Bangs For The Memories

All It Takes To Become America's Greatest Rock Critic Is Genius And Trauma.

"When I worked for the Village Voice, I became aware that there's a long tradition, now less common--in fact, not even happening at the Voice at all--of personal essays that would combine reporting, autobiography and analysis. It's a real New Journalism, counterculture style of approaching things, and I wanted to do that."

--Ann Powers, quoted in the article "Bohemian Rhapsody: Getting Weird with Culture Critic Ann Powers" by Andi Zeisler, Bitch magazine, issue number 12.

"I'm beginning to think my real strength might lie in some sort of crossbred form of my own. A mix of reportage and poetry and dreams and fiction and fancies and associations and jokes and just about everything else--you know, like I talk."

--Lester Bangs, from a letter to ex-girlfriend Nancy Alexander, 1980.

TO THOSE FEW people so devoted to the study of rock and roll music that they devour every tidbit of information and criticism they come across, Lester Bangs is almost universally revered as a godlike figure. To just about everyone else, he's merely a cryptic line in an R.E.M. song: "Leonard Bernstein, Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce, and Lester Bangs/Birthday party, cheesecake, jellybeans, boom!" (from "It's the End of the World as We Know It [And I Feel Fine]").

In his exhaustively researched excellent new biography of Bangs, Let It Blurt (published by Broadway Books, a subsidiary of Random House, Inc.), fellow music scribe Jim DeRogatis doesn't so much blindly espouse the notion of Bangs as genius, as many have heralded him, but instead attempts to explain why the legendary critic is so important in the cultural pantheon. DeRogatis lays out factually, as noted in the book's subtitle, "the life and times of America's greatest rock critic."

The childhood that the precocious Lester Bangs spent mostly in southern California--and for a brief spell, in Glendale, Ariz.--was rife with trauma: an ex-con father who would disappear for weeks at a time on drinking binges, and who eventually burned to death in a house fire when Lester was only eight; a mother who was a devout Jehovah's Witness and who imparted the church's sense of guilt and impending doom on her impressionable young son, until he renounced and rebelled against the church in his teen years. (He rarely mentioned his affiliation with the church, and in 1978 explained simply, "I quit the Jehovah's Witnesses because I thought disease in any form more worthy of a life's devotion.")

His first sexual encounters came before he was a teenager, at the hands of a middle-aged man who lured him into his trailer for sex in exchange for money and comic books; at 17 he lost his hetero-virginity to a hooker in Tijuana who gave him the clap; and later, he witnessed the brutal beating and gang-rape of a young woman by a pack of eight Hell's Angels.

He sought refuge from these disturbing events in the writings of the Beat authors--Jack Kerouac was his favorite--and the jazz music that came with the territory. He fell in love with Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk and Charles Mingus, and professed his hatred of rock and roll, until 1964 when The Beatles burst onto the scene. Next came the Stones, and the discovery of drugs, both legal and illegal, Romilar cough syrup being his favorite and a passion he would indeed carry well into his adult life. Before long, he was completely caught up in rock and roll as both music and lifestyle.

Around the same time, two things critical to Bangs' career occurred.

First, a new writing form that combined traditional journalism with the more literary techniques of well-written fiction emerged. Dubbed New Journalism, its practitioners--writers such as Tom Wolfe, George Plimpton, Terry Southern and Hunter S. Thompson--published articles in eager highbrow magazines like Esquire and New York.

And for the first time, people began taking rock music seriously enough to begin writing about it in a critical manner. Previously, the mainstream media had treated rock and roll as, as DeRogatis describes it, "an encroaching cultural plague," and while there were a few magazines geared toward fans of the music, they were all teen fan mags like 16 and Hit Parader, where "in-depth" interviews with the musicians were of the "What's your favorite color?" variety.

In 1966, Crawdaddy! appeared on the newsstands, billing itself as "a magazine of rock 'n' roll criticism," and a year and a half later, Rolling Stone was founded. Lester became engrossed in the journalistic style of the former, but found the latter to be too stiffly journalistic in its approach, so when RS placed an ad looking for album reviewers, Lester decided that if nobody at the magazine was going to write for him, he'd just have to do it himself.

Soon after, the magazine began publishing Bangs' reviews, all of which were either rants against self-importance--the self-titled debut of It's a Beautiful Day and the MC5's Kick Out the Jams--or raves of records that had provided him with a visceral reaction--the third Velvet Underground album and Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica.

But Bangs became disillusioned when the editors turned down what he'd hoped would be his first major article for the magazine, an epic piece on one of his childhood heroes, Charles Mingus, an article on which he'd worked his ass off. Before long, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, facing a financial crunch, essentially ordered his writers to put a halt to no-holds-barred criticism; this was, of course, Lester's bread and butter. He soon realized that there was no reason to feel indebted to the magazine that had launched his career, and began sending out the reviews that RS had turned down to other publications.

Though no one at Detroit's new upstart rock mag, Creem, had a formal job title, the de facto editor, Dave Marsh, found exactly the voice he was looking for in Lester in 1970. When Bangs wrote an epic-length review of The Stooges' Funhouse, Marsh ran the piece in two parts, in its entirety, and Lester knew he'd found his new home.

Creem was not only more accepting of Lester, but in fact gave him a forum to write whatever the hell he wanted, the complete antithesis of Rolling Stone. In November 1971, Bangs finally left his home in El Cajon, Calif., after being offered an assistant editor position at Creem. Over the next five years in Detroit, Lester would truly find his voice, and write the bulk of his best work.

