The Short, Turbulent Life of Lester Bangs

by Peter Gorman

For the 1981 Village Voice Pazz and Jop Critics' Poll, Lester Bangs turned in a blank ballot, protesting the worthless state of rock and roll. "New Wave has terminated in thudding hollow Xeroxes of poses that aren't even annoying anymore," he wrote. "Rap is nothing, or not enough. Jazz does not exist as a musical form with anything new to say. And the rest of rock is recycling various formulae forever. I don't know what I'm going to write about - music is the only thing in the world I really care about - but I simply cannot pretend to find anything compelling in the choice between pap and mud."

It was an emotional outburst from Bangs, though hardly surprising. Everything Bangs wrote was filled with intensity. He always took sides in his writing, making it quite clear what he thought ; sometimes he switched sides, confessed his errors and wrote with equal passion against his previous convictions. He wrote whatever he was feeling at a particular moment; sometimes he was simply wrong. Rock and roll was far from dead in 1981, but Bangs had fallen in love with rock and roll, and at the age of 33 he felt abandoned by it. He wanted to get out of rock criticism, write a novel, clean up his life. But that was just how he felt at the time. A few months later he died.

Lester Bangs (hereafter referred to simply as Lester) was born in 1948 and raised a Jehovah's Witness in California. At the age of eight he was already a voracious reader and had started becoming a writer. His early years were difficult. His father was a binge drinker and an ex-convict who died in a fire of his own making when Lester was a boy. He was an outcast at school. He allowed himself to be sexually abused by a middle-aged man in exchange for comic books. At approximately the age of 11 his interests turned to jazz and away from his religious upbringing. He became interested in the beat writers, and then as a teenager he fell for rock and roll. In high school he skipped gym class for a week and was assigned a 10-page paper for every day he missed; he turned in a 50-page story called "Hector the Homosexual Monkey," which led to his lifetime ban from gym class. He tried college but didn't like it, especially since his roommates played Cream all day long but wouldn't listen to his Velvet Underground records - Lester later wrote that this rejection was what gave him an affection for distortion and other less popular sounds. He wrote his first reviews for Rolling Stone in 1969 at the age of 20. From the beginning his writing style was provocative, caustic, self-referential, and hilarious. He had his way with words, turned them upside down and spit them out. He was a joy to read. He also did way too many drugs. His drug of choice in the 60s was cough syrup.

Lester found a home for his rock criticism at Creem, the Detroit-based magazine that billed itself as "America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine." He wrote what he wanted for Creem, celebrating his heroes - Iggy Pop, the Rolling Stones, Captain Beefheart, most any music that was abrasive - and attacking the expected suspects with wit and malice. He was a prolific writer, submitting seemingly unedited pieces that went off in any direction. In 1971 he wrote a lengthy tribute to the Troggs, in the middle of which he mentioned how much he would like to kill James Taylor. (Lester often mentioned offing rock stars, though the James Taylor death notice became fairly well known, perhaps because this time he put in the details on how the deed would be done: broken bottle squashed into the gut). His favorite subject was Lou Reed, and he wrote of his desire to emulate his hero's self-destructive lifestyle. He got into shouting matches with Reed and wrote it into his essays; he admitted to his failures in print. When Lou said that Lester's writing had become worthless, Lester quoted him. He moved to New York and began writing for the Village Voice. He was taking more time with his writing, he had editors, and he was back on top again. He was a celebrity in New York, at least to the punk rock audience. Fans wanted him to do something outrageous; he often obliged. He was drunk or stoned much of the time. In 1982 he gave up alcohol and drugs. He died soon after he went clean, found dead on the floor while a new Human League record played on his stereo.

All of the information listed above (with the possible exception of his deathbed soundtrack and the story about the monkey) can be found in "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung," a collection of Lester's writings first published in 1987. He often wrote about himself, even in record reviews. He hid none of his passions, faults, thoughts, fantasies. If Lester had a tough time as a teenager, he let everyone know. If he drank too much and ended up in the wrong place, he put that in his review. By reading a collection of his work, one gets the Lester Bangs story included.

