He made rock criticism into an art form

Thursday, June 8, 2000

Staff Writer

The official history of rock-and-roll tells of Rolling Stone magazine, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and The Backstreet Boys.

As any inquisitive student will tell you, however, there's always another way of looking at history. And that's usually the one worth hearing, especially when it comes to rock music -- an art form that, by its rebellious nature, ought to shuck any attempt at official sanction.

So substitute Creem magazine for Rolling Stone, CBGB for the glass pyramid on the shore of Lake Erie, and The Ramones for The Backstreet Boys, and not only would you be closer to the whatever truth you're looking for, you'd have a slice of the world as seen by a pioneer of rock criticism, the late Lester Bangs.

Bangs, who died in 1982 at the age of 33, wrote his passionate and frequently long-winded treatises in the tradition of Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson -- flamboyant, funny, wired.

But as Jim DeRogatis, music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times and a Jersey City native, writes in his new biography of Bangs, "Let It Blurt: The Life & Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic," Bangs was more than just entertaining. As can be gleaned from a 1987 anthology of his work, "Psychotic Reaction and Carburetor Dung," Bangs' work also was deeply philosophical.

"The official historians of rock, like Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau, say that Lester has many imitators today," DeRogatis says in an interview. "But it's an insult to Lester to compare him to anybody who gets drunk and writes in a sloppy, self-indulgent style. All sorts of people on the Internet quote Lester like you'd quote Oscar Wilde. Doing that 18 years after his death is an enormous compliment."

Aside from being a meticulously researched biography, trailing Bangs from a strict Jehovah's Witness household in suburban San Diego to an improvised rock star-like life first in Detroit and then New York, "Let It Blurt" is an invaluable chronicle of the development of rock criticism, which was basically embryonic when Bangs, a shoe salesman, mailed his first record review to Rolling Stone in 1969.

After Rolling Stone proved too rigid for Bangs, he high-tailed it to Detroit, where he was one of the leading lights of Creem magazine, which also featured the work of Dave Marsh. Given the space to grow, Bangs flourished there, working under the theory that writing about rock could be like making rock -- that this hard-edged, celebratory, sometimes improvisational music could spawn literature that was comparably artistic.

Bangs ranted against hype, loved to burst the bubbles of the self-important, and was a zealot for the do-it-yourselfer. He spat on the notion that the best music came from New York or Los Angeles. He scoffed at the idea that rock needed expensive production. Bangs clashed with Lou Reed, befriended Patti Smith, first panned the MC5 and then praised them, wrote a fantasy about murdering James Taylor, started his own bands, and in the process became a primary booster of punk rock and heavy metal, championing The Ramones and calling Black Sabbath the John Miltons of rock.

Although DeRogatis says he "hates the Gail Sheehy school of biography" and is loath to psychoanalyze such a complex person, he says that there's little doubt Bangs went from "proselytizing as a Jehovah's Witness to proselytizing 'Raw Power,"' the seminal Iggy Pop album.

But it was Bangs' energy and his unique insights that caused DeRogatis, as a Jersey City high school student, to take the bus into New York to interview Bangs in 1982 as part of a journalism class project.

"I thought he'd be larger than life, a genius savant, a class clown," DeRogatis says now. "But he was really a solicitous guy, asking me what I thought of things. He saw criticism as a discourse. Nothing, he thought, made his opinion that much better than mine."

Bangs died two weeks later of a drug overdose. He was partial to Romilar, a cough syrup that was hypnotically hallucinogenic in large doses, but his autopsy report identified Darvon, a dangerous painkiller, and Valium in his system when he died.

"Lester was such an unpredictable SOB," DeRogatis says. "He could've gotten up the next morning and decided he wanted to be a novelist and never written rock criticism ever again. Or he could've become a tired old hack.

"But two decades after his death, the idea that journalism could be art is dead."

DeRogatis says it's likely that Bangs would have a hard time finding a place for his work today, except on the Web, though even in his day, Bangs would often be paid $15 for an article or review. DeRogatis says it's a much better question to ask why rock journalism has betrayed its readership in the years since Bangs' death, playing footsie with a powerful music industry that greatly determines a magazine's advertising dollars, and publishing valentines to mediocre music-makers to stay on the good side of the conglomerates.

"There used to be forums for great writing," DeRogatis says, referring to early Seventies outlets like Creem, Crawdaddy, and Music Sound Output, which published the work of Bangs and his contemporaries, Nick Tosches and Richard Meltzer, among others. "There used to be a give-and-take between the press, the recording artists, and the fans. Now the press has allowed itself to be co-opted by the industry, and the result is the proliferation of the three-star record review. It's pablum."

Lester Bangs drank Romilar, insulted rock stars, and died. They don't make them like that anymore.


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