Happy Birthday, Lester Bangs

Today is Lester Bangs’ birthday. Recently, I had a brief discussion on Twitter about Bangs’ inimitable style.

I meant what I said there: Imitate him if you dare. His style is instantly recognizable, unforgettable, and blasts through you like an exploding rocket. It’s brutal, hilarious, fearless. You can feel the grime of his surroundings in his prose, the sleepless nights, the black coffee, the pills. He came at his topics with ferocity. He loved hard, he hated harder. Nobody could touch him, when it came to WORDS. He is so influential. You can see his imitators everywhere. They are boring. Ain’t nothing like the real thing.

A while back I came across the following personal essay entitled
Lester Bangs and the Nature and Purpose of Rock ‘n’ Roll: A Eulogy for My Imaginary Deadbeat Boyfriend Who Willl Never Love Me
and was immediately sucked into her passion and bravery. It’s long but worth it. Now that is being a fan. And if anyone knew what it was like to be a fan, it was Lester Bangs.

Recently, Bangs’ name was all over the place again because of Bruce Springsteen’s keynote address at this year’s SXSW, where he referenced not only Elvis, but Lester Bangs’ famous obituary to Elvis, printed in The Village Voice (text below). I have encountered Elvis fans who don’t like Lester Bangs’ words on Elvis. I suppose I can see that. It may seem “mean”, I guess. Bangs’ words don’t seem mean to me at all. They seem honest, they seem true. Besides, to quote my friend Kent: “Elvis Presley is like an aircraft carrier. He can handle pretty much anything you want to land on him.” To me, Lester Bangs is one of the few people writing at that time (or any time) who truly got Elvis, who took Elvis at his word, who saw what was going on, and spoke the truth of it. Yes, he is harsh. Elvis was a giant star, and people have strong feelings about such a figure. Lester Bangs couldn’t have an indifferent feeling if he tried. You cannot be this angry if you haven’t also loved.

Bangs wrote another piece about Elvis Presley that I almost prefer (if I had to choose). What begins as “notes” for a review of Peter Guralnick’s book Lost Highway, (and published posthumously) descends into a psychedelic trippy story about digging Elvis out of his grave and ingesting all of the pills that lie in Elvis’ rotting guts, in order to experience – for a day, a minute, an hour – what it was like to be such a man. I excerpt a bit of it here. These are some of the most powerful words ever written about Elvis Presley (and it really should be read in its entirety. It is included in the book Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic: Rock’N’Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock ‘N’Roll). Again, what I love about his stuff is that he has no interest in knocking Elvis off his pedestal, because, hey, it’s Elvis’ pedestal, and nothing Bangs could write could ever destroy it. So he took the FACT of Elvis at face value, something that is very very difficult to do (now, when retrospect blurs our vision, and then, when Elvis was just dead, and nobody could figure out how to quantify what the hell Elvis had actually done.) It’s like trying to perceive the entirety of the solar system in one glance. It kind of can’t be done. You just have to accept it as a fact, accept that there are rules that govern this fact, and start your discussion from there. SO MANY WRITERS are unable to do this with Elvis. They start from a place of envy, resentment, or longing that clouds the vision. I understand this. Elvis can have that disorienting effect if you get too close. Lester Bangs got close, close enough to get under the skin of this man, close enough to basically scream at him for letting everyone down in the obituary, but also close enough to understand that it was this unique figure who had somehow … weirdly … coalesced America. Briefly. And you can feel Bangs’ bafflement in the fact that it was Elvis, a hillbilly dude who was a Mama’s boy … not a rebel, not a bad boy … but the ultimate good boy, who would crack open the walls of our culture. He didn’t seem suited for it. He didn’t seem the “type”. But that is what was so perfect about Elvis.

And Bangs gives Elvis that: As an artistic figure, he was perfect.

I treasure Bangs’ words on Elvis, and treasure the unforgettable obituary, much of which I can recite by heart. That’s another thing about Bangs: he is quotable. He has a way of creating a sentence that is so perfect, so inevitable, that it could not be improved upon.

I miss him. I’d love to hear what he had to say about music now. I’d love to hear his perspective.

