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June 7, 2000
Lester Bangs: The troublesome punk who wouldn't die
By ROGER ANDERSON Scripps Howard News Service
My mom hated him. Not at first, though. In the early days of junior high and high school, she saw him as a bright, funny kid who loved music and books and thus was a good influence on me.
And he liked her. After all, she wasn't like his own mom - a gloomy if well-meaning Jehovah's Witness widow who disapproved of everything. No, my mom was a worldly lady who smoked cigarettes, wrote magazine articles and was doing a masters thesis on Emerson and Thoreau.
But then things got weird. The late '60s set in, and everything was a turmoil of drugs, alcohol, loud music and strange behavior. Sometimes I disappeared for days at a time. Police officers had a habit of showing up on our doorstep. My mother imagined my friend, who was in fact incorrigible, was somehow at the bottom of it.
By the time he had established his byline - Lester Bangs, rock critic - in the pages of a fledgling publication called Rolling Stone and than moved away from our hometown of El Cajon, Calif., to the Detroit area to work at a magazine called Creem, she was glad to see him go.
Of course, if you had told her or told me or even told Lester, for that matter, that the day would arrive, at the turn of the new century, when a reporter who was a little boy back then would write and publish an exhaustively researched, carefully and lovingly written biography titled "Let It Blurt; The Life & Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic" (Broadway Books, $15.95, paper), we would have said you were nuts.
Yet here it is. My older sister and her friends - "straight" kids who strongly disapproved of the trouble Lester and I were always getting into back then - are scratching their heads trying to figure out what happened. Even my mom, who, died while the book was being written but knew all about it, couldn't understand why anyone would still be interested enough to read, let alone write, a biography of this wretched boy who (she thought) caused her so much anxiety.
By the time she passed away, Lester had been gone for a long
time - he died In 1982, age 33, of an inadvertent drug overdose, what some saw as a long-overdue denouement to 15 years or so of major-league substance abuse mixed in with furiously prolific, wildly funny, achingly eloquent writing about rock 'n' roll for RS, Creem, the Village Voice, the New Musical Express and a host of other American and British 'zines - both mag and fan - too
numerous to list.
It was astonishing enough when the prestigious publishing house Alfred A. Knopf published Lester's "greatest hits" in hardcover back in 1987, under the title "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung." Even then, some of his staunchest admirers (like me) were amazed that his currency as a writer had outlived him by as much as five years. It seemed to be pushing the outside limit.
But then things got weird In a different sense: years, even decades passed, and Lester's name stayed current. It appeared in the lyrics of an REM hit - "It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" - and he was often cited as a cultural oracle in magazines like The New Yorker. And "Psychotic Reactions," though far from a best-seller, never did go out of print.
When the author of "Let It Blurt," Jim DeRogatis, approached me a few years ago about providing reminiscence for his projected work, I even asked myself why this was happening and came up with what I now know was the wrong answer.
I thought a biography of my old pal was in order because he had "invented" punk rock. The truth, and even I knew it at the time, was that he had actually done no such thing. The term, now common cultural coin, was first used in print by other writers.
Yet the fact remained that without Lester, punk rock would never have existed. He was the guy who came right out and said, in effect, forget about all this arty Sergeant Pepper/Pink Floyd stuff - let's listen to the Stones, the Kinks and the Velvet Underground and wash it down with heavy chasers of "96 Tears" by Question Mark and the Mysterians, "Woolly Bully" by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, and "Pushin' Too Hard" by the Seeds. Let's forget about becoming musical virtuosos and just get up there and bash out three chords if we must, and if our voices aren't fit to be raised in song, just sing louder. The passion is what matters, no matter how rough its edges.
The Clash, anyone? Kurt Cobain? Green Day? Korn?
No one dreamed in his day, however, that "punk rock" as he had limned it would become a permanent part of Western culture. Yet even the punk aesthetics’ surprising staying power isn't what makes a book about Lester pertinent.
I've had to dig to find it. It's in there, among the ravings, the strange behavior, the binges, the depression, the seedy living situations in El Cajon, Detroit, New York, the almost violent confrontations with musical artists like Lou Reed, the vituperation, the wildly uneven writing output, the posturing - a big heart that truly loved the best and bravest music more than it loved drugs, booze or even itself.
When he died I'd been out of touch with him for a couple of years, but I'd been half-expecting that phone call from a mutual friend since the days when we were still both living in El Cajon. Yet his death came as a shock that I'm still dealing with. Gone for good was the guy who, back in 1965, lent me his copies of "On the Road," "Naked Lunch" and "Bringing It All Back Home" and played me East Indian ragas and Charles Mingus on his hi-fl while his poor mom tried to sleep in the next room.
"I'm sorry for your loss," my own mother said in a letter after I told her the news, "although there were many times when I could have cheerfully strangled him."
Now it doesn't matter anymore. They're both dead, and one thing I know for sure - where they are, the cops never show up on your doorstep, and Thoreau and Mingus both are just down the hall.
Roger Anderson is arts and entertainment editor at Scripps Howard News
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