The Books: Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic: Rock’N’Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock ‘N’Roll; “Growing Up True Is Hard to Do”, 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

Bob Seger’s got an interesting story. He hailed from Detroit and was a local star with his band in the 60s. He was beloved, and opened for every giant act that came through Detroit. But he was ambitious. He wanted to get out of that smaller circuit he was in to a larger success that wasn’t regional in nature. He got rid of his first band, and put together the Silver Bullet Band. You could pick his voice out of a lineup, and his roots went way back to the early days of rhythm & blues. Then came Night Moves in 1976 which moved out of Detroit and onto a national level. It was a hit. It was played on the radio across the land. But what is fascinating about Bob Seger is that he had been grinding it out for over a decade at that point. He wasn’t a young guy, who hit the ground running. He really paid his dues. Success must look and feel different to someone like Bob Seger. Detroit remains important to him, he is a folk hero of Detroit, but ever since Night Moves he has been a national and international star. He’s in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame now. And then of course “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll” (which will continue to get radio play when we are all turned to dust) put him on a whole other kind of map. Musicians dream of writing such a song. A song that will hit the sweet spot of a culture and move into some kind of eternal Pantheon. And it’s a simple song. A throwback, really. Even the title admits that. There’s nothing new going on there. But rock ‘n roll is not made up of “the new”, it never was. It was always about weaving in the sounds of the past into a modern or young context. And that’s what he did with that song. Risky Business introduced it to a generation who might not have known any of this about Bob Seger, who were in diapers or not even born when Seger was starting out (in other words: my generation). That song was played at every single high school dance in memory. Crazy! I knew nothing about Bob Seger at that point, and probably assumed he was either wicked old or totally young. I didn’t know. But the song was everywhere. I had no idea the context of it.


Lester Bangs was born in California but he moved to Detroit to write for Creem and so he was very familiar with the Detroit scene and had a lot of fondness for that crazy rough downtrodden city. Of course someone like Bob Seger would spring from there.

The following record review, of Seger’s latest, Stranger in Town, appeared in the Village Voice in 1978. It is both a record review (Bangs wasn’t crazy about it), and a biographical sketch of Seger’s background and what the deal was with this guy. Bangs starts off by talking about one of Seger’s earlier regional hits, released as a single, called “Lookin’ Back”. (I love that song.) Bangs says that it was “one of the most powerful things I have ever heard.” He talks about Seger’s time on the regional circuit and what that must have done to his perspective and his feeling about the music business. And now his albums are going platinum and, typical Lester, Lester was worried about what that might do to Seger. Would he hole up in his fame and forget his roots? Would he play it safe? Lester Bangs could be a giant scold. Wagging his finger at Lou Reed or Richard Hell, telling them not to sell out. And there’s a little bit of that going on here.

But, as is also typical with Lester, he drills down into not only the feeling of Bob Seger’s stuff but what it means, what it says, and his final paragraph (excerpted below) is surprisingly moving. Lester Bangs was AMAZING at “endings”. It’s like he circled around his topic for pages and pages, until finally he realized where he was going and was able to bust the door down to that perfect ending. You see that in so many of his pieces. Writing like that is fearless because it is revealing of who Lester Bangs is. You have to put yourself out there, your vulnerabilities, your hopes, your simplicity … and not be afraid.

Here’s an excerpt, where we can see Lester move into his ending.

Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic: Rock’N’Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock ‘N’Roll, “Growing Up True Is Hard to Do” by Lester Bangs

The difference between “Lookin’ Back” and “Feel Like a Number” is seven years: from hippie alienation and paranoia to the feeling that we’re dwarfed by institutions we don’t really understand, except that somebody somewhere wants us to believe that human beings don’t matter much anymore. It would be condescending to say, Gee, isn’t it amazing that this long-haired midwestern journeyman rock sharecropper thinks about such high-flown concepts, because everybody’s freaked out by them these days. The average purchaser of current Seger albums is probably a male kid who works on some shit job and has never even considered dropping out, is in fact a stranger to the concept, so he’ll understand “Feel Like a Number” in a second. But it’s no accident that the album is called Stranger in Town. Bob Seger feels like a stranger in this society, especially the rock superstar version of interlocking corporations. And that doesn’t mean he’s some old-fashioned “relic,” even though he’s embarrassed enough to use the word himself; it means he’s a man of sanity and insight. I respect Bob Seger as much as almost anybody I can think of in the music business today.

But the music business today still must be recognized as by definition an enemy, if not the most crucial enemy, of music and the people who try to perform it honestly. And that’s where this album goes limp. Because while Bob is singing with candor or maybe the word should be “guts” about his alienation, the aging process vis-a-vis his line of work, etc., this album cops out musically just like Night Moves. It’s homogenized. Seger knows he needs that radio play, and he also knows that in 1978 “Looking Back” (musically, let alone lyrically) won’t get it. So in a sense he’s bowing before the Beast. I don’t know where I blame him or not, and I’m certainly not saying he should replace the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section with the Voidoids Minus Richard Hell. But the reason that the lyrics of the Clash and the Rastafarians carry all the wallop they should is that the music is as tough as the words.

There’s a popular idea that the flirtation with chaos is something you must grow out of, but I believe that while you shouldn’t hang on to your adolescence like it was a state of grace, you should leave yourself the latitude to go berserk from time to time. What this has to do with Bob Seger should be obvious. He writes all these songs about the tension between wanting to keep rocking when you’re pushing forty, kinda like Ian Hunter. But Hunter always wanted to be Dylan, whereas Bob just wants to make sure that some kid has something decent to put on the eight-track while he cruises down Woodward – with ides about life and identity and all that also there if and when you want ’em. Now Seger knows that to get his insights onto the radio so the kid will buy his records in the first place, he’s gotta make records that just kinda sound like everybody who has sold out. And that may be pragmatic, but it’s still fucked. Like I say, I don’t know if I blame him, since he is dues-paying incarnate, but I also think that he of all people knows life is short, that it really is true that you only get one chance to speak your real piece despite the wisdom of all the people who would tell you only fools even try. Right now he’s got a chance to do something that only about four or five people have had a shot at: both to make records that deal honestly with aging in rock ‘n’ roll (or aging period) and to make music that would be as challenging now as his “East Side” was in 1966 or “Lookin’ Back” was in 1971. And I think that if he snubs this opportunity I’m gonna end up feeling like he flat-out betrayed the gift.

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2 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; “Growing Up True Is Hard to Do”, by Lester Bangs

  1. Dg says:

    Couple of random thoughts thoughts about Bob Seger… Summer of 78 I remember spending a few weeks at the Jersey shore and Still the Same from this album was absolutely everywhere…just one og those things I remember about that summer… Transistor radios on the beach and Still the Same playing. A few years later in college I’m at a house party at said Jersey shore… The very heart of Springsteen country and some knucklehead at the party wearing a t shirt that reads in big letters :Bob Seger: The Real Boss.

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