Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Lester Bangs (John Morthland, Editor): Mainlines, Blood Feasts, And Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader

As one of the few music critics to register on the cultural radar, Lester Bangs left a formidable legacy when he died in 1982. He helped build up and tear down the rock canon. He helped romanticize and vilify the notion of rock-star attitude. He helped music fans search out new ways of listening. He also helped usher in ceaseless waves of bad writing by acolytes who glommed on to his diaristic gonzo style–"speedflight wordsperm bullshit," he calls it in an early essay gathered in the Bangs anthology Mainlines, Blood Feasts, And Bad Taste–without recognizing that diaristic gonzo style should serve as a means more than an end. On the list of things Bangs was on during his storied career, "deadline" rarely ranks toward the top. His fiendish drug intake better serves his myth, but Mainlines goes a long way toward showing Bangs as a working writer whose hit-rate was lower than suggested by his first posthumous anthology, Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung. Many of Mainlines' shorter reviews feel less than fully invested in their subject matter, and Bangs' humorous opinion-swings occasionally fall flat (see the piece positing Anne Murray as a sex goddess). Part of Bangs' appeal was that he was a restless, reckless critic who worked best when he was responding to music he took more personally than even he sometimes thought advisable. Mainlines bears that out with a handful of excellent longform essays, which find him giving a heroically unglazed account of a trip to Jamaica, "interviewing" a long-dead Jimi Hendrix, and wrestling over conflicting allegiances to The Rolling Stones, Miles Davis, and Lou Reed. In Mainlines, Bangs proves his reactions were more essential than his ideas, and his reactions are what tempt out image-rich sentences that curl and snap like whips taking a circuitous route toward their point. A female fan at a Wet Willie Band concert has "a mouth perfected in a constant moue as though blessed with the power to suck a nectarine dry by remote control." A classic art-punk album by Wire evokes the "sound of a sperm whale taking a slow piss." Parts of Mainlines date badly, or fail to scare up much effect either way, but there's still enough prime Bangsian craze to make reading about rock a fuller pursuit than it might otherwise seem.


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