Critical Legacy

Published: Sunday, April 9, 2000

WHAT: ``Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic''


  • PUBLISHER: Broadway Books


  • PRICE: $15.95

    On the afternoon of April 14, 1982, Jim DeRogatis spent an afternoon interviewing Lester Bangs in the legendary rock critic's record- and garbage-littered Manhattan apartment. DeRogatis was fullfilling an assignment (``interview a hero'') for a high school journalism class, and when he asked Bangs to define good rock 'n' roll, the answer that came back surprised the kid not for its content, but for its lack of roteness.

    ``Good rock 'n' roll is something that makes you feel alive,'' said Bangs, carefully. ``It's something that's human, and I think that most music today isn't.

    ``Anything that I would want to listen to is made by human beings instead of computers and machines. To me good rock 'n' roll also encompasses other things, like Hank Williams and Charlie Mingus and a lot of 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, or a movie can be rock 'n' roll. It's a way of living your life.''

    Bangs died two weeks later at the age of 33. Before he did, he autographed a copy of his knock-off Blondie biography for DeRogatis, writing, ``Now it's your turn. Best, Lester.''

    The kid took his hero's words to heart. So much so that this month in Chicago and New York, DeRogatis, a drummer, will celebrate the publication of his Bangs biography, ``Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic'' with gigs by his just-formed Bangs tribute bands.

    For the past 10 years, DeRogatis has been one of the hardest-working music journalists going. His resume includes stints at Minneapolis-based Request magazine and Rolling Stone magazine, from which he was fired by publisher Jan Wenner over a negative review written about a Hootie & the Blowfish album.

    Ironically enough, that review (which was subsequently published by City Pages and other publications) serves as a metaphor for how far the art of rock criticism has fallen, and illustrates the fact that too many once-critical publications have become slaves to record companies and artists -- no matter how tepid -- who sell millions of records.

    ``Make no mistake: I never saw myself as Lester Bangs,'' says DeRogatis from his home in Chicago, where he lives with his wife, Kim, and their 3-year-old daughter, Melody.

    ``But I think that there is a real valid tradition of criticism -- of which he stood as a paradigm -- that's kind of been lost among our generation. I think our generation of critics are kind of dominated by the careerists who can make a hundred grand a year writing facile, superficial features for magazines like SPIN and Rolling Stone and Vibe, without any real commitment or putting themselves on the line to the reader.

    ``We're at such a dire time, and I think we officially hit the nadir with that Neil Strauss cover story on Jewel in Rolling Stone last year. You know, `I climb into bed with her, there's a pillow between us, but I do not remove the pillow because that would be too intimate.' ''

    DeRogatis' assessment of the state of rock writing could be viewed as the sour grapes of a one-time Rolling Stone staffer, were his criticism not so well-founded -- especially given Bangs' legacy. At its best, not only did Bangs' writing capture what it felt like to be a fan, but it captured that unique ennui of what it feels like to be a living, thinking human being in the center of America's pop-culture garbage storm.

    The other night, Johnny Rotten was shown on VH1, dismissing a punk- and Sex Pistols-clueless infotainment TV reporter with a terse ``interview over'' before it even started. Fact is, we could use more breaths of bracing air like Rotten's. Not exactly like him, of course, because Rotten has always contended that the first punk movement was about discovering your own voice, your own individuality, not aping the Pistols.

    Bangs (``now it's your turn'') was the same. And while there have been plenty of Bangs imitators over the years, ``Let It Blurt'' proves that there was only one Lester, whose stream-of-consciousness gonzo humor and drug- and drink-fueled prose was balanced by a rare thoughtfulness.

    ``There's this notion that he was a stylist who was all about style and no substance,'' says DeRogatis. ``And I reject that. I think that a lot of his ideas are incredibly inspiring, and very timely.''

    While the seeds for ``Let It Blurt'' were planted that April afternoon in 1982, DeRogatis started writing his book in earnest in 1996. He cobbled together time from his full-time position as staff writer at the Chicago Sun-Times and co-host (with the Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot) of the weekly ``Sound Opinions'' talk radio show, and worked on weekends, when Kim and Melody would visit Kim's hometown of Minneapolis, so DeRogatis could hibernate with his notes, transcriptions of 225 interviews, letters and recordings of Bangs' music.

    In the end, what emerges is the portrait of an artist as part misanthrope, part romantic, part loudmouth. A man with a huge appetite for life, and a huge heart. And while he may be best known for his essays on musicians who were more famous than he was (Captain Beefheart, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Richard Hell and, most memorably, his notorious tete-a-tetes with Lou Reed), Bangs was a dedicated wordsmith. To many, he was a far more influential literary figure than Hunter S. Thompson or Jack Kerouac, and certainly deserves more serious consideration than ``America's Greatest Rock Critic'' -- as the subtitle to ``Let It Blurt'' has it.

    ``I hated that,'' laughs DeRogatis. ``That's imposed upon me by the publisher. I resisted such a simplistic thing. I was trying to paint a portrait of a very complex individual, but the publisher said, `We gotta do this, because the bookstore clerk in Des Moines is not gonna know who Lester Bangs was.' In the end, I wasn't going to fight it, but every time I see it, it bugs the hell out of me.

    ``I mean, what kind of bragging rights is `America's best rock critic'? If I was going to go with a superlative, I would have gone with, `One of the best writers of his generation.' To say, `America's best rock critic' is so empty. It's like `The best swimmer in the Sahara' or `The best chef in Afghanistan.' ''

    ``Let It Blurt'' should be required reading for anyone who has ever been moved by a song and wanted to pen a journal entry about it, for anyone who has ever engaged in what Bangs called ``late-nite furious discussions leading absolutely nowhere'' about music, and for anyone who has ever suspected that there just might be more to life than, say, Sisqo's ``Thong Song.''

    Pop music critic Jim Walsh can be reached at or (651) 228-5553.

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