Lester Bangs, King of the Noise Boys
By David Dalton
From Gadfly July/August 2000

Rock 'n' roll was the Big Bang. For a long time, its shockwaves obliterated thought altogether. That was the great thing about it: it was anti-matter; it vaporized everything that wasn't immediate, sensual and cool. Western Thought & the Military Industrial Complex, like a pair of dyspeptic bishops, looked on in horror while rock held its end-of-the-world party. And then, 13 years on, when rock itself had become a teenager, the Big Bang met Lester Bangs.

The year: 2020. A stonecutter is engraving the names of 20th century luminaries on the Internet Memorial Rotunda: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, Lester Bangs. Who? If you've never heard of the last guy in this list (where have you been?) and someone tells you he was a famous rock critic, you're probably gonna be like, "How can that be? You mean the guy who reviews records at the back of the magazine?" But, c'mon now, this is the US of A, let's keep an open mind about this thing. After reading the following testimonials, maybe you'll be ready to consider the rock critic a Great American Writer. Maybe not.

Jim DeRogatis: "Lester [is] Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac all rolled into one." Well, he would say that, wouldn't he, being the official biographer of the little Romilar scarfer. Okay, here's Bangs himself: "I was ... a contender if not now then tomorrow for the title Best Writer in America (who was better? Bukowski? Burroughs? Hunter Thompson?) Gimme a break. I was the best. I wrote almost nothing but record reviews, and not many of those...." Sure, Lester. At this point, Greil Marcus chimes in (from his introduction to a collection of Bangs' writings): "Perhaps what this book demands from a reader is the willingness to accept that the best writer in America could write almost nothing but record reviews." This wouldn't have anything to do with what you do, would it, Greil?

I ought to mention that all the guys making these claims are rock critics, and, let's face it, they have a vested interest in turning the Great Writers discussion in the direction of their own over-inflated guild. If you've labored in the vineyards of rockcrit for 20 or 30 years yourself, you're going to be in favor of the proposition that "we're all hidden, unacknowledged geniuses" who have transcended the lowly (and lowly-paid) medium they labored in. I exclude myself from this unseemly exhibition of self-promotion. Being confused, indecisive and lacking the essential gene that makes you want to impose your opinions on other people, I've never indulged in the practice of rock criticism—hey, if you want to listen to that dorky "Candle in the Wind" thing, that's your business.

But seriously, folks, there are only two guys who qualify for the title of Greatest Rock Critic Who Ever Lived, and they are Richard "R" Meltzer and Lester Bangs. To a large extent, they did this by not necessarily writing about rock but by using rock to write about anything and everything else that was going on in the world (and in their heads) at the moment.

Killer Words

"R," too, has had extravagant claims made for him, to wit: "Meltzer is (a) funnier than Terry Southern at his best; (b) as raw as Charles Bukowski; (c) as inventive as William Burroughs; and (d) more fun to read than any of them." (Metro Times.) But being alive and well and living in Portland, "R" is quite capable of speaking for himself. This here's the story of Lester Bangs—doomed poet, berserker, Nietzsche of noise, Looney Tune and great unmade-bed of rock writing.

Bangs died in 1982 from, say the cops, an overdose of Darvon. He was a serious consumer of alcohol, Romilar and speed and, for someone who lived on Twinkies and Cheetos, not in the best of health. But what really killed him, according to his buddy R., was "WRITING." "[Marcus and Christgau} accused me of romanticism," Meltzer wrote. “How can writing kill?” they questioned. “Well, guys, it doesn't always kill, but it certainly comes closest when you're doing it right. Only when it makes active use of your blood, your heart, your nerves, glands, sex fluids, vertebrae and what all, and don't forget your stink, in a word: your body. In a word: your life. They were more annoyed, I would guess, that I considered it a pity rock-writing was the genre that gored Lester, that a diet of rock and nothing but had rendered him too dumb to get out of the way."

Writing, for Lester, wasn't apart from life, it was a sort of alchemical transfer of yourself onto the page. And from his very first reviews in Rolling Stone in the spring of 1969, THERE HE WAS! Lester, the Savonarola of rock, trashing the MC5 for their teen-exploitation-movie agenda for youthful rebellion and obsessing in his quasi-theological manner about the Velvet Underground: "Can this be the same bunch of junkie-faggot-sadomasochist-speedfreaks who roared their anger and their pain in storms of screaming feedback and words spat out like epithets?"

