Wednesday, March 02, 2005

BOOK REVIEW: MAINLINES, BLOOD FEASTS AND BAD TASTE; A LESTER BANGS READER edited by John Morthland (Anchor, 2003)

Nothing special.

Admittedly, I'm the last rock scriber of noble lineage to get hold of and actually read this relatively recent collection of Lester Bangs wordage both previously-published and not-so, but this gross overlooking by the promotional powers-that-be wasn't always the case. In fact, back in 1987 this humble rock fan was actually deemed IMPORTANT enough in the hotcha writing world to have wrangled a flesh-and-blood hard-covered FREE COPY of the first Lester Bangs posthumous collection of his notoriously caustic reviews, articles, interviews and general musings that was entitled PSYCHOTIC REACTIONS AND CARBURETOR DUNG, a book that had me jumping for the proverbial joy given that author Bangs' ashes were only a close-range five years old at the time of this tome's publication and at least """I""" was still operating on full-tilt seventies rockscribe modes thanks to the pow'r and energy Bangs had laid out as a shining path for manic rock fanatics like myself. But alas, those days are long gone, and while this "rock critic" (to use a term so unkindly laid upon me by a rival member of a different blogstream) has fallen to the rock bottom of mainstream/underground pariahdom since those halcyon days of promotional gravy trains and gimmees of all sorts, in many ways so has the spirit and verve of Lester Bangs also sunk to the deepest part of the rock world sea.

Sheesh, you know things are bad (and have been for nigh on eighteen years) when pullsillanimous pipsqueaks the rank (and I do mean rank!) of Chuck Eddy are repeatedly bombarded with either the tag of "The new Bangs" or are derided for being Lester ripoffs. Hell, they're all (talking general rock critical writings of a variety of sorts) a buncha fakes if you ask me. In fact (talking from my thirty years of conscious rockism) there really hasn't been a good scrap of rock writing in the world outsides a few high points here/there (and dare I say from the end of my own medulla flowing through my fingers onto my keyboard?) in ages, or at least since Bangs himself became as fitting a case of "era's end" as John Kennedy's own Dallas swan song. But then again, the whole rockwriting/underground/fanzine scene just ain't what it used to be one bit. Way back when there were tons of these snotrag screeching suburbanite slugs all writing about the same Iggy/Lou/Sky scene with maybe a bitta Zappa thrown in or perhaps some other more mainstreamish poster child just so's the hippies in charge didn't throw 'em into any communes for whole grain punishment, and these kids wrote about their sick rock & roll fantasies in their own fanzines with titles like TEENAGE WASTELAND GAZETTE and DENIM DELINQUENT and best of all they got away with it and perhaps got written about by the likes of Bangs or more likely his onetime editor Greg Shaw which musta reaped the millions for these young and forgotten bigtime wannabes who in fact maybe did get some of the glory long-deserved via the pages of such respected periodicals as PHONOGRAPH RECORD MAGAZINE or even CREEM, which at that time was Bangs' own personal child whether Barry Kramer knew it or not.

But, as they say, "that was then and this is now," and now is a pretty far cry from then when rock criticism is nothing but pampered prissy preening and direct copying of hypesheets mixed with the right dash of sanctimoniousness and a new age smirk that would even make Alan Watts do a few tumbles in his Buddhist grave. I've always been known to pick on THE VILLAGE VOICE but maybe at one time they were a fine exception especially when inundated with the snideness of Bangs (along with a buncha other long-goners like Lauren Agnelli and Richard Meltzer). Under the tutelage of a wide array of terminal losers ultimately ending with the Saccharine Poster Boy hisself Chuck Eddy, the VOICE has tumbled into such a sick, slank abyss that can (believe it or not!) make a New York Politics/liberal chic hater like myself wince even more than I had in the already winceable eighties! I mean, even the offerings of Mike Saunders and Tim Ellison that have appeared in the VOICE's pages have not been their tippy-top (or even mediocre) best, and I really LIKE the whole two of 'em a lot so it PAINS me to say this!

