A Few Words on Lester Bangs
Updated: Nov 8, 2020
I'm always talking about music, but never about the people who drew me to pursue journalism. It wasn't watching "Almost Famous" for the first time that did it, it was rolling on the floor reading what this man had to say about Sabbath and thinking "Damn, I want to have those kind of balls ones day." Heres a brief history on my journalistic hero, Lester Bangs.
My favorite music journalist is by miles and miles Lester Bangs. This man is ruthless, raw, and real. Music journalism is a hard industry to break into and those who are just getting their footing feel the need to praise and praise and praise to get in with the right folks ( I mean look at any article i’ve ever written for example, I’ll freely admit I do this on the daily). Not Bangs though, Bangs was hard from the start. Maybe it was his ruination of a childhood and the general shell one gains when their father burns to death and their mother is a devout member of the Jehovahs Witness, but the man was ruthless. The San Diego Door gave Lester his beginning in the late 60’s (as it did for fellow journalistic icon Cameron Crowe) and the publications big appetite for anti-war literature had set Bangs set to be a cynic from the start.
In 1969 at 21 years old, Bangs ripped all over MC5’s debut album Kick Out The Jams and sent his draft over to RollingStone to respond to their call for reviewers. In his letter to the magazine, he enclosed a note that said something along the lines of if this wasn’t published, he’d like a reply explaining why. I guess Jaan and the boys over at the Stone couldn’t fashion a response so they ran his story. Bangs went balls deep in that first article and ripped their debut to shreds. “Never mind that they came on like a bunch of 16 year old punks on a meth power trip” Bangs spits. “These boys, so the line ran, could play their guitars like John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders played sax” he goes on to riducule . This man's word choice is immaculate. I mean come on, even if you’re a fan of theirs, you’re rolling at this. This was especially a bold move for his first submission to the publication since it had just praised the band a month prior in a cover article.
Bangs didn’t stop there and proved his cynicasicm wasn’t just a way in, it was his way period. The thing I love about him is he never sucked up. He would always start off his interviews with the most offensive and antagonizing question he could think of because after all no matter how star studded they look on stage, they’re just people. The man teased Sabbath's 1970 debut Black Sabbath by attributing them to a lazy rip of Cream and stating that “the album has nothing to do with spiritualism, the occult, or anything much except stiff recitations of Cream clichés that sound like the musicians learned them out of a book, grinding on and on with dogged persistence.” RUTHLESS.
Bangs lived the dream let me tell you. His 1975 write up “My Night of Ecstasy with the J. Geils Band” is just oozing with the goo that I want so badly in my own work. Unexcited with his pre-show interview and taunting Peter Wolf about the hype that comes with the role of artist versus that of a critic, Wolf dished out the challenge to Bangs to do his write up on stage during their encore of “Give it To Me” in front of the crowd. Challenge accepted. Bangs grabbed his typewriter and busted it out with the band during their show and then proceeded to go full Townshend and smash that puppy in a real rockstar vein. Legendary.
I could talk about many articles of Bangs’ but frankly I don’t have the time and you likely don’t have the attention span considering there's only a slim few who actually read my articles on here and even fewer who hate themselves enough to withstand my ten pagers ( big shoutout to anyone who made it to side two of my VU review). I’ll keep it short, but I have to mention the time Jaan Werner fired him for ripping Canned Heat's LP The New Age a bit too hard. In 73’ Bangs ripped Canned Heat member by member for The New Age closing his article by stating “Buy this album if you've gotta lotta money or don't care much what you blow your wad on, but don't pass up any of the really cosmic stuff like the Stooges for it or the shadow of Blind Lemon Jefferson will come and blow his nose on your brow every night.” This Savagery was enough to make Werner fly off the handle and cut Bangs out of the ever-famous Stone, but it only made me gain mad respect for the man. Also in 73’, for British music magazine Let it Rock he gets a rise out of Lou Reed by asking questions such as "Hey Lou, doncha think Judy Garland was a piece of shit and better off dead?" and "Hey Lou, then doncha think David Bowie's a no-talent asshole?".
Bangs then moved to Detroit with his work with the publication Creem calling the Michigan city “rocks only hope.” With Creem he wrote “Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves” where he boldly battled and baited his musical hero Reed once again in one of the most fascinating pieces of Gonzo journalism I have ever seen. Their relationship was hilarious and I envy it from both sides. Bangs really got it. His journalism was an art just as much as the work he covered. Bangs got real with his audiences and never sat on his high horse once. He was just another lover of rock and his wildly brazen every-man approach is what made him so fantastic.
Well, as all bright lights do, (Or wild and firey balls of rage in Bangs case?) Bangs burnt out in 82’ at only 33 years old when he succumbed to a deadly mixture of benzos and Nyquil. Lester Bangs is my journalistic hero. I hope I can grow the balls to piss people off like this one day, but for now, I’ll color within the lines until I can get the bills paid.