This amphetamine-fueled, mind-shaft blitzkrieg was a revelation, especially in the context of the generally laudatory back pages of Rolling Stone—and clearly the way this stuff needed to be done. It had all the energy and brattiness of rock itself. It talked back to rock in its own brash, abrasive, loopy voice. Lester was unsparing in his scorn for phoniness and the second-rate, but his purest venom was reserved for fallen idols (and none of these jerks ever lived up to Lester's rigorous standards).

One of Lester's advantages as a critic was that he came from the second generation of rock writers. He was a proto-punk, unencumbered by the pieties of the ‘60s and reverence for ‘60s idols who had become lumbering, pompous dinosaurs. By the early ‘70s, rock had effectively disconnected itself from social and political causes, and the music biz was awash in megabucks and hype (James Taylor, Peter Frampton and Slade were the avatars of the age). The time was ripe for Lester's savage puncturing of the pretentious, inflated hulks who bellowed across the land.

By 1970, when he began contributing reviews to the newly hatched Creem ("America's Only Rock Magazine"), he had perfected the "Bangsian" style. Scathing put-downs ("a tragic waste of plastic" is the way he dismissed Alice Cooper), mixed with hilarious, streetwise, straight-from-the-hipster metaprose that fused the existential urgency of the Beats on his own run-on, stream-of-unconsciousness poetry. His description of the Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray" might just as easily be applied to his own style: " . . . rushing many-streamed complexity which when it finally grabs you can literally take your head away." Even his titles—"James Taylor Marked for Death" (his Troggs tribute)—have their own manic edge. Here was the NEW THING, and 30 years later, nothing better has come along to replace it.

Lester idolized the Beats and consciously based his "free-flowing imagistic" style on Kerouac. A more immediate influence, however, was the pataphysical style of his contemporary, Richard Meltzer. Unlike most rock critics who approached record reviews with an earnestness that the new upstarts would make seem prissy and ponderous, Meltzer treated the majority of rock offerings with prankish disregard and merciless contempt. Many of his reviews only touched on the so-called subject in passing. The rest of the piece would consist of a hilarious mix of wisecracks, abstruse philosophical musings (he'd been a philosophy major at Stony Brook) and whatever thoughts happened to drift across his mind at the time of the writing. His lengthy review of Hendrix's first album, which wanders through Western metaphysics and includes a diagrammed drawing of pubic hair, only gets round to discussing Hendrix on the last page. It wasn't that Meltzer disdained rock 'n' roll; on the contrary, he was a die-hard fan. But Meltzer felt that rock had died in 1968 and consequently treated the thin gruel of late ‘60s and early ‘70s rock with withering cynicism and utter contempt. He resorted to solipsism, word games, semantic puzzles (reversing the word order of his sentences), etc.

The Gospel of Noise

Where Meltzer was cool, jokey and detached to the point of inspired boredom, Bangs was an impassioned true believer, constantly let down by his idols' lack of talent, personality and basic human decency. His venom-spewing tirades against the unworthy, laden with Zap comics blitzkriegs, may have been made of newsprint, but his demons were very real. He was a possessed character. His mother was a fanatical Jehovah's Witness who dragged him along on her evangelical missions carrying signs that read "WHAT IS YOUR DESTINY?" and "DO YOU KNOW WHAT TIME IT IS?" His writing is shot through with this same urgency and zealotry.

Bangs grew up in El Cajon (Spanish for "the box"), a suburb of San Diego. His father, an alcoholic ex-con who was frequently absent, died when Lester was 10. His possessed mother then raised him.

The idols of his youth were classic hipsters such as Jack Kerouac, Charlie Mingus and Miles Davis. At 19, he threw the I Ching to see whether he should drop a tab of acid or drink a bottle of Romilar. For acid, the oracle came up with "Inner Truth"; for Romilar, it said "Confusion." When the acid failed to kick in, he drank the bottle of Romilar. "The moral of my tale is simple," he concluded. "Confusion is the only thing that makes any sense."

Lester's persona, like that of Hunter Thompson, leapt out of his writing with all the graphic zeal of R. Crumb's Desperate Character (this effect was reinforced by the fact that Crumb designed Creem's Boy Howdy milk bottle logo and drew several covers for the magazine). When Lester moved to Detroit in 1971 to become part of Creem's staff, his style lurched into its classic mode: the Lester-Bangs/rock star showdown. What had once been a staple of fan magazine and rock journalism—I-spend-a-few-hours-with-Mick-Jagger type stories—became for Lester confrontational encounters. "Lester Bangs Gets Drunk and Insults Another Pop Star," as he described it himself. Unlike any number of other bold-in-print-timid-in-the-lobby rock writers, Lester (as Dave Marsh put it) "walked as he talked."

