By Toby Cresswell
was Lester Bangs anyway?
Many of us can remember the particular books that changed our lives. In the spring of 1972, this writer came across an anthology of record reviews which changed mine. There was one small notice, a critique of the MC5’s album Kick Out the Jams, which blew my teenage mind. In less than five hundred words the reviewer articulated what was inspiring and mercurial and powerful about rock & roll music, and why it could be great art, whilst at the same time pointing out what the flaws and the eventual doom of rock as we knew it would be. He also crammed in a few jokes. This was the first published work by Lester Bangs, but by the time I found that out I was embarked on a career writing about my personal passions and principally rock & roll noise. I also discovered that neither I nor anyone else would ever write about rock & roll as well or as influentially as this former shoe salesman from suburban California. I was not alone. Jim DeRogatis was a college student when he tracked Lester Bangs down for an interview in 1982. Now, eighteen years later we have a biography of the master, Let It Blurt, The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, the world’s greatest rock critic, which tells the cautionary tale of his drug-addled life and much about rock & roll music and the alternative press over the
Lester Bangs was born white trash on December 13, 1948, his father a small-time criminal who spent most of his short life in jail and died when his only son was barely a teenager, leaving Lester with his mother, a fanatical Jehovah’s Witness. Bangs found his salvation in jazz, especially Miles Davis, John Coltrane and the giants of be-bop and free jazz. Music of the second jazz age led him to the writings of the Beats. Jack Kerouac’s avowed desire to write prose as a saxophonist blows a solo became Bangs style as he bashed through teenage notebooks, a beatnik lost in the wasteland of lower middle class Amerika. In 1963 the Beatles changed veerything. From that point on his new passion was rock & roll.
He scuffled through high school, at age twelve he sold himself sexually to a sugar daddy for record money and developed his first taste for Romilar cough syrup and pharmaceutical drugs.
The sixties, that summer of love and the rest was hell for Lester bangs. In fact if you weren’t white, well adjusted and fairly well heeled, the hippie dream was nothing but a sham. Bangs, like many white lower middle class kids was bottoming out just as the Age of Aquarius was peaking. In the summer of 1968 as the kids were gathering for the Monterey Pop festival, (check date), Lester was holed up in his room with the Velvet Underground’s nihilistic noise of White Light/ White Heat and Astral Weeks, Van Morrison’s song cycle about psychic collapse. It may have been bleak, but the music gave him some meaning and he began to write about it. The thing of it was that Lester didn’t just write reviews of records as cultural objects, he thought that rock & roll could give meaning to his brutish, cough medicated life.
Like Kenneth Tynan, Bangs was a talented writer who aspired to other things but had a natural gift for criticism and essays. Although neither managed the magnum opus they each aspired to, both had an enormous affect on the art forms about which they wrote. As much as many of the practitioners, Bangs and Tynan discovered seminal talent and allowed it to bloom and defined the aesthetic criteria of their generations.
Lester Bangs was not the first or the most articulate critic to turn his mind to the subject of rock but he was the only one who wrote about it as though his life depended on it. Bangs found his first spiritual home in Detroit, the birthplace of the MC5 where he pounded out diatribes, odes and manifestos for Creem magazine, usually cranked out of his head on barbiturates or amphetamines. When not speeding, Lester Bangs was usually drunk.
Winding up in the backwoods of Detroit confirmed Bangs’ original alienation and as rock & roll stars became the new establishment, bangs became increasingly alienated from that mainstream. He began to champion the unsung heroes, as in his famous 26,000 word epistle to the Troggs or his riff on the Count Five’s garage band classic Psychotic Reactions and carburettor Dung," (which became the title to a collevction of his work).
Bangs chronicled the spiritual and moral currents of the counterculture through the seventies. His finger was on the pulse of what was happenning in the malls and the usedcar yards, in the school yards and the crummy teenage wastelands.
Lester’s real muse however, was Lou Reed. The Velvet’s second album may have saved his soul in 1968 but Bangs projected an almost messianic persona. There were similarities in their biographies – abused childhoods (Reed’s parents committed him to shock treatment as a teenager), similar tastes in drugs but mostly Bangs loved the poetic nihilism of the velvet Underground. When they finally met in the 1970s it was a disaster. Reed became a fallen idol and their love/hate tussles in the pages of Creem and other rock magazines became legendary. But he also projected onto Reed his own self-loathing and ambivalence. For instance his fiend, Peter Laughner a writer whom Bangs had sponsored and more lately the founder of avant-gard Rock band pere Ubu died of an overdose and in his obituary, bangs blamed Lou Reed. There was something of self analysis when he wrote in Laughner’s obit, "…at least in part he died because he wanted to be Lou Reed. Today I would not walk across the street to spit on Lou Reed, not because of peter but because Peter’s death was the end of an era for me—an era of the most intense worship of nihilism and death-tripping in all marketable forms."
If the young Bangs had embraced rock & roll for its wild fury, his later writings attempted to make some sense of the culture that rock & roll engendered. His essay on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is a heart wrenching stream of consciousness rant about compassion and the brutality and dehumanising aspects of the consumerist modern era.
Bangs’ aesthetic was to be a pivotal factor, a few years later, in championing the sounds coming out of CBGB’s in New York in the mid seventies. By that stage Bangs was a national icon amongst the rock cognoscenti. Two college kids from Georgia, Michael Stipe and Peter Buck met the man at a party in 1980 as the drunken rock critic yelled abuse at the room "Hew called me a rotten cocksucker," says Buck who was then the guitarist in REM. "I didn’t take it personally because everyone else got it too. I was like, "That’s Lester Bangs! That’s so cool! I was cursed at by my idol!’"
Like a parody of the rock stars he despised and pitied, like Scott Fitzgerald or Kerouac or Capote or Tynan, Bangs succumbed to the twin perils of drug addiction and his own fame. The explosion of punk rock vindicated Bangs but it also destroyed him. He spent every night drunk at the bar in CBGB but such is the fate of most American cultural institutions (see above minus Tynan).
Bangs wrote of his disillusion, "This makes the third myth bought in on by me if you count the Beatniks who were really before my time, one self-con job a decade, guess that’s not really so bad. But it is all pretty obviously futile in terms of anything whatsoever beyond a good record here, a good record there, big deal, you got a hobby. It seems to me I’ve reached the inevitable impasse, the place where all that’s left for me to do (all I can do) is rant and race ineffectually…"
For a time the Clash restored his faith in rock & roll bands. He thought they were the genuine revolutionary article, until they too grew feet of clay.
Disillusioned with the sell out of punk rock, Bangs went through the final alienation he struggled with writing a serious novel and then formed his own band, recording an single which gives this biography its name , let It Blurt and an album Jook Savages on the Brazos. He was trying to beat his demons and trying to write his novel, without much success. On April 30, 1982 Bangs bought himself a copy of the Human League’s Dare album went home and while listening to the apotheosis of self-absorbed electro pop died of an overdose of Darvon, an anti-depressant he had been playing with since 1967.
It’s hard to imagine Lester Bangs surviving in the 1990s, a world where almost every cultural object is sponsoired by some shoe manufacturer or other, wjhere the level of fdiscouyrse has entropied from shouts and murmurs to a low level grey hum and the anti-social nihilism and auto destruction that Bangs so loved has become just another rock move like the duck walk. But God bless him.