The big Bangs

A former Creem magazine colleague of Lester Bangs remembers -- and members of the Doors, the MC5, Blondie and the Mekons respond to -- the late, great rock critic's bracing vitriol.

Published September 3, 2003 8:00PM (EDT)

"Pigs at a pastry cart," "eunuchs in a harem," "a lamppost to a dog" -- these are a few of the terms artists have used for critics over the last couple of centuries. Igor Stravinsky imagined reviewers as rodentlike creatures with padlocked ears. Even Nat King Cole chimed in: "Critics don't buy records, they get them free." It's predictable that any attempt to evaluate creativity will be met with resentment, especially when it's the sound of bashing instead of applause.

"Critics are people you love to hate," agreed the late, legendary Lester Bangs. They're jerks and pompous assholes, he pronounced in his infamous essay "How to Be a Rock Critic," a multiple-choice, fill-in the blanks guide. Regarded as the greatest writer in rock history, and probably its most vitriolic, Bangs is often credited with catapulting music journalism into literature. He declared that everyone possessed the credentials to be a rock critic, but although he mentored many and inspired legions, none touch his notoriety or match his flair to entertain, involve and engage readers.

When I worked with Lester during the early years of Creem magazine, I took exception to his bombast and bluster, cheap shots, snide retorts, reliance on epithets and diabolical ways. All the editors also lived together, so the 24/7 camaraderie created plenty of fallout. Yet Lester's hysterical wit, goofy good nature, flash and flair brought ballast to the household and office. (Yeah, his room was a chaotic sty -- but he did actually do the dishes.) I witnessed those all-night binges to reach a deadline, typing furiously to keep up with his thoughts and substances, to drown out the inner anguish. Our tastes diverged and I wasn't a huge fan of his writing. Today, 21 years after his death, I read it now with new eyes.

Running the gamut from outrageous to brooding, his one-liners and treatises spared no one: Mick Jagger was a washout, Stevie Nicks a narcissist, Chrissie Hynde small potatoes, Ozzy Osbourne a moralist and Patti Smith a banshee. His pantheon of heroes, ranging from Miles Davis to the Sex Pistols, were ruthlessly skewered when they slipped (in his estimation). Bangs believed artists should take what came without whining, and he accepted a dose of his own medicine when it came time to edit his work for publication.

With "Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader," the new and long overdue collection of Lester's work, I've become reacquainted with my former colleague and roommate from the distance of a less-than-perfect memory of his infectious grin and maddening opinions. Always curious how musicians reacted to his scathing coverage, I wondered if time healed wounds and wanted to offer them a chance to respond, to provide perspective to Bangs' notorious hubris -- if they weren't still livid about it.

In the introduction to the anthology, editor and friend John Morthland explains how Bangs could turn from dumping to defending a record with equal credibility. His first published review in Rolling Stone in 1969 (reprinted in the book) slammed the MC5's now-legendary "Kick Out the Jams" as a ridiculous, overbearing, pretentious album. He ranked the 5 with the Troggs as crude, raw, ugly noise -- which would later become the very criteria he used to define the virtues of punk.

MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer felt Bangs was merciless in dismantling the band, like the new gunslinger in town taking on the baddest dude. "I believed we were the second coming of rock 'n' roll, messengers of music genius," Kramer acknowledges in an interview. "But in that instant, my entire ego collapsed. All my greatest fears were realized."

Lester felt some remorse after Elektra Records dropped the MC5. He became the band's biggest fan, counting the album as an all-time classic. "He was so disarming in his apologies and his repudiation was so sincere," says Kramer. "I grew to like him. He forced us to confront our weaknesses."

Bangs used music as a vehicle to write about all kinds of stuff, always talking about it in terms of the bigger picture, says Morthland. He wrote about acts like Emerson, Lake & Palmer that other reviewers couldn't be bothered with, placing them in a musical-historical context that included the Moog synthesizer, Charles Mingus, Mussorgsky, Mozart and Liberace.

