The second post in a series in which we ask what book or writer our contributors have returned to again and again.
Every reader, starting from childhood, draws his own map of the world of letters. There is liable to be some outside guidance here and there, naturally. Certain landmarks are supplied to us, say in English class. But teachers aren’t found only in school. As a kid, my chief literary mentor was the rock critic Lester Bangs, who wrote for Creem magazine and The Village Voice in the seventies and early eighties. He shaped my nascent taste, and taught me to read much the way I still read now. And as much as I relied on his irresistible humor and wisdom for advice on how best to blow my birthday money at the Licorice Pizza record store, I sought him out still more to learn about books, in particular the forbidden and arcane books no conventional teacher would ever mention.
Bangs, who was born in 1948 and grew up in El Cajon, California, had been driven out into the wider world by a complicated, shambolic family: his mother, Norma, was a devout Jehovah’s Witness, and his father, Conway, was an incorrigible drunk. Many imaginative kids who feel trapped in oppressive surroundings find solace, pleasure, excitement, and every other kind of relief in music and literature: in Bangs’s case this tendency was exceptionally pronounced. The community of Witnesses Bangs’s family belonged to believed in an end-is-nigh ideology, and they disapproved of Christmas presents, birthday parties, and education beyond reading the Bible. Here is the root, perhaps, of the seductive ease and fluidity with which Bangs riffed on culture high and low. As the Witnesses equally rejected Coltrane, Miles Davis, Superman comics, and science fiction, so did this rebellious son love and accept them all equally and on the same plane. Bangs’s biographer, Jim DeRogatis (“Let It Blurt”), described Bangs’s nascent rebellion—and his growing sense of the untrustworthiness, incompetence, and hypocrisy of authority.
“The drawer where I kept my Classics Illustrated collection was subject to stringent, arbitrary and rather sudden swoops of censorship,” Les wrote at age twenty. “Things like ‘The War of the Worlds’ by H.G. Wells and ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ by Jules Verne, my literary mentor of the third grade, would suddenly appear in ripped piles atop the ashes when I’d go out to empty the trash into the incinerator on a winter morning. My mother thought science fiction was demented nonsense; all the Witnesses do. They hold that since the Bible never mentions life on other planets, there must not be any, and no one can sway them from their conclusions.”And yet Norma indulged Lester enough that he seems to have managed a childhood of nonstop reading, listening, writing. “Days home from school faking flu I would put Trane on loud … and stand up on a hassock reading Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl,’” he wrote. But there are indications, too, that mother and son were very close. When Bangs found himself broke and washed up, his mother and sister would enclose sawbucks along with the Watchtower tracts they sent him. They had all shared Conway’s disgrace and death: they loved him, it seems, but he died in a fire, drunk and alone, having fled the family in shame.
The adult world outside Bangs’s childhood home bore unmistakable evidence of the same weaknesses he’d discovered inside it. The false Donna Reed visions of a happy, healthy, snow-white America of the postwar years, the disillusionment of the Vietnam war, and Nixon’s downfall; everywhere, the rebellion that had begun to precipitate in the Summer of Love now saturated the air and fermented. Bangs developed a pure hatred of the lies and whitewashings of religion and government, his mutiny balanced against a bone-deep love of the truth—no matter how messy or unpretty it might turn out to be—which he equated with the refuge he’d found in literature and music. In fact, the messier, the more “real” art could be, the better. He talked about this in what might be his most famous review, of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”:
[T]he fall of 1968 was such a terrible time: I was a physical and mental wreck, nerves shredded and ghosts and spiders looming and squatting across the mind. My social contacts had dwindled almost to none; the presence of other people made me nervous and paranoid … [“Astral Weeks”] assumed at the time the quality of a beacon, a light on the far shores of the murk; what’s more, it was proof that there was something left to express artistically besides nihilism and destruction. It sounded like the man who made “Astral Weeks “was in terrible pain, pain most of Van Morrison’s previous works had only suggested; 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.Along with many of his contemporaries, Bangs concluded that if “authority” was not to be trusted—and clearly, it wasn’t—then whatever “authority” detested must be O.K., or probably great. Hence the reactionary excesses of the nineteen-seventies, the chancy legacy of “don’t trust anyone over thirty.” Cocaine: a pure plant-derived substance that wouldn’t hurt you. Government: barely worth ignoring. If the squares were in favor of monogamy, then monogamy must be avoided at all costs, whether it appealed to you or not.
As for Bangs’s audience, the children of those years were far more sheltered from adult culture than they are now. While the rock stars whom we so admired were getting high and indulging their vast sexual appetites, the adults who were in charge of children were hell-bent on terrifying us with tall tales about sex and drugs and rock and roll: take acid and you might throw yourself out a window, certain you could fly, or become permanently convinced that you were a glass of orange juice. The cruel fates of these mythical victims were transparently bogus even to ten and twelve year olds, particularly those whose older siblings were already getting us stoned. Growing up at that time felt something like “The Truman Show”: the young intuited that they might break through the papier-mâché walls at any moment and into the “real world,” which probably really was scary but at least would be real. We sought reliable guides who wouldn’t lie to us, infantilize us, or sugar-coat anything, however flabby and wild-eyed they might be.
