Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves: Revisiting Lester Bangs

I wrote this essay for the 2015 EMP Pop Conference: “Get Ur Freak On: Music, Weirdness, and Transgression.” My novel, The Only Ones, had just come out, and I’d been answering a lot of questions about rock criticism and how and if it had influenced my style. So Lester was already on my mind. I knew his work, and what fun I would have reading it again! Instead this proved one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. For openers, Lester had been so prolific I had hundreds of pages of catching up to do, and even the pieces I thought I knew well didn’t come off the way I remembered, and fact was, some of them I barely liked. At the same time, I was often moved to tears that he’d written them at all, whether I liked them or not.

I read this piece in an EMP museum room to an audience including writers who’d known or edited or published alongside Lester in his lifetime—Greil Marcus, Richard Goldstein, John Rockwell, Tom Smucker, my husband Robert Christgau—plus later generations for whom Lester was already a myth by the time they’d heard his name, including one young guy who thanked me for acknowledging that some of Lester’s classic longer pieces could be hard going. What I did was basically old rock critic stand-up, designed to be read out loud. I guess it was homage to Lester--insults and yucks, some true confessions and made-up stuff. I am a pretty low tech person so there wasn’t much musical accompaniment, though I did manage to lead off with a sound bite from Lester’s first single, “Let it Blurt.” Starts with Robert Quine’s big jagged guitar hello, then in comes Lester’s blubbery vocal—just a few bars, clipped for time before “Bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch,” or “Laughing to keep from crying. Crying to keep from laughing.”

I once gave fashion tips to Lester Bangs, legendary early rock critic, gonzo godfather, and actual human being I knew a little. This was outside CBGBs, where his band was playing, one early 1980s night.

“I look good, right?” Lester asked me.

“Oh Lester!” Where to start? “These punks have a very strict fashion code. They’re not gonna understand Frye boots or, excuse me—new blue jeans. Don’t you have something more appropriate, like what about that old trenchcoat, you know the one I mean. I think you store it in a tennis sock?”

Well! The next time I saw Lester play he wore overalls, big striped engineer’s gloves, and funky hightops—a better look, I thought, but he told me the Mudd Club door guy almost wouldn’t let him in to see Lester Bangs play. “I am Lester Bangs,” Lester protested.

“No you’re not,” the guy goes. “You’re Porky Pig.”

I kept flashing on those conversations while I was trying to squeeze Lester into this year’s Get Ur Freak On conference themes—weird, transgressive, freaky. “Lester! Just wear the bondage shoes till we get past the door guy. Then throw ‘em off and be yourself!”

Because, as I was reminded rather firmly by my advisor Georgia Christgau, who knew Lester much better than I did, Lester wasn’t weird. Not freaky, not a death dwarf, and “transgressive” is so not a Lester word. Part of his mission was to transgress against lingo like “transgressive.” And don’t get him started on S&M.

You may ask, “Well, what about Lester’s legendary love-hate thing with Lou Reed? Wasn’t there some weird subtext there?” Maybe. But those classic slugfest interviews in Creem were partly shtick. Smart shtick. Like many early Creem types, Lester hated star worship, and you can read these encounters as comic attempts to equalize star-fan relations—not so both could be human beings, but so both could be rock stars. Which, in his way, Lester was.

Raised in El Cajon California by a widowed Jehovah’s Witness mother, Bangs became a teenaged critic at fledgling Rolling Stone and a defining presence at Creem after Stone offed him for insulting too many bands. At the Village Voice, he famously wrote about the death of Elvis, New Wave racism, and Tangerine Dream on cough syrup. He hung out with musicians, had his own pretty good band, and abused alcohol, speed, and many over-the-counter substances. But most believe he was on his way to cleaning up when he died in 1982, with such moderate quantities of Darvon, Valium, and Nyquil in his body that no one is sure what killed him. He was 33 years old.

