by Peter S. Scholtes

The way some of us go on, you'd think Lester Bangs was a rock 'n' roll Orwell--that phony superstars were his Stalin, punk his Lincoln Brigade. Yet to love the Great Dead White Male of rock criticism is to know he was also very much full of shit. You don't read an essay like "James Taylor Marked for Death" for nuance any more than you listen to a band like the Troggs--ostensible subjects of that screed--for jazzy overtones. When I first showered in Bangs's torrent of spiel as a teenager--six years after his death in 1982--I got the feeling that he liked the idea of liking the Troggs even more than he actually liked the Troggs. He was contrary, like Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music---four sides of noise that even noise fans can't stand, dubbed by Bangs "the greatest album ever made in the history of the human eardrum."

No doubt Bangs was a force for good. But he was a force first of all--to be reckoned with and absorbed rather than framed and hung. Certainly Let It Blurt, this year's reverse beatification by Jim DeRogatis, seemed a good enough excuse to hang out with Bangs a little longer (and just when his old buddies Nick Tosches and Richard Meltzer were dumping a pile of new criticism on the shelves). The book paints him as a grenade tucked inside a teddy bear. Lester to his girlfriend's parents: "Gosh, your daughter sure is beautiful... Got any cognac?" But you miss the prose--the writing Anthony DeCurtis insists is responsible for the public's "perception of rock critics as obsessed, overgrown geeks with more opinions than ideas, always searching for a free drink and a captive audience."

Bangs had a lot of ideas--the way he attached them to his subjects was part of his charm--and one was the never-quaint notion that you can smash the barrier between artist and audience. "Ultimately, you are mourning for yourselves," he wrote after John Lennon's death, insisting Yoko's lover was just "a guy." In this regard, accusing Bangs of "self-indulgence" is like calling Woodward and Bernstein nosy: His rank self was his main subject. Which is why Bangs would have heaved all over Almost Famous, a movie that immortalized him as the counsel of reportorial distance (!) but had nothing to say about evaluating music on it own messy terms. (The cherubic young writer he advises isn't even an Orwell in his curiosity; he's Access Hollywood.) For Bangs, to be loudly subjective had something, maybe everything, to do with freedom--which is why a lot of people other than rock critics mourn themselves remembering him.

Peter S. Scholtes is a staff writer at City Pages.