Perfect Sound Forever

Children in the Mire

A Reading of Bangs, Marcus and the Sex Pistols
by Michael Baker
(January 2005)

The domain of the theater is not psychological but plastic and physical. And it is not a question of whether the physical language of theater is capable of achieving the same psychological resolutions as the language of words, whether it is able to express feelings and passions as well as words, but whether there are there are not attitudes in the realm of thought and intelligence that words are incapable of grasping and that gestures…and a spatial language attain with more precision.
Artaud, The Theater and Its Double

The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped off all superstition in regard to the past. Earlier revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to drug themselves concerning their own content. In order to arrive at its own content, the revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead. There the phrases went beyond content; here the content goes beyond the phrase.
Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon

"I am the only complete man in the industry."
Lester Bangs, "Two Assassinations"

I. Lester

Lester Bangs (1948-1982), America's funniest journalist – rock or otherwise – since Vietnam, paid a heavy price for his analytic adoration of popular culture: music's ways and means blinded his keener sensibilities. He blurred the critically-important subject/object nexus, and his immersion into the maelstrom of counter-culture probably facilitated his demise. Discussing Bangs's acceptance, then partial renunciation of the revolutionary sound of punk, it is important to remember that, unlike his friend, colleague, and subsequent editor Greil Marcus – America's best writer on the culture of rock – Bangs always confronted underground music head-on, loins alive, with a larger-than-life zeal and exuberance, celebrating the raw, the uncooked, the visceral, connecting the music's building-busting vitality to his own stylistic uncertainties. In his collection of essays, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, Bangs, according to his posthumous editor Greil Marcus, "tried to write about everything." And yet Bangs, so preoccupied with both his failing health and potential immortality, turned, aesthetically, from violent dissonances and abysses to forms of writing that celebrated the cleansing power of rock's muddy waters. Bangs wanted to change the self, and then his world. To Lester, "everything" began to mean nothing, if hope and reformation were not possible. Bangs, by partially taming his spirits, sought eloquently, if also vainly, affirmation and meaning from the present, and the erasure of the past. Even given his herky-jerky vacillations on meaning and art, Bangs abdicated his role of explainer, critic, and lover in favor of a sensible world, a world whose "three chords provides its fans with walls that shut them in and any other world out...Hardcore is the womb."

Bangs was irascible and confused; by 1975 he could no longer take mid-period Beatles. They were "impotent flailings vs. the celebration of the mundane." The Beatles needed a "little crystalline surcease of sorrow;" they were becoming "institutionalized" and "because it's in the past, it's boring, it's old hat even, I've been there and I just don't care anymore." Bangs still celebrated the irrational. About Captain Beefheart, he wrote that he does not get his "rules" from "the external, so-called rational, I think psychotic 'civilized' society….He chooses to live out of it, mentally and physically." Bangs could embrace the strange, the womb-like safety of certitude: he saw in Black Sabbath conformity and conventional meaning. From the Rastas he discerns day-to-day integrity. As long as the music showed something, as long as the womb was filled, Bangs would respond on equal terms. Never a sugar-coater or peacenik – "I just can't quite yet link arms with the joyous masses" – Bangs always sought intense emotionalism, neuroses, and transitory overdoses.

Marcus, in his impossibly-expansive meditations on Dada, politics, Punk Rock, and the Situationists (Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century) knows better: the elusiveness of definitions predicates the need for a multi-disciplinarian tracing of connections and cultural misfirings; it demands not Bangs's futile search for moralistic meaning and physical stability, but a love for and freedom from the shifting scenarios between rebellion and empowerment. Fifteen years after events, Marcus could reflect upon the importance of culture: "As faddists, punks played with Adorno's negative dialectics, where every yes turns into a no; they straddled their unstable equations." Bangs denied inversions, and began to openly rely more upon reason. He moved from – after Bobby's assassination – "…this is what I want to do, take you on a tour of my Mainline, trying to make the frescoes imprinted on my skull's inner walls as comprehensible to you as possible," to the less searing, less interiorized stance voiced by his refusal of the Pistols: "…and the whole Sex Pistols media-scam when you get right down to it: alienation, societal disintegration, anomie, and all that shit. You've heard it all before and you're gonna hear it all again from some other bunch of assholes, but if you stand there and keep listening after the first few refrains you're not gonna find me standing next to you." Lester unplugged the stereo.