I don’t remember exactly when I first read Lester Bangs. Let’s say 1972. That world was all so new to me that I got writers mixed up. But somewhere in there, Lester’s great shaggy dog of a “Jethro Tull in Vietnam” kicked in, and President Thieu’s analysis of that silly band’s problem—“No rebop”—entered the private language of what would soon become my marriage to Robert Christgau. Lester was many things, and one of them was hooky. He would come up with lines or phrases that would just stick in your mind. “I never met a hero I didn’t like. But then, I never met a hero.” On Elvis: “So I won’t bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.” He could even grab you with punctuation—I got so hooked on that all exclamation point “Sham 69 is Innocent!” I went and wrote an all question mark review of weird no wave DNA.

Lester was both easy reading and formally out there, with a combination of slop and intention that could be breathtaking. He was colorful and funny. You could find the whole idea of rock criticism effete and still get off on Lester. So I was a little shocked this fall to learn that my husband’s NYU students were unimpressed by the Lester sample they were lucky to have on their goddamn syllabus. I was even more shocked to realize, when I picked up “White Witch” for the first time in decades, that I had a little trouble getting into it myself.

“White Witch” was a Creem piece in which Lester famously reviewed an album based on its stupid cover—a little mystifying if you weren’t in on the joke, which I for sure had to have explained to me back in the day. In fact, I found a lot of those early pieces mystifying, but it didn’t bother me at all. I thought that was a convention of the rock criticism form.

I'd never read a word of the stuff till the 1972 morning Bob, as I call him, handed me a carbon copy, as we called them, of his latest Newsday review, and right away something clicked. I was a hippie feminist increasingly annoyed by the prissiness and class obtuseness of too many of my Movement sisters. But I was also a onetime English major whose life was changed by the unreliable narrator the same year it was changed by the Beatles. What I saw here was not just the populism of the rock crit endeavor, but what it said about subjectivity. A critic not only could be a fan. A critic had to be a fan. Changeable, personal, maybe prejudiced, maybe misinformed, here was a voice I had never imagined—the unreliable critic. And no one exemplified this more than Lester Bangs, who could change his opinion about an album before the review hit print—and that was assuming he meant what he said in the first place. (Or that the record even existed.) So I had a look at the classic “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung” also many years after my last viewing. I had some trouble getting into that one, too. A bit longer than I remembered.

It's unnerving to revisit work that influenced you so long ago you can’t remember exactly how anymore, but you know it’s so mixed up with every idea that followed, you’re afraid if it proves unsound, the whole structure will fall apart. And there’s nothing like doing your research in crumbly old Creems to start you thinking about things falling apart. After a day poring over graying pages in bound volumes at the Lincoln Center library, I asked de facto Creem archivist Sue Whitall if digital copies were available. She told me digitization was tied up in legal hassles and I was lucky nobody had made me wear gloves, which happens with some Creem collections, because, she said, the old cheap paper is very fragile. “Fragile,” I thought—that’s an interesting word to use. I would have said flimsy. But you say fragile about something you want to keep so badly you’ll wear gloves to save it, and flimsy about something you just throw away when it breaks.

Which is one way to think about what many of us not only goofed on but valued in the rock writing of the time, particularly at Creem, with its collection of possibly memorable work about arguably forgettable product in an apparently disposable package. Here’s Lester on Iggy’s lyrics: “Ig writes some of the best throwaway lines in rock, meaning some of the best lines in rock, which is basically a music meant to be tossed over the shoulder and off the wall.” But how about if you’re still listening to it—or reading about it—forty years later? “Often cited in his lifetime,” says Lester’s Wikipedia entry, “as America’s greatest rock critic.” Kind of leaves you dangling. What’s he cited as now? Guy’s been dead 33 years. Exactly as long as he was alive.

Two collections, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung put together by Lester’s first editor, Greil Marcus, and Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste by his close friend John Morthland, appeared in the next twenty or so years, as did Jim DeRogatis’s Let It Blurt biography. Cyberpunk Bruce Sterling put Lester in a fantasy. Philip Seymour Hoffman played him—without a hint of the darkness it turns out they shared—in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. Just a few months ago, a one-man theater piece, How to Be a Rock Critic: Based on the Writing of Lester Bangs, featured the critic in his own words. David Foster Wallace dedicated a book to him. Maria Bustillos wrote in the New Yorker, which wouldn’t have published Lester in his lifetime if he’d lived another twenty years, or maybe even 33, “He had the most advanced and exquisite taste of any American writer of his generation, uneven and erratic as it was.” And she crams that classy font with bits of messy Lester, from his famous case for throwing pies at stars to juicy statements of principle from “James Taylor Marked for Death,” where art is a “Wham-o toy,” or “nothing but a goddamn Bonusburger so just gobble the stupid thing and burp and go on to the next one tomorrow.”

“James Taylor Marked for Death” is Lester’s monumental tribute to the Troggs, which among a pileup of digressions includes the fantasy everyone remembers of murder by Ripple bottle of the sensitive singer-songwriter rock critics loved to hate. What I’d forgotten was that this goddamn classic was even longer than “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung.” My problem wasn’t just length. By now I was burping my way through both collections, and I could hardly believe this, but so much Lester wasn’t sitting well. That hell-in-a-handcart doomsday tic that had always been puzzling was adding up. The world today, whatever day it was, had: no emotions, no love, no good music. That trope where he’d start off hating some record—Psychotic Reaction or Fun House or Metal Machine Music—hate, hate, hate, then bingo, greatest record ever made—began to look formulaic even though I was already conceiving strategies whereby I might use it in this paper. If I ever made it to bingo. For now I was still dealing with how very, very long the set up was for the Jethro Tull “no rebop” punchline.

Burp! “Kraftwerkfeature,” Creem 1976. Okay! Okay! I could work with this refreshingly short bit of reportage that was new to me. Although structured around Lester’s possibly pathological paranoia regarding machines, that structure is relatively tight and the tone interestingly light. Lester plays straight man while the band itself take the role of asshole—courtly, robotic asshole—also refreshing (that’s Lester for ya—refreshing!) as a change from the dueling assholism of the Lou Reed encounters, where the pair’s whiny arguments about the chemical constituents of various forms of speed, while funny, really funny actually, could be deadening. Here everyone is crazily polite, with Lester, who seems to have a photographer with him, posing nervous machine-oriented questions, and the band members shooting back, “I have also been told of the program ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ though I have not seen it. We think that no matter what happens Americans cannot relate it. It’s still American popcorn chewing gum.” After a few pages of this, Florian Schneider abruptly dismisses Lester, “explaining with curious polite curtness that ‘we had also an interview with Rolling Stone, but it was not as long as this one. Now it is time to retire.’”

The piece goes on: “He ushered us into the hall, quietly swung the door shut with a muffled click, and we blinked at each other in mild shock. Still, it was somehow comforting to know that they did, apparently, sleep.”

I hadn’t known Lester could write this elegantly, though the more I read, the clearer it was that he could write a great many ways I never dreamed. This one had a nice little cadence to it. Almost hooky. Not exactly “no rebop.” But neither is “no rebop” after you’ve replayed it 200 times.

So I had my Lester groove back on, though caution would dictate sticking to the short ones till we were really rocking. And here’s a mere snippet. From the Morthland collection, liner notes to The Mekons Story (1981). Hmm, maybe not—in the category of lines you hope Lester didn’t mean are some included here: “Music is all worthless garbage as obsolete as a lorgnette at a destruction derby in South Carolina,” not hooky, and, “My advice to you is kill yourself. But buy this record first.” Okay, that last one is hooky. Could not get it out of my head.

