The Books: Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic: Rock’N’Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock ‘N’Roll; “David Bowie: Station to Station”, by Lester Bangs

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Next up on the essays shelf:

Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic: Rock’N'Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock ‘N’Roll, by Lester Bangs

Lester Bangs is quick to tell us his problems with David Bowie in the following excerpt, a review of Bowie’s latest, Station to Station. He is annoyed, in general, with Bowie, and yet the entire thing ends with Bangs saying that he “can’t wait” to see what Bowie will “do next”. So there’s that. You have to be comfortable with contradictions and mess in order to submit to Lester Bangs’ writing. If you’re looking for him to come down wholeheartedly on one side or the other and write what amounts to fanboy ravings that are 100% positive, in order to validate your own opinion … Bangs will be infuriating! (I think that’s some of the problem that some Elvis fans have with his writing. Bangs called Elvis a “turd”! Bangs called Elvis “obedient”! Bangs said Elvis had “contempt” for his audience at the end! Therefore, Bangs is not to be heeded at ALL. But … but … you’re missing what ELSE he said about Elvis, you’re missing how Bangs actually spoke about Elvis’ power in a way that nobody else would even attempt. He said that Elvis was “otherworldly” to a level that makes the only conclusion possible being that Elvis was “from another planet”. Who else would write like that? Who else would lay it bare with such clarity? It’s even MORE powerful BECAUSE Lester Bangs had issues with Elvis – as he had issues with all stars who were holed up in their own stardom. And yet he also understood why Elvis had to do that, because Elvis was the first to reach such heights, and who of us could even begin to understand what Elvis went through? Lester tries to understand, when he goes off on a 10-page fantasy where he exhumes Elvis’ body and eats the decaying drugs still in Elvis’ stomach, merely so he can see the world through Elvis’ eyes for one day. And what he comes up with, in that phantasmagorical fantasy, is – I think – creepily accurate. Not that I would know. Because I’m not Elvis. But in all my studying of him, I do feel like I have had a glimpse, a glimpse of what it was like to be him. Lester Bangs gives us a glimpse, too. To discount him because he was “mean” about Elvis in some other respects, and referred to Elvis’ jump suit as “an Arthurian castle” – hilarious – is just dumb, Elvis fans, don’t go that route, you’re missing so much gold! Also, tell me that that description of the jump suit isn’t somewhat accurate.)

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Digression. But Elvis is bossy that way, a giant magnet.

We were talking about Bowie! Bowie comes up often in Bangs’ work, although usually in columns about someone else, Lou Reed or the Stones. People more familiar with Bangs’ stuff can correct me if I’m wrong, but he seemed annoyed by the glam-glitter-Limey contingency who were acting as cult leaders over the rock stars he loved, drawing them into his web. Why was Lou Reed falling in love with David Bowie, for example? What was he trying to prove? Don’t go there, man! Would you Bangs experts out there consider that a fair assessment? His problem with Bowie appears to come from the self-consciousness of his act, its theatricality, its divorce from anything approaching real life and real experience. And he didn’t want rock stars to go that way, because Bangs felt that that way created even MORE distance between the stars and the followers – and it was that very distance that was killing the music industry, killing our culture.

He despised the whole Rock Star thing, and how these musicians he loved started buying their own press, and “acting” like a typical Rock Star. He hated it.

Not that David Bowie was doing that, but his whole thing – with taking on different personae, and doing concept albums based on different characters – Bangs wasn’t into it. He seemed to think the whole thing was a tiny bit dumb. Not to mention indicative of some dangerous strains in music culture, things he wanted to nip in the bud.

David_Bowie_-_Station_To_Station

Station to Station was released in 1976, Bowie’s tenth studio album. This was Lester Bangs’ review, which appeared in Creem. He goes on for quite a bit, and as I mentioned, ends up saying that Bowie is no hero, it doesn’t do to have heroes anyway, because we have expectations of them and it’s almost worse when they try to live UP to those expectations. That’s what creates the vicious cycle of Rock Star Bullshit that Lester hated.

But he found much to admire in Station to Station. I love that album myself.

Interestingly enough, David Bowie and Elvis Presley were born on the same day (12 years apart), and every year in New York there is a “bash” held in their honor, which I attended this past year. The spectacle has to be seen to be believed, and the party doesn’t even get started until around 2 a.m. The Bowie fans were out in droves, as well as the tattooed slicked-hair rockabilly fans, and it was fascinating and heartwarming to be in the presence of such a mixed and enthusiastic crowd. Especially because most of them were age 25 or younger. So there they were, dressed up as space men and aliens and other Bowie tributes, but also jamming around to “Jailhouse Rock” by the opening rockabilly band. Crazy fun. Highly recommended if you don’t mind staying up all night.

All of this is to say: the stardom has lasted, and, if anything, increased.

Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic: Rock’N'Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock ‘N’Roll, “David Bowie: Station to Station” by Lester Bangs

Now, as any faithful reader of this magazine is probably aware, David Bowie has never been my hero. I always thought all that Ziggy Stardust homo-from-Adelbaran business was a crock of shit, especially coming from a guy who wouldn’t even get in a goddam airplane. I thought he wrote the absolute worst lyrics I had ever heard from a major pop figure with the exception of Bernie Taupin, lines like “Time takes a cigarette and puts it in your mouth” delivered with a face so straight it seemed like it would crack at a spontaneous word or gesture, seemed to me merely gauche. As for his music, he was as accomplished an eclectician (a.k.a. thief) as Elton John, which means that though occasionally deposited onstage after seemingly being dipped in vats of green slime and pursued by Venusian crab boys, he had Showbiz Pro written all over him. A facade as brittle as it was icy, which I guess means that it was bound to crack or thaw, and whatever real artistic potency lay beneath would have to stand or evaporate.

