Lester Bangs' high school classmate, Roger Anderson: "You were right, you loved music more than you loved yourself."
As I worked through my friend’s writing, I was for a long time so caught up in the life of the work that it truly was not real to me that he was dead; as I neared the end of the book, as I squirmed over phrasing and choices between one piece and another, the urge to simple ring him up and ask him what to do was physical. In those moments, he was less dead than ever, and more dead than he will ever be. — From Greil Marcus’s introduction, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung
Just thought I’d drop you a line to let you know what a hell of a hard time I’m having writing up your book. I know that may sound like a selfish and opportunistic reason for writing after all these years, but then again I don’t expect you’ll hold my long epistolary silence against me since, after all, you’ve been dead and cremated now for more than half a decade. Besides, come to think of it, when you died, you owed me a letter!
Come to think of another thing, when I say “your book,” you prob’ly don’t have the faintest idea what I’m talking about. So let me be the first to explain that no less a prestige publishing house than Alfred A. fucking Knopf has just released a posthumous (natch) hardback collection of your pieces (mainly the writing you did for Creem magazine and for the Village Voice, plus a sizable dollop of unpublished stuff) that’s edited and introduced by your old friend and colleague, Greil Marcus. One problem I’m having is that I know my editors are gonna want me to get down to brass tacks first thing — like just why a bunch of feature articles and record reviews for crying out loud that were written by a guy that’s been dead for years should all of a sudden be published as a hardback collection.
And I’d be reduced to saying things like “Lester Bangs was the man who not only coined the term ‘punk rock’ but who — in his epochal 1970 Creem magazine treatise ‘Of Pop and Pies and Fun,’ which started out to be a simple review of Fun House, the second Stooges album, but under the influence of a nonprescription nasal inhaler turned into a multi-thousand-word screed on the past, present, and future of rock‘n’roll with a general evaluation of western culture thrown in for good measure — enunciated many of the principles that gave rise to the punk movement many years later, harrumph, egad.”
But that’d only be the tip of the iceberg, so I’d have to go on and say that the writing in the book makes ninety percent of what comes out these days (or those days) under the headings of not just journalism but fiction look like pallid maunderings, and that the pieces don’t only have to do with rock music but with just about everything else, including morality and emotion and the deaths thereof, that “they betray a profound compassion for suffering and a terrible anger against hypocrisy” or some such, that an extremely acute diatribe against racism in the punk world is included, and that into the bargain (and above all) the stuff is FUNNIER THAN SHIT.
Another problem I’m having with my article about this collection of your articles that were written and published between 1970 and 1980 or thereabouts is, like, melding the biographical and critical elements. On the one hand, I think it’d really be groovy to give the readers an idea of what it was like growing up in El Cajon, that prototypical little inland town east of San Diego, and reading Burroughs and Kerouac and Ginsberg and listening to Mingus and Coltrane and the Stones and holding these books and records up like talismans or shields to hold back the waves of sosh and surfer lumpen, making clear, of course, that we didn’t preoccupy ourselves with this stuff just to be different (although we liked being different, who would deny it?) but because there were endless, inexhaustible worlds of excitement and wonder that lived on those pages and in those vinyl grooves.
Also, and especially since we just finished the (yawn) twentieth anniversary of the Summer of Love, I figured I oughta devote a few paragraphs to the drugs we were taking during the late Sixties — not just the garden-variety acid and pot and speed, but also the decidedly unorthodox stuff like Romilar cough syrup and all the rest of the galaxy of nonprescription highs whose local discoverer and fearless explorer you were. I even wrote this one pretty good paragraph as a possible lead describing what it’s like to be high on Romilar on a hot summer day. And I’ve been thinking of taking that approach because Romilar keeps popping up in your book like a purple genie and also because I suspect it was Romilar that killed you — despite the fact that when you dies, in ’82, you prob’ly hadn’t touched the stuff in years, but I don’t expect your system ever entirely recovered, and that’s why a few piddly Darvon capsules on top of a case of the flu managed to do you in. But it’s hard to get all that in and then switch back to the book itself, and, you know, it’s the eternal question of the fine line between life and literature and all the rest of that critical mumbo jumbo.