But! The careful reader may ask, for suicide advice from Lester Bangs, why go here at all when “Otis Rush Mugged by an Iceberg” is available? In this Voice review, a deeply depressed Lester drags himself out to buy Rush’s original Cobra recordings and finds the guitarist “tearing out jagged wangbar bashing lines that would make people call Jimi Hendrix a genius when he pulled them out of a hell of a lot more technology over a decade later.” He concludes, “If I were you I’d buy it as soon as possible. It’s better than killing yourself.” You get the idea that Lester’s not just being facetious, or even hypothetical. This was a writer who did his own stunts, like Jackie Chan—emotional and physical. That Tangerine Dream cough syrup caper doesn’t seem so funny when you think about how things ended up.

The Morthland collection came out in 2003, when Lester’s place as a writer was more secure than in 1987, when Greil Marcus famously wrote, “Perhaps what this book demands from a reader is a willingness to accept that the best writer in America could write almost nothing but record reviews.” In his own introduction, Morthland remembers the writer as a friend, points out how little use Lester had for romanticizing pop figures “(especially those who die young),” and deliberately includes work that’s slight or even awful. But almost by that token, it sometimes connected me to Lester’s erratic, sloppy, hopeful energy better than the canon. Because with a critic this monumentally irreverent, you want to take off the gloves.

Here I found the Helen Reddy review “Long Hard Climb,” which I’d completely forgotten, more offensive than I had in 1974, when I was still getting over Reddy’s clunky “I Am Woman.” Picturing this genuine if soft feminist as a hot chick who won’t put out, he leaves us to decide not only whether that’s a compliment but also whether he’s being immature or something worse. He does seem to sorta like Anne Murray’s “Danny’s Song,” and nothing wrong with finding this regular girl sexy—only where are we going with those aureole fantasies? A little later, he is blown away by Horses, not only moved by Patti Smith’s mistakes—Lester would be, wouldn’t he?—but impressed with her “methodical” approach.

But the woman’s study that did most for me in those years was the one that pushed my buttons the worst, the hatchet job of a Blondie fan bio Lester published in 1980, where he went so ballistic because Debbie Harry showed her nipples on some poster I ended up reviewing Autoamerican just to defend her. The truth is, I’d never thought hard about Debbie Harry until Lester made me do it. Then I began to recognize how smart this dumb blonde was, what a character, how funny and robust—for a feminist student of punk, rich territory. I owe Lester for that.

Speaking of politically incorrect—I mean, duh— let’s look at “Innocents in Babylon,” Lester’s 1976 Jamaica report. Boy could Creem have used a blue pencil on that one. Hey! This is Jamaica, you don’t have to keep calling everyone “black.” Lester, while spouting a few liberal homilies about how insulting the whole press junket is, reports that Rastas are unpunctual and that he’s scared to leave the Sheraton on his own. But when I went back to double check the specifics, I noticed that, when he wasn’t getting drunk at the pool, and even before he’d discovered that Burning Spear producer Jack Ruby could hold a recording session together while reading a magazine, he was asking everyone he could how much musicians earned. Percentages, cash. He really kept on it.

It’s not that Lester never thought about the economics of the pop biz, though typically in a rant. But one of the great discoveries of my rereading went there humanely—a great bit of plainstyle tough-love I was too punk-mad to notice in 1978, the Bob Seger review “Growing Up True is Hard to Do.” “There’s a popular idea,” begins the sweeping finale, (and try reading this out loud to feel the cadence) “that the flirtation with chaos is something you must grow out of, but I believe that while you shouldn’t hang onto your adolescence like it was a state of grace, you should leave yourself the latitude to go berserk from time to time. What this has to do with Bob Seger should be obvious. He writes all these songs about the tension between wanting to keep rocking when you're pushing forty, kinda like Ian Hunter. But Hunter always wanted to be Dylan, whereas Bob just wants to make sure that some kid has something decent to put on the eight-track while he cruises down Woodward.” The catch is, to get his hits on the radio so the kid will even know about his records in the first place, he’ll have to “make records that just kinda sound like everybody who has sold out.” But, Lester goes on, Seger “of all people knows life is short, that it really is true that you only get one chance to speak your real piece,” and as his own piece ends, he’s imploring Seger, with compassion, and despite the odds, not to blow it now.

