Longtime Fan Chronicles Legendary Critic Lester Bangs' Life

New biography explores writing — and music — of one of rock's most respected writers.

When Jim DeRogatis was a wide-eyed high school kid, he set up an interview with his hero, legendary rock critic Lester Bangs, as an excuse to cut journalism class.

The pair hung out at Bangs' New York apartment for hours, listening to music. At the end of the day, Bangs sent the kid home with a copy of the Stooges' Raw Power and a newfound enthusiasm.

Two weeks later, Bangs was dead, possibly from an overdose of the drug Darvon. It was 1982, and he was 33 years old.

"I was floored," said DeRogatis, now 35, and the author of the recently published Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic. "This guy had been so nice, and so generous. I really had this feeling I might see him again. ... It had a deep impact on me, along with a lot of people."

Bangs made his name in the early 1970s, during the golden years of Creem magazine, where he developed an aesthetic that elevated trashy garage rock to a pedestal where, for many, it still sits today.

He went on to write for the Village Voice, the long-running New York alternative weekly, and myriad other outlets, but his only book is the posthumously published compendium Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. He also recorded two albums and the single for which Let It Blurt is named.

While DeRogatis' book recounts Bangs' tenure in the Creem collective, as well as his time as an influential rabble-rouser in the New York punk scene, it's most compelling for its depiction of Bangs' early years. Much of the Lester the world would come to know in later years, from fanatical writer to head-over-heels lover, was forged in Southern California, in relationships with his father, who died young, and his mother, a Jehovah's Witness.

Back To Roots

DeRogatis, who is the rock critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, spent years poring over Bangs' published material, as well as thousands of pages that the world never saw, in addition to talking to more than 200 people who knew the man.

"Because he [wrote] so colorfully and over the top, I think a lot of people assume that this stuff was hyperbole, or fiction — in the way that Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is fiction," DeRogatis said. "And it wasn't. There was real truth and honesty."

Bangs' prose and persona were inextricably entwined, like those of Beat author Jack Kerouac, DeRogatis said. But there were some things that he barely addressed in his writing — in particular, his relationship with his mother — that Bangs did explore in his music.

To DeRogatis' ear, "Let It Blurt," the song, matches the achievements of other punk from its day, such as the Ramones' "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker" or Patti Smith's "Gloria." He quotes Bangs' closest friend, writer John Morthland, as saying Bangs didn't see a distinction between writing about music and writing actual songs.

Exploring Bangs' Music

DeRogatis, who is also a drummer, recently put together a makeshift band that included Mekons singer/guitarist Jon Langford to perform some of those songs at Chicago's Empty Bottle.

Along with covers of Bangs favorites, such as Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray," the band ripped through Bangs originals, including "Day of the Dead" from his Jook Savages on the Brazos (1981) album.

"Day of the Dead" details the morning when Bangs was 8 years old, riding in the car, and his mother told him that his father had burned to death in a fire. The young Lester was forbidden from showing emotion at the news, and the subject was never brought up again.

"Ooh mama, take me away/ From that terrible, terrible day," Langford sang at the Chicago tribute. "A car of death and the cask enclosing/ You've lost yourself and everyone knows it."

"I don't get put off by the idea that he was a rock critic who was trying to be a pop star," said Langford, 42, who tapped Bangs to pen the notes for the 1982 compilation The Mekons Story. Langford also sampled recordings of Bangs on the Mekons' F.U.N. '90 EP (1990).

"I think he was definitely coming the other way," Langford said. "He was an incredibly creative writer, who kind of got caught up doing rock journalism, 'cause that was one outlet for him. He could have been writing poetry and novels and stuff like that."

While there are no plans for a follow-up to "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung," there is enough of Bangs' work left over to fill at least another collection, possibly more.

"The points that he made are literature, are philosophy, are real intellectual insight," DeRogatis said. "And I think he's written off sometimes as a class clown and an entertainer. I don't know who ever said the class clown can't also be an intellectual."