MENTOR. EDITOR. LESTER.
A Personal Appreciation
by Jeffrey "Firebird" Morgan
Years ago, people used to ask me what I thought of This Is Spinal Tap, the movie ostensibly about heavy metal music that ends, as Ive seen in brief clips on numerous documentaries, with a tiny model of Stonehenge being lowered onto a stage while the band obliviously plays on.
Ho ho, a real side-splitter, that.
But I guess thats the point: you have to watch the entire movie to truly appreciate what, Im guessing, is an allegedly hilarious running setup about the outrageously self-indulgent anddare I say itoh-so-decadent plan of having an actual sized Stonehenge on stage. I assume you had to be there to properly appreciate the boffo humor of that visual punch line. Which, I suppose, puts me at a distinct disadvantage given that Ive never seen This Is Spinal Tap.
Mainlines, Blood Feasts, And Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader
by Lester Bangs, edited by John Morthland
2003 Anchor Books
Sitting here in the editors chair at CREEM, its hard to escape Lester Bangs. Every day, it seems, we have to reckon with his legacy.
At least half of the people who want to write for us name-check Lester. "Hopefully, it's not too overtly Lester-esque," wrote one hopeful at the beginning of a 1,800-word screed about the Rolling Stones. Unfortunately, it was too Lester-esque. Except, as is usually the case, it was filled with attitude and bravado and four-letter words and little else. Which, actually, makes it not very Lester-esque at all, when you think about it. In his case, all the attitude and bravado and four-letter words were decoration for the very real substance.
Then again, Bangs himself may have addressed the problem in a slightly different context. "To make the crucial distinction, trained fingers might as well be trained seals unless theres a mind flexing behind them," he wrote about Keith Emerson in the amazing "Blood Feast Of Reddy Kilowatt!" about Emerson, Lake and Palmer. That can apply to typing as well as prog-rock keyboard playing.
But Lesters the one many of the newcomers latch on to. Sadly, people rarely send us e-mails that say: "I hope this piece isnt too much like Air Wreck Genheimer" or "I remember my older brother used to bring CREEM home, and I was inspired by Jaan Uhleszki." I say sadly because here at Americas Only, we have a rich literary tradition that extends far beyond Bangs. Id love it if someone tried copping Uhleszkis style for a change.
The other folks who can be problematic around here are the people who actually knew Lester. They loved him, theyll tell you, and there was so much more to him than the wastecase image were fed. Then, theyll launch into a tale of some particularly hilarious hijinx that completely disproves their original point. Thats understandable. Its not as entertaining to tell a story about how someone was decent or kind or friendly. Its much more fun to talk about how he was smelly or loaded.
Take those fans and friends, add his appearance in Almost Famous and Jim DeRogatis definitive biography Let it Blurt, and youve got this bigger-than-life figure. A fucking icon. I didnt know Bangs, but if he was anything like people describe him, it seems like he would have hated that.
Fortunately, Bangs friend and co-literary executor John Morthland has done a great job turning the writer human again with this new anthology, Mainlines, Blood Feasts And Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader. He reminds us what all the fuss is aboutLester was a writer who could definitely kick out the jams, motherfucker.
The previous anthology of Bangs work, the Greil Marcus-edited Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung concerned itself with showing Bangs rangethat he was a writer for the ages. Morthlands collection, on the other hand, shows off Bangs greatest hits. These are all dingers, straight-out-of-the-park homeruns. This tasty sampler shows Bangs at his manic, high-energy best.
Bangs stunning talent was revealed early, as shown in the excerpts from Drug Punk, an unpublished novel he wrote while still in high school. He shows a remarkable awareness of his craft at that young age (when most wannabees are still content to write pukey heartbreak prose). His writing bore all the earmarks of Beat influence (the dense, speedfreak sentences, the spontaneous feel, the frank discourse on sex and drugs). But the main thing is the searchingsearching for art, for sense.
"I wanted my writing not to ring true, because if it rang true it was adolescent and that was seven leagues below hack," he wrote.
Here, youll find the controversial MC5 pan that was his first appearance in Rolling Stone, and the Canned Heat review that got him banned from same. His best works about the artists he obsessed over are presentLou Reed, Miles Davis, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Black Sabbath, et al. Then there are the pieces where the writing is much better than the band hes writing about (can you say "Wet Willie?").
Also included are some of my personal faveshis conversation with Captain Beefheart ("Captain Beefhearts Far Cry"), his meditation on Sid Vicious ("Bye Bye Sidney, Be Good"), his travelogue account of reggae artists in Jamaica ("Innocents in Babylon"), All of these are longer works, filled with vivid description and razor-blade-through-the-bullshit analysis.
