On December 14th, this December 14th, Lester Conway Bangs, while probably not the greatest writer of his generation, arguably its most vital so far to die, would have been 36. Haunted and driven by demons, so- called, a cheerless many of whom/what/ which — or their kindred ilk — he directly sought, found cum stumbled upon, or was inadvertently ensnared by on the demon picnic grounds of Rock and Roll, he never made it to 34.
Following the lead of a handful of babes in the rock-critical woods, one of which I'll admit (if sometimes reluctantly) to having been. Bangs at the dawn of the seventies played as prominent a role as anyone in both expanding the expressive boundaries of rockwriting as a form and giving it a voice that played the newer, more mannered and cautious, mass-market rockmags like Rolling Stone and Creem — the latter of which he even edited for awhile — as on the dime as it had played the catch-as-catch-can, limited-edition fanzines whence it came. Though he also served as the burgeoning genre’s most prolific scribbler, a mission he sustained with relative ease for the bulk of his days, it is to the man’s lasting credit that he rarely delivered copy on anyone’s dotted line. In fact, he probably “got away with more’’ in major- publication print than all his rockwrite brethren combined, conceivably (however) because it merely simplified matters to have a single Designated Outlaw, one entrusted with a blanche enough carte — and unmonitored options galore — to spike with “authenticity ’’ a rock-media stew of bogus Freedom and ersatz Candor.
Retrospectively cliched or not, there was an existential purity to the sheer commitment evinced by Lester’s prolonged wallow in (and about) the rock- and-roll Thing-in-itself. It was, in many ways, the critical headbang to end all critical headbangs; it would be hard to even imagine, for instance, a professional art-film bozo, a jock-sniffing sports jerk, or a food-review lunatic more uninsulatedy gung-ho vis-a-vis x — either as primary experience or typewrite wankery. His patented shameless multipage gush, coupled with an unswerving advocacy of certain conspicuously over- the-top rock genera (Velvet Underground offshoots; Heavy Metal; Punk Rock), made him a must-read favorite with both cognoscenti and dipshits alike, and he came as close to encountering idolatry per se as any non-musician in R&R. A good deal of which — natch —could not help hitting the self-consciousness fan, but while a man’s life was ultimately undone in the process (“I’m Lester — buy me a drink! ’’), the integrity of his art/craft was essentially unaffected. For, while he might have been a tad too glib-messianic those last couple years, he was by no stretch of things an opportunist, never really giving a hoot for what in squaresville would be known as a career. (Or, perhaps, unlike his role model Kerouac, he simply didn’t live long enough for that, too, to be strenuously tested.)
In any event: dead, cremated, literal ashes. California born (Escondido ’48), bred (El Cajon, ages 9-23), and traveled (I first hung with him in San Francisco, last in L.A.), Lester bought the big one on the opposite coast — his final home, the fabled Apple — April 30/82, ostensibly from a hefty pull of darvon employed, in lieu of aspirin, to placate the flu.
Since his death, variously interpreted as a mile-radius teardrop’s once-in-a- lifetime terminal burst, a joke and a half on both himself and his precious chosen whole damn Thing, and — by occasional uncouth louts — the final glorious triumph of his excess, the spectrum of Bangs-in-ongoing-print has dwindled from monochromatic /sparse to colorless/ nonexistent. Of the two books in his name which appeared during his lifetime, quasi-coffeetable numbers on Blondie and Rod Stewart, neither a particularly representative Lestorian effort (or even particularly good: the former admittedly hacked out “in two days on speed,’’ and looking it, i. e., ad hoc and forced; the latter disowned as a clumsy, if innocent, foray into “writing as whoring’’), both are either out of print — officially — or on the back burner of barely having ever been in same, at least as regards this coast, where I’ve yet to see either in bookstore one. Nor have two posthumous whatsems. Rock Gomorrah, cowritten (early ’82) with L.A.’s Michael Ochs, and a projected collection of unpublished fragments scrounged from Bangs’s apartment a day or two after his death, gotten more than inches off the publishing ground — the former for reasons which if herein revealed would get me sued but good, the latter because, in the words of editor Greil Marcus, “the stuff is less tractable than I thought at less than 5000 words or so.’’
