Detroit Metro Times 4/19/00
by Jim DeRogatis
Broadway Books, $15.95, 331 pp.
So, I’m a rock critic (at least in some capacity). As such, I’m indebted to several men who alchemized their obsessions with music, literature, culture and writing into what can now be called rock criticism. (It’s not their fault that they, in the process, created an entire economy and culture of music writing based upon the scribblings of cheap imitators.) Richard Meltzer, Nick Tosches and Greil Marcus are chief among this form’s pantheon.
But the most legendary is the man who — from the early ‘70s with Rolling Stone and Detroit’s own Creem to the early ‘80s with myriad publications — added that dash of unrepentant, romantic fan-gush and a wild, Beat-worshipping style to the rock writing mix. The most legendary is the man who became the walking archetype for the aspiring rock writer — that combination of Buddha, philosopher, speed freak and Star Trek geek. The most legendary is the man who busted rock writing out of the heads, into the streets, cut open the main vein of the English language and let it bleed all over the page in service of getting closer to the musical godhead (or some other such rock-crit linguistic puffery). That’d be Lester Bangs.
So, how do you best explain a legend? That is, how to say just exactly what it was that made Lester Bangs Lester Bangs — and what was it about Bangs that made him transcend all those other fans-turned-writers-turned-critics? It’s a daunting task, to be sure. Let It Blurt: The Life & Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic (even the title reeks of Bangsian hyperbole!) is the first attempt at nailing down this whirling dervish of brilliant verbiage. As such, it has to mark out the reality of Bangs’ life that the critic only hinted in his rants, reviews and encounter journalism.
Author Jim DeRogatis — a rock scribe himself who went to worship at the altar of Bangs just before the gonzo Buddha’s death — takes a straight-laced approach to the tale of Leslie Conway Bangs. Where DeRogatis succeeds is exactly where he needs to: In unearthing the basic framework upon which this larger-than-life artist/man/freak-of-nature was built, DeRogatis shows us the man inside. His prose, when workmanlike and reportorial, lets the subject shine through. When he tries to get wiggy with his words, he loses the plot.
The thing about Bangs was that his writing was wild enough to constantly inhabit the reader’s mind; why else would you be reading the biography of a rock critic if you hadn’t already known something of his work? The thread that ties the whole affair together is the idea that "there’s a man in there."
DeRogatis finds the young Bangs’ interior life colored equally by his budding love affair with music, a strict Jehovah’s Witness home environment lorded over by his widowed mother, and the transient nature of his early years after the death-by-immolation of his father. Bangs would write about this in poem-lyric form, in a work titled, appropriately, "There’s a Man in There."
So there’s, alternately, the endearing: The personification of his record collection ("When I got back home I put the Mr. Lucky album into the record rack next to its old neighbor, the Peter Gunn Album ... I was thinking the two old friends, among the very first albums that I ever bought, must be delighted to see each other after so long"); the seminal: His first long-term relationship with girlfriend Andrea "Andy" di Guglielmo would lay the pattern for his ongoing issues with what can only be described as over-intimacy with women; and the maternal: His relationship with his mother is never far from the narrative (or the hours upon hours of therapy Bangs underwent, here delved into by DeRogatis).
DeRogatis spends a good deal of time trying to examine that nether region between the balls-to-the-wall gonzo writer and the earnest, romantic sweetheart always lurking inside Bangs. This makes for a fascinating read, particularly about the early years, through Bangs’ stay in Detroit as a writer and editor at Creem (where he was a mentor and icon to a generation of Detroit writers, many of whom still kick it with style and grace in the pages of rock journals here, there and everywhere).
It could be that Bangs lived less publicly while in Motown, or it could be that he just wrote about his personal life less while at Creem, but the narrative DeRogatis spins after Bangs relocates to New York City to become a bigtime-rock writer-freelancer guy feels both familiar and cursory. Though there are exceptional moments here, too.
For example, Derogatis takes us inside the sort of ladies-who-lunch group of call girls Bangs would often hang with in his later years. Also, the tales of Bangs’ brief relocation to Austin, Texas, his futile attempts there to change the patterns of his life and his ongoing battle to go through the looking glass and transmogrify from rock writer to rock star are telling. These, too, ring of the inevitable early death which was soon to follow.
DeRogatis does an admirable job of getting it all down — no small feat when you consider Bangs’ seemingly boundless energy and joie de vivre.
Which is the nut of it, really, cuz Let It Blurt — whether you know Bangs’ work or have just heard a bit about the legend — like Bangs himself, reads like a foregone conclusion, racing to cram as much life into the short space before the walls cave in and the whole house of cards burns to the ground. For, when we talk of legend, we must talk of burning out rather than fading away, and Bangs burned brightly before he died quietly.
But I’m just a rock critic, so what the fuck do I know?
Chris Handyside is Metro Times music editor