Published: WEDNESDAY, APRIL 19, 2000

Lester Bangs Was A Real Yahoo

    The first thing to understand and bear in mind at all times is that the whole thing is just a big ruse from the word go, it don't mean shit except exploitatively and in the zealotic terms of wanting to inflict your tastes on other people. . . Rock 'n roll's basically a bunch of garbage in the first place, it's noise, it's here today and gone tomorrow, so the only thing that can possibly trip you up is if you begin to reflect that if the music's that trivial, can you imagine how trivial what you're doing is?
    -- Lester Bangs, "How To Be A Rock Critic"

    "She's Lost Control" isn't just a Joy Division song. As anyone who's been watching VH-1 lately can tell you, losing control is the national anthem of the rock nation. Self-implosion's a theme so pop-played that MTV's sister station can reduce it into easily digestible, formulaic chunks. With minor variations on the theme, it doesn't really matter who Behind The Music or Legends is about. The equation's simple: Phil Lynott's heroin-scabbed feet equals Iggy Pop's bleeding chest equals the time Dr. Dre beat up the television host equals how Hillel Slovak quit the Red Hot Chili Peppers equals Altamont equals Woodstock '99. . . and so on. Not that these events aren't tragic, or comic, or some combination of the two. It's just that tragedy's such a hot, saleable commodity -- all that blood, sweat, tears, piss and pain -- and that's why it's pop culture's gold standard. It's not good unless your parents hate it and, like the Times Square arcade marquee reads, Too Much Is Not Enough. That's the lesson of youth, and our greatest rock 'n roll stars studied hard. In Let it Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic, Jim DeRogatis shows that Lester Bangs helped write the lesson plan.


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    A long-time contributor to Rolling Stone, The Village Voice and editor of Creem, Bangs defined the rock 'n roll lifestyle as both critic and addict. Years of trading insults with Lou Reed and writing scathing, thousand-word reviews in less time than it takes to get high earmarked his career, but his influence and myth are legendary -- and with good reason. DeRogatis portrays Bangs as the self-styled Beat madman of rock criticism, equal parts Kerouac, Burroughs and Bozo the Clown competing in both his writing and his life, his opinions accurate to a fault, his relationships with women and editors in almost constant crisis. It's a sad story, made all the more tragic for its familiarity.


    DeRogatis' Bangs was a large, smelly man who reminded acquaintances of Rob Reiner (Meathead from television's All In The Family), a comparison the critic hated. Often unable to separate his personal life from his work on paper, Bangs had a needling habit of destroying friendships with his negative reviews. After championing Patti Smith's first album, Bangs viciously dogged her second; their friendship never really rose above it. Similar ego clashes with The Dictators, Blondie, Richard Hell, Lou Reed and The Clash litter Let It Blurt's pages, but DeRogatis wisely contrasts Bangs' critical vision with the blindness of his personal life. Girlfriends, many of them famous in their own right now, describe Bangs as honest to a fault, saddled with an enormous emotional immaturity. DeRogatis' research agrees: The critic couldn't just date, he had to be in love, and he couldn't just be in love, it had to be the greatest love of all time. With his drug, alcohol, cough syrup and Jehovah's Witness problems, befriending Bangs was not unlike having a pile of bleeding ground beef lying around the middle of your living room floor. The odor, it seems, eventually got to everyone -- including his editors at The Village Voice, who published an article about Bangs in 1982 entitled "Yecch! An Interview with a Slob." "One day not long ago, a bum/derelict wandered into our offices," the article begins. "I was on the verge of calling 911 when someone greeted this monstrosity with 'Lester Bangs -- glad to see you!'"


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    It's not exactly a sympathetic portrait. But if DeRogatis meticulously documents Bangs' shortcomings, he also uses the critic's faults to highlight accomplishments. Bangs' nervy, balls-to-the-wall writing style (often aided by crystal meth) rose to the challenge of describing pop ephemera with critical intelligence. Like Hunter S. Thompson, Bangs' wrote from empirical evidence -- whatever evidence his binges left him -- with an unnerving foresight and desperate sense of humor. At one point, DeRogatis tosses off a quote from one of Bangs' editors about how the critic was dissatisfied with New York City; how the "scene" (CBGB, mainly, of which Bangs was a messy mainstay) was too insular and pretentious to produce music of any lasting value. Instead, the editor says that Bangs saw rock's future in small-town America, areas detached from the grind of publicity wheels. A full decade before Nirvana released Nevermind, Bangs cited the Pacific Northwest as a hot-spot. And not surprisingly, pop music's resident oracle carried punk's torch in the days when The Stooges and The MC5 were still in after-school detention.


    If nothing else, DeRogatis shows how Bangs, along with a handful of other writers, is responsible for creating rock 'n roll's myth. It's not pretty and doesn't flow as easily as one of VH-1's documentaries, but Let It Blurt is far more valuable than the mere details of a single story: It illustrates the whole damn thing being made.





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