Also stalled, and/or abandoned (and/ or nonspecific pipedreams to begin with) : all known plans to reissue out-of- print Live Wire LP Jook Savages on the Brazos, recorded, Austin, TX, Dec. ’80, by Lester Bangs & the Delinquents, lyrics and vocals by guess who. In fact, the only anything by L. C. Bangs readily available where availables are sold is his liner copy for The Fugs Greatest Hits Vol. I, released by PVC/Adelphi some months after he’d croaked, for which he (or rather his atoms) later copped a Grammy nomination, and for which, reliable word has it, he never was paid.
Well, I’ve been proven wrong; it hasn’t been easy recollecting Lester in even half a toto in so much tranquility. Didn’t seem like such a bad idea back when obits were appearing left & right and at least two- thirds of ’em smacked of revisionism at its well-intentioned worst; having ridden the range with the guy, having been as intimate with his daytime/nighttime revealed essence — I would bet my boots — as anyone in or out of various possible beds with him, I had fiery goddam galaxies to say in his behalf that were simply not being said, at least not in print by his designated peers; and, although my no longer living in New York couldn’t help but delay my shot, remote and after-the-fact seemed like the ticket, y’know anyway, for some major necessary rerevision.
But here it is two, two and a half years gone & more, and whuddaya know if all the raw goddam pain (at the loss of, yes, a brother) and jagged fucking anger (at a waste of life, life-force, and relative inconsequential like “talent” and “genius”), an unbeatable duo which for weeks, weeks, months gave the Lester totality so cosmic a shape, scale and intensity, have by their own inevitable burnout given way to the contemplation of standard-issue mere data, of the skeletal remains of a larger-than-life life which have come to make sense (or not) in too neat, too linear, a manner. Well — hey — fuggit: Even if grocery lists, chalk diagrams and hokey storytellin’ are the forms ongoing life-as-life has imposed on the mission, there’s still a heap of essential Lester information that could use, uh, exposure to printed-page light.
What too many write-biz intimates sought to do in the wake of his death was debunk the Lester Legend (solely) by reciting evidence that his bark was worse than his bite. While I’m sure he’d have “wanted it done” (i.e., have the saga-as- litany scraped of treacherous barnacles, or at least of their treacherous vogue), I can’t imagine the projected post-life intent of such a wish as in any way entailing cosmetic overhaul, especially in the service of moral/experiential object lessonhood. Lester’s day-to-day transaction with post-adolescent life-as- dealt was — let’s be conservative — 94 % anything but pretty. If he’d have wanted his entire whatsis to serve up viable scenarios for intimates and non-intimates alike (gee, would the Pope prefer to be Catholic?), there’s no way the deal’d come out even provisionally Lester-functional without interested non-intimates having retroactive access to as hefty an eyeful of the not-so-pretty — in all its hideous, non-Clearasiled blah blah blah — as intimates galore regularly managed to cop and, in their various personal ways, have already learned from. To deglorify an earlier incarnation of shit (which the man himself was clearly hellbent on doing in his waning days on earth) you’ve got to at least speak its name — loudly! — for the whole entire planet: c’mon now, one & all. A solemn responsibility (I call it) which, credibly/incredibly, the smelly sumbitch’s closest associates have, to this day, all but refused to consider.
To wit: For every time anyone saw the defanged, declawed Lester teddy bear rear its cuddly li’l head (see obits 2, 3, 5 & 7) the man was uncountable times the asshole, the buffoon, the sodden tyrant; been those things myself — in semi-prior lifetimes — so I know. Back in ’73, for inst, the soon-to-be-dead Lillian Roxon gushed shameless love for the s.o.b., in New York on Creem business, ordering up a Lester button and leaving it in his hotel box; response to this purest of offerings was “What’s that fat cunt want from me?” About a year later I get this call from Nick Tosches requesting that I please take Lester, who’d shown up at his door on acid, “off my hands”; took him to a party at John Wilcock’s place, during which he verbally brutalized Wilcock’s wife (in green Fingernails) for being a “hooker,” snapped at an affable Ed Sanders for being “the only alkie in the counter-culture,” and had nothing more to say to Les Levine’s Asian girlfriend (wife?) than “Yoko is a lousy gook”; further into the night, at Vincent’s Clam Bar in Little Italy, he literally bellowed ( more than twice), “There’s a lotta tackin’ wops in this joint.” And how can I forget the way he treated me and Nick, his closest approximate friends f'r crying out loud, as our wonderful editor while at Creem? He’d call us each up at 3 a.m. to urgently solicit various (rather specific) reams of pap, needed via Special D toot sweet; we’d climb outta bed, peck away bleary-eyed to whack out the closest possible takes on what he’d claimed he wanted, whereupon he’d reject ’em with a vengeance (“I won’t print beatnik shit”), then run thoroughly like-minded i. somethings — under his own byline — or with our words, usually verbatim, laced throughout. Just a few “examples,” dunno if they sound like big stuff or small, in any event typical Lester, with plenty, plenty more where they came from — y’know times n-plus-many.
