Perfect Sound Forever

A Final Chat With Lester Bangs (Part 3 of 4)

Portrait of the author as a young putz:
J.D. reads, Lester Bangs snoozes, April 14, 1982. Photo by my high school buddy, Ray Zoltowski

by Jim DeRogatis

What do you think about radio today?

I never listen to it. I don't even have any opinion of it, because it's so bad that I don't even bother. I will say this, when Michael [Ochs] and I were traveling across country, we traveled like for six weeks to Detroit, Chicago, Nashville, Memphis, Muscle Shoals, and New Orleans, then drove back here. And it feels real weird to be working on a book about rock 'n' roll at a time when radio is so bad that we kept it off most of the time. There was no rock 'n' roll on the trip.

You don't think it's as important a force as it was in the '60's.

I don't think rock 'n' roll is as important a force as it was in the '60's. Rock 'n' roll is getting like jazz used to beit's big in Europe. Those kids out there, they're concerned with getting good jobs and stuff. They'll go see Styx and it's like spectacle. It's very much leisure-time activity right now. It's just something to consume.

Do you think there's a danger of rock 'n' roll becoming extinct?

Yeah, sure. Definitely.

What would there be to take its place?

Video games. A lot of things we don't like to think about.

1994. [Re: his then-recent Orwellian fantasy in Music Sound Output].

Yeah. Did you like that piece?

It was pretty good.

I think that even right now it's like rock 'n' roll doesn't exist. On the one side you have this utterly homogenized margarine, and on the other side you have a bunch of people celebrating total incompetence. The idea of New Wave originally was like do it yourself, and because there's no rules, you come up with something really inventive and creative and good and interesting. Not just saying, "I can't play." Like Brian Eno gets these tapes from assholes that say, "Hi. We can't play our instruments either. Listen to this." He writes them back and says, "Listen, that's not the point." It's not that you're good because you can't play. So I don't know. These days, there's so little that is rock n' roll or that has any kind of vitality to it. It's almost like it doesn't exist right now. Don't you feel that way? Are you playing a lot of current stuff? What do you listen to?

New York Dolls and old stuff, I suppose. But I'm a Pink Floyd fan, too.

They're alright. Everybody wants to be so hip and they won't like... I had a Grateful Dead album out that I was playing for a while, and people would come in here like this writer from the NME and they'd be like, "Are you listening to the Grateful Dead?" You know what I mean, you're not supposed to say you like something by the Grateful Dead, you're only supposed to like Public Image, Ltd. until somebody else tells you you're not supposed to like that anymore. And that's just shit. I hate that kind of stuff. The NME is like the king of that. They were political for like a year and a half when it was correct to be, and then they were into fashion. Fuck that. You have to go by what you believe in, what you feel. That's the only way anybody ever accomplished anything. I'm sure there'll be some kind of renaissance of rock n' roll again as a backlash if anything against all this electronic computer stuff. There'll probably be a backlash of people doing things with acoustic instruments or just the human voice unadorned, a capella and stuff like that.

I hope not. I'm a drummer and I like loud stuff... Um, what do you think of rock video?

I think it's shit. I was out West not long ago, and I was stuck in Yuma, Arizona, where my sister lives, and I had nothing to do but sit in a trailer all day watch this Music-on-TV, this music station on cable. I sat there and there's Elvis Costello and Styx and Echo and the Bunnymen and Pat Benatar, all the New Wave stuff mixed in with all the Styx and R.E.O.-type stuff and it sucked. It all sucked dogs equally. No good! It's just, also I think there's something about video tape that's intrinsically cold, it lends itself to stuff like soap operas and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. It's sort of anti-rock 'n' roll right there.

What is Rock Gomorrah, your book with Michael Ochs, about?

It's sort of like a mixture of anecdotes and oral histories. We traveled all over the country and interviewed people everywhere, interviewed Brenda Lee in Nashville and Screamin' Jay Hawkins in New York and Sonny Bono in L.A., all these people in all these places and got all these stories of all sorts.

