Perfect Sound Forever

A Final Chat With Lester Bangs (Part 4 of 4)

"Jesus Christ—is this kid ever gonna leave?" Note the Cookie Monster hand puppet
(Robert Quine claimed it as a memento after Lester's death), the Iggy Pop album, and the remaindered copy of Blondie in Lester's lap.

by Jim DeRogatis

[pointing to the phone that doesn't work] Do you intentionally live kind of secluded?

The reason why it's like that is because I'm a telephone junkie. When I have a telephone, I'll do anything to avoid working, to avoid writing. One day I talked on it for 14 straight hours. As long as I don't have one, nobody can bother me and give me an excuse to talk.

[long break in the tape]

Would you do me the honor? [signing the Blondie book] I got it for $1.98 at Barnes & Noble.

Oh no! I didn't know it was in those. Thanks a lot for the bad news. Well, it's probably a more reasonable price.

I thought it was pretty good. I thought the parts about the beginning of the punk scene in New York, that was all very interesting.

I was there. It's sort of a little bit of history.

[another long break, reading about the Dolls]

What do you think of Johansen on his own?

I like some of the stuff on his first album. "Donna," "Frenchette." You probably saw the thing I wrote about the second album. It was a real pan.

[more reading; Lester drums, traffic passes by four stories below]

So you know, the book will have a lot of things like that. I think right now it has about 300 separate items, ranging in length from like one-liners to the longest one's like 30 pages. It's just like that, stories, anecdotes, and it will all be with pictures of Michael's. He has this fabulous photo collection. We both did interviews, separately and together, and I wrote it up and he's putting together the pictures.

Was it the same way with the Stewart book?

No, with that, Paul wrote his stuff and I wrote mine. At the end of each chapter it says who wrote it. I bet you didn't buy a copy of that, did you?

No. I read excerpts. I read the last chapter.

I could have actually given you one. I had two last night and I gave them both away.

I'll get my hands on it. I thought that chapter "Two Rock Critics Posing As Jewish Mothers" was great.

The only time that Paul and I actually collaborated was on that. He wrote his chapters and I wrote mine and we put them together. I don't like to collaborate really. To sit down and write with another person makes me nervous. You can't think; you're talking. I really need to get out of New York to do some of the writing I've got to do. There's just too many people here, you're jammed in with too many people all of the time.

But do you still feel like you're a New Yorker?

I used to. Now I'm not so sure. I used to really, like I went to Austin and at first I was thinking of staying. But I started to get real home sick. Like I'd open up The New Yorker and see what's going on at the Thalia and all this. But the city's been really irritating me. Last summer was so bad, and this summer's going to be even worse. The quality of life here is just getting worse and worse. The problem is you get out into America and it's like everybody out there is depressed, so it's sort of like no life. And here there's life but everybody is desperate so it's really abrasive, hostile, unpleasant life. So I don't know which is worse. Which do you prefer, anxiety or depression? You can relax when you're depressed, but when you're anxious you've just got to much energy.

You can't relax too well in New York.

No you can't, it's true. [replaces the section of the book I was reading] Have you ever heard of P.J. Proby?

Wasn't that a TV star?

No, in the '60's he was like in England. I have this one part about him I was working on this morning. It's weird doing a book like this because you're not sure how much to assume that people know. We got Question Mark and the Mysterians in here and the Stooges and the Eldoradoes, and Michael's got a lot of these groups I've never heard of from the '50s, these doo wop groups. I don't know who the fuck they are.

The Kingsmen?


Nothing about "Louie, Louie"?

Well there is something about "Louie, Louie" actually. We have that version that's on Metallic K.O. with the dirty lyrics.

Are you still a bubblegum fan [re: his chapter in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll]?

I haven't listened to it in a while.

[another long pause to read more of the book; Lester returns it to the pile when I'm through] At least once it's turned in then you take the money. Just before you came I was trying to figure out: Where can I go? I've got to get away for a while. Lie on the beach and not think about anything. It's gonna be a big book. I'd like to make it bigger, do a Sandinista! type deal. We've got so much stuff, I just wanted to put it all in there and give them a whole lot for their money.

