EXAMINE 2 CHALLENGING FIGURES
By Ben Sandmel. Ben Sandmel is the author of
"Zydeco!" with photographer Rick Olivier and the drummer-producer for...
November 26, 2000
The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic
By Jim DeRogatis
Broadway, 331 pages, $15.95 paper
TROUBLE MAN: The Life and Death of Marvin Gaye
By Steve Turner
Ecco Press, 259 pages, $24
Popular music always reflects contemporary social conditions, either overtly or by
conspicuous absence. Today, for instance, when America is relatively stable and
prosperous, few political statements appear in pop, rock or rap. But polemic, protest and
appeals to conscience all figure prominently in the soundscape of more turbulent epochs,
especially the mid-1960s through the early '70s. That was a particularly potent era for
expressing strong opinions, because the ascendance of the counterculture gave pop music
unprecedented power to challenge the status quo. Two new biographies examine challenging
figures whose careers skyrocketed during those years. Their work remains relevant today,
but their trajectories began to fizzle and falter during the following decade. By 1984
they were both burnt out, dead and gone.
Some rock biographers display a hipper-than-thou attitude in which essential background
and contextual information about their subject is not presented. The implication is that
readers should already know as much as the writer, yet will never be cool enough to do so.
Fortunately there is no such esoteric arrogance in either volume discussed here.
Jim DeRogatis, pop-music critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, does not assume that his
audience is familiar with Lester Bangs. Instead, DeRogatis strikes a sensible chord by
summarizing Bangs' legacy in the preface to "Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of
Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic":
"Lester was the great gonzo journalist, gutter poet, and romantic visionary of
rock writing--its Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski, and Jack Kerouac all rolled into
one. . . . Where others idealized the rock 'n' roll lifestyle or presented a distant
academic version of it, he lived it, reveling in its excesses, drawing energy from its
din, and matching its passion in prose. . . ."
At his best, Bangs was brilliantly perceptive, witty, articulate and wholly original.
He was an insightful chronicler of '60s and '70s rock, especially the punk movement, which
his support helped popularize. He mercilessly attacked the pretense and moneyed elitism
that emerged in rock music and rock journalism.
At his worst, Bangs was self-indulgent, mean-spirited and reckless. A substance abuser
with gargantuan appetites, Bangs often wrote under the influence. As with his idol
Kerouac, the results were wildly uneven, and the practice wrecked his health.
In his preface, DeRogatis lays out his book's purpose: to tell Bangs' life story, chart
the history of rock criticism, examine Bangs' work and place this work in the larger
perspective of its social/historical milieu. Writing in a brisk, straightforward style and
drawing on extensive research, DeRogatis succeeds on all counts. There are some
distractions, however. DeRogatis is obviously angry--and, at times, excessively
personal--when discussing Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau, the first-generation rock
critics who gave Bangs many of his writing assignments. Since Bangs' death they have
edited, anthologized and discussed his work, and DeRogatis feels they belittle Bangs'
legacy with pseudo-intellectual condescension.
Parts of Bangs' story are grim and increasingly depressing. DeRogatis recounts the
details of his cough-syrup and booze binges, public tirades, food fights at press events,
arrests and dubious personal hygiene. While DeRogatis recognizes that Bangs was troubled,
he seems to view these actions as amusing antics that fueled Bangs' writing. Many readers
may find them merely dull and pathetic. But this dissolute, desperate picture is balanced
by numerous accounts of Bangs as a loyal, caring friend who gladly helped young, aspiring
Born in southern California in 1948, Bangs began covering music for his high-school
newspaper. Even then, his over-the-top talent was unmistakable: "Rock 'n' roll--that
enfant terrible, that ugly child, that bad noise, that raucous wilderness of amateurs
grabbing a shifty buck, yes baby, rock 'n' roll has jumped out of the manhole like the
Shadow himself. . . ." By 1969 Bangs was writing for Rolling Stone. He raved about
outsider guitarist Captain Beefheart but was scathing in his condemnation of more
mainstream bands such as It's a Beautiful Day: " `I hate this album . . . not only
because I wasted my money on it, but for what it represents: an utterly phoney, arty
approach to music that we will not soon escape.' " Bangs also developed a reputation
as a confrontational interviewer, and especially enjoyed baiting Lou Reed. " `The
whole thing of interviewing rock stars was just such a suck-up,' " he explained.
