Now that “Lester Bangs” has become two sanitized book-length compilations of his writings and an inaccurate portrayal in a mediocre Hollywood film, the real Lester Bangs seems to have gotten lost, and the sense of excitement and of outrage that living in the same world with Lester Bangs provided seems only a distant memory.
I’m one of those people who feels as though I learned to write in the early-to-mid-70s from then out-of-print lesser-known Kerouac books (Tristessa, Big Sur, etc.) and from Lester Bangs’ gargantuan piece on the Troggs in Greg Shaw’s BOMP magazine. I purchased and devoured CREEM regularly in junior high school and high school (I was even reviewed in CREEM, though not by Bangs, once a few years later…I think Tom Robinson or Debbie Harry was on the cover…I do have a copy somewhere); I awaited the latest round in the Bangs vs Lou Reed feud. Later, I’d go to the library to thumb through copies of the Village Voice looking for Bangs pieces…pieces that usually disappointed me. My only direct dealings with Bangs amounted to one friendly rejection slip, but I knew many people who’d had dealings with him, and as the 70s ended and the 80s arrived, Mr. Bangs seemed like a lost soul. There would be the occasional writings-for-hire to make a buck on subjects he did not truly care about; there were the rumors of unpublished yet amazing manuscripts that were being circulated; and there was his sad quest to become one of the rockstars he championed. And there were the regular reports of friendships he abused…and the occasional cruel actions toward people who were in fact his truest allies, such as his libellous trashing of Miriam Linna. But Lester was a larger-than-life character, and whether it be Hank Williams or Darby Crash, these kind of characters are usually easier for most people to appreciate when they are at a distance or dead, rather than banging on your door at 3 a.m. or borrowing things from you that never get returned. Although the “E True Hollywood Story” series did not yet exist in the early 80s, watching the last few years of Lester’s life as he was living it was similar to watching an E True Hollywood Story on some ill-fated celebrity and noticing that there was only eight minutes to go on the show. You just knew that you were watching the final act.
The Hound’s piece on Bangs, written by someone who was at the heart of the scene at that time (I was just following things at a far distance from Colorado and then Oklahoma, and it would be charitable to call my experience fifth-hand, not second-hand), seems to nail the real Lester Bangs, warts’n’all. In the early parts of his career, Bangs was all about honesty and truth and saying what others dared not to say while providing a context that somehow made sense of it all. That’s exactly what The Hound did with this piece, and it turns out to be true to the best aspects of what Mr. Bangs represented, and makes me remember why Bangs was a hero to so many of us in the 1970’s. Knowing Bangs’ work was a kind of “calling card” in the early-to-mid 70’s, and meeting someone who was also into Bangs and the music Bangs championed was almost like a Masonic handshake in that it was a “secret sign” that that person was worth knowing…at least initially! Here’s the link:
Those who have heard the countless hours of tapes documenting Bangs jamming with his friend and fellow writer-musician Peter Laughner at the CREEM offices late at night may feel as I do that these represent Bangs at his happiest. Perhaps Lester and Peter are sitting around with acoustic guitars in the great beyond, jamming endlessly, sharing cigarettes, and having friendly arguments about the career arc and the various albums of Lou Reed. I’d love to hear what they had to say about the 1990’s Velvets reunion, The Raven, and the Metal Machine Trio!