Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Bangs' Head

By Shelly Ridenour

APRIL 17, 2000: 

Let It Blurt by Jim DeRogatis (Broadway Books), 330 pages, $15.95

"Just for the record, I would like it known by anybody who cares that I don't think life is a perpetual dive," Lester Bangs wrote in a 1978 Gig magazine interview with Television frontman Richard Hell.

Gonzo journalist, social commentarian, wannabe rock star and the Great American Rock 'n' Roll Writer, Lester Bangs still stands as the hell-raising stereotype of "lived fast, died young" -- and as the tarnished patron saint to a legion of aspiring rock critics. Very much a part of the culture he loved and wrote about, Bangs wasn't just a writer, he was a chronicler, intimately familiar with the seventies'/early-eighties' rock 'n' roll, and especially punk, scenes. He partied with Patti Smith and the Talking Heads, played in a band with vaunted Voidoids guitarist Robert Quine and had an antagonistic love-hate relationship with Lou Reed; legend has it he first applied the term "heavy metal" to that nascent genre.

"Let It Blurt," a new biography by Sun-Times music critic Jim DeRogatis, recounts those stories and much, much more. Influenced by the Beats, Bangs -- along with Richard Meltzer, Dave Marsh and Nick Tosches -- ushered in a whole new era of rock writing with his unflinchingly raw, often hilarious and occasionally brilliant work in Creem magazine. "Let It Blurt" is a full portrait, not merely skimming over Bangs' rocky formative years as a Jehovah's Witness, the death of his ex-con father or his passions of the heart. It is a sympathetic, even romantic portrait, but also one that pulls no punches -- the rampant drug use is in no way glorified, the alcohol-fueled stories are often pathetic, and the unapologetic lack of personal hygiene is absolutely unflattering. Still, even as a non-Lester fanatic (my early influences as a music critic counting Creem co-conspirator Jaan Uhelszki), I was absolutely captivated by the story in my hands.

DeRogatis' research is impressively thorough (nearly to the point of obsession, as he has compiled a chronology of seemingly every Bangs work ever published, more than 600 album and book reviews, interviews, books and ravings, as well as unpublished manuscripts); his style is refreshingly clean, stepping back and letting the story almost tell itself. It is a deceptive style, however -- the tale itself is so engrossing, you have to check yourself with the reminder that it's derived from interviews (again, DeRogatis' research is exhaustive, tracking down family, former lovers, friends and foes) recounting second- or third-hand accounts.

DeRogatis never presents the story as a tragedy, instead managing to celebrate the life of Lester Bangs, Possible Genius and Force of Nature, in all its frenzied, sordid glory. A quote from the Sex Pistols' John Lydon, though concerning Bangs' writing, could sum up the writer's embracing of life: "Lester was a madman... Although [his writing] could be perceived as nasty, there was always a sense of fun in it. Lester questioned things, and you'll find the majority of people don't like to question what they just take for granted."


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