His most famous "Close Encounters with Rock Stars of the Third Kind" are his bouts in the ring with Lou Reed: "Deaf Mute in a Telephone Booth: A Perfect Day with Lou Reed" and "Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves, or How I Slugged It Out with Lou Reed and Stayed Awake." These are wonderful games of psychic tennis in which Reed gives as good as he gets.

In Round Two, after accusing him of purveying pasteurized decadence, Lester tells Reed, "In your worst moments you could be considered like a bad imitation of Tennessee Williams." Never one to miss a dangling put-down, Lou responds: "That's like saying that in your worst moments you could be considered like a bad imitation of you."

Lester soon became the head writer and resident guru at Creem. No less a student of ontological mischief than Nick Kent came all the way from England to sit at his feet and eventually re-import the Bangsian style to the UK

Lester on the Loose

The bad-boy Bangsian style on the page and on the street was irresistible, especially to other rock critics whose image up to this point had been nerdy and pathetic. From Lester's uproarious "How to Be a Rock Critic" (included as an appendix to DeRogatis' biography):

Ah, yes, you should also know that most of your colleagues are some of the biggest neurotics in the country, so you might as well get used right now to the way they're gonna be writing you five- and ten-page single-spaced inflammatory letters reviling you for knocking some group that they have proved is the next Stones. It's all very incestuous, like this great big sickoid club full of people who were probably usually the funny-looking kid in class, with the acne and the big horn-rims, all introverted, and just sat home every night through high school and played his records while the other kids yukked and balled up.

While he lived communally with the staff of Creem in Detroit, Lester was more or less insulated from the negative repercussions of his fame. When he moved to New York in 1977, though, the fatal downward spiral began.

Lester was as flamboyantly outrageous in person as he was in print. Along with his gunslinger manner went the larger-than-life "Lester Bangs" character, with his wild and woolly life style. Reports of the real-life Lester's hair-raising antics spread throughout the underground telegraph (there still was an underground at that point—sort of), and he soon became a star in his own rumpled, unwashed right.

This is the Lester Bangs we loved too much and from whom he was doomed never to escape. His fans wanted to see this out-of-control, ranting persona performing nightly in the flesh, and Lester often obliged. Hell, even his shrink was so enthralled by "Lester Bangs" that he told him not to stop drinking. He became a fixture at CBGB, idolized for his writing, mocked for his clownish behavior. Here he is savagely observed through Richard Hell's distorted lens (the junkie's disdain for the drunk):

When I think of Lester I see this big, swaying, cross-eyed, reeking drooler, smiling and smiling through his crummy, stained moustache, trying to corner me with incessant babble, somewhere in the dark, at CBGB. He was sweet like a big clumsy puppy, but he was always drunk and the sincerity level was pretty near intolerable.

Every rock writer aspires to be a rock star—so far only Lenny Kaye, lead guitarist for the Patti Smith Group, has successfully made the transition—and Bangs was no exception. In his quest, Lester, as in all else in life, believed that faith alone would carry the day: "For performing rock 'n' roll . . . there's only one thing you need: NERVE. Rock 'n' roll is attitude and if you've got the attitude you can do it, no matter what anybody says." At least on a cult level, he got further than most rock writers, forming three different bands. His last album, Lester Bangs and the Delinquents, Jook Savages on the Brazos, is still available (as a German import, natch).

The Noise Boys

But the rock star business, like everything else in Lester's life, was just one more instance of certifiable regressive behavior. That, in short, is what the rock reviewing racket was—essentially a way of postponing adulthood, a privileged enclave in which grown men pride themselves on their esoteric "finds" in discount record bins. In this, as much else, Lester was hip to his own follies:

Speaking of this same doofus reminds me of another riff that is essential to have if you're gonna be a hotshit rock critic. You gotta find some band somewhere that's maybe even got two or three albums out and might even be halfway good, but the important thing is the more arcane it is the better, it's gotta be something that absolutely nobody in the world but you and two other people (the group's manager and one member's mother) knows or cares about, and what you wanna do is TALK ABOUT THIS BUNCH OF OBSCURE NONENTITIES AND THEIR RECORD(S) LIKE THEY'RE THE HOTTEST THING IN THE HISTORY OF MUSIC! You gotta build 'em up real big, they're your babies, only you alone can perceive their true greatness, so you gotta go around telling everybody that they're better than the Rolling Stones, they beat the Beatles black and blue, they murtelyze the Dead, they're the most significant and profound musical force in the world. And someday their true greatness will be recognized and you will be vindicated as a seer far ahead of your time."

