The Books: Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic: Rock’N’Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock ‘N’Roll; “from Notes for Review of Lost Highway”, 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

The following was not meant for publication. Lester Bangs was writing a review of Peter Guralnick’s excellent Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians for the Village Voice, and these are some of his notes. Notes! NOTES?!? What is super fun here is it gives you a real glimpse of Lester Bangs’ work process, which was, frankly, insane. Friends and editors say that in the beginning of his career, Bangs was a first-draft kind of guy. He blazed through the first draft and sent it out. Once he moved to New York, and started writing for the Village Voice, and actually faced some competition, he started working on his pieces more, taking them through drafts, editing them, honing them down. You can feel the shift in his writing post-Detroit. The first draft stuff is great, blazingly confident, funny, unique, but he just got even better when he decided to, you know, work.

But his “drafts” were not just rough sketches of where he wanted to go in the projected piece, or opening/closing paragraphs, themes laid out. They were massive rambling riffs on whatever subject was at hand. They can’t even strictly be called “drafts”.

In the case of the following piece, the eventual review was a respectable two and a half pages long. About 7 or 8 paragraphs. When you see the “Notes” below, you realize just how much CRAZY Lester had to get out of the way before he could settle down to write a review.

I’ve written about this piece before, which starts out being about Sam Phillips and ends up being all about Elvis. Now, Lost Highway is not about Elvis, although he does haunt the book and gets a chapter of his own. The book as a whole is about the “lost highway” of American music in its dark and dirty roots, country, blues, rockabilly, the mix … with profiles of folks like Ernest Tubb and Charlie Rich and a host of others. They all hailed from the South, and so Guralnick travels around with them, talking with them, watching their performances, trying to get to the heart of what the hell he was trying to say. You can almost feel his anxious search throughout the booK: There is a mystery here, an indefinable something, and we all can only make stabs in the dark at what it is. Where did this music come from? How did it all happen? Profiling this or that artist can only go so far. They were all a part of something much much bigger.

In the “notes” Lester Bangs writes, and they are clearly off-the-cuff, it is almost like THEY are leading Lester by the hand, as opposed to the other way around, he starts to talk about the Sam Phillips chapter. He thinks Sam Phillips may have bought his own mythology a little bit, especially in the way he speaks like a Biblical prophet, like he always knew Elvis was gonna be huge, and it was all part of the plan. (Speaking of Phillips, Guralnick is now working on a biography of the man, and to say “I can’t wait” doesn’t fully explain my feelings about it!)

Bangs treats Phillips’ own words, quoted in Guralnick’s book, with some skepticism, although he can understand where it might come from, as he elaborates below:

I mean, fuck it, who’s to say what Sam Phillips’s “real” motives were? Might they not have been as confused and unplanned and even self-contradictory as anything else anybody thought and then went and did some other time some other place? I mean, does everybody always sit down with this slide-ruled plan and a ten-point moral code on the wall behind ‘em and then go into battle for the clear-cut Cause with all this pat as that and never deviating? I don’t even know why I’m writing this many words when I’m supposed to be handing in a fifteen-hundred-word book review, so I can sort of begin to imagine how easy it must have been for Sam and everybody around him to get just a wee bit spacy when it became obvious that Elvis Presley was gonna be the single biggest human being to hit this planet since Jesus Christ.

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And this then launches Lester into a virtually unexplainable riff on Elvis Presley which goes on for 10 straight hallucinogenic (almost literally) pages. He starts to talk about Elvis, which then leads him into fantasizing what it would be like to dig up Elvis’ body, and ingest the rotting drugs in Elvis’ rotting stomach, so that he could then experience what it was like to BE Elvis for a day. What was it like to be Elvis? Wouldn’t it have been like some kind of 20-year-long drug trip? What the hell was going on? What did it look like from Elvis’ shoes?

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Seriously, it goes on for 10 pages. Sometimes he’s Elvis, sometimes he’s Lester, trapped in Elvis’ body, wondering why Elvis wasn’t having more fun. Surely it had to have been FUN for Elvis? Or … not? The piece is a mix of fantasy and speculation and the sentences are long and panicked and fevered. Remember, this was never meant for publication.

What I love about this truly bizarre piece is twofold.

1. I think Lester, here, yet again, comes close to touching the heart of the Elvis Mystique.
2. It shows that Lester had to get all of this out of the way before he could even BEGIN to sit down and write a book review.

What needed to be gotten out of the way? Elvis himself.

How could he calmly write a review of Guralnick’s nice book about all of these musicians OTHER than Elvis? When Elvis is just standing over there, grinning at him? How do we handle that man? How do we incorporate him into the culture? Can it be done? Or … is it that he can’t be incorporated because he IS the culture?

