be around, and that’s after he’d cleaned himself up and put on nice clothes and only smoked a little hash instead of his usual intake so he could, “chill himself out.”
By all accounts, he was a very difficult weirdo who burned as many bridges as he supported, took wild and contrary opinions to make arbitrary points, and at times, was problematic and not easy to swallow by modern cultural expectations. I think this is lost in the film portrayals and the romanticizing of a man who died almost 40 years ago. There’s a certain, “well, he was from a different time,” that is applied to him, and perhaps that is for the best. Yet, in a period where many people have been revising history in an attempt to paint a more accurate picture of the past, no one has yet spent the cultural energy to paint Lester with the kind of toxicity that is most definitely embodied in his work, at his worst.
And, while we’re being honest, let’s really cut to the etc.: Lester’s genius that he is often praised for come across, in his own words, like a Drug Punk talking his way out of a tense situation with some Hell’s Angels. While there is brilliance in his writing, certainly Lester was just educated enough to know that he didn’t care about that shit. He spent a career honing his voice as someone who spoke as an expert of the junk culture he wrote about. There was no interest in trying to crack the literary cannon. He wasn’t looking to be taught in colleges, and could probably care less about any kind of intellectual cred that could be gained from commanding the language with finesse. Lester was a lower-class kid from a poor family who never really knew his father, and as a writer, he affected the tone and manner of the slovenly and abrasive people he grew up with as a kid.
And these aren’t exactly his selling points, either. If you read enough Lester, you don’t exactly like him. His output is full of crap, just pure garbage drivel that he clearly wrote in a hurry, to hit a deadline, to make a quick buck, to hope that the scam him and Meltzer and cooked up wouldn’t backfire, and on a long enough timeline, the con man version of Lester is fully on display, using less than half of his writing prowess, at best, to crank out enough words to hit his quota and cash a check. When that version of Lester is around, it’s hard to agree with Marcus’ argument that there is any literary genius in a record review, or ever could be, even.
I say all of this by way of laying down a huge asterisk when I do finally get to my own convoluted point: reading Bangs is like having a drunken bar chat with your best friend about records, and all the comedy / tragedy / shaggy dog stories / hyperbole / excitement / despair / loathing / anger / joy and libidinal rage that comes with that kind of conversation. Regardless of any shortcomings that Lester may have had and may have suffered from, he could grab your ear, split a ‘lude with you and actually make the case for “White Light / White Heat” as being the best piece of 20th Century art ever produced. And he would be right. Because, in that context, in that moment, in that circumstance, he was king, his opinion was gold, and only he could say it in a way that everyone could feel in their heart and their loins was absolutely true.
In that moment, anyway.
Lester is all contradictions, and as you read him, he changes his opinions on a dime, and says something so out of character next to something so 100% what you expect of him that the only Lester I see anymore is actually an empty vessel, onto which I project so much of my own experience. I often have to take a step back and remind myself that, even having read as much of his written output as I can find, I am still no closer to knowing him at all. The person I know is someone I meet occasionally, drunk, at some club, and instead of watching the girls dance, we talk about the Buzzcocks for an hour. That’s the person I know. So when I read about how he lived, what he was like, and who he was, I’m a bit puzzled. It doesn’t sound like the man I know.
It’s that relationship with Lester that opened my mind to other relationships you can have with the written word. Lester loved music so much he was sure you could write about it, and have the text FEEL like the music it was about. Is that possible? Who knows. Can you water polo about classical paintings, as they say?
Well, Lester fuckin’ did, even when it was sloppy and incomplete and meandering and didn’t really get to the point.
But when he did… those moments of sublime text all working in concert like a good rhythm section, to help propel the narrative like some driving guitar riff…
When he’s firing on all cylinders, it IS as good at The Who at their best.
(And, don’t tell him this, because it’ll swell his ego needlessly, but: probably even better.)