The Books: Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic: Rock’N’Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock ‘N’Roll; “James Taylor Marked for Death”, by Lester Bangs


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 eye-catching title of this essay would be referred to as “click-bait” if it had been written during the era of the Internet. The funniest thing about it is that this is not an essay about James Taylor at all; it is an essay in praise of The Troggs. James Taylor makes his appearance 3/4s of the way through, and there, only in a brief paragraph. Lester Bangs gets so worked up in that one paragraph about what James Taylor and his ilk signify that he then basically says he will go “down to Carolina” and bust a cap in Taylor’s ass, and then gleefully imagines the horrified headlines of ROCK CRITIC slaying musician, and ha-ha how funny that would be. The overall point of the giant sprawl of this essay is that The Troggs, whose heyday was in the mid 1960s, 5 or 6 years before the writing of this essay (1971), were what rock ‘n roll music is all about (or should be), and the fact that nobody even seemed to remember the Troggs was just indicative of a larger cultural shift towards narcissism and selfishness and solipsism and all kinds of other deadening agents Bangs despised. Lester Bangs says that James Taylor represents what he called “I-Rock”:

I call it I-Rock, even though I just made up the name, because most of it is so relentlessly, involvedly egocentric that you finally actually stop hating the punk and just want to take the poor bastard out and get him a drink, and then kick his ass, preferably off a high cliff into the nearest ocean.

Now of course one can love James Taylor AND The Troggs, right? One doesn’t have to CHOOSE, does one? Well, Lester Bangs felt that you did. And Lester Bangs felt that you had to come down on one side or the other: the life of the culture depended on it. And if we can let a great band like The Troggs do their thing and then slide so quickly into obscurity, then maybe we don’t deserve to survive as a culture anyway. There was a hearty conservative crank in Lester Bangs, something which set him apart both attitudinally and tonally from his peers. All that “love you, brother, love you, sister, let’s all hold hands” bull shit was anathema to Lester, who saw beneath it a weak-minded desire to hide from the actual experiences of life, however painful, and a desire to blend with a Group as opposed to maintaining one’s individuality.

Lester Bangs’ taste was eclectic and personal, and he openly changed his mind about things (sometimes within the same article). But if I can state an underlying theme running through all of it it is that Lester Bangs did not want people (i.e.: the audience) to do stuff because they thought it was “cool”. He wanted people to stop hiding behind poses or attitudes or even clothes that signified “I am this kind of person”. He wanted us to stop isolating, and start ENGAGING. (Much of this reminds me of Louis Ck’s recent rant, which went viral overnight, about cell phone usage and what it really signifies.) And so Lester felt that people who are “into” Lou Reed because it was the cool thing to do could not possibly understand or absorb Reed’s music and its message, and the same thing goes for Nico and Miles Davis and all the rest. You can’t listen to music like that and keep your cool. The whole POINT is to LOSE your cool. Lester wanted everyone to LOSE it. Don’t hide from your pain: acknowledge it, FEEL it.

Bangs was afraid that the culture was shifting towards I-Rock, led by James Taylor, when he wants it to shift Troggs-ward. Because The Troggs are where it’s at, still, always, forever, amen.


By the end of the essay, after putting a target on James Taylor’s back, Bangs wonders, almost despairingly, if a song like “Wild Thing” could even be written at the present day.

What happened to rock songs about love and sex and getting it on and feeling your girl up and going at it hot and heavy in the back seat of your car at the drive-in? When did we all get so SERIOUS? So self-conscious? Doesn’t anybody want to just FUCK anymore? Or is everyone just busy posing in their glam-rock costumes being fabulous and over-it and praising themselves for the fact that they don’t feel anything anymore? (Bangs gets explicit about this in other essays, one in particular, about Nico. His beef was not with Nico, but with the fans into it for all the wrong reasons.)

The Troggs were not bound up and trapped by intellectual concerns, or hifalutin’ concepts involving space suits, makeup, and light shows. They did not reference Artaud or Rimbaud in their songs. They were four guys who wrote somewhat interchangeable songs, every single one of them being about sex. You can hear Lester crowing triumphantly, “Now THAT’S more like it.”

I’m a huge Troggs fan and this is probably the best tribute ever written to them. I can’t imagine it would ever be topped.

