[Books] Mainlines, Blood Feasts & Bad Taste – Lester Bangs

Once described as “America’s greatest rock critic”, Lester Bangs was one of the USA’s most noted music writers of the 1970s and beyond, exciting and infuriating readers in equal measure until his untimely death in 1982.

The cover of Mainlines, Blood Feasts & Bad Taste

Writing regularly in Rolling Stone magazine, alongside underground publications such as Creem and The San Diego Door, Bangs could be as controversial as he was influential: he could just as easily be found trashing everyone from Billy Joel to the MC5, and declaring the Beatles to be “nothing”, as eulogising Lou Reed’s wilfully unlistenable Metal Machine Music.

Compiled by music journalist John Morthland and published in 2003, Mainlines, Blood Feasts & Bad Taste is a posthumous collection of Bangs’ work. Comprising several dozen largely unconnected writings, including a number of previously unpublished pieces, the book is presented as a companion volume to the earlier, Greil Marcus-edited Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung.

Morthland was a colleague of Bangs, the two writers sharing an office at Rolling Stone, and claims him as a “great friend”. Moreover, it soon becomes clear that Morthland is also a fan, describing Bangs’ work as by turns “electric” and “explosive”, whilst acknowledging its inherent controversy and contradiction.

Indeed, it isn’t necessary to read far into Mainlines… before it becomes uncomfortably clear that a sizeable tranche of Bangs’ writings would not, or perhaps could not, be published these days. On learning of Anne Murray’s “large lesbian following”, Bangs writes:

Don’t let that worry you…this little katy’s as straight as a yardarm except for her perfect pearly tits and roundy mound o’ bush and arco droolo calves.

Creem, September 1973

And of Helen Reddy, in what purports to be an album review:

What everybody doesn’t know is the hot pulsating goodies Helen Reddy’s got to offer up. Cum here woman, do your duty; drop them drawers and gimme some pooty! But no, this is one Boopsy won’t do the do—she’s a holdout, she’s not even a tease. [At least] Anne Murray was demure but carnal.

Creem, August 1974

I guess the woke leftie mob have won if we can’t write about our female artists like that nowadays, am I right lads?

This is before the reader is expected to struggle through the unnecessary, anatomically-detailed exposition of what Bangs would like to do to Runaways vocalist Cherie Currie’s genitals, and have her do to his, should the chance arise. There are about a dozen unwelcome pages of that without mention of the fact that she’s a musician. You can hardly blame her for picking up that chainsaw.

The fact is, if you want Lester Bangs to be likeable from the get-go just like Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous made him seem, you’re going to be sadly, sadly disappointed. It’s all a bit troublesome at times, and it isn’t difficult see how the #MeToo movement gained such traction in subsequent decades.

Thankfully, Bangs does appear to mature as time wears on, or at least tailor his style to context and start to talk about the music a little. To be fair, Bangs did actually know his music, and could at times be motivated to write about it with passion and no little sensitivity.

A case in point is the vignette in which Bangs pays a visit to the Mojave Desert trailer home of one Don Van Vliet—the inimitable Captain Beefheart. In uncharacteristically deferential mood, Bangs displays an insight into Van Vliet’s often intractable art that very few commentators have mustered. For example, noting the recurrent theme of animatism in Beefheart songs such as Run Paint Run Run and Electricity:

I think that partially Don anthropomorphizes animals and objects as a defense against humans, who empirical observation has told him are by and large incomprehensible to themselves as well as him, that’s when they’re not out to getcha. He’s like an Androcles that would chat a spell with Leo but see fangs and claws on a delivery boy.

The Village Voice, 1980

And of long-time sparring partner Lou Reed:

For all his monotonal mutterings, there’s so much pain suffused just under the monotone, so much despair and desire and human regret, that even at his most cynical you can feel him struggling with himself, fighting his demons.

“Blondie”, Lester Bangs, 1980

It steadily becomes clear that behind the loutish, macho bluster, Bangs did actually care about the music, and to no small extent, the musicians themselves.

Beyond the book’s division into themed parts—titles such as Drug Punk, Pantheon and Travelogues speak for themselves—there may be no obvious overarching narrative to Mainlines…, but if there is a consistent theme to the oeuvre of Lester Bangs as a whole, it is that of Lester Bangs himself. Make no mistake: Lester Bangs writes in the first person.

Reviewing Miles Davis’ latest release in 1976:

As for all this new Miles music, I sit here at the end of Agharta with a rubbery weight at the bottom of my heart. I’m no masochist…but I’m not sorry. I have finally learned to [continues]

Phonograph Record, 1976

And published posthumously, from the intended liner notes for a Comedian Harmonists album that remained unreleased in Bangs’ lifetime:

I have no idea what kind of writer I am, except that I do know that I’m good and lots of people read whatever it is that I do, and I like it that way.

The New York Times, 1999

Note the liberal use of the word “I” throughout.

It is unclear whether this subjective, self-referential approach is due to a deep-seated narcissism, a deliberate attempt to foster a cult of personality, or simply the affectation of a literary style. It’s certainly hard to miss the influence of Hunter S. Thompson and his school of gonzo journalism, and as a writer for Rolling Stone in the 1970s, it would have been all but impossible for Bangs to miss it either.

Yet where Thompson regularly assumed the role of protagonist, actively precipitating a story where none was previously forthcoming, Bangs often seems content in the more observational role of journalist-as-participant, whilst never straying from the personal.

For example, a week in Jamaica at the expense of Island Records sees Bangs interviewing future man-god Bob Marley, being privy to watching John Martyn overdub guitar parts for Burning Spear’s forthcoming Man in the Hills LP, and later spending an evening at Rastafarian spiritual service in honour of Grounation. These are rare insights, and the reader can at times feel privileged to have been invited along for the ride.

It’s a shame that the book kind of peters out towards the end, with the final part, Raving, Raging, and Rebops, sufficing as a kind of dumping ground for miscellaneous leftovers—unpublished liner notes, non sequiturs concerning REO Speedwagon and, yes, the aforementioned piece about Cherie Currie.

Or perhaps, just perhaps, it’s appropriate, since Lester Bangs’ own life fizzled out fairly unspectacularly, ending in 1982 as a result of an accidental overdose of cold medications. He was 33.

I’ll probably never produce a masterpiece, but so what? I feel I have a Sound aborning, which is my own, and that Sound if erratic is still my greatest pride, because I would rather write like a dancer shaking my ass to boogaloo inside my head, and perhaps reach only readers who like to use books to shake their asses, than to be or write for the man cloistered in a closet somewhere reading Aeschylus while this stupefying world careens crazily past his waxy windows towards its last raving sooty feedback pirouette.

— Previously unpublished, 1968

Decades later, the jury may well still be out on the matter of whether it’s better to burn out than to fade away—or indeed whether such an anticlimactic end counts as either—but here we are, still talking about the man and his work. It’s what he would have wanted.

Title: Mainlines, Blood Feasts & Bad Taste
Author: Lester Bangs; compiled and edited by John Morthland
Published: Anchor Books, New York, 2003
This Edition: Serpent’s Tail, London, 2003; paperback

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