Lester Bangs  

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"It was an approach [ Lester Bangs ] shared with fellow rock critics Nick Tosches and Richard Meltzer, a corollary to the New Journalism of Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe as well as the 1950s fiction of William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, authors whom Bangs idolized as a teenager." --Alex Halberstadt reviewing Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic by Jim DeRogatis, 2000 [1]

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Leslie Conway Bangs (December 13, 1948April 30, 1982) was an American music journalist, author and musician. Most famous for his work at Creem and Rolling Stone, Bangs was and still is regarded as an extremely influential voice in rock criticism, and is best-known for his collection of writings Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung.

Contents

History

Bangs was born in Escondido, California. His mother was a devout Jehovah's Witness; his father died when Bangs was young. In 1969, Bangs began writing freelance after reading an ad in Rolling Stone soliciting readers' reviews. His first piece was a negative review of the MC5 album Kick Out The Jams, which was sent to Rolling Stone with a note detailing that should the magazine decide not to publish the review then they would have to contact Lester and tell him why. Instead, they published it. (He later became a big fan and friend of the MC5 after moving to Detroit.) He was later fired from Rolling Stone by Jann Wenner over a negative review of Canned Heat. He moved to Detroit to edit and write for Creem, which is where his legend really built. After leaving Creem, he wrote for The Village Voice, Penthouse, Playboy, New Musical Express and many other publications.

Bangs claimed his influences were not so much predecessors in journalism as they were beat authors, in particular William S. Burroughs. His ranting style, similar to Hunter S. Thompson's gonzo journalism, and his tendency to insult and confront his interviewees earned him distinction; it also got him fired from Rolling Stone by Jann Wenner in 1973 for being "disrespectful to musicians." Bangs loved Lou Reed, writing several legendary essays for CREEM which depicted hilarious interviews with him.

Death

Bangs died in New York on April 30, 1982, overdosing (through drug interaction) after treating a cold with Darvon and Valium. According to the Derogatis biography, Bangs was listening to The Human League's album, Dare at the time of his death.

Punk rock

Lester Bangs is often credited with conceptualing if not inventing the idea of "punk" in reference to music:

  • "Never mind that they came on like a bunch of sixteen-year-old punks on a meth power trip...." ("The MC5: Kick Out The Jams", 1970)
  • "... then punk bands started cropping up who were writing their own songs but taking the Yardbirds' sound and reducing it to this kind of goony fuzztone clatter". ("Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung", 1971)

Legacy

  • Bangs is mentioned in the 1988 R.E.M. hit "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)".
  • Bangs is mentioned again in the Dillinger Four song "Our Science Is Tight".
  • Bangs is mentioned as a comparison to the writer Anthony Thornton on the back of Thornton's book 'The Libertines Bound Together'. The quote by Pete Doherty on Thornton's biography is simply 'Anthony Thornton is a better writer than Lester Bangs'
  • Bangs is also mentioned in the 1981 Ramones track "It's Not My Place (In the 9 to 5 World)" from the album Pleasant Dreams.
  • Long Island punk rock band Ghost of Lester Bangs are named after the critic.
  • Science fiction author Bruce Sterling's story Dori Bangs (published in Asimov's Science Fiction, 1989) was inspired by Bangs (along with the underground comic book artist Dori Seda). Sterling speculates on what Bangs might have done had he lived longer.
  • Bangs is depicted by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Cameron Crowe's semi-autobiographical film Almost Famous (2000), in which a budding music journalist idolizes him. Bangs acts as a guide and a critic of what Rock and Roll has become by the time of the film.
  • The Buzzcocks's song Lester Sands (Buzzcocks turn it up) is actually referring to him, dismissing Bangs' criticism as a "drop in the ocean".
  • Baltimore punks The Slumlords recorded a track entitled "Lester Bangs" on their 2006 CD entitled "On The Stremph". Lyricist Jeff Perlin sings "Lester Bangs be glad you're dead, cause all this sh*t we're being fed..." in a song that focuses on today's phony, convoluted music industry.
  • Song about Bangs by (Horseshoe) "Lester Bangs" from the album "King of the World" chorus, "I hate you almost as much, as I hate me."
  • Bob Seger wrote and recorded a yet-unreleased song about the critic titled "Lester Knew."
  • Notorious for applying the term "white nigger" (which originated in Norman Mailer's 1957 essay "The White Negro") as a euphemism for a punk, or more specifically a white social miscreant with questionable or objectionable outward idiosyncrasies, and radical beliefs deemed unacceptable by the status quo. (Conversely, the term now has a different connotation, as "white nigger" or wigger is used to describe a white individual infatuated with the hip-hop lifestyle). He often referred to himself as the "last of the white niggers," and a famous photograph of Bangs shows him wearing a t-shirt bearing this title. [2]

