Kick Out the Jams
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
Rock writing and criticism died with Lester Bangs when he died in 1982. Look around you these days. When you go into a newsstand or bookstore and see the glossy cover of Rolling Stone staring out at you, it’s hard to distinguish it from the Maxim or Cosmopolitan or Vanity Fair sitting next to it on the shelves. The cover announces some mediocre set of articles about politics, movies, television and other cultural happenings. No longer does Rolling Stone—and I use this magazine as an example simply because it was in its early years one of the best music magazines [its original incarnation was as a newspaper; I spent plenty of days reading the latest issue full of news of Neil Young, Cream, and Led Zeppelin with ink smudges on my fingers]—and only had two rivals, Creem and Circus. Once upon a time, Ben-Fong Torres, Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs (who started his own anti-Rolling Stone columns at Creem) brought the tales of drug and sex-soaked excess into our mailboxes; more than that, these writers helped provide aesthetic criteria—a label that none of them would have embraced at the time—for a newly emerging music genre.
Not that we didn’t know how to listen to The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Clapton, The Stones, Patti Smith, Van Morrison or Neil Young. Music provided some kind of universal language that brought us together when we were protesting the Vietnam War or some political issue relating to the environment. Music brought people together in the Sixties and Seventies in a way that it doesn’t today. Apart from the banal spectacle of American Idol, of course; but it’s not the music that brings people together there; it’s the bloodthirsty sport of the coliseum that brings them together; it’s their chance to provide the Neronic thumbs-down gesture to the latest contestant who has entered the coliseum. I’m not some old hippie (a word I genuinely hate because people used it so much to attack me and my friends) longing for the good old days. I think anyone who looks back honestly to the Sixties and early Seventies can see something very different happened there. When the crowd at Woodstock chanted “No rain” to drive away the rain that afternoon, they really believed in their connection to each other and the earth and their communal power to make a change. The music did that.
By contrast, we are in the midst of a despicable war led by a duplicitous political administration that has led the nation astray through its secrecy and outright deception. The fascism of the Bush administration is no different from the fascism of the Nixon administration. Look what happened to Nixon; the power of the people ousted him from office and ended a war that was unwinnable. The protests movements today simply lack the power of those during the Vietnam War. Why? Our music divides us and doesn’t call us together. Songs like “Ohio,” “Get Together,” “Let It Be,” “Masters of War,” “All Along the Watchtower,” and “For What It’s Worth,” among many others drew thousands of people together in their quest to reach a common goal: reform our society and our world.
Lots of us who were drawn together by music were also drawn together by books. Hesse’s Siddhartha, Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan and Slaugtherhouse-Five, Kerouac’s On the Road, Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Mao’s little red book, and many others has us discussing the roots of our cultural dilemma. When intelligent and forceful writers started offering up opinions about the music to which we were listening, a whole new world of reading opened up to us.
Among all of these early writers, Lester Bangs possessed the most distinctive voice and the most forceful pen. He was the Susan Sontag of rock music criticism. Bangs didn’t simply offer an opinion on rock musicians and their latest album; he made pronouncements on rock culture. “THE LESSON OF ‘WILD THING’ [The Troggs’ most famous song] WAS LOST ON ALL YOU STUPID [PEOPLE]. Sometime between the rise of Cream and the fall of the Stooges, and rock ‘n’ roll may turn into a chamber art yet or at the very least a system of Environments.” On The Troggs, he’s even more commanding. “All right, punk, this is it. We’re gonna settle this right here. You can talk about yer MC5 and yer Stooges and even yer Grand Funk and Led Zep, yep, alla them carved out a hunka turf in this town, but I tell you there was once a gang that was so bad that they woulda cut them dudes down to snotnose crybabies and in less than three minutes too.”
The titles of Bangs’s articles are lessons in themselves. Taking a cue from James Agee and Walker Evans in his comments on the Velvet Underground in “Let Us Now Praise famous Dead Dwarves; Or, How I Slugged It Out With Lou Reed and Stayed Awake.” Here are some others: “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: A Tale of These Times” (also the title of a collection of his essays and reviews); “Jim Morrison: Bozo Dionysus a Decade Later”; “Death May Be Your Santa Claus: An Exclusive, Up-to-Date Interview with Jimi Hendrix”; “Stevie Nicks: Lilith or Bimbo?”
Bangs emblazons our consciousness with the meanings that various musicians and songs sear in our memories. Bangs is at the top of his game in his essay on Van Morrison’s first album, Astral Weeks. Morrison’s album stunned a whole culture with its spirituality, its uncompromising beauty and its cosmic blend of jazz, blues and rock. Bangs comments on one of Morrison’s performances of “Cypress Avenue” from the album. “With consummate dynamics that allow him to snap from indescribably eccentric throwaway phrasing to sheer passion in the very next breath he brings the music surging up through crescendo after crescendo . . . It is truly one of the most perverse things I have ever seen a performer do in my life. And, of course, it’s sensational: our guts are knotted up, we’re crazed and clawing for more, but we damn well know we’ve seen and felt something.” As Morrison performs, “he paces back and forth in a line on the stage, his eyes tightly shut, his little fireplug body kicking its way upstream against what must be a purgatorial nervousness.” Anyone who’s seen Morrison kicking out the jams in “Caravan” in Martin Scorcese’s film about The Band, The Last Waltz, can relate to this image of Morrison on stage. (He’s a bit more sedate these days; he stands immobile in front of his band done up in dark shades and porkpie hat.) “Madame George” [a song about a lovelorn drag queen] is “possibly one of the most compassionate pieces of music ever made.” Morrison, in Bangs’ view, would never again equal the achievement of Astral Weeks. (He wrote this piece in 1979, so he never got to witness Van Morrison’s many incarnations over the past twenty years. Morrison has grazed through pop, jazz, and country, and much of it has been banal and uninspiring. He’s certainly never achieved the depth of his early work.) “No wonder that Van Morrison never came this close to looking life square in the face again, no wonder he turned to Tupelo Honey and even Hard Nose the Highway with its entire side of songs about falling leaves.”
Yes, we miss Lester Bangs. There’s no one writing in rock criticism these days who is his equal. Fortunately, we can still read his work in two collections: Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader, edited by John Morthland (Anchor Books, 2003) and Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, edited by Greil Marcus (Vintage, 1988).
Bangs admired deeply Patti Smith’s Horses. “Patti’s music in its ultimate moments touches deep wellsprings of emotion that extremely few artists in rock or anywhere else are capable of reaching. With her wealth of promise and the most incandescent flights and stillnesses of this album she joins the ranks of people like Miles Davis, Charlie Mingus, or the Dylan of ‘Sad-Eyed Lady’ and Royal Albert Hall. It’s that deeply felt, and that moving: a new Romanticism built upon the universal language of rock ‘n’ roll, an affirmation of life so total that, even in the graphic recognition of death, it sweeps your breath away.”
Much the same could be said of Lester Bangs’s rock writings.
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at