Burying Lester Bangs

“I mean look, face it, both reader and writer know that almost all of what’s gonna pass from the latter to the former is justa buncha jizjaz anyway, so why not just give up the ghost of pretense to form and subject and just make these rags ramble fit to the trolley you prob’ly read ’em on…you may say that I take liberties, and you are right, but I will have done my good deed for the day if I can make you see that the whole point is YOU SHOULD BE TAKING LIBERTIES TOO.”
— Lester Bangs, “The Clash”.

What the quotation above has to do with the Clash still eludes me, but one thing that I know for certain is that Lester Bangs has most definitely convinced an ever-growing swarm of writers they should be taking the same type of liberties he took in his brief life. Dead at 33, Bangs has risen, Christ-like, from the pens and keyboards of hundreds or maybe thousands (what feels like millions) of rock scribes from sea to shining sea, all spewing their paltry imitations of Bangs’s “speedflight wordsperm bullshit.” (Lester Bangs. “Two Assassinations and a Speedy Retreat Into Pastoral Nostalgias.” Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader. (New York: Anchor Books, 2003), p. 11.) And though readers sticking to the glossy pages of Rolling Stone and Spin will likely be unaware of this fact, anyone who has spent time nosing through crude ‘zines and music web sites should have little trouble spotting the incriminating fingerprints. The recent publication of a second posthumous collection of his work, Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader, suggests his popularity and influence remain undimmed some two decades after his death.

To this, I can only shrug my shoulders and cry for mercy. As one of the unfortunate few with a vested interest in the state of underground music press, Bangs’s enduring influence strikes me as a cancer, one that needs swift uprooting if its current purveyors ever expect to become a worthy alternative to the detested corporate rock mags. While mainstream publications have long since descended into celebrity journalism whose passing mentions of music are limited to simplistic fawning, most of the options presented by the indie press are little improvement. Frequently taking Bangs as a role model, they fill countless pages, virtual and otherwise, with self-righteous, narcissistic logorrhea, the implicit assumptions being that true genius needs no editing, you can never be too nasty, and the focus rightfully belongs on the critic instead of the nominal subject of the piece. A skim through some of Bangs’s copycats on the web turned up a review of Har Mar Superstar that started as a tantrum and ended in a random string of letters and numbers, one on Coldplay that discussed what the author’s girlfriend thought of their catalogue, and a write-up on a best-of U2 album that rambles for an astonishing fifteen-hundred words, a few of which go towards a mid-review scatological poem but none of which make a point that couldn’t be as effectively made in one-thirtieth the space. These represent but the tip of the insufferable iceberg.

Considering the long list of rock critics generally held in high esteem — Peter Guralnick, Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, Nik Cohn, Charlie Gillett, and Simon Frith spring to mind — it’s curious that Bangs is given such prominence. Even fellow Noise Boys Nick Tosches and the reprehensible Richard Meltzer are only name-checked a fraction as much as Bangs. Few could imagine (and even fewer would enjoy) seeing any one of these other writers portrayed in a major motion picture as he was in Almost Famous. So why Bangs? Most obviously, his reputation is the most impressive, and as his style of journalism has become increasingly impossible to profitably recreate, he has become that much more of a romantic figure to those lusting for his freedoms, namely professionals who forgo them and amateurs whose quixotic attachment to Bangsian unruliness keeps them out of most paying gigs. The combination of flattering mentions by the former camp and unflattering imitation by the latter keeps Bangs’s legend alive, if only in the most regrettable way.

Another reason for his appeal, nearly as obvious and much more harmful, is that he was a writer’s writer, one that refused the limitations of his post. If the old cliché is true that critics are frustrated artists, Bangs did nearly everything a writer could do to alleviate that frustration. His work and reputation give the impression that he was not typing from the safe remove of air-conditioned academia but from the heat and sweat of the front row and even the rarefied backstage. He would invert the subservience expected of him as a writer and butcher as many sacred cows as possible, from easy targets like James Taylor to more daring game like Eric Clapton. His swagger, both in person and on the page, became a glowing ideal for rock writers, a group of people with a strong bent towards timidity. After all, some music lovers start bands while others write about them, and the stigma attached to the latter type goes down a lot easier with some bravado.

But criticism is largely a passive activity. Maybe it’s not as passive as simply listening to an album, but it’s surely not as active as making one, nor is it as challenging, rewarding, or courageous. This strikes many critics as an insult to their eminent genius, so, bucked up by the Bangs model, they forsake their customary duties and light out for territory they find more glorious. If this were some kind of improvement, the break with tradition might be justified, but the results of this crowd are, by and large, miserable. They tend to mistake exhibitionism for substance and spontaneity for inspiration, but above all else, they are reflexively mean-spirited. This serves a number of crucial purposes: to make it sound like they have integrity, to mark themselves as elite, to be “outrageous,” and to shield themselves from the unpardonable sin of liking something their fellow rock snobs would disapprove of. All these tendencies point towards Bangs, but a simple lack of talent makes matters far worse. As Jim DeRogatis notes in his mediocre biography, Let it Blurt: “A fair number of practitioners attempt to mimic his style, but they generally ignore the outrageous metaphors, the playful torrent of words, and the eye for telling detail in favor of the first-person confessions. Devoid of Lester’s insights, honesty, and intellectual content, theirs is an empty noise, and attacking Lester for encouraging it is like blaming Little Richard for Pat Boone.” (Jim Derogatis. Let it Blurt: The Life & Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic. (New York: Broadway Books, 2000), p. 242.)

