As budding philosophers must study Nietzsche and poets their Plath, any greaseball who hates themselves enough to take the dive into music writing must first become familiar with their desoxyn-fueled daddy, Lester Bangs. It feels wrong to even try to capture Lester in words because what I can say, he’s surely said better, but all I’m sure of is the man ran on three things: tons of speed, sheer will, and a killer soundtrack. Lester was a writing machine, you could trust him to tell you the truth and to give you a good laugh while he did it, making a review feel like a wild night out with a far away friend. He was ruthless when it felt right to be, but he was quick to tell you when he adored a work too. Bangs’ gonzo-journalism reigns supreme as the ballsiest and most transparent stuff there ever was and to celebrate what would’ve been Mr. Bangs’ 72nd birthday today, pour yourself a drink and take your pick of Detroit’s dirtiest records to cleanse your ears in reverse as he’d want us to do.
Born in 1948, Bangs was thrown into the years that allowed his life to coincide with the sweet spot of rock’s evolution towards the multi-dimensional and in the same vein as the musicians themselves, he didn’t stick around long. Lester’s musical journey began with jazz classics and influence from the beat generation, so naturally he believed he was born after all the action had happened. His adolescence and the happy slop that was early sixties bubblegum radio both met their ends around the same time, leaving Bangs’ to grow up alongside an open scope of what music could be.
From his earliest work at The San Diego Door to his final hurrah, Lester spoke every unaltered thought that passed through his mind for us to find some sort of solace in. He wrote in such a sarcastic way that sometimes you had to read things twice to see if he’s messing with you and he melted his code-like speech together in massive run-on sentences that you learn to understand as you read him more and more. After an unlucky run-in with Valium and Nyquil in the middle of New York City with The Human League’s Dare stuck spinning on the turntable, Bangs met his end in 1982 at just 33 years old. The pulsating lure of the time Lester memorialized died on that April night with him, propelling his voice and his writing from sensational to untouchable.
I could sit here and rehash Bangs’ stories to you while I get lost in the hole of some Iggy Pop, but it’d be a disservice to us all if I didn’t let him tell you himself. Below I’ve collected five of my favorite tidbits of what America’s rock journalist had to say about the wild world he lived in.
1. Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves Or, How I Slugged it Out with Lou Reed and Stayed Awake (1974)
Excerpts from Lester’s second interview with Lou Reed for Creem Magazine.
“Lou Reed is my own hero principally because he stands for all the most fucked up things that I could ever possibly conceive of. Which probably only shows the limits of my imagination”
The Central heroic myth of the sixties was the burnout. Live fast, be bad, get messy, die young. More than just “I hope I die before I get old” it was the whole cool stalk we had down or tried to get. Partially, it has to do with the absolute nonexistence of real, objective, straight-arrow, head-held-high, noble achieving heroes. Myself, I always wanted to emulate the most self-destructive bastard I could see, as long as he moved with some sense of style. Thus Lou Reed. Getting off vicariously on various forms of deviant experience compensated somehow for the emptiness of our own drearily “normal’ lives. It’s like you never want to see the reality, it’s too clammy watching someone shoot up junk and turn blue. It ain’t like listening to the records.
“He’s [Lou Reed] sitting there, vibing away, in his black T-shirt and shades scowling like a house whose fire has just been put out, muttering to himself as he picked desultorily at indistinct clots of food on his plate: “Goddamn fucking place… what a shithole… dump.. fucking nerve.. assholes.’
I walk up, shake hands: “ Hi Lou…I believe you remember me.”
Dead cold fish handshake. “Unfortunately.”
LB: “Did you shoot speed tonight before you went on?”
He acted genuinely surprised. “Did I shoot speed?” No, I didn’t. Speed kills. I’m not a speedfreak. This started out as essentially the same rap Lou gave me one time when I went to see The Velvets at the Whisky in 1969, as he sat there in the dressing room, drinking honey from a jar and talking a mile a minute, about all the “energy of the streets of New York” and lecturing me about the evils of drugs. All speedfreaks are liars; anyone who keeps their mouth open that much can’t tell the truth all the time or they’d run out of things to say
“One thing I like about you,” I interjected, “is that you’re not afraid to lower yourself. For instance, ‘New York Stars’. I thought you were lowering yourself by splattering all these people like the Dolls and dumb little bands with your freelance spleen, but then I realized that you’ve been lowering yourself for years.”