Sure there were other magazines and there were other writers. But for a certain cohort of bookishly-inclined kids, there was only one magazine and only one writer. I wasn’t the least bit surprised to learn that my contemporary, the late David Foster Wallace, had dedicated his first co-written book, “Signifying Rappers,” to Lester Bangs.
Bangs, then, was a moralist. He understood that what young people wanted was something still more than to break free of parental bonds. We wanted to know exactly what was being hidden from us. Bangs’s great gift to the kids who formed his most passionate following was the news that this information was available to us; it could be found in books.
It would be difficult to say where the expression of Bangs’s moral universe was clearest, because he’d habitually compress a sublime insight into any old photo caption or throwaway remark, in whatever throwaway piece about whatever throwaway band. But a lot of fans, I suspect, would nominate the aforementioned review of “Astral Weeks” for the honors.
“Astral Weeks,” insofar as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves, paralyzed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend. It is a precious and terrible gift, born of a terrible truth, because what they see is both infinitely beautiful and terminally horrifying: the unlimited human ability to create or destroy, according to whim. It’s no Eastern mystic or psychedelic vision of the emerald beyond, nor is it some Baudelairean perception of the beauty of sleaze and grotesquerie. Maybe what it boils down to is one moment’s knowledge of the miracle of life, with its inevitable concomitant, a vertiginous glimpse of the capacity to be hurt, and the capacity to inflict that hurt.
All this would send the questing reader straight to “Les Fleurs du Mal.” There was scarcely a book mentioned during Bangs’s tenure at Creem that I didn’t eventually hunt down (including a new edition of Borges’s “The Aleph”; I couldn’t make head or tail of that.)
In this way, a whole generation of kids was led to see “subversive” or countercultural literature through the lens of rock and roll—and also to become attuned to a new kind of critical voice, a voice far more intellectually honest than that of the academic critics. Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” holds itself at a lofty, self-regarding remove from its determinedly hip subject matter, but Bangs never held anything at arm’s length in his life; he was rushing headlong into the sea of the world, arms thrown wide open, to embrace it, to drown in it.
Let’s take “Of Pop and Pies and Fun: A Program for Mass Liberation in the Form of a Stooges Review, or, Who’s the Fool?,” published in Creem in 1970. I was too young to have read this when it came out; I would have read it in one of the thick bound volumes I used to spend summer afternoons with at the library, some years later. This is just to give an idea of the fun that Bangs could provide in such an afternoon, if you were a young teen-age fan fiendishly devoted to the Stooges and their “crazed quaking uncertainty.” Because Bangs had already won you over with his uncannily exact description of your own love of the Stooges: “an errant foolishness that effectively mirrors the absurdity and desperation of the times, but … they also carry a strong element of cure, a post-derangement sanity.”
The perfection of this assessment led you breathlessly through the rest of the piece, which mentioned: Malcolm Muggeridge, the Panthers, the Yips, Holden Caulfield, “I took acid four days ago and since then everything is smooth with no hangups like it always is for about a week after a trip?” (ugh, speak for yourself, Lester); “fantasies of a puissant ‘youth culture,’” “Jimmy Page’s arch scowl of supermusician ennui,” Mountain, Cream, Creedence, “imagine throwing a pie in the face of Eldridge Cleaver! Joan Baez!” “the onetime atropine-eyed Byronic S&M Lizard King,” an MBE returned, “a giant pie stuffed with the complete works of Manly P. Hall,” “that infernal snob McCartney and those radical dilettante capitalist pigs the Jefferson Airplane,” Marxists, A. A. Milne, Mick Jagger (“a spastic flap-lipped tornado writhing from here to a million steaming snatches and beyond in one undifferentiated erogenous mass, a mess and a spectacle all at the same time”), “the bastion (Bastille) stage,” “the oppressor is fat and weak, brothers!”
Artaud, Tinkertoys, épater la bourgeoisie, Ed Ward, the “I Ching,” sock hops, “A.B. Spellman’s moving book ‘Four Lives in the Bebop Business,’” “Trout Mask Replica,” “the essence of both American life and American rock ‘n’ roll.”
“Mark my words.”
“Some peglegged Golem hobbling toward carny Bethlehem,” Porky Pig, “beautiful Pauline Kael.”
It ends like this:
Some of the most powerful esthetic experiences of our time, from “Naked Lunch” to Bonnie and Clyde, set their audiences up just this way, externalizing and magnifying their secret core of sickness which is reflected in the geeks they mock and the lurid fantasies they consume, just as our deepest fears and prejudices script the jokes we tell each other. This is where the Stooges work. They mean to put you on that stage, which is why they are super-modern, though nothing near to Art. In Desolation Row and Woodstock-Altamont Nation the switchblade is mightier and speaks more eloquently than the penknife. But this threat is cathartic, a real cool time is had by all, and the end is liberation.Don’t even doubt that I looked up every single book, every musical reference, hell every single word I didn’t understand. You bet your sweet bippy, I did.
