Five Times Lester Bangs Showed He Was the Greatest Music Journalist Ever

5 Feb 2020
Image Credit: Richard Meltzer

For a man who only spent 33 years on planet earth, Lester Bangs sure made an impact. The California-born writer was a rollercoaster character with meticulous taste who changed the face of 1970s rock journalism. His writings for magazines like CREEM, Rolling Stone and The Village Voice inspired everyone from David Foster Wallace to Greil Marcus, and he is responsible for stoking the imaginations of an entire generation of music writers. It’s easy to see why: his interviews and reviews always contained a moment of quintessential Lester, a message that hit you in the chest and changed your perspective. So, to celebrate his legacy, we’ve taken a look at five priceless pearls of wisdom from the mind of Mr Bangs.

Image Credit: John Collier

Lesson One: Rock stars are not your friends...

One of Bangs most deeply held beliefs was exactly this: to tell the truth about music and art you cannot wish to be friends with the musician. You must keep a distance and retain your objectivity. Jaan Uhelszki, who worked with Bangs at CREEM, said they both used to chant, “Rock stars are not our friends! Rock stars are not our friends!” before leaving the office for interviews. The best example of this is in the groundbreaking interviews between Bangs and Lou Reed, that took place over many years, in which both men repeatedly tore strips out of each other and fought to intellectual death. “Lou Reed’s finally got a chance at real sustained stardom,” wrote Bangs when he met him in 1973, “and he is blowing it.”

Lesson Two: Music is a cure for life...

When Bangs wrote album reviews, you could bet your house they would be fuelled with passion, wit and even a hint of philosophy. One of his best known came when he covered the tenth anniversary of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. Bangs opened the review by confessing to a dark time in his life, when “ghosts and spiders looming and squatting across the mind”, before relating this to the miraculous feeling of saviour he felt when listening to this album. “There was a redemptive element in the blackness,” he wrote, “ultimate compassion for the suffering of others, and a swath of pure beauty and mystical awe that cut right through the heart of the work.”

Image Credit: Allan Tannenbaum

Lesson Three: Fight for your beliefs...

Bangs owes much of his career to the freedom he was given at CREEM Magazine, where his writing blossomed into its most innovative and experimental period. But it didn’t come without its dramas. Bangs often clashed with fellow editor Dave Marsh over what CREEM’s editorial style should be. While Bangs mercillesly mocked everything, considering himself just another “bozo on the bus,” Marsh felt it was CREEM’s duty to be soldiers of the counter culture. “Those two views could never fully coexist,” says JJ Kramer, who made a documentary about CREEM Magazine. “Lester had a dog named Muffin that was always shitting on the floor. Marsh finally got sick of it one day and put some of the dog’s shit on Lester's typewriter. Fast forward fifteen minutes to a fist fight with one of them getting their head smacked against a car door,” Kramer laughs. As Marsh says in the CREEM documentary “[Lester] wasn’t trying to hurt me...he was just trying to win.” Kramer adds, “of course, the fight wasn’t really about dog shit at all - they were just so passionate about their views of what CREEM should be.”

Lesson Four: There is no such thing as high culture and low culture…

Bangs didn’t see any division between the rock bands he was writing about, and the grand ideas being presented in the literature of the time. He was constantly introducing young readers to mind-blowing concepts via his stream-of-consciousness essays, glimmers of something bigger that might open their mind. Take, for instance, his essay on The Stooges, which while assessing their rock credentials manages to mention JD Salinger’s hero Holden Caulfield, the British satirist Malcolm Muggeridge, the Canadian mystic Manly P Hall and the poet and Winnie the Pooh author A.A. Milne. A normal afternoon in the mind of a genius.

Image Credit: Charlie Auringer

Lesson Five: Finally, don’t take anything too seriously...

This was the message that underpinned almost everything Bangs ever wrote, and it was best expressed in his essay, ‘James Taylor Marked for Death’. He first declares that the one thing everyone must realise is that “art” and “rock ‘n’ roll” are “all just a joke and a mistake.” But then he reassures the reader masterfully: “Don’t worry about the fact that it’s a joke and a mistake and a bunch of foolishness as if that’s gonna cause people to disregard it and do it in or let it dry up and die, because it’s the strongest, most resilient, most invincible Superjoke in history, nothing could possibly destroy it ever, and the reason for that is precisely that it is a joke, mistake, foolishness. The first mistake of Art is to assume that it’s serious.”