The Books: Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader; “Kind of Grim: Unraveling the Miles Perplex”, by Lester Bangs


Next up on the essays shelf:

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

In high school, Lester Bangs wasn’t into rock ‘n’ roll. Or so he says. He was a jazz man, almost entirely. There are two pieces about Miles Davis included in this collection which vibrate with a kind of pain and helpless despair and a trying to work out his feelings thing which set them apart. Lester Bangs always had words to describe his initial response to things, even big things that define classification. But he seems a bit dumbstruck by Miles Davis, and helpless, because how can he EVER describe what he HEARS in this music?

There’s another element to this. Lester Bangs is not my generation, but I know people of that generation, obviously, and my family is full of them. At the time he wrote the piece below (1976), Miles Davis was super hip to a certain sub-set of music lovers, and having Miles Davis on your turntable was a symbol that you were cool, with-it, all that.


Lester Bangs, who always had an old fogey in him, he was BORN an old fogey, is not only annoyed by that but pained and confused. This music cuts him to the quick, stops him where he stands. How anyone could listen to some of these tracks in a casual cocktail-party way is beyond him. This music isn’t hip, it’s a cry of pain that destroys all around it. There’s also that thing that goes on where you love something beyond all measure, and then suddenly it reaches mainstream culture and is somehow morphed into something safe and easily digestible and suddenly everyone is into it and the danger is lost, and you feel angry about the co-opting of something so pure and so original. Lester rails about that too.

Take it or leave it, the boy had strong feelings.

Sometimes Lester Bangs is difficult to excerpt, because his pieces have an uninterrupted flow to them, like the dam has burst and there is no way to stop the torrent of words. You have to kind of leap into that chaos and pull out the nugget, the thing that expresses the underlying objective. Lester Bangs listened to Miles Davis his whole short life. He tracked the man’s career, he wondered what was going on with the dude, record-wise, he struggled to understand himself what was happening in those later years. It seemed Miles didn’t care anymore? Or the record company would just put any old thing out to satisfy the “hip” people who knew owning Miles Davis records made them look cool?

Lester Bangs struggles with a lot of things in the excerpt below.

Lester Bangs is hard on his heroes.

Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader, “Kind of Grim: Unraveling the Miles Perplex” by Lester Bangs

But here I sit, nearly three years later, and this man and his music refuse to ease their stranglehold on my tastes, more, my emotions. I am obsessed with him because he once released Sketches of Spain, which contains an adagio passage in Rodrigo’s ‘Concierto De Aranjuen’ which may hold more distilled sorrow than any other single solo by anyone I have ever heard; I am obsessed with him because Kind of Blue, like Birth of the Cool a decade previous, defined an era and produced some of the most beautiful, spacious, expansively inspired music it was to know; I’m obsessed because In a Silent Way came close to changing my life, reinstalling a respect for the truly spiritual aspects of music when I was otherwise intent on wallowing in grits and metal; I’m obsessed, simply because he is Miles, one of the greatest musicians who ever lived, and when a giant gets cancer of the soul you have to weep or at least ask for a medical inquiry.

Which is why I have been studying Miles’ work for the past year or so, trying to figure out where (if?) he went wrong. Think about the fact that this guy has been making “jazz” records since the late Forties, and that many of them, way more than any single musician’s share, have become (to borrow the title of one) milestones. The man has defined at least three eras in American music – can Dylan say the same? Never mind that when In a Silent Way came out it had the same effect as Charlie Parker’s renaissance and influence on his followers – i.e., it ruined a whole generation of musicians who were so swept by its brilliant departure that they could do nothing but slavishly imitate so every goddamn album you heard dribbled the same watered-down-kitsch-copy of Miles’ electric cathedral – it remains that now, seven years later. In a Silent Way not only has not dated but stands with Sketches of Spain and a few other Miles albums as one of the sonic monuments of our time. And that’s neither hype nor hyperbole.

But since then, the years, private problems, celebrityhood, hipper-than-thous – something, whatever, has taken its toll. On the Corner was garbage. So was, with the possible exception of one bit I have been told about but am unable to find in its four unbounded 30-minute sides, Miles Davis in Concert, Big Fun and Get Up with It were largely left-overs, with predictably erratic results. The former’s “Go Ahead John” was a cooker, but too much of the rest was something never previously expected of Miles, simple ideas repeated for whole sides, up to a half hour each, in an electronicized receptiveness and distortion-for-its-own-sake that may have been intended as hypnotic but ended up merely static. What was perhaps even more disturbing was that once you got past the predictability and disappointment and analyzed the actual content of the music, it took Miles past his traditional (and traditionally heart-wrenching) penchant for sustained moods of deep sadness into a new area redolent more of a by turns muzzy and metallic unhappiness. He should have called one of these albums Kind of Grim. And mere unhappiness, elaborated at whatever electro-technocratic prolixity, is not nearly the same as anguish.

