Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Readerby Lester Bangs, John Morthland
Before his untimely death in 1982, Lester Bangs was inarguably the most influential critic of rock and roll. Writing in hyper-intelligent Benzedrine prose that calls to mind Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson, he eschewed all conventional thinking as he discussed everything from Black Sabbath being the first truly Catholic band to Anne Murray’s smoldering… See more details below
Before his untimely death in 1982, Lester Bangs was inarguably the most influential critic of rock and roll. Writing in hyper-intelligent Benzedrine prose that calls to mind Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson, he eschewed all conventional thinking as he discussed everything from Black Sabbath being the first truly Catholic band to Anne Murray’s smoldering sexuality. In Mainlines, Blood Feasts, Bad Taste fellow rock critic John Morthland has compiled a companion volume to Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, the first, now classic collection of Bangs’s work. Here are excerpts from an autobiographical piece Bangs wrote as a teenager, travel essays, and, of course, the music pieces, essays, and criticism covering everything from titans like Miles Davis, Lou Reed, and the Rolling Stones to esoteric musicians like Brian Eno and Captain Beefheart. Singularly entertaining, this book is an absolute must for anyone interested in the history of rock.
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DRUG PUNK: from Two Assassinations and a Speedy Retreat into Pastoral Nostalgias.
Today Andy Warhol was assassinated-well, I shouldn't say "assassinated," he was shot by some chick who wanted to murder him, and right now he's in critical condition, 50-50 chance or so they say. I was over at my girlfriend Andy's today listening to my new William Burroughs album for the first time (it just came in the mail) when suddenly they shouted for me from the bedroom. When I went in Andy's mother told me the news. Somehow I got the feeling they were expecting me to get distraught or something, so I faked this bunch of guffaws. Actually the news had no effect on me, at least no kind that could be measured positively or negatively, except that kind of vibration that sudden real-life surrealism sets off in you. It blew my mind is what I meant to say. When you say "Blow my mind," you don't mean anything to do with sadness or happiness, you mean WHAM!, the sudden impact of something outrageous, incredible, unthinkable, and I guess you could say that that's a positive feeling. Andy's mother went on to say blandly: "Some New York woman art critic shot him. Blew his whole head right off."
"What?! Is he dead then?"
Andy started to laugh. Her mother corrected her own surrealism (Burroughs had just been saying on the phonograph, "Trak news service. . . We don't report the news we write it"): "No, he's just in the hospital in critical condition." I went back into the living room and wrote on the paper slipcover from inside my Burroughs album: "June 3, 1968-Day Andy Warhol was assassinated." It looked better that way than if I'd wrote "Day Andy Warhol was shot."
Maybe I should be more concerned. Warhol used to be one of my heroes. Of course, I didn't know a damn thing about him, hadn't seen any of his movies or very many of his paintings, but I'd seen a TV show on him with the Velvet Underground playing that blew my mind, and I read what I could here and there in the magazines. Somewhere along in there I bought a giant poster with his face and sunglasses on it, and kept the thing up for months. It's not much to look at, or rather it wasn't, it's dead now. . . . I mean it wasn't one of these psychedelic-rococo things you can stare at for hours. As a matter of fact it was ugly, downright, and after a while the only reason I kept it up was that I wanted pictures on my wall and it was big. Back when I first got it I kept it right across from my bed and at night in the darkness I would stare at the face, trying to simulate perceptual drug experience, until it changed. But the changes never had much definition, not much showed in that face, it was just a famous face, incredibly blank and perhaps that was its claim to fame. Without the sunglasses he looked like a typical fey faggot, but with shades he achieved this rubbery cement look, a cement wall. Gradually over the months I began to find out that Warhol had little or nothing to do with the movies under his name. Roger met Warhol (or an imposter, as has been rumored since) and Paul Morrissey, who seems to be the real man responsible for the films, when they came to lecture at San Diego State. I wasn't there, but again Warhol came across as a catatonic if anything. When I moved to Broadway the poster went up in the living room there, and one night when they were all on acid and all equally bum-tripped, Jerry Luck fastened his paranoia on the Warhol poster: "I can't stand that guy, he's always looking at me! Ugh, that face!"
