Sunday, April 25, 2010

Lester Bangs - Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung

In a way, Lester Bangs is the primary inspiration for this blog. Probably nobody has inspired as many rock critics as Lester Bangs. He was so democratic in both his writing style and in his musical aesthetic. He didn't care for journalistic convention, frequently inserting himself into his writing and often letting his "reviews" veer off in tangents that had nothing to do with the work in questions, even imagining fake albums, sometimes by fake bands. He refused to bound by convention in his writing style. In this way, he opened up musical criticism to those who love music, who have strong opinions on music, but who don't merely want to write "I liked X because ..." third-grade-style book reports on albums.

It was not just the structure and style of Bangs' writing that was unconventional. He also railed against the conventional standards of taste in music. Disdaining any conventional rock styling and even lambasting basic principles like instrumental competence or lyrical meaning, he praises bands like Iggy Pop and The Stooges as "[coming] out of an illiterate chaos gradually taking shape as a uniquely personal style." To Bangs, this was the essence of rock n' roll music: making fucking noise.

Noise is clearly one of the essential elements of rock n' roll, but the element that I think Bangs ignored ("ignored" isn't the right word - "disdained" is more appropriate) is that the spirit of rock n' roll is not just rebellion from traditional music but the confluence of it. Levon Helm talks about this in "The Last Waltz" (a film, unsurprisingly, that Bangs despised), talking about how country, bluegrass, and rhythm & blues all swirled together in the Mississippi Delta, forming what we know of as rock. To Bangs, this was the trappings that real music, good music needs to distance itself from, avoiding or eschewing classical training, knowledge, and sensibility. I see value in both the traditional sense of rock, Bangs' preferred noise, and the synthesis of the two.

Whether you agree with Bangs' take on things or not, he was a unique voice with a compelling style. Sometimes I read his reviews and wanted to argue with him, sometimes I thought he was spot on, but I was always intrigued and entertained. For a critic, I don't think there's a higher compliment.

Buy it from Amazon:
Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung

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