It was always inevitable that I eventually would pick up some Lester Bangs, seeing as he could be considered the king of all music snobs and is one of the most influential figures in music criticism. Best known for his album reviews in Rolling Stone and the more underground Creem, Bangs starting getting published in 1969 and was still working all the way up to his death in 1982. Lester started writing on Rock N Roll just as the hippie dream of the sixties was dying. For Lester the 70’s were a tough time for music but a great time to establish himself as an eccentric music critic. By the time he had made a name for himself by blasting the music industries status quo, Punk (a term that he has said to have coined) started bubbling out from under America’s rough urban areas. Punk rock was visceral and exciting and he wasted no lime wading into the thick of it. By the time of his tragic death in 1982 Lester was still truckin’, albeit a little less enthusiastically as he had to adjust to another shift in popular music – this time the “new wave”.
Lester’s comes from an unconventional place as he wrote record reviews and cultural critiques that were influenced by drugs, drink and the beat authors whom he read heavily in his early years. Surprising at first, as it usually doesn’t have much of a form. Instead of giving you straight criticism of albums or bands, Lester tells you a story, or come from the opposite angle completely by employing fake praise and searing sarcasm. Additionally Lester had a rather inconsistent view point at times and if you look at his writing as a whole you will find many contradictions. He would constantly flip flop on certain bands, or write a cultural piece that would come in clear conflict to other things he had said or written. Definitely a complicated and talented figure. I found his writing for the most part to be funny, confrontational, insightful and extremely bizarre. While most of it is enjoyable, a lot of it comes off as over complicated, muddled, confusing and completely absurd.
This book in particular is far from a complete work. It is just a collection that was edited and compiled by Lester’s friend and colleague Greil Marcus. Marcus took great pains to sift through Lester’s unfinished scraps and unpublished works to include along with his selections from published writing. The works are not presented chronologically as one might expect they are put in sequence by shared themes. The bands you will find material here are Lester’s staple groups such as Iggy Pop and the Stooges, The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed, Richard Hell, Rod Stewart, and some more obscure garage rock bands such as Question Mark and The Mysterians, and the Troggs (just to name a few). You will also find some great criticism of David Bowie, James Taylor, Grand Funk Railroad, The Guess Who, and again Lou Reed. The segments on Lou Reed are some of the most enjoyable in the book, as you read all about Lester’s love/hate relationship with this artist. Particularly great is Lester’s depictions of several of interviews between the two in which they go back and forth being incredibly insulting to each other.
For those who are looking to go beyond the definitive collection of Lester’s writing, you can find a more expanded compendium of his writing in Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader. In addition there is also a biography available entitled Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs – America’s Greatest Rock Critic by Jim Derogatis.
I also included a playlist via Grooveshark.com featuring a bunch of songs that were discussed in the book or that I know to be some of Lester’s favorites. Towards the end of the list as an added bonus is 5 tracks from Lester Bangs himself as he produced and recorded some music towards the end of this life.