And I gotta say that even a lotta Bangs' last-days writings for that honored New York weekly and other places doesn't quite come up to par, but whether that was due to the "times" (new wave transmorphing into "gnu wave"), the fact that Bangs had Robert Christgau for an editor, or just that Bangs was milking his creative juices for all they were worth and was headed down the same path of questionable critical acumen as his acolytes is all open to debate. Personally I think it was all THREE things that make the latterday Bangs not quite as tasty as the earlier breed (despite a few juicy moments), but throw in his oft-rumored heroin abuse and maybe you too can just see why I feel this way.

Still, MAINLINES... does have its moments of fine early rock scribedom. The v. early unpublished writings on Warhol/Kennedy and the DRUG PUNK fragment read a lot better than about a thousand other teenage beatnik attempts after illicit readings of Burroughs, and I'm even talkin' about those kids who had the wherewithall to craft eloquent paens to their dark desires a la Bill yet remained firmly esconscend in their real-life enclaves. The early Bangs of ROLLING STONE remains of interest as it seems as if his tastes at the time were an odd teetering between cheap trash underground Amerigan concerns and mainstreamish mulch in order to impress the "big guys." And it's nice to have more of that VOICE stuff available so's I don't have to rely on trips to the microfilm dept. at the library anymore. Having read a good hunk of these reviews/interviews/screeds in their original form at the time of publication or at least at the time of mental impact (roughly 1979-1987) does tend to take some of the oomph away, but if you're a first-timer you may be enthralled. Like I was at one time.

But still, there seems to be a strange dank quality to all this hoopla. Like I said, when the first Bangs comp arrived I devoured it like a demon hanging on every word the deceased chronicler of Amerigan fun gunch had laid down. Nowadays, with all of the reek that Bangs (unconsciously?) wrought on the rock writing scene (which is so diseased that I wonder if it really still exists), maybe I should rethink any laurels I've laid upon the man's memory. At one time Bangs represented the best in the whacked-out, boho hipster snoot stench garagebandfanzinefastfood scene...nowadays that whole sorta gonzo creed has devolved to a point where the founder of the whole kitten kaboodle (Hunter S. You-Know-Who) did a self-snuff as perhaps a perfect cap on a way-of-life and belief that seems about a "meaningful" to whatever it used to stand for as a buncha watered-down New York critics meandering over music and attitudes they wouldn't've have given the time of day to only two decades earlier.

It's still a fine read for the information (and Bangs can soar when he's writing about something you care about), but I've said it before and I'll say it again...my favorite "rock critic" of all time remains Wayne McGuire. At least he knew enough to get out of the way before the tide of mediocrity swept over everything in sight.

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And while we're at it, a hearty BLOG TO COMM welcome back to Dave Lang, who just returned from a month in Vietnam and from the looks of it survived the ordeal with flying colors. Of course we at BLOG TO COMM don't approve of people, no matter how pinkish their political complexion may be, supporting repressive communist governments, but we sure are glad that the man has survived the ordeal without being thrown into a re-education camp and forced to sing "The imperialist is a paper tiger/Long live the noble revolution of Ho Chi Minh" to a clanky Amon Duul beat. Hope you enjoyed your time in the Worker's Paradise Dave, and hopefully you avoided the wily ways of the local female population, NOT because of any rare and incurable diseases you could have picked up, but really, haven't the Vietnamese people suffered enough???

4 comments:

tim ellison said...

For me, Chris, Bangs and Meltzer are critics that I think were fantastic. But apart from those guys, I don't see the period they came from as any kind of halcyon days for rock criticism. I really think there have been plenty of people writing independently and intelligently about music from the eighties on who have done so just as well as fanzine writers and Creem writers from the seventies. And it pains me to say it (!). but I suspect that the reason you don't think is so is merely because you don't happen to personally like the music they're writing about as much as you like the music the earlier writers were writing about.

tim ellison said...