"The cat hassling you?" I sympathized.
"Man, I can't stand it! I'd like to rip that fucker into a million pieces! All the time I feel him staring at me, every motherfucking time I look around I see him staring at me like that, an' I hate the fucker, I hate 'im!"
I was in a very ironic/sarcastic mood that night, so I said: "Well, man, if he bothers you that much, rip the shit out of him! The poster belongs to me and I don't mind. Go ahead . . . fuck 'im up!"
"Really? I can?"
"Shore, go right ahead, have a ball!"
Everybody else made noises of disgust or told Luck to cool it. For a brief moment there was an odd suspenseful lull, and then he sprang at the poster and ripped it off the wall with a gurgling cry. Flopping about on the floor like a beached octopus, he tore it into a scattered litter of small pieces, snarling. Then he sat up, scratching his head, and looked around the room dazedly. I looked at him curiously. The others had made even more disgusted noises. Someone told him to clean up the mess, and he grumbled just like he did the night that he and Dan and Roger stole a chicken from some neighbor and he cleaned and plucked it on our kitchen floor, taking a bite from its bloody crotch to prove his Class.
But to get back to the assassination; when I got home that night my mother met me at the door with the news. She said he had been shot by his "girlfriend." Later Roger came over, and was predictably shocked when I dropped the bomb, gasping wide-eyed and staggering around the room a moment with his hand to his head. I don't think this was so much an indication that Warhol held some dear place deep in his heart, as an example of his typical response when his mind is blown.
Yesterday Andy Warhol was shot in his New York office, today Robert Kennedy in an L.A. hotel lounge just as he was finishing his victory speech after winning the California primary. And just two months ago, almost to the day, Martin Luther King, a far better man than either of the other two, was murdered in Memphis by a hired assassin who still eludes the FBI. Who next? What next? Andy and I were sitting in the den about half past midnight browsing a state college catalog when her mother shouted from the bedroom, "Andy! Come quickly! Bobby Kennedy's been shot!" We ran down the hall to sit dazedly watching the strange milling mélange on the screen, nervous confused newscasters their voices breaking as they interviewed witnesses most of whom had differing stories, cameras blurring in and out of focus again and again, pandemonium, a harried cop shouting for everyone to clear the room but breaking off in mid-sentence as he saw a CBS man two feet away holding his microphone out to a witness, muddy charcoal semidarkness on the screen as they doused the lights in the lounge in an unsuccessful attempt to clear it, hearing an account later of the tense moments right after the shooting when photographers and reporters and bystanders crowded in so close over Kennedy and the two other wounded individuals that the senator (prone on the floor with blood all over his face, hands, and hips) finally had to cry out for some air, his mob was suffocating him . . . saw the would-be assassin dragged out surrounded by a tough contingent of a couple dozen cops pushing through the crowd, their captive barely glimpsed between trunks of cops as he hung half-limp yet his muscles tightened trying to roll himself almost into a fetal ball with arms defensively over the crown of his head . . . another supposed assassin got away . . . Andy was sobbing. Her mother clucked about "This country, I don't know . . ." and said to Paul: "Paul, let's move to Australia." Andy declared fiercely through her tears: "I'll bet it was one of those McCarthyites!" She is, predictably, a fanatical Kennedy supporter. I'm for McCarthy. Earlier in the evening, she had been crying, "nearly distraught" as she herself put it at the prospect, which seemed quite likely then according to network projections, of Kennedy's defeat. I watched the TV coverage of the immediate aftermath of his shooting with my jaw hanging, stupefied and shocked in the same way I'd been those interminable leagues of moments that I sat in the Angels' living room watching the progress of their gang rape. The data on the TV began to repeat itself: no new developments. I said good night to Andy and drove to Valley Liquor to pick up some Ezerase typing paper for the philosophy paper I'd planned to write on this all-night speed session. As I paid for it I casually said to the clerk, "Dja hear the news about Bobby Kennedy?" and he said, passing time of day with customer, "Yeah . . . they're gonna hafta stop doing those things."