What's the new title?

Tales from Beyond the Grooves. It'll have like EC Comics lettering.

When's this coming out?

Before Christmas, I guess. For the holidays. We're turning it in next week if I can just get off my ass and finish it, you know? We're right at the deadline.

This is the third book, right, and the next one's the novel?

Yeah. I was originally gonna make my second album after I finish this thing with Michael but I figure I'd better write this novel, because it's been percolating around inside for a while and I've got to get it done.

When you're working on a book, how many hours a week do you work?

It depends. I get real lazy a lot of times. I'll go a long time without writing at all, then I'll write around the clock. Both of those other books, I did them... well, the Blondie thing, I didn't have that much time. And the Rod Stewart, I waited and waited and fucked around, goofed off, then I just had to stay awake for a week and write them. But this one, we've done it through the three years as we've gone, and it'll be better for that, I think. I'm trying now to get more discipline in my work habits.

Do you see a lot of concerts? Go see bands a lot?

No. I don't, you know. I've never liked live music that much, to tell you the truth. A few people. I like the Ramones. I liked the Clash for a while. Richard Hell and the Voidoids, the Stooges back when they were around. But you know, even the Stones I never liked live that much. And now, here in New York, the club scene is just so dead. You look in the Voice every week and there's nothing happening except these bad bands in these unpleasant places. The Palladium is hardly ever open any more. See, it might sound like, "This guy is talking a real depressing line" or something, but I just think that everybody is staying in their houses and listening to their old records and everybody is sort of digging in for the long haul. One would wish that it was otherwise, but that's the way it is. And, see, I mean, to pretend that it isn't is really bad faith to the readership. My responsibility as I see it as a critic is not to help a lot of new bands sell their records. It's to help people who are buying the records to keep from making a purchase that they're going to get home and hate my guts and the band's too because it's a piece of shit. And these critics, most of them, it's much easier to help the bands, because you get more work that way and every magazine wants to print reviews that say, "This is wonderful, this is great, go out and buy it." A lot of magazines won't even print negative reviews. A friend of mine does a record review column in Esquire, and it's like five positive reviews every time. They don't want you to say anything that's bad because they don't get advertising bucks that way. So it becomes like a facet of your groovy modern lifestyle. Well fuck that shit. I don't wanna be used like that just to sell product. I ain't a shill! And if that means you say everything suck, well I don't know. I don't know where I can go really from having as bad an attitude as I do, but it's the only attitude I think that you can have. The only person I know who thinks that anything is happening in music right now is Robert Christgau. I think he's great in a lot of ways, but you know...

He's a bit overly optimistic, I think.

He's crazy is the word that I use. Christgau's crazy.

What do you think about a feature like the Consumer Guide?

It's good that it exists. It is kind of amazing how he always has things... well, not always, but a lot of the times he has things exactly opposite. Like Iggy was no good until he did his RCA albums. Radio Ethiopia is Patti Smith's best album. Things like that.

Do you think there's any justification for being a rock critic? What makes your opinion better than the average guy out there on Sixth Avenue?

Nothing. Let him do it! You know?

If anybody can play rock 'n' roll, anybody can write about it?

Fuck yes! And does!

And you're just lucky that you make your living doing it?

Well, yeah, I guess. When I look back on it, it was obvious that I was gonna end up doing this because my two big obsessions were always music and writing. It's an outgrowth of being a fanatical record collector and a fanatical listener. You have fanatical opinions that you want to inflict on people.

Are you still on a lot of record company mailing lists? You don't do a lot of reviews any more.

I could be on more than I'm on, actually. I'm on more independent label mailing lists at this point. For example, I'm not on CBS. But I don't really care that much. I hear this stuff at my friends' houses. And if I hear something I like, I'll go out and buy it or I'll call them up. When I started out, we were all real chummy with the record companies, and it was real sick and kind of decadent. We were always getting sent on junkets and shit like that. It's better the way it is now. It's better for the hatred to be right out front. Christgau said I was elitist because of that, not caring if I was on the lists or not. But you know, your responsibility is to keep up with the stuff, as long as you keep up with it that's what's important. All of us who get the stuff in the mail, everybody just takes it and sells it anyway.

