|Spin Excerpt, May 2000|
|Copyright 2000 Spin magazine and the
In the summer of 1976, Creem publisher Barry Kramer dispatched his star writer and editor to New York City on a mission to recruit fresh blood to liven up "America's only rock 'n' roll magazine." Lester Bangs stayed in the suite that Kramer kept at the St. Moritz Hotel and charged lavishly on Creem's account, but he accomplished little besides partying with his usual East Coast pals, including the members of a band called the Dictators.
Bangs had befriended the group when it stopped by Creem's offices in Birmingham, Michigan, during its first tour, which was aborted before the band ever played a note. The Dictators' debut album was a stark contrast to the prevailing sounds of 1975: Go Girl Crazy! sped by in a hyperactive blur of stolen Chuck Berry riffs, pro-wrestling machismo, and lyrics rife with sophomoric humor. "What the Dictators were about was a spirit still alive in America that was based on rock 'n' roll that was not about to be swallowed up by Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, or the Eagles," guitarist Scott Kempner said. "It was a spirit that was alive in bands like the MC5, the Stooges, the Flamin' Groovies, and some of the Who's and the Rolling Stones' stuff, and Lester embodied the journalistic approach to that."
When Bangs arrived in New York, the Dictators threw a party for him in the rehearsal loft they shared with Blue Oyster Cult. The writer strolled in, stripped down to his T-shirt, and grabbed singer Handsome Dick Manitoba in a half nelson. Documented by photographer Roberta Bayley, the ensuing wrestling match ran as a photo-comic in the fourth issue of Punk, the house organ of the city's newest rock scene. It was a snotty tribute to Bangs that almost equaled the magazine's homage to his hero, Lou Reed, who appeared as a cartoon Frankenstein on the cover of issue number one.
Inspired by the writing in Creem and the art in Mad, cartoonist John Holmstrom launched Punk in late 1975. His friend Legs McNeil suggested the name, drawing inspiration from the cover of Go Girl Crazy! "On the inside sleeve of the record was a picture of the Dictators hanging out in a White Castle hamburger stand, and they were dressed in black leather jackets," McNeil wrote. "Even though we didn't have black leather jackets, the picture seemed to describe us perfectly. . . . The word 'punk' seemed to sum up the thread that connected everything we liked--drunk, obnoxious, smart but not pretentious, absurd, funny, ironic, and things that appealed to the darker side."
Through the mid-'70s, Bangs and Creem cohorts such as Richard
Meltzer, Nick Tosches, Dave Marsh, Greg Shaw, and Lenny Kaye were among
the critics who celebrated music typifying the "punkist"
attitude. In 1972, Kaye compiled the forgotten hits of psychedelic
garage bands such as the Seeds and Bangs's favorites the Count Five on a
double album called Nuggets. The premise was that raw singles
such as "Pushin' Too Hard" and "Psychotic Reaction"
That shift manifested itself most dramatically at CBGB-OMFUG, a derelict bar next to a flophouse on New York's Bowery. Owner Hilly Kristal began booking rock in the dimly lit dive in March 1974. His original plan was to highlight "country, blue grass, blues" and "other music for uplifting gourmandizers," the source of the acronyms on his canopy, but a would-be music entrepreneur named Terry Ork convinced him to showcase a band called Television, and soon groups such as the Ramones, Blondie, and the Talking Heads were performing regularly.
"This is punk?" Bangs asked when he visited CBGB for the first time. Onstage three preppy nerds in sweater vests nervously imitated the Modern Lovers. After the Talking Heads finished, Television performed, and the group built to a climax with a long guitar jam called "Marquee Moon." It reminded Bangs of the Grateful Dead. "This is just San Francisco all over again!" he railed.
"When Lester rolled into town there was a sense of: 'Here's Lester. The legend has arrived,'" said Vanity Fair media critic James Wolcott, who covered New York's late-'70s rock scene for the Village Voice. "In the beginning, he didn't like any of the music at CBGB. He eventually hooked onto it, but he went through this phase of: 'It's not Iggy. It's not the MC5. They're not taking the real risks.' Everything was filtered through Detroit, and that took a while to wear off."
A year after his first visit to CBGB, Bangs and his girlfriend, Nancy Alexander, moved to Manhattan, and the critic quickly became a convert to the sounds emanating from the Bowery. He decided that punk represented the children of the Velvets making the music of buzzing hazes and unconventional beauty that he'd been advocating since his letters to his first editor, Greil Marcus, back in 1969. He threw himself into his new life as a freelancer, lauding the punk bands in publications ranging from Circus to the Village Voice, and Stereo Review to Screw.
