TEN minutes before midnight on 30 April 1982, Lester Bangs,
posthumously acclaimed "Greatest Rock Critic of All Time", was
formally proclaimed dead from a suspected overdose of Valium and Darvon.
He was 33.
Four hours previously, Bangs's body had been discovered by former lover
Nancy Stillman. Amid the clutter of his small Manhattan apartment, she
found the former Rolling Stone/Creem writer lying on his couch, a recently
purchased copy of The Human League's Dare playing on the stereo turntable.
For many, it was not the explosive demise that they had predicted for
Bangs, who more than any critic before or since typified, lived, breathed
and sweated the coruscating spirit of the music that he spent his life
chronicling. Put simply, Bangs's writing was rock'n'roll; relentless,
restless, wildly passionate and uncommonly incisive. It danced from the
page with the same rhythms and language as the music it charted.
But more than a mere rock critic, Bangs was a compassionate observer of
the human soul who could, in the middle of a Led Zeppelin review, digress
into an insightful discourse on the state of the national psyche without a
trace of self-consciousness.
Quoted on the sleeve of Let it Blurt, Jim DeRogatis's excellent biography
of Bangs's life and times, writer/musician Julian Cope spoke for many when
he wrote: "This was not a normal rock'n'roll writer at all but one of
life's great gurus."
Born in Escondido, southern California in 1948, Lester Bangs
inherited two notable traits from his parents: his father's alcoholism and
his Jehovah's Witness mother's hell-fire desire to preach and convert.
Through his teens he developed a life-long love for Jack Kerouac and the
Beat Poets, whose stream of consciousness techniques he would later apply
to his own work.
In 1969, after a brief spell at teacher training college in San Diego,
Bangs fired off an apoplectic salvo to the fledgling Rolling Stone
magazine, angrily criticising the debut album from Detroit rockers The
Astutely recognising a hot young talent when they saw one, the magazine
promptly hired him, beginning a 13-year reign in which Bangs would prove
himself beyond doubt the most popular, distinctive and influential rock
writer in his field.
In the vapid FM winterland of the 1970s, with the world asphyxiating to
the bland AOR likes of James Taylor and the ludicrous peregrinations of
prog -rockers like Yes, Bangs helped define the aesthetics of what would
later be known as punk. He wrote about such then underground luminaries as
Iggy Pop, Captain Beefheart and his great hero, Lou Reed.
What's more, not content merely to report, Bangs lived the rock'n'roll
lifestyle to a degree that would shame most actual musicians.
Idiosyncratic till the end, however, Bangs's drugs of choice were not the
Class A powders favoured by the rock cognoscenti. He preferred drugstore
stimulants such as nasal inhalers.
Yet Bangs was no caricature nor was he anybody's martyr. A self-confessed
mass of contradictions, he spent his life eulogising the myths and
aesthetics of rock'n'roll yet was vehemently opposed to the whole notion
of nihilistic, live-fast-die-young youth. As DeRogatis writes in the
foreword to Let it Blurt: "He was forever battling competing impulses
toward senseless self -destruction and a giddy celebration of being
After being sacked from Rolling Stone in 1970 for, according to editor
Jann Wenner, "being disrespectful to musicians", Bangs moved
over to Creem magazine, where, as well as becoming senior editor, he would
pen such free -flowing celebratory rants as "Of Pop and Pies and
Fun" and "Psychotic Reactions and Carburettor Dung: A Tale of
these Times" (also the title of the posthumously printed compendium
of Bangs's writing). It was here also that he met a young British writer
named Simon Frith, now professor of media studies at Stirling university
and a regular Scotsman contributor. Speaking of Bangs's writing and its
influence, he notes: "What people who try to emulate him don't
realise is that he was adept at a kind of stream-of-consciousness that
depended on an absolute commitment to what he was writing about. He was
probably more disciplined than people think."
Characterised by a healthy lack of respect for both musicians and the
music business, along with an utter disregard for anything considered
dishonest or inconsiderate of its audience, Bangs's writing would be
unlikely to find a home in the tightly-run confines of today's music
"There are fanzines and web publications that lend themselves to that
sort of writing," notes Frith. "But print journalism is far too
professionally run now to allow someone like Lester."
As the 1980s dawned and the idealism of punk evaporated, with both rock's
music and press becoming increasingly homogenised, Bangs became more and
more disillusioned. "Music really mattered to him," says Frith.
"He felt it was an artist's duty to really give something of
themselves in their work. If he felt it didn't possess the right amount of
'honesty' it really upset him."
While the music press still stirs with gifted, passionate writers, few
possess the unpredictability, insight and sheer uninhibited life-affirming
poetry of Bangs at his best. His death marked the end of an era of a kind
of journalism that is all but extinct today, leaving behind him a legacy
that continues to influence musicians and writers alike . For though many
have appropriated his surface style - the comic digressions, the hipster
raps, the wild fictionalisation of facts - none have invested it with the
roving soul of Lester Bangs.