Lester Bangs tribute

by Kurt Hernon (November 1999)

"Mr. Narrator... this is Bob Dylan to me" - the Minutemen, "History Lesson - Part II"

Lester Bangs was Bob Dylan. He was my Lou Reed. Lester Bangs was a Difference Maker.

You see, I grew up a semi-lost, adopted, third child Catholic who had this wild fascination with and fixation on rock music. It was impossible to put a finger on for myself, let alone try and explain to anyone else, why, after seeing and hearing them on a late night SCTV bit, I had to have the entire Tubes catalog. Or why I considered Elvis Costello's Get Happy! biblical - my life's beacon. Or why I simply needed the radio, lived to hear music, and was compelled to listen to something, anything, all the time. And worse, why I voraciously read everything written about music that I could get my grimy hands on.

Nobody seemed to understand what the hell was wrong with me. And be assured it was just that - something wrong. I didn't understand. It was one of those things, like a miserable fucking addiction, that I seemingly had no control over. Music crept up on me, grabbed hold, and has never let go. For the longest time I was resigned to the idea that I was destined for an institution, or some worse fate.  Until - Lester Bangs.  In Lester, I found a friend. A guy who, although he was nearly twenty years my senior, was afflicted with the same disease of the mind and ear as I.

I was only fifteen years old when I first read Lester's haunting "Peter Laughner Is Dead" obituary from the September-October 1977 New York Rocker. I hadn't the foggiest idea who Lester Bangs was, let alone Mr. Laughner. It was 1981 and the article was already four years old but I stumbled upon it somewhere, read it, and felt something. I sensed a sort of cosmic connection (a hippie-type term that Bangs would probably puke over, but it seems to fit). It immediately felt like this Bangs guy was talking to me. He had the same fixation problem that I did - a rock and roll junky-ism that led him to opine passionately about some dude I'd never even heard of. Peter Laughner…ha!

I'd read a million words written about rock and roll since I'd started this love affair, but they all seemed to be spoken at me. This punk Bangs, well he fucking talked with me. He was just a guy debating the music. He didn't tell you how it was - and this is the beauty in what Lester Bangs did - but he wrote with a certain power and panache that let you in on the debate. You always walked away from Lester thinking that your opinion counted, and you usually found yourself (at least I did) muttering your side of the argument. Lester discussed the music with his readers, he shared his discoveries, and he approached the reader with the enthusiasm of a friend, not a Big Shot Rock Critic. He never lectured.

As I continued to read the Laughner obituary-eulogy, I had a moment of clarity, a flash of pure lucidity. Bangs wrote "there is more than a little of what killed Peter in me" and that statement resonated, loudly and clearly: It also applied to me. Bangs asserted that Laughner died "in part because he wanted to be Lou Reed". I was stunned. I was afraid. I saw myself and I saw my future.

I was not alone.

Lester Bangs had a gift: An amazing ability to write about music in general, and rock music in particular, with a commoner's voice. He was the fan's fan. He was intensely passionate about music, yet entirely approachable. He didn't wax poetic or philosophical in a snobbish sense; he only purveyed a fine sense of dignity in his presentation and a respect for the music fans he knew placed value in his view. He was the people's critic, and I loved him right from the start.

I didn't act upon Bangs writings as rapaciously as I did the music I loved, or the music he wrote of (and believe me, I ended up perusing many a bargain bin courtesy Mr. Bangs), and it wouldn't be until I was much older and more able to grasp the enormity of Bangs contribution to, not only music writing, but writing itself, that I became well versed in the book of Bangs.

However, with that first fateful encounter I did immediately realize that I was not alone. There were others in this world that felt the spirit. There were others who were completely moved by music, compelled by it, and were - like me - freakishly obsessive. And finally, this one person could explain our sickness to the rest of the world - for all of us! Lester Bangs!

So everything was suddenly okay. I was beginning to feel like I was (fairly) normal. I was at least as normal as this guy Bangs who wrote for Creem, Rolling Stone, and the Village Voice for God's sake!

It wasn't even a year after I'd "discovered" Lester for myself that I'd heard he'd died. Not unlike Laughner, Bangs was young, only 33 years old, and was, in some ways, being eulogized as having died "for Rock and Roll". That hit home, and I thought about it a lot, but I was certain it was total bullshit. I was almost sixteen years old on April 30, 1982, the date of Bangs death (a reported Darvon overdose), and I'd come to realize that there was more than a little of Lester Bangs in me.

But rock and roll was life, not death. Music was every reason to live, and no reason to die.

I knew that I would miss Lester, but I also knew that Lester had done it - he had changed rock and roll forever. Lester Bangs made fandom the fulcrum of the rock experience. He opened the door for people, everyday people, to express their feelings for the music they listen to. He paved the way for fans having their say. He believed in the community of music, and made it believable for others.

Lester had a way with such things. He once placed a note in an issue of Creem magazine (10/73) calling on the fans and the readers to write a review of Jethro Tull's Passion Play. He'd found himself "bamboozled" by the record and was unable to put together "23 words" about it.

He also trampled the fences between critic and fan in the weirdly wonderful "How to be a Rock Critic: A Megatonic Journey" (Shakin' Street Gazette #15, 10/10/74). His declaration that "all it takes is a high level of unconsciousness" is only half a joke. If you read Lester enough, you'll come to realize that he did have this populist view, he did believe in the basic tenet of fandom first. Lester felt that the simple ardor, the burning within, was what the whole gig was about. No overly analytical bullshit (at least not where warranted) could explain away the magic in music.

And he believed in that magic. If he didn't, his writing sure as hell did. As a music fan I'd always felt that fervor, that inexplicable connection to the sounds. As a reader of Lester Bangs, I may not have had my own explanation, but I had the place to point and say "There, that's it, that is what I feel!" Lester gave that to me and no one can ever take it away.

There was only one Lester Bangs: An American original. He was rock criticism's Bob Dylan. And for a kid whose interests kept him under the tracks, he was my Lou Reed. Rock writing has seen many a scribe come and go before and since Lester's death. Some have been, and are still, damn good, others not so good. Some have helped shape the music business and some have helped shape music itself. Some have written for history and some have made history. Most have left the history they lived on the page. Lester Bangs has left his history in our hearts.

Also see Lester's last interview and an unpublished Bangs essay on Brian Eno

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER