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Lester Bangs

Leslie Conway Bangs (December 13, 1948April 30, 1982) was an American music journalist, author and musician. Most famous for his work at Creem and Rolling Stone magazines, Bangs was and still is regarded as an extremely influential voice in rock criticism.

History

Bangs was born in Escondido, California, USA. His mother was a devout Jehovah's Witness; his father died when Bangs was young. In 1969, Bangs began writing freelance after reading an ad in Rolling Stone soliciting readers' reviews. His first piece was a negative review of the MC5 album Kick Out The Jams, which he sent to Rolling Stone with a note detailing that should the magazine decide not to publish the review, then they would have to contact Lester and tell him why. Instead, they published it. (He later became a big fan and friend of the MC5 after moving to Detroit.) In 1973, Jann Wenner fired Bangs from Rolling Stone over a negative review of Canned Heat. Wenner contended that Bangs was "disrespectful to musicians". He moved to Detroit to edit and write for Creem, which is where his legendary stature as a rock critic really began to grow. After leaving Creem, he wrote for The Village Voice, Penthouse, Playboy, New Musical Express, and many other publications.

Bangs claimed his influences were not so much predecessors in journalism as they were beat authors, in particular William S. Burroughs. His ranting style, similar to Hunter S. Thompson's gonzo journalism, and his tendency to insult and confront his interviewees earned him distinction.

Well basically I just started out to lead [an interview] with the most insulting question I could think of. Because it seemed to me that the whole thing of interviewing as far as rock stars and that was just such a suck-up. It was groveling obeisance to people who weren't that special, really. It's just a guy, just another person, so what?

Bangs idolized the noise music of Lou Reed, but he had a complex journalistic relationship with Lou the performing artist, writing several legendary articles for Creem which depicted hilarious confrontational interviews, often reflecting aspects of Bangs own personality against his difficult interview subject. The essay/interview Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves from 1975 is a distinctive example.

Bangs was not only involved as a critic of music but as a musician in his own right. He teamed up with Joey Ramone's brother, Mickey Leigh to put together a New York group named Birdland. In 1980 he traveled to Austin, Texas and met a punk rock group named the Delinquents. During his stay in Austin he recorded an album as Lester Bangs and the Delinquents entitled Jook Savages on the Brazos. It was quoted that, "Lester's album with the Delinquents was the predecessor of so-called alternative-country bands such as Wilco and Son Volt".

Death

Bangs died in New York on April 30, 1982, overdosing (through drug interaction) after treating a cold with Darvon and Valium. According to the Jim Derogatis biography, Bangs was listening to The Human League's album Dare at the time of his death.

Legacy

  • Bangs is mentioned in the 1987 R.E.M. hit "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)".
  • Bangs is mentioned again in the Dillinger Four song "Our Science Is Tight".
  • Bangs is also mentioned in the 1981 Ramones track "It's Not My Place (In the 9 to 5 World)" from the album Pleasant Dreams.
  • Bangs is mentioned in of Montreal's "There Is Nothing Wrong With Hating Rock Critics" on the album If He Is Protecting Our Nation, Then Who Will Protect Big Oil, Our Children?.
  • Bangs is the subject of "Les Bang", a track by Gumdrops, from their 1996 debut album High Speed... OK?.
  • Bangs is the subject of "La Sindrome di Bangs", a song by Tre Allegri Ragazzi Morti, an Italian rock band, in their 2007 album "La Seconda Rivoluzione Sessuale"
  • Science fiction author Bruce Sterling's story Dori Bangs (published in Asimov's Science Fiction, 1989) was inspired by Bangs (along with the underground comic book artist Dori Seda). Sterling speculates on what Bangs might have done had he lived longer.
  • Bangs is depicted by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Cameron Crowe's semi-autobiographical film Almost Famous (2000), in which a budding music journalist idolizes him. Bangs acts as a guide for the film's protagonist and a critic of what rock and roll has become by the time of the film. Crowe himself credits Bangs as a mentor during his own years as a rock journalist.
  • Long Island punk rock band Ghost of Lester Bangs as well as defunct Kill Rock Stars band Bangs are named after the critic.
  • The Buzzcocks' song "Lester Sands" is actually referring to him, dismissing Bangs' criticism as a "drop in the ocean".
  • Bob Seger wrote and recorded a yet-unreleased song about the critic titled "Lester Knew".
  • Notorious for applying the term "white nigger" (which originated in Norman Mailer's 1957 essay "The White Negro") as a euphemism for a punk, or more specifically a white social miscreant with questionable or objectionable outward idiosyncrasies, and radical beliefs deemed unacceptable by the status quo. (Conversely, the term now has a different connotation, as "wigger" is used to describe a white individual infatuated with the hip-hop lifestyle). He often referred to himself as the "last of the white niggers", and a famous photograph of Bangs shows him wearing a t-shirt bearing this title.
  • As popular as he was when he was alive, his work has become even more influential in the wake of his death, which has led to the publication of two anthologies of his writing.
  • In the tv show The Black Donnellys, the two brothers Tommy and Kevin bet the protection money they have collected on a horse named Lester Bangs.

