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Lester Bangs mother was a Jehovah's Witness and his Father burned to death. Any biographer would be hard pressed to find a better metaphor for the man who, if not invented rock criticism, at least gave it its legs. Bangs was a rare experiment in courage, living his life and modeling his career off the irresponsible inspiration of rock music. He wrote the way the feedback-soaked music he loved sounded: Like breaking the rules. Bringing the Beat-style of loud, run-on sentences to the undeveloped world of rock journalism, his large paragraphs sputtered like the gun-fire words of a pulpit-beating minister.
Thirty years ago that fire burned out for good, depriving young readers the rare opportunity to read the work of an outsider, someone whose success as a journalist was based entirely on the magnetism of his work. While many rock writers today will rise to the top based on their resume or their proximity and likeability to publishers, Bangs had nothing close to that going for him.
Born in December 1948, in Escondido, California, Bangs somehow always remained out of step with his baby boomer generation. They were headed in the same direction, but on different roads: While they discovered peace with LSD, he discovered rage with Romilar cough syrup. When they spoke of the beauty of the Grateful Dead, he spoke of the necessity of The Velvet Underground. When they took the blues to psychedelia, he was taking it to punk.
"All rock critics are frustrated pop stars," Bangs once wrote. Consequentially, few of these frustrated pop stars ever wrote negative reviews; they were so humble in the presence of the real pop stars that they never had the nerve to really lay into them. "[In interviews] I started out to lead with the most insulting question I could think of," Bangs said in his final interview. "Because it seemed to me that the whole thing of interviewing as far as rock stars and that was just such a suck-up. It was groveling obeisance to people who weren't that special, really. It's just a guy, just another person, so what?"
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Bangs didn't suck up to musicians just like he didn't suck up to publishers. And yet they loved him for it. When Rolling Stone published his aggressively negative review of the MC5's Kick Out the Jams (effectively launching Bangs career) it was following the issue where they had put the band on their cover. He had been sending them reviews for a while, following up on their ad requesting submissions, but they had refused to bite until his review of the MC5.
"The first four reviews I sent, let's see, I said that Anthem of the Sun by the Grateful Dead and Sailor by Steve Miller were pieces of shit and White Light/White Heat by the Velvet Underground and Nico's The Marble Index were masterpieces, and White Light/White Heat was the best album of 1968. I couldn't figure out why they weren't printing any of these things.
"Then this MC5 album, Kick Out the Jams, came out, and they had this big article in there saying the MC5 were the greatest band in the world and all this, so I went out and bought it. Just like anybody, you buy something you don't like and you feel like you bought a hype. And I wrote this really like, blaaah!, scathing sort of review. And I sent a letter with it and said, 'Look, fuckheads, I'm as good as any writer you've got in there. You better print this or give me the reason why.' And they did, they printed it, and that was the beginning."
Bangs's work was wild, unrestrained and violently subjective. While most of the critics at Rolling Stone would describe a breakdown of the instrumentation of the album, using phrases like "good album" and "cool cover," Bangs would go on a rant about the correlation between rock music and pubescent sexuality. Essentially, previous rock critics would tell you how the music sounds, but Bangs would tell you how the music feels.
Check out this section of the 1979 essay about one of his most beloved albums, Van Morrison's Astral Weeks.
Van Morrison is interested, obsessed with how much musical or verbal information he can compress into a small space, and, almost, conversely, how far he can spread one note, word, sound, or picture. To capture one moment, be it a caress or a twitch. He repeats certain phrases to extremes that from anybody else would seem ridiculous, because he's waiting for a vision to unfold, trying as unobtrusively as possible to nudge it along. Sometimes he gives it to you through silence, by choking off the song in midflight: "It's too late to stop now!"
It's the great search, fueled by the belief that through these musical and mental processes illumination is attainable. Or may at least be glimpsed.
Lester freelanced for Rolling Stone until 1973, when Jann Wenner fired him for being "disrespectful to musicians." By that time, he'd begun submitting reviews to Creem Magazine, the doomed yet ultimately superior rival to Rolling Stone. Bangs would eventually become Creem's Senior Editor, making slightly more than the $12 a review he was making from his previous publication. But only slightly.
