Lester Bangs: A Pretentious Hack Who Deceived A Generation

The James Joyce of music journalism (but not in a good way), Bangs' self-indulgent ramblings are rock and roll's greatest lie...
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The James Joyce of music journalism (but not in a good way), Bangs' self-indulgent ramblings are rock and roll's greatest lie...

In the pantheon of music journalism a couple of steady but deceiving myths have built up over the years. Firstly the idea that as an art form, the coda of writing about music somehow died out in the golden age of authenticity, mainly the early and late seventies, where narcissistic and self-indulgent writers were allowed to drone on for 20,000 words about Lou Reed’s haircut and Iggy Pop’s dustbin in the belief that they were chanting from a higher plane.

Secondly, there's this ridiculous notion that somehow the essays and reviews are much part of an art form as the records themselves. That in forming opinion, certain writers had both the influence and power to match the brilliance and fury of what lay between the vinyl grooves. It's a nonsense, born out of pseudo intellectualism for pseudo-intellectuals, and it's biggest culprit is a writer so unintelligible he may as well have written in fucking oven gloves.

Lester Bangs. If the name means nothing to you then without doubt you've saved yourself the biggest literary headache of all time. Bangs was the chief music journalist  for Creem magazine in the mid to late seventies, who championed the notion of criticism being art form. His long pieces - on everything from James Taylor to John Lydon - were written in a stream of consciousness style meant to represent the visionary nature of rock and roll. Its power. Its fury. Its emotional content on the page.

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So far, so good you might think, but what also stands up as an undeniable truth is that for the most part he was completely unreadable. From his dense, sprawling prose to his awkward self promotion - Bangs rattled on and on in the notion that sooner or later the reader might connect to a piece of clarity or more to the point feel sorry for him. A self-confessed loner, his long, whiney autobiographical pieces for Creem are the worst things he writes, reading like sixth form poetry carved on an oak tree. His revelations that relationships are difficult, love is great, and sex is the holy land are hardly the writings of a visionary genius, more the awkward musings of a depressed guy who wasn't getting any.

He also single-handedly tried to champion the self-destructive as chic notion. His morality on the machinations of the record industry and the narcissism of rock stars may have had a ring if truth to them, but he wasn't beyond championing their drug habits. Bangs took drugs for the worst of reasons too - not for artistic expression or enlightenment but because he wanted to walk in the shadow of the very people he was writing about. He was a groupie really. Following around Lou Reed like a demented lap dog, whilst the singer humiliated him in public. As an exercise in the liberating nature of rock and roll it was the equivalent of performing circus tricks like a trained seal.

It's telling in fact, that the very punk rock community he so championed were so dismissive of him. Speaking of the writer in his autobiography Richard Hell says of Bangs: 'he was a buffoon really. He was always drunk and the sincerity levels were pretty much intolerable.' For Debbie Harry too, he was hardly a beacon of virtue. In his book about the singer and her band 'blondie', Bangs had written a mean spirited and salacious account of them, leading her to say 20 years after it's release that 'nastiness is not a happy emotion, whoever you're writing about'. Guitarist Chris Stein was less diplomatic. 'His historical pieces stand up as crocks of shit because they're completely unreadable' he said.

Whilst Lester Bangs aficionados may disagree with that harsh critique, it may be closer to the truth than they think. For like reading Joyce's 'Ulysses', Bangs popularity may lot lie in enlightenment or visionary talent but in  the sheer fact that half of the time no one knows what he's going on about.

Follow Craig on Twitter, @midnightapes