In spite of such anticommunal upchuck, or quite possibly because of it — post-adolescent of a post-summer-of-love feather & all that — I did have deep affection for the bastard during my final years in New York; he could really piss me off (and I, I’m assuming, him) but bygones were always eventually ditto. In those days I generally shared his affection for The Edge, and might even’ve gone extreme slightly ahead of him; in January ’72, this is true, he actually dubbed me “the Neal Cassady of rock and roll.” But by fall ’75, when I split New York to at least simulate an escape from the Frantic and Hyper (and he subsequently arrived, ostensibly to embrace same), I was feeling the first stirrings of apprehension re my own prolonged massive intake of Edge Substances (emotional, cultural, but above all chemical) and was on the verge of an early series of attempts to, y’know, cut down, to maybe get off my collision course with all sorts of walls, both metaphoric and real. Lester, meantime, seemed on a rapid upswing in the intake dept.; what had so far served as mere horizon or frame for his trip, or at most been its semi-essential fuel, was now lunging headlong for the foreground of his life ... or should we call it the twin foregrounds (life as Mythic Construct; life as physical/emotional/cultural Hard Mundane Reality).
Hey, the guy was beginning to scare me. Certainly as an advanced — or rapidly advancing — version of what I no longer wanted to be and could (possibly) imagine once again becoming, but more as this vivid, palpable spectre of specialized human decomp not just out there but right there: a pal & a buddy headed (willy nilly?) for the sewer. From late ’75 immediately onward, on those unlikely occasions when separate coasts — underscored by far fewer rockwrite junkets — any longer allowed for it, I was usually unable to handle being in the same room with him, knowing I’d have to witness whole new increments of what could really no longer be passed off as anything but (gosh) misery and (dig it) horror. Where in the earlier ’70s it was almost cute — once in a while — the way Lester would stumble into classic self- directed drunk jokes (like the time he called me from the Detroit airport to tell me he was headed for an Alice Cooper show in London, presumably England, only he’d drunkenly got it wrong and was on his way to London, Ontario), there was this half-week in ’79, for inst, during which he hung out at Michael Ochs’s house in Venice with no daily design but to get skid-row-calibre gone and stay there, that was just fucking grim. Looking an unhealthy as I’d ever seen him, basic shit-warmed over with an ngly bump on his forehead (which he claimed he was “treating with Romilar”), he refused to eat without an Occasion. When, one evening, Michael and I pretty much dragged him to a Mexican restaurant, he refused to actually step inside until he’d fortified himself with the cottons from six Benzedrex inhalers — the local pharmacist was out of Romilar — busted open on the sidewalk with a shoe.
Washing down their remnants with a Dos Equis as his enchilada sat there staring at him, he quoted (or claimed he was quoting) Sid Vicious: “Food is boring.”
So, inevitably, when Billy Altman rang me up from N.Y.Clearly on a California morn, to let me hear it straight from a friend — “instead of from a creep” — my immediate response to no more Lester, steps ahead of all the pain & anger & whut, was holy fucking shit, the fucker finally did it; it’d been in the real-world cards for long-long times for Lester to cease to be. Though even on his gonest days he was no way a classic cornball suicide-romantic — heck, I don’t really think he was all that clinically suicidal (big-sleep fantasies never overtly/covertly lured him, not even metaphorically, from the darkest sub-basement of his World of Dread; nor was Danger, though he often nonstop lived it, itself the merest tickle of a ripple of a thrill for him, a context before the fact) — he’d sure staged more corny, frightful dress rehearsals than Jim Jones plus Judy Garland (squared) for simply ending up dead.
