Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Ever notice how greatness isn’t so much veryverygoodness as a mark of precisely how much and how the great one matters to whoever’s handing out the laurels, goodness be damned, or at least darned? When Chicago Sun-Timer Jim De gets all superlative on the dead ass of Lester (ne Leslie) Bangs (ne Bangs), upgrading the LEGENDARY anointment that got rubbed into his Atlas-aching (but still dead) back on the front of the G.M.-edited Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, that’s just a publicity-grabbin’ subtitular way of saying, as he actually does direct on pg. xiii of his brand new Lester ink ‘n’ paper rockcritumentary starring, of course, Ladies and Gentlemen—Lester Bangs!, that “Lester was the great gonzo journalist, gutter poet, and romantic visionary of rock writing—its Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski, and Jack Kerouac all rolled into one.” Now Hunnerass Tomsin, Chuk Puke, and Jackie K. never meant shit to me, but alotsa people who like rock and read, moving lips or no, seem to think they’re the cat’s whiskers, pajamas, litterbox, etc. So now we are BLESSED with a 3hunnerd page followup to Jim’s parochial-skool homework to chat up his big-time hero, which he managed to do, good boy, just two weeks before Lester+Darvon got all blue and stiff on us back in ’82.
OK, I’ll stop. The fact that my stab at period fringe rock-crit style sounds more like Richard Meltzer than fellow “Noise Boys” Bangs or Nick Tosches indicates that I’d nominate him over them even though he’s neither dead nor getting major mainstream ink for his latest book. Unfortunately, A Whore Just Like the Rest: The Music Writings of Richard Meltzer is not what I’ve been assigned to review (though, thanks to his “Lester” chapter, we will return to it shortly); my subject is Jim DeRogatis’ Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic. Back to the salt mines.
The book starts out full of promise. There’s an Oscar Wilde epigraph from “The Critic as Artist” that defends criticism as art. Then the author opens by knocking his hero for a loop. A quote from Bangs’ Rod Stewart (“I have always believed that rock ‘n’ roll comes down to myth. There are no ‘facts’”) is met with “Sometimes Lester was full of shit. Of course there are facts in rock ‘n’ roll, and they are valuable tools for deflating the myths…”; but here’s where things start to sour (note that we are exactly 25 of DeRogatis’ own words into the preface): “…thereby making heroic deeds seem possible for us lowly humans.” Fresh off the blocks, and he’s already pausing to grovel at the feet of his guru. There are those pesky facts, though.
We learn early on that Bangs had a freaky, Jehovah’s Witness-filled family tree that unincestuously (un-blood-related stepcousins hooking up and so forth) coiled itself into a circle and sucked on the drunk gene like a lollipop. We also read that 8-year-old Lester’s pop died in a fire and that 11-year-old Lester for several months had a sex-for-comics deal going with a middle-aged male Escondido trailer-dweller. What follows is an intensively reported account of Bangs’ eastward migration, from writing for himself and drinking cough syrup in the San Diego exurb of El Cajon to writing for Creem and taking speed and quaaludes in the Detroit exurbs of Walled Lake and Birmingham to writing for everyone from Circus to Screw, drinking anything he could get the cap off of, and gobbling the innards of fistfuls of nasal inhalers, an old Beat trick, in—at last!—the Big Apple.
Three major personal themes recur repeatedly throughout: intoxication, rock writing, and abysmal hygiene. As that mighty triumvirate would suggest, there is one major quality uniting peers’ efforts to deal with Bangs—forbearance—but not everyone partook deeply of it. Bangs’ editor at Creem, Dave Marsh, a wise and easily embarrassed fellow according to the standards of Bangs’ crowd, frequently bowed out at the first sign of trouble, usually as soon as Bangs started making a spectacle of himself. Andrea di Guglielmo, Bangs’ high school girlfriend, gave it six weeks at Walled Lake before heading back to California. He later visited her, and after an argument, in (Bangs writes and DeRogatis quotes) “savage ugly liquored sexual frustration I dug one of my nails into her wrist until it bled.”