"Anne Murray is the real thing," Bangs wrote in Creem. He glowed on about the mellow Canadian country-pop singer's hypnotic honeyed vocals, and the enduring significance of her songs. Some may scoff at this, he suggested, but 30 years later, he's fairly convincing, amusing -- and lascivious. This from the writer who lionized Black Sabbath and derived inspiration from William S. Burroughs. Murray called him up to thank him at the time, which thrilled the besotted Bangs, though he suspected her label had set it up.

"I'm grateful to Lester," Murray says today. "He gave me his seal of approval, which came from a place where most people would not expect it."

All you could do was tease Lester and use him, says punk pioneer Richard Hell. Bangs regarded Hell as a philosopher poet, as well as a nihilist and defeatist. Although Hell says he's seeking no revenge against critics who savaged him, he raked Bangs over the coals in a recent Village Voice testimonial, calling him a babbling buffoon and an obscene provocateur, but also admiring him for figuring out what really mattered.

When idols didn't meet Bangs' expectations, he could be ruthless. Miles Davis, he felt, became a worthless wretch, the Pistols turned into amoral bullies, and Lou Reed, one of his most beloved artists, was a professional zombie. Whether he was holding up high standards or was just plain high, Bangs threw down the gauntlet. He taunted artists, daring them to reach transcendence, say something important.

Composer Arnold Schoenberg alleged critics would shoot the wounded on the battlefield, but Bangs believed all was fair in love and war. When Lester interviewed Lou Reed, their verbal slugfests grew into goading sessions, fueled by massive amounts of booze and their equally massive egos. Bangs tested his icons and left bruises. Rock journalist Jaan Uhelszki, whom Lester championed back at Creem, broached the subject recently with Lou.

Reed replied, "Lester loved me so much he had to attack me every day. You know, it was so weird, because it's not like I didn't have my own problems. So that was some kind of weird -- that somebody liked you so much that he just frothed at the mouth and tried to bite you."

Though Bangs rode Reed and his music like a roller coaster, he really did listen to Reed's almost unlistenable "Metal Machine Music" until his death, and not for some roundabout, backhanded, half-ironic reason like "It's so obnoxious and empties out a room," notes Morthland. Despite the trail of destruction, Bangs' fanaticism with Reed strove to restore the exalted moment when music changed his life, when the Velvet Underground seared his soul, Patti Smith swept his breath away, the Rolling Stones still mattered and Miles "exposed me to my own cowardice in the face of dread or staved-off pain."

In calling Reed a bibulous bozo or Jim Morrison a bozo Dionysus, Lester was really talking about himself. As he once wrote, it's "not really necessary to separate the clown from the poet." In passage after passage, whether extolling or plundering, he seemed to be examining his own foolish excesses as well as his imaginative originality. "The palooka with irony is also the nicest guy in town and man enough to show it," he once wrote of David Johansen. "It's no longer enough to be a hostile ugly yowling asshole," he said of the Dead Kennedys. He accused Miles Davis, in his electronic period, of producing"half-thawed cryogenic doodles."

The tough inquisitor sometimes seemed too gleeful about lopping off heads. But his reason for shredding records was to seek the source of the cancer running through them, "praying for a cure." Bangs wouldn't allow artists to phone in performances. He'd cite an entire catalog of albums and songs to prove his point, to hold them to higher standards. Lester insisted that his book about Blondie be unauthorized, reasoning that getting too buddy-buddy with the band would make him a recruit to the cause, whereas a lack of cooperation allowed objectivity.

Band members didn't necessarily agree. "His idea of not doing a fluff piece was being a bitch," says Chris Stein of Blondie. "We were doing a book at the same time, 'Making Tracks,' and so he got cranky about it." Stein describes a series of photos in the band's book of Lester carrying singer Debbie Harry on the beach with his hand groping her ass and his tongue hanging out. "I just think every picture is worth a thousand words," Stein says. "He criticized her for using her sexuality while lusting after her at the same time. All I can say about Lester's comments on us is that I wish he were around to see Britney Spears."

Commenting about the hypocrisy of "boy critics and the male rock 'n' roll establishment," Stein adds, "I think there was a lot of buried agenda Lester wasn't even aware of himself. And I don't know how much he believed all the stuff he was writing. I think he was just trying to stir up shit."

