Bang! Bang! You're Alive
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.
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.")
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.
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."
Morthland is busy collecting more of Bangs's previously unpublished manuscripts to propose a sequel to Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, a superb collection edited by the academically inclined Greil Marcus and first published in 1987. Considered the music critic's bible in some circles, Psychotic Reactions is a blast to read and finds Bangs using the language and rhythms of rock and roll in astounding ways. Marcus canonized Bangs as "rock's essential wildman, a one-man orgy of abandon, excess, wisdom, satire, parody -- the bad conscience...of every band he reviewed or interviewed." Without a doubt, Blurt is a fine compendium and a compelling look at the man behind it all, but Psychotic Reactions is the best place to get it knee-slappin' straight from the horse's mouth. Morthland hopes his proposed sequel, to be roughly the same length as the first book, will carry his friend's legacy even further by introducing both new and old fans alike to unearthed gems of Bangsian delight. "Lester used to write something at someone's house and leave it with whatever friend he was staying with," Morthland notes. "A lot of stuff has turned up over the years." On a local note, Colorado Music Association president Dolly Zander -- herself a former flame of Bangs's in the mid-'70s during the Detroit era (which, technically, makes her a Bangee) -- is providing Morthland with several letters from a lengthy correspondence she maintained with the writer after her relocation to Denver.
But it's the lost-and-found liner notes Bangs penned for an obscure German pop vocal sextet called the Comedian Harmonists that might best sum up how he felt about his own writing. (A 78 rpm recording from the group -- which disbanded under Nazi pressure during the mid-'30s -- was reissued in 1980.) In the notes, Bangs praises the Harmonists -- whose blend of music hall, rathskeller, Alpine folk, American black blues, gospel, ragtime and jazz influence appealed to his own sense of appreciation for uncategorizable things -- to the heavens. Then, in one of his typical, meandering confessions, he reveals this bit of self-eulogy:
"By profession, I am categorized as a rock critic. I'll accept that, especially since the whole notion that one somehow has a career' instead of just doing whatever you feel like doing at any given time has always amused me when it didn't make me wanna vomit. OK, I'm a rock critic. I also write and record music. I write poetry, fiction, straight journalism, unstraight journalism, beatnik drivel, mortifying love letters, death threats to white jazz critics signed The Mau Mau of East Harlem' and once a year my obituary (last entry: He was promising...'). The point is that I have no idea what kind of writer I am, except that I do know that I'm good and lots of people like to read whatever it is that I do, and I like it that way."
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