The Books: Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader; “Dandelions in Still Air: The Withering Away of the Beatles”, by Lester Bangs


Next up on the essays shelf:

Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader, by Lester Bangs

The following essay was published in The New Paper in 1975, and features Lester Bangs’ thoughts on each individual Beatle, following the breakup of the band. Bangs was less than impressed or thrilled. The whole piece starts out with “Name me one Sixties superstar who hasn’t become a zombie.” He follows that up with, “Dylan doesn’t count, because he’s been revivified…” as well as “And Lou Reed is a professional zombie …” A lot of Bangs’ thoughts along these lines had to do with his near-obsession (actually, not “near”, it was full-blown) with what the hell was going on with the Rolling Stones in the 70s, and the tours and the drugs and the crazy-making entourage and not enough tickets for fans and he was so disenchanted with it, and angry, and hurt, and we’ll get to that. There’s an entire section in Mainlines devoted to Bangs’ various rants/thoughts on the Rolling Stones in the early-to-mid-70s. So while he is writing about the Beatles here, you can feel the specter of the Stones hovering over all of it.

Bangs, as you may recall, wrote a pretty mean obit for John Lennon (although that doesn’t hold a candle to some of the other obits he wrote, including the one for Sid Vicious which is … vicious). I think he felt that they were better as a group, that the four of them together were way better than each of them separately, that the group shielded them from their own weaknesses, which were on full display when they stepped outside on their own. But I’m summarizing, and messily.


The Beatles are a sacred cow. Criticism still tends to bring on shrieks of outrage. I happen to think they are great enough to be able to take the criticism. Nothing can shake their place in the culture. They’ll be fine. I have been a Beatles fan my entire life. I also love some of Paul’s solo stuff, as well as George’s, and I have a complex relationship to John Lennon’s solo stuff (mainly what it’s ABOUT, which I won’t bore/annoy you with here – talk about a sacred cow, boy!!). Bangs finds the early Beatles albums “irritating” to listen to now, and he says many of his friends feel the same way. Now Lester was notorious for changing his mind (sometimes within the same column, sometimes within the same paragraph). It would be interesting to see what his take on the Beatles would be if he hadn’t, you know, checked out at the age of 32. If he had stuck around a bit longer. Lester was always looping back to stuff. You know, he listened to one of the Stones albums, decided he freakin’ HATED it (I can’t remember which one), and then looped back to it a year later, found it brilliant and began to evangelize for it.

So maybe he didn’t have enough distance from the Beatles juggernaut yet. Maybe he had listened to them too much. The Beatles certainly sucked up all of the available oxygen in the culture for a while there, and the country was still suffering from that hangover in the 70s. Who knows. Lester Bangs was a famous crank. So he kept listening to the Beatles, trying to figure out why those old albums, which had once been so exciting to him, were now getting on his nerves.

The piece is relatively long, but I do love this section, where he loops in the advent of the Beatles with the Kennedy assassination, which then leads him to reminisce about what it was like to hear a Beatles song, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” for the first time.

Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader, “Dandelions in Still Air: The Withering Away of the Beatles” by Lester Bangs

The center of any pop aesthetic has even less chance of holding than the last administration of this country had. Rock ‘n’ roll will not necessarily stand; currently it seems to be jaywalking on its knees. But maybe that’s a good reason to dig out all those musty Beatles albums and see if we perhaps can find in them, if not the bouncy mysticism that once seemed our staff of life, at least a good time. And perhaps in doing this we can discover the roots of the four separate styles of disintegration we’re currently witnessing.

I have this theory, which has gotten me into minor fracases on a couple of occasions, that the Beatles’ initial explosion was intimately tied up with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In fact, I have been known to say that JFK’s killing was a good thing, historically speaking. A man died in an ugly fashion, he happened to be a man that people who didn’t know anything about corporate politics considered the leader of the “free world,” it was a national tragedy, etc. But on another level it was good because it opened a lot of things up. When Kennedy was in office we were living in a national dream world, the New Frontier as panacea, the illusion of unity. Underneath it all things were just as shitty as ever, but patriotism in those days seemed viable for many of the avant-deviant-opposition fringes of our society. That misconception was shattered with the president’s skull; the dream was over, and we were left with fragmentation, disillusionment (“I don’t believe in Jesus, I don’t believe in Elvis,” etc.), cynicism, hostile factions.

All of which was fine. People began to look inside themselves, instead of toward a popstar of a president, for their definition of America. Out of this forcible introspection erupted the New Left, acid, all those alternative lifestyles which by now have of course become even more oppressive than the delusions of the Kennedy era. So in that sense it was healthy for the body politic that we lost that mythological leader; it forced us to contemplate a whole new set of options.

It also left us with a gnawing void which forced us to find new leaders, of a new kind or any kind of at all, and fast. Thus the Beatles, exploding across America from Ed Sullivan’s stage and several different record companies, just weeks after the shot was fired. They were perfect medicine: a sigh of relief at their cheeky charm and a welcome frenzy to obliterate the grief with a tidal wave of Fun for its own sake which ultimately was to translate into a whole new hedonist dialectic.