Rilke said, "Works of art are always the product of a danger incurred, of an experience pursued to the end, to the point where man can no longer continue." As Bangs got older and as he began searching for control over his dam-breaking life, he could no longer sustain that type of violence and aesthetic disruption; not that his diction or enthusiasm for the subject matter became tepid or tamed: there are so many "fucks" and "cunts" uttered, so many William S. Burroughs cut-ups and disruptions in his trembling, quaking prose, that Bangs himself, the writer and the man, with his ideology and style, echoes Breton's advice: art should fire pistols into unsuspecting crowds.

Bangs, to his credit, refused to retract prior admiration for important figures in rock, for better or worse: the celebrations of Elvis's diminishment; pogo-sticking to the Clash; his love/hate for Lou Reed. Even Iggy's self-flagellating dives into the media and the audience (I once helped catch him in Akron), part suicidal, part trick for the camera, began to be seen as almost tender. So it took the Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten – bored, bad-toothed, bombastic – to help Bangs veer from a severe world of denunciations and myth-bashing to a world of hope, lukewarm and barely Hegelian as it was.

"Most people, I guess, don't even think about drawing the lines: they just seem to go through life reacting at random, like the cabdriver who told me that the report we were listening to on the radio about Three Mile Island was a bunch of bullshit dreamed up by the press to sell papers or keep us tuned in." Nonsense. Bangs no longer begged the question, nor evaded the contradictions in his work. With Iggy, he contended, that the singer could "facilitate the mass psychic liberation necessary, it's imperative that we start with the eye of the hurricane, the center of all the confusion, contention and plain badmouthing." Later, after listening to that "pompous little putz" Johnny Rotten, Bangs grudgingly comments: "I would not presume to say the audience in San Francisco wanted to die, but dying takes no courage now. That may be why John...quit the Sex Pistols...There are only so many times you can tell somebody in plain English 'til you realize they don't get the irony even in that; they don't hear the words." Bangs, Marcus, and Rotten are decoders of the joke, and the punch line is us.

The Pistols' tone was shocking:

You're wasting my time I look around your house and There's nothing to steal

I kick you in the brains When you get down to kneel And pray you pray to your god. – "No Feelings"

Felony, atheism, boredom, apathy, futility, violence, ambiguous kneeling – no sex? No hope? Dead gods/z? Rotten, leering, shouting, with a voice like Linda Blair in The Exorcist had turned around another 360 degrees, only feels one thing – himself – as he vocally swallows razor blades. He rejects the modern twin towers of middle class morality, Love and Religion, he spits on and hates them for their deferential poses of passivity, their uniforms of monochromatic grayness.

Bangs had always embraced the shocking, the underground, the drunk, and the discordant. His beliefs were generated by subterranean fantasies of revulsion toward the rich and powerful. He was disdainfully flip and disrespectful towards a potentially hegemonic or cultural sprawl – Rock – and hated how its corporate ya-yas and mucky-mucks were carving it up. He despised musical superstars that devoured mortal fans. He barely tolerated Iggy's decay, Lou's sexual confusion, the Dolls' self-commoditization, Patti's poetic pretentiousness, Mick's half-witted cross-dressing, Miles' dark suffering, and Nico's self-loathing, but he did, because, "in a curious way, that almost glows uniquely brighter in its own cold darkness; and that, that which is all that is left, is merely the universe."