Much of Miles’ finest music, from Blue Moods to “Prayer” on Porgy and Bess to Sketches to My Funny Valentine, has been about inner pain translated into a deep mourning poetry so intense and distilled that there have been times when I (and others have reported similar reactions) have been almost literally unable to take it. I have always been offended when people ask me to take off any jazz record because they find it “depressing,” but secretly I always knew what they meant. Because there were times when I found Miles’ anguish not purgative but depressing, when I had to yank Jack Johnson out of the 8-track deck because I could not drive to the laundromat with such a weight on my heart; but I also knew the reason why I (and, if I may be presumptuous, the nebulous anti-jazz people I just mentioned) was depressed: because at that moment there was something wrong with me, of a severity that could reach by degrees from my consciousness to my heart to my soul; because I was sweeping some deep latent anguish under the emotional carpet, or not confronting myself on some primal level – and Miles cut through to that level. His music was that powerful: it exposed me to myself, to my own falsity, to my own cowardice in the face of dread of staved-off pain. Because make no mistake, Miles understands pain – and he will pry it out of your soul’s very core when he hits his supreme note and you happen, coincidentally, to be a bit of an open emotional wound at that moment yourself. It is this gift for open-heart surgery that makes him the supreme artist that he is. So, obviously, I am damned if I am going to shrug him off at this point. I am going to tear these fucking records apart and find out what the source of the cancer running through them is, praying for cure.

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4 Responses to The Books: Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader; “Kind of Grim: Unraveling the Miles Perplex”, by Lester Bangs

  1. Dg says:

    If there was a type of cancer called “trying to stay relevant” that would have been what Miles was suffering from at this point. And he certainly wouldn’t be alone in this endeavor as many giants have done the same:see Rolling Stones in the 1980’s. I don’t begrudge any of these guys for trying and they can’t be expected to just” make an album like they used to” but usually the work suffers. I’m surprised Lester didn’t mention Bitches Brew which is right up there withall the best Miles in my opinion. Thanks for the excerpt I find them interesting.

    • sheila says:

      Right – how do you keep re-inventing yourself (or should you even try?) – especially when your start out of the gate was so strong.

      Bangs wrote about that a little bit in his two Elvis pieces – where do you go after you change the world with one little single in 1954? He scorned those who wanted Elvis to keep doing rockabilly stuff – he would have immediately become a nostalgia act like so many of those other guys did. Elvis wanted to stay relevant. In his own way he did – by doing whatever the hell he wanted to do. He wanted to be a movie star. He was one. He wanted to put out a shit-ton of gospel tunes. He did. He did not keep trying to repeat what happened in the 50s. Some music critics still don’t forgive him for that. Bangs saw that Elvis would never have become “Elvis(™)” if he had tried to repeat himself.

      So these gigantic artists – like the Stones – like Miles Davis – had to try to find the magic, in the present moment. I suppose we could look at Dylan’s entire career in that light. The pressure on him to “keep doing the same thing” was HUGE. He dug his heels in and refused.

      All very interesting. Glad you enjoy the excerpts – I think they’re so much fun too.

  2. Niles Chandler says:

    Absolutely disagree with Lester’s opinion on “On the Corner”, “In Concert”, and “Get Up With It.” I don’t even trust that he was sincere in tossing off “On the Corner” as ‘garbage’, considering that he wrote in another essay/article that it became ‘suddenly, obscenely alive’ for him when he listened to it on headfones while walking the streets of 1970s NYC.
    Too many critics writing about jazz, Lester often among them, failed to appreciate much of Miles’ ‘70s music because they thought the overriding point of Miles’ work had always been and always must be The Heroic, Transcendent Horn Soloist. Well, there was always a lot more to it than that. Take ‘Calypso Frelimo’ from “Get Up With It”. It’s like passionate whirling-dervish music from some imaginary tribal culture. It took me off into another world when I was 13 (back then) and still does. And smack in the middle of it is a long slow passage, sort of like Delta blues or field hollers from that same imaginary culture, that features some of the most heart-rendingly emotional playing Miles ever did.

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