All across the land, little hotbeds of rockcrit agitprop flourished. None of these was more legendary (especially in their own minds) than the Noise Boys. Who were these doofuses, anyway? Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer and Nick Tosches formed the core group that was frequently augmented by James Walcott and other talented layabouts. What this bunch of clowns boiled down to was a rockcrit Boystown with their own clubhouse, the Bells of Hell in the West Village (no smelly girls allowed), where in leather jackets and promotional t-shirts they smoked, drank, swore, snorted speed, played poker and rolled dice—in other words, behaved generally like tough guys in the movies—and scathingly debated the obscure and perverse idols of their rock canon. What distinguished them from your average geeky record reviewer was that they were naughty lads, disrupting the bloated and absurd promotional events of the music biz with loutish panache.

This rude boy thing is a relative concept, however, unless you consider starting food fights at press parties, terrorizing PR ladies and insulting poncey rock stars to be rough stuff—and, if so, maybe you should consider becoming a rock critic yourself. It was all basically macho posturing. Meltzer is short and scrawny (or was), Tosches was mostly bluster and Bangs was just plain goofy. But they were tough enough to impress your aforementioned nerdy rock critic (with his glasses, his sitzfleisch and sweaty papers), and it is essentially these meek fellows who have enshrined the Big Three.

The milieu of this boy's bubble world is wittily evoked in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity (now a major motion picture)—about cult record store nerds in their late 20s and early 30s obsessing over obscure records. Novels about charming, angst-ridden, foundering, feckless guys who cling to their adolescent lifestyle are becoming something of a genre. Camden Joy's The Last Rock Star Book (or: Liz Phair a Rant) and his subsequent novel, Boy's Island, cover the same manically-focused, incestuous, claustrophobic world that Lester seems almost to have created out of whole cloth.

Revenge of the Nerds

The subjects of the two books Lester was able to get published in his lifetime, Blondie (written in 48 hours, including 20 pages on Debbie Harry's underwear) and Rod Stewart, hardly seem worthy of the mad-inspired wit and multiphrenic riffing he brought to bear on them:

The Blondies are hip to postmodernism, and postmodernism is hip to them, which is why even their most bland-out lyrics get quoted in Village Voice articles on the subject. It's a marriage of convenience. And convenience is the name of the game, otherwise why bother with anything? Make it spare and clean and fast. Above all, don't expect. Because it isn't there. I'm not there. I say what I mean: Nothing. Cathode trance is perfect orgone isolation, fixed beyond Burroughs, goes on long as Con Ed holds out. But the lines are fixed, too. No cheap sentiment or jackoff rage. Passion in this context is useless as a luxury liner in the middle of the Sahara.... These people are beyond in-jokes, beyond coy, beyond their own beyondness. Nada chucks Dada out the window, bye-bye clutter.

Both the Blondie and the Rod Stewart books are out of print so it's fortunate that in Psychotic Reactions & Carburetor Dung, an anthology edited by Greil Marcus, we have a collection of Lester's best writing. Or do we? Doubt has subsequently been cast on Marcus' motives by the Noise Boys gang. Along with Robert Christgau and Ellen Willis, Marcus is a member of the Brahmin caste of rock writers, the so-called academic rock critics (Marcus will be teaching a seminar at Harvard next year). The gonzo style of the Noise Boys was in some ways an assault on the academics, its nose-thumbing glee making Marcus, et al. seem fussy and pedantic in comparison.

James Walcott sees it as the revenge of the nerds: "There's a jealousy with both Christgau and Marcus, because Lester really reached readers. Bob and Greil have their followers, but they don't have the kind of intense fandom that Lester had. You felt connected to him. You can't imagine, like: 'Jeez, I wanna hang out with Greil Marcus.' What Lester had was really rare."