He also, however, laughed at fanatics who refused to see the scars of their "heroes." For Marcus, Dadaists and Punks were kindred agitators in their apolitical rejection of convention, and in their venomous us-against-them mentalities. And Bangs and Marcus – one banging on cans, one using history's gossamer connections – railed against the same things that the Dadaist Ball, the Situationist Debord, and the punk Rotten did: pale reproductions of authentic art, against technology, artificial sound, automaton lives and culture's bland acceptance of habit. Bangs, however intent upon ridiculing the "hollow jerky-fingered manikins" of rock's cultural elite, never gave up the hope for meaning. Bangs died at 33, just like Jesus. As a critic for Creem and the Village Voice, Bangs became the central voice and the artistic touchstone for the musically grumpy and the more independent fans, the Miss Lonelyhearts during the musically bland 1970s. That decade of disparate musical vapidities, of public and private frustration over the failures of supposed visionaries, became for Bangs, and, soon, the punkers as well, a time of experiments that valorized substance over style, contributory gestures over borrowed slogans. It became moments for possible rebirths. Bangs's emergence as a major voice coincided overtly with his coupling of his prior voice – gifted, foolhardy, fanatical ranting – with the apocalyptic yodeling of his late-twenties. At the same time Bangs searched for salvation from newer, safer addictions, like punk music. Deliverance wasn't coming from garage, or free jazz, or Lou and Iggy. Up to this time Bangs had been a rabid documentarian of psychotic reactions, a great observer and listener with gonzo immediacy, an antihero praising antiheroes, openly fighting his demons: cultural clichιs, alcohol, and ennui. Speaking almost in a monotone after Lennon's murder, Bangs said it was time to move on: "But their generation was not the only generation in history, and to keep turning the gutted lantern of those dreams this way and that in hopes the flame will somehow flicker up again in the eighties is as futile a pursuit as trying to turn Lennon's lyrics into poetry." Lennon was just a "guy," who wrote about "moments," all now gone. During the fist half of his decade of writing, Bangs praised music that made him "crazed and clawing for more," and discussed the attendant fall from his community when those sounds were silenced, when this or that drug wore off, when some female stranger sneaked out of his vomit-filled bed. His preferred songs were "long maniacal silences like giant question marks between the stops and starts and ruling the room through sheer tension building to a shout of 'It's too late to stop now!' and just when you think it's all going to surge over the top, he cuts it off cold dead, the hollow of a murdered explosion." In the last five years of his career and life, concomitantly bolstered by the punks' optimistic love of excess and by his own growing awareness of death, Bangs became the best observer in print of underground culture, a vivacious and hilarious observer and participant, no longer simply describing rock and life, but showing the vital strife in all culture that matters. Bangs became the father figure of the Different. His subjectivity, however, the reigning paradigm in his hierarchy, made him bow down to humanity once too often, missing the individualistic, the aberrational, and the discontinued.

Bangs's reviews, bursts of machine gun fire that they are, often end abruptly, indecisively, as if the partial revelations are hampered by precarious silence, or bogged down by a burgeoning aesthetic. He was not the most articulate animal that ever prowled Ann Arbor and NYC, but when the turntable was on, Bangs was alive: nerves electrified, senses seeking, open-eared to others and to their experiences. Flip off the power switch, or stumble upon a skipped groove, Bangs gets pugnacious, reaching for the cough syrup. As Marcus said of Robert Johnson's songs – gems of both evanescent luster and hardness – Bangs's writings were "half seductions, half assaults, meant to drive his words home with enormous force.

His technique was not only more advanced, it was deeper, because it had to be: "the great shudder and break and explode, or twist slowly around quietly shaking strings into a kind of suspension...a mood so delicate and bleak one feels he cannot possibly get out of his song alive." Bangs, in his "Blowtorch in Bondage," wrote ambivalently about Iggy's body: "It's so fantastic he's crying in every nerve to explode out of it into some unimaginable freedom...he carries that hurt like spikes in his heart, but there is simultaneously a strong element of unconsciousness in his art...grotesque and lovely. [He] did not know what he was doing, and maybe precisely because of that it was one of the most alive things I had ever witnessed." Bangs, at his best, is frivolously self-deprecating and thematically focused on his analysis of the moment: he rants, raves, and ranks. His favorite songs are "immaculately vacant," "symphonic rip-offs," "psychotic noise," and "oppressive" "Catholic-school beatings by nuns." There is a Baudelairean openness and frankness to Bangs's love of nighttime and experiential "horrible noise." Bangs embraces the distaff, the addled, and the mad pursuit of head-banging. He openly – as opposed to other underground writers – covets synthesis between himself and the music, between himself and the audience. He was an animated prowler on the other side of the street, blithely uncaring about sinister trappings or contradictory poses. His language is often that which is found at the seediest punk club.

