A gifted writer with a flair for the outrageous, Lester Bangs helped to define the possibilities of rock journalism. As a critic, he more than simply reviewed rock ‘n’ roll records—he captured the wild energy and experimentation of the music in his brash prose style. Beyond his vivid, pungent language, he was a passionate moralist, righteously critical of almost everything, including himself. During his 1970s heyday, Bangs’s work for Creem magazine was widely imitated by other critics and made him a pop culture celebrity in his own right. He also ventured into performing, releasing a number of punk-slanted albums and singles.
Born on December 13, 1948, in Escondido, California, Leslie Bangs (as he was known until his teenage years) was the only child of truck driver Conway Bangs and his wife, Norma. Hard luck and personal differences dogged the family, and in 1957 the couple separated. Conway Bangs died in a house fire not long afterwards. Norma Bangs moved with her son to El Cajon, California, in 1960, where she raised him according to the strict teachings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses faith. He resisted, turning instead to music—first jazz, then rock—and literature, especially Beat Generation writers like Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, for stimulation. During his late teens Bangs dabbled in hallucinogenic drugs, kept company with motocycle gangs, and sat in with local bands as a harmonica player. Rock music increasingly fascinated him, both as art and as a vehicle for personal and social change.
Enrolling at Grossmont Junior College in 1966, Bangs proved an indifferent student. In between partying and working as a shoe salesman, he honed his writing talents and began submitting his work for publication. His first piece for Rolling Stone—a caustic review of the MC5’s LP Kick Out the Jams—appeared on April 5, 1969. From the start, Bangs began to develop a distinct critical ethic, favoring raw and emotionally honest music over slick, safe sounds. The Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart, and Van Morrison won his particular praise. Bangs’s writing style—influenced by Kerouac’s free-flowing “spontaneous prosody”—made him stand out from the rest of Rolling Stone’s critics. He was a prolific contributor, publishing over 150 reviews in the magazine between 1969 and 1973. Eventually, though, his supposedly “disrespectful” attitude toward the musicians he reviewed caused him to be banned from Rolling Stone’s pages until 1978.
Meanwhile, Bangs had begun writing for Creem magazine. After selling a few pieces, he moved from El Cajon to work at the magazine’s Detroit offices in 1970. Bangs’s style fully blossomed during his Creem days. Using a current album as a departure point, his reviews spiraled off into tangents that combined personal confessions, absurdist routines, and references to everything from highbrow literature to low-budget horror films. The growing pretensions of the rock world became his particular target. In “Of Pop and Pies and Fun, Part One” (from Creem, November 1970), he insisted that “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.”
Bangs’s irreverence extended even to his heroes. Velvet Underground co-founder Lou Reed was a particular obsession of his; in a series of insult-filled Creem interviews published from 1973 through 1975, he accused Reed of selling out and cheapening his music as a solo artist. Significantly, Bangs disdained Reed’s more popular work and extolled his 1975 LP Metal Machine Music, an album of headache-inducing feedback noise. Bangs valued a sense of danger and transgression in his artists, qualities he cultivated in his own life as well. His writings revealed an ambivalence toward rock’s self-destructive aspects. In reviewing an Iggy Pop concert in the March 28, 1977 issue of Village Voice, he praised Pop for his willingness to risk his personal safety on stage: “This is a person who feels profoundly unalive, or, conversely, so rawly alive, and
For the Record…
Born Leslie Conway Bangs on December 13, 1948, in Escondido, CA, to Conway (a truck driver) and Norma Bangs; died on April 30, 1982, in New York, NY. Education: Attended Grossmont Junior College, 1966-68.
Began writing reviews for Rolling Stone, 1969; staff writer and editor for Creem, 1970-78; moved to New York, wrote for Village Voice, led several punk rock bands, 1976-79; published book Blondie, 1980; continued to write and record until death, 1982; posthumous anthology Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, published, 1987; collected works Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Anthology, published, 2003.
so imprisoned by it, that all feeling is perceived as pain .”
Rising in Creem’s ranks from writer to editor, Bangs became a cult hero in his own right by the mid-1970s. He and fellow Creem writers Nick Tosches and Richard Meltzer—dubbed “the Noise Boys”—brought a zany, over-the-top edge to their work for the magazine. When not writing, they reveled in drug and alcohol-fueled excess. Bangs in particular became immersed in unhealthy habits, living up to his image as an outlaw journalist. The reality was less glamorous—Bangs was chronically short of money and had bad luck with romantic relationships. After a falling-out with Creem publisher Barry Kramer over his salary, he quit the magazine and moved to New York City in 1976.
