Lester Bangs' Free Jazz/Punk Rock

"At CBGB's [the place is packed with] suburbanite teens who have heard about all this punk stuff and finally found the courage to come down and check it out, and for whom it wouldn't make much difference which band was onstage."

That was me back in 1979, the year Lester Bangs published these words in his great essay Free Jazz/Punk Rock, only back then I was a 20-year-old suburbanite and no longer a teen suburbanite, and it made a big difference to me which band was onstage. I loved this punk-jazz stuff, I was "there to listen," and precisely because I'd taken Lester Bangs' advice. "If I were you," he'd written at the very end of Free Jazz/Punk Rock, "I'd waste no time in getting the hell out there and checking all this stuff out."

Totally knocked out by what Bangs had written, I didn't waste any time. I went right out to the record store (I went through several stores before finding one that carried such obscure music) and bought every album Bangs said was good, and went into "the City" to see the bands that Bangs had raved about. Even if none of my friends from high school or college would come with me, I went to see small nightclub appearances by several of the New York punk-jazz groups he'd mentioned, including Defunkt, Eight-Eyed Spy, the Lounge Lizards, and James "Blood" Ulmer, and attended concert-hall appearances by Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, Pere Ubu, Iggy Pop and other more-established musicians whom Bangs had praised. In sum, reading Lester Bangs' Free Jazz/Punk Rock was the beginning of my musical education, my introduction to the world(s) of music beyond the Beatles, Yes and Genesis.

And so I've long lamented the fact that this essay wasn't included in Greil Marcus' excellent collection of record reviews and essays by Lester Bangs entitled Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, which was published by Vintage Books in 1987, five years after Bangs' death at the age of 34. I know that several of the 1960s "noise" bands extolled in this essay (the Yardbirds, the Who, the Velvet Underground, and Iggy and the Stooges) are mentioned or discussed at some length in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, and I also know that one of the essays in the book, "A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise," puts three of the great New York punk-jazz bands (D.N.A., Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and Mars) on a list of the ten best noise bands of all time. But unlike Free Jazz/Punk Rock, "A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise" wasn't intended to be a history of such music; it's a relatively arbitrary selection of especially memorable recordings. And so the absence of Free Jazz/Punk Rock from Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung really hurts. Not only is the essay missed for its own merits as a great piece of writing (I find the first paragraph especially evocative and memorable). Without Free Jazz/Punk Rock to explain things, the recordings praised in "A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise" seem arbitrarily selected and randomly grouped together, when they are not. Without this essay, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung can't do something Lester Bangs himself worked very hard to do: namely, show how and why the extreme musical experiments of the late Seventies and early Eighties were inspired by, based upon and even staged in rebellion against the extreme musical experiments of the late Sixties.

I hope this explains why I have spent the time and effort necessary to (once again?) bring Free Jazz/Punk Rock to the attention of readers of Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung and other fans of Lester Bangs' writing.

-- Bill Brown, New York City, June 2002.



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