Lester Bangs wrote a “fan book” about Blondie and in it he theorizes that proper rock ‘n roll music could not have begun without an atmosphere of sexual repression. Yes, there were many elements which helped “rock” as we know it to explode from the area south of the Mason-Dixon line in the 1950s. There was a racial blending of forces and genres, black to white and back, there were increased radio stations able to broadcast farther, so that stuff that would have remained regional became national, there was a dissolving of genres – country and gospel and rhythm and blues blending together … but the Grand Pooh-Bah of them all, the reason why it happened, was that the Culture at Large had a vested interest in controlling the sexuality and expression thereof of its citizens, and so there was a gigantic Monolith to push against, fight against, resist. Once that wall came down (and, as Lester Bangs wrote in his obituary for Elvis, Elvis “almost singlehandedly” shattered that wall), then everything else was just identity politics, personal, circumscribed, ultimately un-important. “Political” music got Lester Bangs’ contempt, in the main fact that he ignored it completely as anything worth discussing. Sure, fight against the Vietnam War with your peace songs if that floats your boat but what you’re protesting can’t hold a candle to what those cats in the 40s and 50s were fighting against, a repression that was Anti-Human, Anti-Life in attitude. To deny the sex impulse was to deny life itself. Yes, one could go too far in the other direction, and Bangs felt that the “anything goes” atmosphere in the 70s was its own brand of Anti-Humanism, but you can’t deny the impulse itself, that’s just wrong. Celebrate it, speak it out, give it voice!

Bangs’ essay is long and reads almost like a novel. You have to submit to it. It will not let you go your own way. He discusses The Troggs, for sure. He discusses that they very well may be the most “sexist” band who ever lived, since every single song has to do with getting some girl to take her clothes off. (However, as you will see, in the excerpt below, Bangs ultimately finds tensions and shades there that don’t exist with other Cock-Swinging rock bands.) And yet what Bangs feels in these simple rock songs is the Life Force itself, something that could save us all.

Bangs is not exaggerating.

But before he can delve into the Troggs song book, he goes on a three-page digression about sitting in some class in high school, obsessing on the bare calf of the girl sitting in front of him. He wanted to lick it and taste it (he was obsessed with Franny and Zooey at the time, understandably), but he didn’t even really know the girl, and besides, he was a virgin and all that. He was a teenager. He walks us through the torment of the hormones and the fantasies and the irresistible drive he felt towards that bare calf, tormenting him. Finally, one day, he gets up the courage to reach down and stroke her skin, while they both are sitting listening to the boring teacher drone on and on. She allows him to do this. Unbelievable! The hottest thing ever! Lester Bangs pours out his heart/soul/sex into his description of that caress: what he thought, what he wondered what she was thinking, how he felt, how amazing it was, what her shoe looked like, etc. It is an extraordinary piece of writing. It goes on for almost three pages (so you can see why I say you have to submit to Lester’s structure. If you are impatient to “get to the Troggs” and just skim this hormonal masturbatory section, you will miss his overall point). Basically, those hot moments of teenage yearning – when girls are there to be idolized and lusted over and also feared – when boys are still able to be impressed and stunned by the sight of an ANKLE, for God’s sake – all of that makes Lester Bangs think of The Troggs.

That type of sexual hothouse atmosphere is the landscape in which the Troggs operated. In other words: their music was hot, and their music was engaged with actual experience. Not theoretical, not intellectual, not commenting upon a comment. But: “I want you. I think about your boobs. I love you. I want to kiss you. I want you.”

I don’t think Lester Bangs thought that rock should go any farther than that. And to dismiss a song because it had simple lyrics like the Troggs’ lyrics was to be a douchebag and a moron, Together, at the same time. Because every musician should aspire to accomplish even 1/10th of what the Troggs accomplished.

I love every section of this essay: I love to listen to the Troggs songs that he discusses. I love his 3-page description of stroking a girl’s naked calf in a classroom when he was a kid. I love how he weaves that into his larger narrative about what Life means and what Music should reflect. It is a plea for understanding, for communion and connection. And I also love how James Taylor makes a sudden appearance late in the game, and Lester Bangs promptly puts him in his crosshairs.

Here’s a small excerpt. It comes directly following Bangs’ description of stroking the girl’s calf. Which leads him to The Troggs, which leads him to sex, which leads him to the song “Give It to Me”.

You got all that?

Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic: Rock’N’Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock ‘N’Roll, “James Taylor Marked for Death,” by Lester Bangs

So that’s the end of the part of the essay entitled WHAT I DID BEFORE I BEGAN TO GET BALLED. I may razor it out at some future date and slide it into my projected erotic autobiography called Sex Freak (sequel to Drug Punk), but then again I may not since a book like that is probably best written when you’re about forty and anyway the sweet vignette just done might feel displaced away from its rightful home herein. And as for what else I did before I began to get balled, well, I used to fill my days with huddling by the record player digging music that fed my nascent sense of sexual identity, like the Troggs. The line that sent me swirling off on that grand tangent (“Yer knees would bend and yer hair would curl”) is so effortlessly on-target that I gotta pop a Pabst in sheer admiration and say that the thing it reminds me most of is one of Lightnin’ Hopkins’s most starkly chilling recordings, a piece called “Buddy Brown’s Blues” on the Blues in the Bottle album, where he climaxes his ancient quavery Texas moan (after Texas Alexander, his teacher, actually) with a line that made the hairs rise on the back of my neck: “I got sump’n to tell you / Make the hair rise on your head / Waall, I got a new way o’ lovin’ / Make the springs scrinch on your bed!” Are we broaching juju muff potions? I ain’t sure, but whether from Troggs or Lightnin’ it’s pretty strange territory. Although it is amazing the consistency with which certain lines and ideas like that will disappear into the cheap whiskey hotel rooms of the old blues South, if indeed they ever originated anywhere but Lightnin’s or some colleague’s own luridly frying brainpan, only to turn up years later in some song by a punko English rock group who quite possibly (at least I damn fucking well hope so) never heard of Lightnin’ Hopkins. On the other hand, maybe the theme of sex runs through all folk music (meaning rock and blues and all that other alive shit that doesn’t call itself Folk Music) in a continuum of parallel strands that reappear endlessly, and the weird claustrophobic promise of dark delights fantasized by an old drunk bluesman can’t help but resurface in the once-percolating English music scene as a magnificent teeno lust stalk of an anthemic march.

Now that we’ve been brassy enough to use a word like “anthemic,” we might as well stick our necks out and get even a little more pretentious and note that many of the Troggs’ most prurient songs, with their lumberjack-balling-honky-tonk-woman-in-iron-bed-with-screws-loose bum-crash rhythms and drooling “lyrics” as Time magazine referred to the hits of the Stones in an early smear, are actually just a smidgen beyond the average “Hey, baby! Here I come with a shag haircut and my big Wazoo!” type of composition which jaded fops like Led Zeppelin and virility complexes like John Kay have helped bring to prominence. Many of the Troggs’ songs, aside from the fact that they were immediate come-ons and male self-aggrandizement, also seemed to have an extra-excited, almost celebratory quality about them, sexual anthems and sexual whoops that get banned from the radio and get played by their proud owners never at parties for the titillation of giggling cases of arrested development but rather at home alone sitting in front of the speakers so you can pick up that full charge of bravado and self-affirmation even if the basic image is as corny at least as John Wayne; when you’re a kid you need stuff like that. And those guitars blast you through the wall, out cross the rooftops ‘tween antennas of your neighborhood, straight out of your cell into perfect release in a troposphering limbo of blizzard noise at last, home free.

An A-OK example of what I’m talking about is “Give It to Me”. Structurally, it’s pretty standard Troggs fare even if marrow meltingly great: it builds on another chopped rhythm, a bit of Who influence (early, and that never did anything but good for anybody), and asks for what all the other songs have been asking for in a new way, not even entirely with selfish motives! Dig it, folks: “Give it to me / Give it to me / All your love / All your love / And I’ll know.” A very pure song, really. An innocent song. An organic song, better for yer innards than a gallon of twigs and berries and crunchy granola. Even a holy song! Because: “When you come I’ll be glad / ‘Cuz I’ll know.” Yeah-zoobie, in no way no fay can say them sentiments ain’t positive. There has been one other rock ‘n’ roll song about a girl who couldn’t come – Lou Reed’s “Here She Comes Now” qualifies for that, I think, with “If she ever comes now now … / ah she looks so good / ah she’s made out of wood …” And I always thought that Buffalo Srpingfield’s “I’ll Never Forget You” with that bit of “I just can’t seem to get movin’, love me a little …” was actually about temporary male impotence maybe in the presence of a groupie or someone the poor schmuck cares too much about to get it up in his neurotic state.