I think you're right about there being a dank feeling about the book, though. There are some horrible pieces in it--mostly stuff in the "Hypes and Heroics" section if I'm remembering correctly and, of course, the All My Friends Were Hermits excerpt.

Christopher said...

Regarding my views on the state of current rock criticism which you say reflects my personally not liking the music these upstarts are writing about...well, I can see your point, but I gotta admit that I liked the writings of various early faves even when they were gonzoing on about groups and recordings I wouldn't think of buying in a million years! Back in the seventies (during the "Golden Age of Rock Criticism") there were tons of those earlier-mentioned fanzine scribes coming at'cha from nowheresville who were writing about groups I adored, but all of them were also writing about acts I couldn't care one whit about. DENIM DELINQUENT used to champion Canadian groups that had little interest to me as well as a lotta British rock that still reminds me of the less-interesting aspects of the old import bins of the day. BACK DOOR MAN used to champ at the bit about people like Billy Squier/Piper and local heavy metal bands that didn't quite have that much-needed oomph!, at least in my horse-blindered (or so some say) opinion. However, I still read the articles and reviews of these groups that both the fanzines and major publications like CREEM published with amazing regularity before it all went down the tubes. Who knows...maybe I'd even learn something by taking the time to read a gonzo-penned hagioreview of some disc I wouldn't usually waste the time reading about had not some writer whose opinion I valued not taken the time to dissect it, or at least look at the cover and write about the goings on inside from there. (And I did learn more than a few things...I remember how Richard Meltzer's comment about Black Oak Arkansas being the only group to come closest to the Velvet Underground on record had me rushing out to buy KEEP THE FAITH!)

But as for nowadays, even when some new rock-critiquing nobody of sorts writes about something that I would usually take an interest in (like when some of the "never read 'em before" types at the VOICE rave on about some new act playing at CBGB which I would take an automatic liking to given these totally unknowns have some of the rock credo I tend to crave), it STILL comes off dry and totally lacking in the innate mania that I'm hoping the music these nambies are writing about exudes. I dunno, it seems as if too many people want to be Christgau (or one of his minions, like the totally useless Doug "whaddevah happen 'a him" Simmons) and nobody wants to play the gonz. I saw it coming in 1984, and today my fears have been founded over and over again. And, as I said, even some of the better writers whom I've followed for quite some time (like Saunders and you to an extent) seem stifled in the mileau of the VOICE's chic urban stench. I'll admit that I haven't paid that close attention to Chuck Eddy (he's still calling the shots there, right?) ever since his late-eighties "hip-to-be-square" rankling not only showed himself, but Bangs to an extent, for the charlatans they are/were (not that this is necessarily bad...maybe in Eddy's case it was atrocious), but if anything I'll guess that he has become the new Christgau which isn't anything one should jump up and down about especially in these rockism-deprived times.

tim ellison said...

You know, I think you're probably right about the seventies being a more...uh, fecund (?) period for rock writing than I gave it credit for being.

But I'm younger than you, Chris, and my perspective when I started reading fanzines in the eighties was that there were quite a lot of good writers: you, Frank Kogan, Coley and Johnson, Patrick Amory, Jack Thompson, Steve Erickson, Kevin Kraynick, etc. I know you don't like a lot of these writers, but maybe you can agree that they all had some talent and smarts. Later, this lot morphed into my own generation of writers: McGonigal, Alan Licht, Seymour Glass, Jay Hinman, Allan Horrocks, Mike Kinney, Tony Rettman, Patrick Marley, etc. And it goes on from there and up to the present day, you know?

And Chuck Eddy is real, man! He's not a charlatan. He really likes Quarterflash and John Cougar and stuff. But so do a lot of people, Chris. Chuck also really likes MX-80 Sound and whatnot. One thing to be said about him is that he is damn knowledgable and extremely devoted to what he does. I think he and Kogan were pioneering in investigating and championing a lot of really good, obscure music in other genres when they got sick of underground rock trends, whether it was in disco or early rap or remarkable crazies like Boney M and Teena Marie.