Introduction to Lester Bangs’s ‘Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung’ (1986)

Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung

“BIO: Lester Bangs was born in Escondido, California, in 1948. He grew up in El Cajon, California, which means ‘The Box’ in Spanish, where he did things like wash dishes, sell women’s casuals, and work as assistant for a husband-and-wife artificial-flower-arranging team while freelancing record reviews and pretending to go to college until 1971, when he moved to Detroit and went to work for Creem magazine. In the five years he worked there as head staff writer and in various editorial capacities, he defined a style of critical journalism based on the sound and language of rock ‘n’ roll which ended up influencing a whole generation of younger writers and perhaps musicians as well. In 1976 he quit Creem to move to New York City and freelance. Since then he has also led two rock ‘n’ roll bands active on the Manhattan club scene, and began cutting records of his original rock ‘n’ roll compositions (he writes lyrics, sings lead and plays harmonica, allowing that ‘All my melodies are the same melody, and that’s a blues’), the first of which, ‘Let It Blurt’/`Live,’ was released on the Spy label early in 1979. Presently he is preparing an album…”

So wrote Lester Bangs a year or two before he died in 1982. The fact of his death demands that any bio be more specific: he was born on 14 December 1948; he died on 30 April 1982, accidentally, due to respiratory and pulmonary complications brought on by flu and ingestion of Darvon. The name of the store where he sold women’s casuals was Streicher’s Shoes, Mission Valley Shopping Center; his album was released in 1981 on the Live Wire label, credited to Lester Bangs and the Delinquents, under the title Juke Savages on the Brazos, though he also thought of calling it “Jehovah’s Witless,” after the faith his mother embraced following the death of his father in 1955. “Lester said it accounted for his approach as a rock critic,” Frances Pelzman wrote me as work began on this book, “because he was always trying to make converts.” The fact of death also provokes idle speculation: of all the details he might have included in a one-paragraph autobiography, why did Lester mention that El Cajon means “The Box”? Was it because “box” is old hipster slang for record player, or because the name signified a confinement he thought he could never escape?

It’s not easy to write about a dead friend without veering off into melodrama or sentimentality; melancholy might be the most honest tone, but it’s the hardest to catch. I should be making a case for the importance of Lester Bangs’s work, explaining precisely why those who did not know it in its time should read it, why that work will enrich the life of anyone willing to meet it even halfway on its own terms, and while I believe Lester’s writing will do exactly that, I have no heart for the job. It seems condescending, both to the reader and to the writing; it pains me that Lester found it necessary to tout his work on the basis of its influence, real and even overwhelming as that influence was, rather than on the basis of its value. Another self-portrait, then, from about the same time as the first: “I was obviously brilliant, a gifted artist, a sensitive male unafraid to let his vulnerabilities show, one of the few people who actually understood what was wrong with our culture and why it couldn’t possibly have any future (a subject I talked about/gave impromptu free lessons on incessantly, especially when I was drunk, which was often, if not every night), a handsome motherfucker, good in bed though of course I was so blessed with wisdom beyond my years and gender that I knew this didn’t even make any difference, I was fun, had a wild sense of humor, a truly unique and unpredictable individual, a performing rock ‘n’ roll artist with a band of my own, perhaps a contender if not now then tomorrow for the title Best Writer in America (who was better? Bukowski? Burroughs? Hunter Thompson? Gimme a break. I was the best. I wrote almost nothing but record reviews, and not many of those…” He was half-kidding until the parenthesis began (he never closed it); then he was telling the truth. Perhaps what this book demands from a reader is a willingness to accept that the best writer in America could write almost nothing but record reviews.

I don’t really know about the claims preceding the parenthesis. Like thousands of other people, I knew Lester mostly through his writing. We were, perhaps, deep friends, but never close. I was his first editor, at Rolling Stone in 1969; after he left California for Detroit and New York, we saw one another half a dozen times, talked on the phone twice as often, corresponded twice more than that. We spoke often of my editing a book of his work; thus this one.

