Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Lester Bangs, 1948-1982

At around 8:15 Friday, April 30, Lester Bangs mounted the stairs to his place at 542 Sixth Avenue, a little north of 14th Street. Just over the flu, he'd gone home for some sleep after almost drowsing off at his friend John Morthland's that afternoon, but later he'd called several other friends--from the street, he hadn't had his own phone since 1980. His downstairs neighbor Abel Shafer thought he looked kind of gray and asked after his health. Lester reported that he was feeling great. That's what he'd always tell people, but over the previous six months it had been true most of the time. He'd gotten so serious about cleaning up his act that even his apartment, renowned for its squalor, was comparatively neat, which isn't to say there weren't a few chicken bones and half-empty vials around. Leaving the door unlocked as usual, Lester lay down on the couch. Sometime in the next half-hour guitarist Nancy Stillman, whom he'd invited over for an evening of music-making and record listening, yelled up for the keys and got no response. Eventually Abel Shafer, who knew her face, came down and let her in. When she entered the apartment, Lester was on his back with one arm dangling to the floor--a familiar enough posture, except that this time he wad dead.

I recount all this so that nobody gets the idea that Lester Bangs wanted to die. Unless he was fooling a lot of people that day, Lester wasn't walking around in desperate need of transcendence or obliteration or some confusion of the two. A drug may have killed him--the medical examiner is still trying to figure that out--but on April 30 that drug would have been an episode, not a rut or a habit or a way of life. Maybe his cleanup wasn't permanent, and certainly it wasn't going to solve all of this problems. But the author of "I Saw God and/or Tangerine Dream," launched by several bottles of cough syrup into mystic visions of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was putting drugs and booze behind him. The last time he'd fallen off the wagon, in March, he'd even gone and joined AA. The worst you could say about his frame of mind on April 30 is that maybe he didn't hate death as fervently as usual.

For while most people spend their lives trying to ignore death, Lester really did hate it, actively, just as he hated its philosophical counterparts, nihilism and solipsism. Scared, excited, sour, friendly, homely, cuddly, beat, weird, goofy, defenseless, guileless, seamless, motivated, skillful, old-fashioned, unreasonable, moralistic, angry, benign, phenomenally intelligent, and all lit up, he wished sometimes that he could disappear from the face of the earth and was all too aware of what a waste that would be. And he found in rock and roll's crude, spontaneous, eternally adolescent synthesis/confusion of eroticism and rage, transcendence and obliteration, the artistic counterpart of his own terrific vitality. For him, music and writing were matters of life and death.

Lester was born on December 14, 1948, and grew up in El Cajon, California, 25 miles east of San Diego. After his father burned to death in 1957, his mother became a Jehovah's Witness, but that was not to be Lester's way. In 1969, while more or less attending San Diego State, he published his first record review in Rolling Stone, and he never stopped. Over the next 13 years he wrote more pages than anyone will ever count--for a free associater who could turn out a 17,000-word rumination on the Troggs overnight and a 40,000-word fanbook on Blondie in three or four days, three million words may be a conservative estimate.

From 1971 to 1976 Lester worked in Detroit as an editor of Creem, defining its cheerful punk-gonzo fuckyouism and keeping alive the dream of insurrectionary rock and roll as Rolling Stone turned to auteur theory and trade journalism. Not counting his wonderful heads and subheads and captions, Lester wrote three or four pieces a month. There were mammoth reports on reggae and Iggy and the Allman Brothers. There were endless segments of The Lou Reed Show. There was a feature in which Marshall Thieu charged that Jethro Tull had no "rebop," a review in which 1973 pheenoms White Witch were identified from their album cover as the same "dorks" who'd peered out from behind British Invasion mopcuts in 1965 and illegible calligraphy in 1969. For several years after he'd severed all ties with a magazine that prospered by adapting his shtick to the values of late heavy-metal fans, Creem readers voted him their favorite critic anyway. At the same time he had become a hero to thousands of nascent punks and new wavers.

Lester's move to New York in the fall of 1976 was brave, fortunate, and completely, natural. It was brave, because, for any writer New York is the big time, and Lester was never entirely secure about his intellectual status. It was fortunate because the incestuous years at Creem had turned him slightly stale and cynical, maladies mitigated by both the discipline of free-lancing and the leftish principles of a Manhattan bohemia, which touched his conscience without ever denting his contempt for rad-lib cant. It was natural because this small-town Southern California boy took to Greenwich Village, especially its fringes, as if he had never imagined that anywhere else could be home. Although he put in time at the Bells of Hell and showed up at the rock clubs now and then, he was never on-the-scene, preferring to socialize privately. But he was enormously amiable, willing to converse with almost anybody--and to blame anybody whose spiel even hinted at fraud or special interest.

Early in 1978 Lester's rather extreme and compulsive notion of integrity induced him to start making music as well as writing about it, a reckless decision that he justified with the superb 1979 single "Let It Blurt" and the impressive 1981 album Jook Savages on the Brazos. But after his first band threw him over because he wasn't commercial enough, he came to realize that his real future was where it always had been, at the typewriter. The problem was publishing. Although he was a more coherent, punctual, professional journalist than 90 per cent of the editors who considered him a lunatic, his autodidactic moralism, chronic logorrhea, and fantastic imagination rendered him unsuitable for the slicks. Anyway, rock criticism is below police reporting and horoscopes in the literary hierarchy, and while Lester wanted to write--and did write--about almost everything, rock criticism was what he was best at.

Maybe this is because it was Lester as much as anybody who defined what rock criticism ought to be--because he was the great one. He wasn't long on the values ordinarily sought in a critic--balance, consistency, analysis, judgment. But his writing was dense with the crazy, unschooled virtues of the music that moved him most deeply--again and again his conceits came from nowhere and hit some fundamental question right where it hurt. Finally, he asked too much of the world--that's why he wasn't long on balance, consistency, analysis, or judgment. But he made up for his lack of critical distance with his indefatigable sense of humor, and in the end, he was the most honest and sheerly gifted writer I've ever worked with-and one of the most honest and sheerly gifted I've ever read.

Lester and archivist Michael Ochs had just finished work on Rock Gomorrah, their version of Hollywood Babylon, when Lester died. He planned to go to Mexico this summer and put together a novel about New York. Among his surviving blood kin are two half-brothers, a half-sister, and some nephews, including Ben Catching, who gave him his first copy of On the Road. Nancy Alexander, who accompanied Lester to New York and who for the past two years has kept in touch with weekly phone conversations from Florida, wanted to be remembered as one of his survivors as well. I suspect she isn't the only one.

Village Voice, May 11, 1982