I Can Only Give You Everything
I first picked up Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung back in 1988, when Heinemann published it for the first time in the UK. At the time I didn't know who Lester Bangs was. I just picked the book up in Waterstones on my way home from Art school one afternoon (I had two regular stops on the way to the station; the record store that later became known as Fopp, on what street was that, Hope Street?, and Waterstones, which was on the corner by Central) because the title amused me and the cover looked kind of cool. I was just a silly wee na¥f in those days of course.
And of course I was hooked. From page one I was addicted to Bangs' effusion; to his ability to say exactly what I wanted to say about some of my favourite music but couldn't find the strings of words to do so; to his astonishing gift of being able to make sounds I'd never heard before seem like the most essential moments in existence. I devoured every word in hazy all night and early morning sessions, again and again, and of course I wrote red wine-fuelled fanzine rants of my own that told anyone who would listen that Lester Bangs was God and that this book was my Bible.
Of course my rants were crap.
I'd been inspired by music writers before. Paul Morley was my favourite for what seemed like a long time in my youth but what was really only a year or two with his smarts and his sharpness, and of course he appealed to the side of me that adored Modernism in all its forms. I loved Kevin Pearce's words in his Hungry Beat and Same Sky fanzines for exactly the same reasons; laser-accurate critiques that blazed with the flames of modernist passion and human insight. I loved Matt Haynes in his fanzine Are You Scared To Get Happy because he seemed to be like some crusading knight high on the divine magnificence of the Beat, raining storms of poetic sunlight in thunderstorms on the tired plains of Rock. And there's the focus, right there: I loved the words of those people because they celebrated a non-Rock stance. They were pro-Pop, anti-Rock. That was cool.
And then there was Lester Bangs: the very essence of Rock personified.
Part of what drew me, and what draws me still to Bangs, and to, say the Everett True of much of Live Through This is that in some way I envy their nerve. I am jealous of the courage they had in crossing the line that says 'rock and roll stars' on one side and 'the press' on the other. Bangs and True said 'Fuck It' and immersed themselves in the Rock mythology, built a whole new mythology around themselves and although I'd pour scorn and disgust on much of that, there's an essentially Punk Rock self-invention at work that I cannot help but applaud and, stuck away in my room with my books and films, envy. Bangs especially.
I loved and still love the fact that Bangs was a tragic doomed angel poet, and didn't he just know it. As a result he wrote his heart out, poured his soul onto the page through the keys of his typewriter (the one he played on stage with the Blue Oyster Cult?!!). Of course sometimes it was over-indulgent crap, but that didn't matter because most of the time it was magnificent. Of course he made ludicrously high demands on himself and if he failed to recognise his achievements as moments of great writing, then whose blame is that, other than maybe his own and the filtered fault of the world that didn't have the insight to bend it's tired old notions of what makes 'Great Art'; that couldn't accept that 'music journalism' could be poetry, could be the stories of the streets and the tales of the great lost souls of Modern Life. Still can't. And of course too he made ludicrously high demands of his idols (and why wouldn't you? What the hell do you think we pay them for?), Lou Reed in particular; demands that they couldn't hope to fulfil. Which of course is part of the deal, and again, Bangs knew it. He knew he was raising expectations of what Rock could deliver to such fantastic heights that there could only ultimately be extraordinarily painful disappointments. He knew that somewhere out beyond the hope and the high there was only loss and grief. He knew that was just life.
So in the end, Lester Bangs and Psychotic Reactions was, and remains, about Life as much as the essential purity of rock'n'roll's na¥ve questioning yelp of awakening; about the great rolling fall from grace and self-doubt. Is about how so much of life seems to involve hammering your head against the walls of structures you know are foul and diseased, that you know will never accept you and whose acceptance you both devoutly despise and madly crave.
But maybe most of all, and what matters more than anything else, is that Psychotic Reactions is simply the poetry of a great writer who just happened to write about Rock music.
© Alistair Fitchett 2001
Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung is re-published by Serpents Tail