When assessing Beat poet Diane DiPrima, Peter Coyote referred to her as "root stock." Thats a description that I like, and Id like to steal it. For rock writers, Bangs is root stockthe source material. So much of what people do now was cribbed directly from him. He was one of the first to make the writing itself rock n roll, and hes still one of the best. Theres plenty in these reels of jabowock verbiage for you to feast your faded eyes on.
check out the unedited version of Bring Your Mother To The Gas Chamber from Mainlines, Blood Feasts And Bad Taste.
Brian J. Bowe
[Editor's Note] Wanna buy a book? How about Mainlines, Blood Feasts, And Bad Taste? Get it here...
Why not? Because every time someone tells me, even now, about how funny the movie is and how I just absolutely have to see it, I ask them: does it laugh with heavy metal music or does it laugh at heavy metal music? And invariably, the answer I always get back is: This Is Spinal Tap laughs at heavy music, not with it. And since I truly love heavy metal music as a musical genre, why would I want to watch it being made fun of? Especially when there are so many authentic self-ridiculing bozo heavy metal moments to choose from.
Now of course theres always a slim chance that I may be completely wrong about all this, but I sincerely doubt that theres anything in This Is Spinal Tap that can even remotely compare to either the genuine eye-rolling spasms of laughter that I get every time I hear Robert Plant actually singing "Ive got my flower Ive got my power" or, even worse, to the creepy cringe factor induced by watching that doddering emasculated shell Ozzy being kept alive and manipulated by Sharono. Or maybe I just waited long enough for reality to make the parody superfluous.
In any event, people dont ask me what I think of This Is Spinal Tap anymore. Instead, they now ask me how many times Ive seen Almost Famous, as if it were Pulp Fiction or something.
Well, I havent seen Almost Famous either. And the reason I havent seen it is for the same reason that I never went to see Beatlemania: because once youve experienced the real thing, theres no point in seeing "an incredible simulation" unless your only interest lies in nostalgically seeing how accurate the simulacrum actually is.
Which brings me, albeit in a very roundabout way, to the enduring legend of Lester Bangsa man who, just last month in the pages of Mojo, was called a poet by no less a wordsmith than the aforementioned Robert Plant who, despite coming up with the occasional clunker as quoted above, was no slouch when it came to penning rock lyrics. Well, some of the time, anyway.
There are many here among us who are far more qualified than myself to make any kind of honest and accurate assessment about Lester, either as a person or as an inspirational template for a movie character. What I can personally attest to, however, is Lesters personal benevolence and his professional editorial skills, to which I literally owe everything.
All that I am today as a writer, or have ever been over the past twenty-five years, I owe directly to the generous spirit of Lester Bangs. It is a lasting debt which I can only make a feeble attempt at paying back by trying to keep the CREEM tradition alive as best I can in my own small way.
Did Lester teach me how to write? No, I naturally inherited that skill from my father, Joe Morgan, who was the Sports Director at Foster Hewitts radio station CKFH 1430; and then, later, the News Director at CKEY 590.
Did Lester teach me how to recognize and appreciate satire and parody? Once again, the answer is no. That was something I intuitively picked up on my own as a child after years of being culturally indoctrinated by Harvey Kurtzmans Mad, Forrest J. Ackermans Famous Monsters Of Filmland, and Carl Barks Donald Duck. Augmented, of course, with vital substantial supplemental inoculative doses of Ernie Kovacs and Stan Freeberg. As a result, when I finally began reading CREEM in 1971, I instantly identified the same satirical kindred spirit at work as practiced by those above-noted masters.
But as much as I enjoyed reading CREEM, I never thought about actually ever being a part of the magazine, other than by regularly writing letters to the editor which, more often than not, were printed much to my pleasure, just as letters that I used to write to Marvel Comics used to be regularly printed in the mid-60s.
So what exactly did Lester Bangs do that was so life-altering important, which no one had ever done before? Quite simply, he discovered me. Month after month he would read my letters until one day he decided that whatever writing skills I might possess would be better served by my writing record reviews for CREEM rather than letters to the editor.
Secondly, by not printing any of my voluminous voluntary submissions for half a year, Lester allowed me over time to slowly adapt and modify my letter writing skills to record reviewing skills.
While I was still honing my craft, Lester was kind enough to give me my first CREEM appearance in the March 1975 issue: not as a writer, but as a photographer when he used a photo I had taken of Lou Reed and Alice Cooper on stage together at Massey Hall to accompany his infamous Lou cover story, Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves.
In the August 1975 issue, however, Lester finally printed two of my rockaramas (Lesters spelling). One, which he ran as the lead, was a review of "Cant Help Thinking About Me," an old 1966 single David Bowie had recorded as David Jones that I made fun of, simply by quoting the inane lyrics and then comparing them to what Lou had been writing at the same time for the first Velvets album.
