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NEW BIOGRAPHIES EXAMINE 2 CHALLENGING FIGURES


November 26, 2000

LET IT BLURT:

The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic

By Jim DeRogatis

Broadway, 331 pages, $15.95 paper

TROUBLE MAN: The Life and Death of Marvin Gaye

By Steve Turner

Ecco Press, 259 pages, $24

Popular music always reflects contemporary social conditions, either overtly or by conspicuous absence. Today, for instance, when America is relatively stable and prosperous, few political statements appear in pop, rock or rap. But polemic, protest and appeals to conscience all figure prominently in the soundscape of more turbulent epochs, especially the mid-1960s through the early '70s. That was a particularly potent era for expressing strong opinions, because the ascendance of the counterculture gave pop music unprecedented power to challenge the status quo. Two new biographies examine challenging figures whose careers skyrocketed during those years. Their work remains relevant today, but their trajectories began to fizzle and falter during the following decade. By 1984 they were both burnt out, dead and gone.

Some rock biographers display a hipper-than-thou attitude in which essential background and contextual information about their subject is not presented. The implication is that readers should already know as much as the writer, yet will never be cool enough to do so. Fortunately there is no such esoteric arrogance in either volume discussed here.

Jim DeRogatis, pop-music critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, does not assume that his audience is familiar with Lester Bangs. Instead, DeRogatis strikes a sensible chord by summarizing Bangs' legacy in the preface to "Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic":

"Lester was the great gonzo journalist, gutter poet, and romantic visionary of rock writing--its Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski, and Jack Kerouac all rolled into one. . . . Where others idealized the rock 'n' roll lifestyle or presented a distant academic version of it, he lived it, reveling in its excesses, drawing energy from its din, and matching its passion in prose. . . ."

At his best, Bangs was brilliantly perceptive, witty, articulate and wholly original. He was an insightful chronicler of '60s and '70s rock, especially the punk movement, which his support helped popularize. He mercilessly attacked the pretense and moneyed elitism that emerged in rock music and rock journalism.

At his worst, Bangs was self-indulgent, mean-spirited and reckless. A substance abuser with gargantuan appetites, Bangs often wrote under the influence. As with his idol Kerouac, the results were wildly uneven, and the practice wrecked his health.

In his preface, DeRogatis lays out his book's purpose: to tell Bangs' life story, chart the history of rock criticism, examine Bangs' work and place this work in the larger perspective of its social/historical milieu. Writing in a brisk, straightforward style and drawing on extensive research, DeRogatis succeeds on all counts. There are some distractions, however. DeRogatis is obviously angry--and, at times, excessively personal--when discussing Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau, the first-generation rock critics who gave Bangs many of his writing assignments. Since Bangs' death they have edited, anthologized and discussed his work, and DeRogatis feels they belittle Bangs' legacy with pseudo-intellectual condescension.

Parts of Bangs' story are grim and increasingly depressing. DeRogatis recounts the details of his cough-syrup and booze binges, public tirades, food fights at press events, arrests and dubious personal hygiene. While DeRogatis recognizes that Bangs was troubled, he seems to view these actions as amusing antics that fueled Bangs' writing. Many readers may find them merely dull and pathetic. But this dissolute, desperate picture is balanced by numerous accounts of Bangs as a loyal, caring friend who gladly helped young, aspiring writers.

Born in southern California in 1948, Bangs began covering music for his high-school newspaper. Even then, his over-the-top talent was unmistakable: "Rock 'n' roll--that enfant terrible, that ugly child, that bad noise, that raucous wilderness of amateurs grabbing a shifty buck, yes baby, rock 'n' roll has jumped out of the manhole like the Shadow himself. . . ." By 1969 Bangs was writing for Rolling Stone. He raved about outsider guitarist Captain Beefheart but was scathing in his condemnation of more mainstream bands such as It's a Beautiful Day: " `I hate this album . . . not only because I wasted my money on it, but for what it represents: an utterly phoney, arty approach to music that we will not soon escape.' " Bangs also developed a reputation as a confrontational interviewer, and especially enjoyed baiting Lou Reed. " `The whole thing of interviewing rock stars was just such a suck-up,' " he explained. " `It was groveling obeisance. . . .' " Few critics took this radical approach in 1969, and many readers thought it resonated with the rebellious tone of the times. Bangs developed a devoted following but offended the record companies whose advertising kept Rolling Stone in business. He was banished for several years and wrote much of his most best-known work for Creem and the Village Voice. Many articles were wild and provocative, although one of his most eloquent pieces was a calm, respectful review of Peter Guralnick's fine book "Lost Highway." When he died in 1982, Bangs was trying to curb his bad habits and expand his scope beyond rock criticism. DeRogatis describes this struggle compassionately and makes a convincing case for the continuing importance of Bangs' work.

