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
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
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
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
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.