"Wouldn't you rather be run over by a berserk locomotive barreling downhill with a broken throttle, no brakes, and Bugs Bunny in the driver's seat?" he asked of the Ramones. "Well, maybe not, though I certainly would." The Talking Heads he branded "the most human of mutant groups ... a marriage of diametrical opposites--abandon and inhibition, anxiety and ease, freedom and impingement unto paralysis." Television's "flail" he called "the compulsively insistent nerve-end that their demeanor denies, a twitch in the neighborhood of, but not sounding like, the Velvet Underground." And while Blondie blatantly imitated the old-fashioned sounds of the British Invasion, its members were "implicitly intelligent enough not to ram their understanding of earlier rock 'n' roll down your throat."
In the wake of the Beatles, many first-generation rock critics differentiated between "rock 'n' roll"--the greasy kids' stuff played by the likes of Chuck Berry and Little Richard--and "rock," the music of the '60s and bonafide art. To them, punk--like heavy metal before it--was simply one of myriad new genres that sprang up after that fundamental split. Bangs ignored these distinctions; to him it was all rock 'n' roll. He charted the sound and attitude he loved from "La Bamba" by Ritchie Valens through "Louie Louie" by the Kingsmen, "You Really Got Me" by the Kinks, "No Fun" by the Stooges, right up to "Blitzkrieg Bop" by the Ramones. "There: 20 years of rock 'n' roll history in three chords, played more primitively each time they are recycled," he wrote.
Bangs concluded that his own "career/life as a punk" had started ten years earlier, when he forked over $3.50 for the Count Five album at Ratner's Records in San Diego. At the age of twenty-eight, he felt like a grand old man on the new rock scene, but as such he was perfectly positioned to chart the music's aesthetic and explain its impetus. "The point is that rock 'n' roll, as I see it, is the ultimate populist art form, democracy in action, because it's true: anybody can do it," he wrote. "For performing rock 'n' roll, or punk rock, or call it any damn thing you please, there's only one thing you need: NERVE. Rock 'n' roll is an attitude, and if you've got the attitude you can do it, no matter what anybody says. Because passion is what it's all about-what all music is about."
By his own account, Bangs spent nearly every night of 1977 at CBGB, "a haven where the meek have finally inherited a small portion of the earth armored in leather and dog collars." There he was surrounded by young fans who considered it an honor to buy a drink or share a handful of pills with the man who'd named heavy metal, championed the punk aesthetic, and gone mano a mano with Lou Reed. But while he and Alexander initially seemed to flourish in the big city, things quickly soured. "A lot of people used him to be Lester Bangs--this outrageous persona," his girlfriend said. "Sometimes I hated these people at CBGB. He would go there and they would all try to buy him drinks and egg him on to get him in his most destructive state where he'd just start lambasting."
Added Bangs's friend, Nick Tosches: "Lester never realized that they weren't actually idolizing him as much as he was like a sacrificial cow. They would get fucked-up and go back to their nice little suburban homes. Lester would get fucked-up and stay fucked-up."
* * *
Cramps drummer Miriam Linna sauntered down Bleeker Street, joking with a friend one night in the summer of 1977, when Bangs came rushing toward her. She'd known him since she was a teenager in Cleveland and she and Charlotte Pressler wrote about Patti Smith for Creem. Pressler had been married to Bangs's friend, Peter Laughner, and Linna had managed the fan club for Laughner's old band, Rocket from the Tombs.
"How the fuck can you just laugh?" Bangs screamed. Linna didn't know what he was talking about. "Peter Laughner had died, but I didn't know about it," she recalled. "He thought that I knew, and despite knowing, I could go out and have a wonderful time. But it was probably the most horrendous incident in my life."
As a bright, skinny 20-year-old bored out of his mind in suburban Cleveland, Laughner sent a letter to Creem that ran in April 1973, and Bangs invited him to write for the magazine. They shared many of the same obsessions, including Lou Reed, William S. Burroughs, sex, booze, and speed. Laughner visited Birmingham several times, and the two spent weekends drinking, drugging, and jamming on vocals and guitar. The visitor matched his Dylanesque melodies to Bangs's lyrics, and late at night in the Creem office, they recorded originals such as "Drug Store Cowboy" and "Bye-Bye Lou (Reed)," as well as covers of "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" and "Sister Ray."
Laughner looked up to Bangs, and Bangs admired Laughner's drive. "Peter had a pushy side to him," his widow, Pressler, said. "That was part of his particular magic. If he visualized something it was real. Lester was more reflective. They'd be pushing similarly and they'd get to this point with a mutually constructed fantasy turning real. Lester would become slightly reflective with it, and Peter would want to push ahead." They both dreamed of leading their own band, but Laughner did more than just talk about it: He joined his friend and fellow rock critic David Thomas in the jokey combo Rocket From the Tombs.