This last point is true up to a point. The Bangs disciples act mostly like despicable cranks, groping for Bangs’ iconoclasm while missing his warmth and humanity. His increasing rejection of nihilism and solipsism, the most important development of his late period, is regrettably lost on his followers, too, along with the critical paradigm he employed throughout his career. “I have this problem separating people’s music from the stance or value system behind it,” (Lester Bangs, “The Grooming of David Johansen.” Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader. (New York: Anchor Books, 2003), p. 98.) he once wrote, but in fact, such an attitude is not a problem at all. Rather, it is Bangs’s boldest and best choice as a critic, an elevation of rock from mere entertainment of varying effectiveness to art of varying value to the human experience. He was right to hold rock accountable for its ethical substance, and to see his purported heirs toss this concern aside in their mad grab for self-indulgent windiness is doubly irksome when it’s used to whine about production values or another of Bangs’s tertiary concerns. The results are worse than an empty noise; they are the transformation of a radical individualist into a template for mass conformity and abysmal writing.

Yet Bangs is not entirely blameless in this situation. DeRogatis lets him off more easily than Bangs would have let others off in similar situations. Remember that this was a man who agreed with Richard Goldstein’s reviled pan of Sgt. Pepper by saying that the album “proceeded to all but ruin the rock of the next few seasons by making rank-and-file musical artisans even more self-conscious and pretentious than dope already had.” (Lester Bangs, “Dandelions in Still Air: The Withering Away of the Beatles.” Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader. (New York: Anchor Books, 2003), p. 41-42.) The logic of guilt-by-association is tricky, though, and we must be careful not to apply it to Bangs simply because he applied it to others. He did not force anyone to write like him (and according to DeRogatis, told countless fans not to), and few would contend that Bangs is not as superior to his imitators as Sgt. Pepper is to Chad and Jeremy’s Of Cabbages and Kings. But the copies often highlight the flaws in the original, and this is especially true of Bangs. After 20 years of enduring the wretched writers he spawned, it seems more obvious than ever before that his success came in spite of his style rather than because of it.

Lester Bangs was unquestionably a gifted writer, one who displayed his talent at a tender age, but like many precocious children, he continued his attempts to impress with exhibitionist flash far past the point good taste would recommend. In his most mimicked mode, he simply couldn’t resist drawing attention to his stylistic pyrotechnics, a trait the stalwart punk advocate bemoaned endlessly in prog rockers. His epic essays, only theoretically on a subject other than himself, would wind on and on with as little focus and as much presumption as any Keith Emerson solo. When he got ideas across in spite of showing off, it lessened his offense, but this was an unreliable occurrence, and even when it happened, it was never the most effective way to make a point. It could still be enjoyable, but his successes have only stoked the pomposity of braying jackass critics who might otherwise be shamed into less gaudy displays of their banality.

As with most wasted talent, character flaws big and small kept Bangs from achieving the level of success he should have reached even in his short life. Of the smaller variety was his tendency to favor obscurity for obscurity’s sake. The subconscious elitism of such a stance marred his critical judgment just as surely as it ruins the salesmanship of the curmudgeonly record store clerk who consciously or instinctively follows his example. On a related but deeper level resided Bangs’s ostensible need to be a big fish in a small pond, a position he would grow tired of just before his death. As an intellectual who championed the dumbness in rock and assaulted its “progressive” impulses, he came across as a fan whose love derived at least in part from stupid music’s reassurance of his own intelligence. Taken together with his incessant demand for attention and confessional style, a portrait emerges of a lonely man crippled by insecurity. This lent his work vulnerability and sweetness, qualities that stealthily contribute to his appeal more than any other. It also marred much of his writing and led him to the behavior and substances that killed him.

It seems no matter what lessons our anti-heroes learn through their self-destructive ways, they are destined to be enshrined at their most depraved by successive generations of people too young and/or dumb to understand what they’re celebrating. Bangs did so as a young man idolizing Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, then became an idol to his readers, then was terrified by what happened to his friend Peter Laughner, and finally died in an unsuccessful attempt to clean himself up. His fans tend to forget that he didn’t dive into his grave with madcap glee but rather fell in backwards with too much momentum. In their minds, he is still writing lengthy tirades for Creem, still railing against Jethro Tull and Elton John. But if countering these thoughts with the bluntness of his tragically rotting corpse strikes some as, at the very least, a bit far afield from the subject of his writing, I would only say that his writing was his life, or at least a spot-on metaphor for it. The two threads are inextricable. It’s no coincidence that the further he sank into drug addiction, the worse his writing became, nor is it a surprise that the more he climbed out of it, the more disciplined, sharp, and trenchant it grew, leaving the sad impression that Bangs died just short of his run to real greatness. The best pieces from his late period — “The White Noise Supremacists”, “Bye Bye Sidney, Be Good”, “Peter Laughner” — point the way to something that would’ve leapfrogged all that he’d done previously, both in his work and outside it. But that’s just speculation. All we really have is the receding voice from the end of his life, suggesting what might have been:

If somebody hadn’t snapped a finger in front of my eyes and delivered a few well-placed words the kind of self-parody not to mention self-destructiveness I was making a point of specializing in so I could be Charles Bukowski Jr. or somebody would have eventually destroyed me as both a writer and a person . . . Most often the code of the road is to encourage the absolute worst behavior possible or imaginable in the young “genius.” I have had the very same people who goaded me on In these buffooneries every day sit in hotel rooms and talk about me as if I wasn’t even present but was such an idiot savant that I didn’t merit inclusion in the human race . . . Fuck ’em. I got lucky: this bullshit became my life while I was ensconced in the relatively decidedly pissant environs of Creem, so once I woke up I made it out and can say that though I have my days just like everybody else I still think I have a future. (Lester Bangs, “Untitled Notes, 1981.” Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), p. 377.)

Goodbye, baby, and amen.