Anyway, here’s just one rant-y page of Bangs’ notes, where he is already deep into his imagined hallucinatory experience of standing in Elvis’ shoes for a while and looking at the world through Elvis’ baby blues.

Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic: Rock’N'Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock ‘N’Roll, “from Notes for Review of Lost Highway” by Lester Bangs

Somewhere in the distance of the Bob Lind canyon of my mind I hear Paul Simon singing “I am a rock / I am an island,” but it bears no significance or emotional impression positive or negative. Like nullsville, man. And nullsville is dullsville. I think maybe I feel more like a vegetable than a rock anyway. Broccoli, perhaps. In a frozen Stouffer’s soufflé. Let’s see: I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I can’t get high. I can’t listen to music (it all sounds the same, besides which I made the best records of all time so what’s the point?) I can’t watch TV cause there’s nothing on and if there was I don’t have the will to get up, flick it on and maybe even have to (shudder) switch channels. I can’t kill. I can’t shit or piss. I can’t get drunk because Elvis never did because he always remembered what his mama said about how alcohol made Daddy so mean but she never mentioned downers ’cause that’s medication. I certainly can’t read, except maybe some undoubtedly obscure martial arts text.

Is there anything left? Oh yeah, sex? Well, as I look around my palatial suite in Caesar’s Palace here in Vegas then peek through the door and down the hall I see, oh shit, must be at least fifty busty babes that all look like they came outa the centerfolds or the Dallas Cowgirls or “Charlie’s Angels.” I used to like to jerk off to Playboy every once in a while, just about every night in fact, even the real plastic airline-stewardess ones, before I was Elvis. Once I even jerked off at a picture of Farrah Fawcett-Majors. At the time I thought it was a really sick thing to do; it was fun. Now I could fuck or get blown by any of these broads and I haven’t got the slightest bit of physical inclination, I feel about as sexy as a turnip. I mean I guess I could make myself, but what the fuck, you know? Besides, what does Elvis have to prove? What I can’t figure out is why, when I used to really dig pulling my put to pix of ‘em in the magazines, and even had my special favorites that always got me hotter while there were others I always avoided because of the way they were posed or they just weren’t my type somehow, it was just like girlfriends except lonelier, what I can’t understand is why, now, hoer they all are in the flesh, I could even jerk off at ‘em without touching if I had some kind of hangup, or send one out for a copy of Playboy, they all look exactly alike to me. The last time that happened was in 1973 when everybody on all the made-for-TV movies started to look like Stefanie Powers post-”Girl from U.N.C.L.E.”

