The Skeptical Believer
Lester Bangs forged a career of passionate excess, but his skepticism made him great.
If you sat down any rock critic in America and asked for a description of the late and nearly sainted rock critic Lester Bangs, they'd likely hand you a snapshot of excess: a junkie genius; a big, stinky bear who popped pills and wrote all night long; the guy who brought Beat poetry into criticism; the greatest rock critic of all time. These summaries might be true, but Bangs' work itself rarely suggests the impulsive life he lived. It reads more like the version Philip Seymour Hoffman offers in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous: dedicated to the task at hand, emotionally generous, and able to figure things out five years to 10 years ahead of everyone else. This tension between the Apollonian and Dionysian makes Bangs more than just the poster boy for unhinged emotionalism. Imprinted early by faith but suspicious of any bill of goods, Bangs lived the conundrum of being rock's religious skeptic. Mainlines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste, the second collection of Bangs' work, shows this internal dialectic at full boil. He's known for writing about the artists he, well, worshipped—Lou Reed, Miles Davis, Patti Smith—but rock's Romantic of record did his best work when he'd fallen a little out of love, when the need for religious proof had subsided.
Bangs was born in Escondido, Calif., in 1948 and spent much of his childhood in El Cajon. His parents were Jehovah's Witnesses, but his father died asleep on a couch in a house fire before Lester, then Leslie, turned 9. Bangs abandoned the Witnesses in his teens, started drinking cough syrup to get high, and never looked back. It is matchbook psychology to say that Bangs replaced one cult with another, but his work suggests that the outsider status, reliance on faith, and self-abnegation of the Witnesses left a heavy footprint. The run-ons of William Burroughs' Beat prose aren't so different from the additive cadences of a preacher, and Bangs' work recalls both (especially the unexpected CAPITALIZATIONS, which mimic a preacher's THEATRICAL HIGHLIGHTS). Bangs approached every rock 'n' roll record as if the artist was talking to HIM and his job was to honor that by listening HARD. But he was as much a product of his times as his home. His parents' faith was not so different from the '60s hippie's default position that truth and passion were not only alive but the whole show, available even when squares told you they weren't. The transition from God to the Beatles wasn't necessarily a shift in practices. But the hard edge of Scriptural judgment gave Bangs a moral quality that would manifest itself in the 1970s as punk's entitled outrage, the belief that anyone's failure to serve his or her truth was a categorical betrayal warranting denunciation.
A blend of bumptious challenge and devoted audition typify many of Bangs' encounters with '70s alpha dogs. When Lou Reed put his songwriting through left-turns, drag, and feedback in the 1970s, Bangs stalked him, literally and figuratively. After a concert during Reed's 1973 tour, Bangs followed Reed to a hotel to play Little Red Interviewer on the Shoulder: "Isn't David Bowie a no-talent asshole? Why don't you shoot speed any more?" Reed is too drunk to fight Lester off, but Bangs doesn't want revenge. He thinks Reed wants his audience to feel sorry for him, and this drives Bangs crazy. He's disappointed. He wants to BELIEVE Lou Reed is better than mere theater, even if no one else does. Like most Bangs, it's a great read but the writing is removed from the music. Bangs is more effective on Lou a few years later, writing about Reed's double-LP recording of manipulated feedback, Metal Machine Music, one of three separate times Bangs wrote about the album during 1975 and 1976. The review included here is the shortest; it's simply a list of six theories, among them "Lou plays amplifier as well as he plays guitar," the album "is what it sounds like in Lou's circulatory system," and that MMM is a "death wish being fulfilled before our eyes, corporately." The piece is short enough to fit in even today's attenuated lifestyles magazines and yet it's unapologetically intellectual despite—or precisely because of—Lester's fierce vernacular.
Considering several of Miles Davis' mid-1970s electric jazz records as a unified body of work in 1976, Bangs goes slightly mad, vowing to find the "cancer" running through the records. Watching Bangs try to read Davis' mind and see into his soul is fun, but the music withers underneath all the hand-wringing. Bangs concludes that Davis' music is some kind of compressed, black jewel and throws his wrung hands up. Five years later and several degrees cooler, Bangs has put down his hymnal and heard the music. He calls Davis' 1972 album On the Corner "the first jazz of the Eighties," an "environment" record built from "rhythm and attitude." History's upheld the second verdict.
Bangs, who died in 1982, left behind a novel and various unpublished manuscripts that testify to the literary ambitions every critic harbors. And so we can imagine that travel writing probably didn't seem like a high-profile gig to him. But the roominess of travel stories gave Bangs the room to knock his optimism against his empirical tendencies and the downtime to wait for results. He was always funny, as every road partner should be, and travel writing suited him. It rarely demands emotional fireworks and the subject is, by definition, less familiar. Unlikely to be in love before you get there: perfect for Bangs.
"Innocents in Babylon" is a long feature about Jamaica and Bob Marley written for Creem in 1976. Bangs gives a short history lesson on Jamaica's "colonial hangover" and winds up liking his subjects without pretending their future in the music business is any brighter than it looks. The interview with Marley is a great stereo experience: Bangs listens to Marley talk while other interviewers try, gamely, to guide Marley away from vague statements about Rastafarianism. The article is also as good a primer on the nuts and bolts of Jamaican music as exists in anything shorter than book length. Reggae was years away from being standard college background music in 1976, and only a few Anglo listeners had realized the potential of dub. Bangs sees the power of the sound system at work during a visit to a record store:
[T]his sense of the guy who plays the records as performer extends down into the record shops, where the clerks shift speakers, tracks, and volume levels with deft magicianly fingers as part of a highly intricate dance, creating sonic riot in the store and new productions of their own in their minds: I control the dials.
He's not just hearing the essential flux of Jamaican pop—he's hearing hip-hop a few months before it appears on the streets of New York.
Picking an All-Time No. 1 in any category is an exercise that's generally more fun than scientific. This is especially true when picking top critics, a breed who succeed precisely by being in and of their time. There's a good chance Bangs owns the '70s but carving him in marble for all time does his gifts no service. Bangs would be the first to point out that the new Lester Bangs, whoever he or she is, wouldn't read like the old Bangs because the needs of the present are different. Hip-hop, dance music, feminist punk, and an avalanche of homegrown music all over the world have redrawn the playing field several times over since Lester left the earth. It is unlikely even a rookie critic now would invest as much as Bangs did in his idols and then work so hard to prove it hadn't been a mistake choosing them as idols. That kind of naked investment would be too painful in the instant feedback world of the Internet. The cynicism that permeates much rock criticism would annoy Bangs more than anything. You can see him now, grabbing a critic, shaking him and saying, "HOW DO YOU KNOW THIS ISN'T A GOOD RECORD? JUST BECAUSE IT'S BAD DOESN'T MEAN YOU GET TO SLAG IT!"
Sasha Frere-Jones is Slate's music critic and a writer and musician in New York.