In many respects, rhythm-and-blues singer Marvin Gaye was the polar opposite of Lester Bangs. Suave, sophisticated and successful, with a gorgeous, soaring voice, Gaye earned every conceivable accolade and material reward. But, like Bangs, Gaye was tormented and self-destructive. Steve Turner's "Trouble Man: The Life and Death of Marvin Gaye" blends a lucid psychological profile of Gaye with an informative account of his career and examination of his work. In his introduction, Turner states his intention to avoid getting mired in musical minutiae. He adroitly avoids psychobabble as well. Biblical quotes at the top of each chapter enhance the tone of this biography as a spiritual journey, albeit a tragic one.

Born in 1939 in Washington, D.C., Gaye was raised in a highly dysfunctional home. His father was cold, disapproving and sexually conflicted. Turner presents numerous quotes from friends and family that establish him as the main source of his son's problems.

Like many R&B singers, Gaye began singing in church. As a teenager he joined a secular band, performing in the popular '50s style known as doo-wop. This led to a stint with one of the genre's leading groups, Harvey Fuqua and the Moonglows. In 1959 Fuqua introduced Gaye to Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records. Gaye's first album, a collection of standards, appeared in 1961 and flopped. Gaye envisioned himself as a crooner a la Frank Sinatra and Mel Torme. He never succeeded in this vein and always resented it, feeling misunderstood as an artist.

Gordy leaned on Gaye to sing R&B, and after a few false starts the hits began to flow: "Hitch-hike," "Stubborn Kind of Fellow," "I'll Be Doggone," "Can I Get a Witness." Soon Gaye emerged as a major star, but he was not happy. Dabbling with cocaine, Gaye began to miss performances and recording sessions. He strained his marriage with frequent affairs and failed to pay his taxes. Gaye's father enjoyed the fruits of his son's success but envied him and never praised his accomplishments.

There was also tension with father-figure Gordy. Motown had remained largely apolitical throughout the turmoil of the '60s, and Gaye yearned to address the issues of the day. His groundbreaking masterpiece, "What's Going On"--with its topical lyrics and exquisite, multitracked harmonies--was recorded in spring 1970. Gordy sat on the album and reluctantly released it in 1971, with low expectations. The response was overwhelming and transformed Gaye from a teen idol to the recipient of a prestigious Image Award from the NAACP.

But by this time Gaye was mired in addiction and an endless series of tax problems and lawsuits. He sought solace in increasingly rough-edged sex, and many of his most popular records that followed reflected this erotic obsession, notably "Let's Get It On" and "Sexual Healing." The latter included one of the more haunting admissions that has ever appeared in a pop hit: "Whenever blue teardrops are falling/And my emotional stability is leaving me . . ."

Unable to resolve his conflicts, Gaye wanted to die but would not kill himself. Turner recounts a chilling conversation between Gaye and bodyguard Andre White regarding Gaye's frequent altercations with his father. " `You want to die and you're too chicken to kill yourself,' " White told Gaye. " `But if you keep [messing] with your daddy--he's told you what he'll do.' " In 1984 Gaye's father made good on his threats and shot his son dead. Turner recounts this horror with sensitivity rather than sensationalism, and he shows obvious respect for Gaye as a man and a musician.

Beyond the heartwrenching lack of personal fulfillment explored in these two biographies, authors DeRogatis and Turner also convey a broader sense of cultural loss. If Lester Bangs and Marvin Gaye had conquered their demons and survived, it is likely that more fine work would have followed from both.

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