DeRogatis on Bangs 

Critical History

DeRogatis On Bangs

"The only people who are more unnecessary than rock musicians, who are totally interchangeable, is rock critics, because who gives a fuck, right?" said rock critic Lester Bangs during a "rock critics' symposium" held in Buffalo in 1974. Ironically Bangs, who died in 1982, has become the first rock critic to be written about on the level of a rock star: next week Let It Blurt: The Life & Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic arrives in stores, primarily because its author, Sun-Times rock critic and sometime Reader contributor Jim DeRogatis, does give a fuck and was able to persuade editors at Broadway Books, a division of Random House, that others might too.

But why? Let It Blurt, writes DeRogatis in the preface, "is not just the story of a guy who drank Romilar by the gallon, insulted rock stars, then died. Absent Lester's ideas, the poetry of his writing, and his singular lust for life, this story would not have been worth telling." Then, in a lucid, lively style supported by thorough reporting, DeRogatis tries to make compelling drama of Bangs's sad tale. Since the guy was only 33 when he apparently overdosed on the narcotic analgesic Darvon, it's on the brief side: the son of a Jehovah's Witness and an ex-con who burned to death while sleeping one off, he grew up to be a hard-drinking, drug-abusing head case whose way with words allowed his friends and associates to turn a blind eye to his increasingly tiresome self-destructive behavior. Parts of the story are fascinating in the same train-wreck way Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's Please Kill Me was, but by the end I was not convinced that an insatiable appetite for cough syrup and a big record collection add up to a "lust for life."

The epitaph "America's Greatest Rock Critic" was added to the title by the publishing house against DeRogatis's wishes. In fact Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, an anthology of Bangs's writing published in 1987, supports the mythology to an extent: he brought the energy, candor, and outrageousness of rock 'n' roll to rock criticism, described music and sound with a great deal of imagination, and took a healthy cynical stance toward the business of music. He influenced many of the better critics working today--including DeRogatis, who as a high school student interviewed Bangs two weeks before he died. But like Hunter S. Thompson, he also inspired hundreds of people less interesting than himself to weave their own dull lives into their half-baked record reviews.

If Bangs were starting out today, he'd have an even harder time selling his work than he did in the 70s: despite the explosion of music and "lifestyle" publications, few outlets are willing to publish 10,000-word reviews that take celebrities to task for their hypocrisy or flail against the hype machine. There's a depressing homogeneity to what gets written about and how it's written. The reasons are various and complicated, but here's a flash of insight: at a panel at South by Southwest a few weeks ago I watched the editor of Spin and rock critics for two of the country's biggest daily newspapers bitch and moan, as though helpless, about having to sign contracts that limited what they could ask an artist in an interview.

DeRogatis, who lost a job at Rolling Stone in 1996 after writing a negative review of a Hootie & the Blowfish album and then speaking bluntly about Jann Wenner's reaction in the New York Observer, is well aware of the pitfalls of his profession, and it's this subtext of Let It Blurt that makes Bangs's story worth telling. DeRogatis weaves in a succinct history of rock criticism, from the founding of Crawdaddy! to the sellout of Rolling Stone to the quasi-revolutionary self-indulgence of Creem to the dumbing-down effect of People. He charts the evolution of the fledgling discipline into several unappealing styles--personality fluff, bandwagon hopping, pseudoacademic bullshit, self-important postmodern bullshit--and he's clear-eyed about the effect it had on his hero.

The best of Bangs's peers, Nick Tosches and Richard Meltzer (whose own music-writing anthologies, The Nick Tosches Reader and A Whore Just Like the Rest, respectively, are due next month from Da Capo Press), realized fairly early that just reviewing records was an intellectual and creative cul-de-sac and moved on to other things. If rock is as dumb as Bangs always said it was--"It's in one ear and out the other, it's trash, here today and gone tomorrow," he told the assembly in Buffalo--then how long can you write about it without sounding like a broken record? Although he wanted desperately to author a novel, Bangs remained a prisoner of the rock-crit racket until the day he died.

Like Bangs, who was inspired by the New York punk scene to do some recording of his own, DeRogatis has been one of the people he writes about: in the 80s he drummed in the Ex-Lion Tamers, a cover band that toured with Wire to play the popular early material Wire no longer performed, the Feelies spin-off Speed the Plough, and the original Burning Airlines, who shortened their name to Airlines before issuing a couple obscure singles. He celebrates the publication of Let It Blurt next Saturday, April 15, at the Empty Bottle by wielding the sticks in the Lester Bangs Memorial Tribute Band, an ad hoc group of Chicago rock writers and editors (including my editor, Kiki Yablon, and Reader staffer J.R. Jones) fronted by the Mekons' Jon Langford. The set includes several of Bangs's tunes as well as better-known historically appropriate nuggets. Loraxx and Black Stabbath also perform; proceeds go to the Cabrini-Green Tutoring Program.

Postscript

The Champaign quartet Braid released three albums of what they call emocore these days--earnestly screamed vocals, heart-on-sleeve lyrics, mathematically precise hard-rock arrangements, and tediously uncatchy melodies--during its six-year career, attracting a modest but fervent underground following along the way. But since the band broke up last fall, its discography has doubled. Last week Polyvinyl released the two-volume Movie Music, the first installment of which collects 17 songs that first appeared on singles along with a previously unreleased tune recorded last May. The second disc, which can be bought separately from the first, offers 19 songs from various compilations along with six wholly unnecessary covers of songs like the Smiths' "This Charming Man" and the Pixies' "Trompe Le Monde," ditties that seem to be this generation's version of classic rock. Finally, on April 18, Glue Factory Records will release Lucky to Be Alive, a recording of the band's final Chicago performance, at Metro on August 21, 1999.

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