Rocks In the Road:
The Life of Music Critic Lester Bangs
By Craig Lindsey
IT BLURT: The Life & Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest
By Jim DeRogatis.
Broadway Books, $ 15.95
LESTER Bangs was a Rob Reiner-looking dude - he hated it when people made that comparison - who loved, and at times loathed, writing about music.
And he was good at it. His style was blunt, freewheeling, occasionally offensive but always engaging. Much the way Pauline Kael inspired future generations of film enthusiasts with her New Yorker reviews in the '60s, Bangs ushered in rock criticism - an oxymoron at the time - during the '70s.
In Let It Blurt music critic/journalist Jim DeRogatis gets the chance to immortalize the man who influenced him and others to live the life of a music critic.
What makes this biography so fascinating is the same thing that makes it so unbelievable: It harks back to a time when critics actually mattered. It's hard to comprehend now, with critics barely registering on the public-opinion radar thanks to hype and buzz, but there was a point in the 20th century when people hung on their words. Those who hung on Bangs' took them as gospel.
Like most critics, he originally wanted to be a novelist, aspiring to write that Great American Novel and walk the same twisted path trod by his influences (Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski).
Fortunately, he lucked into writing about his second love, music. As DeRogatis writes, "His goal was to write with the rhythm and energy of the music, Lester declared, incorporating 'the free-flowing imagistic quality' of his fiction into his critiques." Bangs' vigorous tone was often too much for some editors to handle.
He first began writing reviews and features in the late 1960s for that hippie rag Rolling Stone. But his penchant for generating negative feedback, from both readers and musicians, soon had editors rejecting his work. (Like his idol, DeRogatis too had an all-too-brief and all-too-tense tenure as a writer for the magazine in the mid-'90s.)
Bangs would again write for the magazine a decade later, but not before he had made his mark as the star critic for the Detroit rock magazine Creem. It was in this magazine that Bangs freely dropped his insights on popular music and its discontents.
At Creem too he garnered more enemies than friends in the music biz. He carried on an in-print feud with Lou Reed that lasted for most of his journalistic career. But fellow writers and readers, as well as the hip assortment of musical artists, adored him.
It seemed that writing was the only thing Bangs knew how to do. He supposedly wrote a fan book on the group Blondie in true Kerouacian fashion - during a two-day speed binge. He wowed his writer colleagues by how much copy he could churn out - once he borrowed Rolling Stone editor Paul Nelson's typewriter and whipped out 16 pages in an hour. (" 'Jesus!' Nelson thought as he watched his friend connecting with his muse. 'I don't write unless I have to, and even then I (expletive) hate it.' ")
DeRogatis gives Bangs his due as a masterful critic, but he also confides that the man was something of a mess. He rarely bathed, drank anything under the sun and experimented with every drug he could find. When he wanted to get high, his drug of choice was Romilar cough syrup.
When he wasn't writing or obliterating his internal organs, Bangs was looking for love. A hopeless romantic, he had a succession of girlfriends, but his hyper-excessive lifestyle made things difficult.
In his later years, Bangs began to re-evaluate his life. After moving to New York and inhabiting the city's punk scene (CBGB, the famed punk palace, was practically his second home), he began to grow weary of writing about the shoddiness of rock music.
He went so far as to break into music himself, collaborating with a couple of bands and recording some tunes. But his second chance at life was cut short April 30, 1982, when he died of complications involving the flu and drug intake. He was 33.
Let It Blurt doesn't skimp on telling you what this guy was all about. But you may have to look through Bangs' past work to get a comprehensive feel for his writing - check out the posthumous compilation of his articles, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung (1987).
DeRogatis also does an effective job of taking us inside the rock 'n' roll journalism circles of the '70s, where elder-statesmen critics like Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau mingled with rude-boy scribes like Richard Meltzer and Nick Tosches.
They all respected Bangs. Some even envied him for the way he captured readers and fearlessly annoyed the record industry. It may never be that way again, but it's a thrill reading about it.
Craig Lindsey reviews music and books. He lives in Houston.