As popular as he was when he was alive, his work has become even more influential in the wake of his death, which has led to the publication of two anthologies of his writing.

Quotes

"...I'll admit in front that I have a special affinity for things that don't quite fit into any given demarcated category, partly because I'm one of those perennial misfits myself by choice as well as fate or whatever. By profession, I am categorized as a rock critic. I'll accept that, especially since the whole notion that someone has a 'career' instead of just doing whatever you feel like doing at any given time has always amused me when it didn't make me wanna vomit. O.K., I'm a rock critic. I also write and record music. I write poetry, fiction, straight journalism, unstraight journalism, beatnik drivel, mortifying love letters, death threats to white jazz critics signed 'The Mau Maus of East Harlem,' and once a year my own obituary (latest entry: 'He was promising...'). The point is that I have no idea what kind of a writer I am, except that I do know that I'm good and lots of people read whatever it is I do, and I like it that way." (Lester Bangs, "An Instant Fan's Inspired Notes: You Gotta Listen," 1980)

"...I’m really schizophrenic about that, because on the one hand I would say, yes there is, there’s something inherently, even violent about it, it’s wild and raw and all this. On the other hand, the fact is that ‘Sugar Sugar’ is great Rock 'n' Roll, and there’s nothing rebellious about that at all. I mean that’s right from the belly and heart of capitalism..." (Lester Bangs in 1980 on the rebellious nature of rock 'n' roll. Taken from a 1980 interview)

"What this book demands from a reader is a willingness to accept that the best writer in America could write almost nothing but record reviews." (Greil Marcus, editor of the first Bangs anthology Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, on the second anthology, Mainlines, Blood Feats and Bad Taste. Taken from the cover of the paperback original.)

"Look at it this way: there are many here among us for whom the life force is best represented by the livid twitching of one tortured nerve, or even a full-scale anxiety attack. I do not subscribe to this point of view 100%, but I understand it, have lived it. Thus the shriek, the caterwaul, the chainsaw gnarlgnashing, the yowl and the whizz that decapitates may be reheard by the adventurous or emotionally damaged as mellifluous bursts of unarguable affirmation." (Lester Bangs, "A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise", 1980)

"I'll probably never produce a masterpiece, but so what? I feel I have a Sound aborning, which is my own, and that Sound if erratic is still my greatest pride, because I would rather write like a dancer shaking my ass to boogaloo inside my head, and perhaps reach only readers who like to use books to shake their asses, than to be or write for the man cloistered in a closet somewhere reading Aeschylus while this stupefying world careens crazily past his waxy windows toward its last raving sooty feedback pirouette." (Lester Bangs, "A Quick Trip Through My Adolescence," 1968)

Selected works

By Lester Bangs

  • Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic, collected writings, Greil Marcus, ed. Anchor Press, 1988. (ISBN 0-679-72045-6)
  • Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader, collected writings, John Morthland, ed. Anchor Press, 2003. (ISBN 0-375-71367-0)
  • The first piece for Rolling Stone [3]

About Lester Bangs

  • Let it Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic, biography, Jim Derogatis. Broadway Books, 2000. (ISBN 0-7679-0509-1).

Popular Works Citing Lester Bangs

  • Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, biography, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. Penguin Books, 1997. (ISBN 0-14-026690-9).





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