"The last thing anybody should ever consider doing is entering this racket," he wrote in his "How to Be a Rock Critic" essay. "In the first place, it doesn't pay much and doesn't lead anywhere in particular, so no matter how successful you are at it, you'll eventually have to decide what you're going to do with your life anyway."
In the essay, Bangs goes on to describe the ways to hustle and survive off such a meager income -- should you have made the unrecommended decision to try and freelance full time - such as selling free promo records, living off press dinners and record company financed cross-country flights to review a show ("free vacation!"). The low wage of freelance journalism forced Bangs to produce terrific amounts of work in order to survive; he developed an impressive method of churning out several reviews a night, typing out giant screeds under the influence of a variety of intoxicants.
He'd been drinking a bottle or two of Romilar Cough Syrup a day since he was a kid, and often augmented it by a roller coaster of speed and Valium, beer and whiskey. Yet the work always got done. "He wrote more pages than anyone will ever count," wrote Robert Christgau in Bang's obituary, "for a free associater who could turn out a 17,000-word rumination on the Troggs overnight and a 40,000-word fanbook on Blondie in three or four days, three million words may be a conservative estimate."
Though Bangs would often get depressed at the idea of being a rock writer forever. Teaming up with Joey Ramone's brother, Mickey Leigh, Bangs formed the band Birdland (after the song of same name by Patti Smith, one of several NYC proto-punks Bangs admired).
In the spring of 1982, Bangs planned to temporarily move to Mexico, eager to work on his delayed novel. "I've got to do something that has nothing to do with music," he said to a young Jim DeRogatis, who would commemorate the occasion almost twenty years later in the Lester Bangs biography Let It Blurt. "I don't have a deal to sell this book or anything, I just hope that somebody will want it. If nobody wants the novel, well -- it's something that I really want to do, and I figure that that's the most important thing."
If the combination of religion and burning to death is the best metaphor for Lester Bangs' character, then the above statement is the best, most encapsulating description of Bangs's ethos. Writing for the sake of writing always kept his work sincere and energized. When you read it, you could tell that it was coming from someone who was enjoying writing it at least as much as you were reading it.
Lester Bangs died two weeks after his interview with young DeRogatis. Though he was attending AA and had cut out the drinking, he was still swallowing handfuls of Valium at a time. "Lester Bangs probably did die of an overdose of [pain killer] Darvon, and probably Valium as well," said medical examiner Dr. Robert Kirschner of Bangs autopsy, which has come under criticism for not being very thorough. "But in order to determine whether it's an overdose, you need some quantitation, and there's none here. If I were going to court and someone asked me, 'Did this man die of a drug overdose?' I'd have to say, 'I don't know.'"
However he died, the way he lived inspired many young writers (including this one, who was still four months away from birth when Bangs expired). Five years after his death, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung -- a collection of Bangs essays assembled by Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau -- was published to overwhelming praise. Any criticism it did receive was typically aimed toward the editors and not the author.
"I felt that Marcus' collection was an attempt to enshrine Lester but also to sabotage him," said Vanity Fair critic James Wolcott in a 1997 interview. "There's a jealousy with both Christgau and Marcus, because Lester really reached readers. Bob and Greil have their followers, but they don't have the kind of intense fandom that Lester had. You felt connected to him. You can't imagine, like: 'Jeez, I wanna hang out with Greil Marcus.' What Lester had was really rare."
Unfortunately, Bangs's singular focus and wild exploration of the bounds of language remain rare to this day. For whatever economic downturn Bangs's generation endured in the last half of the 1970s, it was nothing compared with the state of published journalism four decades on. The lack of security has made writers of today even more cautious than the ones Bangs tormented -- and inspired -- in his day.
Though were he alive today the state of the economy and the job market would most likely rouse little sympathy in Bangs. Because -- like his contemporaries Hunter Thompson and Charles Bukowski -- Lester Bangs understood that the key ingredients of good writing (passion, observation, confidence, unique perspective) rarely take root in the soil of security.
Like his parents, Lester Bangs was a religious man who burned to death.
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