Alibi V.12 No.38 • Sept 18-24, 2003 

Art Article

More Bangs For Your Buck

Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader

Anchor Books
paper
$15

Music critics don't get much respect. They're usually relegated near the bottom of the cultural heap next to McDonald's employees, child molesters and Home Shopping Network hosts.

This isn't fair, of course. First of all, popular music really is an important part of our culture, regardless of what the handful of remaining classical-music-or-nothing snobs think. Pop music deserves the critical attention it gets. Secondly, there have been several rock music critics who can legitimately be described as brilliant. Topping that stack, of course, is the iconic Lester Bangs.

Prior to reading this book, I knew Bangs by reputation alone. I remember seeing him fictionalized in the movie Almost Famous. I knew he was considered the god of rock writers. I knew he lived fast and died young. That's all I knew. I don't recall ever reading any of his reviews. His heyday, the '70s, was before my time.

Back in 1987, Greil Marcus edited a posthumous collection of Bangs' writings called Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. Over the intervening years, more of Bangs' reviews and articles have come to light. Given that he often wrote for fringe underground publications, this isn't surprising. Morthland, a good buddy of the man, felt it was time for another collection.

Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste was published last year and has just been released in paperback. Given that I haven't read Carburetor Dung, I can't compare the two books. I will say, though, that Mainlines doesn't feel like the dregs. This is some freakin' good writing! Almost all of this stuff still reads fresh, and, let's face it, considering that rock criticism is often already dated the week it sees print, that's pretty amazing.

One of the many enjoyable things about Bangs, it seems to me, is that he was often spectacularly wrong. Even he realized this. In this book, there are several moments in which he admits to doing a complete 180 degree turnaround in his views of certain albums or bands. He doesn't make any apologies for this. He simply notes it, in passing, as if completely altering his passions in midstream were the most natural thing in the world. Of course, even when he does seem way off base, whether he's dissing Dylan or the Dead Kennedys, he's wrongheaded in such a smart and entertaining way, his writing is still electric.

Among the best articles in the book are Bangs' reviews of the Stones during the early '70s when they were quickly devolving from the world's greatest rock and roll band into the sorry, slipshod, money-grubbing nostalgia act they are today. Bangs never holds back with either glowing praise or the fire of his loathing. Actually, he writes a lot of things that are hard to imagine seeing in print these days when so much of rock criticism reads like it's just another part of the advertising machinery of the big labels (and probably is).

Morthland has included some bits from an autobiography Bangs wrote as a teenager as well as a few travel pieces. These don't do much for me. Bangs' brilliance was in musical dissection. Thankfually, Mainlines includes enough ingenious surgical autopsies to fill a morgue.