Lester leaps back in a new anthology

It’s hard to say whether Lester Bangs was queer for Lou Reed.

Granted, among the hundreds of musicians he profiled in his lifetime, Lester did seem to reserve his most colorful comments, bons mots and epithets alike, for Reed — and at uncommon length too. The Lester ’n’ Lou Show was not your typical interviewer-rock star relationship; at times the pair seemed more like an old couple, each aware of the other’s weaknesses, constantly sniping, but always with a hint of unspoken affection.

Among the dust-ups famously chronicled in Creem magazine was 1973’s “Deaf-Mute in a Telephone Booth.” This particular tête-à-tête found the two boozing in a hotel room and randomly kibitzing (over Bowie, Judy Garland, the Archies and, uh, bisexuality) for hours. Yet the image Lester left you with, of a muttering, sad-looking Reed “plopped in his chair like a sack of spuds, sucking on his eternal Scotch with his head hanging off into shadow, looking like a deaf-mute in a telephone booth,” was so lingeringly bittersweet you couldn’t help but wonder how deep Lester’s fandom ultimately ran.

Still, who knows? Lester can’t tell us; he signed up for the choir invisible back in ’82. (Reed ain’t saying either. Interviewed by journalist Jim DeRogatis, author of the 2000 Bangs bio Let It Blurt, he dismissed Lester with a curt, “I didn’t know Lester.” Meow!). But with the arrival of Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste, new opportunities to probe Lester’s complex personality abound.

More so than with the 1987 Greil Marcus-edited Lester anthology Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. Collecting as it did much of the Lester crème du Creem, it has long been considered the Gonzo RockCrits’ Bible, spawning legions of tunnel-visioned Lester wannabes who “got” the Bangs image — the hard-partyin’ bon vivant who could churn out reams of unhinged verbiage in a single all-night, black beauties-fueled typing session — but who displayed about as much soul as a NASCAR driver. While any assemblage of Bangsage is a must-read affair, as the Village Voice soberly pointed out in ’91, reflecting on Carburetor Dung, “the literary spark struck by that anthology wouldn’t light a joint in the back of City Lights Books.”

Bad Taste, then, is neither an assemblage of Dung dog-ends that Marcus skipped nor an attempt to cater to a particular element, gonzo or otherwise. Former Creem editor John Morthland, as co-executor of the Bangs literary estate, has not only compiled a selection featuring quite a bit of newly unearthed archival material that proved elusive to Marcus, he’s also succeeded in his stated intention to de-romanticize the Lester-as-gonzo notion. True, a handful of entries here are classic stream-of-consciousness Lester, like a surreal, titillating meditation on punk rock from ’77, “Back Door Men and Women in Bondage.” But others, like a 1980 interview with Captain Beefheart and the aforementioned ’73 Reed piece, have such a warm, humanistic edge to them (and, in the case of unpublished journal entries predating Lester’s early ’70s Rolling Stone work, painfully personal too) that, taken with numerous classic Creem screeds so visceral they practically vibrate off the pages, a more balanced picture than we’ve ever had of Lester emerges. Still MIA are a handful of unseen pieces he’d reportedly set aside for a proposed anthology. But other than that, Bad Taste is flawless.

Two entries in particular will have you marveling at the near-alchemic literary sleight of hand Lester was so adept at. In an ’82 column on pop music for Music and Sound Output titled “Every Song a Hooker,” a meditation on Kim “Bette Davis Eyes” Carnes’ dubious merits somehow transmogrifies into an indictment of Tom Petty’s faux-populism — with a shit-talkin’ Bukka White appearing mid-essay like some Mississippian Greek chorus to boot.

And in the ’76 Creem feature “Death May Be Your Santa Claus,” a Q&A conducted with Jimi Hendrix up in heaven, while on the surface an extended shtick ’n’ jive, is actually a blistering reassessment of the Hendrix legacy — as offered up in distinctly unsentimental terms by the guitar god’s ghost himself! “I did manage to come up with a few new riffs and a few new ideas,” Hendrix muses to his interrogator. “But there ain’t much percentage in ego-tripping when you’re dead, so I gotta cop that that was about it.

Lester connected the dots as deftly as a champ, sometimes between points you never even noticed might be connectable in the first place, and in language that was neither condescending nor aimed at some nebulous fraternity of scribes. For Lester it was all about entertaining the reader while imparting knowledge and enthusiasm.

Postscript: In a rock zine a few years ago I published an interview I once did with Lester. A bleary haze of reefer and Romilar, the conversation yielded enough raw postulation, trivial debate and tangential asides to fill an entire copy of Vanity Fair’s annual music issue.

At one point I hit Lester with my standard “death of rock criticism” rap: “Blah, blah, blah, depersonalization, blab, blab, blab, solipsism, blah, blah, yip, yap, no one wants to have any emotions anymore, blah, blip, blurb,” etc. …

“Well,” he replied, taking a hit off the doob, “don’t look at me. If it bothers you so much, why don’t you do something about it?” And in a flash, as I reported to the readers, I’d found my calling as a rock critic.

The article generated numerous letters from people who wanted to know more about my take on Lester, what he was like in person, etc. No matter that the interview was clearly part of the zine’s annual April Fool’s issue, or that the quotes (like the two above) were lifted directly from Carburetor Dung. Such was the enduring power of Lester’s personality and prose that one might eagerly suspend disbelief in the service of a good rock yarn.

And Lester had a million of ’em, popping from his brain like some perpetual-motion flashcube. Lester’s writing was alive, just like the hills are alive, and maybe even like Peter Frampton usta come alive, with the sound of music. He made reading about rock ’n’ roll fun.

I was definitely queer for Lester.


Read MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer's memories of Lester Bangs.

Fred Mills writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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