How do you think the reaction is going to be to it?

Oh, real good. Like the Blondie book did really well. It's too soon to tell with Rod Stewart, but the Blondie book's first printing in the States sold out and it sold really well over in Europe.

Was that to Blondie fans or fans or rock writing?

I imagine it was to Blondie fans but at the same time there's been so many books about people who were really popular that didn't sell. If a book like this sells it's usually on the merits of it. There's been other Blondie books and other books about people who were more popular than Blondie. I think it's just a respect for your audience, your readership. If you do something good, generally somebody's gonna like it. People just have that kind of consciousness to take the money and run.

And you think a lot of the rock critics writing today are like that?

They're just... a lot of them are academics. I mean, do you like to read them?

There's a couple I enjoy.

There's a couple I enjoy. But when you look at the record review section of Rolling Stone...

I don't even buy Rolling Stone. I gave up on Rolling Stone.

Yeah. But even the Voice's section. I think a lot of the music that's out right now and a lot of the writers who are out right now, they both deserve one another. Because they both have no personality and no real style of their own and no soul. I think a lot of the New Wave stuff too is stuff that's better to write about than it is to listen to. Greil Marcus or somebody can say it's got all of this political significance, but then somebody goes and buys the record and puts it on the turntable and it's unplayable.

I've had that happen. And this [Jook Savages] is gonna be playable?

I hope so. I think you'll like it.

$8.98 list price, you've got to be a careful consumer!

Yeah. But also with New Wave and that, everybody's getting into the act. I shouldn't talk, but all the sudden there's all these records by all these people.

But didn't you kind of encourage that?

Sure I did. Yeah, you encourage it but then you wonder if it should be encouraged? It's become like vanity press stuff. I like anything where you can tell somebody really had something they wanted to get off their chest. Whether it's the majors like CBS and the bands they have or the bands on independent labels. They want to be famous or something and it's not like, it's for the wrong reasons. So you don't enjoy it like you would when somebody really had to get something off their chest. That's what you want.

That's what the novel about New York is going to be for you?

Oh yeah. Yeah, it sure will.

[We take a long, long break during which I turn off the tape, until Lester eventually starts a monologue that he decides I need and announces: "Turn that thing on again!"]

One thing that really fucked me up at Creem was that I got caught up in the whole idea that Lester Bangs was this thing, this idea. I call it like Hunter Thompsonism. It's when you pay more attention to your image than you do to your work. And that destroys your writing. Hunter Thompson's never gonna do anything good again as long as he lives. I don't think anybody really cares about his drug habits.

I just finished The Great Shark Hunt.

What did you think of it?

It was good but he pats himself on the back a lot. He's become a stereotype, a cliché.

That started to happen with me. At first I really liked it, but it's sick, you know?

That was happening to you at Creem.

Yeah. Don't you think so?

Yeah. It still does. They'll refer once in a while to Lester Bangs' great interview once in a while with this guy or that.

Well, that's O.K., but there's the whole idea that... I mean, there was a time in my life when you would have come up here and I would have got all drunk and everything like that and you might have preferred it that way and I would have been all exhibitionistic and like that, but if I act like that, I might live a long time, but I won't live very long as a good writer. That's just the way it goes, the way it works. Charles Bukowski, he's reached a point now where he's like, he's this poet out in L.A., he gets his picture taken all the time in a T-shirt with a picture of his face on it and it says Bukoswki and he has a poem in his latest book, like, "I can't write." He's writing a poem about how he can't write. I just, it's like I went through something like this Hunter Thompson business on a puissant level, it really was with Creem, and so it's left me with a lingering paranoia about all that. But I think that it's better that way, because you live longer and you last longer as a writer.

Do you enjoy being your own boss?

Well, yeah. Sure. I guess that's that.

Jim DeRogatis is the rock critic at the Chicago Sun-Times and the author of Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, which will be published in the spring of 2000 by Broadway/Doubleday in the U.S. and Bloomsbury in the U.K.

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