For years, Bangs had championed loud, aggressive bands like the Stooges and the Troggs, groups later considered to be the forerunners of punk rock. It was natural, then, that he would be welcomed into New York’s punk scene, centered around CBGB’s and other clubs. Bangs praised groups like the Ramones, Richard Hell, and the Talking Heads in the pages of the Village Voice, his main writing outlet in the late 1970s and early 1980s. His writings were both celebratory and critical of the punk movement, admiring its rebellious spirit while condemning its nihilism. As in the past, the issues that Bangs wrestled with as a critic touched upon his own personal life, particularly his struggles to curb his substance abuse and find a woman to settle down with.
Punk’s do-it-yourself spirit inspired Bangs to launch himself as a singer and bandleader. Rounding up such notable New York players as guitarist Robert Quine and drummer J. D. Dougherty, he recorded the single “Let It Blurt”/“Live,” released by Spy Records in 1979, after the band had split up. He was decidedly crude as a vocalist, even by punk standards. The confessional nature of his lyrics had a definite power, though—“Let It Blurt,” for instance, dealt with a former girlfriend’s abortion with a raw, angry edge. Bangs performed with Quine and Dougherty at CBGB’s in June of 1977; the trio dissolved not long afterward. The following year, he hooked up with the group Birdland, which included bassist David Merrill, son of famed opera singer Robert Merrill. This combo performed at local clubs before folding in April 1979. The group recorded an album, released by Add On Records in 1986.
By the late ’70s, Bangs was longing to break out of rock criticism into more seriously regarded literary fields. He continued to push against the limitations of pop music journalism, tackling topics of larger import. Perhaps his most controversial Village Voice piece was “The White Noise Supremacists,” published on December 17, 1979. Bangs decried the racist overtones he found in the New York punk scene, raising the ire of many of his friends in the process. Criticizing his own casual use of racial slurs, he went against his no-holds-barred ethos as a writer by noting that “if you’re black or Jewish or Latin or gay those little vernacular epithets are bullets that riddle your guts and then fester and burn there .”
As ever, Bangs’s search for moral clarity in popular culture mirrored his own battles with his inner demons. Increasingly out of place in New York’s New Wave club scene, he spent time in Austin, Texas, in 1980. The local music community’s sincerity inspired him to try his hand at performing once again. Hooking up with the Delinquents, an Austin punk band, he recorded the album Jook Savages on the Brazos, released on the Live Wire label in 1981. This LP contained some of Bangs’s most biting lyrics, including “There’s a Man in There” and “I’m in Love with My Walls.” Drinking heavily, he wore out his welcome in Austin and returned to New York in early 1981.
Joining Alcoholics Anonymous, Bangs made yet another attempt to turn his life around. He continued to sell reviews and articles to the Village Voice and other publications while working on various book projects. A pair of musician biographies—Blondie (1980) and Rod Stewart (with Paul Nelson, 1981)—were mostly written for money. Efforts to find a publisher for an anthology of his rock criticism met with failure. In 1981 he worked on a number of ill-fated projects, including Rock Gomorrah (a collection of scandalous rock stories) and All My Friends Are Hermits (a semi-autobiographical novel). Increasingly disenchanted with pop music, he wrote in a January 27, 1982 Village Voice piece, reprinted in Let It Blurt, that “almost all current music is worthless . Music is the only thing in the world I really care about—but I simply cannot pretend to find anything compelling in the choice between pap and mud.”
On April 30, 1982, Bangs was found dead in his New York apartment, the apparent victim of a prescription drug overdose. His stature as a writer increased after his passing, leading to the publication of the Bangs anthology Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung in 1987, and a collection of his writings, Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Anthology, in 2003. Let It Blurt, a 2000 biography by Jim DeRogatis, also helped to keep interest in his work alive into the twenty-first century. A true iconoclast, Lester Bangs is remembered as a rock artist whose medium was words rather than music, a critic who became more famous than many of the bands he praised or damned in print.
“Let It Blurt”/“Live,” Spy, 1979.
(With the Delinquents) Jook Savages on the Brazos, Live Wire, 1981.
(With Birdland) Birdland with Lester Bangs, Add On, 1986.
Bangs, Lester, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.
Bangs, Lester, and John Morthland (editor), Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Anthology, Anchor Books, 2003.
DeRogatis, Jim, Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, Broadway Books, 2000.
Miller, Jim, editor, The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, 1980.
Robbins, Ira A., editor, The Trouser Press Record Guide, Collier Books, 1991.
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