Lester Bangs: Great American Moralist

Religious truth is always of a categorical and dogmatic nature: "I am the way and the light." Use of the definite article conveys the concept of one and one only. The way. The universe. The truth. No proof or argument is admissible. Religious truth is absolute [...] Religious truth [...] is lifeless repetition of dogmatic formulations. -- William Burroughs, The Adding Machine.

The dictionary's definitions (emphasis added) are not at all flattering.

moralism: 1. the habit of moralizing. 2. the practice of morality, as distinct from religion.
moralist: 1. a person who teaches or inculcates morality, 2. a person who practices morality, 3. a person who believes in regulating the morals of others, as by imposing censorship.
morality: 1. conformity to the rules of right conduct, 2. virtue in sexual matters, 3. a doctrine or system of morals.
morals: 1. principles or habits with respect to right or wrong conduct, 2. generally accepted customs of conduct and right living in a society, and to the individual's practice in relation to these.

But when people condemn "moralizing," they are making a mistake: they mean to condemn the dogmatism and inflexibility of religious truth, not the provisionality and flexibility of moral truth.

And so Greil Marcus (editor of Lester Bangs' first posthumous collection, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, published in 1987) was absolutely right to say that, "Moralism in the very best sense -- the attempt to understand what is important, and to communicate that understanding to others in a form that somehow obligates the reader as much as it entertains -- surfaced at the end of [Bangs'] tenure at Creem, and found a field in New York at the Village Voice." Free spirt and self-proclaimed "Drug Punk" Lester Bangs was indeed a moralist, one of the finest this country (America, "the Great Satan") has ever produced.

Praise for other great American moralists runs through Mainlines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste, the second posthumous collection of Bangs' writings, which was edited by John Morthland and published in 2003. "Black Sabbath," Bangs wrote in 1972, "are moralists -- like Bob Dylan, like William Burroughs, like most artists trying to deal with a serious situation in an honest way." Burroughs' work, Bangs wrote, "amounts to a demonology for our times, portraying the forces currently threatening our planet's survival as evil gods operating from without." And Bangs clearly saw himself as a moralist, too: "Me," he wrote in 1979, "I have this problem separating people's music from the stance or value system behind it."

But what was it that kept Lester Bangs from being a moralizer in the worst sense of the word (that is, a regulator or censor)? Once again, Greil Marcus gets it right, when he quotes a remark Bangs made to interviewer and biographer Jim DeRogatis: "I double back all over myself." Unlike the so-called Moral Majority, who were neither moral nor the majority, Lester Bangs wasn't dogmatic; he didn't judge music or the people who made it in accordance with an "eternal," unchanging code of right-and-wrong. His morality constantly changed, constantly doubled back upon and questioned itself.

Though one might pick other examples, for example, his writings about the Sex Pistols (especially "Bye Bye Sidney, Be Good"), Lester Bangs' writhing, constantly changing moralism was at its best when he wrote about the music Miles Davis recorded and released in the early 1970s. Mainlines contains two such essays: "Kind of Grim: Unraveling the Miles Perplex," published in 1976, and "Miles Davis: Music for the Living Dead," published in 1981.

As someone who was greatly influenced by Bangs' great (and still not reprinted) essay Free Jazz / Punk Rock, I was shocked by "Kind of Grim," which dismisses Miles' 1972 recording On the Corner as "garbage," "the absolute worst album this man ever put out." "On this experiment in percussion and electronics," Bangs wrote in 1976, "what little actual trumpet you could pick out of the buzz-whiz and chockablocka was so distorted as to be almost beyond recognition." But because On the Corner wasn't simply "an off-note unaccountably put on record," but the beginning of a series of releases that included such other depressing "horseshit" as Big Fun and Get Up with It, Bangs claimed that "this music indicat[ed] that something was wrong with the progenitor, that he was not [merely] indulging himself or tapped out or merely confused," but that Miles was "sick of soul."

Five years later or, if you count Free Jazz / Punk Rock, three years later, Bangs was claiming that On the Corner was "something genuinely new," "the first jazz of the Eighties." Instead of being dead, of "having no discernible emotion in it," On the Corner is "almost obscenely, frighteningly alive." And this "change of mind" doesn't fail to implicate Bangs himself. He makes sure his readers know that, back in 1976, he "couldn't even hear it, much less feel its cold flame and realize its intentions," and "we could only grow into it [...] as time caught up with us and we caught up with Miles."

But this new-found appreciation is not an occasion for self-congratulation. No, far from it: back in 1976, Bangs writes, "there was something wrong with me [...] I was sweeping some deep latent anguish under the emotional carpet, or not confronting myself on some primal level." He'd dismissed On the Corner because "it exposed me to myself, to my own falsity, to my own cowardice in the face of dread or staved-off pain." And this, precisely, is the value of reading Lester Bangs so long (22 years!) after his death: like Miles' music, his writhing "will pry [pain] out of your soul's very core when he hits his supreme note and you happen, coincidentally, to be a bit of an open emotional wound at the moment yourself. It is this gift for open-heart surgery that makes him the supreme artist" -- or, if you will, the great moralist -- "that he is."

-- 29 March 2004.



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