By Ross Johnson,  Special to The Commercial Appeal

 Ross Johnson is a reference librarian at the University of Memphis. He; writes about popular music for a variety of national publications.


So why would anybody want to read a biography about an obscure rock critic with the unlikely moniker of Lester Bangs who drank and drugged himself into an early grave in 1982? What possible appeal would this tawdry tale have for a mass audience that is more used to reading bios about rock stars than bios about writers who used to write rock star bios?

Bangs was indeed a self-destructive drunk who lived life harshly and often stupidly, but he was also one of this country's best music journalists, and his story and body of work deserve another look. Much of what passes for music writing these days owes a great stylistic debt to Bangs and his iconoclasm. Without him, punk rock probably would not have happened.

Leslie Conway Bangs (he became Lester in high school) was born Dec. 13, 1948, in Escondido, Calif. His father was a drifter from Texas who burned himself to death with a cigarette while passed out drunk when Lester was a boy. His mother was a devout Jehovah's Witness; young Leslie often accompanied her when she knocked on doors in her "preaching work."

Several generations of Lester's ancestors on both sides of the family were migrant farm workers in the Southwest. Later in life he would refer to his forebears as "white trash," but he flaunted his Okie bloodline as a kind of street credibility when it suited him.

Despite a background not exactly conducive to spawning a writer, Lester showed an early interest in literature and music. After his father died, his mother moved them to El Cajon, a dusty desert town in southern California. Here Lester began transforming himself from a dutiful Jehovah's Witness into a kind of teenage Frankenstein who drank Romilar cough syrup and listened to dissonant jazz while reading Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac.

After graduating from high school in 1966, Bangs went to nearby Grossmont Junior College, largely to avoid Vietnam. He spent most of his time cultivating an identity as an outsider and contrarian by rejecting the hippie culture raging around him.

While other California kids smoked pot and took LSD, Lester was content with downing the Romilar (which in large doses had hallucinogenic properties) and fattening his record collection.

In 1969 Bangs answered an ad in Rolling Stone soliciting record reviews. He was soon given plenty of space in the review section by Greil Marcus (who went on to become self-appointed mythmaker for American popular music).

Bangs made a big impression by championing bands like the Velvet Underground and by slamming major label acts, thereby displeasing CBS records president Clive Davis in particular.

Bangs chafed at the limits imposed by the magazine's editors; in 1971 he accepted an offer from the Detroit-based rock magazine Creem to write and co-edit with another legend in the making, Dave Marsh. There Bangs developed his critical voice and stretched out with long essays that Rolling Stone never permitted. He developed a loyal following that identified Creem with Lester Bangs and his often outrageous and funny pieces about the music that not many people in America cared to support or even acknowledge.

In the early 1970s he perfected an esthetic that urged readers and listeners to think more critically about the dominant cultural trends of rock music. Bangs favored garage bands and irritating noisemakers over mellow country rock and the overblown classicism of progressive rock.

He gave Iggy and the Stooges and the New York Dolls good reviews when both acts were seen as jokes by most American music fans. He praised heavy metal when it was known simply as hard rock and lauded bands like Black Sabbath that were considered fit only for proles and teenage troglodytes.

Tiring of Detroit, Bangs moved to New York City in 1976 to write freelance and concentrate on his own music making. He worked for a host of publications - The Village Voice, Circus, Stereo Review, Screw - but never found the forum he had at Creem.

Having helped create the democratic esthetic of punk rock, an attitude that said anyone could be a performer and musician given enough passion and nerve, Bangs intended to be just that in New York. Passion and nerve he had, but not quite the talent to hold a band together or to make music that reached an audience outside the city.

In 1980 he moved to Austin, Texas, to pursue recording and performing with a band known as Lester Bangs and the Delinquents. He ended up back in New York, freelancing and drinking more than ever.

On April 30, 1982, Lester Bangs died of an accidental drug overdose. He was treating a bad cold with an unlikely combination of Darvon and Valium; the mixture killed him.

At the time of his death he had become disenchanted with popular music, saying "almost all current music is worthless. . . . Very simply, it has no soul." At 33, the upstart who loved noise and novelty was something of a curmudgeon, a traditionalist who favored music with passion above all else.

Perhaps Bangs was fortunate to have been spared the garish and hollow trends of Eighties and Nineties pop. Having helped create an audience for challenging sounds, he became a dinosaur. He wouldn't have been able to conform to the formulas that have plagued most music writing for the last 20 years.

Anyone interested in reading Lester Bangs can turn to a collection of his writing and reviews, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, published in 1987 (his bio of Elvis Presley is still in print too).

Jim DeRogatis wrote not only a solid biography of the man, he provides insight into the cultural context that infuriated Bangs and other disaffected Americans. The author also takes a look at the state of pop music journalism and finds it empty and wanting. Bangs would have had a hard time working as a critic these days.

Let It Blurt is a fine biography of a wretched, talented man and a sharp critique of an industry that begs to be skewered.

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