Perfect Sound Forever

A Final Chat With Lester Bangs

photo by Roni Hoffman shortly after Lester arrived in New York, 1976.
She and her husband, former Creem editor Robert Duncan, lived next-door to Lester atop 542 Sixth Avenue.

by Jim DeRogatis (November 1999)

Lester Bangs was the great gonzo journalist, gutter poet, and romantic visionary of rock writing- its Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski, and Jack Kerouac all rolled into one. Out of tune with the peace 'n' love ethos of the '60's and the Me Generation navel-gazing of the '70's, he agitated for sounds that were harsher, louder, more electric, and more alive, charting if not defining the aesthetics of heavy metal and punk. Where others idealized the rock 'n' roll lifestyle or presented a distant academic version of it, he lived it, reveling in its excesses, drawing energy from its din, and matching its passion in prose that erupted from the pages of Rolling Stone, Creem, and the Village Voice. In the process he became a peer of the artists he celebrated, brash visionaries and dedicated individualists such as Captain Beefheart, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Richard Hell, and most of all Lou Reed, with whom he had a relationship that was equal parts Johnson/Boswell, Vidal/Mailer, and Mozart/Salieri (and it was often difficult to tell who was who).

In the spring of 1982, I was a senior at Hudson Catholic Regional High School for Boys in Jersey City, N.J. I had been wearing on my journalism teacher's nerves since the beginning of the semester, peppering him with questions about Watergate, the new journalism, and (most of all) how one went about becoming a rock critic. Finally he offered me a deal: interview a "hero" in my chosen field, write it up, and stop coming to class. It sounded good to me, and I immediately chose Lester.

Delilah Communications' Karen Moline (who edited Lester's quickie fan books on Blondie and Rod Stewart before going on to become a big-name writer of sexy fictions) agreed to forward a letter, so I promptly fired one off and sat back and waited. And waited. And waited. By early April I was in a panic (school ended in a few weeks) so I went to plan B. I called the Village Voice and set up an interview with another critic I admired at the opposite end of the spectrum, as far from gonzo as one could get, the yin to Lester's yang.

The self-appointed Dean of American Rock Critics was indeed rather professorial with me, but he graciously allowed me to trail after him to the East Village post office where he picked up his mail. I watched him open all of those promo envelopes at his kitchen table, and his wife Carola Dibbell made us tuna fish sandwiches. When I'd exhausted my list of questions, I presented my copy of the then-recently published Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the '70's, and the Dean signed it, "Good luck in your chosen career, Robert Christgau."

As soon as I walked in the door that day my mom told me that she'd gotten a mysterious call (collect) from a fellow named Lester. I could interview him if I wanted to on Friday-just come to 542 Sixth Avenue near the corner of Fourteenth Street and shout up at the fifth-floor window. He didn't have a phone or a doorbell, but he'd throw down the keys when he heard me yell. He sounded like a nice fellow and all, but did I know what I was doing messing around in the big city, my mom asked in motherly fashion. I assured her that I did, but in fact I was more than a little intimated-this was Lester fuckin' Bangs!

A few days later, on April 14th, I got off the PATH train from Jersey and surfaced on the corner of Fourteenth Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan accompanied by two of my high school buddies, one of whom was ostensibly there to take pictures, while the other was strictly for moral support and safety in numbers (both got bored halfway through the interview and bailed, but by then it didn't matter).  I shouted Lester's name at the window as instructed and after a couple of seconds he threw down the keys. We were winded by the time we made the climb up to his three-room apartment, which was dominated by thousands of albums and piles of trash- an exaggerated version of every teenaged rock fan's lair, though its occupant at the time was thirty-three years old.

Over the next few hours, I caught a glimpse of another Lester, one that was very different from the gonzo legend. He seemed to be as interested in me as I was in him, continually asking me what I thought, what I was reading, and what I was listening to. We listened to records and bullshitted amiably for what seemed like forever, even after I'd asked all of the questions on my yellow legal pad and turned off the tape recorder.

Slumped in a ratty old chair, his posture mirroring the skew of the Cookie Monster hand puppet that served as a shade on his desk lamp, Lester seemed enervated and barely able to move, but he spoke in a passionate torrent of words. As for me, when I listen to the tape or read the transcript now, I cringe at the naiveté and awkwardness of my questions: I was such a putz! But what do you expect? I was a pudgy, pimply-faced 17-year-old geek who'd gotten it all ass-backwards, emulating the rock writers instead of the rock musicians, and here I was sitting with my idol and finding that he was a genuinely goddamn nice guy.

At the end of a long afternoon, Lester gave me copies of the single and the album he'd recorded-"Let It Blurt"/"Live" and Jook Savages on the Brazos-and I handed him my copy of Blondie, which bore a green sticker announcing a marked-down price of $1.98. He cringed when he saw that-he was unaware that the book had been remaindered-then scrawled in a sweeping, childlike hand, "To Jim-Now it's your turn. Best, Lester."

I was sitting in my bedroom transcribing the tape two weeks later when I heard the news on WNEW-FM that he'd been found dead in his apartment on April 30th.

Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs began that day, though I didn't really start working on it in earnest until June 1996. Now, three and a half years later, it's done but for the proofing. The finished effort reflects my travels to Detroit, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Austin, El Cajon, and New York; incorporates interviews with 225 people who played some role in Lester's life, and is informed by countless hours spent poring over his many published and unpublished writings, letters, recordings, and notebooks.