These bars with horrible plumbing and even scarier bartenders, where men were men, and women were men, were violent, sexually-loaded and encoded, misogynistic, self-referential, and monosyllabic. There were no shortcuts in Bangs' writings. In the "Slaying the Father," a mid-career piece, Bangs says, yes, he "would suck Lou Reed's cock, because I would also kiss the feet of them that drafted the Magna Carta. I leave you to judge that statement as you will, because it is not Lou Reed but to you that I surrender myself, you who read this. I care about nothing, but I know I'm always in good hands with you." Lou's answer is not recorded, but he once barked at me for not bringing his egg-white omelet more efficaciously, so draw your own conclusions. Lester cared for his audience. Lou cared for his latest "poem," that it should be published in a Parisian Press.

As with his stylistic compatriots, Burroughs, Bukowski, and mid-period Hunter S. Thompson, Bangs is nervously edgy, always extreme and emotional: he writes for and from the vantage point of the underdog. Thoughts end mid-sentence; he badgers himself; sentences are weirdly capitalized, and often printed phonetically, with perpetual intrusions by impertinent quotes by haphazard onlookers. Because so many of the sentences are runaway fillies, no longer penned in by academic logic or civilized niceties, paragraphs rarely cohere around single strands of smoothness. They revel in their past-midnight alcoholic stupefaction. He writes like a master musician, albeit one who could do with an editor; I fear that primitives in America mistake organization and correct grammar for a pair of evils, like the Olson Twins, that would sap or suck one's energy or blood. Grammar aside, Bangs is never boring; like a star musician, he is rhythmically jingly, self-reflexive, and preening. So much of the prose disturbs the place in the human ear where soothing sounds go to sleep – sentences refuse to shut off or even take lunch breaks. Each beginning, instead of creating fresh starts, signals spillover from prior sailors, marooned on islands, and demands delayed decoding from bewildered readers. We catch up sooner or later, weary, and hungry for simplicity. All the while, Bangs keeps us awake and reading: another tooth drilled, another latent cultural urge defined. Bangs is never comfortable with the obvious; he distrusts harmony, balance, and trivial forms, just as the Pistols did.

According to Marcus, Bangs's writings create a "picture of a man creating a view of the world, practicing it, facing its consequences, and trying to move on." In 1971, calling himself "Johnny Pissoff," Bangs declared that, if he heard one more James Taylor song, he would "drop everything (I got nothin' to do here in California but drink beer and watch TV anyway) and hop the first Greyhound to Carolina for the single satisfaction of breaking off a bottle of Ripple (he deserves no better...) and twisting it into J.T.'s guts until he expires in a spasm of adenoid poesy." Five years later, Bangs could movingly perorate an impromptu obituary for Peter Laughner, Cleveland legend and rocker, who died too early because of addictions and his own apathy towards his health: "It makes you a bunch of assholes if you espouse what he latched onto in support of his long death agony and if I run out of feeling for the dead I can also truly say that from here on out I am only interested in true feeling, and the pursuit of some ultimate escape from that what killed Peter...except the hardest thing in this living world is to confront your own pain and go through with it, but somehow life is not a paltry thing after all next to this child's inheritance of eternal black. So don't anybody try to wave goodbye." This transformative reversal from earlier, solipsistic negation and self-loathing into a forceful stance of closure, community, and nurturing, protects Bangs if the skies start raining "warm blood." His style also changes around this time. He is less digressive and parenthetical. If he has a point he makes it, powerfully. His rage becomes funnier, not meaner; he complains less; he describes the world more, with greater ease of himself actually existing and interacting in it. He sees patterns, not fragments. He is willing to take on the surrounding darkness, if only to carry the flag, "waging Armageddon for the ultimate victory of the forces of Good over the Kingdom of death." All well and good, the anti-Christ has many names.

Not surprisingly for a troubled soul and quasi-Romantic seeker, Bangs writes about love and death, and death-talk seeks origins. This masochism, evident in Bangs's addictions and attractions, becomes musical obsessions: the jerky junkie-dom of Lou Reed; the feeble and forlorn audiences; the nearly-idiotic travails of Iggy; the nihilism and deep blues of Beefheart; Sid Vicious's egomania; Lennon and Laughner, each inspired, each insipid. Bangs's fear and loathing of the "walking Physician's Desk Reference"; Elvis best captures the writer's need to draw close to, then eviscerate, wobbly icons of morbidity, contemplating "why all our heroes seem to re-enforce our own solitude."

