Rock 'n' roll never forgets
AN APPRECIATION | 25 years after his death, Lester Bangs' writing remains inspirational

April 29, 2007


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.

By any 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 amphetamine punk.

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 'facts.' "

  "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 unalterably opposed."

  "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."