But we have what we have of him, and, to quote Joan Acocella in her essay on Dorothy Parker, another vicious quotable wit who didn’t write nearly enough in her lifetime: “she is what we have, and it’s not nothing.”

Where Were You When Elvis Died?
by Lester Bangs
The Village Voice, 29 August 1977

Where were you when Elvis died? What were you doing and what did it give you an excuse to do with the rest of your day? That’s what we’ll be talking about in the future when we remember this grand occasion. Like Pearl Harbor or JFK’s assassination, it boiled down to individual reminiscences, which is perhaps as it should be, because in spite of his greatness, etc., etc., Elvis had left us each alone as he was; I mean, he wasn’t exactly a Man of the People anymore, if you get my drift. If you don’t I will drift even further, away from Elvis into contemplation of why all our public heroes seem to reinforce our own solitude.

The ultimate sin of any performer is contempt for the audience. Those who indulge in it will ultimately reap the scorn of those they’ve dumped on, whether they live forever like Andy Paleface Warhol or die fashionably early like Lenny Bruce, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday. The two things that distinguish those deaths from Elvis’s (he and they having drug habits vaguely in common) were that all of them died on the outside looking in and none of them took their audience for granted. Which is why it’s just a little bit harder for me to see Elvis as a tragic figure; I see him as being more like the Pentagon, a giant armored institution nobody knows anything about except that its power is legendary.

Obviously we all liked Elvis better than the Pentagon, but look at what a paltry statement that is. In the end, Elvis’s scorn for his fans as manifested in “new” albums full of previously released material and one new song to make sure all us suckers would buy it was mirrored in the scorn we all secretly or not so secretly felt for a man who came closer to godhood than Carlos Castaneda until military conscription tamed and revealed him for the dumb lackey he always was in the first place. And ever since, for almost two decades now, we’ve been waiting for him to get wild again, fools that we are, and he probably knew better than any of us in his heart of hearts that it was never gonna happen again, his heart of hearts so obviously not being our collective heart of hearts, he being so obviously just some poor dumb Southern boy with a Big Daddy manager to screen the world for him and filter out anything which might erode his status as big strapping baby bringing home the bucks, and finally being sort of perversely celebrated at least by rock critics for his utter contempt for whoever cared about him.

And Elvis was perverse; only a true pervert could put out something like “Having Fun with Elvis On Stage”, that album released three or so years back which consisted entirely of between-song onstage patter so redundant it would make both Willy Burroughs and Gert Stein blush. Elvis was into marketing boredom when Andy Warhol was still doing shoe ads, but Elvis’s sin was his failure to realize that his fans were not perverse – they loved him without qualification, no matter what he dumped on them they loyally lapped it up, and that’s why I feel a hell of a lot sorrier for all those poor jerks than for Elvis himself. I mean, who’s left they can stand all night in the rain for? Nobody, and the true tragedy is the tragedy of an entire generation which refuses to give up its adolescence even as it feels its menopausal paunch begin to blossom and its hair recede over the horizon – along with Elvis and everything else they once thought they believed in. Will they care in five years what he’s been doing for the last twenty?

Sure, Elvis’s death is a relatively minor ironic variant on the future-shock mazurka, and perhaps the most significant thing about Elvis’s exit is that the entire history of the seventies has been retreads and brutal demystification; three of Elvis’s ex-bodyguards recently got together with this hacker from the New York Post and whipped up a book which dosed us with all the dirt we’d yearned for for so long. Elvis was the last of our sacred cows to be publicly mutilated; everybody knows Keith Richard likes his junk, but when Elvis went onstage in a stupor nobody breathed a hint of “Quaalude….” In a way, this was both good and bad, good because Elvis wasn’t encouraging other people to think it was cool to be a walking Physicians’ Desk Reference, bad because Elvis stood for that Nixonian Secrecy-as-Virtue which was passed off as the essence of Americanism for a few years there. In a sense he could be seen not only as a phenomenon that exploded in the fifties to help shape the psychic jailbreak of the sixties but ultimately as a perfect cultural expression of what the Nixon years were all about. Not that he prospered more then, but that his passion for the privacy of potentates allowed him to get away with almost literal murder, certainly with the symbolic rape of his fans, meaning that we might all do better to think about waving good-bye with one upraised finger.