We are told that those with the stomach for Bangs’ brand of lunacy actually missed him when he wasn’t around, but it’s pretty difficult to imagine. Think of Dean Moriarty. You either bought all that belly-rubbing-gone-hipster-saint-creeping-through-the-secret-American-night crap or you wished one of his wronged wives would twist a bottle in his face. Bangs was a lot more guilt-stricken, and therefore a lot nicer, than his hero Kerouac’s Beat poster boy, but he, too, knew how to wear out a welcome. I didn’t really get sick of him, though, until he tried to dry out. We are told that Bangs stumbled over the “higher power” turn in the 12-step tango, but anyone who has ever had to tolerate the talk of a “recovering” anything knows that off-the-wagon self-pity, once turned into on-the-wagon self-righteousness, can be so forceful it seems like a power dwelling outside the bearer. So it was that shortly before his death at age 33, Bangs endeavored to become a “serious writer,” which for some time now in America has sadly meant a “novelist.” He threatened that his first fiction would be about “life in New York City and people’s relationships—how people’s relationships fuck them up.” We can be thankful that this opus never came to be, though even the most ambivalent Bangs reader must recognize that, in this case, prevention was a bitch.
As revealing as all the who-what-when-how is, even Joe Friday might wish DeRogatis were a little more limber with all the data. In establishing beyond a doubt that Lester lived, Bangs’ biographer neglects to supply an answer to the forthcoming “So what?” Perhaps he thinks the posthumous anthology Psychotic Reactions handled that query, but he seems to forget that, facts and myth aside, there are also presumably his own opinions. Don’t be fooled by Let It Blurt’s academic trappings. Despite the welcome inclusion of an index, a mammoth bibliography (including a detailed accounting of much of Bangs’ writing), an interview-source list, endnotes, and appendices containing selected Bangs lyrics and his tongue-in-cheek rock-crit primer, this dutiful, workmanlike book is no critical biography, no considered work of metacriticism.
To satisfy your Bangs-related spiritual and intellectual cravings, turn to Meltzer’s remembrance of his colleague, “Lester Recollected in Tranquility,” and the odds-and-ends that round out the related chapter of Whore. As per usual with Meltzer, he assumes you already know what’s going on before he starts screwing with you, so unless you were a real-life pal of Bangs’ you will need DeRogatis for background. Meltzer calls Bangs on all his bullshit, his belligerence, his meanness, his—at times—sheer assholedom; he calls Bangs’ defenders on their tendency to pat the pup on his darlin’ head while he soils the rug. (If there’s one thing everyone could be a lot harder on Bangs over, though, it’s his romantic elevation of attitude over talent. The rock ‘n’ roll gods deliver bitchen, audible proof of the failure of such notions on Birdland With Lester Bangs, a recently reissued and totally unrecommended relic of Bangs’ bar-band days. Imagine a Jim Carroll Band that sucked so hard you could have picked up on it at 17 rather than having to wait ’til you were 24 and shamed by your once-callow tastes.)
Meltzer also talks of Bangs in the tone he deserves, with alternating sallies of love and loathing that can be motivated only by the understanding of an equal, not hero-worship crypto-scandalized suckupery. Meltzer has a hard, deep-down humor; heavier and harsher than Bangs, he’s generally the kind of funny you sense philosophically rather than laugh out loud over. Like Bangs, he can frequently be insufferable. And like Bangs, Meltzer uses the ostensible subject as a screen for the real subject; you often feel as if the music is just in the way. When people say that someone writes rock ‘n’ roll into prose, what they mean is not that the writing somehow mimics rock volume and rhythm but that it immerses you the way rock does, is vehicular the way rock can be. You often don’t remember it once it’s over; all that’s left is the echo of the way it transported you. It’s not sensible stuff that sharpens the way you think about music; it’s a trip.
I actually prefer, qua criticism, the writing of the professores, the aestheticians, the social critics, and I simply adore formal analysis of pop-song structure (a rare commodity when it doesn’t read like sawdust), but qua rock poetry, the writing of the top-two Noise Boys is hard to beat. (Note, however, that their prose is better poetry than their actual verse.) Despite their liking for the hard stuff, a soft-side analogy might help:
Consider Richard and Lester the Richard and Karen—yes, Carpenter—of rock writing: Meltzer ruthless, surly, and technically savvy; Lester sincere and fated, and pretty in a way that his work, and only his work, supports. Even with rock on the ropes as both lifeway and lifestyle, or so we’re told, there are certain sounds we just can’t get out of our heads. Forget their words though we may, Lester and Richard keep us humming their tunes, every sha-la-la-la, every wo-o-wo-o… CP