Jonesing for some Gonzo Brilliance: In Praise of Lester Bangs

Sometimes people put their foot on the gas so hard that they break the speedometer. They accelerate beyond the limits of cool, right the way into squirrely tweeked-out geekishness. There is a point at which you need to tell Satan to piss off, that you have gone too far already: in other words, if you can, it doesn’t mean you should. William S. Burroughs once said “if you are on a winning streak, ride it, but don’t ride it too long, otherwise you will hit a losing streak at 90 miles an hour and that isn’t good.” This interview illustrates hitting that losing streak at full speed. Burn out alert, wheels screaming, chassis creaking, it cannot hold, Captain! Thar she blows! Sardonic and witty Lou has tipped over into trite and snappy – a self assured knowledge that no one can beat him in verbal battle. He hints that he has previously done things with the interviewer that the interviewer might not want to be public knowledge, in a catty snarl of defensive attack, the interviewer rolls a joint tries not to appear to be too concerned, but Lou thinks he smells blood and pit-bull like goes in for the killer line. He isn’t charmingly laconic, he is irritatingly disinterested. In short, this is a car crash of an interview. The blonde rock and roll animal of “74 has morphed, mutated, transmogrified into this louche character that talks in burroughsian shockwaves about Hiroshima and Hitler, almost mirroring burrough’s tried and tested riffs on soul destruction and mutation. Almost. He is not nearly as charming or as brightly iconoclastic as William, merely dully offensive and boyishly shock-jocking his way through this nails down a chalkboard meeting.

Lou achieved a certain infamy for destroying journalists. He and Lester Bangs had a jousting match over a series of interviews, collected in the wonderful Bangs’ collected writings “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung.” Except Lou appears to have liked Lester, there is a certain fondness in their interaction, even a kind of shark-like concern for Lester’s doomed ill advised exercises in psychonaut drug experimentation.

Lester was a chaotic junk drug and whatever came his way kinda freak, erring more on the side of Nyquil and anticongestant inhalers than the heavy hitters. There are lurid and sickening tales of Lester pulling the mentholated insides out of inhalers and eating them in an attempt to get high, and Lou exasperated pointing out to Lester that he, the Great Lou, was on a strict careful schedule, not a chaotic journey akin to rock and roll Russian roulette. Lou had a point. Lou outlived his own liver, poor dear Lester, my hero, passed away of an accidental drug overdose, a junky mix of an opioid that wasn’t smack, Nyquil and a diazepam. Scuzzy to the end. I truly wished he had listened to Lou’s bitchy warnings, and was here now, a grumpy old man telling us all how MTV ruined the world. Where are the rockstar critics now? Where is the popular culture writers? Where has all the Gonzo gone, and can we please have it back?

The rock critic turned star, hero in his own right. Lou above, at his worst, and Lester at his best. Bang’s beautiful essay on Astral Weeks, composed ten years after the record was released, but with it Lester proved himself the natural successor to Hunter S Thompson, to Burroughs, with a lineage that stretches back to the original Beats, those road boys with dirty faces and a jazz command of words at their fingertips. As above so below, I suppose….I know this..I think I need a Detroit sucks teeshirt, a mark of solidarity and a nod towards days when words felt more alive.

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