Live fast, write a lot and get a rocking bio
Blurt' traces music critic Lester Bangs' wild ride (complete with a stop in Austin)
By Patrick Beach
like rock 'n' roll sounds." That's Texas Monthly's Joe Nick Patoski talking about
Lester Bangs. Other people have said it, or should have. You know what they say about
truisms: They're true.
In both writing and life, Bangs was impassioned, reckless, irresponsible, contrary, juvenile, LOUD and fabulously funny. He wrote for people like him -- people who related better to music than to other people (see and/or read "High Fidelity," for example), people who suffered from the delusion that music was necessary, and that thinking and writing about it was a worthwhile if ultimately bankrupting gig. He drank so much it scared even Charles Bukowski.
He died in 1982, the year I started really trying to write about music. Then the Greil Marcus-edited collection of Bangs' writing, "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung," came out in 1987, and it was like Lester was speaking to me from beyond the grave -- which he's been known to do -- as John Houseman in "The Paper Chase ":
"Here's a dime. Call your mother and tell her you'll never be a rock journalist."
In the snarky, dysfunctional clique of music writers , Bangs' canonization was a formality. He may have been nuts, and a drunk and a drug addict. He may have had an aversion to practicing personal hygiene on a regular basis. But rock 'n' roll saved him, for a time. It was that ferocious, romantic genius that killed him.
Jim DeRogatis was one of the people whose life Bangs changed. He met Bangs two weeks before everybody's favorite loose cannon died -- ignobly, alone in his filthy New York apartment, with the Human League on the turntable, probably of an accidental overdose -- and DeRogatis has essentially been working on "Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, American's Greatest Rock Critic" ) since. DeRogatis, whose work for Rolling Stone famously ended when he panned Hootie & the Blowfish often echoes Bangs: Writing in the Chicago Sun- Times and other outlets, it's clear he hates posers and pretension, loves arguing the contrary position and doesn't care about losing or, OK, making friends.
He's also a thorough and unflinching biographer, and "Let It Blurt," out this week, is creating a minor stir in Austin, where Bangs spent some time at the dawn of the '80s. John Morthland, Bangs' literary executor, doesn't even want to talk about the job DeRogatis did on his friend. Patoski and the Austin Chronicle's Margaret Moser think the guy pretty much got it right.
"If it comes out a little seamy, it's the nature of the beast and the nature of the character," said Patoski, who met Bangs in New York while managing Joe "King" Carrasco and the Crowns.
Patoski sent Bangs an unsolicited review in 1972, and Bangs' encouraging reply caused Patoski to quit his job running the record department at Electric Fetus, a semi-legendary record and head shop in Minneapolis.
"He was a person that I feel blessed that I had contact with and got to know, but even if that had never happened, he changed my life."
Growing up in a no-account California town with a Jehovah's Witness mother and a father prone to benders, Bangs' future as a juvenile delinquent was assured. He guzzled cough syrup. He listened to Mingus. He read Kerouac and Burroughs and "The Catcher in the Rye." He wrote.
And by the time he'd turned pro, he was telling truths that a lot of people would rather hadn't been told. He saw Altamont, widely regarded as the Woodstock Nation's Waterloo, as inevitable: "It wasn't just Altamont or the Stones. The whole peace brat society was wrong to the liver. The Stones had expressed it in `Gimme Shelter' but they were even less prepared to deal with it than we were. Death of Innocence in Woodstock Nation my (naughty word deleted). Altamont was the facing up."
Bangs thrived at Creem, the Detroit-based music mag that was as funny and dangerous as Rolling Stone was dry and fawning. (Jann Wenner loves those movie stars. Always has.) He cultivated a weird codependent relationship with Lou Reed, and his interviews with Reed read like transcripts from domestic-abuse interventions. (After one shot from Reed, Bangs couldn't figure out if the remark had been "a backhanded compliment or a kudoferous insult.") (Go ahead -- just try to look it up.)
By the time he arrived in New York, just as punk was breaking, he was a legend. He held court at CBGB, where he was expected to be Lester Bangs. It became burdensome, and even as some of the most exciting music since the late '60s was blowing out of the club, Bangs presciently saw the time coming when music was nothing more than product, another fashion accessory. Those frustrations caused Bangs to write like a dissident in exile -- no less funny or brash, but plainly disillusioned by much of what he heard.
So he came to Texas, where people have come to reinvent themselves since time immemorial. He flew into Houston, DeRogatis writes, drunk, carrying only "an old portable typewriter, a stack of notebooks, some albums and a paper bag with a change of underwear."
ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons picked him up at the Houston airport and quickly sent him to Neiman Marcus to get outfitted. Bangs quickly did the sane thing and left for Austin, where he put together a band, made a record, hung out at the old Alamo Hotel and Raul's.
Morthland wasn't in Austin then, and Patoski was off with the Crowns. But Bangs fell in with the Austin crowd that included Moser, who was managing several bands at the time.
"I was really into the band thing he was doing," she said last week. "He was over at my house a lot. If you wanted to play on a trash can he would let you do it. Somewhere I've got tapes of the stuff. I remember thinking, `I'VE GOT LESTER BANGS IN MY LIVING ROOM!' "
Moser's take on the book?
"As I understand it," she said, "a lot of Lester's friends have been upset about it," she said. "I understand what Morthland feels was isolated about Lester's memory," presumably for dwelling on the sometimes tawdry aspects of Bangs' life and not on what was positive about the man and the work. "I don't see it that way. . . DeRogatis has painted a really vivid portrait of Lester that very few people would have been able to grasp.
"To ignore that decline in the last few years," Moser says, is to ignore part of the story. "He was always a good writer, and he was a good writer up until the end."
In Austin, Bangs wore out his welcome pretty quickly, cultivating a little too much chaos even for the proto-slacker community.
He went back to New York, dug into Alcoholics Anonymous, planned to go to Mexico to write his novel. Then he checked out -- an inspiration in how to write, if not how to live. But something ended with him, and DeRogatis takes the gloves off in his afterword:
"Lester is safely enshrined because he is conveniently dead," the author writes. "Many of those who invoke his name do so as a deterrence machine against charges that their own work is academic, joyless, imperious and oh so politically correct. They are the anti- Lesters."
Then there are those whoto try and fail to cop Bangs' style, of whom DeRogatis is equally unimpressed: "Devoid of Lester's insights, honestly, and intellectual content, theirs is an empty noise, and attacking Lester for encouraging it is like blaming Little Richard for Pat Boone." For his part, DeRogatis has inheritied Bangs' righteousness and passion, but he's also got a ton of discipline and thinks, shall we say, a bit more clearly.
It's not Bangs' fault the writing got commodified along with the music. "Let It Blurt" tells the story of a professionally inspiring and personally cautionary life. It's also a history of rock and rock criticism. Believe it or not, there was a time when both mattered.You may contact Patrick Beach at firstname.lastname@example.org or 445-3603.