Although plenty of reviewers in other fields have been honored with the top
award in journalism, the Pulitzer Prize has never gone to a rock critic.
There is a category for "Best Album Notes" at the Grammy Awards, but nothing
acknowledging the best music criticism. And to date, no critic has been
nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, much less inducted.
objective measure, it's hard to justify the subtitle the publishers foisted
on my 2000 biography Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs,
America's Greatest Rock Critic. But just as the longevity of their songs
is the truest measure of a musician's accomplishments, the fact that Bangs'
writing continues to inspire countless readers 25 years after his death is
ultimately worth more than any trophy or prize.
Two excellent anthologies of Bangs' work, Psychotic Reactions and
Carburetor Dung and Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste, have
been steady sellers in the United States since they were first published in
1987 and 2003, and foreign-language editions have appeared around the world.
Bangs is quoted more often than any other rock critic -- just do a quick
Google search -- and not only by other writers, but by readers who evoke him
in their e-mail signatures, carry his quotations in their wallets or reprint
his words in fanzines and on Web sites.
The mentoring relationship that Bangs had with a young Cameron Crowe was
portrayed by Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman and Patrick Fugit in
Crowe's autobiographical film "Almost Famous," and musicians as diverse as
the Ramones, Bob Seger, R.E.M., the Buzzcocks, the Mekons and Big Audio
Dynamite have paid homage to Bangs in song. "Does anyone remember Lester
Bangs?" another fan, Kurt Cobain, asked in an essay posthumously published
in his Journals. The answer would seem to be a resounding "yes."
Skeptics who minimize Bangs' legacy will grant that he was an impressive
prose stylist -- a flashy, flamboyant and very funny writer. But the reason
he is quoted so often and his words continue to have such resonance is that
he was also a great thinker and a philosopher -- at least if you're willing
to grant that philosophical insights can be found in unlikely places such as
ABBA's bubblegum pop, the Troggs' grungy garage-rock or the Clash's
Stricken by the flu and battling to clean up after years of drug and
alcohol abuse, Bangs died from an overdose of the pain reliever Darvon on
April 30, 1982. He was 33. A quarter-century later, it seems fitting to
remember him in the best way possible: through his writing. Here are a few
of my choices for his most memorable quotes.
• • "Grossness is the truest criterion for rock 'n' roll. The cruder the
clang and grind, the more fun."
• • "I believe that rock 'n' roll comes down to myth; there are no
• • "All blues singers are great liars."
• • "Lenny Bruce demonstrated how far you could push a society as
repressed as ours and how much you could get away with it, but Elvis kicked
'How Much Is That Doggie in the Window' out the window and replaced it with,
'Let's f---!' ... I can guarantee you one thing: We will never agree on
anything as we agreed on Elvis."
• • "At its best, New Wave/punk represents a fundamental and age-old
Utopian dream: that if you give people the license to be as outrageous as
they want in absolutely any fashion they can dream up, they'll be creative
about it, and do something good besides."
• • "The first mistake of art is to assume that it's serious."
• • "What we need are more rock 'stars' willing to make fools of
themselves, absolutely jump off the deep end and make the audience
embarrassed for them, if necessary, so long as they have not one shred of
dignity or mythic corona left. Because then the whole damn pompous edifice
of this supremely ridiculous rock 'n' roll industry, set up to grab bucks by
conning youth and encouraging fantasies of a puissant 'youth culture,' would
collapse, and with it would collapse the careers of the hyped talentless
nonentities who breed off of it."
• • "The ultimate sin of any performer is contempt for the audience."
• • "Look at it this way: There are many here among us for whom the life
force is best represented by the livid twitching of one tortured nerve, or
even a full-scale anxiety attack. I do not subscribe to this point of view
100 percent, but I understand it, have lived it. Thus the shriek, the
caterwaul, the chainsaw gnarlgnashing, the yowl and the whizz that
decapitates may be reheard by the adventurous or emotionally damaged as
mellifluous bursts of unarguable affirmation."
• • "Don't ask me why I obsessively look to rock 'n' roll bands for some
kind of model for a better society. I guess it's just that I glimpsed
something beautiful in a flashbulb moment once, and perhaps mistaking it for
prophecy have been seeking its fulfillment ever since."
• • "Style is originality; fashion is fascism. The two are eternally and
• • "The only questions worth asking today are whether humans are going
to have any emotions tomorrow, and what the quality of life will be if the
answer is no."
• • "Good rock 'n' roll is something that makes you feel alive. It's
something that's human, and I think that most music today isn't. ... 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."
• • "Every great work of art has two faces: one toward its own time and
one toward the future, toward eternity."