Theodore Reik, in Of Love and Dust, generalizes about a person's fantasy for rebellion, considering it really a move toward transcendence, whether in the guise of critical detachment or ironic invective, or hero worshipping, only then to destroy said heroes, as Bangs does Reed, in a series of articulated fuck-offs. Some of Bangs's movement toward humanism can be explained away by his aging and its sobering influence; also in the mix is a mini-triumph over drugs. He adopts clarity. He has a fevered intimation that disco and corporate rock would destroy America (didn't they?), and thinks stadium cock rock eats brain cells (doesn't it?). Bangs never lost his Voice – snarling, burping, dissecting, intrepid, and barbaric – but he soon started to combat the Cult of Rock Personality, with his own subsequent sense of diminished self. The earlier playing fields were too big, too violent, and too scary.

Although Bangs thought himself "an exile on Main Street," he searched for company, for solace, for brief pockets of affirmation and empowerment, thus affording growth: "We will end up there in one way or another, probably sharing bar beers with our parents at our side, and they will know what no one else must know, that the unspeakable sin, the love that dare not speak its name, the dope addict, finally came home to roost." Bangs's search became one of naming the final product: Love. This unashamed authorial immersion into the primacy of things became obvious after punk rock's implosion of critical boundaries.

Bangs was always indifferent, nonchalant to history; he was driven to catalogue the powerful inanity of events, but he always knew the present was more interesting. Mediating factors – women, money, serenity – were never around: he was burdened with self-referentiality. He disparaged theory and logical analysis for brief, comet-like trails of insight. Getting there forced him to not only to abdicate reason but also to dichotomize music; with his humor and huge meat cleaver, Bangs cut the world into two: phony/authentic; signifier/signified; aggression/passivity; loud/silent. He was adamant that music mattered, and in this, he was our last belligerent innocent, our Automatic Slim, our Razor-Totin' Jim. When he sniffed musical congruity, he pulled back. Lester was busy during sermons stealing from the collection plates. And through his partial redemption he was the prophet who is the least blind in the kingdom of faulty visions. Bangs, in order to establish borders and meanings in his chaotic life, moved from the stages of violence and self destruction. After proving his power to slay his father(s), Bangs wanted to hoist beers with him/them in the neighborhood bar, tapping his feet to love's cadences.

Bangs's increasing despair over generational suicide becomes nearly Aristotelian in that he believes that man can become, become men of action with unified conceptions of the self. Mankind is kinetically related, and even with the potentially inactive or inadequate self-consciousness, mankind should submit its body and its desires to higher moralities. Relations matter; we live apart and within society. Implicit in this attempt at controlling rationality's limits is that, periodically, Art beckons, eliminates negation, and can reinvent man's dependence upon it.

This is what the Pistols laughed at. Freud thought that art was animalistic in that it sprang from residues of barbaric pasts. It is this residue that Marcus so skillfully addresses in Lipstick Traces – the very title connotes a civilization that stitched together by fashion and sexual gossamer. Marcus affirms the spirit of punk rockers, denying Bangs's earlier disavowal of meaning: "That meant opening oneself to a disgust so deep it might black out all routes of escape save madness or suicide – the dead end of an antiworld where the refusal of work and art guaranteed only loathing and solipsism. It also meant: we want to act; we don't care what comes of our actions...'Oblivion is our ruling passion' was an affirmation...a version of Saint-Just's 'The only reason one fights is for what one loves,' of fighting for everyone else as the only way to make a city where on could find what one loved."

Bangs, in love with the unloved, was searching for a neighborhood in that city in the bright blue sky. Bangs also embraced action for action's sake, embracing life's insubstantialities, while he was searching for the authentic. For Bangs, these issues – inner freedom? – were his touchstones. He extolled the virtues of brutish empiricism, of musicians as Dostoevsky's Underground Man, and of the music of anti-commercial stances of toughness and bleakness with interiorized, noisy soundscapes of pain. Bangs loved pubertal divagations, secret atonal gestures, types of music that were unorthodox and challenging, with floating narrators testifying about lonely wor(l)ds.