Crack Bowie did, in the last year or so, and the result was Young Americans. It was not an album beloved of trad Bowiephiles, but for somebody like your reviewer, who never put any chips on the old chickenhead anyway, it was a perfectly acceptable piece of highly listenable product. More than that, in fact – it was a highly personal musical statement disguised as a shameless fling at the disco market, the drag perhaps utilized as an emotional red herring. Young Americans wasn’t Bowie dilettanting around with soul music, it was the bridge between melancholy and outright depression, an honest statement from a deeply troubled, mentally shattered individual who even managed, for the most part, to skirt self-pity. Like many of his peers, Bowie has cracked – and for him it was good, because it made him cut the bullshit. Young Americans was his first human album since Hunky Dory, and in my opinion the best record he ever put out.

Till now. The first things to be said about Station to Station are that it sounds like he’s got a real live band again (even if star guitarist Earl Slick reportedly split between the sessions and the new tour), and that this is not a disco album either (though that’s what the trades, and doubtless a lot of other people, are going to write it off as) but an honest attempt by a talented artist to take elements of rock, soul music, and his own idiosyncratic and occasionally pompous showtune/camp predilections and rework this seemingly contradictory melange of styles into something new and powerful that doesn’t have to cop either futuristic attitudes or licks from Anthony Newley and the Velvet Underground because he’s found his own voice at last.

This is the first Bowie album without a lyric sheet, and I’m glad, because aside from reservations voiced above I’ve always agreed with Fats Domino that it’s more fun to figure them out for yourself. The first line on the album is the worst: “The return of the thin white duke / Throwing darts in lovers’ eyes.” Somehow, back in Rock Critics’ Training School, when they told me about “pop poetry,” I didn’t and still don’t think that they were talking about this, which is not only pretentious and mildly unpleasant, but I am currently wrestling with a terrible paranoia that this is Bowie talking about himself. I have a nightmare vision in my mind of him opening the set in his new tour by striding out onstage slowly, with a pained look in his eyes and one spotlight following him, mouthing these words. And, quite frankly, that idea terrifies me. Because if it’s true, it means he’s still as big an idiot as he used to be and needs a little more cocaine to straighten him out.

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13 Responses to The Books: Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic: Rock’N’Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock ‘N’Roll; “David Bowie: Station to Station”, by Lester Bangs

  1. Jake Cole says:

    Well, despite being totally enthused over all your Bangs writing, I’m no expert, but as far as I’ve ever been able to tell, yeah, he seemed to look at the glam kids as trying to intellectualize what the garage punks did in the ’60s just fucking around. And Lou and Iggy getting sucked in and dolled up by them was even worse because they were being made to chase trends that originated with them in the first place. And when you listen to those Iggy and Lou albums that Bowie presided over, great as they can be, there’s a sense of actively trying to capture the cool that neither Iggy nor Lou ever had to work for, which can be so jarring (I don’t even like Transformer that much among Lou’s solo albums for this reason).

    Bowie is basically the focal point for that since he folded that into his penchant for totally reinventing himself every few years; I think the fact that Bowie could just “take off” not just a mask but a whole style made him a poser to Bangs, and as much as I LOVE Bowie it’s not an altogether unfair criticism. But I also think Bangs recognized that Bowie was actually moving toward something; if I remember correctly (my copy of the book is already boxed up to move at the end of the week so I’m running on memory), he ends this review by really understanding that as much as Bowie was moving into robotic, Krautrock-indebted music, he was perversely baring his soul most clearly. Which I think is true of this and the Berlin albums, that they’re the most arch and machine-like of his work, yet they are naked in a way that Hunky Dory and Ziggy just aren’t. Even “Golden Years” has a kind of desperate, coked-to-the-gills-to-get-through-another-night-at-the-disco vibe to it, as if trying to dance away the demons that were growing harder and harder to control.

    • sheila says:

      Right, that makes sense – that his heroes were now following a “trend” and they didn’t need to do that, they were the coolest motherfuckers who ever lived.

      And yes, the end of this review is a ringing endorsement of where Bowie appeared to be headed – it seemed hugely interesting to Bangs, far more interesting than the persona stuff he had been doing before.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Jake – this has been fun.

      Good luck with your move!

  2. mutecypher says:

    The excerpt got me to poking around, I didn’t know that Bowie wrote/offered “Golden Years” to Elvis. Do you know anything more about it? I realize that Bowie’s cocaine usage makes him an unreliable source of even his own doings at that time, but that’s what it says on Wikipedia.

    I can’t seem to find Elvis doing a version of this anywhere.

  3. Dg says:

    No lyric sheet. Lord do we miss those. I guess there’s always google.
    Space may be the final frontier
    But it’s made in a Hollywood basement
    And Cobain can you here the spheres
    Singing songs off station to station….

    • sheila says:

      I know, I miss lyric sheets too – I miss poring over them as I listened to the songs. It’s just not the same with Google, although maybe more convenient.

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