Worse than jealousy, according to Meltzer, was that the rise of the Noise Boys threatened to dislodge the Marcus/Cristgau junta. This was bad news for a bunch of control freaks who for the past three decades have decided who will be included and who will be excluded from their imaginary Rock Writers Hall of Fame. Marcus' strategy for dismissing the Noise Boys’ threat, says Meltzer, was to marginalize him and Bangs by pigeon-holing them as freakish anomalies rather than as the alpha wolves of rock writing they were.

The Existential Jester

Lester was hip to most of the traps he'd set himself, but it didn't do him any good. He was too befuddled, too out of it toward the end to figure out what to do about it. On the morning of April 30, 1982, at the age of 32, his downstairs neighbor found Lester dead in his apartment. This was only six weeks after the death of his mother, with whom he sustained a strange, compelling bond.

He was, as he said of himself, fun, wild and unpredictable. He was also a sweet guy who told the truth and, unlike his doctrinaire colleagues, was always ready to change his mind. Changing one's mind was the point for Lester. Like his mentor Kerouac, he was a teacher of crazy wisdom: "[I was] one of the few people who actually understood what was wrong with our culture and why it couldn't possibly have any future (a subject I talked about/gave impromptu free lessons on incessantly, especially when I was drunk, which was often, if not every night)."

In the end, Lester Bangs has become more famous, and certainly more beloved, than most of the rock stars he idolized. Several bands have named themselves after him, he's been interviewed from beyond the grave (in the style of his own posthumous chats with Jimi Hendrix), he's been mentioned in a number of rock lyrics (the Ramones’ "It's Not My Place [In the 9 to 5 World]," Bob Seger's "Lester Knew," Red Dark Sweet's "Lester Is Going To Hell" and REM's "It's the End of the World as We Know It [And I Feel Fine]") and become a fictional character in Bruce Sterling's short story, "Dori Bangs."

Lester was always talking about going to Mexico to write his "Great American Saga," All My Friends Are Hermits, but beware when you have to head south of the border to write your novel. He never made it. As for seeing the collected works of Lester Bangs in ten volumes in the Library of America, what of that? Or the likelihood of seeing his name engraved on future post offices? Few critics get into any pantheon. We still read Baudelaire's art criticism today, but not because of his art criticism. Criticism is a reactive art, reflective of its subject. It's one thing if you’re writing about Joyce or Picasso, but who, in 10 years time, is going to recognize references to the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band or Zephyr? Forget rock writing; rock itself is ephemeral and its commentators linked to the genre's 15 minutes of fame. A random list of the groups Lester wrote about is already a graveyard of half-remembered names: Hawkwind, Hydra, Brownsville Station, David Peel, Slade, Ten Wheel Drive, Bread, Black Pearl, the Pipkins, the Electric Prunes. Who then will want to read Lester's reviews of these groups once their names are buried in the sands of time? I know, I know. Some busy little scribbler out there is already making a case for one of these bands as the true rock messiah.

But Lester's writing isn't so much about albums as it is about life itself and to what extent any record captures the zeitgeist as it roars past us. In that sense, Lester was a true descendant of the Beats. As Kerouac pointed out way back in the ‘50s, "the novel is dead." Kerouac's novels are really intensely realized memoirs, and that’s pretty much what Lester's writing is, too.

In some ways, the more unpromising the subject, the better it suited his discursive, ruminative, whatever-gets-caught-in-the-intercortical-net style. Someone as prolific, prolix as Lester—association-of-ideas-as-virus—could wail on anything under the sun and make it relevant and urgent. It didn't really matter what it was because the real subject was always the nature of life AT THAT MOMENT IN TIME as experienced in all its terror and absurdity by Lester, the existential jester.

Bangs & Co Ink

Canonization always begins with the vita, or life of the saint, and Jim DeRogatis' Let It Blurt:The Life & Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic is a good start. (The title comes from Lester's first single on Spy Records.) It is lovingly researched and written with great compassion for Lester's messy life. In conjunction, you'll want to dip into the selected works of the great rumpled one, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, just to remind yourself why you're reading about Bangs in the first place. Despite quibbling, it's a great read. Open it anywhere . . . Lester Bangs and the Delinquents’ Jook Savages in the Brazos has been re-issued on CD in Germany by Moll Tontragen. A Whore Just Like the Rest: The Music Writings of Richard Meltzer is also essential reading (this is the second or third collection of "R's" scribbling). And strictly for the dauntless, there's Meltzer's nutty, metapsycho The Aesthetics of Rock.