This week we’re not looking at a musician (although he had a couple of bands of his own) – instead we’re taking a look at the man who, I think it’s safe to say, turned rock criticism into a form of literature.
Lester Bangs was name-checked in songs by REM and The Ramones and portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Cameron Crowe’s terrific Almost Famous. I’ve got a cat named after him. Many people are aware of him by name because of those things (okay, maybe not my cat) but I’m not sure how many of those people have actually read any of his work. As a kid in the 70s I had a passing familiarity with Lester’s mad style of writing but it wasn’t until I found a copy of Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung that I really realized how important he was – and still is, for that matter.
Lester started freelancing for Rolling Stone in 1969 with a negative review of Kick Out the Jams by the MC5. He got kicked off the magazine in 1973 for being “disrespectful to musicians,” after making fun of Canned Heat in his review of their album New Age. The truth is, Lester simply never bought into the hype or the cult of personality of The Rock Star, and his writing always reflected that.
He wrote for Creem for a number of years, and it was in back issues of that mag that I discovered Lester. At the time I don’t think his work really hit home with me other than that I enjoyed his sense of humor and no-bullshit approach, which, now that I say it out loud, says a lot about the writing. Nothing else stood out like Lester. Looking back on Lester’s stuff, it’s easy to see the influence of writers like Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs but it never seems forced or overwhelms the work – and in fact, reading interviews with Lester, it’s obvious that his writing was nothing more than Lester being Lester, as opposed to so many of the pretentious douches who pontificate about rock n’ roll as some kind of ultra-meaningful art form. Lester never played that game but when he dug a musician or a band he could lay out exactly what it was that made them so great – read Of Pop and Pies and Fun, his 1970 piece on Iggy and the Stooges (reprinted in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung) for a perfect example of this.
Lester was apparently famous for inventing shit whenever the mood struck – in his piece on The Count Five (the title selection in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung) he creates four albums by the band out of thin air, including catalog numbers for the records, then proceeds to review those make-believe albums. I spent more time than I’d care to admit searching for those goddamn records before I realized I’d been hoodwinked by Lester.
Lester’s relationships with the musicians he wrote about ran the gamut, but most famous was his odd relationship with Lou Reed, which Jim DeRogatis describes as “equal parts Johnson/Boswell, Vidal/Mailer, and Mozart/Salieri (and it was often difficult to tell who was who).” Judging from Lester’s writing on the subject of Lou, I’d say DeRogatis is pretty damn accurate with that assessment.
Lester died on April 30, 1982 from an overdose of Darvon, Valium and NyQuil. He spent a good deal of time during his career bemoaning the death of rock n’ roll; I can’t help but feel if he were alive today the state of his beloved rock music would have killed him off anyway.
It’s hard to find any decent video clips of the real Lester so I’m relying on clips of the onscreen Lester – Philip Seymour Hoffman in Almost Famous. But do yourself a favor: If you haven’t already, pick up Lester’s work in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung and Mainlines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste and read the man’s writing. Then buy Jim DeRogatis’ bio of Lester, Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic. You’ll be glad you did.
“…When you get right down to it, Count Five were probably about as important as The Yardbirds, in the long run. It’s just that some people are recognized in their own time, and some aren’t.” – Lester Bangs