The first bio quoted above is from the manuscript of a collection of Lester’s published pieces on rock ‘n’ roll he prepared in 1980 or 1981. The only publication he had been able to secure had been through a German company, for publication only in German; the working title was “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung.” This is not that book, which never appeared, though the title is the same, the dedication is Lester’s, and most of his selections and some of his section headings have been retained; an enormous amount of material has been added, much of it never published before. Lester’s book was meant to merely sum up one period in what was to be a long and unpredictable career. (When Lester died, he was about to leave for Mexico to write a novel, “All My Friends Are Hermits,” though I don’t for a minute believe, as some people far closer to Lester than I ever was have said, that he would have abandoned writing about music.) His book was not meant to define a legacy, which is what this book has to do.

Lester bought his first record (TV Action Jazz by Mundell Lowe and His All-Stars, RCA Camden) in 1958; from then on he devoured every piece of sound-bearing plastic he could fmd. “My most memorable childhood fantasy,” he once wrote, “wast have a mansion with catacombs underneath containing, alphabetized in endless winding dimly-lit musty rows, every album ever released.” About the same time, he became a constant reader; soon after, he became a teenage beatnilc. Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs were his heroes and teachers; he bought their myths of dissipation and redemption, dope and satori. Their books and everyone’s records made him a writer.
Mundell Lowe - 1959 - TV Action Jazz! (RCA)
Lester Bangs’s first published words, discounting poems in high-school literary magazines, were a review of the MC5’s Kick Out the Jams LP, Rolling Stone, 5 April 1969. It came in over the transom, a brutal, unanswerable attack, because as a rock ‘n’ roll fan Lester had followed the hype, bought the album, felt cheated and used, and struck back: a good beginning for any critic. (Later he came to love the record and the band, but that was typical: “I double back all over myself,” he said in an interview with Jim DeRogatis, who had asked him if his approach to rock ‘n’ roll was based on the conviction that the music wasn’t art: “We can talk about the trash esthetic, all that… Of course it’s art.”) In June 1969 Lester and I began to work together; in one of the first letters he wrote me (covering the five, ten, fifteen reviews then arriving weekly) he said: “In short, I would like to blow up the whole set and start all over again.” And so he did.

Lester published more than a hundred and fifty reviews in Rolling Stone (from 1969 to 1973, when editor Jann Wenner banned him for disrespect toward musicians; again in 1979, when record-review editor Paul Nelson demanded his reinstatement), but Rolling Stone was never his place of freedom. Creem, the rock ‘n’ roll magazine that grew out of the milieu around John Sinclair’s White Panther Party, was that place, at least for a time: it gave Lester space for the farthest reaches of invective, scorn, fantasy, rage, and glee. First as a contributor and soon as an editor, he made the magazine work as a subversive undertow in the inexorable commercial flow of the rock business; along with editor Dave Marsh, he discovered, invented, nurtured, and promoted an esthetic of joyful disdain, a love for apparent trash and contempt for all pretension, that in 1976 and 1977, with the Ramones and CBGB’s in New York City and the Sex Pistols in London, would take the name he had given it: punk. He was also a man with a job, covering the scene, scooping up whatever was there: between 1970 and 1976, Creem meant more than a hundred and seventy reviews, seventy feature articles, countless picture captions (some of his best work, a demystification of superstars that led as directly to the Ramones and the Sex Pistols as did his reviews and features), countless replies to readers’ letters, taking out the trash.

Lester became a figure within the world of rock ‘n’ roll: within its confines, he became a celebrity. Doping and drinking, wisecracking and insulting, cruel and performing, always good for a laugh, he became rock’s essential wild man, a one-man orgy of abandon, excess, wisdom, satire, parody—the bad conscience, acted out or written out, of every band he reviewed or interviewed. He went to an interview ready to provoke whatever band was in town; whatever band was in town tried to provoke him. Thus by the time he moved to New York—to find a burgeoning punk scene that seemed on the verge of fulfilling all his hopes and jeremiads—he was a man to be lionized: a man you could be proud to say you’d bought a drink or given drugs.

Lester had spent his last year of high school on a strange regimen of Romilar cough syrup and belladonna. When a doctor told him he was courting death, he switched to shooting speed. He became an alcoholic, a real one; after many years, he could stink up a room. He stayed away from street drugs (LSD, cocaine, whatever whatever was called at any given time); he never used heroin. Still, he was for a long time his own kind of junkie. In his last year, he had cleaned up; hardly any drugs, little more than a beer, which often brought on a paroxysm of self-hate. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous; he had work to do. I’ve always believed that the violence of his attempt to change his life left his body shaken, vulnerable to even the slightest anomaly, be it a commonplace bug or an ordinary dose of anyone else’s everyday painkiller; that he had shocked his system toward health and that that was what killed him.

In Detroit and especially in New York, Lester had an image to live up to; sometimes he tried to live up to it, and sometimes he fought against it. He doubled back on himself again and again. But the shift in his writing from Detroit to New York is patent. In Detroit he published mostly first drafts, hewing to the Beat line of automatic inspiration; in New York he began to work more slowly, writing a piece again and again, chasing a theme through five, ten times its publishable length, then cutting back or starting over. Moralism in the very best sense—the attempt to understand what is important, and to communicate that understanding to others in a form that somehow obligates the reader as much as it entertains—surfaced at the end of his tenure at Creem, and found a field in New York at the Village Voice. At the same time he published in obscure fanzines and newsstand slicks and daily newspapers, but his public voice remained stymied, boxed in: he was a rock critic, so what was all this other stuff, all the pages on sex, love, people on the street, philosophy, death, romance? Assigned a 750-word record review, he would sit down at the typewriter and work through the night, through the next day, until he had thousands and thousands of words that he never dared show his editors—some of whom might have struggled to find a way to publish them. Sometimes pieces fluttered rejection slips from slick to fanzine, or even in the opposite direction; sometimes they were lost for good.

In the last years of his life Lester tried to write about everything. In early 1976, in a combative, sarcastic, soul-baring letter to his then boss and nemesis, the late Barry Kramer, publisher of Creem, Lester pledged eternal fealty and submission to the magazine that by that time was as much his creation as anyone else’s, demanding, over the course of seven thousand words, almost begging for, the $179.07 the magazine owed him. He talked about what he wanted to do, promising that not for a moment would his plans and ambitions interfere with his salaried obligations to edit, write reviews, features, picture captions, replies to readers’ letters, to take out the trash: he planned a collection of his Creem pieces, and then “a staggeringly ambitious cultural commentary that will tie together and explain such disparate phenomena as disco, snuff movies, Roxy Music, Ben Edmonds, Elton John, S&M, Barry Lyndon, the popularity of the synthesizer and other synthetic musical instruments, the swinging singles scene and various other currently popular kinds of depersonalized sex, the desire of human beings to turn themselves into machines, Metal Machine Music, Shampoo, The Passenger, Donald Barthelme, pet rocks, the inevitability of total world conquest by MOR, the degeneration of language, the lack of any sense of history or culture preceding the New York Dolls on the part of the Joanne Uhelszki generation, the entire span of self-improvement literature/courses and sensitivity training, Winning Through Intimidation, brutalization as entertainment, the obsolescence of the concept of the avant-garde, the gradual desexualization of a whole generation, including the phenomenon of individuals who prefer drugs to sex consistently, the mindless compulsive drive to dance all night currently sweeping New York City, a (currently in progress) spontaneous and unplanned mass movement on the part of human beings in the West to jettison as many emotions as possible, the deification of numbness and/or the stultifyingly bland, the possible end of civilization as we have known and occasionally treasured it for the past few thousand years, the invisible war beginning right now which may yet rend the entirety of our culture in half, including instructions as to which side you will find yourself on (since it probably will not be your selection, since most people won’t figure out what they’re becoming until it’s too late) and how to locate the nearest branch of the Fifth Column of which I hope to become a leader.”

