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The writings of Lester Bangs rise again in "Psychotic Reactions."

By Gregory McNamee

MARCH 9, 1998: 

Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, by Lester Bangs (Vintage Books). Paper, $16.

HE CALLED HIMSELF "a contender if not now then tomorrow for the title Best Writer in America." He might even have seized the crown, had not a hard, 15-year campaign of steady drugging and boozing taken him out of the ring (at the suitably legendary age of 33) before he could duke it out with the likes of Bellow and Updike and Burroughs. Lester Bangs rewrote the rules of pop-music criticism, and the millions of words that sprang from his typewriter, many into the pages of Rolling Stone and Creem, set standards for writing about popular culture that have not been matched since Bangs drifted into glory.

When Bangs died in 1982--from the flu, of all things--he left behind a mountain of record reviews, essays, short stories, novels, and book proposals as his literary legacy. Fellow critic Greil Marcus took on the task of sorting the tens of thousands of manuscript pages and printed pieces into a manageable reader. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, the result of Marcus' work, is a fine testimonial to Bangs' talent, and every page reminds discophiles just how lost they are without him all these years later.

The title essay--its name combines those of two albums, circa 1967, by the now all-but-forgotten protopunk band Count Five--illustrates the qualities for which Bangs will most be missed: a quick wit, a wandering style, and a gift for coining flawless phrases. In that essay, and he deserves a plaque in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for this alone: Bangs invented the name "punk rock" 10 years before the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, and the Damned would make it a household expression. (Bangs used it to describe The Troggs, of "Wild Thing" fame.) He meant it as a compliment, for Bangs was always a champion of punks and the grunge-rock they screamed out: the Fugs, the Godz, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, The Clash. In fact, Bangs penned a few grungy classics himself, among them "Please Don't Burn My Yo-yo" and "He Gave You the Finger, Mabel"--tunes that never made the airwaves, and that some enterprising band should one day cover.

Reserving his praise for those unlikely to get it (or an audience) elsewhere, Bangs savaged all the right people for bringing down the average in rock and roll: Chicago, the Eagles, Paul McCartney ("the only rock-and-roller in A Hard Day's Night," Bangs rightly observed, "was Paul's grandfather"); and the post-Madman Across the Water Elton John, whose current decline would make Bangs scream. Never afraid to shoot fish in a barrel, he nourished a special hatred for the wimps who took over popular music in the early- and mid-'70s, one of them above all:

If I ever get to Carolina I'm gonna try to figure out a way to off James Taylor. I hate to come off like a Nazi, but if I hear one more Jesus- walking- the- boys- and- girls- down- a- Carolina- path- while- the- dilemma- of- existence- crashes- like- a- slab- of- hod- on- J.T.'s- shoulders song, I will drop everything...and hop the first Greyhound to Carolina for the signal satisfaction of breaking off a bottle of Ripple...and twisting it into James Taylor's guts until he expires in a spasm of adenoidal poesy.

James Taylor is probably a very nice guy, but it's always a pleasure to see someone uphold standards. The pages of Bangs' book, true to its name, overrun with even harsher judgments of right and wrong, and thank the heavens for that.

Marcus chose not to include in this collection any of Bangs' sharp-tongued reviews from Rolling Stone (for which Bangs was fired for not being sufficiently "respectful" to such acts as Rod Stewart, the Bee Gees, and the aforementioned Mr. Taylor). Those reviews, along with Joe Esterhaz's journalism back when Esterhaz served the forces of good, offered some of the only things worth reading in the magazine for many years. The book could have used a good selection from them.

And Marcus devotes a full tenth of the book to Bangs' reporting on Lou Reed, the ex-Velvet who perpetrated Metal Machine Music--which Bangs called "the greatest album of all time," ranking it over even Blue Cheer's peerlessly loud, peerlessly wonderful Vincebus Eruptum--only to grow up to shill American Express cards and Honda scooters. Any number of much better pieces could have taken the place of the five long, repetitive essays on Reed that Marcus includes.

"A very great man (I think it was the Isley Brothers) once said," wrote Bangs, "that the bottom truism re life on the planet is that it is merely a process of sequential disappointments." The faults of Psychotic Reactions aren't serious enough to make the book one of them. Lester Bangs' greatness as a critic lay in his drawing the right moral lessons from popular music and culture and choosing the right friends and enemies, excoriating millionaire rock stars for their arrogance and mediocrity while championing artists whom less imaginative critics ignored.

Marcus' collection gathers Bangs' work as he would surely wish it to be remembered: the product of a skillful, opinionated writer with an endless appetite for aural stimulation, a short temper, and no patience for the hype and posturing that defines so much of what passes today for rock and roll.

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