Most of the surprises of my rereading weren’t about language as much as about how Lester heard music, with his great ears always alert, noting the right moment for a guitar fill, studying buzz and feedback or laying down theories of noise I used to assume were examples of his intoxicated and intoxicating exaggerations. But I now find the ideas subtler than I’d understood, and more useful than his more famous ideas about ineptitude, which run dangerously close to a religion of innocence, and may lead to the (“Better Than the Beatles,” oh sure) Shaggs. But try this about Fun House:

"Not always immediately accessible, it might take some getting into, but the time spent is well repaid. Because properly conceived and handled noise is not noise at all, but music whose textures just happen to be a little thicker and more involved than usual, so that you may not hear much but obscurity the first time, but various subsequent playings can open it up.”

That was in “Of Pop and Pies and Fun,” early Creem, but in the last published piece of his lifetime, “If Oi Were a Carpenter,” Lester’s still exploring the territory. “Hardcore sounds like rolling clods of lumpy excrement with broken bones sticking out. While oi sounds like craters of dribbly gruel with patchy tufts of straw poking up. And they said there were limits to what you could do with three chords! Admittedly these are delicate distinctions. But delicacy is what this music is all about.” He means it to be funny. But he also means it.

He means this, too.

[And here I paused for eine kleine musical interlude.]

That’s the first track of The Comedian Harmonists, featuring Nazi Germany’s frothy, delicate, sweetly upbeat, half Jewish, half Aryan, all tragic sextet of that name. And here’s Lester on it in 1980, two years before his death:

“Hi there. Right now I bet I can read your mind. You’re standing there holding this album, your curiosity perhaps mildly piqued, but wondering (and probably more dubious than not) whether an album as off-the-wall as this one appears to be might actually be a worthwhile addition to your collection that you’ll play often because you actually liked to listen to it, just like a lot of rock or jazz albums or anything else.”

Lester was so far out front on this beyond retro group that it was nearly two decades after he wrote those liner notes that the album appeared, with Lester’s words published condensed in the New York Times in 1999 like a message from the afterlife. No hate-it-to-love-it for these guys. Sez Lester, who by then knew whereof he spoke: “This music sounds like it was recorded in the ballrooms of heaven.”

My therapist is a cultured lefty, so I was less surprised she knew this record than that Lester did. I was having special sessions because I was getting so obsessed with coming to terms with Lester I couldn’t figure out what I meant, and now that the Comedian Harmonists had entered the story, I was weeping all the time. She launched into grief counselor mode, probing me about who or what I might be projecting onto Lester. My father? My brother? She assumed I was in avoidance when I kept saying, “Can’t you just believe I’m mourning him?” When he was alive, I thought about the work. Now that he’s dead, I keep thinking about the actual human being. True, I would have liked to see how he came to terms with hip-hop—I really would have liked to see that. I mean, come on, Lester. But I’d also have liked to see how he did on Prozac. And I don’t mean that as a joke.

Then my therapist confided, “When I used to read Creem”–my therapist read Creem! freaky!—“I always found Lester pompous.” Weird! “Like, who did this guy think he was?” And it was just so weird, it transgressed me right onto a different plane, and that plane was heading all the way back to Saigon, 1973, where President Thieu was confiding, “I don’t like Jethro Tull either. I never have—not even when all my friends were bending my ear with This Was. . . . A man must move with the times, and the times demand bop. . . . I see the American GIs walking by the palace every day with those bop records in their hands. . . . I speak to them in the language they understand: ‘What’s the word, Thunderbird?’ And they reply that the word is ‘rebop.’ . . .

“The reason for which I do not like Jethro Tull and, I would suspect, you do not like Jethro Tull, is that they” –wait for it—“have no rebop!

EMP Pop Conference, 2015