When the self-proclaimed "World's Only Dumb-Metal Mind-Death Rock & Roll Band" broke up, Laughner and Thomas regrouped and recorded a powerful single as Pere Ubu. Released in December 1975 on Thomas's own label, "Heart of Darkness"/"Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" was one of the first American punk records. Bangs considered Laughner's fiery solos the highlight of both the single and Pere Ubu's contribution of "Final Solution" to the live compilation album, Max's Kansas City 1976, but the guitarist couldn't curb his urge toward self-destruction. In March 1976, Laughner wrote a review of Lou Reed's Coney Island Baby that echoed many of Bangs's pieces about Reed's Metal Machine Music. "I ended up passing out stone cold after puking and pissing myself at a band rehearsal," he bragged, "had to be kicked awake by my lead singer, was driven home by my long-suffering best friend and force fed by his old lady who could still find it in the boundless reaches of her good heart to smile on my absolutely incorrigible state of dissolution."
Pere Ubu fired Laughner shortly thereafter. He briefly played with Television, but that band canned him, too, further fueling his downward spiral. "By this time I was beginning to have reservations about a lot of aspects of our friendship, so before he hit town the next and last time, I laid it on the line," Bangs wrote. "I told him I thought he was committing suicide, and that I couldn't subsidize it by getting high with him any longer."
In the spring of 1977, the two friends spent an afternoon jamming in Bangs's apartment with fiddler Peter Stampfel, a veteran of the Fugs and the Holy Modal Rounders. When Stampfel left, Bangs broke his promise and took some tranquilizers from his pal. "I just gave Lester some Dalmanes so you better go up and check on him because he may be dead!" Laughner told Alexander as he ran out the door. "I gotta go see Patti Smith!"
The next day, Laughner and Bangs argued on Sixth Avenue, fighting over a five-dollar imitation black leather hat that Laughner had stolen from Bangs's apartment. Bangs sent him back to Cleveland hatless. Six weeks later, Laughner was found dead in his parents' house at the age of twenty-four, a victim of acute pancreatitis, and punk rock's first fatality.
"There is more than a little of what killed Peter in me, as there may well be in you," Bangs wrote in an obituary for New York Rocker. He did not insult his friend's memory by claiming that he'd never take drugs again himself. Instead, he lashed out at those who could callously laugh at a wasted life. "Peter Laughner had his private pains and compulsions, but at least in part he died because he wanted to be Lou Reed," he wrote. "Today I would not walk across the street to spit on Lou Reed, not because of Peter but because Peter's death was the end of an era for me--an era of the most intense worship of nihilism and death-tripping in all marketable forms."
The piece marked the beginning of Bangs's growing disillusionment with the punk-rock pose--a process that would continue across the ocean.
* * *
Bangs had been to the U.K. several times through the '70s to profile the likes of Slade and David "Rock On" Essex for Creem. He appreciated the codeine-enhanced aspirin and Night Nurse, England's answer to Romilar, his favorite over-the-counter high. But with scattered exceptions, he found the music dreadful and the rock criticism worse.
The country's best-read rock publication, the New Musical Express, sold a quarter of a million copies weekly through much of the '60s, but like its competitor Melody Maker, it fell into a post-hippie slump in the early '70s. In 1972, Nick Logan assumed the editorship and began steering the paper away from blues wankers and progressive-rock dinosaurs toward rising glam acts such as David Bowie and Roxy Music. He struck an agreement with Creem that allowed him to reprint its articles, and Bangs began to appear in the paper regularly.
Logan also gave free rein to a new cast of flamboyant English writers that included Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray, and Mick Farren, all of whom admired Bangs's style. "We were championing Lester because he was the one who was breaking ground," Farren said. "There's no question about it: In the field of journalism--forget about rock journalism--he broke ground that has now been concreted over."
On a junket in November 1975, Bangs still found the English music scene lacking. "England is a suckshit country that deserves to sink into the ocean like California has been threatening to all these years," he wrote. "I've never seen a place where more people concealed more hidden rage behind the blandest facade this side of Donny and Marie." But things were about to change. The Sex Pistols released "Anarchy In the U.K." on November 19, 1976, and made their infamous obscenity-laced appearance on Britain's Today two weeks later. From that point on they seemed to make headlines daily for the next two years.
"If you think it's presumptuous for a Yank to butt his two-cents' worth into the already sky-high reams of blather concerning the Sex Pistols, you're right," Bangs wrote in the NME. Nevertheless, he felt compelled to pronounce the group's first single one of the greatest records ever made. "Johnny Rotten, furthermore, is the most enraged vocalist I've ever heard," he added. "He's even more pissed off than Iggy used to be, and you know that's saying something."
Twenty years after abandoning his nom de rock, John Lydon returned the compliment. "Lester was a madman and I used to really like his writing," the singer said. "Although it could be perceived as nasty, there was always a sense of fun in it. This is why British music journalism adopted that style, but they got it wrong. It just turned into something nasty. Lester questioned things, and you'll find the majority of people don't like to question what they just take for granted."
