Bang! Bang! You're Alive

Stumbling down memory lane with the late Lester Bangs.

Bangs excelled in speech and drama -- so much so that once, when caught putting a record under his shirt at Woolworth's, he pretended he was retarded and the clerk let him go. At seventeen, his thrill-seeking went south of the border: A trip to a Tijuana brothel resulted in a post-virginal dose of gonorrhea as well as disfellowship from Kingdom Hall -- the Witnesses' most severe form of punishment. It barred Bangs from the rest of the congregation, whose members pledged to no longer speak to him, do business with him or attend his funeral. ("I quit the Jehovah's," Bangs wrote years later, "because I thought disease in any form more worthy of a life's devotion.") Instead, he dedicated himself to disconnecting from his senses by any means available: morning glory seeds, belladonna, but mostly through a synthetic over-the-counter remedy called Romilar cough syrup. Heralded "the ultimate street drug," the stuff was doubly effective when washed down with a few nasal-inhaler wicks, as Bangs soon discovered. During his eighteenth year, he stopped bathing regularly. He named the lump on his forehead "Whizzer." He moved into an abandoned meat locker, then a series of crash pads. After witnessing a gang rape in a biker commune (and having his entire record collection swiped by its residents) in 1966, he returned to his mother's apartment to work on a 400-page manuscript called Drug Punk, which chronicled the previous year's events. At nineteen, goaded by his girlfriend Andy di Guglielmo, Bangs enrolled in San Diego State College, where he studied literature for three years before landing a job in the women's casuals division of Streicher's Shoe Store; the pay sucked, but the job allowed him to indulge his fetish for the feminine calf.

In 1969 Bangs submitted four pieces in response to a Rolling Stone ad for record reviews. "I long ago gave up on giving the other fellow's taste the benefit of the doubt," he wrote. "It led me to too many shitty, phony albums rhapsodized over by the influential sycophants serving as rock journalists in the absence of anyone with more style, taste and insight." Aside from the underground publication Crawdaddy!, Bangs had little use for music mags -- including Rolling Stone, which ignored his first submissions until he sent off a particularly scathing review of the MC5's debut, Kick Out the Jams, with a letter that read "Look, fuckheads, I'm as good as any writer you've got in there. You'd better print this or give me the reason why!" The magazine printed the review, and under editor Greil Marcus, Bangs began busting out a dozen reviews a week (at twelve bones a pop) until the empire's kingpin Jann Wenner canned him for being "disrespectful of musicians."

In 1971, Barry Kramer's Detroit-based upstart magazine Creem offered Bangs a position as an assistant editor, so he relocated to the 120-acre communal fiefdom where the Murder City approach to critiquing rock and roll was loud, abrasive, irreverent and doggedly vulgar. A crumbling two-bedroom dump provided the magazine's offices and housed its staff, which included Dave Marsh and a Cockapoo pup named Muffin. Bangs was lumped into a talented triumvirate called the Noise Boys with scribes Nick Tosches and Richard Meltzer. (Meltzer claims Bangs actually stole his shtick.) Famous guests and visitors to the Creem compound ranged from White Panther leader John Sinclair and various members of the Weather Underground to contributing writer Patti Smith (herself a recovering J-Witness) and "notorious perverto cartoonist" Robert Crumb, who designed the magazine's happy little milk-bottle logo, Boy Howdy! Bangs won Creem's readers' favorite-writer poll on an annual basis and received many bottles of Romilar from adoring fans; they made great Christmas tree ornaments (when empty). In the midst of this chaos, he wrote his best work, publishing mostly first drafts and adhering to the Beat practice of automatic inspiration.

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.

The rest of Let It Blurt follows Bangs through a namedropper's wet dream of jet-setting and celebrity excess (including a shouting match with Charles Bukowski) and makes one wonder how Bangs ever found the time to write. It traces his heartache and love affair with Nancy Alexander, an aspiring actress from a Detroit-based Greek family; unimpressed with the music biz, Alexander provided Bangs with perhaps his best and only touchstone to reality. It also chronicles his own attempts as a musician and songwriter who fronted various bands like Birdland and the Delinquents in New York's burgeoning DIY punk scene.

All in all, it's a fascinating read.

Still, despite DeRogatis's meticulous biographic research, there are those who feel that the writer's portrayal in Blurt isn't entirely accurate; interim Creem staffer John Morthland, who edited Bangs at the critics' commune for six months and became the star writer's best drinking buddy, is among them. When Bangs died -- six months after his estranged mother, Norma Bangs, passed away -- Morthland notified his late friend's next of kin, cleaned out his apartment and found buyers for all of the many books and records inside to raise money for a funeral. "I would like it to be understood that Lester was not this totally sad-sack gloomy guy who every day of his life was miserable and that he died," Morthland says from his home in Austin, Texas. "That's not the Lester I knew. Lester was very much a driven man. And in the last couple years of his life, a pretty anguished man. But he was never a joyless man. He was a scream. And anyone that knew him knew that. He was a serious and committed writer. In the book there's this catalogue of obnoxiousness and fucked-upness during which he gets some writing done. I mean, he'd come in at two or three in the morning and sit down at the typewriter and write till noon the next day whether he was straight or sober or not. The guy worked at writing all the time. Without that, none of this stuff would be being debated. It's Lester the writer that needs to get his due again."

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