Andy called me to report through tears that Senator Kennedy was still on the operating table, seven hours since the shooting, she says they got him through the shoulder, neck, and one big corner clipped off the skull behind an ear, three bullets through the smiling young presidential hopeful, and she has sat all night in front of the TV speeding and crying, while I've sat puffing panting with the sustained sex joy of plumbing this my Mainline, jugular vein of memories, convictions of the head and reachings-out of heart all years for some crystalline totality, and this is it, I can't cry this morning, even though America is disintegrating with a rapidity that's even shocking some of the dissidents, with an immutable beam-cracking ruination exceeding the wildest projections of those wooly insurgents America internalized from Tom Paine Franklin and the rest, as I feel the total tornado of the cosmos whirling 'round me "like a Jacuzzi Whirlpool Bath," as all the Grossmont Junior College speakers used to say muckraking at tournaments until poor wop Jacuzzi's millions-maker became a cliché representing the very epitome of our American "decadence," I feel ecstatic chills swirling up and pouring down my limbs and trunk as a day and night of methedrine slowly flakes from me like dried paint flakes from the barnacled bow of a gargantuan ocean liner, all night these mounting hours Senator Robert Kennedy slowly dying on L.A. operating table of sterile stainless steel I've been plumbing this Mainline's depths, new literature aborning in here my recent speed sessions, when that methedrine's in my blood and that blood is in my head, something new, I keep returning in allusions to the Velvet Underground, no, specifically, Lou Reed, mind made it out of New York maelstrom halfway intact, now I pick up his messages thanx to the R&R Renaissance the massive push of record companies hustling like mad beetles after hog-slopping troughs brimful of dollar bills, remember Grand Guy Grand's trick and people diving shamelessly into the massive vat of shit and piss and blood and pus and snot and come etc. after seasoning of U.S. greenbacks in the filth, everything flows in and lawd we're all sittin' pretty have been how long now? But confidentially although it shore ain't no secret I feel the lid's about to blow. Driving Andy to school. Suddenly, after half our transit done in silence, she says: "America is disintegrating, Les."
"I know it," I say. "I've known it for a long time. . . . All anybody has had to do for the past year or so was read the editorials in magazines like Life, or the Post, and they would've known the whole thing was falling apart." When sheets like that start predicting imminent apocalypse and monstrous social earthquakes, you know the keg's about to blow, because those mags are part of the Greater American Mainline at present, they shoot right out to reach in one way or another a majority of the populace every week, and the last thing they want to do is alarm Mr. and Mrs. America unnecessarily, to set the reactionaries to cleaning their '76 muskets or alarm the milk-and-sports-page millions securely ensconced in their stucco dugouts with unfounded rumors of indigenous explosions expected to rip out the quiet keep-off-the-grass parks, the shady cement sidewalks leaf strewn cross the illusions of permanence in the initials of lovers now friends walking precincts on Desenex feet and varicose veins for the Republican party and the Next President of the United States (as is obvious by today, since last night) Richard M. Nixon, no, these serene town centers proudly perpetuating quiet cracker images from 1853 must not be torn up madly out of that storied earth like the vertebrae of some ironically smiling Jesus of brilliantine halo, after all, this isn't France!
I said to Andy that I'd foreseen the seam-ripping of America's frayed old frock coat, and I added: "I supposed it couldn't be otherwise. . . ." and she said "Democracy won't work, it's a shame but it just won't work" and I said, "The reason it's falling apart this way is that the people of America have been living in the past too long. . . . For too long we've broadcasted the American Dream on all networks as gospel and everybody's been content . . . living in the past. . . . The nation is falling now because its people haven't been able to face it when the granite thunderbolt plows square into their upper plates, that the American Dream is only a dream, and that the American Reality is imperative, a powder-keg situation."
She started crying again. I put my hand on hers where it lay on the seat and she pulled it away abruptly, with the first touch. "Oh, don't try to comfort me, you, I know that you don't understand . . . it's the people like you . . . and that shit you read-"
"You mean the Free Press, and like that?"