I got the news of Elvis’s death while drinking beer with a friend and fellow music journalist on his fire escape on 21st Street in Chelsea. Chelsea is a good neighborhood; in spite of the fact that the insane woman who lives upstairs keeps him awake all night every night with her rants at no one, my friend stays there because he likes the sense of community within diversity in that neighborhood: old-time card-carrying Communists live in his building alongside people of every persuasion popularly lumped as “ethnic.” When we heard about Elvis we knew a wake was in order, so I went out to the deli for a case of beer. As I left the building I passed some Latin guys hanging out by the front door. “Heard the news? Elvis is dead!” I told them. They looked at me with contemptuous indifference. So What. Maybe if I had told them Donna Summer was dead I might have gotten a reaction; I do recall walking in this neighborhood wearing a T-shirt that said “Disco Sucks” with a vast unamused muttering in my wake, which only goes to show that not for everyone was Elvis the still-reigning King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, in fact not for everyone is rock ‘n’ roll the still-reigning music. By now, each citizen has found his own little obsessive corner to blast his brain in: as the sixties were supremely narcissistic, solipsism’s what the seventies have been about, and nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the world of “pop” music. And Elvis may have been the greatest solipsist of all.

I asked for two six-packs at the deli and told the guy behind the counter the news. He looked fifty years old, greying, big belly, life still in his eyes, and he said: “Shit, that’s too bad. I guess our only hope now is if the Beatles get back together.”

Fifty years old.

I told him I thought that would be the biggest anticlimax in history and that the best thing the Stones could do now would be to break up and spare us all further embarrassments.

He laughed, and gave me directions to a meat market down the street. There I asked the counterman the same question I had been asking everyone. He was in his fifties too, and he said, “You know what? I don’t care that bastard’s dead. I took my wife to see him in Vegas in ’73, we paid fourteen dollars a ticket, and he came out and sang for twenty minutes. Then he fell down. Then he stood up and sang a couple more songs, then he fell down again. Finally he said, ‘well, shit, I might as well sing sitting as standing.’ So he squatted on the stage and asked the band what song they wanted to do next, but before they could answer he was complaining about the lights. ‘They’re too bright,’ he says. ‘They hurt my eyes. Put ’em out or I don’t sing a note.’ So they do. So me and my wife are sitting in total blackness listening to this guy sing songs we knew and loved, and I ain’t just talking about his old goddam songs, but he totally butchered all of ’em. Fuck him. I’m not saying I’m glad he’s dead, but I know one thing: I got taken when I went to see Elvis Presley.”

I got taken too the one time I saw Elvis, but in a totally different way. It was the autumn of 1971, and two tickets to an Elvis show turned up at the offices of Creem magazine, where I was then employed. It was decided that those staff members who had never had the privilege of witnessing Elvis should get the tickets, which was how me and art director Charlie Auringer ended up in nearly the front row of the biggest arena in Detroit. Earlier Charlie had said, “Do you realize how much we could get if we sold these fucking things?” I didn’t, but how precious they were became totally clear the instant Elvis sauntered onto the stage. He was the only male performer I have ever seen to whom I responded sexually; it wasn’t real arousal, rather an erection of the heart, when I looked at him I went mad with desire and envy and worship and self-projection. I mean, Mick Jagger, whom I saw as far back as 1964 and twice in ’65, never even came close.

There was Elvis, dressed up in this ridiculous white suit which looked like some studded Arthurian castle, and he was too fat, and the buckle on his belt was as big as your head except that your head is not made of solid gold, and any lesser man would have been the spittin’ image of a Neil Diamond damfool in such a getup, but on Elvis it fit. What didn’t? No matter how lousy his records ever got, no matter how intently he pursued mediocrity, there was still some hint, some flash left over from the days when…well, I wasn’t there, so I won’t presume to comment. But I will say this: Elvis Presley was the man who brought overt blatant vulgar sexual frenzy to the popular arts in America (and thereby to the nation itself, since putting “popular arts” and “America” in the same sentence seems almost redundant). It has been said that he was the first white to sing like a black person, which is untrue in terms of hard facts but totally true in terms of cultural impact. But what’s more crucial is that when Elvis started wiggling his hips and Ed Sullivan refused to show it, the entire country went into a paroxysm of sexual frustration leading to abiding discontent which culminated in the explosion of psychedelic-militant folklore which was the sixties.

