Bang! Bang! You're Alive

Stumbling down memory lane with the late Lester Bangs.

Morthland is busy collecting more of Bangs's previously unpublished manuscripts to propose a sequel to Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, a superb collection edited by the academically inclined Greil Marcus and first published in 1987. Considered the music critic's bible in some circles, Psychotic Reactionsis a blast to read and finds Bangs using the language and rhythms of rock and roll in astounding ways. Marcus canonized Bangs as "rock's essential wildman, a one-man orgy of abandon, excess, wisdom, satire, parody -- the bad conscience...of every band he reviewed or interviewed." Without a doubt, Blurt is a fine compendium and a compelling look at the man behind it all, but Psychotic Reactionsis the best place to get it knee-slappin' straight from the horse's mouth. Morthland hopes his proposed sequel, to be roughly the same length as the first book, will carry his friend's legacy even further by introducing both new and old fans alike to unearthed gems of Bangsian delight. "Lester used to write something at someone's house and leave it with whatever friend he was staying with," Morthland notes. "A lot of stuff has turned up over the years." On a local note, Colorado Music Association president Dolly Zander -- herself a former flame of Bangs's in the mid-'70s during the Detroit era (which, technically, makes her a Bangee) -- is providing Morthland with several letters from a lengthy correspondence she maintained with the writer after her relocation to Denver.

But it's the lost-and-found liner notes Bangs penned for an obscure German pop vocal sextet called the Comedian Harmonists that might best sum up how he felt about his own writing. (A 78 rpm recording from the group -- which disbanded under Nazi pressure during the mid-'30s -- was reissued in 1980.) In the notes, Bangs praises the Harmonists -- whose blend of music hall, rathskeller, Alpine folk, American black blues, gospel, ragtime and jazz influence appealed to his own sense of appreciation for uncategorizable things -- to the heavens. Then, in one of his typical, meandering confessions, he reveals this bit of self-eulogy:

"By profession, I am categorized as a rock critic. I'll accept that, especially since the whole notion that one somehow has a career' instead of just doing whatever you feel like doing at any given time has always amused me when it didn't make me wanna vomit. OK, I'm a rock critic. I also write and record music. I write poetry, fiction, straight journalism, unstraight journalism, beatnik drivel, mortifying love letters, death threats to white jazz critics signed The Mau Mau of East Harlem' and once a year my obituary (last entry: He was promising...'). The point is that I have no idea what kind of writer I am, except that I do know that I'm good and lots of people like to read whatever it is that I do, and I like it that way."

Lester Bangs, pictured in Michigan in 1975, invented a new language of music criticism.
Lester Bangs, pictured in Michigan in 1975, invented a new language of music criticism.
Lester Bangs, pictured in Michigan in 1975, invented a new language of music criticism.
Lester Bangs, pictured in Michigan in 1975, invented a new language of music criticism.

Boy Howdy!

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