By DWIGHT GARNER
LET IT BLURT
The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic.
By Jim DeRogatis.
Illustrated. 331 pp. New York:
Broadway Books. Paper, $15.95.
Unlike most rock critics, who scrutinize ''The Sun Sessions'' as if they were the Dead Sea Scrolls, Lester Bangs was never fanatical about Elvis Presley. In the early-to-mid-70's, the years in which Bangs poured forth the best of his discursive and radiantly unbuttoned writing, he was too busy championing the kind of music he liked to call ''imperative groin thunder'' -- among his obsessions were the Stooges, the Troggs and Lou Reed -- to spend many afternoons blowing the dust from his old Presley LP's. (If Elvis really wanted to matter again, Bangs cracked in 1971, he should ''join the Doors.'') Yet after Presley's death, in a piece for The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, Bangs quoted a memorable line from one of Elvis's producers: ''It's like someone just came up and told me there aren't going to be any more cheeseburgers in the world.''
When Lester Bangs died in 1982, apparently of an overdose of the prescription painkiller Darvon, it was as if someone had taken the French fries and the chocolate shakes, too. Bangs was among those rare American critics who operate on their own wildcat frequency: all riffs, all the time. He could be childish, inaccurate, unfair, lazy -- yet decades later, his sentences have lost little of their crackle. The only critics worth paying attention to, Mencken once wrote, ''could make the thing charming, and that is always a million times more important than making it true.'' Bangs managed to charm even most of his enemies.
He made more than his share. Part of the fun of flipping through
''Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung'' (1987), a sampling of Bangs's
work edited by Greil Marcus, is watching him strew carnage in all
directions. For Bangs, ''grossness was the truest criterion for rock 'n'
roll'' -- his preference for music that gave him ''barking fits'' helped him
define the aesthetics of punk and heavy metal -- and he loathed pretension
and cheap sentiment. Thus the members of Led Zeppelin were ''emaciated
fops''; the Jefferson Airplane was made up of ''radical dilettante
capitalist pigs''; and an infamous essay about egocentricity in rock was
titled ''James Taylor Marked for Death.'' (''If I hear one more
crashes-like-a-slab-of-hod-on-J.T.'s-shoulders song,'' Bangs wrote, he would grab the first Greyhound bus and track Taylor down himself.) He could be even more passionate about the music he loved, whether Van Morrison's ''Astral Weeks'' or Lou Reed's headache-inducing ''Metal Machine Music.'' There hasn't been another rock critic like him, and there isn't likely to be -- it's hard to imagine, in the cool and well-ventilated world of today's music magazines, who would publish him.
As Jim DeRogatis's readable and well-researched new biography of Bangs makes clear, he lived as exuberantly as he wrote. He was a hard guy to miss in a crowd: at 6-foot-1 and more than 200 pounds, Bangs looked like a manic version of Rob Reiner circa ''All in the Family.'' He rarely bathed (The Village Voice once referred to him as a ''walking dirt bomb''), and he ingested enough cheap stimulants (Romilar cough syrup was an early favorite) to fuel a decade's worth of Keith Richards solo tours. But his restless intellect, outsize personality and big heart drew people to him; he may have been the last rock critic in America to attract groupies of his own.
At times, ''Let It Blurt'' can read like a transcription of a saccharine VH1 ''Behind the Music'' documentary -- a catalog of Bangs's excesses and up-all-night gab sessions followed by the inevitable morning-after homilies (''Lester seemed to be gripped by a loneliness that intimates could not alleviate''). DeRogatis, a pop music critic for The Chicago Sun-Times, is a capable writer if rarely an inspired one; it's not his fault that every time he quotes passages from Bangs's own writing, the book seems to shift from black and white into color.
