'Almost Famous': Lester Bangs Rises from the dead


By Roger Anderson

Scripps-Howard News Service


It pleases me to see that the entertainment industry has recently come up with a whole new genre: movies and books about me.

Well, OK, I can't really say that Cameron Crowe's new movie, "Almost Famous," is about me. And I can't even say it's about my late, lamented friend, Lester Bangs, the legendary rock critic.

 But the acclaimed actor Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Magnolia," "The Talented Mr. Ripley") does appear in the film as Lester (under his true name), serving as a kind of Jiminy Cricket to the tale's teenage writer protagonist. And Lester was--did I mention this?-- a close pal of mine, so it's almost as though the film is about me.

To tell you the truth, it's a little disorienting to see Hoffman rapping on the phone in the midst of some very Lester-like domestic disarray: torn album covers, a battered stereo system, food wrappers, torn album covers, spilled ashtrays, torn album covers, stained upholstery and a mass of distressed vinyl. If anything, though, the movie tones the disarray way down, presumably so as not to completely alienate members of the audience who subscribe to that cleanliness-Godliness thing.

Lester, who died of an inadvertent drug overdose in 1982, age 33--that is, he didn't mean to die, although he certainly did mean to take the drugs-- is enjoying some very strange afterlife karma. First, a collection of his take-no-prisoners cultural writings was published in 1987 by no less prestigious a publisher than Alfred A. Knopf under the title "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung." Then, earlier this year, the Chicago Sun-Times rock critic Jim DeRogatis published a bio titled "Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic."

Having served as a source for DeRogatis' volume, I am listed in its index with several page references after my name, quite as though Lester were T.S. Eliot and I were Ezra Pound, or maybe one of Eliot's underachieving boyhood pals from his days in St. Louis.

But the bio and the film don't even exhaust the matter of Lester's presence in current culture. The digital reference program that came with my PC includes several "familiar quotes" by him, and late-breaking word arrives that Lester's "Carburetor Dung" title (he dreamed it up before he died) has been tagged for inclusion in the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

And now Crowe, the extraordinarily successful film director ("Jerry Maguire") who started out as a 15-year-old protigi of Lester's back in the early '70s, unveils his autobiographical movie "Almost Famous," and there my old pal is, front and center and projecting attitude like crazy.

Lester and I met in junior high school, a few months, as I recall, before the Cuban missile crisis, and were close friends in high school and beyond, lending each other moral support in our efforts to spend all our time reading the novels of Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs while listening to the musical stylings of Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and Charles Mingus, as opposed to studying or working.

At around age 20, Lester got a start writing for the brand-new publication Rolling Stone, went on to serve as an editor at Creem ("America's Only Rock 'n 'Roll Magazine," as it billed itself) in Detroit, and the rest--much to my present surprise--is, quite literally, history.

It's even possible that some filmmaker will conceive an interest in making a movie based on DeRogatis' biography. Who knows? If that happens, I may actually get a chance to see myself--portrayed, no doubt, by some dweeby little guy in glasses-- in the context of a major motion picture, or least a minor motion picture. It's enough to make a person feel almost famous.

(Roger Anderson is arts and entertainment editor at Scripps Howard News Service. He can be reached at andersonr@shns.com)


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