Buggles review

Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic
By Jim DeRogatis

I think I would've liked Lester Bangs.

I'm somewhat surprised to hear myself say that. Though I've been an admirer of the now legendary rock critic ever since I read his volume of collected essays entitled "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung " I also got the feeling he wouldn't be much fun to be around. In his prose, Bangs seems humorous, yes, but also a bit egomaniacal and intolerant of people who didn't share his sometimes obscure views on rock music. Lester falls into a pantheon of individuals such as Axl Rose, Dan Clowes and Adolph Hitler*: men who's artistic skill I find commendable but would probably find difficult to entertain close proximity to. But after reading Jim DeRogatis' recent biography, "Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic" I come to find out… I think I would've like Lester Bangs.

Why? Because in this biography Lester comes across as egomaniacal and intolerant, but also witty, keenly intelligent, willing to admit his faults, and, kind of… cuddly. More then one acquaintance of Bangs creates the image of a gruff but lovable teddy bear of a man. (Granted, a teddy bear who was an out of control alcoholic and drug addict for most of his life.) As Bangs skittered through his short but eventful existence, he left plenty of hurt feelings in his wake, but also showed a loyalty to friends and genuine love for rock music that is truly rare in the entertainment industry of today (hell, it was rare then.) "Let It Blurt" goes to great lengths to paint a whole picture of Bangs. It documents the lives of his parents, including his father's early death by fire, and his mother's intense devotion to the Jehovah's Witnesses. Lester's early writing influences are discussed (Ginsberg, Kerouac and the usual suspects) and the reader sees him come of age into the seventies where magazines such as Rolling Stone and Creem are starting to take shape. The locations change as Lester moves first from San Diego to Detroit and finally settling into New York city where he eventually dies at the age of 33.

As was documented in Bangs recent appearance in the film "Almost Famous" (in the capable form of Phillip Seymour Hoffman) Bangs was constantly wrestling with staying pure to his roots and not "selling out" and he applied that same harsh criterion to those he critiqued. In "Let It Blurt", Lester's battle is both comic and tragic, causing him to be snidely judgmental of people who don't live up to his expectations and at the same time crushed when he sees his icons fall. One such icon, Lou Reed, comments on his relationship with Lester saying, "You can disappoint someone like (Lester) so easily when they find out just how human you are." Lester couldn't find a middle ground with which to live life, but rather surfed it on the grandest terms, cresting at its highs and crashing with its lows. While the style of living makes for great biography, you can't help but be glad that you're experiencing such wild undulations on the page as opposed to in your own existence.

Where I was let down with the book is the lack of attention to detail in regards to Lester's drug intake. As frequently mentioned in his own writing and in the accounts of many who knew him, Lester was powered by speed, and that explains a lot about his frenetic writing style and prolific output. DeRogatis doesn't shy away from portraying Lester as an addict, but offers little detail about how the habit got started. I would think Lester's first time on speed would have been an epiphany for him, a moment of great importance, but the book offers little discussion of it. (We do, however, find out that Lester lost his virginity in a Mexican brothel!)

And it was ultimately drugs that ruined him. It's common knowledge that Bangs died in 1982 of a Darvon overdose. (The book makes no attempt to determine whether it was intentional or not.) And I read the last chapters with great apprehension, knowing that a character I was becoming quite attached to was going to be prematurely disposed of. But I also realized, that this sort of emotional connection was an indicator of how good a book "Let It Blurt" was. DeRogatis (who was the last person to interview Lester alive) creates a compelling read about an era of rock history that's just now becoming "historic." And it's not far fetched to think that in death, Lester Bangs may be greater than he was in life.

* Lest anyone misunderstand this comment; I'm referring to the fact that Adolph Hitler was an artist of some talent. I'm not insinuating that his attempted destruction of the Jewish race could be referred to as "art".

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