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Old Men At 30: Lester Bangs, The Rolling Stones and the Skewed Perspective of Youth

Lester Bangs remains the pre-eminent voice of rock criticism. He is less prissy, arch and self congratulatory than Greil Marcus with his dire Dylan obsession. He has more pizazz and hutzpah than Jim DeRogatis, who always seems to have stars in his eyes and a lot of forgiveness for the sloppy and inconsequential output of his heroes and heroines. I remain in awe of Jessica Hopper, but nothing hits that bitchy little spot like Lester on a speed and Romilar binge, with a new platter on the turntable and a heaping steaming slice of dashed expectations ready to be served up on those Creem-y pages. If I want to get my kicks out on Route 66, then the best way to do that is grab Mainlines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste or Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung off the shelf, in all their well thumbed and abused gory critical glory and lose myself not in the music, but in the talk about it.

There is something to be said for firing up Patti Smith’s Horses, whilst reading Lester Bangs champion the doomed butt-rock outfit Black Oak Arkansas, or reading him take his critics scalpel to Dylan’ s ‘dalliance with Mafia chic’ as Lester so eloquently puts it, whilst I hum along to Bruce Springsteen get all hot and heavy describing how the waitresses and the boardwalk girls no longer want to help him in his eternal quest to ‘get off’. I have spent many a happy hour with a headful of California purple haze, a large working class cup of tea, and an unreasonable but infinitely intelligent and entertaining Lester Bangs.

I love Lester. Lester is cool, but not so cool his feelings can’t be hurt by his hero turning out to be a difficult little arch beast with a noise fetish. He has his heroes, and some of them remained so throughout his entire career, but not even his beloved Lou Reed was beyond Lester’s fearfully sharp critic’s pen.

In 1973 Bangs decided to write off The Rolling Stones as ‘old fey outlaws’, and ‘old men’ who had ceased to be relevant and were past their prime. I have to admit to wondering what Lester would think of The Stones Inc corporation still being active and playing shows in 2022, when he considered Mick to be a shadow of his former glories before the band had even put out their 1978 masterpiece, Some Girls.

By the time Goats Head Soup, and Lester’s very fair negative reckoning of the album by 1973 standards, had come around the band was in disarray. Exile on Main Street, their previous album, and my personal favorite Stones album had come and gone. The hedonism of the Nell Cote days in tax exile in France had given way to paying the piper who had played out the 60s in earnest. The guitar player was torn and frayed. The lead singer had become a parody of himself. The band was a shambles, and I can imagine that back in 1973 that depraved deterioration did not look so romantic, and more disappointing. Altamont had been the big reckoning for the hippy generation and the Stones were there presiding over the bonfire of the decade and the ruins of peace, love and understanding. People had grown up with those cats, to desert them as the ’70s hit must have felt churlish. It also proved to be a little premature.

The Stones went through a lot of changes. From the loss of the assholic genius Brian Jones in the 60s, to the variable quality output of the ’70s which swung from the sublime Some Girls, to the going through the motions pastiche of The Stone’s sound found in the mostly throwaway Goats Head Soup. GHS has Angie, and Do doo doo Heartbreaker, the rest is utterly forgettable, low impact, low effort get something onto tape album filler, that to be frank, the Stones were much better than, but not capable of with addictions the size they were nursing at that point in time. This was back when Keith was heading up every single list of ‘those most expected to die’ year after year. He remains the kind of guy who looks at his absolute best when most ragged and close to death. Tom Verlaine and the Television boys are the only ones who have come even close to the torn and frayed heights of junkie shining with death-light fucked up fragile boy-beauty that Keith reached. Keith was looking mighty shadowy for a few years back in the 70s, as if he had separated from his soul and hadn’t quiet decided if he wanted to rejoin the human race. After all, man, all that running gets tiring after a while, why does any man need more than a little heavy nodding? Keith didn’t just help write his own destruction, in songs like Torn and Frayed and You Can’t Always Get What You Want, he lived it too. Keith was no phony, but Jaggers dangerous bad boy act was proving itself to be a pale fey facsimile of itself. On the front of Goats Head Soup Jagger looked a little like Judy Garland in a gauzy scarf around his head, and a pretty painted bow mouth. Bowie wore it well. Jagger just looked like his sister had persuaded him to play make up together. Jagger had no pull to stop the nasty business at Altamont with the Angels, he proved to be just another sophomoric slutty rebel child: all pose and no guts. Keith was the one with Sonny Barger’s gun in his guts while the Angel’s Big Man demanded the band played on. Keith was the one staring death in the face and standing with two feet planted in response, unmoving. What is not surprising is that Keith stood his ground with the booze, the drugs, the rock and roll circus, with Barger, but that he survived it and lived to make old bones. Keith is the real thing. Keith has the dark energy that the band promoted with such braggadocio. Sympathy for the Devil might have been a pose for some, but not for Keith. It is only fair that the Devil had some sympathy for the guitar player.

