Philadelphia Inquirer


By Dan DeLuca


When Oscar Wilde wrote that "the highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is a mode of autobiography," he might have been thinking of Lester Bangs.

Except he wasn't: Wilde died 48 years before Bangs was born. But never mind those pesky facts, for as Bangs himself once wrote, "I have always believed rock 'n' roll comes down to myth. There are no 'facts.' "

That, of course, is balderdash, as Jim DeRogatis correctly points out in the first sentence of his page-turning bio of the larger-in-death-than-life figure he correctly identifies as "the great gonzo journalist, gutter poet and romantic visionary of rock writing."

Like Wilde, Bangs was given to attention-grabbing overstatement _ he once wrote that Lou Reed's "Metal Machine Music," a 1976 double album of nothing but screaming feedback, was "the greatest record ever made in the history of the human eardrum. Number Two: "Kiss Alive!"

But more to the point, and the reason that I brought up "Oscar Wilde," is that for Bangs, criticism was far more a mode of autobiography than for most. Bangs raised rock writing to lofty peaks as he chronicled the noisome, guttural assaults of the lowliest of heavy metal and punk personages. He did it in desperately impassioned, first-person prose that was always looking at the stars, even while he was lying in the gutter.

Championing rock-and-roll heroes such as Patti Smith, the Clash and, above all, Lou Reed, in Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, and, most gloriously, the Detroit magazine Creem, Bangs didn't go in for the erudite analysis of big-deal critic contemporaries such as Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau.

Instead, the big moustachioed lug often described as looking "like Rob Reiner, but with longer hair," nearly always made Lester Bangs, truth-telling wild man, an essential part of the story. And while detailing his consuming passion for rock and roll, he also included accounts of his massive consumption of alcohol, pills and his favorite mind-altering substance, Romilar cough medicine.

Bangs died in 1982 at 33, a probable accidental suicide, prone on his Manhattan couch with too much Valium and Darvon in his veins, a Human League LP spinning on his stereo.

For a critic whose only books published in his lifetime were quickie bios of Rod Stewart and Blondie (the latter said to have been written in 48 hours on speed, "96 at the absolute most," according to close friend John Morthland), Bangs' work has already had a remarkable afterlife. In 1987, the Greil Marcus-edited "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung," a selection of classic Bangs writings _ ranging from his paean to Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" to an infamous piece titled "James Taylor Marked for Death" _ was published to enthusiastic reviews.

Bangs is noteworthy not only as the rare critic whose essays are worth reading years after his subjects have fallen off the charts. He also lives on in the scribblings of imitators. These, unfortunately, subject their readers to the indulgent school of rock criticism ("And then the phone rang, and it was Michael Stipe calling me") and share their every thought with plenty of chutzpah, but with not a smidgen of Bangs' genius for making his own experience resonate.

DeRogatis, rock critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, proves to be an able chronicler of the Bangs rise and fall and an excellent historian with unique qualifications.

Two weeks before Bangs' death in 1982, DeRogatis interviewed the elder critic for a high school journalism class. In "Let It Blurt" _ which takes its title from a Bangs song lyric that amounted to a philosophy of life _ DeRogatis draws from hundreds of interviews as well as reams of published and unpublished writings. (Perhaps it's a good thing that Bangs' book project, "All The Things You Could Be By Now If Iggy Pop's Wife Was Your Mother," never came to be.)

DeRogatis brings to life a born proselytizer who rebelled against his Jehovah's Witness background as a teen-ager by choosing to worship Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Miles Davis, then went on to preach on behalf of his rock idols. And if it falls short of its lofty goal of serving as "a musical and cultural history of its time," "Let It Blurt" does handle the compelling and colorful task of charting the history of rock criticism, from it freewheeling early days to its thumbs-up, thumbs- down present.

The book is alive with Bangs' encounters with artists such as Richard Hell, Bob Marley and Patti Smith and fellow scribes Richard Meltzer, Cynthia Heimel and Nick Tosches. The latter sums up Bangs thus: "He was a romantic in the gravest, saddest, best and most ridiculous sense of that worn-out word. ... In the end, the phantoms of all that crazy love and anger, since they weren't his to command, conquered him."

DeRogatis doesn't ignore Bangs' failings. He portrays Bangs as a good-hearted lug, but also a hopeless drunk trapped in an outsized persona that was "perfectly capable of destroying someone with a casual blast of callous insensitivity."

But ultimately, "Let It Blurt" celebrates Bangs' compulsion to use rock-and-roll writing _ or, in the case of the music he made with his his not-well-reviewed band, Birdland, simply rock and roll _ to make a primal connection with readers to whom the music meant as much as it did to him.

The critic had his doubts that, as he grew older, music could still be his be- all and end-all. "Rock 'n' roll is just not enough, either in volume or importance, to devote all my time to," he wrote, and at the time of his death he was planning a "real" non-music novel.

Bangs made such unrealistic demands of rock _ communal ecstasy, spiritual satisfaction, a reason to go on living _ that disappointment was all but assured. But frustration led him to channel his manic energy into prose that consistently rang out with the uncompromised intelligence and passion of the best of the music he loved.

"Good rock 'n' roll is something that makes you feel alive," Bangs told DeRogatis in 1982. "Rock 'n' roll is an attitude. It's not a musical form of a strict sort. It's a way of doing things, of approaching things. Writing can be rock 'n' roll or a movie can be rock 'n' roll. It's a way of living your life."

(Published April 16, 2000)

(c) 2000, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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