Out of the Jar Scraping Carburetor Dung Off My Shoe
Every once in a while, the cosmos aligns perfectly in an ideal convergence of experience, sentiment and situation, and it seems that for me, in some small way, that time is now. On the plane ride home from a revelatory music festival experience that proved to me beyond, well, much of a doubt, that hippies and hipsters can in fact coexist on the same 50 acres of earth without hating each other, I finally finished reading Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, the posthumous collection of Lester Bangs ranting scribble, and I realized that ol Les, who really tried damned hard to be a punk rock sourpuss, was nothing but a sweet little sexually frustrated kitten looking for love. He left the ascetic weirdness and bitter misanthropy to his heroes and laced his seemingly acidic spew with some of the nicest things any music cynic has ever said about anyone, even the Grateful Dead, and that makes him all right in my book.
Now I dont tell you this simply to drop the holy name of Bangs and brag about just how hip I am to the whole punk aestheticIll be the first to admit that while I can dig the antisocial body ornamentation and total disregard for institution in all its forms, especially when its translated into drunken power chords and broken drum heads, I never really got the punks themselves; seems to me that the punkiest guys on the planet at this point are all the regular young dudes slaving away in their cubicles while emitting superpowered radio waves of hatred toward every other regular young dude within a thirty mile radius thats doing exactly the same thing. But like I said, I dont know shit about punk rock, even after reading hundreds of pages of Lester Bangs. No, my point here is simply that I finally finished the damn thing.
If youve read any of my previous columns, which Im sure you havent, youve probably surmised that I was a little slow in joining the Bangs gang, but before you rare back and heave that stone, you might want to think about just tossing it straight up. Maybe itll hit me anyway, but chances are itll crack some other poor saps skull open instead, and he probably never heard of Lester at all, which seems more like true justice anyway, dontcha think? I told you the stars were aligned.
No, I was introduced to Lester Bangs the same way many of my kind who grew up memorizing Rolling Stones seemingly annual list of the greatest guitar players of all time in a middle class town that really shoulda been a helluva lot cooler than it really was were introduced to Lester Bangs: I watched Almost Famous. But theres one thing you gotta understand here. I didnt just watch Almost Famous. I watched Almost Famous on a raggedy VCR with no top casing that sent a black and white signal to a fifteen year-old wood-box Zenith resting on a tile floor in a Peace Corps volunteer house in YaoundCameroon, and I swear I musta sat on those ragged, mite-infested couches and stared at that old Zenith about twenty times, because after all was said and done, that movie changed my life.
I guess the stars align more than once in a lifetime, because during the two years I spent in Cameroon, Wilcos Summerteeth sent me reeling into a tailspin of awe and admiration than I havent felt since Fall 97 Phish tour, the Cures Head in the Door reminded me of why I ever liked that band in the first place and what an idiot wannabe hippie I was being for pretending I didnt like music that was sad, and yes, I fell in love with Kate Hudson, got a man-crush on Billy Crudup and wished to all hell that Frances McDormand could be my mother. All the while, I realized that it is, in fact, possible to survive on less than fifty million Phish bootlegs.
So no, my point in writing about Lester Bangs is not to show you how cool I am. (Im much too cool to tell you how cool I am.) Besides, most of you reading some random column on Jambands.com probably wouldnt like Lester Bangs or share his musical tastes anyway. I never liked Lou Reed much either. But I do like the Ramones, the Stooges, Blondie, Captain Beefheart, The Velvet Underground, MC5, The Clash, The Rolling Stones, and Van Morrison. And I do hate James Taylor. And I bet some of you do, too. Or perhaps Im being presumptuous.
Despite our misunderstandings, however, I think we can both agree on one fact: James Taylor does not sing rock and roll music. And if we can agree on that, we can definitely agree that, most definitely, beyond a shadow of a doubt, without question, ifs ands or buts, James Taylor is not a punk. We know this because Lester Bangs hated James Taylor, and Lester Bangs, by his own admission, invented punk:
_I invented punk. Everybody knows that. But I stole it from Greg Shaw, who also invented power pop. And he stole it from Dave Marsh, who actually saw Question Mark and the Mysterians live once. But he stole it from John Sinclair. Who stole it from Rob Tyner. Who stole it from Iggy. Who stole it from Lou Reed. Who stole it from Gene Vincent. Who stole it from James Dean. Who stole it from Marlon Brando. Who stole it from Robert Mitchum. The look on his face in the photo when he got busted for grass. And he stole it from Humphrey Bogart. Who stole it from James Crosby. Who stole it from Teddy Roosevelt. Who stole it from Billy the Kid. Who stole it from Mike Fink. Who stole it from Stonewall Jackson (337). _
The list goes on, but I stop at Stonewall Jackson for a reason. If Stonewall Jackson was a punk, then Im pretty sure that Lynyrd Skynyrd were punks, too, and this is where it all converges into one huge orgiastic heap of cosmic coincidence and clusterfuck, because after years of being snubbed and shoved down by the dogshit-stained boot of politically correct music executives and high and mighty pop music academics for what ultimately amount to crimes of the mind perpetrated more by their fans than by the band themselves, Lynyrd Skynyrd was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year.
There is justice in the world after all, it seems. Skynyrd finally gets in and accepts the invitation rather graciously while Johnny Rotten Lydon of the Sex Pistols, who were also snubbed several times despite their enormous impact on, if not music itself, at least the way we perceive it, in true punk fashion, tells the pompous pricks who invited them to get fucked. So whos the real punk here? The one that grows old gracefully, casting aside the bitterness of his rebellious rock youth for the grace and sophistication of ageyes, beneath the trucker hats, country twang and Jack Daniels breath, there is a certain sophistication to Skynyrd, if only because they are a symbol of the South, where everyone is sophisticated as far as Im concernedor the one that still hangs on to the foolishness of youth, forever a slave to the image he feels he must convey as a punk icon?
I dont know the answer to that question, but I do know that despite the fact that Skynyrd woulda kicked Johnnys skinny English ass, they are both punk rockers, and even though Lester probably hated Lynyrd Skynyrd, he would have appreciated their punkness. The point is that all is right with the world. If either the Pistols or Skynyrd had been inducted without the other, or if either had done anything less than exactly what was expected of them, none of it would have seemed right, but as it is, I cant really complain about much of anything. The decrepit face of rock and roll pomposity and egotism has once again twisted into a proper youthful sneer. And besides, if Skynyrd and Lester Bangs can both be punks, that leaves a helluva lot of hope for you and me, too, and despite the fact that all of us slaving away in our cages are the punkiest of all the punks, we could all use a little more of whatever it was that Lester was looking for.