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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Sunday, December 14, 2008


If Lester Bangs were still alive today would be his 60th birthday. He doesn't get the usual kind of entry in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia but he does get this...

Bangs, Lester, the Black Panthers and Bob
The Desire song ‘Sara’ includes ‘Stayin’ up for days in the Chelsea Hotel / Writin’ “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” for you’. The subject was memorably polemicised by rock critic Lester Bangs (1948-1982) in a funny, wrong-headed froth of a review of Desire: ‘...if he really did spend days on end sitting up in the Chelsea sweating over lines like “your streetcar visions which you place on the grass”, then he is stupider than we ever gave him credit for.’

This was from a piece titled ‘Bob Dylan’s Dalliance With Mafia Chic’, from 1976. Bangs’ phrase ‘Mafia chic’ picks up the coinage of Tom Wolfe from his book Radical Chic And Mau-Mauing The Flak-Catchers, 1970, in which he excoriated New York socialites for their dalliance with Black Power, focussing on the appearance of prominent Black Panthers at a Leonard Bernstein party.
Bangs, likewise, duly excoriates Bob Dylan.

An alleged meeting in 1970 between Bob Dylan and Black Panthers Huey Newton and David Hilliard had been mooted by Dylan’s first biographer, ANTHONY SCADUTO, in the New York Times in 1971, and discussed in ‘A Profile Of HOWARD ALK’ by Dylan’s third biographer, CLINTON HEYLIN (with research assistance by George Webber), in All Across The Telegraph: A Bob Dylan Handbook, 1987.

Leslie Conway Bangs, born in Escondido, California, on December 13, 1948, began writing freelance in 1969, starting with Rolling Stone but later for other music magazines, for The Village Voice, and for Playboy and Penthouse, his main influences beat authors (though he often comes close to sounding like HUNTER S. THOMPSON). In 1973 he was banned from Rolling Stone by JANN WENNER for being ‘disrespectful to musicians’. He died of an overdose on April 30, 1982.

[Lester Bangs: ‘Bob Dylan’s Dalliance With Mafia Chic’, Creem no.7, Birmingham Michigan, Apr 1976; republished Thomson & Gutman: The Dylan Companion, 1990. Anthony Scaduto: ‘Won’t You Listen To The Lambs, Bob Dylan?’, New York Times, 28 Nov 1971. (Tom Wolfe’s later essay on the same period, ‘Funky Chic’, is collected in Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, 1976.)]

Lester Bangs was more fondly memorialised by Cameron Crowe - writer of the sleevenotes and writer-up of the interviews with Bob Dylan published within the 1985 collection Biograph - when, having turned film director, he wrote and directed the charming Almost Famous in 1990. And here is the wonderful piece of writing Bangs brought to the lapidary subject of Van Morrison's indisputable work of rare genius, Astral Weeks.


Blogger joe butler said...

Dear Michael
I am reluctant to post on your blog, after the mauling you gave me re. the Big O. However, as an habitual glutton for punishment, here goes.
I am particularly well suited to comment on Bangs, Wolfe and Rolling Stone as I have not read the the first two and could never afford the third. But I did recently read Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas, so I can justifiably claim to be a world authority on Gonzo, and other chemically induced journalism. And I once campaigned for the release of Angela Davis so I guess I can claim some connection with the Panthers.
I write essentially to add my reservations to Bangs's comment on "Sad Eyed Lady". It's verses, in my, less than humble, opinion are wrapped in the drearyiest melody Dylan ever composed. Cutting the song in half/quarter and inclusion of "she's your lover now" would have made the album even greater.
Am I alone in finding "Sara" a much more emotionally intense poem to the loss Dylan experienced ?

PS I do beleive my beloved has 2 tickets to see His Bobness at the NIA on the 29th April, so I can only dream of the warm intimacy that Edinburgh may provide ,however I will enjoy the rough and ready Birmingham groundlings.

2:51 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Dear Joe
If I've made you shy of posting, I'm truly sorry. I value your contributions (and I do believe I've paid your comments compliments on other occasions). As for this one, well I'm surprised by your view of the 'Sad-Eyed Lady' melody, but I can't maul you for that: merely say that I find its incantatory quality beguiling, and the sound - and the vocal sound especially - fit the rest of the album perfectly; and much as I love 'She's Your Lover Now' (both versions, actually) I think that because of the way it collapses, it wouldn't have fitted into the perfect cohesion of the album.

I write at some length about 'Sad-Eyed Lady' in Chapter 4 of Song & Dance Man III, and contradict myself within it too, since the main text replicates the same chapter from previous editions but the footnotes are newly added for this third and final edition... so that after ending the discussion of the song with a fair amount of demurral about the words, the footnote says that "When I read this assessment now, I simply feel embarrassed at what a little snob I was when I wrote it." (And more.)

7:31 pm  
Blogger joe butler said...

thanks Michael, that was no where near a mauling. Are you loosing your bite?
I've got a 1981 edition of Song & Dance Man and the passage dosn't come across as snobish. On rereading your words it's obvious I've missed a lot of nuance. You talk of the song buiding in "slow motion waves" and perhaps one of the resons is the session men had no idea of it's length and they kept coming too early, to coin a phrase.
I think to have included the collapse of She's your Lover Now on the album, while pehaps freaking out some, would have added a truly spontaneous moment which would have added to the album's appeal.

10:43 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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12:13 pm  

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