Let It Blurt
The Life & Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic
By Jim DeRogatis
Broadway Book; 331 pp.; $15.95
The Nick Tosches Reader
By Nick Tosches
Da Capo; 593 pp.; $18.95
By its very nature, the finest rock criticism is driven by equal amounts of fervor and ego, a rock-solid assurance in one's opinions and ideals, and a white-hot belief that those opinions and ideals not only are right, but worthy of a reader's time and interest. Sadly, rock criticism -- born in the late Sixties, reaching its zenith in the mid-Seventies, and reeking of death by the Eighties -- is currently at an all-time nadir. Once-formidable publications such as Rolling Stone and the Village Voice are now clogged with puffball profiles and impenetrable prose, while the pages of Spin and Details are smeared with hipster babble and criticism that, more times than not, is muddled, wrongheaded, and incoherent. Even the alternative newsweeklies that have spread like brush fire in the wake of the Voice have relegated actual criticism to the back pages of their record-reviews sections; lead pieces inevitably are built around artist interviews and are bereft of anything approaching the insightful or the incendiary.
Jim DeRogatis' fine if cumbersomely titled biography Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic offers both a well-researched chronicle of Bangs' brief but influential career and the backslide of rock criticism over the last two decades. Given that Bangs' milieu has all but died, Let It Blurt is a tale laced with journalistic tragedy; given that Bangs basically drank and drugged himself to death in 1982 at the age of 33, the bio is also a tale of rock-and-roll excess that recalls such tomes of decadence as No One Gets Out of Here Alive and Hammer of the Gods, histories of the Doors and Led Zeppelin, respectively.
The Bangs saga parallels the rise of rock-and-roll as a wildly profitable commodity and the music press that first covered it -- not with the usual celebrity profiles but with evocative, passionate essays by first-string critics such as Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau, Dave Marsh, Peter Guralnick, and, in short order, Lester Bangs. Of them all, Bangs was the most unlikely to succeed. While Marcus and Christgau approach the music with one hand in academia and the other in the music, and Guralnick covered only his favorite artists with an almost persnickety penchant for simply letting the subject tell the story, Bangs -- along with his aesthetic brother Marsh -- was a zealot fueled with as much passion as the music he covered in the early Seventies for the Detroit-based Creem magazine.
Bangs, the son of a Jehovah's Witness, began his career at Rolling Stone writing record reviews that skewered the upper echelon of pop music while touting the searing sounds of rock's underground, from Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath to the Count Five and the Godz. Then-reviews editor Marcus loved Bangs' caustic work, but Rolling Stone publisher/celebrity sycophant Jann Wenner hated it just as much, and soon Bangs hung his shingle at Creem, the irreverent home of Marsh, R. Meltzer, and Nick Tosches, among others. Where his work at Rolling Stone was somewhat shackled by the confines of Wenner's mainstream rock-press ideology, Bangs went nuts at Creem, turning the art of the review/essay into something confrontational, autobiographical, confessional, and almost uncomfortably intimate. His early-Seventies writing for the magazine -- much of which was compiled in 1987's Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung -- shattered boundaries as it built new ones, and in the process provided the groundwork for what would become, for better or worse, the tone of most rock writers to come. That Bangs was able to actually publish some of those expoundings was a feat unto itself. That they hold up so well so many years after the fact -- better, in most cases, than even the music he was writing about -- is a testament to the man's genius. That, as DeRogatis points out, they would never see the light of print in today's rock-crit climate is a pathetic commentary on the depths that Bangs' forte has plummeted.
Bangs' genius, unfortunately, dissipated as he spiraled into a black pit of booze, pills, and his longtime favorite, Romilar cough syrup. On the surface, Bangs was as much a victim of rock-and-roll excess as any of his favorites of the CBGB's crowd (Richard Hell, Johnny Thunders, et al.), and his early trumpeting of the nascent growl of punk rock underlined his love of rock's dark side just as much as his celebrated early rants about such noise anticlassics as Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music and the canon of the Stooges. But unlike his wordsmith minions, Bangs quickly saw the dead-end of punk's cynical razor's edge and wasn't ashamed to say as much. His classic late-Seventies piece on the Clash and his tear-jerking eulogy for his friend Peter Laughner signaled a change in Bangs' writing, ethos, and -- for a while, at least -- his lifestyle. More importantly, it showed his newfound love and embracement of life, of humanity: a love of the things that punk decidedly eschewed. Bangs' vulnerability served him well on the page, but it made his life a calamitous, often pathetic mess. His attempts at maintaining romantic relationships were all colossal failures, the substance abuse inevitably impaired his work, and the necessity to actually be Lester Bangs -- i.e., a brilliant man with a hard-on for destruction -- killed him.
Ironically, one of Bangs' contemporaries, Nick Tosches, has spent most of his career as an antithesis to Bangs' compassionate, heart-on-sleeve writing. Where Bangs only seldom lapsed into the braggadocio and machismo of rock criticism's boys' school mentality, Tosches embraced it, and fancied himself as a hard-boiled, hard-drinking, tough-shit journalist cut from the same soiled cloth as Harry Crews, Pete Hamill, and pulp-fiction writers such as Jim Thompson, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain. He did some good work for a while, most notably his seminal 1977 book Country and 1992's Dino, one of the finest biographies of the last 10 years. He's also been responsible for some of the most self-important, egomaniacal, and loathsome prose of any writer produced over the last two decades, rivaled only by his close friend (and fellow Bangs acolyte) Richard Meltzer.
The Nick Tosches Reader is a compilation of that loathsome prose, encompassing his Seventies work at Creem, later pieces written for Esquire, Vanity Fair, and the Village Voice, as well as excerpts from dreadful novels and journal entries that find Tosches wallowing in the sordid joys of getting bombed, getting laid, and getting paid for yammering about it like a macho shithead with a way with words and the conscience of a flat-broke drunk about to pick your pocket for another shot of Maker's. The influence of Bangs is prevalent throughout Tosches' work, but what's missing is the passion for the work at hand, a passion for the subject that can eclipse Tosches' massive infatuation with self. There's some good stuff here, but finding it requires a long swim through Tosches' sewer of sexist self-indulgence -- a swim that's hardly worth the effort.
-- John Floyd