Stevie Wonder wants to become mayor of Detroit. He’s had some trouble determining precisely when the election will be held, but no matter. He believes that he can be the mayor of Motown in the 90’s. Now, this is no Sonny Bono and Palm Springs. Bono is decidedly a working-class stiff compared with the Retin A-swathed desert rats, and brings an air of reality to Southern California. Detroit, on the other hand, is an industrial city that’s losing its industry, a place that is trying to figure out what it will become (the present mayor wanted to make it the Atlantic City of the Midwest). And yet Stevie, lack of experience notwithstanding (in interviews he notes that Ronald Reagan didn’t have national experience either) wants to become the leader of Motown.

The real leader, of course, was Berry Gordy Jr., founder of Motown Records, who left town years ago, for LA, and has since sold the label to a conglomerate that’s color-blind to every shade but green. All that remains of Motown in the recording sense is a museum on West Grand Boulevard in a neighborhood that once boasted chandelier-shimmering houses that have since become rundown funeral parlors.

As the city has gone, so have some of its citizens. Lester Bangs is one of the many casualties of Detroit’s music scene. Bangs died in 1982, at age 34. The coroner indicated Darvon was a contributing factor. He might have added rock and roll—probably more that than the drug. Bangs, a writer, lived on rock. And in 1982, the pickings were pretty slim. Bangs wasn’t born in Detroit, nor did he die here. But he did work here during the early 70’s, a pivotal time for both his development as a writer and for music journalism.

Bangs plied his trade at Creem magazine during the same period as Dave Marsh, now editor of Rock and Roll Confidential. In those days Creem was a heavy-edged rock and roll magazine that was what rock is supposed to be: rebellious. And it made sense for such a magazine to exist in Detroit back then, for those were the nights (forget the days) when the MC5, Psychedelic Stooges, Bob Seger System, and the Amboy Dukes were ripping up the stages of venues that included the Grande Ballroom, the Birmingham Palladium, and the Eastown.

The MC5 were the original political revolutionaries of rock. Their “Kick Out the Jams,” the unofficial anthem of the White Panther Party, opened with a 12-letter word that would permanently curl Tipper Gore’s hair. The White Panther Party was led by John Sinclair, a big burly gent who still lives here, writing poetry. His White Panthers, unlike the Black, from whom the name was appropriated (private property is theft and all that), were given to playacting with weapons and smoking dope. There weren’t any shootouts or explosions. But what they did was enough to raise the hackles of what they used to call “The Man.” One result was that Sinclair was busted for possession of two joints and landed in a federal joint. This was such an issue that no less a deity than John Lennon came to Detroit and performed a song that he wrote especially for Sinclair. The city was hot.

So were the Stooges. They were fronted by Iggy Pop, who was then known as Iggy Stooge. The Stooges were the proto-punk band who had only a rudimentary—or bestial—understanding of how their instruments worked. Iggy pioneered in audience abuse; he was one of the first to start fighting with people in the crowd. Iggy, whose name more or less indicated his physique, normally got pummeled. Still, the anti-everything approach attracted imitators like the Sex Pistols, and Iggy’s avant-garde weirdness still earns him entree to recording studios 20 years later.

Back in the 60’s and early 70’s Detroit also boasted the Amboy Dukes, whose “Journey to the Center of the Mind” taught many guitar players a thing or 20 about feedback. When the Dukes played they had the audience (figuratively) hanging from the rafters, while the lead guitar player, Ted Nugent, attired only in a loin cloth, was literally swinging above the stage. Nugent remains in the area, putting out albums of metal rock that don’t have the lightweight aluminum textures of the current bands. His is more like the steel that’s being rolled at the Ford Rouge Plant.

Another, more successful survivor is Bob Seger, a performer who could be given the Vegas “hardest-workingman-in-show-biz” moniker (I’ve seen him perform in shopping mall parking lots, local hockey rinks, and stadia). Seger was “just a regular guy,” rebellious, proud, and libidinous long before Bruce Springsteen and John Cougar Mellencamp figured out that there’s a whole population out there with those feelings.

Seger is probably best known nationally today for his contribution to the soundtrack of Beverly Hills Cop II, a film in which Eddie Murphy plays a disoriented Detroit cop in California. Of course, crime and Detroit seem to go together. Consider the career of Glenn Frey. When he was with the Eagles, he liked to forget his roots in suburban Detroit. But the band broke up and his career went nowhere until Glenn started crooning “You belong to the city” and appearing on Miami Vice—which is just a more scenic version of life in Detroit.

When the Rolling Stones called Detroit the best rock and roll town in the world, a comment captured live on the Get Your Ya-Yas Out album, the city responded with a knowing sneer. But that was then. And just as Detroit seemed to lose the edge in automotive technology, rock and roll went elsewhere. So in 1976 Lester Bangs went to New York. He free-lanced and became a regular contributor to the Village Voice.

In the undifferentiated incivility that is pop culture in New York, Bangs reached out to find the edges. This is one of the things that gives his writing a difference. Sometimes it’s an irritating one, but his style can be as arresting as a scene out of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. The mere fact that Bangs wrote regularly, sometimes clearly, often coherently (although sometimes in an amphetamine babble), makes the work in Psychotic Reaction and Carburetor Dung (New York: Vintage Books; $9.95) worth a look. The book originally appeared in hardback, which makes about as much sense as a band recording only on digital audio tape. Bangs’ is a pulp medium.

What that world is all about is captured cogently in a piece that Bangs wrote on the Clash for the New Musical Express, something of a British Spin, in 1977:

The politics of rock ‘n’ roll . . . is that a whole lot of kids want to be fried out of their skins by the most scalding propulsion they can find, for a night they can pretend is the rest of their lives, and whether the next day they go back to work in the shops or boredom on the dole or American TV doldrums in Mom ‘n’ Daddy’s living room nothing can cancel the reality of that night in the revivifying flames when for once if only then in your life you were blasted outside of yourself and the monotony which defines most life anywhere at any time, when you supped on lightning and nothing else in the realms of the living or dead mattered at all.

There is no use pretending that the 50’s, into which rock and roll erupted, were anything but sterile, or that a shiftworker on the production line doesn’t need to go crazy one night a week. But rock and roll as most of us experience it doesn’t kill. Sometimes it just fades away, as it has done in Detroit, along with jobs and confidence in the future. When Bangs’ one night becomes every night, as it did for him, the consequences can be DOA.