The Books: Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader; “On the Merits of Sexual Repression”, by Lester Bangs

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Next up on the essays shelf:

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

In his writing, Bangs often refers to the angry mail he gets (you know, mail with stamps and envelopes, member that?), where people take him to task for his various opinions. It makes you think that Lester Bangs would have been all over the Internet, getting into Twitter wars that last for days on end, and etc. One of the things that annoyed many of his fans was Bangs’ crotchety belief that what was going on in the 70s, in most music, was bullshit. And couldn’t hold a candle to what had happened in the past. He got a lot of “what an old fogey” criticism, which is rather hysterical considering he was still in his 20s. But Lester Bangs did not care about whatever was hip or new: as a matter of fact, he treated such things with suspicion. He would not go along with the flow, not just to be a contrarian, but because he distrusted the flow itself. Of course there will be great albums that come out, that nobody ever hears, that don’t “catch” somehow, and Lester Bangs pointed those out when he recognized them. But groups/artists that rose to a certain level of cultural notoriety, who seemed emblematic of something else … Bangs was always digging deeper into the situation: WHY was such-and-such a band hitting it right now?

Is there anyone out there who can wake us up from our 1970s stupor??

In 1980, Bangs wrote a short book about Blondie.

Debbie Harry (23)

Lester liked Blondie, but he thought that what they represented was ominous. Or, they were the poster children for certain attitudes that he did not like in our culture. He lays it all out in the excerpt below. His point seems to be that: Music in the 70s was interested in standing BACK from emotion, removing oneself from passion/engagement. Lester HATED that. He thought it would kill us all. He wanted heat, involvement, even if it came out in messy unproductive ways. He did not want music that helped us separate ourselves from one another. He wanted us to come together. But no bands were making that call, no bands were saying to the masses, as it were, “Follow us.” Everything was becoming isolated, atomized. Lester Bangs wanted danger. Someone like Iggy Stooge was dangerous. Elvis was dangerous. They were deeply destabilizing figures and yet they tapped into some “mainline” in the culture that helped release impulses that had long been suppressed.

And so here, in the excerpt below, Lester Bangs puts out the theory that true rock ‘n’ roll can only exist in a culture of sexual repression, and that THAT was the problem in the libertine 1970s where sex was everywhere and you could do anything, say anything, and nobody would act shocked anymore. What, then, do these artists have to fight against? Nothing. And so artists retreated into a self-involved world of mirrors and narcissism. With folks in the 50s, there was a common enemy – whether you were white or black, male or female, and that common enemy was the stifling sexual repression that was REQUIRED of you in order to get along. In the 70s, what, the common enemy was who? Nixon? Sure. But that’s political, it’s colder and more analytical than something like our national sex drive being squelched. And this coldness was reflected in the music.

Lester is a bit of an old fogey. Not ALL music needs to be about expression passion and buried lust. SOME music can go another route. But Lester was worried about the implications. And if you think about the music in the 1980s, as good as some of it was, Bangs wasn’t entirely wrong. Nirvana would come around and kick the culture in its ass. I wish Bangs had stuck around. I have no idea if he would have liked Nirvana, although I assume he would have, but it would have been really interesting to hear his reaction to that explosion from the Pacific Northwest anyway.

Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader, “On the Merits of Sexual Repression” by Lester Bangs

Maybe this gets down to it: the Ronettes, the Shangri-Las, the Crystals, the guy singers too, all of those old classic rock ‘n’ roll songs were fueled by one thing: sexual repression, and consequent frustration. They may have been sexist, they may have been neurotic or even masochistic – sometimes I think the whole reason pop music was invented in the first place was to vent sick emotions in a deceptively lulling form. THEY WERE LITERALLY EXPLOSIVE WITH ALL THAT PENT-UP LUST AND FEAR AND GUILT AND DREAD AND HATE AND RESENTMENT AND CONFUSION. And it gave them a kind of anarchic power, which can still move us.

Listening to certain old Shangri-La sides, you might find yourself laughing and crying at the same time. And the Spector stuff . . . not just the storied Wall of Sound but the urgency in those girls’ voices spelled pure sex, distillate of every scene between a boy and girl at the drive-in, vacant lots, house when the folks were out, wherever we found to sneak off to back then to see how far we could take it this time.

All that frustration got channeled into rock, all those powerful emotions were way out front and there was plenty of meticulous detail in the productions behind them. They were like magnificent tapestries depicting the most embarrassing and ridiculous yet painful situations, and they stand to this day.

While Blondie hardly constitutes a Wall of Sound, it wouldn’t be fair to hold that against them. They’re not the Blondie Orchestra, they’re a good little rock ‘n’ roll band which has been steadily evolving from the garage without ever losing sight and understanding of what was good, if not better than the rest, back there. Their songs are mostly good. Debbie’s got about as good a voice by traditional “singing” standards as a lot of the people who recorded in the early Sixties. But you wouldn’t dare line one of these cuts up next to a Spector or Shangri-La production, because it’d sound downright pallid. The reason you wouldn’t is that (as I keep harping on) the music seems to have no really strong emotions in it, and what emotions do surface occasionally, what obsessions and lusts, are invariably almost immediately gutted by fusillades of irony, sarcasm, camp, what have you, ending up buried.

IF THE MAIN REASON TO LISTEN TO MUSIC IN THE FIRST PLACE IS TO HEAR PASSION EXPRESSED – as I’ve believed all my life – THEN WHAT GOOD IS THIS MUSIC GOING TO PROVE TO BE? What does that say about us? What are we confirming in ourselves by doting on art that is emotionally neutral? And, simultaneously, what in ourselves might we be destroying or at least keeping down?

In the last few years we have seen the rise of a type of music perhaps previously unknown in human history: music designed specifically, by intent or subconscious motivation, to remove what emotions might linger in the atmosphere around us, creating vacuum where we can breathe easier because we’re not so freaked by each other even though we still don’t communicate. That’s your basic disco, of course. But it’s not just disco music that does this. It’s all kinds of music and you can talk all you want about Muzak and the wimsy weasly pre-rock popular music our parents lived and loved to, “How Much Is That Doggie In the Window,” but that wasn’t the same because all those songs were based upon a view of social intercourse pretty much agreed upon by everyone listening. Whereas no such thing really exists now. So there’s a whole new genre of air conditioner music, climate control, antidepressant/antipsychotic music, music designed to neutralize and pacify and ultimately render stillness rather than the jungle pounding of two lovers’ hearts or the Beaver Cleaver sappiness of “Doggie In the Window.” Before, all music you heard was designed to put something into the room; this new stuff is designed to take something out.

Blondie has, it seems, embraced this aesthetic more or less wholeheartedly. But when you’re always taking out instead of putting in . . . well, it’s just like a bank account, isn’t it? Pretty soon there’s gonna be nothing left. And that kinda would seem to make you a musical vampire, of sorts.

Patti Smith, for all her pretensions, her wrongheadedness, her narcissism, her addled crusades, is still singing from her however mottled heart. She contributes something to the environment when she’s on, she stands for something too no matter how etc., but she’s real, flesh and blood comes through the grooves, which I think is one reason why she has so many fans. Or Lou Reed, for all his mono tonal mutterings, there’s so much pain suffused just under the monotone, so much despair and desire and human regret, that even at his most cynical you can feel him struggling with himself, fighting his demons. But Blondie . . . do they have that kind of courage?

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12 Responses to The Books: Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader; “On the Merits of Sexual Repression”, by Lester Bangs

  1. Desirae says:

    Yeah, he wasn’t wrong about the trajectory of music for a while there. 1980′s pop and glam rock doesn’t age particularly well. It’s very entertaining but rarely meaningful – lots of flash without substance. Nirvana blew up like it did at least in part due to the culture needing a shot of something raw or even ugly.

    He’d have loved riot grrl. Another thing Lester Bangs missed.

    His crotchety-ness is funny to me because it was there so young. I was reading a piece he wrote on Janis Joplin (which is lovely and sad) and he describes her as such: “far from being a romantically doomed figure, she is described as a nervous, insecure young girl, dazed, giddy, unable to sit still for more than a few seconds at a time or, often, maintain a conversation with anyone”. Then I looked up their ages and found that he was about 5 or so years younger than she was. And here he is calling her an “insecure young girl” like a concerned Dad.

    I think his famous crabbiness and the sense of sympathy we have noticed in him comes from the same source: dude worried a LOT. He worried about the state of music, he worried about the performers themselves, he worried about American culture at large.

    • sheila says:

      I know, riot grrl!! He was already yearning for that kind of female anger to be expressed – he really wanted to see it happening.

      You’re right: he was a worrier. Often, I dislike writing that worries about the culture and the “youth of today”. With him I like it a lot – because it comes from such a passionate place. He really just wanted people to connect. He did not understand music that had, as its goal, to keep us separate from one another – and this was not just a musical issue to him.

      I love that quote about Janis Joplin in your comment!!

      • Martin says:

        Lester Bangs would have written volumes about riot grrl. He was already anticipating it. In a article about the Shaggs (I don’t know if it’s in your collections) he said “…the only hope for rock’n'roll, aside from everybody playing nothing but shrieking atonal noise through arbitor distorters, is women. Balls are what ruined both rock and politics in the first place, and I demand the world be turned over to the female sex immediately.”

        In the same short piece he goes on to mention having seen the Slits and the Raincoats, so he was around for the beginning phases of it. Of course, it’s a somewhat sarcastic article (being about the Shaggs), but I think it was sincere at the core. I can only imagine what he would have thought about Sleater Kinney or Mary Timony or Kim Gordon. Or today, Janelle Monae. I’d kill to read what an alternate-universe still-breathing Lester Bangs would say about Janelle Monae.

  2. mutecypher says:

    I remember a short set of articles in Rolling Stone about groupies, and the guy groupie they followed was trying to get into Debbie Harry’s pants backstage. It was in the late 70′s when Blondie’s popularity was high, but pre-”Heart of Glass” or “Call Me” if I recall correctly. Even back in my teen years I suspected that male groupies were not necessarily heterosexual, but back then RS was not going to follow a guy trying to bone Freddie Mercury or Elton John. In any case, DH shot him a withering look and he shrunk and slunk away.

    I think Blondie was in the decadent phase of rock, kinda the obverse of the 90′s Garbage/Shirley Manson line “you can touch me if you want.” She was more “I know you want to touch, but I’m only going to let you look.” That was the persona. It’s amusing to think of Lester being frustrated by that, instead of thinking “thanks for turning me on” and going out and finding someone to boink. I mean, he wasn’t going to get sweaty with any of the Shangri-Las anyway (or Ronnie Spector – she could pour some Sugar On Me!). As a guy, it’s entertaining to see what sorts of things are frustrating for other guys. One person’s lube is another’s sandpaper – to get a bit gross.

    This harkens back to our Cosplay/Nerd/Sci-Fi convention discussion with respect to how some guys treat attractive women who don’t make themselves available.

    • sheila says:

      // I think Blondie was in the decadent phase of rock, kinda the obverse of the 90′s Garbage/Shirley Manson line “you can touch me if you want.” She was more “I know you want to touch, but I’m only going to let you look.” //

      Good point!!

      and interesting about the Blondie groupie! I love Debbie Harry. She showed up in an interview in the recent documentary about Harry Dean Stanton – they clearly had some kind of romance recently – and she’s still just so super cool.

      Yeah, Lester wanted involvement, engagement, heat. He liked Blondie but he was afraid of the entire culture moving into an “over it” stance, and he wasn’t necessarily wrong about that.

      • sheila says:

        also, speaking of Debbie Harry, have you seen the film “Heavy”? She’s wonderful in it – it’s one of those under-rated films I keep meaning to write up.

        • mutecypher says:

          I hadn’t heard of “Heavy.” I went to IMDB to check it out, sounds interesting. When I was there I came upon this quote from her, “The only place left for rock to go is toward more girl stars. There’s nothing left for men to do. There’s bound to be more male stars, but they can’t express anything new.”

          I wish the quote were dated, I’d like to know if it’s something she thinks after all of her experiences and observations, or something she said in the heat of an interview about girls in Rock, or a similar topic, way back when she was fighting/ creating.

          I think Lester had a good sense about where popular music was headed and his concern about music being made that wasn’t about PASSION EXPRESSED turned out to be well-founded.

  3. Fiddlin Bill says:

    Norman Mailer expressed similar notions concerning sexual repression–he believed that it enhanced sex, basically.

  4. Fiddlin Bill says:

    LOL as the kids say.

  5. Ziva Sahl says:

    Being a child of the ’50s, I just want to mention a flip side to idea of repression. In teens at least, there was also innocence. Yes, there were all those feelings, but it was expressed in a search for love. Don’t forget that many, many married quite young back then, including a number of schoolmates who dropped out to marry someone a little older. (No, they weren’t pregnant) Most of them really loved each other, raised families, and are still together. We danced to those songs, and back then before birth control pills, and the values of that time, we didn’t repress our feelings, but were very careful how we shared them, and waited for adulthood and marriage to fully share all. At least for children, I think it was a better. There were almost no fatherless children. I’m not suggesting we should return to the 50s, just that perhaps a lot of good got tossed with the bad, and then as now, interpretations of art in any form is individual, and critics don’t necessarily know everything.

  6. Fiddlin Bill says:

    There are individual stories exactly like Z Sahl describes. And there are countless marriages which locked the partners forever in tension, pain, and turmoil, for the “sake” of the children. Fatherless children (or motherless) is not a complete indicator of anything. Angry parents can be oppressive, warping forces. Trapped people are unhappy people, and a lot of times they take it out on the weaker members of the family–the children. Abortion was illegal in the ’50s, and young women died of it. Rose colored glasses do not contribute much to history.

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