Though he played his last riff back in '82, Bangs' pieces have stood the test of time, outliving many of the musical egos and icons he skewered with well-worded merriment. Sure, there's the school of thought on rock journalism famously summed up by Frank Zappa: that it's "people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who can't read." A great line, but a bit off the mark. If anything, most of today's rock journalism strains for a high-falutin' tone of ponderous declamations. The rest of it usually amounts to dollar-a-word jig for the public relations industry. You won't find either in Bangs' hit-the-mark musings, which originally appeared in the pages of The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and defunct mags like Creem and Gig.
Here's Bangs' take on rock critics who make prose mountains out of musical molehills: "If some clown like me want to come along and tell you that "Wild Thing" is the supreme manifestation of Rock and Roll as Global Worldmind Orgasm plus Antespurt to the Millennium, you have the privilege of laughing in his face and telling him to shut up and go back to his orgone box."
Bangs knew well enough that real Rock and Roll had nothing to do with the head, and everything to do with the heart, gut, and limbs. He wrote in that spirit, with the result that his name is worshipfully invoked by writers --rock or otherwise -- who would kill for one of his lines.
Not one to worship at the alter of fame, Bangs recognized that the glory of rock came out of its fundamental goofiness, and by the early sevenites he was decrying the devolution of celebration into celebrity. " the Emperors of Rock n Roll are not naked noble savages like we thought they were at all, but the point's not that they wear clothes either, the point`is that the clothes dont fit. The pants are five sizes too big and with them slingshot suspenders those trouser're liable to hit the sawdust any moment. And those shirts aren't revolutionary battle fatigues, they're polka-dotted bibs, and Christ, that tie, why, wait, he's actually using a cummerbund for a tie."
IN a I971 essay entitled James Taylor Marked for Death, Bangs went after the etiolated post-Woodstock progressive rock of young boomers. "DECIDE whether you want to jump and caper with music that's alive or molder in the Dostoyevskian hovels of dead bardic auteur crap picking nits out of its navel and so sickly that to see it shake its ass would be a hilarious horror indeed." Bangs was 23 when he wrote that, that, which give you some idea of the loss to music when he died a mere decade later, his promise vapourizing along with punk's spirit.
Ultimately, what made him rock journalism's premier court fool was the wisdom -- and the warmth -- playing like a bass line below the wit. A fundamental decency animated his writing, and if he dragged his own personae into his own interviews once too often (as in his hilarious love/hate relationship with Lou Reed) it was only to highlight the oddball humanity of his enquiry. Here's what he had to say of Richard Hell, a New York punk rocker with a fashionable hankering for the easeful sleep of death:
"We're all stuck on this often miserable Earth where life is essentially tragic, but there are glints of beauty and bedrock joy that come shining through from time to precious time to remind anybody who cares to see that there is something higher and larger than ourselves. And I am not talking about your putrefying gods, I am talking about a sense of wonder about life itself and the feeling that there is some redemptive factor you must at least search for until you drop dead of natural causes. And all the Richard Hells are chicken****s who trash the precious gift too blithely, and they deserve to be given no credence, but shocked awake in some violent manner. Either that or be spanked and put to bed."
That isn't rock n' roll writing; it is rock n' roll. Bangs closed with this warning to Hell:
"It is out of nothing but love that I tell you that, in spite of being one of the greatest Rock n' Rollers I have ever heard, you are full of ****. So if you do choose to go down, I promise to dig up that crypt and kick your ass. "
As things turned out, Bangs was in no position to deliver a necrophilic butt-bashing. Within a short time he was six foot under himself, taking his torch with him. With no one else around to carry the flame, rock criticism became bloated with syncophancy and spin, and disappeared up its own fundamental aperture. With a few exceptions it's been stuck there ever since. Lester, come home!