If you’re gonna bring ODB back to life, and I think you should, swing by and pick up Lester Bangs too. The unfairly but perhaps appropriately taken too soon critic died at 33, which means that, to a greater degree than most live fast types, he had a chance to grow up. And one of the chief pleasures of Psychotic Reactions is watching that happen, like A Clockwork Orange except with rotgut and Lou Reed rather than doped milk and Beethoven. The early essays are tainted, perhaps fatally, with beatnik fallout. For all their rambling, they do give a sense of how vital rock stars of the 60s were, even if now they’re ghoulish or embarrassing or both (oh God the Who in that halftime show a few years back). But the paeans are the least interesting parts of this volume (and maybe music criticism in general if we’re going there). Lester was more interested in dismantling the idea of the rock star and in this he was aided by his ultimate frenemy Lou Reed, who had already started taking himself apart by the time Lester came around. The hilarious interviews with Reed and Lester’s perverse appreciation for Metal Machine Music are some of the best parts of the book, and go a long way towards a validation of rock music as something disgusting and truly offensive. And yet I admire how lucidly he resists figures like Richard Hell, apparently a perpetually suicidal black hole who thinks life is a joyless shitheap for him to flail around in. But give him a pass, he was young then. When you’re seventeen you just want to die and consume everything around you and then you get older and start taking gingko biloba because you’ve got work to do.
That’s the worst thing about Lester, he was old enough to know there was a future and he was writing better all the time. In an essay about Elvis written near the end of his life, Lester imagines becoming Elvis by digging through his intestines for the pills he had taken before he died. What results is something wholly alien to Pitchfork’s snide professionalism and Tinymixtapes’s graduate dissertations, something that can hardly belong solely to criticism. Lester got sophisticated without losing any of his nerve, which makes it truly sad that he isn’t raving about Ke$ha with a bomb strapped to his chest today.