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A Lester Bangs Reader

by Lester Bangs & edited by John Morthland

Pub Date: Aug. 20th, 2003
ISBN: 0-375-71367-0
Publisher: Anchor

A cerebrally smoking (dope-fueled?)—but sharp, very smart—collection of writings from the late, legendary rock journalist, who never had an opinion he couldn’t set on fire.

This second reader (after Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, 1987) features 54 pieces ranging from memoir to criticism to travelogue. They encompass short cherry bombs written for Rolling Stone (of MC5: “the hype, the thick overlay of teenage-revolution and total-energy-thing which conceals these scrapyard vistas of clichés and ugly noise”), where the concision almost bends the page, to more discursive articles for Creem and the Village Voice, where Bangs (1949–82) happily digs into Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Bob Dylan (“Dylan merely used Civil Rights and the rest of the Movement to advance himself in the first place”—and, as for his demonology, stick with Black Sabbath), or sings praise to Anne Murray: “a hypnotically compelling interpretix with a voice like molten high school rings and a heavy erotic vibe.” The travel writing—Austin, Paris, and Jamaica for starters—is more reflective and willing to take the middle of the road with fluid and canny perceptions, while the autobiographical material has a not-necessarily-memorable cub-gonzo-reporter sound. But the music criticism is furious, seemingly written in the heat of battle; graceful for all that, but no prisoners. That Bangs knew music was obvious, but also that he knew personalities and what irked him about them (Mick Jagger: “flopped around in his jumpsuit and just looked more like a society creep every new picture.” David Bowie: “that chickenhearted straw man of suck rock you love to hate.” Jim Morrison: “would never be so much Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Villon as he was a Bozo Prince”). The writer also could pull a volte-face, taking a diametrically opposed view, not simultaneously, but from the same perspective.

A choice cut of Bangs’s work, more than enough to understand why he developed so ardent a following, much of it post-mortem.