Lester Bangs died thirty years ago today

Categories: Music History

Lester Bangs (12/13/48 - 4/30/82)
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Today in History archives

Lester Bangs mother was a Jehovah's Witness and his Father burned to death. Any biographer would be hard pressed to find a better metaphor for the man who, if not invented rock criticism, at least gave it its legs. Bangs was a rare experiment in courage, living his life and modeling his career off the irresponsible inspiration of rock music. He wrote the way the feedback-soaked music he loved sounded: Like breaking the rules. Bringing the Beat-style of loud, run-on sentences to the undeveloped world of rock journalism, his large paragraphs sputtered like the gun-fire words of a pulpit-beating minister.

Thirty years ago that fire burned out for good, depriving young readers the rare opportunity to read the work of an outsider, someone whose success as a journalist was based entirely on the magnetism of his work. While many rock writers today will rise to the top based on their resume or their proximity and likeability to publishers, Bangs had nothing close to that going for him.

Born in December 1948, in Escondido, California, Bangs somehow always remained out of step with his baby boomer generation. They were headed in the same direction, but on different roads: While they discovered peace with LSD, he discovered rage with Romilar cough syrup. When they spoke of the beauty of the Grateful Dead, he spoke of the necessity of The Velvet Underground. When they took the blues to psychedelia, he was taking it to punk.

"All rock critics are frustrated pop stars," Bangs once wrote. Consequentially, few of these frustrated pop stars ever wrote negative reviews; they were so humble in the presence of the real pop stars that they never had the nerve to really lay into them. "[In interviews] I started out to lead with the most insulting question I could think of," Bangs said in his final interview. "Because it seemed to me that the whole thing of interviewing as far as rock stars and that was just such a suck-up. It was groveling obeisance to people who weren't that special, really. It's just a guy, just another person, so what?"

Bangs didn't suck up to musicians just like he didn't suck up to publishers. And yet they loved him for it. When Rolling Stone published his aggressively negative review of the MC5's Kick Out the Jams (effectively launching Bangs career) it was following the issue where they had put the band on their cover. He had been sending them reviews for a while, following up on their ad requesting submissions, but they had refused to bite until his review of the MC5.

"The first four reviews I sent, let's see, I said that Anthem of the Sun by the Grateful Dead and Sailor by Steve Miller were pieces of shit and White Light/White Heat by the Velvet Underground and Nico's The Marble Index were masterpieces, and White Light/White Heat was the best album of 1968. I couldn't figure out why they weren't printing any of these things.

"Then this MC5 album, Kick Out the Jams, came out, and they had this big article in there saying the MC5 were the greatest band in the world and all this, so I went out and bought it. Just like anybody, you buy something you don't like and you feel like you bought a hype. And I wrote this really like, blaaah!, scathing sort of review. And I sent a letter with it and said, 'Look, fuckheads, I'm as good as any writer you've got in there. You better print this or give me the reason why.' And they did, they printed it, and that was the beginning."

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