Not that this would interfere with the picture captions: “I’ve got way too much work to do right now, right here, to really begin such a project on any serious level—if, ultimately, I can pull it off at all. I’m not at all sure that writing Allman Brothers reviews is the proper training for a Spengler.”

Here are some of the other books Lester planned to publish:

    “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: Lester Bangs’ Greatest Hits”

    “All the Things You Could Be by Now If Iggy Pop’s Wife Was Your Mother—A Book of Jive ‘n’ Verities by Lester Bangs”

    “Rock Through the Looking Glass—A Book of Fantasies”

    a fantasy biography of the Rolling Stones modeled on Mark Shipper’s Paperback Writer (requested by a publisher, who lost interest after two hundred pages were completed)

    “Lost Generation—American Kids Now in Their Own Words”

    “A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise”

    “All My Friends Are Hermits” (first nonfiction, then a novel) a book of fantasies about Elvis Presley by various writers

    a rock version of A. B. Spellman’s Four Lives in the Bebop Business, focusing on Brian Eno (two hundred pages completed), Marianne Faithfull, Lydia Lunch, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, or Robbie Robertson, or Danny Fields

    “They Invented It (You Took It Over, or Under),” a book on the Beatles (also called “The Firstest with the Mostest”)

    “Rock Gomorrah—The Scandalous Lies About the Woodstock Nation!” (a collaboration with Michael Ochs, completed, never published)

    a book on the everyday lives of prostitutes, much of it written

    “Women on Top: Ten Post-Lib Role Models for the Eighties” a book about Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground

    “You Can Live Like a Billionaire on No Income—I Do All the Time, and This Book Tells How”

Sure, no one would want to read most of them; certainly no one would want to read all of them, and had he lived Lester would have written only one or two of them (plus many more), but one of them would have been “All My Friends Are Hermits,” his final version of the Spenglerian opus he first limned out in his last year at Creem, and that would have been a real book. There are hundreds of pages of it, in dozens of shapes, under many headings: only a fraction of what he wrote has found its way into this book, not all under that title.
This book is my version of the work Lester Bangs left behind. It is not a summary, or a representative selection, but an attempt to make a picture of a man creating a view of the world, practicing it, facing its consequences, and trying to move on. This book does not include Lester’s first published piece (the MC5 review mentioned above), or his last (“If Oi Were a Carpenter,” Village Voice, 27 April 1982). In fact it includes none of his writing for Rolling Stone, and none of his writing about some of the performers who were for him obsessions, avatars, talismans (the Rolling Stones, Captain Beefheart, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, the Ramones); it passes over performers who during the long drought years at Creem (drought for rock ‘n’ roll, not for Lester as a writer) appeared to him as signs of life: Black Sabbath, Wet Willie, Roxy Music, Mott the Hoople, the New York Dolls, Patti Smith. Faced with an artist whose work he loved and respected, Lester often wrote poorly, passively: he often fell back, quoting lyrics rather than saying what he thought, replacing ideas with adjectives. This book omits anything from Lester’s book Blondie, a scabrous, crackling fan-bio he wrote in a few days in 1980; it omits most of the six hundred pages of drafts he wrote for Rod Stewart, the fan-bio he published with Paul Nelson in 1981. It includes none of his hundreds of poems or his scores of songs. It omits most of the three million, four million, five million words that were collected for the preparation of this book. But this book is not a record of what Lester Bangs wrote: it is, finally, my attempt to record what what he wrote was about, and what it was worth.

