There was a time
when the word "gonzo" mattered - when gonzo, for a nation of
young journalists who devoured Rolling Stone, Creem and a few other
pop-culture mags, was the end-all: To put yourself into a story and live
in the brightly reflected light of a rock 'n' roll tour, or a bunch of
Hell's Angels, or a presidential campaign, was better than winning a
How gonzo was Lester Bangs? In a brilliant, one-time-only
rock-and-journalism summit meeting, he actually brought a typewriter
onstage at a J. Geils Band concert and pecked away while the band was
doing its encore. Which is as close to Hunter S. Thompson territory as a
rock writer could get.
Bangs (real name, too) hailed from California, hit his stride with the
Detroit-based Creem, wrote for numerous publications - Rolling Stone, The
Village Voice - did an odd but wonderful book
with Paul Nelson about Rod Stewart, and died - reportedly of a drug
overdose - in his adopted home of New York in April 1982.
He'd been a serious - even legendary - partyer for years, known for his
love of booze and cough syrup, and though it was sad to hear he was gone,
it wasn't at all surprising, even to me, a college student who had only
known him by his work and reputation.
Bangs was only 33, but he was the rock 'n' roll writer:
Influenced most by Jack Kerouac and jazz musician Charles Mingus, he had
the insight into how pop culture and pop music influenced each other. He
had a nose for sniffing out what was going to matter
in the next few months or years and was willing to throw himself into it
(such as punk rock), churned out copy like crazy, knew just how far to put
himself into a story without intruding, and could be surly or tender in
And in his relatively short life, he altered forever how pop music would
be covered: He gave Cameron Crowe, then 15, his first magazine assignment
(an interview with Humble Pie), chronicled how American cult artists such
as the Stooges and Lou Reed gave birth to punk, and in general hit
whatever targets he aimed at. He also
left an indelible stamp on English writers such as Nick Kent and Charles
Shaar Murray - and basically anyone who has come along since.
And now Bangs is the subject of a biography, Jim DeRogatis' Let It Blurt
(Broadway Books, $15.95). You may be thinking, what's the point of a
biography about a music journalist? Aren't journalists supposed to write
about other people?
That's usually true, but not here. DeRogatis, the pop music critic at the
Chicago Sun-Times, has written a lively, well-researched book about a guy
whose life mirrored the craziness and excesses of the '70s, who was a
victim and chronicler of his times and the ever-shifting music scene that
greatly influences what you hear on the radio today.
His story may have ended sadly, but he never quit caring about music -
discovering it, sharing it, and remembering the impact that a great rock
'n' roll song or album or concert can have on a young mind.
If anything, Bangs' work is as important now as it was then; the force of
personality that he brought to his writing is largely absent these days,
when Rolling Stone has basically become Tiger Beat and one of the big
stories in the all-music issue of Texas Monthly is a boring rehash of
Bobby Fuller's death. The best rock
magazines these days, Mojo and Q, hail from England.
So if you're going to Lesterworld, and you should, it's best to also get
the 1988 collection titled Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung
(Vintage Books, $16) as a companion piece. Edited by Greil Marcus,
Psychotic features many of Bangs' best pieces and clearly shows his
The article that came from his onstage throwdown with Geils is included;
you'll also find hilarious reviews of records by Chicago, the Guess Who
and Slade; essays on the Clash and Van Morrison's Astral Weeks; his famous
sparring sessions with Lou Reed; and, at the end, a brilliant,
heart-tugging short story based on the lyrics to Rod Stewart's Maggie May.
That Bangs could do all this - and do it all brilliantly - tells us just
how much we lost when he finally gave out in 1982. As much as when he was
writing these pieces, Lester Bangs' erratic, sloppy legacy stands apart.