The Hardback Lester Bangs

Somewhere between life and literature

As I worked through my friend’s writing, I was for a long time so caught up in the life of 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 simple ring him up and ask him what to do was physical. In those moments, he was less dead than ever, and more dead than he will ever be. — From Greil Marcus’s introduction, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung

Dear Lester,

Just thought I’d drop you a line to let you know what a hell of a hard time I’m having writing up your book. I know that may sound like a selfish and opportunistic reason for writing after all these years, but then again I don’t expect you’ll hold my long epistolary silence against me since, after all, you’ve been dead and cremated now for more than half a decade. Besides, come to think of it, when you died, you owed me a letter!

Come to think of another thing, when I say “your book,” you prob’ly don’t have the faintest idea what I’m talking about. So let me be the first to explain that no less a prestige publishing house than Alfred A. fucking Knopf has just released a posthumous (natch) hardback collection of your pieces (mainly the writing you did for Creem magazine and for the Village Voice, plus a sizable dollop of unpublished stuff) that’s edited and introduced by your old friend and colleague, Greil Marcus. One problem I’m having is that I know my editors are gonna want me to get down to brass tacks first thing — like just why a bunch of feature articles and record reviews for crying out loud that were written by a guy that’s been dead for years should all of a sudden be published as a hardback collection. And I’d be reduced to saying things like “Lester Bangs was the man who not only coined the term ‘punk rock’ but who — in his epochal 1970 Creem magazine treatise ‘Of Pop and Pies and Fun,’ which started out to be a simple review of Fun House, the second Stooges album, but under the influence of a nonprescription nasal inhaler turned into a multi-thousand-word screed on the past, present, and future of rock‘n’roll with a general evaluation of western culture thrown in for good measure — enunciated many of the principles that gave rise to the punk movement many years later, harrumph, egad.” But that’d only be the tip of the iceberg, so I’d have to go on and say that the writing in the book makes ninety percent of what comes out these days (or those days) under the headings of not just journalism but fiction look like pallid maunderings, and that the pieces don’t only have to do with rock music but with just about everything else, including morality and emotion and the deaths thereof, that “they betray a profound compassion for suffering and a terrible anger against hypocrisy” or some such, that an extremely acute diatribe against racism in the punk world is included, and that into the bargain (and above all) the stuff is FUNNIER THAN SHIT.

Another problem I’m having with my article about this collection of your articles that were written and published between 1970 and 1980 or thereabouts is, like, melding the biographical and critical elements. On the one hand, I think it’d really be groovy to give the readers an idea of what it was like growing up in El Cajon, that prototypical little inland town east of San Diego, and reading Burroughs and Kerouac and Ginsberg and listening to Mingus and Coltrane and the Stones and holding these books and records up like talismans or shields to hold back the waves of sosh and surfer lumpen, making clear, of course, that we didn’t preoccupy ourselves with this stuff just to be different (although we liked being different, who would deny it?) but because there were endless, inexhaustible worlds of excitement and wonder that lived on those pages and in those vinyl grooves. Also, and especially since we just finished the (yawn) twentieth anniversary of the Summer of Love, I figured I oughta devote a few paragraphs to the drugs we were taking during the late Sixties — not just the garden-variety acid and pot and speed, but also the decidedly unorthodox stuff like Romilar cough syrup and all the rest of the galaxy of nonprescription highs whose local discoverer and fearless explorer you were. I even wrote this one pretty good paragraph as a possible lead describing what it’s like to be high on Romilar on a hot summer day. And I’ve been thinking of taking that approach because Romilar keeps popping up in your book like a purple genie and also because I suspect it was Romilar that killed you — despite the fact that when you dies, in ’82, you prob’ly hadn’t touched the stuff in years, but I don’t expect your system ever entirely recovered, and that’s why a few piddly Darvon capsules on top of a case of the flu managed to do you in. But it’s hard to get all that in and then switch back to the book itself, and, you know, it’s the eternal question of the fine line between life and literature and all the rest of that critical mumbo jumbo.

Then I figured I’d go on to talk about the book’s title piece, which you wrote while you were still living in El Cajon working by long distance as a journalist for rolling Stone (I’d explain that Marcus was your editor there and that the magazine was then published out of San Francisco and that it was actually a very good magazine — then) and by longer distance for Creem (longer because it was published out of Detroit) and about how the piece started out to be some kinda retrospective essay on the seminal Yardbirds of yore but got turned into a lengthy amphetamine fantasy about the nonexistent (except in your head) later albums of not the Yardbirds but Count 5, a San Jose garage band whose 1955 tune “Psychotic Reaction” was not only a direct ripoff of the Yardbirds, “I’m a Man” but an even bigger hit. I was planning to pen a few sentences about stopping by your place just when you were finishing the piece and you made me sit down while you read it aloud and I got all puzzled by the fact that you were going on and on about these imaginary albums like When Snowflakes Fell on the International Dateline and Cartesian Jetstream and Carburetor Dung and told you I though it was pretty funny and right on and beautifully written etc. but was Creem likely to publish something this long and, uh, discursive? And you paid no attention to me, and a month or so later the piece came out in Creem uncut and pretty much unchanged. And I planned to get in some irony about the piece showing up in a hardcover book seventeen years later, and so you were right (as if that wasn’t obvious) to pay no heed to my timorous objections.

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader


Log in to comment

Skip Ad