Leslie Conway Bangs
December 14, 1948
Escondido, California, U.S.
|Died||April 30, 1982 (aged 33)|
New York City, U.S.
|Subject||Rock music, jazz|
Leslie Conway "Lester" Bangs (December 14, 1948 – April 30, 1982) was an American music journalist, critic, author, and musician. He wrote for Creem and Rolling Stone magazines, and was known for his leading influence in rock music criticism. The music critic Jim DeRogatis called him "America's greatest rock critic".
Bangs was born in Escondido, California. He was the son of Norma Belle (née Clifton) and Conway Leslie Bangs, a truck driver. Both of his parents were from Texas: his father from Enloe and his mother from Pecos County. Norma Belle was a devout Jehovah's Witness. Conway died in a fire when his son was young. When Bangs was 11, he moved with his mother to El Cajon, also in San Diego County. His early interests and influences ranged from the Beats (particularly William S. Burroughs) and jazz musicians John Coltrane and Miles Davis, to comic books and science fiction. He had a connection with The San Diego Door, an underground newspaper of the late 1960s.
Rolling Stone magazine
Bangs became a freelance writer in 1969, after reading an ad in Rolling Stone soliciting readers' reviews. His first accepted piece was a negative review of the MC5 album Kick Out the Jams, which he sent to Rolling Stone with a note requesting, if the magazine were to decline to publish the review, that he be given a reason for the decision; no reply was forthcoming, as the magazine did indeed publish the review.
Cream clichés that sound like the musicians learned them out of a book, grinding on and on with dogged persistence. Vocals are sparse, most of the album being filled with plodding bass lines over which the lead guitar dribbles wooden Claptonisms from the master's tiredest Cream days. They even have discordant jams with bass and guitar reeling like velocitized speedfreaks all over each other's musical perimeters yet never quite finding synch—just like Cream! But worse.
Bangs wrote about the death of Janis Joplin in 1970 from a drug overdose: "It's not just that this kind of early death has become a fact of life that has become disturbing, but that it's been accepted as a given so quickly."
Bangs began freelancing for Detroit-based Creem in 1970. In 1971, he wrote a feature for Creem on Alice Cooper, and soon afterward he moved to Detroit. Named Creem's editor in 1971, Bangs fell in love with Detroit, calling it "rock's only hope", and remained there for five years.
During the early 1970s, Bangs and some other writers at Creem began using the term punk rock to designate the genre of 1960s garage bands and more contemporary acts, such as MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges. Their writings would provide some of the conceptual framework for the later punk and new wave movements that emerged in New York, London, and elsewhere later in the decade. They would be quick to pick up on these new movements at their inception and provide extensive coverage of the phenomenon. Bangs was enamored of the noise music of Lou Reed, and Creem gave significant exposure to artists such as Reed, David Bowie, Roxy Music, Captain Beefheart, Blondie, Brian Eno, and the New York Dolls years earlier than the mainstream press. Bangs wrote the essay/interview "Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves" about Reed in 1975. Creem was also among the earliest publications to give sizable coverage to hard rock and metal artists such as Motörhead, Kiss, Judas Priest, and Van Halen.
Bangs died in New York City on April 30, 1982, at the age of 33; he was self-medicating a bad case of the flu and accidentally overdosed on dextropropoxyphene (an opioid analgesic), diazepam (a benzodiazepine), and NyQuil.
At the time of his death, Bangs appeared to be listening to music. Earlier that day he had bought a copy of Dare by the English synth-pop band The Human League, according to Jim DeRogatis's well-sourced biography Let It Blurt. Later that night, Bangs's friend found him unresponsive, lying on a couch in his apartment. "Dare was spinning on the turntable, and the needle was stuck on the end groove", DeRogatis wrote.
Writing style and cultural commentary
Bangs's criticism was filled with cultural references, not only to rock music but also to literature and philosophy. His radical and confrontational style influenced others in the punk rock and related social and political movements. In a 1982 interview, he said,
Well basically I just started out to lead [an interview] with the most insulting question I could think of. Because it seemed to me that the whole thing of interviewing as far as rock stars and that was just such a suck-up. It was groveling obeisance to people who weren't that special, really. It's just a guy, just another person, so what?
A performer with his own band, he also appeared on stage with others at times. On one occasion, while the J. Geils Band were playing in concert, Bangs climbed onto the stage, typewriter in hand, and proceeded to type a supposed review of the event, in full view of the audience, banging the keys in rhythm with the music.
In 1979, writing for The Village Voice, Bangs wrote a piece about racism in the punk music scene, called "The White Noise Supremacists", wherein he re-examined his own actions and words, and those of his peers, in light of some bands using Nazi symbolism, and other racist speech and imagery, "for shock value". He came to the conclusion that generating outrage for attention wasn't worth the harm it was causing fellow members of the community, and expressed his personal shame and embarrassment about having engaged in these racist behaviors himself. He praised the efforts of activist groups like Rock Against Racism and Rock Against Sexism as "an attempt at simple decency by a lot of people whom one would think too young and naive to begin to appreciate the contradictions."