I mean, don’t tell me about Lenny Bruce, man – Lenny Bruce said dirty words in public and obtained a kind of consensual martyrdom. Plus which Lenny Bruce was hip, too goddam hip if you ask me, which was his undoing, whereas Elvis was not hip at all, Elvis was a goddam truck driver who worshipped his mother and would never say shit or fuck around her, and Elvis alerted America to the fact that it had a groin with imperatives that had been stifled. Lenny Bruce demonstrated how far you could push a society as repressed as ours and how much you could get away with, but Elvis kicked “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window” out the window and replaced it with “Let’s fuck.” The rest of us are still reeling from the impact. Sexual chaos reigns currently, but out of chaos may flow true understanding and harmony, and either way Elvis almost singlehandedly opened the floodgates. That night in Detroit, a night I will never forget, he had but to ever so slightly move one shoulder muscle, not even a shrug, and the girls in the gallery hit by its ray screamed, fainted, howled in heat. Literally, every time this man moved any part of his body the slightest centimeter, tens or tens of thousands of people went berserk. Not Sinatra, not Jagger, not the Beatles, nobody you can come up with ever elicited such hysteria among so many. And this after a decade and a half of crappy records, of making a point of not trying.

If love truly is going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each others’ objects of reverence. I thought it was Iggy Stooge, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to speak for your own private, entirely circumscribed situation’s many pains and few ecstasies. We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis’s. But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won’t bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.

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17 Responses to Happy Birthday, Lester Bangs

  1. Kent says:

    Terrific piece, Sheila! Loved Bangs forever… for decades. Much of his early writing was done under threat of violence in the ’60s as “Free Press” was considered such a subversive concept that the offices of the San Diego Door were bombed! But then, it wasn’t an easy time for Herbert Marcuse and Angela Davis either during their time at UCSD.

    • sheila says:

      Kent – I love the stories about Bangs. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to read these pieces as they came off the press – to have Bangs out amongst us, writing – He’s the type of writer where I would be impatient for his next column.

      While the focus here is on Elvis – his other pieces (and granted, I haven’t read them all) are also amazing. I love where he goes to England to travel around with the Clash. His piece on James Taylor is absolutely brilliant – although it isn’t really about James Taylor.

      What I find extraordinary about him – is that he was able to spot what was happening in the culture as it was happening. This is a rare quality – and I’m sure people go to Marketing school now and try to be “trend-watchers” or whatever, but I’m sure Bangs would have scorned such a thing. He just KNEW what was going on.

      • Kent says:

        Among his many many young talents, Bangs had an unerring sense of finding the right party. This put him in position to spot the latest and greatest, his writing skills allowed him to describe and convey it. Later, he WAS the party, or at least a good part of it… which was even more fun for his readers.
        His early death in several ways was parallel to Elvis’. I believe that Bangs, like Michael Jackson (the Motown Elvis), felt this kinship deeply and knew this long before Elvis died, though he never connected those dots publicly.

        • sheila says:

          // His early death in several ways was parallel to Elvis’. I believe that Bangs, like Michael Jackson (the Motown Elvis), felt this kinship deeply and knew this long before Elvis died, though he never connected those dots publicly. //

          Fascinating. You can certai nly feel that, in spades, in his “notes on Lost Highway” – which I excerpted. The desire to eat Elvis’ rotting medication? That is some serious identification, or at least a quest for identification. I think your analysis is spot on, Kent. Something I hadn’t considered.

          • sheila says:

            Also, Bangs is one of the few male critics (or maybe the only one?) who admitted that seeing Elvis made his dick hard.

            That’s quite an admission and I wish more of the male critics out there would just cop to it – because it is such a huge part of Elvis’ overwhelming appeal.

