My friend Phil Morrison gave me a copy of Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung for Christmas one year when I was in college. Twenty-five years later, it’s the most dog-eared book I own. It’s a posthumously released anthology of writing by the legendary music critic Lester Bangs.
The important thing about Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung isn’t the musicians and songs Bangs writes about (even though it’s reassuring to know I’m not the only one who cringes whenever I hear “Carolina in My Mind”), but the life lessons he imparts while doing so:
Merely puking on yourself is not going to change anything,
It’s ok to change your mind about something,
Don’t be afraid to take chances and risk looking foolish,
Always be receptive to new things and experiences.
A particularly eloquent rant refuting the nihilism of Richard Hell got me through the angst-filled early 1990s, when I was an underemployed, love-struck, self-destructive hipster doofus. It’s too lengthy to reproduce in its entirety, but the salient point is this: “There are glints of beauty and bedrock joy that come shining through from time to precious time to remind anybody who cares to see that there is something higher and larger than ourselves. And I’m not talking about your putrefying gods, I am talking about a sense of wonder about life itself and the feeling that there is some redemptive factor that you must at least search for until you drop dead of natural causes” (from page 267 of the original paperback edition).
I don’t think Bangs intended to provide life lessons. I think he just wanted to get paid and have fun, which is another life lesson he almost subliminally imparted.
On a practical level, the book did change my life by indirectly showing me the easiest way to remove shrink-wrap from CDs. Its review of the Peter Guralnick book Lost Highway exposed me to the music of songwriter James Talley, who showed me how to open his CD when I bought one from him after a show. The trick is to slide your fingernail down the hinge where the case opens.
Thanks, Lester, and thank you, Phil.