Bangs was also a musician. In 1976, he and Peter Laughner recorded an acoustic improvisation in the Creem office. The recording included covers/parodies of songs like "Sister Ray" and "Pale Blue Eyes", both by the Velvet Underground.
In 1977, Bangs recorded, as a solo artist, a 7" vinyl single named "Let It Blurt/Live", mixed by John Cale and released in 1979.
In 1977, at the famous New York City nightclub, CBGB, while Bangs was talking to guitarist Mickey Leigh, Joey Ramone's brother, the idea for a band named "Birdland" came to fruition. Although they both had their roots in jazz, the two wanted to create an old school rock & roll group. Leigh brought in his post-punk band, The Rattlers (David Merrill on bass; Matty Quick on drums), and cut "Birdland with Lester Bangs". The recording took place at the under renovation Electric Lady Studios. Bassist David Merrill, who was working on the construction of the studio, had the keys to the building and they snuck the band in on April Fool's Day, 1979 for an impromptu and late night recording session. The result was a completely uncut and un-dubbed recording that displayed raw music. Birdland broke up within two months of this rare recording (in which the cassette tape from the session became the master, mixed by Ed Stasium and released by Leigh only in 1986).
In 1980 Lester Bangs traveled to Austin, Texas, where he met a surf/punk rock group, "The Delinquents". In early December of the same year, they recorded an album as "Lester Bangs and the Delinquents", titled Jook Savages on the Brazos, released the following year.
In 1990 the Mekons released the EP F.U.N. 90 with Bangs's declamation in the song "One Horse Town".
In popular culture
- Bangs is mentioned in the R.E.M. single "It's the End of the World as We Know It" from their album 1987 album Document.
- Bangs is the subject of the song by Scott B. Sympathy "Lester Bangs Stereo Ghost" on the 1992 album Drinking With The Poet.
- Excerpts from an interview with Lester Bangs appeared in the last two episodes of Tony Palmer's seventeen-episode television documentary All You Need Is Love: The Story of Popular Music.
- In the 2000 movie Almost Famous, directed by Cameron Crowe (himself a former writer for Rolling Stone), Bangs is portrayed by actor Philip Seymour Hoffman as a mentor to the film's protagonist William Miller. Bangs is also a major character in the 2019 stage musical version, in which he was played by Rob Colletti.
- The 2013 documentary A Box Full of Rocks: The El Cajon Years of Lester Bangs, directed by Raul Sandelin, discusses Bangs's childhood and formative writing career.
- In 2018 an Off-Broadway play about Bangs, How to Be a Rock Critic, premiered and was performed at several venues around the U.S. It starred Erik Jensen as Bangs, and was directed by Jessica Blank, with music by Steve Earle.
By Lester Bangs
- Review of The MC5's debut album, Kick Out The Jams – Bangs's first piece for Rolling Stone
- "How Long Will We Care?" Elvis Presley obituary. The Village Voice, August 29, 1977
- "The Greatest Album Ever Made", Creem magazine (1976) — about the 1975 Lou Reed album Metal Machine Music
- "Stranded", (1979) — about the 1968 album Astral Weeks, by Van Morrison
- Blondie, Fireside Book, 1980. ISBN 0-671-25540-1, 91 p.
- Rod Stewart, Paul Nelson & Lester Bangs, Putnam Group, 1981. ISBN 0-933-38808-7, 159 p.
- Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic, collected writings, Greil Marcus, ed. Anchor Press, 1988. (ISBN 0-679-72045-6)
- Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader, collected writings, John Morthland, ed. Anchor Press, 2003. (ISBN 0-375-71367-0)
About Lester Bangs
- Let it Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic, biography, Jim Derogatis. Broadway Books, 2000. (ISBN 0-7679-0509-1).
- How To Be A Rock Critic, play, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen. Kirk Douglas Theater, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Public Theater, more; 2015–2018.
Works citing Lester Bangs
- Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, biography, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. Penguin Books, 1997. (ISBN 0-14-026690-9).
- Jeffrey Morgan
- Greil Marcus
- Dave Marsh
- Greg Shaw
- Lenny Kaye
- Robert Christgau
- Jann Wenner
- Ellen Willis
- Christgau, Robert (1982-05-11). "Lester Bangs, 1948-1982". The Village Voice. Retrieved 2014-01-31.
- Lester Bangs. Random House. Retrieved on November 4, 2007.
- Lindberg, Ulf; Gudmundsson, Gestur; Michelsen, Morten; Weisethaunet, Hans (2005). Rock Criticism from the Beginning: Amusers, Bruisers, and Cool-Headed Cruisers. Ed. Ulf Lindberg. Peter Lang, International Academic Publishers. p. 176. ISBN 0-8204-7490-8, ISBN 978-0-8204-7490-8.
- Garner, Dwight (2000-04-23). "High Fidelity". The New York Times. Retrieved 2016-06-28.
- Derogatis, Jim (2000). Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic. New York: Broadway Books. pp. 3–4. ISBN 0767905091.
- "My Highschool Days With Lester Bangs". San Diego Reader. 2000-07-13. Retrieved 2012-11-07.