Goats Head Soup, roundly panned by Bangs, who didn’t even rate the luscious gentle ballad, Angie, which has stood the test of time, was not even Lester’s biggest gripe. He thought the Stones were washed up. The youth culture of the ’60s had not let go, and these old men of thirty years old, who lived through the uprise of the movement, who helped define rock and roll, who were there for its maturing and there for the reckoning at Altamont, were going to be judged by the same hegemony of the youth that they themselves had helped create. The Stone created the riffs. Keith provided rock girls like Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde style and hair inspiration, and whole legions of rock kids, writers and geetar players with inspiration, both good and bad, for how to be the ultimate rebel, instead of a glam boy pretend deviant with stars on their faces and mother’s ugly nylon frock in their closets.

It was not even the start of the end of Rock and Roll in 1973. Lester could see the writing on the wall, but was way too premature with his doom and gloom mongering. Rock and roll is wounded and rolling on the floor right now, but not dead. Never dead. Not as long as there are the legions of dancers at the gate of dawn with their hair in their faces, and their attitudes screwed on all wrong, and a need for noise and art and individuality. The rise of conformity, banging down of the nails that stick out, has been carrying on in earnest. Lenny Bruce would have been crucified. We are as hung up and correct now as any 1950s nerd in tighty whiteys, listening to Elvis in secret on a banned radio, trying to calm the stirring in their loins and minds.

The Stones though, they carried on through all of it, even the horror of the ’80s. They even survived to make it to the 90’s and their Voodoo Lounge comeback. They are playing us out of civilization, as they played us into faux barbarism. I can only wish we were still playing the blues and ripping off Chuck Berry. We have gone to the well and come up with bitter medicine. It is a circle game, baby. It is up and down on those painted ponies, which are now plastique fentanyl coldness, not that warm horse fire in the nostrils reaching for the Kingdom of Keith’s heyday. I bet Keith is getting his shit from the doc like any other sane junk fiend out there, and I don’t blame him one tiny bit. The Stones is now a corporation, a business proposition, not an artistic venture. Keith still grinds out the riffs, but looks considerably further away from death than he did in 1973, and good thing too. After all, like the old joke goes, we have to think about what kind of future we are going to leave for Keith Richards. He is the heart of rock and roll. Jagger wishes he was the head, but is only the dirty rotten old ass, wiggling like he means it, like he still got it, wiggle wiggle into the obliviend. We lost old Charlie, that rumble butt guts of the operation and as for the peripheral Ronnie Wood, he quit the crack and has taken up fatherhood at an advanced age. Least said the better about Wyman, the dirty old man. One thing the Stones will never be is dead and gone and irrelevant. We will be resurrecting their bones in 50 years time, with their holograms playing with carefully synced recordings…except Keith. Keith will still be there. He found the philosophers stone somewhere at the bottom of a bag of Afghani smack. Lucky old bastard. Sorry, Lester. There will be no reckoning, just more money making, more flogging of that dead carousel pony, more big business, more Stones Ltd and tongue merch. Old stones never die, they just keep on rolling. Shows just how wrong you can be.

Vive La Rolling Stones! Vive la Rock and roll! Vive le bank balance. In the end it was never about rebellion, or revolution or even entertainment, it was about piling the shit high, having just enough good material to matter, wearing the right look and making it pay and keep on fucking paying. Ever feel cheated? Yeah…yeah I do..Sid. Mind telling Brian about it?


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