His riposte: “ You really are an asshole. You went past assholism into some kinda urinary tract. The next time you come up with a phrase as good as ‘curtains laced in diamonds dear for you’ instead of all this Dee-troit bullshit, let me know. ….
2. My Night of Ecstasy with the J. Geils Band (1974)
Excerpts from Bangs’ 1974 piece for Creem Magazine about the night the J. Geils Band invited him out on stage with them to write his piece during their encore of “Give It To Me.”
“I said: ‘Hell, the only difference between you musicians and us rock writers is that people can see you doing what you do. I can’t go up in the street and say: ‘Hey, honey, dig my far-out John Lennon review,’ because she can say, ‘Kiss my ass, Jack, how do I know you wrote that?’
“Alright” says Wolf [Peter Wolf, lead vocals of The J Geils Band], putting both our coins on the line, “then why don’t you come on stage with us tonight and do your thing and let’s see what happens.”
I was floored. I could see myself up there, flexing my Cheerios at last in the lights I had deserved for so long, the roar of greasepaint, the smell of the fans, my fans. For is not every rock writer a frustrated rock star, and didn’t I deserve my fifteen minutes of instant celebrityhood? Damn straight, mother. I took ‘em up on it, and went home in a blear of ecstatic anticipation.” …….
I lugged my axe — Smith Corona, Mr Advertiser! — into the dressing room and set it in a corner. A few woman looked at me strangely, but Peter Wolf came in and inquired if I was ready to roll:
“Everything set? Got your typewriter?
So I commenced to yell at the roadies just like a true superstar : “Plug the sonofabitch in! Let’s get down!”
I even threw in a bit of Townshend/Alice Cooper destructo theatre: for the song’s climax I stood up and kicked over the typewriter, bench and all. Then I jumped up and down on it till I smashed it to bits, or two of them at least. It felt good, purging somehow.
Like Murray the K with the Stones, I was now the sixth J. Geils.
3. How to Succeed in Torture Without Really Trying (1976)
Excerpts from a phone interview with Lou Reed following the release of Metal Machine Music for the February 1976 issue of Creem Magazine.
“Incase you just got here or think Metal Machine Music refers to something in the neighborhood of Bad Company, let me firefly explain that what we have here is a one-hour two-record set of nothing, absolutely nothing but screaming feedback noise recorded at various frequencies, played back against various other noise layers, split down the middle into two totally separate channels of utterly inhuman shrieks and hisses, and sold to an audience that was, to put it as mildly as possible, unprepared for it.” …
Lou Reed : “Boy do you believe the operators in this fucking place?” ( their phone call had some drama on the front end with Lou’s line being busy when Lester called)
“Sure” I tell him, “ I figured anybody that would put out an album like Metal Machine Music was the same kind of person as would tell somebody to call em’ up at a specified time and then give out a busy signal.”
I meant it as a Boy Howdy, but he squared off to fight straighaway: “Fuck You,” etc. etc. etc. I told him poppa don’t take no mess, this is halftime, so cessation of hostilities.
The way I see it, Metal Machine Music is the logical follow-up to Sally Can’t Dance, rather than any kind of divergence. Depersonalization in action: first you make an album that you did not produce ( though you got half credit), played guitar on only one track, used for material either old shit outta your bottom drawers or dreck you coulda scribbled in the cab on the way to the sessions, and do all but a couple of the vocals in one take. The only way you can possibly remove yourself more from what you are purveying after that is to walk into a room, switch on some tape recorders, push some buttons, adjust some mikes, let the static fly, and cut it all off an hour later. And the reason for this is that it simply hurts to feel anything, so the more distance the better. Also indicative of an artist with total contempt for his audience.
4. Growing Up True is Hard to Do (1978)
Excerpts from Bangs’ piece on Bob Seger’s 1978 album Stranger In Town for Village Voice.
The average purchaser of current Seger albums is probably a male kid who works on some shit job and has never even considered dropping out, is in fact a stranger to this concept, so he’ll understand “Feel Like A Number” in a second. But it’s no accident that the album is called Stranger In Town. Bob Seger feels like a stranger in this society, especially the rock super star version of interlocking corporations. And that doesn’t mean he’s some old fashioned “relic” even though he’s embarrassed enough to use the word himself; it means he’s a man of sanity and insight. I respect Bob Seger as much as almost anybody I can think of in the music business today.