I can remember the first time I ever heard the Beatles as distinctly as, I suppose, everyone else in the Western world. Walking home from school, I stopped off at the local record shop to check on the latest jazz, and there they were, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” spinning around and engulfing that shop with warm swelling waves of something powerfully attractive yet not quite comprehended, not yet. I wasn’t much of a rock fan at the time, but there was some unmistakable stunning blare to that record that set it completely apart from what had come before in spite of its seemingly rudimentary form. It was that high droning scream they hit you with on “Iwannaholdyour – haaaaaaaaaand!” and “I get high,” something that connected with broader concepts and idioms than any previous rock, like a muezzin’s cry almost, and I stood in awe and thought: “The Beatles in the sky.” That was where that cry, on the last brilliantly resonant syllable of each of those lines, seemed to be coming from.

Celestial and the boys next door all in one cheery, impudent package – Jesus, no wonder they were lapped up so greedily. Even better, there were four of them, filling the leadership gap with a new kind of junior (and equally illusory) democracy that gave the phrase “rock ‘n’ roll group” a whole new meaning and inspired a whole generation, blah blah blah. But the point is that in spite of the fact that each had his fanatical adherents, they were never John, Paul, George, and Ringo half so much as they were the Beatles, and that stood for something that they never could achieve apart, or even separately within the band. To search for the roots of their current degeneration in those early records is probably fruitless, in spite of odd parallels and contradictions: cosmic peace ‘n’ love George used to write (at least for the band) almost nothing but bitter put-downs like “Don’t Bother Me” and “Think For Yourself.” John could be as hateful then as now (from “You Can’t Do That” to “How Do You Sleep” is not so far), and Paul was always a closet schmaltzmeister (“Michelle”).

But the main thing that emerges from the career of the Beatles is the rise and fall of the concept of the group, which began to give way in rock to the ascendance of the solo artist at about the time they released their White Album, which has often been criticized for being a collection of songs by four separate individuals instead of a unified statement. Not to get too pretentious, but the Beatles’ decline also parallels the decline of the youth culture’s faith in itself as a homogenous group, for the proof of which we need look no further than the very corniness of a phrase like “youth culture” when you encounter it upon the page. That ain’t no fuckin’ culture no mo’, the blacks even started imitating whites imitating blacks, and the adjourned Beatles, like most of their peers and contemporaries, have by now finally settled for imitating themselves.

To listen to early Beatles albums, or any Beatles album up to the White Album, is to listen to collective enterprise, and course the banality of the early songs becomes doubly ironic when you consider that “love” in the “I Want to Hold Your Hand” sense became transposed into “LOVE” as in flowers and beads grubbily handed to you on street corners and all you need is a little crystalline surcease of sorrow, the whole confused mess driving you crazy as John Lennon yelps out “Gimme Some Truth” and Paul responds from suburbia with “Another Day,” perhaps his most topical solo venture ever. Impotent flailings vs. the celebration of the mundane.

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5 Responses to The Books: Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader; “Dandelions in Still Air: The Withering Away of the Beatles”, by Lester Bangs

  1. Eanna Brophy says:

    Hi Sheila, Re Beatle memories. For your amusement, here’s a piece I wrote for the Irish Times last November.

    IT WAS 50 years ago today, when the Beatles brought the band to play – at the Adelphi Cinema in Dublin on November 7th, 1963 – and I was among the handful of journalists who got to meet the fab four. I was much younger than most of the jaded hacks (some of them must have been at least 30!) who shuffled into the Adelphi that afternoon for a photo-call.
    It was a different time. Nowadays you’d need several colour-coded badges to get near an artist. That day, cinema manager Harry Lush had sent around to Eason’s for a bagful of lapel badges that said things like Steward and Treasurer and Secretary. One of them would get you into the Adelphi boardroom to chat with John, Paul, George and Ringo.
    A sudden flurry of screams at about 4.30pm announced their arrival in the foyer. They trooped upstairs to the mezzanine floor, dressed and coiffed as few others in Dublin were then. It was immediately clear that these new Beatle chaps were sharp, witty and totally clued in to how publicity worked. You wanted a four-column photo? They obliged with a a wide-armed, leg-kicking “ta-dahh!” pose. Single column? They somehow put their heads atop each other on an adjacent table. The cynical snappers were utterly charmed.
    I wish I had some priceless quotes from that press conference. All I can remember is that Paul McCartney answered “We are just good friends” to most questions. This was considered extremely witty. I do recall asking John Lennon a deeply penetrating question about the difference between rock’n’roll and rhythm and blues. He gave it serious thought before declaring in his best scouse, “Rhythm and blues is black.” Richard Starkey patiently showed off his multi-ringed fingers to explain his nickname. George Harrison meanwhile slipped away to meet his Dublin relatives.
    Outside in Abbey Street the Gardai were taken by surprise by the hundreds of fans who turned up ticketless, hoping to get a glimpse of the Beatles. Their screams (the fans’ not the guards’) were as nothing to those inside the 2,000-seater cinema. There was a package of other artists touring with the Beatles. Also on the bill were The Vernon Girls, The Brooks Brothers, the Kestrels and a big band called Peter Jay & the Jaywalkers. (Where are they all today? And where are the Beatle autographs I collected for the girls back at the office? )
    As each act finished the screams grew louder until they became a relentless chant of We Want The Beatles. The compere, a Canadian comedian called Frank Berry, finally gave up and joined in.
    A guitar suddenly sounded the first chords of “I Saw Her Standing There”. The curtains slid back and they were there. The Beatles. In Dublin. Pandemonium. John Lennon straddle-legged on the right. Ringo at the back on a raised drum dais. And George and Paul together at one mike, shaking their fringes in unison. The girls, already standing on the seats, levitated higher and screamed even louder. The St. John’s Ambulance Brigade were kept busy ferrying the fainted out to the foyer.
    The Beatles sang “All My Loving” (from their new LP), Mr Postman, Till There Was You. Boys. And on they went … with their three hit singles culminating in She Loves You, which was just then topping the charts. By now they had reduced their audience to one huge, damp, perspiring, deliriously happy mass of humanity. And then John Lennon attacked the microphone with his throat-destroying version of Twist And Shout. After the final crescendo, the curtains abruptly closed. The crowd roared for more. People rushed the stage. But The Beatles had finished their set. And they were gone.