But this is the only time I’ve heard a song where the guy was actually being considerate enough to try to give his girlfriend an orgasm so she can have a good time too and they can both be satisfied and go down love’s highway handinhand with birdies tweettweettweeting in solid pirouettes all round. Man, I just love stuff like that! It gives me faith in the future of the human race. I’m a sucker for sentiment of the right kind – I wouldn’t go see Love Story or listen to Rod McKuen, but when I hear a song that takes a truly democratic attitude about fucking at last, and this no small thing after all these years of “flat on your back”s and “Whole Lotta Love”s, why, I feel like raisin’ the flag, tootin’ bugles and turning the cornflakes to confetti, and my lady friends share my sentiments too so shut up you cynics who’re never satisfied unless the protagonists of a piece of art are utopian androids. It sorta reminds me of the Fugs’ “I Want to Know” (“Hunger / Driving me onward / To feel / All of the skin”), a very youthful song of discovery and new nooky. I think I’ll start playing it when I get up in the morning.

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8 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; “James Taylor Marked for Death”, by Lester Bangs

  1. Matt Blankman says:

    I really wish Bangs and Paul Nelson had written their Rod Stewart book as planned. That would have been fascinating and fun.

  2. Matt Blankman says:

    …because Lester on Rod Stewart, what he was and what he was then becoming, just plays in to so many of his personal ideas and obsessions. I would go nuts to read that.

  3. sheila says:

    I wish the novel he had written in high school was published (so far only three excerpts have been published – but it reads quite well in its way.) And I also wish the novel he had been working on at the end (he was planning on going to Mexico to finish it, although who knows) was also published. It reads like a house on fire. It’s absolutely insane, but with its own kind of nutso sense. And of course it’s in Lester’s voice, so what I have read of it is awesome.

  4. Jake Cole says:

    These posts are going to make me have Bangs-esque playlists all week. I’ve already listened to my early Who and my Yardbirds, plus Lou and the Captain. I forgot that this was the essay, and the Troggs the band, where he put out a surprisingly sex-positive view of his love of phallocentric rock. There’s a surprising streak of that in his writing, be it in his tongue-in-cheek piece on The Shaggs where he praises the work of women rock bands, to a bit in his Lick My Decals Off, Baby review where he points out how Beefheart’s sex lyrics are wonderfully upbeat and positive compared to the way that “serious art” treats sex almost exclusively as a horror and exploitation (which it absolutely can be, of course, but to treat sex only that way is more reactionary, and really more juvenile than the kind of deceptively dumb Cro-Magnon stuff of the Troggs and others). It’s so true what he has to say about self-conscious art, and it’s certainly true of movies as much as music, if not WAY more so. I cannot EVEN with Nymphomanic, for example, and it’s not even out yet!

    • sheila says:

      Yes, he loved the Ladies. He was quite sympathetic to them and basically made fun of the cock-swingers who treated them like shit. He sums up Led Zeppelin at one point as guys bragging, “I am gonna LAY that little schoolgirl.” I think Lester found that gross. Because at the end of the day, everyone was once an adolescent boy overwhelmed by the sight of a girl’s bare calf in class … and people should not USE each other anyway. Giving a girl an orgasm, or at least attempting to, and understanding that that is what you SHOULD be doing, is just good manners. Don’t be an asshole. Sex is funner when both people have fun. And the Troggs do seem to be all about that. Sexy music. Inclusive.

      I also love when Lester talks about his girlfriends. He liked women. He liked smart cookies.

      • sheila says:

        and yes, you’re right about self-conscious art – and how it turns Sex into something other than a fun time had by two people. Once you start analyzing sex, you start to descend into bullshit. That’s one of the reasons why I loved Blue is the Warmest Color so much – and I wasn’t crazy about the sex scenes – it was the LOVE part of it that blew me away: it treated sex as just one element of the relationship. A sort of “this is what people do” energy that cut through the bullshit. Fetishizing sex is just so damaging to how people react to one another … Sex is huge, of course, because it’s taboo or whatever – but it’s also just what human beings do, and let’s all just get over ourselves already. It’s not prurient. It’s HUMAN. I think Lester Bangs was anti anything that lessened our sense of humanity – and you’re right – that shows up in his Captain Beefheart essay – it’s also there in his obit for Elvis. Elvis was not an intellectual. He was not on a “mission” to liberate people – he was being himself and he “opened the floodgates” (in Lester’s words). But he was also just a “hillbilly”, a “turd” – a “Mama’s boy”, “obedient” – and yet all of that was wrapped up in an understanding that everybody just wants to Fuck and we should all just have fun with it rather than over-think it. Of course that message of Sexual Liberation would be given to us by a truck driver from Memphis who “wouldn’t say shit or fuck around his mother” – of course. Sex belongs to all of us, in other words, and once we cede that ground to the self-conscious intellectual types, we are in deep shit.

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