There’s a popular idea that the flirtation with chaos is something you must grow out of, but I believe that while you shouldn’t hang on to your adolescence like it was a state of grace, you should leave yourself the latitude to go berserk from time to time. What this has to do with Bob Seger should be obvious. He writes all these songs about the tension between wanting to keep rocking when you’re pushing forty, kinda like Ian Hunter. But Hunter always wanted to be Dylan, whereas Bob just wants to make sure that some kid has something decent to put on the eight-track while he cruises down Woodward – with ideas about life and identity and all that also there if and when you want ’em. Now Seger knows that to get his insights onto the radio so the kid will buy his records in the first place, he’s gotta make records that just kinda sound like everybody who has sold out. And that may be pragmatic, but it’s still fucked. Like I say, I don’t know if I blame him, since he is dues-paying incarnate, but I also think that he of all people knows life is short, that it really is true that you only get one chance to speak your real piece despite the wisdom of all the people who would tell you only fools even try. Right now he’s got a chance to do something that only about four or five people have had a shot at: both to make records that deal honestly with aging in rock ‘n’ roll (or aging period) and to make music that
would be as challenging now as his “East Side” was in 1966 or “Lookin’ Back” was in 1971. And I think that if he snubs this opportunity I’m gonna end up feeling like he flat-out betrayed the gift.
5. How to be a Rock Critic and Here’s How (1974)
Excerpt from the Shakin’ Street Gazette on how to be a rock critic from 1974 by Lester Bangs. Possibly my favorite piece of his.
Lately I’ve noticed a new wrinkle on the American landscape: It seems as if there’s a whole generation of kids, each one younger than the last, all of whom live, breathe, and dream of but one desire: “I want to be a rock critic when I grow up!”
If that sounds condescending let it be known that I was once just like them; the only difference was that when I held such aspirations, the field was relatively uncluttered—it was practically nothing to barge right in and commence the slaughter—whereas now, of course, it’s so glutted that the last thing anybody should ever consider doing is entering this racket. In the first place, it doesn’t pay much and doesn’t lead anywhere in particular, so no matter how successful you are at it, you’ll eventually have to decide what you’re going to do with your life anyway. In the second place, it’s basically just a racket in the first place, and not a particularly glorious one at that.
Okay, so that’s the rosy vista. I painted it for true, and if you want it, it’s yours, becuz after almost five years in this racket I finally decided I’m gonna break down and tell the whole world how to break in. I could get a lotta dough for this if I wanted to—some of us have talked for years about starting a Famous Rock Critics’ School—but fuck it, I’m too lazy to take the time to set up some shit like that, and besides it’s about time everybody got wind of the True Fax of Rock ’n’ Roll Criticism. Listen well, and decide for yourself whether you wanna bother with it.
The first thing to understand and bear in mind at all times is that the whole thing is just a big ruse from the word go, it don’t mean shit except exploitatively and in the zealotic terms of wanting to inflict your tastes on other people. Most people start writing record reviews because they want other people to like the same kind of stuff they do, and there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s a very honest impulse. I used to be a Jehovah’s Witness when I was a kid so I had it in my blood already, a head start. But don’t worry. All you gotta do is just keep bashin’ away, and sooner or later people will start saying things to you like, “How do you fit the Kinks into your overall aesthetic perspective?”
Well they won’t really talk that jive-ass, but damn close if you travel in the right (or wrong, as the case may be) circles. Because that old saw is true: most rock critics are pompous assholes. Maybe most critics are pompous assholes, but rock critics are especially—because they’re working in virgin territory, where there’s absolutely no recognized, generally agreed on authority or standards. Nor should there be. Anything goes, so fake ’em out every chance you get. Rock ’n’ roll’s basically just a bunch of garbage in the first place, it’s noise, it’s here today and gone tomorrow, so the only thing that can possibly trip you up is if you begin to reflect that if the music’s that trivial, can you imagine how trivial what you’re doing is?
Bonus Quote – Untitled Notes on Lou Reed (1980)
“Last spring I was going out with a girl who managed a rock band. When she told them she was seeing me they said “Aw, all Lester wants to do is suck Lou Reed’s cock.” I would suck Lou Reed’s cock, because I would also kiss the feet of them that drafted the Magna Carta.”