Lester Bangs died thirty years ago today
Bangs's work was wild, unrestrained and violently subjective. While most of the critics at Rolling Stone would describe a breakdown of the instrumentation of the album, using phrases like "good album" and "cool cover," Bangs would go on a rant about the correlation between rock music and pubescent sexuality. Essentially, previous rock critics would tell you how the music sounds, but Bangs would tell you how the music feels.
Check out this section of the 1979 essay about one of his most beloved albums, Van Morrison's Astral Weeks.
Van Morrison is interested, obsessed with how much musical or verbal information he can compress into a small space, and, almost, conversely, how far he can spread one note, word, sound, or picture. To capture one moment, be it a caress or a twitch. He repeats certain phrases to extremes that from anybody else would seem ridiculous, because he's waiting for a vision to unfold, trying as unobtrusively as possible to nudge it along. Sometimes he gives it to you through silence, by choking off the song in midflight: "It's too late to stop now!" It's the great search, fueled by the belief that through these musical and mental processes illumination is attainable. Or may at least be glimpsed.
Lester freelanced for Rolling Stone until 1973, when Jann Wenner fired him for being "disrespectful to musicians." By that time, he'd begun submitting reviews to Creem Magazine, the doomed yet ultimately superior rival to Rolling Stone. Bangs would eventually become Creem's Senior Editor, making slightly more than the $12 a review he was making from his previous publication. But only slightly.
"The last thing anybody should ever consider doing is entering this racket," he wrote in his "How to Be a Rock Critic" essay. "In the first place, it doesn't pay much and doesn't lead anywhere in particular, so no matter how successful you are at it, you'll eventually have to decide what you're going to do with your life anyway."
In the essay, Bangs goes on to describe the ways to hustle and survive off such a meager income -- should you have made the unrecommended decision to try and freelance full time - such as selling free promo records, living off press dinners and record company financed cross-country flights to review a show ("free vacation!"). The low wage of freelance journalism forced Bangs to produce terrific amounts of work in order to survive; he developed an impressive method of churning out several reviews a night, typing out giant screeds under the influence of a variety of intoxicants.
He'd been drinking a bottle or two of Romilar Cough Syrup a day since he was a kid, and often augmented it by a roller coaster of speed and Valium, beer and whiskey. Yet the work always got done. "He wrote more pages than anyone will ever count," wrote Robert Christgau in Bang's obituary, "for a free associater who could turn out a 17,000-word rumination on the Troggs overnight and a 40,000-word fanbook on Blondie in three or four days, three million words may be a conservative estimate."
Though Bangs would often get depressed at the idea of being a rock writer forever. Teaming up with Joey Ramone's brother, Mickey Leigh, Bangs formed the band Birdland (after the song of same name by Patti Smith, one of several NYC proto-punks Bangs admired).
In the spring of 1982, Bangs planned to temporarily move to Mexico, eager to work on his delayed novel. "I've got to do something that has nothing to do with music," he said to a young Jim DeRogatis, who would commemorate the occasion almost twenty years later in the Lester Bangs biography Let It Blurt. "I don't have a deal to sell this book or anything, I just hope that somebody will want it. If nobody wants the novel, well -- it's something that I really want to do, and I figure that that's the most important thing."
If the combination of religion and burning to death is the best metaphor for Lester Bangs' character, then the above statement is the best, most encapsulating description of Bangs's ethos. Writing for the sake of writing always kept his work sincere and energized. When you read it, you could tell that it was coming from someone who was enjoying writing it at least as much as you were reading it.
Lester Bangs died two weeks after his interview with young DeRogatis. Though he was attending AA and had cut out the drinking, he was still swallowing handfuls of Valium at a time. "Lester Bangs probably did die of an overdose of [pain killer] Darvon, and probably Valium as well," said medical examiner Dr. Robert Kirschner of Bangs autopsy, which has come under criticism for not being very thorough. "But in order to determine whether it's an overdose, you need some quantitation, and there's none here. If I were going to court and someone asked me, 'Did this man die of a drug overdose?' I'd have to say, 'I don't know.'"