It also draws from my interview, of course, but presenting that chat unedited as part of the text only seemed to slow the narrative of Lester's life. At the same time, I believe it's significant not only because it's Lester's last, but because it refutes many of the things that have been written about him since his death. It also stands as a compelling read for anyone interested in the subjects of Bangs or rock criticism. To this end, I am grateful to Perfect Sound Forever and its editor Jason Gross for inviting me to present it here in its entirety as a sort of electronic appendix to my book-and one more look at a fascinating writer and unique human being.

LET IT BLURT will be in stores in early April 2000

Lester Bangs: I remember the first interview I did with Charlie Mingus, and it was like this kind of. Me and two friends drove from San Diego to Los Angeles and went to the Troubadour, a folk club there, and he was playing with Eric Anderson, and we didn't know anything. We took a big old reel to reel tape recorder, carted it upstairs to the dressing room at the Troubadour, and I laboriously threaded the reel and took a piece of notebook paper out of my pocket with all these questions. And he was just real patient. He was supposed to be such a son of a bitch, but he was real nice.

J.D.: That makes it easier. I'm kind of turning the tables on you now.

I'm not a hard interview.

How did you get your start writing about rock 'n' roll?

They used to have a little box, believe it or not, in the pages of Rolling Stone in like 1968 that said, "Do you write, draw, take pictures? Send us your stuff." So I started sending them reviews. The first four reviews I sent, let's see, I said that Anthem of the Sun by the Grateful Dead and Sailor by Steve Miller were pieces of shit and White Light/White Heat by the Velvet Underground and Nico's The Marble Index were masterpieces, and White Light/White Heat was the best album of 1968. I couldn't figure out why they weren't printing any of these things. Then this MC5 album, Kick Out the Jams, came out, and they had this big article in there saying the MC5 were the greatest band in the world and all this, so I went out and bought it. Just like anybody, you buy something you don't like and you feel like you bought a hype. And I wrote this really like, blaaah!, scathing sort of review. And I sent a letter with it and said, "Look, fuckheads, I'm as good as any writer you've got in there. You better print this or give me the reason why." And they did, they printed it, and that was the beginning.

How long were you with Rolling Stone?

I was never on the staff at Rolling Stone. I freelanced for them from that point, which was like March of 1969, until about '73, I guess, when Jann Wenner threw me out for being, quote, "Disrespectful to musicians," end quote. I wrote a review of Canned Heat, an album called New Age, that said, "Why do we love Canned Heat? Let us count the ways. We love them because they did the longest boogie ever put on record. We love them because..." I mean it was making fun of them. I guess you're not supposed to do that. Well, obviously not in that magazine.

Did that change your opinion of Rolling Stone?

No. I knew it was a piece of shit. The reviews I did for them really stuck out like sore thumbs. And I never did get along with Jann, because he really likes the suck-up type of writing. He doesn't like people that are stylists unless it's somebody he wants to suck up to himself, like Norman Mailer or Truman Capote or someone like that. And Jon Landau, my editor there at the time, did not go to bat for me, which Paul Nelson did later. When Paul Nelson got the job of record review editor, he told Wenner, "There's certain people I want to write for the magazine." And he said, "Like who?" And Nelson said, "Well, like Lester Bangs." And Wenner said, "No way." Nelson said, "Well if you don't take him, you can't have me." That's what kind of a friend Nelson is. He has integrity, which Landau didn't have. Landau was saying things at the time like every Glenn Campbell album, every Jerry Vale album, every Helen Reddy album, every Ann Murray album was a distinct piece of art which should not be looked at as a piece of product.

That's definitely against your theory, right? Rock is not art.

Oh, I don't know. I double back on myself so much. There's the trash aesthetic and all that. The way I've written about the Velvet Underground and Van Morrison, of course it's art.

After Rolling Stone, is that when you hooked up with Creem?

No. I was still freelancing for Rolling Stone, but I started getting things rejected in like the summer of 1970 when Wenner was going through one of his freakouts. Before that I was so stupid that I thought you should be loyal to Rolling Stone, and only freelance for them. And they were paying like $12 a review! So then I started getting reviews rejected, and I started sending each one to a different magazine. I sent them to Fusion or Creem or whatever, and things with Creem started going really good. I got this letter from Dave Marsh at Creem that said, "Yeah, kid, I've been looking at your stuff for a while. It looks really good" and something to the effect that "you take way too much acid and don't drink half enough whiskey." And I was like, "Alright, man!" And so then the assigned me to review Funhouse by the Stooges and I wrote this endless article that ran in two parts as a record review, and they printed it. And I said, "Alright, I guess this is where I'd better go. This is where I belong."

Did you enjoy your stay at Creem?

No, I hated it. It was a horrible place. It was basically the kind of setup where it was little fiefdom. It was one of these kind of setups where you have a bunch of idealistic young people in the late era of hippiedom and a guy comes in who sees that he can make a lot of money off of their idealism. So you'd hear things at the beginning like, "In a year, we'll all be living in a big mansion. We'll all be rich," and this bullshit. The guy got rich. He got his mansion and his country house, and he drank V.S.O.P. Courvasier, and he drove a Lincoln Continental, and when I quit after five years in 1976 when I was senior editor-and I had contributed a lot to making the magazine whatever it was-I was still only taking home $175 a week. I signed over the rights to everything I wrote for them, and it still remains to be seen what's gonna happen with that. There were a lot of things that were real sick about it.

How did you style develop there, like the interviews where you really gave a guy a good grilling?

Well basically I just started out to lead 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?

See Part 2 (of 4) of the Bangs interview

Also see Kurt Hernon's tribute to Lester, an unpublished Bangs essay on Brian Eno and Lester as a role model?

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER