Next up on the essays shelf:
Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader, by Lester Bangs
There are three essays about the Rolling Stones in this collection, two written in 1973 (one essay is called “1973 Nervous Breakdown”), and one in 1974. It was the time when Exile in Main Street came out. It was the time of the Stones’ insane 1973 tour. Well, their tours were always insane. But Lester Bangs sensed something different in the ’73 tour, something had shifted, in the band and in the culture. He theorizes as to what happened. He thinks they didn’t want another Altomont. Security was so tight in the 73 tour that you could feel it out in the crowd. They played smaller venues which sold out instantly causing mayhem and riots, the concerts themselves being surrounded by throngs of people who couldn’t get in. Lester Bangs looked around at all of that and wondered, Is this really necessary? He was a huge Stones fan. He didn’t keep writing about them because he was bored by them or annoyed. He kept writing about them because they were on his mind, they were on everyone’s mind. I was really too young to remember the advent of the Stones, and how insane it must have been in the early and mid 70s when the Stones came to town. But it had to be something else. Even if you weren’t paying attention to the culture at all, you had to have been aware that something huge was taking place. Lester Bangs is writing from the middle of it. The Stones mean something to him, and because they mean something to him, he picks them apart.
This happened with his Lou Reed stuff, it happens with anything Lester Bangs considers great or important. He’s not just a fanboy. He needs to get to the bottom of things. Perhaps to explain to HIMSELF what the hell is going on with him and the Rolling Stones, because he understands that if it’s going on with HIM then it must be going on with others.
This essay begins as a personal story and then morphs into a review of Exile on Main Street.
Lester hated the album at first. Then re-visited it and did a total turn-around. It is one of the many reasons I love him: that he allows for a change of heart, and he writes about it. My God, I read a lot of critical writing, and I read a lot of immediate responses when people come out of screenings, or what-have-you. And these people are so CERTAIN. Their TONE is so certain! I envy it almost. Lester was certain too: Exile in Main Street was BAD, and he published a negative review of it. But then he moved on, and had to go back to listen to it and it knocked him on his ass and he was brave enough to move forward and admit that, in the piece below. It is when that certainty hardens that you get into trouble. Or, I get bored with certainty, unless the person is a phenomenal writer, which almost nobody is. You know, you dig your heels in with your original opinion, you hunker down, you DEFEND your original attitude because seeming to WAVER on something, or change your mind is the worst sin of all and nobody will take you seriously.
We live in a literal age. People play “Gotcha!” with other people’s opinions. “You said you didn’t like it, now you do? Therefore you must be a charlatan! Gotcha! Catchin’ you in a lie!”
I don’t know. I try not to pay attention to stupid people but sometimes it’s hard.
Now there is certainly something to be said for being able to state your opinion strongly. I would never argue the opposite. I walked into the Elvis Landscape, guns blazing, determined to talk about him MY way, despite the fact that that is a pretty crowded landscape where the narrative is set in stone. I disagree with a lot of the narrative, mainly having to do with the movies and the Colonel. I stood my ground. The only way I could possibly do that was to put it all out there in strong no-hedging-bets language so that people could really see where I was coming from. Those posts aren’t just tributes to Elvis or celebrations, they are arguments.
If you’re wishy-washy with your opinions, you often get bad writing. Now Lester was never wishy washy. He was hot or cold. But he also was open enough to understand that maybe his first strong opinion was bullshit. Maybe he was missing something. Maybe the problem was HIM. That’s what happened to Bangs with his listening of Exile on Main Street. He also basically just loved the Stones too much. It made him crazy and emotional, as the below excerpt will show.
I’ll excerpt from the personal-story part of the essay, which appeared in Creem in 1973.
Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader, “I Only Get My Rocks Off When I’m Dreaming: So You Say You Missed the Stones Too? Cheer Up, We’re a Majority!” by Lester Bangs
They came again this year, hurtling around this land on a carom even more apocalyptic (if less bloody) than the one in ’69, and I missed ’em.
The greatest rock and roll band in the world, for sure, and my heroes ever since I got my first look at Mick’s leer way back in ’64: the decadent badass princes we’ll never put down or lose!
I saw them in 1964 on their second American tour, and in ’65 twice. The second time, in December, I cried because I thought they’d turned away from the True Faith of Pure R&B and sold out to the crass commercialism of rock.
I’ll never forget that day. My girlfriend and I took the bus all the way from our suburb into downtown San Diego, went right to the concert hall ticket window, and suddenly I said, “Fuck it! Fuck them! Who needs ’em?” And went staggering erratically in the general direction of Skid Row, dropping tears as big as cantaloupes.
Since we’d had our own troubles, my girlfriend thought I was crying over her and me. When she found out I was crying for the Stones you better believe she was pleased as puke!
“You’re so immature!” she said. “Here I thought it was all because you loved me, when it’s really because you’re mad at the goddamn Rolling Stones.”
Damn straight I was! After four fantastic albums of the purest r&b (like “Off the Hook”), they’d let me down mucho queaso with the release of “Get Off of my Cloud” – which even Mick Jagger later called “just a bunch of noise” (I love it now, of course, and could give a flying fuck what he thinks) and December’s Children, their worst album to that point. It has several songs on it that sounded half-completed, as well as the insipid “As Tears Go By” (yeah, I get the hots for that piece of crap now, too, of course D.C. ditto). Even Andrew Long Oldham’s all-time worst liner notes.
But the day of the concert found all my blustering disdain drained to sheer distilled sorrow. A fan in mourning! Oh Stones, Stones, how could you do this to me? Andy and I walked downtown a ways, a little bitty tear letting me down every so often. Finally we stopped into a little Coney Island hotdog trough. We ordered. I glumly flipped the pages of the jukebox, put in a coin, and played “Get Off of My Cloud.”
Man, those tears started pouring out like piss from an elephant! The farther the Stones got into the song, the more distraught I became. Stop breaking down!
Suddenly, Andy was up, resolute, yanking me out of my seat and through the door, literally tugging me back into the concert, running as fast as she could with a big imbecile in tow, blubbering and falling all over himself.
When we got there, she snatched my wallet out of my pocket, threw the money at the ticket seller, and yanked me inside. We found our seats, I wiped my eyes and cheeks on my soggy sleeve, and THOSE MOTHERFUCKERS PLAYED ONE OF THE MOST EXCITING CONCERTS I’VE EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE! Rejuvenation!
It was almost as good as the night earlier that year when I’d sat there in the same half-filled theatre, shrieking in harmony with all those wet-pantied little boppers. I was a groupie! Still am, in a way. Every time I’ve seen the Stones, or missed them, every time they’ve come over here or released a new album or even made a bit of news like pissing on gas stations or going to jail for dope, it’s made waves in my own life.
Exile on Main Street came out just three months ago, and I practically gave myself an ulcer and hemorrhoids, too, trying to find a way to like it. Finally I just gave up, wrote a review that was almost a total pan, and tried to forget about the whole thing. A couple weeks later, I went back to California, got a copy just to see if it might’ve gotten better, and it knocked me out of my chair. Now I think it’s probably the best Stones album ever.
Meanwhile, what with traveling, and general sloth, I somehow missed seeing any of their concerts this tour, and for some reason even the full bloom of my love for the album couldn’t make me care that much.
What was responsible for my dramatic turnaround on the album? I don’t think it matters much. Why don’t I care that much whether I get to see the Stones live this time? That’s another story altogether. It’s directly related, I think, to the difference that you find in the album if you listen, and what you couldn’t help but see operating in this tour.
The Stones still have the strength to make you feel that both we and they are hemmed in and torn by similar walls, frustrations, and tragedies. That’s the breakthrough of Exile on Main Street.