Twenty-five years. In music, it’s a span of time that can be an eternity, and yet last no longer the blink of an eye. So much can change. So much can stay the same.
One wonders what Lester Bangs would say about music today. The rise of hip-hop. Internet downloading (hell, the internet, period). Would he really lay into the Justins and Christinas of the world? We’ll never know. The "what ifs" that arise when one thinks of the untimely departure of Bangs, considered to be rock n’ roll’s greatest scribe, are staggering.
A quarter century ago, he overdosed when trying to treat a cold with darvon and valium. It’s a loss that we still feel today. Not a single music journalist worth their salt does not cite Bangs as an influence. So today, when so much has changed yet stayed the same, it is worth looking at why this man, who believed in his very soul that rock n’ roll was a truly "democratic art form," could remain the legend he is.
Bangs was born to Jehovah’s Witness parents in California in 1948. His mother was fanatically dedicated to the vision of the Second Coming, and his father was an alcoholic who frequently disappeared for weeks on end. When he was nine, Bangs’ father vanished for good. Lester was told that he burned to death in a fire.
This intensely alienating childhood-an absent father and religious zealot mother-took a toll on the young Bangs. Not surprisingly, he began to rebel by venturing outside of his mother’s strict boundaries. He read Kerouac and became enthralled in the free jazz of the 60s. Davis, Coltrane, Mingus. The freedom, the unrestricted expression of jazz and the Beat generation was an obvious attraction compared to the insulated apocalypse-mongering of the local Jehovah’s Witness chapter.
But the straw that broke the camel’s back came in the form of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Bangs would describe his first experience listening to them as "a supernatural visitation, a cataclysmic experience of Wagnerian power that transcended music." Not long after, he was expelled from the Witnesses and struck out on a two-year jaunt dedicated to sex, drugs and rock n’ roll.
When he came out the other side (which included a brief stint with the Hell’s Angels, though certainly not as a member), he gave journalism a try. His first real effort came in the form of a scathing review of the MC5′s Kick Out the Jams. In a now infamous move, he sent the article into Rolling Stone with a note attached: "Look, fuckheads, I’m as good as any writer you’ve got in there. You’d better print this or give me the reason why!" Rather than offer up a reason, RS printed this review.
It was this gutsy, uncompromising outlook that set Bangs apart in the world of rock journalism. Whether he was singing a band’s praises or ruthlessly cutting them down, the reader always knew which side Bangs stood on.
His tastes reflected this brash attitude. Fellow rock journo Nick Kent points out that by the late sixties Bangs had little time for the Beatles or Bob Dylan. He made no bones about calling Jim Morrison a buffoon. He had dismissed the Stones as irrelevant has-beens: "[T]he Stones have become oblique in their old ageÃ¢€Â¦" Rather, he preferred sticking with that gritty, seedy side of rock n’ roll that poked its head out only occasionally by that time. He loved the Stooges and the Velvet Underground, and Lou Reed would remain on of his heroes. Through all of this, it was clear that he held rock up to an undeniably high standard.
Bangs was the kind of writer that could tear your guts out and make it tickle. His writing style was a flowing, poetic and acerbically funny. His impatience with the circus that rock had become is obvious in this 1981 review of Stevie Nicks’ Bella Donna:
"Stevie Nicks may be a space case, a terminal mutation of the genus Superstar (her manicurist gets a liner credit), and at times emetically narcissistic-the cover, which is thoroughly repulsive from where I sit as a man or graphix fan, is the worst thing about Bella Donna, her successful bid for solo stardom. The best things about it are state-of-the-art production, the husky passion of her voice, and her melodies, which are so tenacious I’m still listening a full two months after I bought this record and decided it was a bunch of shit."
This humor and willingness to not take himself all-too-seriously, gave the impression we weren’t reading the tome of some academic music expert, but a fan, just like you and me.
At the time, this was sorely needed. Bangs wrote at that crucial era; between rock’s unpredictable apex coinciding with the rebellion of the late sixties and before the advent of hip-hop, when it looked as if the tentacles of the biz might succeed in wrapping themselves around rock n’ roll and squeezing out all that had made it vibrant. The Bangs portrayed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous calls it a "death rattle." As the stadiums got bigger and the contracts more lucrative, so did grow the temptation for the critics to follow the bands into the plush hotel rooms and ivory towers. Bangs resisted. He was a true believer that rock had to stay dirty, ugly, rebellious and incendiary.
But this true belief, combined with a flowing and poetic writing style, would not always lead to the praise he may have sought. Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone’s editor then and now, apparently had little faith in Bangs’ abilities and wouldn’t let him take any weightier assignments. To Wenner, Bangs was a rogue, a loose cannon. To Bangs, though, he was simply speaking his mind. In 1971, a frustrated Bangs left RS and started writing for Creem, and was arguably one of the writers that brought the magazine to its present cult status.
When punk reared its head in the mid-seventies, Bangs was supportive (though, as always, critical). Punk seemed to be a breath of fresh air. Bangs referred to it as the time when "buying records became fun again." The writing of this era was some of his best. Though he took issue with much of the constant droning of "boredom" that was endemic in punk’s early days, he saw the new genre as a return to the days when rock n’ roll actually mattered to people’s everyday life. He put it brilliantly in his account of following the Clash on tour:
"[I]f rock n’ roll is truly the democratic art form, then the democracy has got to begin at home; that is, the everlasting and totally disgusting walls between artists and audience must come down, elitism must perish, the ‘stars’ have got to be humanized, demythologized, and the audience has got to be treated with more respect. Otherwise it’s all a shuck, a rip-off, and the music is as dead as the Stones’ and Led Zep’s has become."
Truer words have seldom been written about music. In this line, like so many others, Bangs had made clear both the potential of music and all the old crap that was weighing it down. Such faith in the power of true creativity, unfettered by the shackles of money-making and shallowness, is seldom seen in music journalism. By this time, Bangs had left Creem, had moved to Manhattan and was contributing to the Village Voice.
Yet Bangs still found himself frustrated creatively. As Kent, also a friend of Bangs, points out, he "wanted to be viewed as a great writer, yet he was gaining notoriety as a gonzo journalist-a phrase he couldn’t stomach, because it reminded him too much of his nemesis Hunter S. Thompson. He was wasting his time writing about people who looked down on him as though he were a disturbed stalker."
The frustration of having a message, of wanting to rock the boat but not finding enough people to join in, may have been what did him in. Like his father, Bangs relied on alcohol and drugs as a vent for his anger. When he slipped into a drug induced coma and died at the age of 33 on April 30, 1982, he was listening to the Human League’s Dare, whose decadent synth-pop sound would all but overtake rock n’ roll in the 1980s.
There is a twisted irony in the fact that twenty-five years after his death, Bangs is considered the greatest rock critic of all time, while he never achieved this recognition during his life. What his writing has achieved since his death is something that few other writers have been able to: he reminded us exactly what it is that we love so much about rock n’ roll.
Lester Bangs was a man whose undying faith in the power of music guided him. It is bittersweet that he is not here today to receive the recognition he truly deserved.
***** Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist living in Washington DC. He is a regular writer for Znet, and has also contributed to Socialist Worker, Dissident Voice, CounterPunch and MRZine. He is currently working on his first book, The Kids Are Shouting Loud: The Music and Politics of the Clash.
His blog, Rebel Frequencies, can be viewed at http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com, and he can be reached at [email protected]