Sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, Lester Bangs
Rock critic's work collected in new book
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- On the page, Lester Bangs was a garage band turned up to 11: brash, wisecracking, rambling, occasionally incomprehensible and -- above all -- passionate.
The rock critic, who died in 1982 at age 33, wasn't afraid of expressing an opinion -- or contradicting himself. He hated the Stones' "Exile on Main Street." He loved the Stones' "Exile on Main Street." He baited Lou Reed. He trumpeted Lou Reed. He mercilessly cut down Chicago, he glorified Black Sabbath, he extolled Anne Murray and Helen Reddy, and lit into Blondie.
He was a drug-using, Romilar-swilling, Jehovah's Witness-rejecting, love-seeking, typewriter-pounding marvel -- and the model for everybody since who has sat down to express how he or she feels about rock 'n' roll and popular music.
"Bangs at his best jumps off the page, grabs you by the collar and says, 'Listen to this,' " says Chicago Sun-Times pop music critic Jim DeRogatis, who wrote the definitive biography of the writer, 2000's "Let It Blurt."
But, as DeRogatis and others discovered when they met the man, there was another side to Lester Bangs. He could be a sensitive soul, the guy (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) who offered advice to a young Cameron Crowe in "Almost Famous" and was willing to sit with a teenage DeRogatis for a lengthy interview not long before his death.
John Morthland, who edited the new collection of Bangs' work, "Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader" (Anchor Books), says that the gentler side of Bangs often got overwhelmed by the hard-living, motormouthed rock persona.
"I think the humanist side came out in his writing, but many didn't pick up on it," he says in a phone interview from Austin, Texas. "But it was all him."
The growth of a writer
"Mainlines" is the second collection of Bangs' work; the first, "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung," edited by Greil Marcus, was published in 1987. "Mainlines" begins with early chapters from Bangs' unpublished autobiography, "Drug Punk," and samples his reviews and articles for Rolling Stone, Creem, the Village Voice, and a variety of other sources.
The book provides a chronicle of Bangs' growth as a critic, and with "Psychotic Reactions" and "Let It Blurt," reveals the hidden parts of his life -- his viewing of a Hell's Angels gang rape when he was 16, his rejection of his family's religious roots, his thought processes in sizing up trends.
Morthland -- along with Billy Altman, one of Bangs' literary executors -- remembers meeting Bangs at the San Francisco offices of Rolling Stone in 1969. Bangs was 20 and was known there for a handful of reviews, particularly a scathing take on the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams."
"He just seemed shy," Morthland recalls. "He was very opinionated and very outspoken, and went to clubs and talked a lot about stuff like the Velvets [the Velvet Underground, a particular Bangs fave], but a shy person. You had to feel him out."
But by the mid-1970s, when Morthland became the editor of Creem magazine -- the forceful '70s rock journal -- Bangs, who had been writing for Creem for years, had come into his own. He still had the energy, but had become a better writer and self-editor.
His opinions remained unexpected, incisive and fearless, as "Mainlines" indicates.
In one essay, "Dandelions in Still Air: The Withering Away of the Beatles," he rips into the solo careers of the Fab Four. In an Anne Murray review, he characterizes the Canadian easy-listening chanteuse as "the ultimate tease." He went to a Yes/Black Sabbath concert, and at a time when the former was played up as progressive rock wonders and the latter slammed as hard-headed Neanderthals, sides with the uncool Sabbath.
'He had really big ears'
And if he believed he was wrong, he'd say so: "He doubled back on himself again and again," writes Marcus in the introduction to "Psychotic Reactions."
"Some say that's a weakness. I say it's a strength, a sign of intelligence," DeRogatis says.
But it's also why a lot of critics don't give Bangs their due, he adds.
"It's hip among a certain snobbish brand of critic to say Bangs was a great writer, but he had no important ideas," he says.
Indeed, Bangs neatly illustrates a divide among rock critics -- and pop music fans. Bangs was a populist; he'd listen to anything.
"Everyone thinks of him as a great punker, but he just liked pop music. ... He had really big ears," Morthland says.
On the other hand, much of rock criticism has evolved to create strata of good pop music versus bad pop music, "guilty pleasures," obscure elitist classics and other forms of pigeonholing.
Yet Bangs has been a great influence on other writers, not to mention musicians.
"I think people were inspired by him to write," Morthland says. "He's mentioned in songs -- musicians are fans, and he's part of their exposure."
DeRogatis has some problems with "Mainlines" -- he thinks there should have been more of Bangs' poetry and lyrics, and he has some bones to pick with Morthland's choices (and Marcus' as well, in "Reactions") -- but he's glad it's out there, showing the way.
"[Rock criticism] has been reduced to formula ... there's little room for style, personality, ideas," he says. "I think ['Mainlines'] is really important and worthwhile. ... Any Bangs in print is great Bangs."