He was to rock criticism as the New Journalists were to traditional reportage. Combining events from his personal life with criticism and interviews and even, at times, fiction (his "interview" from beyond the grave with Jimi Hendrix being a prime example), Bangs proved himself to be a truly amazing writer who just happened to write about his greatest passion--music.

He was an earnest romantic, a self-destructive mensch who always seemed to have the right words to describe anything, and when the words didn't exist, he simply invented new ones. He wasn't afraid to admit he'd been wrong: After initial bad reviews of the MC5 and the Stones' Exile on Main Street, he later praised both. He always wrote The Truth, depending on what the truth was to him at any given moment, and one of the words he always returned to in his writing was "passion." He had a serious case of hero worship for those he loved, spewed bile at those he hated, and, in the case of Lou Reed, did both at once.

He was obsessed with Reed, whose music he adored, but was incensed upon meeting him to find him an arrogant prick. Lester expected to be treated by Reed as a peer, and when he wasn't he railed into him like a locomotive into a Pinto. Their pissing matches, which Bangs documented exhaustively, became the stuff of legend.

And due equally to his raw talent and his lifestyle--infrequent bathing and an increasingly troubling drink and drug habit--Bangs himself began to take on legendary status in rock circles. After a falling out with Creem publisher Barry Kramer in 1976, Lester tired of being a big fish in a small pond and decided to move to Manhattan with his then-girlfriend, Nancy Alexander.

Bangs was given a hero's welcome by the New York underground set, and he mingled proudly with the likes of Patti Smith, The Ramones and the members of The Dictators and Television at CBGB. He began writing regularly for the Village Voice and freelanced at lesser publications like rock rag Circus. And, putting the "All music critics are just frustrated musicians" credo to the test, he began writing and performing his own material with a backing band, an experience he relished like no other.

But by 1977 things started turning sour in New York. He and Nancy broke off their relationship, his substance abuse problem--encouraged by the punk scene hangers-on who expected Lester to live up to his self-destructive legend--was out of control, and the music industry had officially entered into its Big Business phase. The times were changing, and Lester became somewhat disillusioned with even his beloved punk rock.

By 1979 he had written proposals for no fewer than 10 different books, none of which he was able to sell. Hard up for cash, he took an assignment to write a quickie fan-bio on Blondie, which he wrote in a speed-induced frenzy in--depending on whose story you believe--anywhere from 48 to 96 hours, even though he regarded hype as music's and the musicians' greatest enemy.

After meeting a couple of musicians from Austin, Texas--Joe "King" Carrasco and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons--Bangs decided to get out of New York for a while and spend some time in the capital of Texas, where he intended to begin work on the novel he'd always dreamed of writing. While there, he started a new band, The Delinquents; went on a three-day bender that landed him in jail; and generally burned a lot of bridges in a hurry. By the end of 1980, he had returned to Manhattan in worse shape than when he left.

Back in the city, he fell into his old ways, though he began doing the majority of his self-abuse in the privacy of his apartment, alone. Then two things happened that made Lester check himself: He woke up one morning on the street around the corner from his apartment, which scared the hell out of him; and in January 1981, his former boss, Creem publisher Barry Kramer, was found dead of an accidental overdose. Bangs vowed earnestly to get clean and was, for the most part, successful.

He began taking any writing assignment offered him, no matter how crappy the pay was. He was becoming more cynical, and lashed out at the increasingly cynical state of the music business, and decided it was high time he do more "serious" writing. He wanted to spend an extended stay in a remote Mexican village and write his novel.

But his plans were fatefully changed for him when his mother, living in San Diego, took ill. He returned to Southern California for the first time since he had left 10 years earlier. He ended up making two separate trips, both dictated by his mother's failing health; four weeks after he returned to New York for the second time, his mother died.

Back in New York, Lester regularly attended AA meetings, and finished off the manuscript for a book project he'd been working on for a few years, a collaboration with his friend Michael Ochs. He hosted old friends from Detroit, and despite their prodding, managed to stay sober.

His one weakness during this period was Valium to calm his frayed nerves. On April 30, 1982, just six weeks after his mother's death, Lester died on the couch of his apartment. An incomplete and incompetent autopsy showed that he had both Valium and Darvon in his system, but was unclear about whether or not the levels found could have been fatal. Either way, Lester Bangs was dead at age 33.

In 1988 there appeared a posthumous "best of" collection, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, edited by Greil Marcus, who championed Lester's writing early in the Rolling Stone years. With the exception of a farcical piece called "How to Be a Rock Critic" as well as a sampling of his song lyrics included in Let It Blurt, this book remains the only work in print by the great scribe, and is essential reading for anyone with a remote interest in music criticism.

DeRogatis' biography, in addition to a comprehensive bibliography of everything Bangs ever published, breaks its dry, factual tone only in its preface and afterword. In the latter, DeRogatis poignantly wonders whether or not, in this day and age of "thumbs up, thumbs down" criticism written by careerist hacks who have no real passion for the music, Lester Bangs would be able to find an outlet for his work. Or for that matter, whether he would have--like a few of his peers--been able to graduate to the more "serious" writing he longed for.

While we'll never know the answers to these questions, Bangs has been safely--and justly--recorded in the history books, finally, as America's greatest rock critic.

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