LESTER BANGS Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung (Serpent's Tail)

Behind that impenetrable title and cover art that looks like it might have crawled from behind The Floyd onstage at the UFO club in '66 lurks the holy grail of rock criticism, the selected works of the creature who, arguably more than anybody in this sphere, managed to bridge the gap between starry-eyed fanboy devotion and living, breathing, sweating journalism. Did he do for rock what Hunter S Thompson did for politics? Maybe so. Was he, as the cover blurb would like you to think, "the greatest rock 'n' roll writer this world has ever known"? Name one better.

This brief summary of the late Lester Bangs' obsessions and art draws from his writings for Creem and Village Voice as well as unpublished/unpublishable fragments. A few highlights: an astonishing demolition job on "Chicago At Carnegie Hall" that begins "I like this album because it's on Columbia…the General Motors of the record industry", considers its virtues with regard to its mass ("at 3.23 pounds…anybody that tells me it’s not the heaviest album of the year just doesn't know his math") and ends unwittingly predicting The Flaming Lips' "Zaireeka" experiment: "When they get to Chicago VII they can release a seven-record set, with one entire album for each member of the group…and then we can get seven record players, and have the greatest concert of all time". A section, entitled "Slaying The Father", documenting the love/hate critical boxing brawl he conducted with his nemesis/muse Lou Reed, including an article about "Metal Machine Music" headlined "The Greatest Album Ever Made". A 20-page speedfreak travelogue through late 60s alternative culture disguised as a review of The Stooges' "Fun House".

"Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung" isn't the only book of rock criticism you'll ever need. It won't tell you what records you should buy - Bangs' writing is marinated in his personal prejudices and convictions (which is as it should be, of course) which means that little that isn't bubblegum pop or punk rock is examined in any great detail. He also treads a fine line between sarcasm and sincerity, and, like Thompson at round about the same time and place, fact and fiction, that can sometimes make his writing more baffling than beguiling. But, in capturing the same essence of a man that Philip Seymour Hoffman achieved in his bounding, boundless portrayal of Bangs in Cameron Crowe's recent semi-autobiographical film "Almost Famous", this book adds something vital to your understanding of what rock music can be and do when it's hot.

LESTER BANGS Mainlines, Blood Feasts And Bad Taste (Serpent’s Tail)

Lester Bangs’ critical reputation casts a longer shadow than his bibliography. At time of typing there are only two volumes of his work in print, “Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung”, curated by Greil Marcus, and this assemblage of not-offcuts. Simply being a Lester Bangs book makes “Mainlines, Blood Feasts And Bad Taste” an essential read for anyone interested in how words can be pushed together for the furtherance of rock ‘n’ roll, but the book extends its remit (perhaps in recognition of a diminished pool of source material) to include previously unpublished chapters of teenage autobiography and some fairly substantial chunks of travel writing, his lengthy reflection on Jamaica and its music scene being particularly noteworthy.

But it’s the rock writing we’re here for, rather than the dubbed-up Alan Whickerisms, and on that count “Mainlines, Blood Feasts And Bad Taste” delivers, whether engaging in a point-by-point demolition of Bob Dylan’s “Desire”, offering appreciations of the works of Anne Murray and Helen Reddy that almost dissolve in saccharine and bile, or reeling out just enough cable for Lake and Palmer to garrotte themselves with. (Emerson wouldn’t play, apparently still smarting from an unfavourable review of “Pictures Of An Exhibition” in the publication Lester represented.) Although he wasn’t slow to praise on those occasions he felt it justified – witness an essay on the excellence of Patti Smith’s “Horses”, just weeks after the album’s release – it was his exasperation with fallen heroes or worthless travesties that drove him to his greatest heights.

Here’s a few closing quotes I enjoyed so much that I folded the corners of their pages down. From an essay considering The Rolling Stones’ position in the cultural landscape of 1973: “The Rolling Stones lasting twenty, thirty years – what a stupid idea that would be. Nobody lasts that long – very few novelists; the greatest directors don’t turn out classic movies over a forty-year period.” Discussing Jim Morrison ten years after his death: “Now there is the inevitable talk of a movie of Morrison’s life, with (shudder) perhaps equally inevitable hints that John Travolta might have the starring role”. And in conversation with the lead singer of Black Sabbath, “I don’t wanta be ‘OZZY OSBOURNE’, I just wanta be me, like you are, and live an ordinary life”. Lester was deprived of that ordinary life, dying of a Darvon overdose in 1982, at the age of 33.