While the Sex Pistols' subsequent singles confirmed his unrestrained fandom, Bangs warmed slowly to the other English punk bands. "That Clash record is garbage," he wrote of the "White Riot"/"1977" single, but he eventually came to love the band, celebrating its mix of red-hot garage rock and cooled-out reggae as "the missing link between black music and white noise." The group shared a view of rock history similar to his own. "It ain't punk and it ain't New Wave," guitarist Mick Jones said. "Call it what you want; all the terms stink. Just call it rock 'n' roll."
In November 1977, CBS International flew Bangs to London to accompany the Clash on its Get Out of Control tour. The label hoped his coverage would convince its reluctant U.S. branch to release the band's self-titled debut in the States, but it would be more than a year and a half before that finally happened. Prompted by a reading of Margaret Drabble's novel, The Ice Age, which he loved, Bangs expected to find a U.K. so troubled by economic collapse that people actually welcomed depression as a relief from anxiety. He was surprised to discover that English punk was more political and motivating than punk as practiced in New York.
The critic spent six days on the road with the Clash, filing an unprecedented epic that filled nine broadsheet pages over three consecutive issues of the NME. "Everybody in the office was like: 'Who's gonna edit this?'" Farren recalled. "It was the biggest article the paper had ever run." The piece began with Bangs sitting in the airport in New York, reading The War Against the Jews 1933--1945, and encountering a young British girl in a wheelchair. He was ashamed to admit that he couldn't meet her gaze. The theme of people struggling to treat each other with basic human decency ran through the entire article.
At first, Bangs thought that the Clash was different--the Clash seemed to be "righteous." The group wasn't even pretentious about it. The band members regularly let fans crash in their hotel rooms, and they expected him to do the same. When he tried to quiz Jones about politics and his relationship to the audience, the guitarist just laughed at him. "Oh, so is that gonna be the hook for your story, then?" Jones asked.
"The fact that Mick would make a joke out of it only shows how far they're going towards the realization of all the hopes we ever had about rock 'n' roll as utopian dream," Bangs wrote. "Because if rock 'n' roll is truly the democratic art form, then democracy has got to begin at home; that is, the everlasting and totally disgusting walls between artists and audience must come down, elitism must perish, the 'stars' have got to be humanized, demythologized, and the audience has got to be treated with more respect. Otherwise it's all a shuck, a rip-off, and the music is as dead as the Stones' and Led Zep's has become."
By the end of the week and part three of the story, he was disillusioned here as well. The trouble crept up unexpectedly along with the customary tour hijinks. One night Bangs strolled into a hotel lobby and found yet another food fight in progress. After a while he noticed that the band's driver had stopped horsing around and started brutally beating a young fan as members of the Clash stood by and laughed. Bangs spent the night with the bruised boy, hashing over the incident and the way it conflicted with the image the band projected. It wasn't until the next morning that he realized that he himself had sat there reading his book while failing to help the kid. Righteousness did not come easily.
"If anything more than fashion and what usually amount to poses is going to finally come of all this, then everybody listening is going to have to pick up the possibilities with both hands and fulfill 'em themselves," Bangs wrote. "Either that or end up with a new set of surrogate mommies and daddies, just like the hippies did, because in spite of whatever they set in motion that's exactly what Charles Manson and John Sinclair were."
The editors of the NME were proud of the piece, but they didn't think it demystified the Clash or taught the group's fans anything new. "I think the kids sort of knew all this," Farren said. "Only Lester didn't. That was the fascinating thing--to see him be so taken by this thing and not be able to accept that it was just business as usual. The way Lou Reed could be nice to him one day and curse him out the next, the Clash were exactly the same. I was always surprised that he wasn't aware of this."
Disenchanted, Bangs returned to America and started to scrutinize the movement he'd championed so enthusiastically. Hype was the number-one enemy, he concluded. It could pervert everything an artist stood for--especially when he or she started to believe it.
"Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" Lydon asked during the Sex Pistols' last concert at San Francisco's Winterland. Bangs answered the question in an unpublished manuscript. "Yep, I'm bitter, because I've gone full circle maybe one too many times," he wrote. "This makes the third myth bought in on by me if you count the Beatniks who were really before my time, one self-con job a decade, guess that's not really so bad. But it is all pretty obviously futile in terms of anything whatsoever beyond a good record here, a good record there, big deal, you got a hobby. It seems to me I've reached the inevitable impasse, the place where all that's left for me to do (all I can do) is rant and rave ineffectually. Which means I've now got to find something else. And I guess the bottom line, for me at least, is that I have never been able to convince myself that people in any appreciable numbers getting together to create or accomplish something actually works. And that really the only kind of fixed group, organization or club I could ever imagine myself joining was a rock 'n' roll band."
This he would do: Music-making would dominate the last three years of his life.