Bangs openly lamented having been born too late to hang with the Beats, but he loved William Burroughs and wrote about him constantly. Suburban librarians generally hadn’t the faintest clue what was in any of these books (or maybe, just pretended not to) and any curious teen-ager could borrow them freely at the public library, or buy them at a bookshop, head shop, or thrift shop. “Naked Lunch” certainly made a striking contrast with, say, “The Catcher in the Rye,” a book you might be reading at school. I was surprised to find, returning to “Naked Lunch” just a few years ago, how full of sap and hilarity it still is. The funniest thing is that “Naked Lunch” turns out to be a moralistic book, making a better, truer, scarier case against becoming a junkie than whatever nonsense you were liable to be hearing in health ed.
The literature of mysticism and the occult, representing as it did the anti-religious, was also of interest during this time; parents were still attending church regularly. Hence the popularity of unreadable Satanist tracts, astrology, Aleister Crowley, and assorted metaphysicians of all nations. What did the anti-religions have to say? I can still remember the pseudo-mystical mantra-recommendation sung by Todd Rundgren on the album, “Initiation”: “Steiner, Gurdjieff, Blavatsky, and Boooo-dah.” I went dutifully along to the library to investigate and was soon bored out of my tree. By golly, that Madame Blavatsky is a pill. In general, you were liable to get some crackpot literary recommendations from your favorite rock stars. But Bangs could draw the marrow forth even from the metaphysicians. In the essay, “James Taylor Marked for Death,” he wrote:
Number one, everybody should realize that all this “art” and “bop” and “rock-’n’-roll” and whatever is all just a joke and a mistake, just a hunka foolishness so stop treating it with any seriousness or respect at all and just recognize the fact that it’s nothing but a Wham-O toy to bash around as you please in the nursery, it’s nothing but a goddam Bonusburger so just gobble the stupid thing and burp and go for the next one tomorrow; and don’t worry about the fact that it’s a joke and a mistake and a bunch of foolishness as if that’s gonna cause people to disregard it and do it in or let it dry up and die, because it’s the strongest, most resilient, most invincible Superjoke in history, nothing could possibly destroy it ever, and the reason for that is precisely that it is a joke, mistake, foolishness. The first mistake of Art is to assume that it’s serious. I could even be an asshole here and say that “Nothing is true; everything is permitted,” which is true as a matter of fact, but people might get the wrong idea. What’s truest is that you cannot enslave a fool.Here was one of Crowley’s favorite notions (“Nothing is true; everything is permitted,”), by way of Nietzsche, but Bangs brought it out of occult Thelemist incomprehensibility and into the question of discovering a practical intellectual justification for the satisfaction of every appetite. This was the way the twenty-somethings we admired were living. Why these strictures? What good were they? What if we simply chose to live real life in the U.S.A. entirely unhampered by any of them at all? It took some time, but eventually one inevitably blundered into Nietzsche himself, and asked the old question from a philosophical or logical, rhetorical or moralistic perspective. Was nothing true? Was everything permitted? What was spiritual freedom? Was Kerouac free? Was Burroughs? Was Bangs?
What he was really leading us to was the one true church of intellectual curiosity and open-mindedness. There was subtlety and elegance in his reasoning, generosity, and the best kind of skepticism: the skepticism that turns back on the author himself. This last aspect of Bangs’s writing was the most revelatory to me. It was the virtue I sought most to emulate, then and now.
Indeed no other writer gave me this feeling again so purely until I ran across David Foster Wallace, so many years later, and found he’d learned the very same thing; I suspect he learned it from the same doomed, messed-up, wounded, alcoholic genius of a teacher.
In 1977, Bangs accompanied the Clash on tour, which resulted in an immense three-part interview published in the NME.
Finally [Mick Jones] looked me right in the eye and said, “Hey Lester: why are you asking me all these fucking questions?”And even though this was meant for kids to read, note that there’s not a particle of condescension in it. That, too, made young people love and trust Lester Bangs with unswerving devotion. Indeed I’ve never swerved once in all these years.
In a flash I realized he was right. Here was I, a grown man … motoring up into the provinces of England, just to ask a goddamn rock ‘n’ roll band for the meaning of life! Some people never learn. I certainly didn’t, because I immediately started in on him with my standard cultural-genocide rap: “Blah blah blah depersonalization blab blab blab solipsism blah blah yip yap etc. …”
“What in the fuck are you talking about?”
“Blah blab no one wants to have any emotions anymore blab blip human heart an endangered species blah blare cultural fascism blab blurb etc. etc. etc. …”
Maria Bustillos is a writer living in Los Angeles. Read her recent piece for Page-Turner on the reading lists of George Orwell, Henry Miller and others.