The life and times of Lester Bangs, rock legend

The late but great Lester Bangs in his apartment on 542 Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, New York. | Photo credit: Geeks of Doom

Inside the legendary rock critic

Lester Bangs was the quintessential rock ‘n’ roll gonzo journalist. As the last gutter poet, he was a mess: often unkempt, a bit too clammy, a little overweight, and almost always intoxicated. Dressed in his uniform of a leather jacket that was much too small, ripped jeans, and Converse sneakers, and with a cough syrup-induced haze always in tow, Bangs died young. He was a brilliant disaster that revolutionized music journalism, but a mess nonetheless—one of the many reasons why all the bookish kids with a penchant for vinyl who stumbled upon his words adored him fiercely. A rare few might recognize the name Lester Bangs from pr ior knowledge of the music scene in the late 1970s; some might recognize it from Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of the man in Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous. Some might not recognize it at all.

The late but great Lester Bangs in his apartment on 542 Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, New York. | Photo credit: Geeks of Doom

Lester Bangs was born in 1948 and was raised in the sunshine of El Cajon, California. Drawn to the shadows and the shine of the world from an early age, Bangs indulged in every appetite forbidden to him by his chaotic family consisting of a Jehovah’s Witness mother and an alcoholic father. Most offbeat but visionary artists have felt cornered in their oppressive childhoods, finding comfort and respite in music or literature—often both. Bangs was no exception.

Bangs grew up in a household that feared but expected a near and certain doom. Literally. They were prepared for the end of the world. They didn’t celebrate holidays or have birthday parties and most, if not all, of his education came from the “good book.”

As a child, Bangs would find his most beloved books suddenly transformed into mere shreds of paper and ash, most certainly at the hands of his mother. He notes this with a dismal but forgiving sense of humor, addressing the events as “rather sudden swoops of censorship.” But the arbitrary destruction Bangs’ literary collection was subject to did not abate his incessant need to read, write, and listen. This is what spurred Bangs’ insane passion for concepts society rejected; he consumed comic books just as quickly and in the same quantities as the blues records of John Coltrane. His incipient childhood rebellion blossomed into Bangs’ burgeoning impression of the deceit and duplicity that brewed in authoritarian figures. 

As Bangs grew more into the world that birthed the sham that was free love, and the hippie movement came to a swift end, society exhibited the truths that Bangs already learned from a young age; there was no “American Dream,” and no amount of picket white fences could save America now. Bangs despised the hypocrisy inflicted upon society by religion and the government. Anything that authoritarians jilted or vilified, Bangs deemed as genius. But above all things, Bangs was brutally genuine, no matter how messy the truth could be, which is perhaps why Bangs became the finest and most honest rock critic for Rolling Stone and Creem magazine.

Bangs was quoted saying his preferred interview tactic was to lead with the most insulting question he could think of. He was perhaps the first and among the few that viewed rock stars as just another living, breathing human on this planet. He didn’t believe that someone can really be so special that they deserved the groveling fealty that most music journalists offered. Bangs put these larger-than-life musicians on the level of the common person. He humanized them and made them relatable to their fans. His words rendered them just like anyone else.

Bangs had an uncanny ability to perfectly describe music and why the youth of that generation loved it as if he had plucked it right from their own little hearts. He was also one of the first journalists to clearly establish the aesthetic qualities of metal and punk rock, genres of music that were just emerging at the time, and these aesthetic definitions remain to this day. He reformed music journalism through his strange cadence and surreal use of syntax. His words were like a ceaseless storm that was too mesmerizing to even try to stop. Bangs often averted decisive punctuation, connecting his thoughts with almost exclusively commas: he was always a master of rant. It is a way of writing many these days try to imitate but none do it like the man who started it all.

“Some of the most powerful aesthetic experiences of our time, from Naked Lunch to Bonnie and Clyde, set their audiences up just this way, externalizing and magnifying their secret core of sickness which is reflected in the geeks they mock and the lurid fantasies they consume, just as our deepest fears and prejudices scrip the jokes we tell each other,” Bangs said about the Stooges. “This is where the Stooges work. They mean to put you on that stage, which is why they are super-modern, though nothing near to art. In Desolation Row and Woodstock-Altamont Nation, the switchblade is mightier and speaks more eloquently than the penknife. But this threat is cathartic, a real cool time is had by all, and the end is liberation.”

The youth of the eras before the internet were easily censored from the adult world; being fed cautionary tales of drug use while the adolescents of those years admired just those types of people. They looked to Bangs for knowledge and education on the real world, rather than what their parents or their teachers were telling them. Readers found the blatant truth in Bangs. He was an unruly educator who did not sugarcoat his words or infantilize his young readers, but pointed them in unique, but always, the right direction. He referenced Charles Baudelaire in his revered review of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, leading the youth like some sort of drunk pied piper to read Le Fleurs Du Mal. Bangs led his readers through and often into the counter-cultural realm of literature by way of rock ‘n’ roll.

Through his words, Bangs led the church of intellectualism and unadulterated curiosity, fostering open-mindedness in himself as well as his readers. Although many of Bangs’ reviews and essays often led his readers down a rabbit hole of entertaining madness, there is not a single note of a condescending adult within his words but rather an honest, probably drunk, lover of all things once shunned and scorned.

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