- Mendoza, Bart. "Lester Bangs: The El Cajon Years". San Diego Troubador. Retrieved 2014-04-22.
- Bustillos, Maria. "Lester Bangs: Truth-teller," The New Yorker (Aug. 21, 2012).
- "Album Review Black Sabbath - 'Black Sabbath'". Rolling Stone. 1970-09-17.
- Jackson, Buzzy (2005). A Bad Woman Feeling Good: Blues and the Women Who Sing Them. New York: W. W. Norton. p. 234. ISBN 0393059367. Retrieved 2013-11-02..
- DeRogatis, Jim. Let It Blurt. p. 95.
- Harrington, Joe (2002). Sonic Cool: The Life & Death of Rock 'n' Roll (1st ed.). Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Hal Leonard. p. 226. ISBN 0-634-02861-8.
- Holdship, Bill (January 16, 2008). "Sour Creem: The Life, Death and Strange Resurrection of America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine". Metro Times (Detroit, Michigan). Retrieved 3 January 2013.
- Bangs, Lester (2003). Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. Anchor Books. pp. 8, 56, 57, 61, 64, 101 (reprints of articles originally published in 1971 and 1972 and referring to garage bands such as the Count Five and the Troggs as "punk"); p. 101 (associating Iggy and Jonathan Richman of the Modern Lovers with the Troggs and their ilk as "punk"); pp. 112–113 (describing the Guess Who as "punk"—the Guess Who had made recordings as a garage rock outfit in the mid-60s, such as their hit version of "Shakin' All Over" in 1965); p. 8 (general statement about "punk rock" (garage) as a genre: "then punk bands started cropping up who were writing their own songs but taking the Yardbirds' sound and reducing it to this kind of goony fuzztone clatter ... oh, it was beautiful, it was pure folklore, Old America, and sometimes I think those were the best days ever)"; p. 225 (reprint from an article originally published in the late 70s refers to garage bands as "punk"
- Marsh, D. Creem. May 1971 (review of live show by ? & the Mysterians Marsh describing their style as "a landmark exposition of punk rock.").
- Punk: The Whole Story. ed. M. Blake. 2006 Mojo Magazine, 2006. In the opening article, "Punk Rock Year Zero," the writer and former member of early Sex Pistols lineup Nick Kent discusses the influence of Lester Bangs on punk concept and aesthetic.
- Gray, M. (2004). The Clash: Return of the Last Gang in Town. Hal Leonard. p. 27 - Gray discusses how in the early 70s, while his mother was living overseas (in Detroit), she would send Mick Jones (later of the Clash) copies of Creem magazine, and how writings by Bangs and others using the term punk rock influenced him.
- Gere, Charlie. (2005). Art, Time and Technology: Histories of the Disappearing Body. Berg. p. 110.
- DeRogatis, Jim (2003-10-02). Milk It: Collected Musings on the Alternative Music Explosion of the '90s. Da Capo Press. p. 188. ISBN 9780306812712. Retrieved 2017-08-01 – via Internet Archive.
Lester Bangs dead OR died OR death.
- Wallace, Amy; Manitoba, Handsome Dick. The Official Punk Rock Book of Lists. Hal Leonard. p. 56.
- Kent, Nick (2002-04-12). "The Life and Work of Lester Bangs". The Guardian. Retrieved 2014-07-31.
- DeRogatis, Jim.  Let It Blurt. p. 233.
- DeRogatis, Jim (November 1999). "A Final Chat with Lester Bangs". Perfect Sound Forever. Archived from the original on 2010-01-17. Retrieved 2008-08-06.
- Maconie, Stuart (2004). Cider with Roadies. London: Random House. p. 227. ISBN 0-09-189115-9.
- Bangs, Lester (1988). Marcus, Greil (ed.). Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic: Rock 'n' Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock 'n' Roll. Anchor Press. p. 282. ISBN 0-679-72045-6.
- Bangs, Lester (April 1979). "The White Noise Supremacists" (PDF). The Village Voice. Retrieved 2021-04-11.
- Christgau, Robert (1990). "B". Christgau's Record Guide: The '80s. Pantheon Books. ISBN 0-679-73015-X. Retrieved 2020-08-17 – via robertchristgau.com.
- Browne, David (2018-01-09). "Lester Bangs Play 'How to Be a Rock Critic' Captures Writer's Wild Spirit - Off-Broadway production starring Erik Jensen invites audience into Bangs' world". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 2021-04-11.
- Petrusich, Amanda. "Lester Bangs and the Soul of Rock Criticism". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2021-01-22.
- "Lester Bangs columns". Rolling Stone.
- MENTOR. EDITOR. LESTER: A Personal Appreciation at the Wayback Machine (archived November 21, 2003) by Jeffrey Morgan of Creem.
- 1980 interview with Bangs posted at rockcritics.com
- May 13, 1980 Interview with Lester Bangs Archived 2013-01-20 at the Wayback Machine by Sue Mathews of ABC Radio (Australia) Complete transcript plus MP3 stream of the interview.
- Richard Hell remembers Lester Bangs Archived 2008-06-29 at the Wayback Machine in The Village Voice, August 7, 2003
- Lester Bangs at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database