Published Sep 01, 2000Rock'n'roll is littered with myths, but few come close to the life of Lester Bangs. While Bangs cannot be credited with creating rock criticism, he is commonly acknowledged to be the patron saint of the medium, inspiring literally everyone who came after him (for good or bad) through both his poetic gifts, and in carving out a lifestyle that was often more excessive than his subjects. One of those motivated to follow Bangs' path was Jim DeRogatis, now resident rock critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, but in April, 1982 he was a journalism student in New Jersey given the assignment of interviewing a personal hero. DeRogatis immediately got in touch with Bangs, then writing mainly for The Village Voice, and subsequently spent an afternoon at the writer's cramped and disorderly Manhattan apartment. Two weeks later, Bangs was found dead there of an apparent prescription drug overdose.
Since then, Bangs has been lionised through the Greil Marcus-edited collection Psychotic Reactions & Carburetor Dung, but DeRogatis has always been bent on telling the whole story, or at least as much of it as he can. The fruits of his 227 interviews with people who knew Bangs can now be found in Let It Blurt: The Life & Times Of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic (Broadway), which traces Bangs' oppressive upbringing within a tight-knit suburban California Jehovah's Witness community, to his early cult hero status with Detroit-based Creem, and ultimate assimilation into the late 70s NYC punk scene.
Like all great biographers, DeRogatis puts his subject matter's legend into perspective, leaving, on the surface, an often sad reality. Yet, he says his main goal was to capture the love and devotion that Bangs so easily instilled in those around him. "So rarely do the people whose art or music you admire live up to your expectations as human beings," DeRogatis says, recollecting their 1982 meeting. "The first lesson you learn as a critic is that sometimes awful people make great art. I think actually Lester could never get that through his skull because he was consistently let down in his relationships with artists. Conversely, I think Lester made up for that in how he related to others."
But it wasn't just the myth and legend that attracted DeRogatis. "If it hadn't been for the strength of his ideas, I never would have done the book. There's a school of thought that says Lester was very entertaining and a wonderful stylist, but that all the great ideas come from Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus and other serious intellectuals. I think, bullshit, Lester was an intellectual and he was a class clown, and I don't know where it's written that you can't be both. Even if Lester wasn't the first to come up with those elemental ideas about rock and roll, he connected with people. To find another critic who's quoted as much as Lester, you have to go back to Oscar Wilde or the Algonquin Round Table. I mean, people aren't quoting Eric Weisbard."
In fact, a major strength in DeRogatis' approach is the great lengths he goes to explore aspects of Bangs' writing that were completely ignored when Psychotic Reactions was compiled. These include many insightful pieces on critically unpopular bands like Black Sabbath and his still-unpublished coming-of-age memoir Drug Punk; not to mention Bangs' later attempts at songwriting. DeRogatis blames these past oversights on the personal preferences of people like Marcus and Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner (who passed on Drug Punk only to eventually run Hunter S. Thompson's similar-themed Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas). It's a reality that DeRogatis has finally come to terms with now that his version of Lester Bangs is out, one that will followed later this year when Cameron Crowe's new movie about his days as a teenage rock writer will feature Bangs portrayed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
"The key quote for me came when I talked to Lester's psychiatrist," DeRogatis says. "He told me there were 150 Lesters and your task will be to capture all of them, and I think that's what I did. A little of all the Lesters is in there."