One Chance To Speak Your Real Piece:
Lester Bangs and Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung
I have always aspired to be a Grade A Smartass; a pyrotechnic, wisecracking writer who sports a heart of gold. Certain talismans have helped me towards this goal; likely the most important of these was a book.
Lester Bangs was a rock critic whose work was published in magazines and newspapers from 1969 until his death in 1982. An anthology of his work, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, was published in 1987. In the fifteen-plus years since, I have turned to it again and again as a writer and reader for rants, raves, laughs, and inspiration.
To read the book is to experience a wildly imaginative mind at work. Bangs’s voice explodes from the pages; spinning tales, basking in reminisces, concocting theories. His style is a reminder of the importance of exploring the depths of your mind while writing; you don’t know what nuggets you’ll find in those seeming blind alleys and dead ends. The lesson I drew from this was simply to write and write, to explore anything I wish without ever having to travel further than my kitchen. The hallmark of Bangs’s such explorations, of the frenetic prose stylings he inherited from his heroes the Beats, are his fantasies – comic visions and elaborate daydreams.
In a 1973 article, Bangs tries to explain the overwhelming popularity of the band Jethro Tull. The first half of the piece is straight reporting. In the second half, he tells of flying to South Vietnam to quiz President Thieu about the similarities he has noticed between Vietnamese folk music and Jethro Tull. He interrupts Thieu’s meeting with the ambassador from Uganda; only to find out that not only is Thieu also baffled by Jethro Tull, he finds his own country’s folk music lacking. Thieu asserts himself as a bop jazz fan, declares: “I’m no folkie!”
In 1980 writings, Bangs imagines eating undigested pills lifted from the body of a recently-deceased Elvis Presley. This causes him to hallucinate actually being Presley, and the dream quickly turns to despair. He feels the loneliness, the sheer boredom of being the King of Rock ‘n Roll in his end days, when nothing he could possibly think of interested him; he stays sedated and bored, staring at a TV set for hours. He scolds his “true fans” for not demanding more of him: “If you never cared whether I tried or not, then why should I?”
He reaches a haunting realization:
“’Cause I was nothing for twenty years, and most of you couldn’t tell the difference. And then I was dead, and you outdid yourselves thinking up new ways to finish off the job of leaving my corpse humiliated, pissed on, disrespected, degraded, demythified, lied about, deprived of every last shred of privacy or the most basic human dignities.”
The scenario that Bangs creates does the nigh-impossible: it makes Elvis human again; you read it, get drawn in, and feel sorry for the poor guy.
Hand-in-hand with the fantasies and the wild imagination is a hilarious irreverence and distrust of any pretension. Bangs cut across the prevalent attitude of the early seventies, taking on the flowery singer-songwriters and lumbering art-rock bands flourishing in the post-Woodstock era, when a baby-boomer generation was just learning to take itself too seriously.
By celebrating noisy bands who taught themselves trashy songs in their garages and basements, Bangs posited the argument that great American art rises from a certain democratic spirit. By writing in a freewheeling, conversational voice, he demonstrated it. His voice is that of a hilarious crank, dishing out a wisdom that defines great rock ‘n ‘ roll from Little Richard on down:
“Music is about feeling, passion, love, anger, joy, fear, hope, lust, EMOTION DELIVERED AT ITS MOST POWERFUL AND DIRECT IN WHATEVER FORM.”
Tied to all the hijinks and goofs is an underlying moralism that is laced throughout Bangs’s work. There is a profound sense of sticking up for the kids who spend their hard-earned money on albums and concerts. He preaches of the duty of the artist to try his best, to not rip people off, to not take fans for granted. An artist should try to do their very best because: “Life is short, that it really is true that you only get one chance to speak your real piece despite the wisdom of all the people who would tell you only fools even try.”
It is perhaps those last words above more than any other of Bangs’s that gets my writing mind jump-started again and again. We truly do only get one chance. And these days more than ever, when confronted with a blank page and a culture filled with celebrity-worship from People magazine to endless VH1 “Best Of” lists to hourly updates on the status of the latest hot Hollywood couple; I turn back to the do-it-yourself mantras flowing throughout Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. To find the inspiration to keep my pen moving, to make things up, to crack wise, to look at the world with a wondering, irreverent eye. Reading Lester Bangs makes me want to obsess over passionate music and art, it makes me want to grab my notebook and pen and burn through page after page. And on most days, that is all I could ask for.
Editor’s note: For an essay contest, Minnesota Literature recently asked: “What book has had the greatest impact on your life?” I submitted the above. I won jack, but in the spirit of the woman on Seinfeld who yelled “You’re all winners!” to the runners in the NYC Marathon, I decided to print my essay here.