He seems the most unlikely subject for a 250-page annotated biography: a long-dead cough syrup-swilling, drug- and alcohol-abusing rock critic the bulk of whose writing today exists only on the yellowing pages of defunct music magazines like Creem and Let it Rock.
Even more unlikely is that Chicago Tribune pop music writer Jim DeRogatis has written such an entertaining book as "Let It Blurt", which chronicles the short, unhappy and outrageous life of Lester Bangs, whom DeRogatis calls "America's Greatest Rock Critic."
But unlikeliest of all, DeRogatis makes the claim stick. In his 33 years on this earth, Bangs seemed to be everywhere. He contributed reviews for the brand new Rolling Stone, covered the Rolling Stones' disastrous 1969 Altamont concert for that magazine, moved to Detroit to become the most popular writer for Creem magazine, championed music that would eventually be called heavy metal, then relocated to New York City just in time to be in on the ground floor of the whole CBGB's/punk scene that spawned bands like Talking Heads, Blondie, Patti Smith and the Ramones, which he chronicled for publications such as the Village Voice.
The central tenet of Bangs' philosophy of music was summed up for an interviewer in 1982: "Good rock 'n' roll is something that makes you feel alive. It's something that's human, and I think most music today isn't. To me good rock 'n' roll encompasses other things, like Hank Williams and Charles Mingus and a lot of other things that aren't strictly defined as rock 'n' roll. Rock 'n' roll is an attitude, it's not a musical form of a strict sort. It's a way of doing things, of approaching things. Writing can be rock 'n' roll, a movie can be rock 'n' roll. It's a way of living your life."
Bangs certainly lived his own creed. His "way of doing things" took him from a teen-ager in the San Diego suburb of El Cajon, through a stint as a Rolling Stone reviewer and writer, assistant editor at Creem magazine and finally to New York where, as a freelance writer, he not only wrote about the punk music scene but formed and recorded with two bands.
His writing made him famous if not rich. With a gift for language that set him apart from his peers, Bangs' record reviews bore titles like "The Blood Feast of Reddy Kilowatt" and "Deep Purple Ain't Schizoid! Maybe Just a Little Looney..." and often would be less a review of any particular album than a jumping-off point for some feverish rant on whatever subject had captured Bangs' attention.
A series of interviews/verbal slug fests with his former hero from the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, became legend. DeRogatis writes, "Musicians that could laugh at themselves were honored to be insulted by him, and many felt slighted if another writer was assigned to interview them."
According to DeRogatis, at one time Bangs was banned from Rolling Stone, for being "consistently disrespectful to musicians." But that was part of Bangs' appeal. He absolutely refused to treat rock stars as some kind of deities. He deflated musicians' pretensions, heckled James Taylor in concert, got into food fights with bands and once on a dare appeared on stage in Detroit with the J. Geils Band and "played" his typewriter during a band encore.
"The whole thing of interviewing rock stars was just such a suckup. It was groveling obeisance to people who weren't that special, really. It's just a guy, just another person, so what?"
His contrariness led him to praise and champion such groups as Captain Beefheart, the Velvet Underground, the early Who and garage bands such as the Seeds and the Fugs, whose primitive and dissonant music didn't fit in well with the flower-power rock and love ethos then prevalent.
"You discover new things every listen that you missed before in the buzzing haze. Fact, I dig buzzing hazes for their own sake," wrote Bangs. He was promoter of bands such as Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, early practitioners of what would come to be called heavy metal music.
When the fossilized and corporate rock world of the mid-'70s was dismissing punk rock as an aberrant fad created by a bunch of no-talents, Bangs plunged right in, by his own account spending every night of 1977 at CBGB, the Bowery dive that at the time was punk rock central.
DeRogatis moves the reader effortlessly across Bangs' life from his days of growing up as the son of a strict Jehovah's Witness mother, to the teen who would get high by gulping gut-churning amounts of Romilar cough syrup, to his Detroit glory days at Creem, and finally, to his life in New York when plagued by alcoholism and drug use, Lester Bangs the man was beginning to tire of playing Lester the rock critic legend.
In fact, DeRogatis could be faulted for not including more of Bangs' actual writing in his book. After all, his writing is what made him famous. But aside from some snippets of interviews and reviews and some Bangs-penned song lyrics, "Let it Blurt" contains only Bangs' "How to be a Rock Critic" article in its entirety. While funny, it's certainly not Bangs' best work.
That might be "White Noise Supremacists" an article examining racism and racist symbols in the punk music scene that appeared in the Dec. 17, 1979, issue of the Village Voice. DeRogatis calls it one of the controversial articles that the newspaper published. Twenty years later, people mentioned in the article are still seething at Bangs.
"White Noise Supremacists" was an indication of Bangs' dissatisfaction with his role as a strictly rock writer. Toward the end of his life, Bangs spoke of moving to Mexico to begin his long-planned novel, "All of My Friends Are Hermits." In 1978 he formed a band called Birdland that performed in and around New York City with Bangs as the lead singer, although, as Birdland's drummer put it, "Lester sounded like a braying walrus." He fronted another band during a visit to Austin, Texas, in 1980.
Whatever new directions Bangs might have taken, they were all cut short when he was found dead on the couch in his New York apartment on April 14, 1982, a copy of a Human League record spinning silently on the turntable beside him. The medical examiner ruled the death was caused by an overdose of Darvon, a combination of narcotic and analgesic. The question of whether it was an accidental or deliberate overdose remains unanswered.
"Let it Blurt" details a time and a place when rock music and rock criticism were, if not in their infancy, at least in their childhood years. Anybody could strap on a guitar and take a stab at rock stardom and anyone could sit in front of a typewriter and take a stab at writing a review of the first anyone.
Heckled during one of his performances with his band, Lester shouted from on stage, "I ain't doin' nothing you can't do! Get up here and do it yourself if you don't like it!"
In this day of prefab boy bands and the latest Britney/Christina pop singer, maybe we could all use a little more of Lester Bangs' do-it-yourself attitude.