What perhaps changed Bangs and left his investigations peculiarly unresolved was a need to maintain a humane – culturally and personally – sense of libertarian politics as well a freedom from the mass's generic sense of expectation; countering this complex yearning for the new and the affirmative was the Pistols' constant nay-saying. They filled in social gaps and inconsistencies with snotty turned backs, redcoats to the public; the Pistols apotheosized motifs of outrι, aleatory gestures of anti-art, and, therefore, contrary to Bangs, notes essentially anti-human. Their kindergarten polemics foreground-ed bleakness and a spiraling, out-of-control world.

Bangs had by this time already spent many weekends licking the remains of codeine-flavored cough syrup bottles, washed down with a case of Bud. (Personal disclosure: I spent, as a teen with his mouth wide the fuck open, a day with Lester: A) He not only let us in instantly, he was happy to beer-ily entertain complete strangers. B) He was goddamn funny. C) He dug, genuinely, a tape we had of Akron's Tin Huey playing "Sister Ray," from a bar gig with the bass player, Mark Price, knifing his way through a mushroom-induced pyramidal lead guitar solo). Bangs would never attain Marcus's sense of serene cerebral detachment; while Bangs was looking for terra firma, Marcus celebrated gaps, and was more open to false starts – those shouting at the moon – and tectonic plates, the historical shifting of prior vistas.

The Pistols act out Artaud: Art is "rupture between things and words, between things and the ideas that they are representing; everything that acts is a cruelty. It upon this idea of the extreme pushed beyond all limits that theater must be rebuilt." As with Sartre's idea of ideological characterization, Dada's limitless gaming, and Artaud's theater of chance encounters, the Pistols fixed small fields of activity – man in close quarters, without exits – and suppressed rationality, denied perception, dismissed relations. The Pistols hated progress; they ignored links between past and present; look forward to futile holidays into the sun; embrace the singer/actor, not the song/drama. The Pistols' fictions are inert, fixed to incomprehensible nostalgia, with no energy leftover to decipher the past's meaning. To seek answers was Bangs's job.

The Pistols, and their laborious refusal to annotate significance, sought to undermine Bangs's need for existential clarity. They took the logic of the genre – the pop song – and exerted upon it Artaudian violence, wrenching it from predictable narratives of individual crisis. The Pistols pursued an internal world only then to deny its presence. Their debut, Never Mind the Bollocks, does not reflect multiple happenings; it lacks spiritual awakenings; it cares not for real people; it is hilarious and hateful, often in the same unpunctuated sentence. The milieu stays bleak, but the vision goes back and forth between the inside and the outside, partly malicious towards society, but mostly malevolent towards the self, and his selfishness, his ignorance. If anything, the album shows a restlessness and ultimate apathy in defining love: those fundamental objects of sacramental cultural conviction – our bodies, children, religion, human relations – are mockingly renounced. The human body in the Pistols' world is scarred, and dreadful, as with Freud's taboos; bodies are not ambivalent or orgasmic, as in Artuad's vision of anality (a great name for a band, by the way – you are welcome); nor are bodies seen as repositories of generation, vitality, or critical consciousness: they are stripped of meaning. There is no mystery, no veneration. Johnny Rotten names things neither to fetishize nor totemize, but rather to ignore them.

In "Holidays in the Sun," the Berlin Wall may summon meaning, but it stands quietly. The music is propelled by drums echoing a marching band, but a band locked in goose-stepping unison. The song parodies obscenely-ignorant vacationers; Rotten, here at least, knows no boundaries: "he's got a reason to be waiting," searching for human contact, for synthesis, however temporary, between east and west. He becomes a miniaturized man of action, perhaps digging a tunnel, but really more a grave, under the Wall, trying to get to the other side. That the song metaphysically makes concrete the suspension between hope and desire, between facts and history, does not mitigate the sight of Rotten, dirt up to his neck, his fingernails bloodied from barbed wire struggling. All seekers are naive.

See Part two of this article

Also see the last interview with Lester, an unpublished article by Bangs about Brian Eno and Lester as a role model?

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER