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The Boston Phoenix Critical Mass

The Lester Bangs legacy

By Matt Ashare

JULY 24, 2000: 

On April 30, 1982, Lester Bangs the rock critic was discovered dead in his NYC apartment and Lester Bangs the legend was born. Maybe the legend wasn't fully formed until six years later, in October of 1988, when the Greil Marcus-edited collection of Bangs's writings -- Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung -- was published by Vintage Books. And maybe the legend had already begun to overshadow the human critic in that early spring of 1982, when Bangs wrote his last few words before moving on from this world, for reasons that to this day remain unclear, in a manner befitting a legend. You know, like what really happened to Robert Johnson?

Bangs wasn't the first rock critic -- that honor may belong to his buddy Richard Meltzer, whose Aesthetics of Rock is said to have been the first serious book of rock criticism ever published. But Bangs was the first to be canonized, to be romanticized, to be ensconced in legend. And now he's the first to be biographied, thanks to Chicago music critic Jim DeRogatis, a writer old enough to have met Bangs in person early in April of 1982.

That meeting forms the preface of DeRogatis's recent Let It Blurt: The Life & Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic, as if to suggest it qualifies him -- and only him -- to be the biographer of the first rock critic in the history of rock criticism to warrant a biography. DeRogatis may have a point there. Someone who'd worked and played and lived with Bangs -- any one of his contemporaries, like Meltzer or Nick Tosches -- would probably be too well acquainted with his many human faults to appreciate the impact he's had on generations of rock critics. And anyone far removed from Bangs's real life might not appreciate the degree to which he was flawed -- something DeRogatis registered immediately upon encountering his hero in a trash-strewn Manhattan walk-up at the corner of 14th Street and Sixth Avenue. "Sometimes Lester was full of shit" is how the preface begins.

And so we get from DeRogatis a loving yet realistic portrait of the man who has come to embody greatness among rock critics, the legend whose legacy has provided young rock-loving writers of the past 20 years with a role model. But more on that later. If there's irony here, it's that DeRogatis, who clearly did/does idolize Bangs, has written the exact kind of book that Bangs never would have bothered with, the kind of book that likely would have bored Bangs to tears -- a straight, painstakingly researched biography. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's even fitting in a way, because by the time of Bangs's death, rock criticism had largely gone professional, leaving itself little room for the kind of gonzo musings that had and have become the Bangs legacy. This is a trend that's continued since the early '80s, so that even as the Bangs legend has grown, the opportunities for anyone to follow in his footsteps have diminished -- at least in anything resembling a mainstream publication. There are, of course, fanzines and self-published tracts like John Darnielle's Last Plane to Jakarta where the Bangs legacy lives on. But it's been purged from the realm of mainstream journalism.

As a fan of both rock music and rock criticism, I do mourn the loss of the freedom that the pre-professional days of writing about popular music enjoyed. Imagine being the first band to adapt the blues, the way the Rolling Stones did around the time of Let It Bleed, or to employ overdubbing the way the Beatles did on Sgt. Pepper. Or even to be in a position to do such things, as opposed to living at a time when it seems everything's been said and done and recycling the past is all that's left. Bangs and his contemporaries were sailing into uncharted waters every time they wrote about a band like the Stooges as art rather than as mere recreation. And since rock criticism had yet to establish itself as a profession, there were no rules governing the correct procedure for, say, reviewing an album or interviewing a band. Then again, as an editor and a consumer of rock criticism, I'm not altogether sorry that there aren't more writers out there trying to emulate Bangs's gonzo style. Most such attempts are painfully bad, and it's not as if Bangs himself always hit his mark.

What Bangs did accomplish in his best writing was to place larger ideas about the relevance of rock and roll in the context of the very visceral, personal, and emotional impact the music can have on a person. That was his gift. His best criticism was funny, witty, and wise, his worst perhaps a little bit too off the wall. But then that's the editor in me talking, the editor who's been trained to consider the lowest common denominator when preparing a piece for publication, in order to make it comprehensible to the largest number of readers. Such concerns mattered less in the early days of rock criticism, when it was pretty much assumed that only a select number of informed people were interested in the subject.

The evolution of rock criticism from a lawless journalistic frontier into a highly regulated mainstream profession is meant to be one of the subtexts of Let It Blurt. It certainly is one of the major subplots of Bangs's life. Over time, he butted heads with a number of editors, was banned from the pages of certain publications, and had to tailor his style. But DeRogatis is much more effective when he's simply telling the story of Bangs's short life. He doesn't, for example, think to suggest that the sheer volume of product that the record business produces has radically changed rock criticism over the years. Back when Bangs was a critic, you could assume that music fans were familiar with most of the major and even minor albums that came out each month. That hasn't been true for at least a decade and a half, and it had just about stopped being the case at the time of Bangs's death. The splintering of audiences and the creation of increasingly specialized demographics means a critic has to do a lot more explaining -- which sets a whole different tone in the writing itself and leaves less room for the kind of freestyle creativity that distinguished Bangs and some of his contemporaries.

You may get a better sense of this from the work of two of Bangs's pals, Richard Meltzer and Nick Tosches. A Whore Just like the Rest: The Music Writings of Richard Meltzer is sort of Meltzer's Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, though far more comprehensive. But the crucial difference is that each section begins with a preface in which Meltzer puts his own writing into a historical or philosophical context. And these introductions form something of a book within a book. For example, the intro to his review of a Commander Cody album recounts how he and Nick Tosches conspired to review the album under each other's bylines for Fusion and Rolling Stone, and how that led to their being banned from the pages of Rolling Stone. It's an amusing little anecdote; it's also indicative of how small and relatively unprofessional the world of music journalism was in the early '70s.

Toward the end of the volume there's a collection of the kind of blurbs that Meltzer still writes for the San Diego Reader (an alternative weekly like the Phoenix), previews for area shows in which he goes off on fictional tangents about the artists in question. They're very funny, and more digestible than a lot of his convoluted earlier work. And they prove there's still room for both creativity and irreverence in music journalism today, though to judge by their length not much room.

The Nick Tosches Reader is a similar volume, with the same kind of section introductions. Like Meltzer and Bangs, Tosches came to despise the business of music journalism, but he did something about it: he started writing about other subjects, like sports and literature. The collection features his writing on everything from Black Sabbath's Paranoid to J. Edgar Hoover, Dean Martin to Robert De Niro. But the story it tells is the same one that forms the subtext of Let It Blurt and A Whore Just like the Rest -- that, like rock music itself, rock criticism began as a free-form calling and evolved into a more practical profession. And if that seems depressing, well, in some ways it is. Yet Meltzer and Tosches have proved that there would still have been a place in the world for Bangs if he'd lived to see Y2K. He'd probably still be crusading for the bands he loved, and he'd have his audience. It wouldn't be the mainstream pop audience, because such a thing barely exists. But like real rock and roll, real writing about rock and roll is where you find it. And it's always out there waiting to be found.

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