Today would have been the 65th birthday of Lester Bangs, the out-of-control, original gonzo journalist, who wrote about rock and roll as if it flowed with a sense of literature and narcotic-fueled energy and who wound up influencing scores of would-be critics, not just in the music genre but spanning it. In his short life, Bangs pushed envelopes and milked and squeezed every drop out of decadent life that could be attained before dying in 1982 by overdosing on a prescription drug called Darvon.
For every writer who writes with fervent soul, an attitude in the words they put to paper or monitor or screen or what have you, there has to be the acknowledgement of Lester Bangs consciously or unconsciously. Bangs almost completely on his own staked a Magellan-like claim in the journalistic market, the rock and roll arena most particularly, which was during the crucial time of the late 1960s to the late 1970s, when the eclectics of the musical art of that serendipitous yet rough around the edges and then some decade sported some of the greatest music and styles, whether it be imitative sincere flattery, the physical fashions it manifested, or the sub genres of sound and vision that it had gestated. And right in the middle of its hurricane axis was Lester Bangs.
Unassuming in his physical appearance, which was usually a disheveled one, mustachioed, sloppy, and slovenly, looking more like Rob Reiner on All In the Family than a writer who for his own genre and times was as revered and as important to the constant shaping and moving of literature and all it begat, it was regardless of how Lester Bangs looked on the outside. What was inside was a whirling dervish in an epileptic state, the word frenzy in big rusty neon, and what it concocted up was literature which took a guttural edge, a razor-sharp barefoot bleeding prose that sliced and diced sacred cows of the musical community and its fans and its overall milieu. He skewered everything that was sacred, but didn’t do it like a drooling blowhard on a sliver filled soapbox; instead, he infused it with ideas and energy that metaphorically on paper, was as textually ferocious as any of the sounds emanating from black grilled speakers, like a Stooges, or MC5, or Van Morrison or Miles Davis, all Bangs favorites. But the best pieces from the man, who was prolific one thousand fold, were ones that spoke of things he didn’t agree with or necessarily like. Bangs usually turned the other cheek and every other bit of his physical being, from anything mainstream, and found his best vocal on paper arenas when going toe to toe with people like Lou Reed, who when Bangs was working for Creem Magazine (eventually becoming one of its editors) was the centerpiece to a handful of memorably acid in the eyes treatises of their verbal sparring matches. In pieces like those, or the ones he wrote about Black Sabbath (“Bring Your Mother To The Gas Chamber”), James Taylor (“James Taylor Marked For Death”), his long but never overlong life travelogues on amphetamines about places like Jamaica (where he exposed holes in Bob Marley and the entire Reggae movement during the mid 1970s), waxing in superb detail about being on the road with The Clash (from 1977), or spooling politic on garage music that trumpeted bands like The Troggs (“Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung”), there was always the sense the reader got from the pen and psycho on the precipice style that Bangs promoted that at once made one think, react, emote, and run up and down all the mainlines, whether they were open or closed. If they were closed, no matter, Lester would break down its doors anyhow. It’s easy to forget that only the best kind of art evokes those kinds of aforementioned verbs and hard-won challenges.
It’s been said many times that the prose and writings of Lester Bangs play almost like rock and roll itself, and that holds up true to this day. Like a spontaneous Jimi Hendrix guitar solo, Bangs’ work was a roller coaster ride of syntax and grammar. Styles were bent, words gleefully pulled and pretzel twisted, sometimes spelled phonetically and ultimately stretched into his own vocabulary where they in essence took on lives of their own. It was like a silver ball going down a metal track with no beginning or end, just the constant motion. That was the key to a Lester Bangs piece, the constant motion, the expressive piÃ±ata burst open of ideas, showering the entire spectrum of Bangs’ most casual readers to the stalwarts of the man. Bangs’ followers stretched from Mr. and Ms. Generic in the outskirts of nowhere, but who were still able to get Creem subscriptions to their doors, to people like Patti Smith and The Ramones. In fact, Bangs was very instrumental in not only helping to megaphone yelp the Detroit sound (which is where Creem had been based for many years), but he was also equally loud about the first wave of NYC punk in the mid 1970s. Bangs had his antenna always up, and was one of the few journalists and reviewers even to this day, to have had such an expressive radar. Decidedly unschooled in the typical tenets of journalism and rock criticism, Lester Bangs instead went to The School of Rock as his muse and almost shamanic obsessive teachings; he was a graduate cum laude from that metaphoric place long before the term became associated as a Jack Black filmic vehicle. Lester was always one step ahead, and even though his personal life may have been a Jim Morrison-esque carnival of starlight shambles, he still remained that one step ahead, albeit in the dilapidated sneakers he wore, and even in the present times, long after his death, everyone is still trying to catch up.
The immense body of work that Bangs churned out is of passion, artistic flair, spontaneity, brimming with ideas flowing like the alphabet from a wizard’s cauldron, and full of life and attitude. Just reading any of his pieces (especially in the highly recommended posthumous anthologies Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung and Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste) makes one realize how much of a void and dearth of the Bangs schematic there is in today’s style of writing, where many writers and journalists are more concerned with perfect execution, every I dotted and T crossed so to speak, every word a jewel to be set in the piece. Most contemporary writers or journalists that one comes across today (with the exception of people like Jim DeRogatis, who was one of the last people to ever interview Lester and became a revered and refreshingly under the mainstream radar music critic ala Bangs) usually say what an influence Lester Bangs was and is to their work, but the biggest lesson anyone could ever glean from what Lester Bangs did were two words, something that again, seems to be lacking in a lot of today’s journalistic climate: attitude and passion. It was the DNA of what made Lester Bangs tick in what fueled his amazing life and art, and what ultimately contributed his imminent and untimely death. Lester Bangs’ attitude and passion spoke so loudly in his articles, one almost needs earmuffs to read them. In today’s world, he’s a creative anomaly. To most actually, he’s a character portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Cameron Crowe’s (an ex-Rolling Stone journalist who knew Bangs well) Almost Famous. While Hoffman may not have looked like Bangs, guess what he applied to make that performance in the film effective? Yep, attitude and passion.
If you were a fan of Lester Bangs during his glory days in the 1970s, dust off those old copies of Creem, Rolling Stone, or even The Village Voice, all which included articles of typewritten majesty. The work and legacy of Lester Bangs may not be as well known as say Hunter S. Thompson, another Gonzo journalist, who, for some, was the greatest writer of that ilk and zeitgeist. But the difference between the two men is that no matter what Thompson wrote arguably, which was beautiful in its own twisted psilocybin car wreck kind of a way, always ultimately wanted the reader to listen to HIM. With Bangs, he gave you the skinny on what he listened TO, and thus, you kind of went along on his hair-raising rides. Bangs also had the unfortunate fortune to die young, which ensured his work to be set, encased in carbonite, forever and ever. He avoided having to still huff and puff, when age could bring on a sense of mediocrity. Lester Bangs remained like a hornet in the ice cube, frozen at first glance, ready to pounce and sting during the second. Attitude and passion. Talk about a dynamic duo.