  2. Noel Shine says:

    I know little of Lester Bangs, other than this piece on Elvis and have heard him quoted re: the punchline to the above article, “we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis”. Insightful, as it is profound it is nevertheless so true. Elvis appeal transcended politics, creed, nationality, race, gender and all the fluff that apparently marks us all as different. Ultimately, we all see him from our own viewpoint and get “it”.To try to articulate what “it” is reveals more about ourselves than it does about Elvis.Nobody knew Elvis , yet everyone knows Elvis. His meteoric rise in showbusiness has no equal as a phenomenon other than his own catastrophic fall. It is clear that Bangs is articulating his grief for the passing of Elvis as disappointment, rather than any real sense of anger, dismay or profound sadness. He mourns the passing of all the hopes, aspirations and ideals of his own youth,( symbolized by Elvis) and attempts to come to terms with the new-found experience of the mundanity of life as an adult (i.e. without Elvis) What Bangs misses is that in order to get through life one must learn to cope properly with disappointment, the very thing which was Elvis’ undoing, despite his apparent success. Elvis gift was his generosity of spirit as an artist and ultimately as a human being. He expressed it all, good and mediocre, but never bad. That it he carried it off with such aplomb was his genius. An idiot-savant who knew that the meaning of life is to love and be loved, he failed to decipher the riddle of loving thyself and undermined his own very existence. Elvis is gone alright, real gone!

    • sheila says:

      // What Bangs misses is that in order to get through life one must learn to cope properly with disappointment //

      Well, yes, that is a very adult view, but one that many geniuses and tortured people not only do not share, but cannot share. Their temperaments aren’t cut out for it. And thank goodness. Coping properly with disappointment would rob us of much great art, which often seethes with open wounds and long-lived hurts.

      Bangs died very young of an overdose. These are the writings of a young on-fire man. If Bangs had learned to “cope properly with disappointment”, much of what is great about his work would be lost. I wish there was more of it.

  3. Allison bennett says:

    Holy shit. Mindblowing.

  4. Jeff says:

    I agree with you that nothing in Lester’s obituary is mean – people want to see mean, they should read what Lester wrote about heroes like Bob Marley and David Johansen when they came out with works that disappointed him. On the whole, I think rock criticism could use a little more meanness. I’m trying to remember the last time Rolling Stone (which Lester was famously fired from for being disrespectful to artists, but hired back when Paul Nelson demanded it of Jann Wenner) published a negative album review.

    • sheila says:

      Jeff – I agree. How about him marking James Taylor for death? His vitriol about the whole James Taylor scene (and I love James Taylor) is just … you would never see such writing today in a major magazine. Maybe on a blog. But it wouldn’t be as well written.

      Elvis was big enough: he could TAKE Lester’s rage. His myth has certainly survived that onslaught. I still think that underneath his observation that Elvis had contempt for his audience by the end was a crazy respect that even with all of that – his fans loved him – “who the hell are they gonna stand all night in the rain and wait for?” That’s heartbreaking.

      SUCH a good writer. And a good thinker.

  5. CGHill says:

    I hunted down a copy of that Bangs anthology some years back, and it never migrates back to the storeroom with the thousand other books: there’s always something in there I need to check.

    I’m probably not qualified to have a favorite Bangs story, since I never knew the man, though I blame him for my acquisition of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. But on the off-chance that it might be of interest, I’ll pass this along, as told by Dave Marsh:

    In 1972, at the height of the critical infatuation with the idea that making stoopid noizes can sometimes result in great rock and roll, Lester Bangs wrote a Rolling Stone review declaring that Alice Cooper would someday be regarded as the American Rolling Stones. RS reviews editor Jon Landau cut the line, and when Bangs protested, told the irate critic: “Lester, some day you’ll thank me for this.”

    In June 1974, Landau received a note from Bangs, who’d gone on to become the enfant terrible of noiz rock criticism at Creem. It read, “Dear Jon: Two years ago, when I wanted to call Alice Cooper the American Rolling Stones, you wouldn’t let me and said that someday I’d thank you. Thank you.”

    And if only those later Count Five albums truly existed…

  6. sheila says:

    CGHill – ha!! I love that story from Dave Marsh – awesome, thank you!

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