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How the Ghost of Lester Bangs Opened My Ears (But Left Me Stranded in the 1970s)

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As a shy kid with weird musical taste in the pre-Internet 1980s, I turned to dead rock critic Lester Bangs for guidance.

I was not a popular kid. A lifelong introvert, I tried briefly to fit in by listening to Top-40 radio, but by high school, I was long past wanting to be accepted by the popular kids and well into wanting to make it absolutely clear that I was unacceptable to popular kids. And by my own choice, darn it. Note, however, that when a severe introvert tries to make something absolutely clear to “everyone,” it means that perhaps the two or three people closest to him will become aware of it.

One of those two or three people was a kid I’d been friends with since kindergarten — a kid who, since third grade or so, had demanded that everyone call him Weasel. He was not the introvert that I was. When Weasel Walter made it clear to everyone that he was not part of the mainstream, everyone did, in fact, know it.

Weasel was really into music, so I really got into music. He started telling me about these noisy, chaotic bands he was getting into — groups like the Residents and the Stooges. Liking these bands was the kind of thing my parents would dislike very much, the kind of thing that would distinguish me as particularly unacceptable to the popular kids. And even better, it turned out I genuinely liked the music.

Fast-forward a few years to 1987. I was 15. This, I will remind readers younger than myself, was before the Internet. If you wanted to learn about obscure music in those days, it was a huge research project: lots of time spent flipping through the library’s card catalog, interrogating record store clerks, ordering records you’d heard about -- but never heard -- by mail order. These are the lengths Weasel went to. Me, I mostly just waited for Weasel to tell me what was good. And in 1987, he told me about a book that had just come out: Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by a guy named Lester Bangs. He’d been a music writer for Rolling Stone, Creem and The Village Voice, but he had died in 1982. The book was a compilation of some of his best work.

With its brazenly obnoxious title and cover, I knew the book would help in that self-undermining project of mine: making it clear that I was unacceptable to the popular kids. Even just carrying it around would have been enough, so I got hold of a copy as soon as I could manage.

Bangs’ writing drew me in, though, and from beyond the grave, he became even more of a mentor than Weasel was. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung was like a Rosetta Stone: It referenced bands I knew, like the Stooges and the Velvet Underground, and put other bands I knew nothing about in the same context. One essay in particular, “A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise,” was the focus of my early attention, laying out the best examples of a certain kind of music: “You probably can’t stand it, but this stuff has its adherents (like me) and esthetic (if you want to call it that). … The shriek, the caterwaul, the chainsaw gnarlgnashing, the yowl and the whizz that decapitates may be reheard by the adventurous or emotionally damaged as mellifluous bursts of unarguable affirmation.” I set about trying to track down everything on the list, a harder task in the 1980s than it would be now. I never did find that documentary Folkways album, “Sounds of the Junkyard,” but I managed to acquire most of the others.

I even lucked into a copy of Lou Reed’s infamous Metal Machine Music. In “A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise,” Bangs called Metal Machine Music "a two-record, hour-long set of shrieking feedback," and that turned out to be a very literal description.

But before I got my hands on Metal Machine Music, Bangs made it a legendary thing in my mind. Beyond mentioning the album in his “Reasonable Guide,” he also wrote a 5,000-word, gonzo-style review titled, “How to Succeed in Torture Without Really Trying,” and followed that up with a 17-point treatise called “The Greatest Album Ever Made.” To say that I really wanted to hear it is an understatement. It was utterly out of print and utterly unfindable.

And then there it was: the original LP, just sitting in a bin at a local used record store. I tried to pretend like it was no big deal, paid for it and spirited it home like Indiana Jones’ Golden Idol. The vinyl was pristine, just as you’d expect for such an unlistenable classic: Probably side one was played just once, then never again. I dropped the needle, and it blasted through my headphones, just as Lester Bangs had described: There was no beat. There was no band. There were no vocals. Listening to it is a test of endurance as much as it is anything else. “It is the greatest record ever made in the history of the human eardrum,” Bangs had written, and he had a point.

Now, in the age of YouTube, the album is easy to find (and so some of its mystique is gone). But it is still just as great and just as unlistenable:

 

Once I trusted Lester Bangs, he could win me over with music I’d have never otherwise given a chance. Like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. Bangs’ paean to it comes early in Psychotic Reactions, and I initially skipped right over it. But later I pored over every word of the book, and though it was clear that Astral Weeks had none of the “horrible noise” of many of his other subjects, he called it “the rock record with the most significance in my life so far.” “Really,” I thought, “this album by the same guy who sang “Brown Eyed Girl?”

Bangs dispelled my doubts through his writing: “It sounded like the man who made Astral Weeks was in terrible pain, … but there was a redemptive element in the blackness, ultimate compassion for the suffering of others, and a swath of pure beauty and mystical awe that cut right through the heart of the work.”

So I gave it a chance. That album was easy to find. Strummy acoustic guitars, jazz drums, a flute … those components weren’t really my thing at the time, but it turned out Bangs was absolutely right about the album as a whole. Though it exists in a totally different musical context, Astral Weeks fits right in with the noisier bands that Bangs more often championed. In its songs, Morrison described the same vision of a broken world that Lou Reed did in songs like “Sister Ray” and “Waves of Fear. ” Morrison also described the same possibility for spiritual transcendence that John Coltrane expressed in works of free jazz like Ascension. Astral Weeks became, for me, a healing balm I’d return to especially when things started feeling too dark.

 

That was the thing about Lester Bangs: He’d celebrate Van Morrison and Lou Reed, but he would also dig up obscure 1960s bands like the Godz and the Count Five and draw attention to late 1970s and early '80s bands like DNA, Mars, and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, who were toiling in noisy obscurity. “Bangs was one of the few critics, historically speaking, who dared to put them on an even keel.” That’s what Weasel said when I talked to him recently about Psychotic Reactions. “He saw the connection between [free-jazz great Albert] Ayler, [avant-garde classical composer Iannis] Xenakis, Teenage Jesus and the rest way before it became more of a party line.”

Reading Lester Bangs as a teenager was nothing like discovering music on the Internet today. Bangs’ recommendations came with lots of baggage: He’d tell you what he liked but also make fun of what he didn’t like. He’d chronicle his debauched lifestyle, his on-again-off-again grudges with the likes of Lou Reed, and it all became part of his point of view. Not least was a writing style that veered from funny and obnoxious to thrilling and virtuosic. Weasel again: Bangs’ “message came through a small aperture. Now there are no filters, so nobody has the same influence any longer.”

I’m not the only one who still feels Bangs’ influence today. Weasel Walter has now been toiling in obscurity for 25 years, producing exactly the kind of uncompromising, noisy music that Lester Bangs would probably be writing about if he were still around. He’s even made a connection with one of Bangs’ cause celebres, now playing bass with Lydia Lunch, formerly of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks.

There’s a lot more to Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung than I can mention here, and there’s a lot more to Lester Bangs’ life and work than the writing collected in that book. In 1982, five years before I’d even heard of him, he died of a drug overdose at the young age of 33. I still have the book, the same worn copy; I probably read every word of it a dozen times, but hadn’t picked it up in probably a dozen years. Thumbing through it now, I come across the origins of opinions I thought were my own. The introverted kid’s musical tastes have wandered in a lot of directions since those days, but somehow the 1970s and early '80s are the years that all my favorites come from. And it’s probably because of Lester Bangs.