" `It was groveling obeisance. . . .' " Few critics took this radical approach
in 1969, and many readers thought it resonated with the rebellious tone of the times.
Bangs developed a devoted following but offended the record companies whose advertising
kept Rolling Stone in business. He was banished for several years and wrote much of his
most best-known work for Creem and the Village Voice. Many articles were wild and
provocative, although one of his most eloquent pieces was a calm, respectful review of
Peter Guralnick's fine book "Lost Highway." When he died in 1982, Bangs was
trying to curb his bad habits and expand his scope beyond rock criticism. DeRogatis
describes this struggle compassionately and makes a convincing case for the continuing
importance of Bangs' work.
In many respects, rhythm-and-blues singer Marvin Gaye was the polar opposite of Lester
Bangs. Suave, sophisticated and successful, with a gorgeous, soaring voice, Gaye earned
every conceivable accolade and material reward. But, like Bangs, Gaye was tormented and
self-destructive. Steve Turner's "Trouble Man: The Life and Death of Marvin
Gaye" blends a lucid psychological profile of Gaye with an informative account of his
career and examination of his work. In his introduction, Turner states his intention to
avoid getting mired in musical minutiae. He adroitly avoids psychobabble as well. Biblical
quotes at the top of each chapter enhance the tone of this biography as a spiritual
journey, albeit a tragic one.
Born in 1939 in Washington, D.C., Gaye was raised in a highly dysfunctional home. His
father was cold, disapproving and sexually conflicted. Turner presents numerous quotes
from friends and family that establish him as the main source of his son's problems.
Like many R&B singers, Gaye began singing in church. As a teenager he joined a
secular band, performing in the popular '50s style known as doo-wop. This led to a stint
with one of the genre's leading groups, Harvey Fuqua and the Moonglows. In 1959 Fuqua
introduced Gaye to Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records. Gaye's first album, a
collection of standards, appeared in 1961 and flopped. Gaye envisioned himself as a
crooner a la Frank Sinatra and Mel Torme. He never succeeded in this vein and always
resented it, feeling misunderstood as an artist.
Gordy leaned on Gaye to sing R&B, and after a few false starts the hits began to
flow: "Hitch-hike," "Stubborn Kind of Fellow," "I'll Be
Doggone," "Can I Get a Witness." Soon Gaye emerged as a major star, but he
was not happy. Dabbling with cocaine, Gaye began to miss performances and recording
sessions. He strained his marriage with frequent affairs and failed to pay his taxes.
Gaye's father enjoyed the fruits of his son's success but envied him and never praised his
There was also tension with father-figure Gordy. Motown had remained largely apolitical
throughout the turmoil of the '60s, and Gaye yearned to address the issues of the day. His
groundbreaking masterpiece, "What's Going On"--with its topical lyrics and
exquisite, multitracked harmonies--was recorded in spring 1970. Gordy sat on the album and
reluctantly released it in 1971, with low expectations. The response was overwhelming and
transformed Gaye from a teen idol to the recipient of a prestigious Image Award from the
But by this time Gaye was mired in addiction and an endless series of tax problems and
lawsuits. He sought solace in increasingly rough-edged sex, and many of his most popular
records that followed reflected this erotic obsession, notably "Let's Get It On"
and "Sexual Healing." The latter included one of the more haunting admissions
that has ever appeared in a pop hit: "Whenever blue teardrops are falling/And my
emotional stability is leaving me . . ."
Unable to resolve his conflicts, Gaye wanted to die but would not kill himself. Turner
recounts a chilling conversation between Gaye and bodyguard Andre White regarding Gaye's
frequent altercations with his father. " `You want to die and you're too chicken to
kill yourself,' " White told Gaye. " `But if you keep [messing] with your
daddy--he's told you what he'll do.' " In 1984 Gaye's father made good on his threats
and shot his son dead. Turner recounts this horror with sensitivity rather than
sensationalism, and he shows obvious respect for Gaye as a man and a musician.
Beyond the heartwrenching lack of personal fulfillment explored in these two
biographies, authors DeRogatis and Turner also convey a broader sense of cultural loss. If
Lester Bangs and Marvin Gaye had conquered their demons and survived, it is likely that
more fine work would have followed from both.
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