This book was a collaborative project. Ben Catching, Lester’s nephew (sometimes so referred to in the pages that follow), is Lester’s executor (Lester’s beloved mother died a few months before he did), and he made the book possible. John Morthland and Billy Altman are Lester’s literary executors; along with RJ Smith and Georgia Christgau, they went through Lester’s piles and files and catalogued them. John Morthland did most of the work, indexing, collating pages from all the corners of Lester’s rooms and all the years of his writing life; he is the conscience of this book.

Ed Ward spent a week with me sifting through a footlocker hill of manuscripts and clippings, making initial selections, beginning preliminary edits. I could not have started without his help. Later, Michael Goodwin and Joan Goodwin aided with final choices. Jim Miller gave crucial advice at a difficult time.

Bill Holdship collected, copied, and indexed everything Lester wrote for Creem, down to the last reply to the last reader. Tom Carson and RJ Smith collected and indexed Lester’s more than one hundred contributions to the Village Voice. Cynthia Rose did the same for his many scattered pieces for London’s New Musical Express. Robert Hull collected numerous obscure essays and liner notes.

These people also helped: Roger Anderson; Cathy McConnell Ardans; Adam Block; Paul Bresnick; Bart Bull; Bob Chatham; Robert Christgau, who edited most of Lester’s work for the Village Voice; Diana Clapton; Jean-Charles Costa; Brian S. Curley; Jim DeRogatis; Michael Goldberg; James Grauerholz; Niko Hansen; Klaus Humann; Jimmy Isaacs; Lenny Kaye; Dave Laing; Gary Lucas; Cecily Marcus; Dave Marsh, who edited much of Lester’s work for Creem and who provided essential support and illumination; Richard Meltzer; Joyce Milman; Phil Milstein; Karen Moline; Glenn Morrow, Helve Muller; Paul Nelson; Michael Ochs; Christine Patoski; Fred “Phast Phreddie” Patterson; Abes Peck; John Peck; Frances Pelzman; Kit Rachlis; Andy Schwartz; Gene Sculatti; Bob Seger; Greg Shaw, who edited and published Lester’s “James Taylor Marked for Death” when such a piece would have been unthinkable in any commercial publication, as if it wouldn’t be now; Mark Shipper; Doug Simmons; Bill Stephen; Ariel Swartley; Ken Tucker; Steve Wasserman; Steve Weitzman; and Michael Weldon.

Special thanks are due to Nancy Laleau, who as typist did a heroic job with sometimes nearly incomprehensible manuscripts; to Patrick Dillon, who did the same with typescripts; and to Robert Gottlieb, who, when approached about this project, was busy, and so replied briefly: “Of course.”

As a writer who has often fantasized his own death, I imagine that all writers fantasize their own deaths. I imagine that they less call forth the praise and regret that might follow their untimely exits than mourn their orphans: all their fugitive pieces, pages, paragraphs, all those things saved, even filed according to some arcane system no one else could ever understand. Looking at my own shelves, no doubt far more neatly organized than Lester’s ever were, I can shudder at all the uncorrected reviews, buried malapropisms, and mistakes that stand waiting for whoever might try to make something of them. Lester must have thought the same thoughts, and all I have done is something other than he would have done had he known he was going to die on 30 April 1982, which he didn’t.

What I have done is to try and find the work that at once stands on its own and tells a story. One can read this book as an anthology, skipping from here to there and back again, but a story is what it is to me: the story, ultimately, of one man’s attempt to confront his loathing of the world, his love for it, and to make sense of what he found in the world and within himself. That the story was cut off does not make it less of a story; it does not make it an impoverished tale. That the story was cut off means that the story is painful. As I worked through my friend’s writing, I was for a long time so caught up in the life in 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 simply ring him up and ask what to do was physical. In those moments, he was less dead than ever, and more dead than he will ever be.

—Greil Marcus Berkeley, 7 June 1986

From Lester Bangs’s Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung (edited by Greil Marcus)

Bonus Beat: Greil talks to Phil Dellio in 1987 about the then-impending publication of Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung.

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