Music Moved Him; His Writing Moved Us


By Gina Vivinetto


They who are to be judges must also be performers.

- Aristotle

Most pop music geeks I know enjoy reading about music as much as they like listening to it. That's why rock writers write big books about rock stars and geeks like us gobble them up. Fans want to know musicians' life stories, the backstage antics, the scoop on the stars' love lives, their addictions and anecdotes about how they write their tunes.

Some rock writers give the scoop with such flair or convey music's powerful message so forcefully or artfully that they become interesting themselves.

Such was the case with the late Lester Bangs. Bangs wrote about rock 'n' roll in the 1970s heyday of rock journalism. He did it with such edge and eloquence that his columns and rants in Rolling Stone and later Creem, where he made his name, were considered art. In fact, Bangs, who died at 33 in 1982 after ingesting a lethal combination of drugs, often eclipsed the performers he was writing about.

A denizen of the downtown New York art scene during the 1970s, Bangs lived the life of rock excess. He was a hopeless romantic who believed in the transformative power of music. Roommates would find Bangs sleeping on the sofa with Little Richard blasting so loud on his headphones it woke them.

Bangs did drugs and drank too much, staying up all night writing reams of impassioned text on the music that moved him. In search of the romantic love that eluded him, and living the life of the eternal adolescent, Bangs eventually hung out with the rock stars he wrote about: Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, the Ramones and particularly Lou Reed, with whom Bangs shared a well-known love-hate relationship, much of it in print.

Bangs himself became so celebrated that he is the subject of Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs
America's Greatest Rock Critic, a recently released biography by music journalist Jim DeRogatis. It is the first biography of a pop music writer. And it's a beautiful book.

Let It Blurt conveys that Bangs made no secret of his fandom, the effect these people's art had on him. Nor did he hesitate to say when he didn't like what he was hearing. Bangs wrote provocatively about his disillusionment with the social politics of the Clash, and how the band treated fans on tour, as well as rants about the racism of the punk rock scene.

The best of Bangs' writing can be found in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung (1987), edited by Greil Marcus, another well-known pop music/pop culture writer. Marcus, infinitely more scholarly, infinitely more highbrow than Bangs, called his pal "the best writer in America."

There is no music book I recommend more than Psychotic Reactions. Bangs' rants are sometimes maddening and frustrating, but always illuminating. He used music to talk about bigger issues: race, homophobia, gender, love, loneliness.

There's a reason I keep a pic of Bangs on my desk at work. The guy moves me. He makes me think on many levels about music and our culture. Bangs reminds me that music is powerful. It has the ability to transform. It is a gift.

Bangs had a gift, too.

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