Maybe you think twice about it if you go out and buy an album or you get it for free.

I don't even see it like that. For me, being on all those mailing lists right now, the only reason for me to do it is to have all those albums to sell. And I think it would be kind of fucked up and sick and slimy for me to call them for that reason. I'm interested in hearing stuff, but so much of it is just so nothing.

Can you give me a brief run-down of some of the magazines you've written for?

Rolling Stone, Creem, Fusion, Phonograph Record Magazine, Teenage Wasteland Gazette, Punk, Ms., Oui, Penthouse, Playboy, NME, Music and Sound Output, Musician, Player and Listener, International Musician and Recording World, New York Rocker. Just about everybody. Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, The Village Voice, I forgot them [laughs], The Soho Weekly News, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times.

Are you going to continue to freelance while you're writing the book?

Got to. You've gotta live, got to be able to eat. I still freelance. Not as much as I did. But I've done freelance while I was writing this book.

I mean the novel.

Actually, no. I think I'm gonna go away for a while. I might do a couple of things, isolated reviews. But I wanna go away in isolation.

Drop out? We won't see you?

Kind of, yeah. Well that's sort of what I did when I went to Austin. One thing with doing this book, you have a choice really. You can upscale your groovy, swinging urban lifestyle and keep freelancing and make more money, or you can take the money and go apply it to something else that you want to do. That's what I did when I made that album in Austin and that's what I'll do now. I don't have a deal to sell this book or anything, I just hope that somebody will want it. If nobody wants the novel, well... it's something that I really want to do, and I figure that that's the most important thing.

Well good luck with that. Um, that's about it.

Well I hope I gave you some good stuff there.

It's interesting. That's some record collection.

That's the thing. How did I become a rock critic? I started amassing these things in 1958. And you just get more and more of them. More and more and more. It's like all I've ever thought about is music writing for at least 20 years now. That's what I think about all the time.

When you first started playing, you were a fan of rock 'n' roll and you just thought, "I can do that"? You were self-taught?

I'll say I was self-taught! Sure.

Did you want to imitate your favorite musicians?

Initially, it was sort of like a lark. And then... I had things I wanted to do. There are certain ideas that the best way to get them across is in a song. And you can do things with songs, like a lot of my songs are little short stories. I've always been really excited by the whole idea that a song can tell a story and have dialog and all that kind of stuff. Description and set the scene. And that's what I try to do. It's just a matter of finding the right people to do it with.

Yeah, I know. I'm always trying to put together a band.

See one of the advantages of doing the way I do it is that if somebody doesn't feel like they're committed for the rest of their life, you can get somebody that's real good.

Robert Quine?

Yeah, well, he's my favorite musician.

He's excellent on that Lou Reed record. That's some album. You have something for next year's Pazz & Jop.

Yeah. I got that. [laughs] There's a couple of things that I like. I like the Van Morrison album. By the way, do you have copies of my album and my single?

I've heard it, but I tried this week to find the album and I couldn't find it. I have the single on tape.

Well I'll give them to you! [shuffles through the stacks] Man, I'm right up to the end of this book, all I have to do is these few last little things and I'll be done, I'll get the money and everything. But I have no energy to do anything.

The worst thing is to re-read something a million times.

That's what I'm doing right now.

You find the stupidest things to do, anything to get you away from re-reading it again.

That's true. Here, I'll show you some of it. [more shuffling] Um, anybody in particular you might want to read about?


Wanna read about the Stooges?

Yeah, that's cool. Have you got the Dolls in there?

[Very enthusiastic] Yeah! You wanna read about the Dolls?

[break to read; tape resumes]

See Part 4 (of 4) of the Bangs interview

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