They who are to be judges must also be performers.
Most pop music geeks I know enjoy reading about music as much as they like
listening to it. That's why rock writers write big books about rock stars
and geeks like us gobble them up. Fans want to know musicians' life
stories, the backstage antics, the scoop on the stars' love lives, their
addictions and anecdotes about how they write their tunes.
Some rock writers give the scoop with such flair or convey music's
powerful message so forcefully or artfully that they become interesting
Such was the case with the late Lester Bangs. Bangs wrote about rock 'n'
roll in the 1970s heyday of rock journalism. He did it with such edge and
eloquence that his columns and rants in Rolling Stone and later Creem,
where he made his name, were considered art. In fact, Bangs, who died at
33 in 1982 after ingesting a lethal combination of drugs, often eclipsed
the performers he was writing about.
A denizen of the downtown New York art scene during the 1970s, Bangs lived
the life of rock excess. He was a hopeless romantic who believed in the
transformative power of music. Roommates would find Bangs sleeping on the
sofa with Little Richard blasting so loud on his headphones it woke them.
Bangs did drugs and drank too much, staying up all night writing reams of
impassioned text on the music that moved him. In search of the romantic
love that eluded him, and living the life of the eternal adolescent, Bangs
eventually hung out with the rock stars he wrote about: Patti Smith, Iggy
Pop, the Ramones and particularly Lou Reed, with whom Bangs shared a
well-known love-hate relationship, much of it in print.
Bangs himself became so celebrated that he is the subject of Let It Blurt:
The Life and Times of Lester Bangs,
America's Greatest Rock Critic, a recently released biography by music
journalist Jim DeRogatis. It is the first biography of a pop music writer.
And it's a beautiful book.
Let It Blurt conveys that Bangs made no secret of his fandom, the effect
these people's art had on him. Nor did he hesitate to say when he didn't
like what he was hearing. Bangs wrote provocatively about his
disillusionment with the social politics of the Clash, and how the band
treated fans on tour, as well as rants about the racism of the punk rock
The best of Bangs' writing can be found in Psychotic Reactions and
Carburetor Dung (1987), edited by Greil Marcus, another well-known pop
music/pop culture writer. Marcus, infinitely more scholarly, infinitely
more highbrow than Bangs, called his pal "the best writer in
There is no music book I recommend more than Psychotic Reactions. Bangs'
rants are sometimes maddening and frustrating, but always illuminating. He
used music to talk about bigger issues: race, homophobia, gender, love,
There's a reason I keep a pic of Bangs on my desk at work. The guy moves
me. He makes me think on many levels about music and our culture. Bangs
reminds me that music is powerful. It has the ability to transform. It is
Bangs had a gift, too.