One of DeRogatis's achievements here, however, is his evocation of the shaggy world of the first-generation rock magazines -- notably Creem (founded in 1969), but also Rolling Stone (founded in 1967) -- and the even shaggier writers they attracted. Bangs fell in with a group of aggressive, largely self-educated critics that included Nick Tosches, Dave Marsh and Richard Meltzer, and DeRogatis contrasts their antics with the more professorial demeanor of Robert Christgau, the Village Voice writer and editor, and Greil Marcus, who was Rolling Stone's first full-time record reviews editor. (There's a funny scene where Bangs spots Marcus in the crowd at Altamont, donnishly smoking a pipe.)
While no one will mistake this gang for the New York Intellectuals, their work has, for better and sometimes worse, defined rock criticism as a genre, and for some readers the gossip about them and others will be worth the price of admission. DeRogatis brings home the goods: there are pages of bickering, debauched behavior and romantic angst -- whether it's Christgau hurling food at his former girlfriend Ellen Willis, who was then The New Yorker's rock critic, Bangs stealing the critic James Wolcott's girlfriend out from under his nose, or Bangs falling for the writer Cynthia Heimel after she approached him at a rock club and announced, ''I just took half a Quaalude and drank three Scotches, and I'm not responsible for anything I do.''
DeRogatis's portrait of Bangs is similarly rich in oddball detail. Born in 1948, the future wild man of rock criticism was raised in what he called ''the ice-cream and television world'' of El Cajon, Calif.; his father was a frequently unemployed trucker, his mother a crusading Jehovah's Witness. Bangs was a bright, high-strung kid who, while in high school, fell hard for the visions in Jack Kerouac's books and Miles Davis's music; he fell just as hard for the visions induced by wacky methods of getting high (drinking vanilla extract, lacing chocolate shakes with nutmeg). His rebellion frequently took hilarious forms. When a gym coach ordered him to write a 10-page paper for each of the five days of class he had missed, Bangs turned in a rambling 50-page story called ''Hector the Homosexual Monkey.'' He was suspended for a week.
Bangs fell into rock journalism almost by accident. He was kicking around and working as a shoe salesman when, in the late 60's, he responded to an ad in Rolling Stone -- the magazine was looking for a few good critics. He sent in some reviews, and he quickly became a regular presence in the magazine, despite Jann Wenner's objections to some of his more opinionated and obnoxious pieces. Bangs fled Rolling Stone in 1970, in favor of writing, and later editing, for Detroit's rowdier Creem magazine, which published his best and most free-form essays, profiles and criticism.
In 1976, Bangs left Creem and moved to New York, where he fell in with the punk crowd at CBGB, wrote for The Voice and fronted a few unsuccessful bands of his own. (''Lester sounded like a baying walrus,'' one of his drummers said.) By the early 80's the years of hard living had caught up with him: he began waking up on sidewalks; friends would stuff food into his pockets so he'd remember to eat something when he finally made it home.
DeRogatis doesn't romanticize Bangs's self-destructive rampages, although at times he comes close. Some readers may also feel that DeRogatis doesn't do quite enough to rebut Bangs's happily juvenile notion that true rock 'n' roll has to be made by hormone-addled ''guitar-slappin' brats.'' Not all great rock music -- as anyone who cares about, say, Marianne Faithfull or Lucinda Williams realizes -- is a rude stew of adolescent impulses. But it's hard to disagree with Bangs's observation that ''I just like people with some Looney Tune in their souls.''
Bangs never got around to finishing the novel he'd sporadically toiled on
for years; with the exception of quickie books about Rod Stewart and the
band Blondie, none of his other book proposals came to fruition, either. Yet
almost two decades after his death, his pedal-to-the-floor criticism is more
influential and celebrated than ever -- his name has been invoked in song
lyrics by everyone from the Ramones to Bob Seger to R.E.M. Only a fraction
of Bangs's criticism has appeared between hard covers, and it's impossible
to scan the carefully compiled bibliography at the close of ''Let It Blurt''
without sensing that someone needs to issue a second anthology of his work
-- the rest of Lester Bangs. Luckily, in one of those book proposals, he
left behind a pretty good title: ''A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise.'' Back
Dwight Garner is an editor at the Book Review.
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