Good-bye to You

Good-bye to You

Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic
by Jim DeRogatis
Broadway Books (a division of Random House), 2000, 332 pp., $15.95

“If love is truly going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each other’s objects of reverence,” wrote Lester Bangs in 1977, eulogizing Elvis Presley in the Village Voice. “We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis’s. But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won’t bother saying good-bye to his corpse; I will say good-bye to you.” In retrospect, these words can be read as an apt farewell to Bangs himself, who died in 1982, and to the kind of demanding and fearless criticism exemplified by his work, which seemed to vanish from the pages of music magazines shortly thereafter.

Despite his moving epitaph to Presley, Bangs had little interest in the vernacular. Instead, in the frequently brilliant essays and reviews that appeared in Rolling Stone, Creem, the Village Voice, and other publications, he championed music that offered an ecstatic, violent release from the constraints of AM radio and the conventions of polite society. He first glimpsed it in the avant-garde jazz of John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, and later embraced the chaotic proto-punk sounds of the Stooges, the Godz, Patti Smith, and Lou Reed. Bangs wrote about his heroes in a style laced with irreverence, sarcasm, self-referential posturing, and often hilarious invective. It was an approach he shared with fellow rock critics Nick Tosches and Richard Meltzer, a corollary to the New Journalism of Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe as well as the 1950s fiction of William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, authors whom Bangs idolized as a teenager.

In his highly enjoyable biography, Jim DeRogatis traces the development of Bangs’s famously contrarian persona back to the tract-house suburb of El Cajon, California, where Bangs began his life in 1948 and was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. To his mother’s dismay, the adolescent Lester developed an interest in jazz, the Beats, and the narcotic properties of nutmeg, and soon a rant about the hypocrisy of religion delivered at a church meeting resulted in his lifelong ban from the Witnesses’ Kingdom Hall. In high school, Lester’s attempts to fit in were equally unconventional—in speech class he proudly recited Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” in its entirety, and when a teacher assigned him a ten-page paper for each of the five days of gym class he had missed, Lester responded with a fifty-page story entitled “Hector the Homosexual Monkey,” for which he was promptly suspended.

In 1969, while employed...

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