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.