"That crap, that filthy lying crap, and the crap those Right-Wingers put out, that's what's destroyed America!"
I won't deny it, for all I know she's pretty right, in fact I'm sure she is, those hysterical paranoid Left-er New Left idiots are just as much to blame as anybody. America, which is essentially our universe, is having earthquake-sized convulsions, choking, spitting up blood, reeling dizzily into some crumpling limp falldown of terminal disease, weaving back and forth on its knees moaning and clutching itself tightly in one wounded area after another, raving like a wood-grain-alcoholic crashing in the Bowery on his Last Go-Round, and I don't have any answers, or even very many opinions right now, seems like all the factions in the brawl are starting to look like the very thing they're opposing so desperately, so that even semilucid and halfway rational New Leftists who can see in reasonably complete clarity the disastrous turn their politics and political organizations down to the last one have taken, must still sit tight keep their chops gritted and be ready for the impending fight, no matter what the consequences, perhaps because they've never really conceived of America falling into a continent of burning junk piles and primitive local control by brute force, meaning that perhaps they're just bored with the same old scene, day after day, month after month, everything secure, bolted down, in order, safe for the cowering rodent-citizenry of elm-lined tract homes, maybe these cats just wanta see the entire structure fall or at least get shaken to its quick for once simply because it's never happened before and, you know, man, like with their Che caps and half-ass homemade Mollies, why, they're a Revolutionary Insurgent Liberation Army, can-you-dig-it?, ready to get out there by God and do some fucking Liberating! No matter if the cat's never seen blood in his life before outside the movies, man, he will fight with the strength of twenty flabby imperialist racist middle-class WASP head of human cattle because he has the pure true Fire in his heart, and not only that he's taken lots of acid! He's strong! No, man, he sure ain't gonna turn tail and run when he charges toward hand-grenade blasts which blow small bits of the flesh and blood and entrails of a woman and her three small children his way, what the fuck, what's a little splatter of blood and guts on your sleeve?; and he won't run when the cops come in with their guns blazing or even machine guns turning slowly in that street storefront wall to storefront wall; but he MAY run when he walks up to some big Jimmy Brown Quarterback-type Black Militant spade boppin' down the street of smoke and fire and death and he sez, "Hey, man, whaddya say, ain't the revolution outasight, how about, hey you want some grass?" and that big spade just slowly swivels his pumpkin-size head to take in this stupid eager-faced Honkey Hippy coming on like such a White Tom and pretty soon the spade sez: "Split, what boh, fo' ah bus' yo' haid." Real calm but real obvious in his sincerity too, just kinda standin' there all lordly and amused hands on his hips legs spread and smilin' easy but radiating a blistering solid blast of white hot hate out from his red eyes through those impenetrable shades designed to tell the person confronted nothing at all. Now if you think that white ex-Love neo-Political Longhair cat is gonna stand there and try to reason that thing out with that big spade, you're just plain stupid, as stupid as ninety percent of the Hip and New Left Community (and I mean those that've been around long enough that they should know better, not these little high school punks just picked up on grass & acid last month) has gotten right now. And anybody lets themselves get that stupid is doubly dangerous: dangerous first to themselves, because they're liable to get their heads busted, and dangerous to every single one of the rest of us, as dangerous as Lyndon Johnson or (yes, perhaps this is no time to say it but it was true) Bobby Kennedy before he was shot or General Hershey or J. Edgar Hoover. They are dangerous to every one of us precisely because they are at this very moment playing with fire, I mean insurrection, when they don't have the slightest idea how to control it or what it means or even that they are exacerbating the probability that a great many of us, certainly including them, are going to experience disruptions in our lives from which we may never recover, which we may not even survive.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Lester Bangs was the most passionate voice in rock criticism in the Seventies and early Eighties, and this volume of his selected writings does an excellent job of providing a cross-section of his best work. In most ways, it's superior to Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, an earlier volume of Bangs' work. Even if you don't agree with some of Lester's judgments, it's worth studying his arguments. And the fact that we're still reading his articles and reviews decades after they were written, and nearly 33 years after his death, speaks highly for his continued relevance.