Then I figured I’d go on to talk about the book’s title piece, which you wrote while you were still living in El Cajon working by long distance as a journalist for Rolling Stone (I’d explain that Marcus was your editor there and that the magazine was then published out of San Francisco and that it was actually a very good magazine — then) and by longer distance for Creem (longer because it was published out of Detroit) and about how the piece started out to be some kinda retrospective essay on the seminal Yardbirds of yore but got turned into a lengthy amphetamine fantasy about the nonexistent (except in your head) later albums of not the Yardbirds but Count 5, a San Jose garage band whose 1955 tune “Psychotic Reaction” was not only a direct ripoff of the Yardbirds, “I’m a Man” but an even bigger hit.
I was planning to pen a few sentences about stopping by your place just when you were finishing the piece and you made me sit down while you read it aloud and I got all puzzled by the fact that you were going on and on about these imaginary albums like When Snowflakes Fell on the International Dateline and Cartesian Jetstream and Carburetor Dung and told you I though it was pretty funny and right on and beautifully written etc. but was Creem likely to publish something this long and, uh, discursive? And you paid no attention to me, and a month or so later the piece came out in Creem uncut and pretty much unchanged. And I planned to get in some irony about the piece showing up in a hardcover book seventeen years later, and so you were right (as if that wasn’t obvious) to pay no heed to my timorous objections.
Which would be as good a time as any to talk about how you moved to Detroit in ’71 to be head staff writer at Creem, where you worked till ’76 writing hundreds of thousands of words including one feature interview per issue with some rock celeb or another, and the extremely long letters I got from you every once in a while that you had obviously written at the end of one of those multi-day speed binges during which you took care of all your writing chores for the month.
And how then you’d show up in El Cajon for a visit every once in a while always with $500 in cash that you’d saved outta your earnings (never understood how it always happened to be that exact figure) and a handful of drugs no one in California’d ever heard of called spoors (later reached these western shores under the rubric Quaaludes), and how after about three days the drugs’d be gone (no surprise there) and the money too — and how I could never figure out just where all that moola went, since the only things you spent it on were (1) liquor, (2) potato chips, and (3) magazines, except that we did drink an awful lot of booze and every time we went into a liquor store, you cleaned out the magazine rack. Which I guess could add up, taking into account the fact that during your visits you always paid for taxi cabs after my license was revoked for driving while intoxicated.
And then off you’d go back to Detroit, and for another few months all I knew about you was what I got out of the occasional letters and the issues of Creem that arrived at my house. And so there I was opening the November ’72 issue, and what should I find but an account (titled “John Coltrane Lives”) of a drunken incident that took place during your last visit to El Cajon in which you got in trouble with your landlady for making a long chain of fearsome honks on the alto sax that I’d borrowed from my brother-in-law, and couldn’t play any more’n you could. And since the entire droll anecdote is included in Marcus’s collection, I wouldn’t even hafta give a full blow-by-blow but just tell people they should go read it in the book. Giving them, of course, this inside scoop: that the ending you wrote about getting tossed in jail by a cop who happened to live downstairs from your mother’s apartment never really happened. Poetic license, dramatic effect, etc.
One thing I know I want to do in the article is persuade everyone who doesn’t have the twenty bucks required for the purchase of said tome at least to go into a bookstore and pick up the damn thing and read while standing (unless they go to this place in North Berkeley where they got chairs you can sit in while browsing) the section headed “Slaying the Father,” which you’ll be happy to know includes not one but two of the excoriating interviews you did with Lou Reed, as well as the piece you wrote giving seventeen reasons why Lou’s Metal Machine Music is a great album, in spite of the fact that it’s nothing but four sides of mechanically generated feedback recorded at earsplitting frequencies.
Because the Lou stuff isn’t just a textbook example of how to really get in there and bring the edifying worst out of your subject, and it’s not just the most informative (not so say illuminating) words ever printed about Lou, and it’s not just three times funnier’n the most hilarious fabricated encounter ever to come from the desks of H. Thompson or T. Wolfe — it’s all those things at once, and it’s also somehow touching and inspiring and constitutes a strangely fitting tribute to the man you firmly believed was one of the great artists of the century even while you were insulting him to his face and absorbing his answering blasts. Which would in turn give me a chance to explain how this exemplifies your whole contention, which you never backed down from, that the cult of the Pop Star is basically fascistic and that every true rocker oughta constantly seek to bring the celebrated fatheads down to dirt level with everyone else.
And then I could go on to talk about your other eternally held principle of the universe — namely that technical proficiency in rock ‘n’ roll is a red herring and a false icon and that the beauty of the form is that anyone can do it and that all this insufferable talk about what a virtuoso Eric Clapton is or how poor Iggy “never learned to sing” is just so much balderdash. (You’d be disheartened maybe but not surprised to hear that when Bob Dylan came through San Francisco a few month ago, people — writers even — were still saying stuff like “Of course he can’t sing.” No matter how many spikes they’ve twisted their hair into or how many bad-ass afterhours places they hang around in these people are still using Chaliapin as a yardstick!) And I could give ‘em in your own glorious full caps this late formulation o the truth of rock ‘n’ roll (and of all music): that it is “EMOTION DELIVERED AT ITS MOST POWERFUL AND DIRECT IN WHATEVER FORM.”
So that would take us up Through the Years at Creem and the Trouble with Lou to the point where I moved to the Bay Area from El Cajon and you and I were seeing each other less and less and the fifteen- or twenty-page letters we used to exchange dwindled down to a precious few and the next thing I know you had quit Creem (which was turning increasingly and irrevocably into a Teen Beat type magazine with articles galore on Kiss and Motley Crue) (if Motley Crue even existed then but they’ll know what I mean) and moved to New York and started free-lancing for the Village Voice and other rags.
And this is where I come up with what strikes me as a pretty nifty little narrative concept which is that the pieces in this last half of the book — ones about Iggy Pop, the Clash, Otis Rash, Sid Vicious, Richard Hell, the deaths of Elvis and Lennon, and the agonies of New Year’s Eve, along with unpublished notes and manuscript fragments — are like all the letters I never got from you, since they aren’t just about the above-named stars and phenoms but about yourself and the world as you found it.
And it’s right in through here that a wave of terrible sadness comes over me because I didn’t read any of these pieces at the time and so didn’t know you were writing such great stuff or that your hopes for the future of man and music were so high or that you suffered so deeply when you began to believe those hopes weren’t worth the air they were dreamed out of, nor the courage you showed in standing by those dreams even then. And so you renounced drugs and went back to ’em and then finally you put ’em down for good but still wound up shutting yourself in your room to write a novel called All My Friends Are Hermits that you never finished.
And then there’s the ultimate perfectly written tirade or lyrical phantasmagoria in the working notes you mad in preparation for writing a review of Lost Highway (Peter Guralnick’s book about the bad ends met by American rockers like Elvis), which is as passionate and as frightening as anything you ever did — all the stuff about Geraldo Rivera wanting to exhume Elvis’s body so its stomach could be examined for evidence of drug abuse and your inspiration that then a person could not only ingest the drug remains found inside the King’s belly and get a high unlike any other but “that if I eat a little bit of Elvis (the host, as it were, or is that mixing mythological metaphors?) then I take on certain qualities possessed by Elvis while he was alive and walking around or lying in bed with the covers over his head as the case may be, and when these pills make me high, they’ll put me on the Elvis trip to end ’em all and I’ll be seeing what he saw and thinking what he thought perhaps up to the last final seconds before kicking the bucket and if all of this works well enough as it most certainly will since I intend to be greedy when offered the chance of a lifetime and scoop out a whole giant rotten glob of his carcass that let’s face it he’s never gonna need again and I eat from deep in the heart of him as I fully intend to do, why, THEN I’LL BE ELVIS!”
And then the headlong extrapolation in which you imagine yourself to be Elvis both living and dead and see yourself shooting out TV tubes and giving excruciatingly boring performances and feeling no lust for the nubile bevies waiting outside your Caesar’s Palace penthouse, and the quality of rage and grief in every word that certainly constitutes “EMOTION DELIVERED AT ITS MOST POWERFUL AND DIRECT IN WHATEVER FORM” — and finally I can’t tell whether it’s Lester speaking or Elvis, since either of you could have truthfully said this:
“The point is that something I started doing to make people know I existed started rubbing out my existence a little at a time, day by day, I could feel it going, seeping away, steady and calm … and nothin’ comin’ in to replace it.”
All through these last pieces you seem to curse yourself for having a love affair with death, and what galls me is that you never had any such love affair with that bag of bones. You said to me once, “I’ve decided that everyone is obsessed with something. My obsession is music. Most people are obsessed with themselves,” and you gave me a look I’ll never forget. But the fact is you were right, you loved music more than you loved yourself, and the greatest music is full of pain and hope, and pain and hope finally pulled you apart. No one every loved death less than you did. Shit, man, I always thought we’d meet again in our old age and compare grandchildren and talk about the books we’d written and listen to some tunes. Instead I’ve gotta content myself with this book, and be grateful to Marcus for pushing it through, and remember the time you loaned me your copy of The Subterraneans when I was fourteen years old.