    Well, not quite ….The whole thing was repeated at nine o’clock. By the time that show was ending there was a mini-riot taking place in Middle Abbey Street. But nobody outside got to see the Beatles leaving the Adelphi – while their last notes were still reverberating, they had fled out the back door into Prince’s Street and been bundled into the back of an Evening Herald van.
    When Paul McCartney played the RDS a few years ago, you could text a mobile phone message to a big screen on the stage. The one that got most laughs said “Greetings to everyone who was in the Adelphi in 1963 – and the GPO in 1916”.
    Both events had one thing in common: they certainly rocked Dublin.

    © Éanna Brophy

    PS Paul McCartney explained somewhere that “Michelle” was a tongue-in-cheek parody of the kind of songs they’d hear when they crashed parties run by the older beatnik/college types in Liverpool (where all the girls dressed like Juliette Greco and strummed guitars while singing in bad French).

    • sheila says:


      That was so so awesome, you rock. Thank you for sharing. I ate up every word. What an interesting career you’ve had!

  2. Eanna Brophy says:

    Well … there were a few interesting moments amid the mainly humdrum ones ( … and next, coming soon … My Fight With The Rolling Stones) … and there I’ll leave ye!

  3. Steven says:

    I don’t agree with you. The Beatles have a deserved place in the same way as Ed Sheeran or Adele. It also takes considerable ability to write ‘popular’ songs. However, they were not the most experimental, tended to follow others leads and did not write the most memorable or quality tunes. Saying that they have a tremendous ability to filter trends into popular artifacts: that is not a bad thing. Melodically gifted but lets not get ahead of ourselves. They are not sacred cows, certainly not when you consider the full range of music out there (including songs by classical artists). The genre is a little throwaway which means there songs are too. Top 50 songwriters certainly. Good but not great.
    Now consider this. Ed Sheeran, Adele and Eric Clapton in the same band. That would be 6 good songs a year and some decent filler. Which is exactly what you have from The Beatles.

    • Perriny One says:

      Wow, this guy Steven is comparing the Beatles to Ed Sheerhan and Adele? And we’re supposed to take him seriously? I love how people declare what is “good”, especially when it comes to Beatles songs, where there are so many perfect compositions that whatever Beatle song you like the least, it’s somebody elses’s all-time favorite. Every single song the Beatles ever put out has been covered. Multiple times.

      Not that experimental, this kid babbles? What alternative universe is this guy living in? I think this little boy doesn’t understand that The Beatles set the trend for experimentation, and individuality of style that is the hallmark of the 60s/70s era, pre-punk. Every single thing they did was imitated to the point that a guy like Steven can’t even fathom that half of what he listens to is directly traceable back to something the Beatles did. It can be something on a particular instrument, it can be a recording technique, an effect, a style of songwriting….

      Sorry, kid, The Beatles were good for a lot more than 6 songs a year. And neither Adele nor Ed Sheerhan (ESPECIALLY Ed Sheerhan!) are nowhere near The Beatles in terms of quality, importance, influence, originality, etc etc.

      Lester Bangs is no better, I can’t stand these 70s rock critics, never could. Even in the 70s. I’ll tell you this: Lester Bangs’ writing is nowhere near as great as “Gimme Some Truth” or about 50 other solo-Beatles tracks. Dead at 32 is fine by me, I’d trade every single thing this loser ever wrote for just ten more precious minutes with John Lennon any day of the week.

      (Great blog, though, Sheila! I like YOUR writing! :)

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