“The first mistake of Art is to assume it’s serious.”
- Lester Bangs
The first time I read that line was in a high school yearbook, a manic pixie’s senior quote. I thought it was brilliant; Lester Bangs, what a cool name, and get this, the girl who had chosen it cut her hair into really cute bangs. It’s probably Lester’s second most cited quote, after “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we're uncool,” which made its way into Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous. Between those two nuggets, I had heard enough—this man must be a genius.
In college, I finally read an anthology of his music writing, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. Reading a string of Lester Bangs’s sentences for the first time was like hearing a new genre of music: psychedelic prose without pretense or proper punctuation, swinging syntax, alliteration abound. It’s an uneven collection; a number of his columns riddled with homophobia and the occasional racial slur have aged poorly. But everyone in the universe should read his reviews of Astral Weeks and Metal Music Machine, his interviews with Dick Clark and Richard Hell, and his obituaries for Elvis Presley and John Lennon. Editor Greil Marcus writes in the book’s introduction: “Perhaps what this book demands from a reader is a willingness to accept that the best writer in America could write almost nothing but record reviews.”
Lester made a name for himself in the early ‘70s writing about music from the mid ‘60s. In the collection’s eponymous essay, named for a Count Five song, he describes 1970 as the year “when everything began to curdle into a bunch of wandering minstrels and balladic bards and other such shit which was obsolete even then.” The era he yearned for was only five years earlier:
...and then punk bands started cropping up who were writing their own songs but taking the Yardbirds’ sound and reducing it to this kind of goony fuzztone clatter… oh, it was beautiful, it was pure folklore. Old America, and sometimes I think those were the best days ever.
Age 23, and already a curmodgeon.
Lester was writing about “punk bands” from 1965, a decade before the Sex Pistols and Ramones. In fact, that 1971 Creem magazine column contains of the one earliest written references to “punk” as a music genre. A year later, the same usage would appear in the linear notes of a compilation album including the Count Five’s “Psychotic Reactions”: Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968.
In his 1973 review of Nuggets, Rolling Stone’s Greg Shaw wrote, "Punk rock at its best is the closest we came in the 1960s to the original rockabilly spirit of rock & roll.” Today, these songs would be classified more accurately as “garage rock.” The double album features 27 tracks from bands with names like the 13th Floor Elevators, the Electric Prunes, and the Chocolate Watchband. The songs are grittier than what you think of as ‘60s pop, but not enough to give you whiplash. No one was screaming yet.
“It wasn’t until much later,” Lester wrote, “drowning in the kitschvats of Elton John and James Taylor that I finally came to realize that grossness was the truest criterion for rock ‘n’ roll, the cruder the clang and the grind the more fun and longer listened-to the album’d be.”
The Nuggets compilation retrospectively defined a genre. Its influence might be less of a testament to the bands who wrote the featured tracks, and more to when and how they were re-released. Producer Lenny Kaye, who would later become the guitarist for the Patti Smith Group, curated the anthology with the idea that these forgotten gems were the only antidote to the lavishness of prog rock. And lo, bands paired back down to three chords. Soon enough, teens were sticking safety pins in their ears, and Lester could live in the now.
If the Nuggets tracks were lost scripture, then Greil Marcus resurrected a prophet when he complied Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung in 1987, five years after Lester overdosed on NyQuil and died.
“Lester gave a shit about music, and that’s partly what killed him, because music in the eighties was total shit,” musician Bob Quines told a man called Legs McNeil in Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. But wasn’t it the shitty music in the early 70s that inspired Lester and Lenny Kaye to resurface music from the past? If he had only held out a little longer, think of what Lester Bangs would have written about the Pixies, Sonic Youth, Bikini Kill, Nirvana. Punk seems to have a decade-long orbit, and the man just didn’t have another cycle in him.
Why do we so often leave our legacies in someone else’s words? Not only in yearbook quotes, but tombstones, email signatures, epigraphs. The line I opened this essay with is actually buried within a rambling paragraph in a rambling column called “James Taylor Marked for Death,” which is nearly 30 pages long:
Number one, everybody should realize that all this “art” and “bop” and “rock-’n’-roll” and whatever is all just a joke and a mistake, just a hunka foolishness so stop treating it with any seriousness or respect at all and just recognize the fact that it’s nothing but a Wham-O toy to bash around as you please in the nursery, it’s nothing but a goddam Bonusburger so just gobble the stupid thing and burp and go for the next one tomorrow; and don’t worry about the fact that it’s a joke and a mistake and a bunch of foolishness as if that’s gonna cause people to disregard it and do it in or let it dry up and die, because it’s the strongest, most resilient, most invincible Superjoke in history, nothing could possibly destroy it ever, and the reason for that is precisely that it is a joke, mistake, foolishness. The first mistake of Art is to assume that it’s serious. I could even be an asshole here and say that “Nothing is true; everything is permitted,” which is true as a matter of fact, but people might get the wrong idea. What’s truest is that you cannot enslave a fool.
Quite a block of text there, huh? Did you make it through? Or skip to this paragraph once your eyes started glazing over? Try reading it out loud, it’s a trip. At 17, I read the standalone quote at face value, taking comfort in the prospect that anything could be laughed off. Rereading it in context, I realize it's a blanket statement that doesn’t quite cover your feet. It also directly contradicts almost everything else written by Lester Bangs, who claimed a Van Morrison record saved his life, who wrote that “the best music is strong and guides and cleanses and is life itself.” The artsy girl from high school probably found the line on WikiQuotes and assumed it was serious. So did I.
Maybe the first mistake of art is to is to assume any interpretation is a mistake. Of course Lester Bangs contradicted himself. Contradiction is rock ‘n’ roll, and rock ‘n’ roll is contradiction. I’d like to leave you with a quote from Bruce Springsteen’s keynote address at the 2014 South by Southwest Festival, a speech which, by the way, is framed with a quote from Lester Bangs’s “Where Were You When Elvis Died”:
Be able to keep two completely contradictory ideas alive and well inside of your heart and head at all times. If it doesn't drive you crazy, it will make you strong. Stay hard, stay hungry and stay alive. When you walk onstage tonight to bring the noise, treat it like it's all we have. And then remember, it's only rock and roll.
Did you glaze over that one too? It’s still a little too wordy, wouldn’t fit in a tweet. How about this one, by Woody Guthrie:
Take it easy. But take it.
I know it’s more complicated than that, the seriousness of life. It’s just a nugget, something imprecise and punchy to tide me over until I can put it in my own words. Or until I give up trying to.