Let it Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic
If anyone ever writes a history on rock criticism and music journalism, certain nameslike Peter Guralnick, Greil Marcus, Simon Frith and especially Lester Bangswill surely lead off the chapters on rock music and American vernacular music writing. Until his death in 1982, Lester Bangs had carved himself a formidable reputation as a rock journalist that hardly anyone could match. A music lover, jester, alcohol and substance abuser, champion of gonzo writing, a cultural icon, a loner, the Robin Hood or outlaw of music journalismthese were the many faces of Lester Bangs.
Armed with his gift for writing, demented vim and intelligencedriven by wild idiosyncrasies, and an enduring belief in the transient and explosive pleasures of rock musicBangs took the utmost pleasure in declaring war on music and culture that he took as spineless and fake. His writings directly reflected the energy and rebellious nature of rock music, where he attempted to evoke the music's energy and spirit. To quote, "the main reason we listen to music in the first place is to hear passion expressed." And his name still cleaves opinion like few others. The avalanches of prose and the virtuosity with words with which he rocked the boat polarized both his readership and musiciansnot to mention his editors.
Needless to say, but music has long been captive to the cult of mediocre elitism that has always tried to manufacture self-esteem by using empty formulas of intellectual superiority. Music has always been regularly tagged as artserious, great, as only these tags can be their defining characteristics. But music can also be vulgar, stupid or insane, and that can sometimes also be good. That is why Bangs championed bands that addressed these issuesamongst which were the Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Lou Reed, Patti Smith and The Clashand was an early advocate of punk rock.
Named after a song Bangs wrote with his band Birdland, Let it Blurt, written by Jim DeRogatis, is an excellent and exhilaratingly eccentric book. Writing a good biography is an extremely personal piece of detective work and DeRogatis does a successful job of mapping the life of Bangs giving it the attention it deserves. The author actually interviewed Bangs for a high school project weeks before his death. Furthermore, he has interviewed many of Bangs' associates, friends, musicians and editors, all of whom share revealing insights about occurrences in the man's life. The book follows Bangs' troubled childhood, his high school interests in literature (especially the beat writers), first interests and discoveries in musichis first love was jazz, especially the music of composer/bassist Charles Mingus and later The Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
The book further traces his beginnings in journalism and his work, firstly for Rolling Stone magazine, where his first review famously smashed MC5's debut, Kick Out the Jams (Elektra, 1969). Later, he continued to contribute provocative reviews for the magazine for which he was sacked by editor Jann Wenner for being "disrespectful to musicians." Then he moved to write for Creem, The Village Voice and scores of other magazines and newspapers. Writing for Creemwhere he worked as principal editor for five yearspropelled him to stardom, further inspiring and spawning a myriad of journalists, for better or worse, who emulated or imitated his style. This book not only explores his professional life, where a plethora of journalists and musicians crossed paths, but also gives an account of his personal life and upheavals.
Much has been discussed about Bangs' writing ambitions beyond the world of journalism, and although one of his ambitions was to write novels, that never happened during his lifetime. He co-wrote two fan books about pop group Blondie and singer Rod Stewart, while most of the last year of his life he spent researching and writing a book that he named Rock Gomorrah. The day it was finished and submitted he celebrated the event by taking a lethal dose of various pills that sank him into coma and eventually killed him. Since then his writings have been compiled in two posthumous collectionsPsychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung (Anchor Press, 1988), edited by Greil Marcus, and Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader (Anchor Press, 2003), edited by John Morthlandwhich suggest that his popularity and influence remain undimmed some three decades after his death.
While DeRogatis holds Bangs' body of work in high esteem, as can be seen in the introductory part of his reissued interview at the Perfect Sound Forever website, what this book lacks is a more detailed analysis of any of Bangs' writings on the part of DeRogatis. It is not an easy job for one critic to assess the writings of another, in this case the towering figure of Lester Bangs, but an assessment of his prose and style, and how it has changed and evolved over the years, would have been very welcome.
Given the realities of contemporary journalism in this corporate and politically steered world, it is safe to say that mainstream media will never see the likes of Lester Bangs ever again. Simply put, mainstream publications have long since descended into a celebrity journalism which is diametrically opposed to Bangs' kind of writing and thinking. Let it Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic presents a rock-solid, multidimensional, emphatic, and rollicking portrait of a man and writer who took the calling of journalism as his life.