It’s hard to imagine that Jim DeRogatis’s fine book on Lester Bangs won’t become, before too long, a movie. Not a lavishly produced biopic like the Doors that would be against the spirit of this particular story but more a smallish film like I Shot Andy Warhol or High Fidelity. Bangs, of course, was the eccentric and prolific rock writer who made his name in the early 1970s: a first-generation (or nearly so) writer for Rolling Stone, Creem, and many other influential pop music magazines of the time. Dead by 1982, at 33, Bangs was colorful, wildly creative, dark, dangerous (mostly to himself), and finally most importantly influential in both his musical tastes and his prose style. Plenty of writers who have followed Bangs have wanted to write like or even to BE Bangs.
DeRogatis has written a first-rate book that invents a new genre: the rock critic biography. It’s been widely reviewed and praised (in the New York Times Book Review, among other places). A well-known figure himself on the rock scene for the last half-dozen years, DeRogatis’s writing is sampled on his Web page (www.jimdero.com) where readers will find some of the best (and widest ranging) rock criticism around. I first met the author a few years back at a conference I co-organized, and which later turned into a book that maps academic writing about rock. Jim was one of the few journalists there, but his blend of straight-talk and venacular theory made him an important presence. Since then, I’ve caught up with him every few years, most recently at this year’s South by Southwest Conference in Austin.
Always strongly opinionated, and yet a careful listener to others’ stories, DeRogatis responded at some length to my questions….
Your bio of a rock critic is a first as far as I can tell. Why should we care about Bangs? Why’s he important to rock criticism?
Well, as the subtitle says, he was “America’s greatest rock critic,” which is of course completely meaningless in an era where rock criticism is primarily two-thumbs-up smiley-happy 100-word blurbs or obsequious celebrity profiles. I would have preferred “one of the best writers of his generation,” but the whole subtitle thing was the publisher’s call anyway.
Why should you care? Because Bangs left a body of great writing, and it lives on in terms of its stylistic influence, yes, but more importantly, because of its substance. He tends to be reduced in some quarters to being “merely” a great stylist, a flashy and flamboyant and funny writer, which he was, but that’s not why people continue to read him 18 years after his death (via the 1987 anthology of his work, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung).
Do a web search and you’ll find dozens of people posting to all sorts of newsgroups and using quotes by Lester Bangs in their signature files. What other critics (short of some of the Algonquin folks, and maybe Pauline Kael) do you find quoted so often? His work is full of deep philosophical insights there is a great intellect at work there at the same time that it is amusing and emotionally involving and damn entertaining. He had a very unique way of viewing the world, and I hope that comes through in my book.
I also hope that my book sends people to his work, the way that my favorite biographies of the Beats served as a road map for my readings of Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg. But that sounds awfully pretentious; let me try again. Why should you care? It’s a good story.
How did you go about researching the book?
It was a combination of library scholarship (and it is amazing how hard it is to find the printed history of rock journalism and criticism from the early days through the mid-‘70s outside of Rolling Stone; very little of it is available in libraries or online, scattered pieces here and there at best) and interviews (with some 227 people, some of the for 20 minutes, and some for 10 or 15 or 20 hours over several sessions) and travel (I visited all of the places that were important to his life: El Cajon, Detroit, New York, Austin), but most of all reading and thinking about his work, for a very long time five years in earnest labor on the book, but the project really dates back to April 14, 1982, the day I interviewed him as a high school senior, two weeks before his death. It has been percolating ever since.
That’s a long time to percolate. What was your biggest surprise in doing the research?
I can’t say I was ever really surprised by anything Lester believed in letting it all hang out, letting it blurt, hence the title, so aside from some very specific personal revelations about his upbringing, he had already offered a lot of tantalizing clues about his life and his psyche in his work. This helped alleviate that sort of creepy, voyeuristic feeling that must sometimes hit even the most diligent and well-meaning biographer.
Lester came from the Beats and he believed in writing about his experiences in an unvarnished manner; he wrote 15 pages on his priapism! So it was pretty much all there already, and I just fleshed out the details.
One thing that was minorly surprising was how few of the musicians that he wrote about had much to say about him. There were some notable exceptions Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, John Cale, Robert Quine, and a few others but many of his musical heroes either had very little to say or harbored some anger and resentment for negative critiques (they alway seems to forget the positive ones) or just didn’t want to be bothered to talk at all.
I think there is a reluctance on the part of many rock-star egos to admit that they read or were influenced by a mere writer especially a critic. But it seems obvious that many of them were. Lester saw rock as a discourse between three equal partners at the different ends of a triangle: the critics, the fans, and the bands in a constant feedback loop. Sadly, the diagram has changed today to one of a pipe, with the musicians at one end all too often shovelling their product through the conduit of the media to the consumer at the other end.
Can your describe the style of your book? Was it hard to avoid writing in Bangs’s characteristicly loud style?
I tend to write in a clear but passionate style I hope! as opposed to Bangs’s Beat poetic/fluid/rambling/artful and REALLY passionate style. I appreciate his writing, obviously, but I never wanted to write like that; if I emulate him at all in my own work, it is via his ideal of honesty to the reader.
Basically, in telling his story, I just wanted to present it in as compelling and unfettered a manner as possible, letting it all unfold as a sort of nuclear-powered page-turner framing the many passages of his own writing that I was lucky to be able to quote. It would have been foolish (not to mention unseemly) to try to out-Lester Lester in his own biography.
Any other critics, living or dead, who you think are nearly ready for a full-length biography?
That’s a joke, and I’m not going to explain it.
Real answer: No. At least no, CERTAINLY not by ME.
I take it you are taking some time off from writing bios… so, then, what’s next for you? What’s your next big project?
I hate that question, Thom, and it’s the last one everyone asks.
Can I just rest on my laurels for a while?