Back in the 1930s, a group that mainly consisted of poets created a practice known as “New Criticism” The method, based on close reading, basically said that a given work of art is the thing that must be analyzed as it is. That is, instead of bringing anything to the work, the work, literally, stood on its own. The background of the writing—personal, social, political—was largely determined to be irrelevant. It was, the New Critics maintained, a matter of simply assessing what was produced. Period.
I have generally thought that the New Critics were often missing too much by not taking the context of the creation into account. After all, the point of view of the artist—be s/he a writer, painter, filmmaker, musician—has a lot to do with what is created. By leaving biographical knowledge out, there is the potential of missing important aspects of the work.
But having just read Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic by Jim DeRogatis (Broadway Books; $15.95), I’m sort of feeling more sympathetic to the New Critics. There is Bangs’s work. There is Bangs’s life. And to the degree that the former is often exhilarating, the latter is disturbing.
Bangs’s father, who apparently didn’t spend a consistent amount of time with his family (being drawn away, apparently, by the lure of booze), died in a house fire when Lester was nine. Lester’s mother was a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which had a strong influence on her world view (and beyond) [and I am confident that Jeff can provide a Paul Schrader reset in this regard]. Lester didn’t take well to that weltanschauung. He rebelled. As a teenager in El Cajon, California (recently the site of a high school shooting incident), Lester worked to become a rock writer, which he did in 1969, in Rolling Stone. His day job, incidentally, was selling women’s shoes. Out of the box, Bangs was, in the context of his surname, onomatopoeic: writing about “It’s a Beautiful Day” (which is also the name of the group), Bangs didn’t pull back any of his smack: “I hate this album, not only because I wasted my money on it, but for what it represents: an utterly phony, arty approach to music that we will not soon escape.” Imagine his living in the Age of Celine Dion.
Lester managed to get bounced from Rolling Stone. He moved from southern California to what he described as “Deeetroit.” He, as he put it, “did time” there starting in 1971. He wrote for Creem. Five years later, after creating his own form of writerly and personal havoc (the portrait that DeRogatis, whose credits include the Chicago Sun Times, Penthouse, Guitar World, and World of Wrestling, draws of Bangs is a man who had a taste for Romilar and disinterest in personal hygiene), he moved to New York. There he was to write for a variety of venues. And he was to die there on April 30, 1982, probably of a drug overdose (the medical examiner wrote “Acute propoxphene poisoning” and “Circumstances undetermined.”)
Between ’69 and ’82 Bangs wrote many blazing pieces, sometimes changing his mind 180 degrees (e.g., from excoriating the MC5 to extolling the band), but always speaking in his strident, idiosyncratic voice. And speaking of voice, Bangs started bands that he performed with; apparently, he sounded like a walrus. Writing about music wasn’t enough. He had to make it.
A blurb that appears on the cover of Let It Blurt from Cameron Crowe says, in part, of the book, “it reads like rock and roll.” Which may, indeed, be the case. Breakups and screwups. Highpoints and low. Maybe it is less a celebration, and more of a cautionary tale.