What use, then, is the new biography by Jim DeRogatis, "Let it Blurt: the Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic"? DeRogatis provides the details of Lester's life, the standard stuff; his relationship with his mother (difficult) his troubles with women (also difficult), his development as a rock critic (easy; he was a natural). The problem that DeRogatis faced was that Lester wrote candidly about himself and left little for anyone else to discover. DeRogatis vows in the intro to set the record straight, but his research proves only that Lester told the truth - he really was the boisterous, fucked-up persona he wrote about.

Even if Lester truly was America's greatest rock critic, this esteemed title would not warrant a biography. This book exists because Lester was the world's most famous rock critic. It's not enough. DeRogatis recounts how Lester was wasted most every day of his adult life - such a tale does not a good story make, and it's unnecessary, since Lester already told us all that. (I did learn that Jackson Browne's The Pretender was one of Lester's favorite albums, a disturbing revelation that I have yet to overcome.) Fortunately DeRogatis expands the story to include the history of rock criticism, and that lends the book some interest.

DeRogatis recounts rock criticism's development from the earliest days pre-Rolling Stone up through the early 80s, showing how the form evolved from fan magazine material to serious study by competing journalists. DeRogatis presents an interesting look at the first years of Creem magazine, where idealistic, rock-obsessed youths lived together in squalor and put out a great magazine. Every notable rock critic from the 60s and 70s gets a short bio in Let it Blurt and is given a place in the development of rock criticism. It's clear that DeRogatis considers Lester's contemporaries to have been of considerably lesser talent, reduced after their bio to mere gossip fodder. So for example we find out that Robert Christgau once was nude while editing Lester, but put his clothes on when the flamboyantly gay Vince Aletti came to the door, and that Dave Marsh's girlfriend from the early 70s described him as "a possessed elf." In the final chapter DeRogatis makes an unconvincing case that the best years of rock criticism died with Lester.

None of this matters much. "Let it Blurt" - the name of one of Lester's own songs - is a curiosity, an elegy for a great writer that is no substitute for reading Lester's own writings in "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung." There one can find his strange and moving essay on Van Morrisson's Astral Weeks, writing so powerful that it has made the album a favorite of more than one person I know. The collection also includes hilarious ruminations on various 70s rock stars including David Bowie, Jethro Tull, and, of course, Father Lou. Lester could take the opposite approach too; his 1977 obituary for founding Pere Ubu member Peter Laughner is poignant, beginning with a simple sentence - "Peter Laughner is dead" - and following it with Laughner's drug history and sordid life, in which Lester sees similarities to his own. Fighting off sentimentality he writes, "I volunteer not to feel anything about him from this day out, but I will not forget that this kid killed himself for something torn T-shirts represented in the battle fires of his ripped emotions, and that does not make your T-shirts profound, on the contrary, it makes you a bunch of assholes if you espouse what he latched onto in support of his long death agony, and if I have run out of feeling for the dead I can also truly say that from here on out I am only interested in true feeling, and the pursuit of some ultimate escape from that was what killed Peter, which is all I truly know of his life, except that the hardest thing in this living world is to confront your own pain and go through with it, but somehow life is not a paltry thing after all next to this child's inheritance of eternal black. So don't anybody try to wave good-bye." Lester was looking for his own way out, he just didn't make it in time.

Eighteen years have passed since Lester's exit, and though he declared rock dead at the time, he probably would have found much to his liking in the years since then. I expect he would have raved about Sonic Youth, Nirvana, hard-edged rap, perhaps Husker Du, probably Liz Phair. Maybe not. Nevertheless rock has survived, even if Lester had lost hope for it. Rock criticism has survived too, it didn't die with Lester. But it sure does miss him so.

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