Questioning Blondie's steely demeanor, Bangs wrote: "The main reason we listen to music is to hear passion expressed. What does it say about us to dote on emotionally neutral art?"

When Bangs began performing with his own band, Stein recalls, his response was different. "Lester came up to Debbie after a show saying, 'Oh God, I didn't know how hard it was.'"

Bangs informed the Mekons, then a fledgling English punk band, that their music was swill. "We acknowledged it as a pretty accurate description," says guitarist Jon Langford. Impressed with the response, Bangs owned up to the send-up, and volunteered to write liner notes for the next album. He made superlative proclamations, calling the Mekons "the most revolutionary band in rock 'n' roll" and "better than the Beatles." Then Bangs added that, in fact, he'd never heard the album "and I never will." He never did, says Langford.

After cutting some drunken venom about Virgin Records, the British music magazine NME and erstwhile heroes like Brian Eno and John Lydon, Bangs' stamp of approval garnered attention, and the band reconsidered its decision to break up. (As alt-rock veterans know, the Mekons are still together today.) "Lester ruined my chances at a straight life," Langford laughs.

Bangsian spew is an acquired taste. It's not always worth slogging through 40,000 words on the Troggs. But the appeal of Lester's prose doesn't just stem from its gonzo style. Sometimes it's jazz improv or anthemic rhythmic beating or Wagnerian noise. Consider his characteristic trashing of Canned Heat as "nondescript clinkletybonk tibia-rattling in pursuit of yeehah countryisms," which got him banned from Rolling Stone magazine.

"He seemed like a frustrated songwriter," notes Robby Krieger of the Doors, not an uncommon complaint about critics. Rereading Bangs' piece on the Doors' swelling popularity a decade after Jim Morrison's death, Krieger chuckles, since another two decades later he's touring Doors repertoire with keyboardist Ray Manzarek. Reflecting on the line, "[It's] going to set rock 'n' roll standards for a long time to come," Krieger sighs: "How prophetic."

Krieger says he liked Bangs' writing, and offers faint praise: "I think he thought his articles were more sophisticated than anything he was writing about." But he takes exception to a remark about the Doors song "The End" being a joke. "Jim was funny as hell, but not with the music," he says. "That he took seriously. It was some of Jim's most introspective writing." For Lester to call Jim Morrison a buffoon, he suggests, betrayed a lack of perspective on himself.

Asserting that artists wouldn't be heroes if they were infallible, Bangs showed his own demons publicly. His songs with his band Birdland voice the vulnerability that mitigated the wisecracker's pontification. Bangs' writing, says John Morthland, "was always about him, the music and his relationship to that world. They weren't separate things." At the time of his death, Lester was in transition, Morthland suggests, seeking something with as much meaning as music.

The last time I saw Lester I suggested he quit rock 'n' roll to write the Great American Novel. "That's the nicest thing you've ever said to me," he answered. Some of his fiction is featured in the anthology, giving a clue as to what lurked within.

The various portraits of Bangs span from the kind, quirky rock guru in Cameron Crowe's film "Almost Famous" to the self-indulgent, pained poet of Jim DeRogatis' biography "Let It Blurt" and the impossible genius in the 1987 anthology "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung," edited by Greil Marcus. The Bangs enigma can't reconcile his complexity -- the ridiculous romantic and earnest friend with the unruly belligerent, the irrepressible innocent with the idealistic visionary.

Beyond the inexhaustible adjectives, Lester's writing speaks volumes. I'm relieved, after all these years, to read writing that's "like a dancer shaking my ass to boogaloo inside my head." Grateful it's around for others to discover, I'm amazed by Lester's mercurial mind and potent insights, startled by the immediacy, clarity and substance of the prose. To be reminded how it's done. Mind you, it's still true that small doses go a long way. It's sad to wish for more too late, but this surviving legacy is some compensation for our loss of the pig and his pastry.

By Roberta Cruger

Roberta Cruger has written for Newsday, the Los Angeles Times Magazine and Billboard. She was a founding staffer at both Creem magazine and MTV, and also worked in the record industry.

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