But Elvis don’t sit around thinking theoretical psychosociological bullshit like that, that’s for sure. What does he think about? Beats me. Nothing, I guess. Nothing at all. Himself, maybe. But that’s nothing. Like that Billy Preston song: “Nothing from Nothing Leaves Nothing.” Jeez, Billy Preston, there’s a hep dude, I bet he’s sure havin’ lotsa fun right now, wherever he is. I wonder if this is how Don Gibson felt when he wrote “Oh Lonesome Me.” But I don’t write songs. I just sing ‘em. Sometimes. But how can you even sing ‘em when you don’t know what any of the lyrics mean cause you don’t have any feelings or experiences anymore or all feelings or experiences are equivalent – how can you call yourself an “interpreter” when you’ve, uh, forgotten the language? So I guess I’m not a singer anymore either. Well, maybe there’s some consolation there: that’s gotta be the last one to go. Now I can turn into a test pattern. Oh well, sounds peaceful. And if that’s the case I’m gonna sign off. Except I don’t think I’ll be resuming programming at six A.M. or any other time for that matter. I’d sing you the National Anthem, but I’m not a singer anymore, remember? I’m sorry. Wait a second, no I’m not; you’re just as much to blame for this hopeless cipherdom as I am, since you made me the biggest star in the world, believed in me, pinned all these false hopes on me I couldn’ta fulfilled even if I’d understood what you meant, that asshole Peter Guralnick and his friends: what the hell did they think I was, a slacker or something? Or even leaving the army out of it, what the hell did people like that really want me to do? Keep on singing rhythm ‘n’ blues? Why, so I could end up repeating the same tired riffs like Chuck and Jerry Lee and Bo Diddley and the rest of ‘em left over from the fifties? So I could open for the Clash? Man, forget it. And fuck all the rest of you too, you “true fans” who bought any shit RCA slung out with my name on it and made yourselves love it or say you did or pretend to. Having Fun with Elvis on Stage, me babbling and sayin’ “WELLLLL” for nigh on an hour, even I’d be embarrassed by an album like that, if I wasn’t beyond embarrassment so long ago I can’t even remember what it felt like. You think you’re paying tribute but that’s the world’s worst possible insult. I’d rather you told me I was shit, some of the time, or even shit all the time. Anything. But to say you love everything, indiscriminately, just because it was me or had my name on it – well, that just says to me that you never cared about the music from day one. You couldn’t have, or you woulda complained somewhere down the line, like maybe by Harum Scarum, I dunno, they’re all the same to me, too. But if you never cared whether I tried or not, then why in the hell should I? You rock critics and “deep thinkers,” you were using me, projecting some fantasy of rebellion on me. I certainly wasn’t rebelling against anything, ever. I dressed funny and wore my hair a little different when I was in school, but that wasn’t rebelling, like Sam said, that was just . . . me. That was just a way of saying I existed, I guess. After I started to get big, I could feel it moving in the opposite direction – I don’t know when it was, couldn’t pinpoint a day, all I know is that, all of a sudden, at a certain point, pretty far before the army too, I started to stop being me. Because, well, everywhere I looked I started seeing me. Every singer, every kid on every streetcorner, everywhere. There was so much me goin’ around it just started to look like Playboy. Yeah, I was still and always the leader of the pack, but that’s not the point. The point is that something I started doing to make people know I existed started rubbing out my existence, a little at a time, day by day, I could feel it going, seeping away, steady and calm … and nothin’ comin’ in to replace it. And I knew nothin’ ever would. Maybe if I’da been smart I shoulda gone right then and blown my brains out like Johnny Ace and then there only woulda been those few records and all the critics would be happy and the fans wouldn’t know the difference and I’d be a legend. But I was a legend anyway; still am, even more than ever. Shit, I couldn’t evena committed suicide! Not for real, because it wouldn’t've been for any of the reasons real people use to commit suicide every day. It woulda been cynical, bad faith, trying to prove a point when I didn’t have no point to prove. I don’t want you to get the idea I’m feelin’ sorry for myself. I’m not feelin’ anything for myself, or anybody else. Except one thing. One last thing. I’m feelin’ I wish you all would leave me alone. Go bother Engelbert Humperdinck. Or Gig Young, if you want somebody who’s dead. Don’t come ’round with your National Enquirer or your Peter Guralnicks and Greil Marcuses, not to mention your Geraldo Riveras. Just don’t come ’round at all. ‘Cause I was nothing for twenty years, and most of you couldn’t tell the difference. And then I was dead, and you outdid yourselves thinking up new ways to finish off the job of leaving my corpse humiliated, pissed on, disrespected, degraded, demythified, lied about, deprived of every last shred of privacy or the most basic human dignities. I’m sure you’ll think of me some more, and I’m not even that pissed off about it, ’cause that’s just the way you are, the way I was: that’s your version of Having Fun With Elvis on Stage. It’s cool; I been there. Besides, I still do take some slight comfort in the fact there’s something about me, some weird quality, that you haven’t been able to figure out yet, none of you. I never could either. I guess I was something. The only trouble was that when I was somethin’, I wasn’t me, just like when I was me, I was nothin’. Oh well. Life’s like that. Write any kinda shit you want. I won’t be reading it. I’m tunin’ out.

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2 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; “from Notes for Review of Lost Highway”, by Lester Bangs

  1. Troy Y. says:

    Fascinating. Between the ramblings, Bangs seems to have found Truth:

    “But to say you love everything, indiscriminately, just because it was me or had my name on it – well, that just says to me that you never cared about the music from day one. [...] But if you never cared whether I tried or not, then why in the hell should I?”

    Can the answer to the question “Elvis, what happened?” be right there in those two sentences?

    • sheila says:

      Troy! Thanks for commenting!

      I think, if nothing else, Lester Bangs approaches an understanding of the level of disorientation that that kind of unprecedented fame can bring.

      NOTHING is normal at that level. And we have no correlation to it in our normal lives. Who can get what fame like that actually feels like?

      The only comparison I can think of is of the handful of men who have stood on the moon and looked back at Earth from space. That’s an elect group and they have experienced something nobody else has or ever will. It makes them weirdos and give them a unique perspective. The Overview Effect, and etc. Ahem: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overview_effect

      Elvis’ fame was that singular and that strange. He couldn’t commiserate about it with other stars because nobody else was THAT famous. And while the Beatles were famous, they were a GROUP, there were four of them – which makes it different than Elvis being up there all by himself.

      Obviously I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. :)

      But I am in agreement with you that Lester’s quest to enter into Elvis’ experience – because it will tell us something about ourselves – is attempting to get at the “what happened??” question.

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