Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

But mostly drugs and rock 'n' roll


Reviewed by Jay Lustig

Let It Blurt: The Life & Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic

Jim DeRogatis Broadway Books, paperback, 256 pp., $15.95

In 1973, rock critic Lester Bangs wrote a review of Bruce Springsteen's first album for Rolling Stone magazine that confused the magazine's record-review editor.
The editor said he couldn't tell if the review was positive or negative, writes Jim DeRogatis in this engaging new Bangs biography.

Positive, Bangs replied.

But then, the editor asked, why had he called Springsteen's lyrics idiotic?

''That was what was good about 'em," Bangs said.

Bangs, who died of a drug overdose in 1982 at the age of 33, championed rock that was loud and abrasive and didn't take itself too seriously. He wrote wildly funny, perceptive reviews and articles for Rolling Stone in its early days, Creem magazine in its irreverent heyday, the Village Voice at the height of the New York punk-rock explosion, and countless other publications ranging from Penthouse to the Los Angeles Times.

His goal, in DeRogatis' words, was to "write with the rhythm and energy of the music." More than any other rock critic, he succeeded.

Here's what Bangs actually wrote about Springsteen's lyrics in that notorious Rolling Stone review: "Some of 'em can mean something socially or otherwise, but there's plenty of 'em that don't even pretend to, reveling in the joy of utter crass showoff talent run amuck and totally out of control." He could have been writing about his own prose.

A posthumous anthology of Bangs' writing, 1987's "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung," is the ideal introduction to his work.

But this book complements it nicely, and is a good read in its own right - Bangs is probably the only rock critic colorful, talented and influential enough to justify a biography.

DeRogatis, a Jersey City native who is now the pop music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times, did his homework, talking to more than 200 of Bangs' relatives, friends and business associates. His portrait of Bangs is richly detailed and three-dimensional.

Not surprisingly, Bangs' life was as untidy as his writing. His mother, a Jehovah's Witness, was aloof and unemotional. His father died a grisly death, in a house fire. A misfit, he became obsessed with rock music, and discovered he could make a living from it.

But even in the rock world, he didn't always fit in, clashing with fellow writers, editors and musicians (his love-hate relationship with Lou Reed made for a series of classic, confrontational interviews).

He abused drugs and became a kind of pathetic party animal, behaving outrageously just because it was expected of him. Though he had many girlfriends, he always seemed to be lonely. His desultory attempts at becoming a recording artist himself were doomed to failure; according to one bandmate, he sang like a "baying walrus."

DeRogatis ends the book with some of Bangs' dark, funny lyrics ("I want you more than life itself/But life seems such a paltry thing") and one priceless Bangs essay, "How To Be a Rock Critic." "Fake 'em out every chance you get," he advises, but he's not being serious. Bangs cared deeply about what he wrote, and meant every ridiculous word.

NOTES: Jay Lustig writes about pop music for The Star-Ledger.

Etc. BOX: Bangs' goal, in DeRogatis' words, was to "write with the rhythm and energy of the music." More than any other rock critic, he succeeded.

Sunday April 9, 2000

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