Bang! Bang! You're Alive

Stumbling down memory lane with the late Lester Bangs.

Legendary music writer Lester Bangs (1948-1982) was the hilariously loudmouthed James Joyce of Western civilization's most dubious "literary" achievement -- rock-and-roll journalism -- who injected himself into every music review like a self-absorbed maniac, both delighting and enraging readers of Rolling Stone, Creem and the Village Voice (among other publications and underground fanzines) with his lyrical scorn and inventive prose. He's also somebody for whom Lou Reed -- who performs Friday, June 10, at the Paramount Theatre -- should be lousy with praise. Bangs prolonged the big nihilist's notoriety in the late '60s when hippies twirled psychedelic supreme and grooviness filled the predictable airwaves. Sure, Andy Warhol did his utmost to promote the Velvet Underground's raw angst-as-art shtick for well over fifteen minutes -- three cheers for the gossip mill of New York City -- but Bangs practically made it his sole mission in life to expose the transgender smack bard to Creem's fledgling mid-American readership, a much tougher crowd than the ones targeted by consumer guides like Rolling Stone. Who's to say? Even with the dismal sales of the first few Velvet releases, it's unlikely that the rock-and-roll animal would have ever really needed to fall back on his business-school teachings and -- sweet "Sister Ray"! -- sell real estate. But one thing's for certain: Without Bang's input, Metal Machine Music, Reed's solo two-record ripoff of shrieking feedback and incomprehensible white noise, wouldn't hold nearly the mystique it does today. Dubbed "The greatest album ever made in the history of the human eardrum" and an "all-time guaranteed lease-breaker" by Bangs in 1975, the listening experience has all the enjoyment of lying down on a busy airport runway for sixty minutes. It's a notorious event in the recording industry, all right, and something RCA -- Reed's label at the time -- learned to live with, like cancer.

From the millions of words he left behind -- words that gleefully ridicule the rise and inevitable commercialization of the rock-and-roll myth -- it's clear that St. Lester spent an obsessive amount of energy both raving about and sharpening his claws on everyone, especially his beloved "Imp of the Perverse." ("I wouldn't walk across the street to spit on him," he'd ultimately conclude about Reed.) In Let It Blurt, his new biography, Chicago Sun Times music editor Jim DeRogatis calls the Bangs/ Reed relationship "equal parts Johnson/ Boswell, Vidal/Mailer and Mozart/Salieri," adding that "it was often difficult to tell who was who."

Nowadays, there are as many experts chiming in on the Bangsian thang as there are angles to the single-bullet theory. Director Cameron Crowe -- a former Creem contributor and protegé of Bangs's -- even has an autobiographical film, titled Stillwater, in the works that prominently includes the fabled wordsmith. (Rather than the everpresent and annoying Jim Carrey, Crowe enlisted Magnolia's Philip Seymour Hoffman for the role.) But of all of Bangs's fans, DeRogatis digs the deepest in his unflinching warts-and-all biography, painting a picture of a brilliant man as infectiously lustful about life and music as he was emotionally unstable, not to mention a rampant substance abuser. Fulfilling a high school journalism assignment to interview a "hero," DeRogatis spent an afternoon in the spring of 1982 with the self-described "compassionate humanist" two weeks before he died penniless in a filthy two-room apartment from acute propoxyphene poisoning -- a condition expedited by the flu and an accidental overdose of the painkiller Darvon. Drawing from these early impressions, countless interviews and years of fact-finding, DeRogatis chronicles the outrageous and bittersweet life of a writer who championed the underdog while debunking the bloated superstar, who changed the rules of criticism and achieved a cult following in the process.

Lester Bangs, pictured in Michigan in 1975, invented a new language of music criticism.
Lester Bangs, pictured in Michigan in 1975, invented a new language of music criticism.
Lester Bangs, pictured in Michigan in 1975, invented a new language of music criticism.
Lester Bangs, pictured in Michigan in 1975, invented a new language of music criticism.

Here's a condensed Reader's Digest version of DeRogatis's findings:

Raised in the working-class neighborhood of El Cajon, California, Bangs grew up the lone child of an overzealous mother who followed the Jehovah's Witness doctrine to the letter. A Christian separatist movement hell-bent on prophesizing the end of the world, the religion forbade Christmas presents, inoculations and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance; it also prompted Mrs. Bangs to parade her son around on a leash wearing placards with apocalyptic slogans. His alcoholic father, an ex-con and transient truck driver, burned alive when Bangs was eight. He turned to collecting Classics Illustrated for solace, but at age ten was lured to a trailer by a middle-aged man and paid cash and comic books in exchange for sex; the encounters continued for several months through his eleventh year.

As a teenager, Bangs discovered Franc Smith's "sacred text," Harry Vernon at Prep, as well as the self-taught, free-spirited writings of Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. Around the same time, Bangs's passion for music developed; a discriminating jazz connoisseur, he delved into Miles Davis and John Coltrane, but it was bassist Charles Mingus who became his consummate favorite. The mystical allure of jazz records -- and every kind of record available in a hayseed town like El Cajon -- tempered his ever-increasing disdain for authority. "My most memorable childhood fantasy was to have a mansion with catacombs underneath containing, in endless winding dimly lit musty rows, every album ever released," he wrote. Assigned a fifty-page paper for ditching five days of high school gym, Bangs produced "Hector the Homosexual Monkey" and received a week's suspension; through his mother's insistence, he was permanently excused from gym class. ("The Jehovah's Witnesses," DeRogatis concludes, "did not believe in dodge ball.")

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