Rock Criticism, Tired Fanzines, and Desert Island Technology: A Tale of the Author Trapped in a Bathroom with Lester Bangs

The first time I read Lester Bangs' Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, I hunkered down for the long haul on the floor of the bathroom at my old house and read and read and read. Bangs' manic prose and uncompromising taste enthralled me, sucking me deeper into rock critic fandom. It was definitely the late '90s, and I was in the early, heady stages of compulsive record collecting. I had already worked my way through a large chunk of the Greil Marcus catalog, but I was mostly known for my love of Flipside, MRR, and later Punk Planet, the bigger punk rock fanzines, which I would read front to back in study hall, poring over obscure record reviews and tantalizing columns, not forgetting the letter page.

As I read over his many obsessions that night and into the early hours of dawn, while I should have been preparing for some exam or other, I felt like a kindred soul. Though I never entirely agreed with Bangs, or always understood just where he was coming from, I understood his obsessions with all things music. Always a liner note junkie (as chronicled elsewhere on this blog), I loved the attention to detail he brought to his reviews, the word play, and the way he peppered his writing with seemingly obscure references. In the internet age it was much easier to look up bands that you never heard of, or perhaps never even existed, depending on the article, but I always appreciated how maddening they might be if the only recourse was to scour record shelves for oddly-named albums. Of course, a good record review always points an obsessive music fan in the direction of more music; Bangs was a master at this type of sleight of hand.

Bangs' honesty was also an important part of his appeal. While many later writers trashed him for sloppiness and the worse excesses of New Journalistic or Gonzo style, he admitted freely that rock writing could be a sham. (See "How to Be a Rock Critic"). He regularly excoriated the sacred cows of rock music, never forgetting that he too could be lampooned. His honesty was refreshing at the time he wrote, and still is in an era where rock journalism can be seen as humorless, at least in the larger arena, the few existing major music magazines and the like.

A look at Bangs' titles show the range, depth, and honesty of his probing eye: "Of Pop and Pies and Fun: A Program for Mass Liberation in the Form of a Stooges Review, or, Who's the Fool," "James Taylor Marked For Death," Where Were You When Elvis Died?," and "Better than the Beatles (And DNA, Too)," just to name a few. These titles and the way Bangs approached his topics helped pave the way for much that came after. Oddly enough, some of these titles are longer than what passes for reviews in many magazines. As a young fan, I could appreciate the length and breadth of these articles. You could really sink your teeth in and discover the things Bangs spoke of, seemingly, right along with him.

You could say I fell into the cult of Bangs, and all rock criticism, by proxy. It has affected my writing style and the way I think about music greatly, building from my earlier fanzine days. That Bangs' style was closer to these writers and had appeared in fanzines, such as Back Door Man, alongside bigger magazines, especially Cream and Rolling Stone, helped. That many of the bigger magazines had started as counterculture voices has been seemingly lost to history. I eventually even wrote my Master's Thesis on Bangs and Hunter S. Thompson, bridging my personal tastes and my academic writing. Even so, my academic writing tends to run more towards the journalistic side of things. I've championed longer reviews and more emphasis on honesty since those early days. I learned a lot about writing and myself in the small confines of that bathroom plowing through Psychotic Reactions.

Of late, I have assigned Bangs' articles to my students as an exercise in understanding genre and audience. They seem lost amidst his references and the lengthy postulations. They stare doe-eyed at me like I was assigning another desert island disc writing prompt; I ask them if they could have just one record, book, or film on a desert island, what would it be? At least one student invariably asks about technology, not realizing the import of the thought experiment.  It seems that reading is something of a lost art, except for those of us with literature degrees. But that's being a bit harsh as many of my students enjoyed the writing. I hope they too can discover a love for word play, if not a proclivity for writing about their interests with such foresight and passion. Lester Bangs cast a long shadow, to use a helpful cliche, in the world of music and journalism, and hopefully it won't disappear any time soon. I just hope that certain transcendental books will always have that power, keeping some one from sleep until they reach that last mind-blowing page, be it in a cramped bathroom or a glowing laundromat, under florescent lights or dying flashlight.


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