Lester Bangs is having a moment. The iconic rock journalist whose wide-ranging, sometimes vulgar, sometimes poetic commentary on everyone from Elvis Presley to The Ramones wrote for Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, and was the editor of the beloved music magazine Creem in the mid-1970s.
Renewed interest in Bangs was sparked in part by the Creem documentary that made a splash at Sundance. Also, at Creem in the ’70s and featured in the documentary was a teenage stringer named Cameron Crowe who grew up to make the semi-autobiographical film Almost Famous with the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman immortalizing Bangs. Although he doesn’t have much screen time, Bangs’ scenes mentoring teenage protagonist William Miller (Patrick Fugit) in the fine art of rock journalism are witty and instructive.
Revisiting Bangs’ body of work, it’s striking how fresh it seems even though it was all written before social media, cell phones, CDs, or even Sony Walkmans. His superpower was his ability to connect the dots between popular music and popular culture. He believed simultaneously that rock was “a joke, a mistake, and a bunch of foolishness” that might turn out to be as lasting as poetry, painting, or prose.
But first, who was Lester Bangs, and why all the adoration? Maria Bustillos described him this way in a 2012 New Yorker profile: “He was fat, sweaty, unkempt—an out-of-control alcoholic in torn jeans and a too-small black leather jacket; crocked to the gills on the Romilar cough syrup he swigged down by the bottle. He also had the most advanced and exquisite taste of any American writer of his generation, uneven and erratic as it was.”
Times have changed since Bangs’ heyday in the 1970s, but almost everything he wrote remains fresh despite passing years and new technologies. Reviewing David Bowie’s Station to Station in 1976, he was able to put aside is indifference to Bowie to appreciate the album:
“It was a perfectly acceptable piece of highly listenable product. More than that, in fact—it was a highly personal musical statement disguised as a shameless fling at the disco market, the drag perhaps utilized as an emotional red herring: ‘Young Americans’ wasn’t Bowie dilettanting around with soul music, it was the bridge between melancholy and outright depression, an honest statement from a deeply troubled, mentally shattered individual who even managed, for the most part, to skirt self-pity.”
The poetic phrases he was famous for light up one of his best-known articles, a 1978 essay breaking down one of his all-time favorite albums, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. He analyzes each song as others would a Shakespeare sonnet:
“Astral Weeks would be the subject of this piece – i.e., the rock record with the most significance in my life so far… In the condition I was in, it assumed at the time the quality of a beacon, a light on the far shores of the murk; what’s more, it was proof that there was something left to express artistically besides nihilism and destruction … It sounded like the man who made Astral Weeks was in terrible pain, pain most of Van Morrison’s previous works had only suggested; but like the later albums by the Velvet Underground, there was a redemptive element in the blackness, ultimate compassion for the suffering of others, and a swath of pure beauty and mystical awe that cut right through the heart of the work.”
As much as he elevated and rhapsodized about music and the people who made it, he was not a publicist or a cheerleader. When music was good, he thought it did, he was exultant, but when it wasn’t, his pen was like a sharpened sword that cut through all the posing and the bull.
For example, in his 1977 obituary/appreciation for Elvis Presley, Bangs was able to articulate his admiration and dismay over Elvis’ last years. Bangs said Elvis had a contempt for his audience that in his mind was unforgivable. “It’s just a little bit harder for me to see Elvis as a tragic figure,” he wrote. “I see him as being more like the Pentagon, this giant armored institution nobody knows anything about except that its power is legendary.”
At the same time, he recognized what made Elvis such a beloved and legendary performer. In the autumn of 1971, he saw the King in Detroit, and like most everyone else at the show, he was mesmerized, and despite many paragraphs disparaging his albums and his marketing ploys, he wasn’t afraid to admit it. “When I looked at him, I went mad with desire and envy and worship and self-projection…Literally, every time this man moved any part of his body the slightest centimeter, tens or tens of thousands of people went berserk. Not Sinatra, not Jagger, not the Beatles, nobody you can come up with ever elicited such hysteria among so many.”
His ability to describe a moment, a piece of music, and a feeling with pinpoint accuracy is remarkable. Although Bangs is best known for music writing, in 1979, he took on racism and the question of whether or not the burgeoning American new wave music scene was racist. The result was the long read, “The White Noise Supremacists,” which takes a hard look at racists in music and elsewhere. It’s shouldn’t be surprising that what was true in the 1960s and 70s is still true today:
“You don’t have to try at all to be a racist. It’s a little coiled clot of venom lurking there in all of us, white and black, goy and Jew, ready to strike out when we feel embattled, belittled, brutalized. Which is why it has to be monitored, made taboo and restrained, by society and the individual.”
“…You take parental indifference, a crappy educational system, lots of drugs, media overload, a society with no values left except the hysterical emphasis on physical perfection, and you end up with these little nubbins.”
In 1987, some of Bangs’ greatest hits were collected into a book Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, edited by fellow critic Greil Marcus. Marcus said he sifted through pages and pages of reviews to create what he said was “an attempt to make a picture of a man creating a view of the world, practicing it, facing its consequences, and trying to move on.” Nineteenth-century essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson said the definition of genius is to believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men. By that measure, Lester Bangs’ heady, vulgar, piercing essays are precisely that.
Photo: Lester Bangs photographed in 1976 by Robert Bayley (Wikipedia)