Quotes

"...I'll admit in front that I have a special affinity for things that don't quite fit into any given demarcated category, partly because I'm one of those perennial misfits myself by choice as well as fate or whatever. By profession, I am categorized as a rock critic. I'll accept that, especially since the whole notion that someone has a 'career' instead of just doing whatever you feel like doing at any given time has always amused me when it didn't make me wanna vomit. O.K., I'm a rock critic. I also write and record music. I write poetry, fiction, straight journalism, unstraight journalism, beatnik drivel, mortifying love letters, death threats to white jazz critics signed 'The Mau Maus of East Harlem', and once a year my own obituary (latest entry: 'He was promising...'). The point is that I have no idea what kind of a writer I am, except that I do know that I'm good and lots of people read whatever it is I do, and I like it that way." (Lester Bangs, "An Instant Fan's Inspired Notes: You Gotta Listen", 1980)

"...I'm really schizophrenic about that, because on the one hand I would say, yes there is, there’s something inherently, even violent about it, it's wild and raw and all this. On the other hand, the fact is that ‘Sugar Sugar’ is great Rock 'n' Roll, and there’s nothing rebellious about that at all. I mean that’s right from the belly and heart of capitalism..." (Lester Bangs in 1980 on the rebellious nature of rock 'n' roll.

"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." (Greil Marcus, editor of the first Bangs anthology Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, on the second anthology, Mainlines, Blood Feats and Bad Taste. Taken from the cover of the paperback original.)

"Look at it this way: there are many here among us for whom the life force is best represented by the livid twitching of one tortured nerve, or even a full-scale anxiety attack. I do not subscribe to this point of view 100%, but I understand it, have lived it. Thus the shriek, the caterwaul, the chainsaw gnarlgnashing, the yowl and the whizz that decapitates may be reheard by the adventurous or emotionally damaged as mellifluous bursts of unarguable affirmation." (Lester Bangs, "A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise", 1980)

"I'll probably never produce a masterpiece, but so what? I feel I have a Sound aborning, which is my own, and that Sound if erratic is still my greatest pride, because I would rather write like a dancer shaking my ass to boogaloo inside my head, and perhaps reach only readers who like to use books to shake their asses, than to be or write for the man cloistered in a closet somewhere reading Aeschylus while this stupefying world careens crazily past his waxy windows toward its last raving sooty feedback pirouette." (Lester Bangs, "A Quick Trip Through My Adolescence", 1968)

Selected works

By Lester Bangs

  • "The greatest album ever made", about 1975 Lou Reed album Metal Machine Music
  • Blondie (Fireside Book, 1980)
  • Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic, collected writings, Greil Marcus, ed. Anchor Press, 1988. (ISBN 0-679-72045-6)
  • Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader, collected writings, John Morthland, ed. Anchor Press, 2003. (ISBN 0-375-71367-0)
  • The first piece for Rolling Stone
  • Lester Bangs contributed several chapters to Rolling Stone's History of Rock and Roll in one of which he is characteristically scathing about The Doors, comparing them unfavourably to The Guess Who. This criticism was used as part of Lester's dialogue in the film Almost Famous.

About Lester Bangs

  • Let it Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic, biography, Jim Derogatis. Broadway Books, 2000. (ISBN 0-7679-0509-1).

Popular works citing Lester Bangs

  • Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, biography, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. Penguin Books, 1997. (ISBN 0-14-026690-9).

References

External links

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