Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader

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Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader. Edited by John Morthland. New York: Anchor Books, 2003. [xviii, 400 p. ISBN 0-375-71367-0. $15).]

Lester Bangs, who wrote for Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, and above all else, Creem magazine from the late 1960s until the early 1980s, exemplified and largely created the notion of rock critic as rock star, right down to his untimely death at age 33, in 1982. And like many a young deceased rock star, Bangs's legend-and beyond-the-grave product-has grown unabated. Within a few years Greil Marcus, Bangs's first editor at Rollong Stone and something of a rock star-critic himself, compiled and edited Psychotic Reactions and Dung (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), a collection of Bangs's articles and record reviews in which Marcus proclaimed Hangs "the best writer in America" (p. x). The year 2000 saw both a full-length biography of Bangs (Jim DeRogalis, Let it Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic [New York: Broadway Books, 2000]) and a fictionalized portrayal by Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of the most memorable scenes of Cameron Crowe's film almost Famous. Bangs's celebrity is one of the driving forces behind the recent resurrection of the defunct Creem, which has a presence on the web (www.creemmagazine.com, accessed 3 March 2004) complete with selected archives from the Bangs era, and, by the summer of 2004, plans to reappear on newsstands. John Morthland, one of the literary executors of Bangs's estate and the person responsible for much of the legwork on Marcus's collection, has now edited a new Lester Bangs reader, Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste, which serves its a companion piece to, and constructs a bit of a dialogue with, the well-known Psychotic Reactions.

While the Marcus anthology is largely organized chronologically, and concludes with fragments that might have pointed to future work, Morthland approaches Mainlines more thematically, and instead uses unpublished autobiographical material from the teenage Bangs to open the book, chosen because it's "pure Lester" and serves to "set up the rest" of the anthology (p. xviii). Here, in "Drug Punk," Bangs gropes palpably for an original voice, though the improvisatory style and tales of alienation, sexual depravity, and altered states of consciousness more often than not echo the Beal poets and Hunter S. Thompson. The next section, "Hypes and Heroics," consists of often striking individual pieces and record reviews, while "Pantheon" mostly groups articles that contemplate major figures seemingly past their prime (the Rolling Stones in the 1970s, the electric Miles Davis, post-Velvet Underground Lou Reed, etc.). Morthland lakes a bit of liberty with the next heading, "Travelogues," as he includes an imaginary interview from heaven with Jimi Hendrix along with more down-to-earth reporting on such things as a trip to Jamaica to interview Bob Marley, and some previously unpublished musings on the California-New York dialectic and the state of fraternity parties in Austin, Texas. The collection concludes with "Raving, Raging, and Robops": odds and ends from Bangs's freelance work, unpublished passages, and even an occasional commissioned liner note.

The main imago one gets of Bangs from reading these selections is not so much a coherent perspective as a sense that above all else Bangs fell the need to be a "contrarian," to make it clear to his readers that he had something different-and important-to say. Thus he doesn't hesitate to blow up legends like the Stones, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Doors, and quite famously he makes grand pronouncements about less familiar names like Don Van Vliet, also known as Captain Beefheart ("one of the giants of 20th-ceutury music" [p. 178]). He asserts the sexual appeal of Anne Murray aud Helen Reddy, and finds a humanistic impulse in the much-maligned machinations of disco. Meanwhile, punk, a style Bangs's willing helped to define and promote, comes in for a fair amount of harsh criticism. …