But the absolute best on-the-job editorial training I ever got from Lester came when he printed my second rama in that issue, a review of the Stones rarities album Metamorphosis, which Allan Klein got to release as the result of a legal decision.
Originally Id written a long windy paragraph that tediously raved about the album but, when I read it in print, I saw that Lester had deleted my entire review, except for the very last line, which he ran as the entire rockarama: Thank God for lawsuits.
And that was Lesters genius as a nurturing editor. For all his reputation as a man who could pile up an astonishing word count on a single topic, the reason he could do it and get away with it was because he always instinctively knew what was necessary and what wasnt. And hopefully he passed some of those lessons onto me, even though, as this essay attests, my brevity skills are still somewhat lacking. (Editors note: cough!)
If I may, heres one more example of Lesters generosity.
During my period of unpublished apprenticeship I had privately sent Lester, purely as a goof, a long record review of a fake Who album called Bible One. I had gotten the fake album review idea from a previously published review called Lou Reed Sings Gilbert And Sullivan which was so well written that it took me a while before I realized that the album didnt actually exist.
But a mere two months after running my first short rockaramas, Lester did something extraordinary: he took my privately submitted goof and printed it as a feature review in the October 1975 issue, complete with typical Bangsian headline ("Pete Fills A Scripture") and, much to my total astonishment, my own by-line!
Humbling? Certainly. Encouraging? Most definitely.
What I initially deemed to be little more than a momentary joke, however, subsequently ended up causing Pete Townshend such strife that he actually wrote CREEM a letter to the editor, complaining in the February 1977 issue that he was getting tired of Who fans asking him when Bible One was going to come out. If such blatant lies were going to continue to be published, Townshend threatened, then he would go into the journalism business himself and single-handedly put CREEM out of business. Lesters reply, as usual, was an irreverent classic: "Its rough being Jesus in a country with such a shortage of wood, eh?"
One other very important opportunity that Lester gave me was the complete freedom to write about anything that I wanted to. For some reason, he never once assigned me a specific record to review or a certain story to write. I would pick an album that I wanted to review and just send it in. If it hadnt already been assigned to someone else, then he would use it.
He once told me that that if I continued to assign myself work, then the quality of my writing would, in all likelihood, be better than if he had assigned me something to review that I might not care to write about. Who knows, perhaps my initiating all those letters to the editor gave him that belief in me.
Then again, he just mightve had a soft spot for letter writers since he was such an avid one himself. Every so often Id come across one of his letters in an obscure magazine about some arcane subject. Not that he didnt let the competition off the hook, either. I remember one memorable letter in particular that he wrote to Circus magazine after sister publication Circus Raves ran a cover story on Alice. Printed in Circus letters section under the heading BANGS CREEMED, I still get a laugh out of his closing line, made in reference to the fact that Circus had put a photo of Alice on their cover: You guys arent going homo on me, are ya?
Oddly enough, it never occurred to me to try and copy Lesters style. I guess he could tell from reading my many letters to the editor that I had a style all my own, however rough it may have been at that point. His attitude and enthusiasm, on the other hand, were most definitely infectious, and they still are.
Besides, there was another writer whose style I shamelessly emulated back then, and still do, as a matter of fact. For even the most cursory glance at my essay to Alices box set will betray a conscious slavish devotion to the extreme hyped-up alliterative style of Stan (The Man) Lee. But the spirit? The spirit is pure Lester Bangs. Or so I hope.
The Church Of Lester Bangs expands with every day as new disciples join the congregation and enter the fold. And why not? As the cover of Jim DeRogatis superb biography proclaims, he is Americas Greatest Rock Critic. Always was, always will be. Whatever his reason for reaching out to me back in 1974, I certainly appreciated it then and I continue to do so now because Lester Bangs was the best editor I ever had.
And now, with the publication of his second collection of work, Lesters writing now literally speaks volumes.
Rolling Stone. CREEM. The Village Voice. Volume One: Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung. Let It Blurt. Almost Famous. Volume Two: Mainlines, Blood Feasts, And Bad Taste. Its an enduring legacy that many of us would be proud to haveexcept for the tragic ending, of course. Because, unfortunately, as we all know, the man himself is no longer around to add to it.
However, if theres any comfort to be taken from this cautionary tale, its that many of todays aspiring writers look to Lester Bangs as a vital literary voice who inspires them to write. And if they start out by emulating him, so what? They could do a lot worse. Besides, who knows what fresh voices will one day rise out that Bangsian cacophony of words?
Because somewhere, out there, is the new future of rock criticism; it may even be you. You can bet that whoever it is, though, will have been brought up on a steady diet of Lester Bangs writings. Which is why I cant wait to read what they come up with.
So thank you, Lester. For everything. Even that "Firebird" moniker you stuck me with on page 62 of the April 1976 issue. Yes, even that.
Rest in peace.
Photos by Charlie Auringer