Monday, June 10, 2013

#683: Nothing's better left unsaid

If you're a rock fan, music blogger, music-criticism addict, or just a fan of great vivid addictive writing, Jim DeRogatis's LET IT BLURT (2000), a biography of legendary '70s rock critic Lester Bangs, is an absolute Must Buy.
But I won't blame you if you start reading on Page 50, when Lester starts writing music reviews for ROLLING STONE in 1969. That's where I started reading, & I devoured most of the rest of the book in less than a day.
There's a lot here. You get Lester's life story, plus a history of & close-up look at the people who invented rock criticism, & great inside views of what life was like at ROLLING STONE & CREEM & THE VILLAGE VOICE, plus some of the lyrics Lester wrote for his short-lived punk-rock band. There's a long, funny, previously-unpublished-in-book-form piece by Lester about How To Be A Rock Critic that probably contains more truth than Bangs & his colleagues would want to admit.
Plus there's a 27-PAGE bibliography of the hundreds of pieces Bangs wrote over the years. The actual text itself is 260 pages, & it doesn't seem like DeRogatis missed much.
The only problem is it would be hard to ADD much to the tons of material Lester published in his lifetime, in what were often passionately & hilariously open & unguarded, deeply personal discussions of his private life in the context of record reviews or opinion pieces.
I was glad to see this wasn't as sad a story as I expected -- far from it. Lester might not have had a gloriously happy life, but a lot of this sounds like Good Times to me -- being invited by RS record-review editor Greil Marcus to "write about whatever you want;" moving to Detroit & hanging out with rockers & out-of-control young music writers at CREEM (where Lester practically became The Voice of the magazine, in a stable of writers that also included Dave Marsh); moving to New York & catching Patti Smith & The Ramones & Talking Heads & Television & Richard Hell and the Voidoids & Blondie at CBGB's....
As DeRogatis makes clear here, & as Lester himself said in his works collected in PSYCHOTIC REACTIONS AND CARBURETOR DUNG and MAINLINES, BLOOD FEASTS AND BAD TASTE, Lester never stopped searching. Boredom & indifference were the big enemies to Lester -- both in music & when it came to people. He thought if we could all just talk with each other & listen to each other, maybe we'd somehow get through this ugly post-technological world -- which even in 1980 he saw mostly as people mimicking the latest hot addictive technology. It's gotten way worse since then.
When he felt the rock scene was getting too dark, Lester started trying to write other things -- almost-straight journalism, social criticism, philosophy (sort of). From an early age he knew he was a good writer -- & later on he was sure he was right up there with his heroes Kerouac & Burroughs & Bukowksi -- & possibly better than all of them.
He mellowed as he aged, but even his work from the early '80s could get pretty ferocious -- try his farewell to Sid Vicious, "Bye-bye Sidney, Be Good" ... or his piece on Miles Davis's mid-'70s work, "Music for the Living Dead." Ouch. & at all times, you knew there was A Real Person talking to you, warts & flaws & neuroses & all.
I was glad to see that Lester didn't die in as lonely & sad a way as Greil Marcus & Bruce Sterling had assumed previously. This is not a sad story, though parts of it are: Lester lost his father at age 8, he never married, he never had children. But he touched a lot of people & he inspired a couple generations of writers with his work (me included). There's never been anyone like him.
DeRogatis might've been the last person to interview Lester, in mid-April '82 for a highschool assignment to interview your heroes. & he gets a lot out of that interview. But I always want to know more. I just wish there had been more to get.

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