Biggest of which I ever saw was January ’81. I’m at Nick’s place in New York, en route back to L. A. from Montreal, when who should pay a surprise visite but Mr. Bangs, cassette in hand. It’s a tape of these tracks recorded during an Austin romp I’d heard about second or third hand (he’d planned to “live there forever,” it was said, ’til a night in the local drunk tank — on top of who knows what else — totally changed his mind), and in the course of the next 12-15 hours he played it, for us and at us, many times. Also during this stretch, after boasting, rather proudly, that he no longer drank, he managed to ingest at least 36 cough- suppressant tablets (three 12-packs of Ornical — we weren’t always watching) washed down with sizable slugs of bourbon, as there was nothing else but water to wash ’em down with.
All stages of this ordeal, in which Nick and I were little more than foils for surge upon surge of what we’d come to regard as typical Lestorian bathos, were hardly bearable in the state we were in (after far too many “nights with Lester,” going back to the days when we even could dig it, we’d opted for a change to take this one straight), but the morning-after phase was literally one for the books. On the umpteenth playback of what was soon to hit the racks as the Jook Savages LP, Lester insisted that one particular vocal was pure Richard Hell (in Lester’s cosmos an a priori yay); my dogtired no-big-deal of a response was it sounded existentially neater than that, more on the order of Tom Verlaine (a Lester nuh-nuh-no). Suddenly hair-trigger sensitive — in a performance-trigger vein — he tapdanced back with “Then I might as well go sell shoes in El Cajon.” Next cut he compared himself to somebody (very contempo) else, prompting me to comment, for non-pejorative, sleep- denied better or worse, that his vocals (across the board; in general) had the same basic flavor as those on such country-western parodies as Sanders' Truckstop or the Statler Brothers’ Johnny Mack Brown High School LP. Affecting grievous offense, as if any of his b.s. actually mattered (the Lester of ’73/’74 — in any chemical state — would merely’ve giggled), he took things up a full notch of indignant/sarcastic: “Well I guess I’m just no fucking good. ”
But he wouldn’t stop playing the crap, not with every cut looming as a supercharged occasion for kneejerk call- and-response, a challenge for him to goad Nick and/or me into goading him, in turn, into mock-self-deprecatory one-liners ad nauseum — a dress rehearsal, as it were — his puke-stained sweater seemed appropriate — for his triumphant appearance on Johnny Carson, which he had no doubt the worldwide success of his Blondie book would imminently require . . . along with a shot of his mug, cleanshaven, on the cover of People (over which he whined “fear” of besmirched personal image).
Ultimately Nick and I, weary of further compliance in so shoddy an interpersonal number, old buddy or not (and/or old bud in particular), found ourselves laughing in his face; enough was enough, and the sight of this bumbling mammal going gaga for an audience of two-who-knew- better was kind of otherworldly amusing. The object of our yuks, however, took it as us laughing with him: Great Moments in Standup/Audience Rapport! Swollen with illusory (or whatever) whacked-out self, Lester then proceeded to announce his program: (1) to save Rock & Roll; (2) to become president (presumably Oi the U.S. of A.); (3) to move to England and in turn save their Rock & Roll. As mere dipshit goals, nos. 1 and 3 meant topically little to either of us — geez, we’d all but buried the Anglo-Am mainstream as even an idle, y’know, sometime hobby or whatnot — but (2) hit us firmly, instantaneously, in the breastplate.
Lester’s neurons, no recent model of health to begin with, had made the short-circuit of Lester Bangs . . . [tenor saxophonist] Lester Young . . . (latter's nickname] Pres . . . Pres/U.S.A. per se!!!
Guffaw, guffaw — we guffawed — though I guess we could've gasped (or shuddered). Then: a heavy silence, as cosmic (or whatever) as it was awkward, filled presently by the man himself:
"Hey! I'm gonna buy some import albums! I'll get a whore I know to lend me her charge card! Cab fare too!" And he was off; no amiable nudging, no “Get the fuck out of here" could take the place of timeless vinyl hunger. Gone at last — and we gave him (in all solemn, empirical, non-jive reckoning) six months to live.
But of course he fooled us, by (nearly) a whole damn calendar year. Surprise, surprise: but an even bigger surprise was the extent to which he managed to actually turn things around — well, almost — during that extra annum, especially during its. and his. final months. Not only was he still among the living, not only did he no longer seem conspicuously earmarked for premature exit — the Lester with whom I spent a rather refreshing week in February '82 gave every indication of having already gone beyond mere survival (as an issue) and appeared, astonishingly, to be thriving on the theme.
In L.A. following his mother's eventually fatal stroke and staying with his 56-year-old half-brother in Studio City, he accompanied me one night to a low-stakes poker game attended by members of the Blasters, the perfect setup, you’d figure, for Lester to revert to type. But no, he just minimally fun-&- games'ed it like anyone else — no lookin' for opportunities to “be Lester," no showing off for rock-roll peers either verbally or intakewise. no diving for the evening's jugular and letting 'er rip — and after two beers (!). without so much as a grimace, he declared he’d had enough. Postgame he engaged Phil Alvin in a lively musical dialogue, but at no point did fightin' words fill the air, or were axes even poised for grinding. The pair agreed to exchange tapes — a wholesome friendship in the making — and next day Lester complained (true, true) that reefer had been smoked.
As the week wore on in consistent, low- key fashion. I was struck by the fuckload of inner capacities the guy was perceptibly calling on, left, right and center, to extend his defiance of Death to the domain of just plain living, capacities I hadn't caught sensory evidence of — all previously told — for more than 11 minutes total. A far cry from anything as cheaply benign as, let's say, more frequent eruptions of "Lester washes the dishes" (see obit 04), what I got to witness was kind of on the order of a whole new Lester, one who'd finally found a non-lethal, functionally less jagged (though in no way “benign") rhythm for his life. Engaging him in tight quarters with more open-heartedness per se than I*m sure I’d ever mustered (sharing an Edge does not always make for brotherhood-by-numbers. let alone by pure, unedited inclination), I willingly submitted to his rap/rant and bought its tenor if not its verbatim transcript; by the time he returned to New York, his mother still hanging on. I’d seen and heard a New Lester series pilot that could credibly have played — prime time — on the Pro- Life Network.
For starters, he’d learned to slow down, to proceed apace through a given experience without easy reliance on everpopular on-off switches. He'd gotten far more selective about the company he kept, seeking out, for the first time in his known adult life, social interactions stressing soulwarming interpersonal comfort over thrash-trigger me-you tribulation. A good deal less insistent upon strapping each day to an emotional chopping block (as recalled, for inst, in that old chestnut of his, “I need to be in love!"), he'd begun to let his life embrace emotional motifs of greater duration and resiliency. And. as stuff like this fed back to his theoretic apparatus, even Lester's ideas (as stated) began to display an unexpected day-to-day congruity; no longer, it seemed, would he write an anti-racist wowser for the Village Voice in one breath and scream, "Fuckin’ niggers!” at Village Oldies the next. Lester-as-flux had had its thoroughly engaging run. and for this to give way to a “maturer” unpredictability was not the worst of possible outcomes.
Even the drastic reduction in Lester’s intake of physical poisons bore little trace of on-the-wagon-or-bust — y'know, as if any day, minute, second the tension of it all would cause him to snap right back with equal vengeance — particularly with its status as but part of a whole-body package that included both eating at regular intervals and a radical olfactory modification: He now took baths. (One afternoon in ’74 Nick and I met Lester at some ritzy midtown hotel. Though he’d been in the room all of an hour, the smell was like a dog had died there, and been left to rot, weeks or months before. Consequently, we vetoed his offer to call down for drinks on Creem’s tab, suggesting, to his consternation, that any dump of a bar would be more, uh, whatever. Many of his heterosex liaisons had foundered on the rocks of precisely this issue.)
In terms of cultural orientation, no longer was he monomanically enslaved to rock & roll (-or-perish). For virtually the first time since the sixties he didn’t need, burningly, brand new Big Beat LP’s in his mail slot each (and every) day; the state of the Art, wobbling on a multi-year terminal gimp, no longer served as his external psychic barometer, his armband of first-person pride (or shame); having finally produced Music of his own, to severe personal specifications (regardless of the giggles it inspired in jerks like me), he no longer needed to prove anything with it or through it. Crucially, though some would probably like to deny it. he no longer saw Rock’em-Sock'em as a viable metaphor for his (or any, kindred or otherwise) state of being, viewing it as the all too easy — and ultimately, revoltingly, unsatisfactory — crystallization of (mega-numerous) blank and scattered lives. Lester's break with rock-roll mythos as his be-all/end-all of etc., which I have no doubt (had he lived) he’d've sooner rather than later made official, was as profound, and profoundly moving, as his break with the Myth of Lester. As one committed jackass who’d made the same painful transition — goodbye, Rock-Automated Self! — I knew how tough a bond the chronically intermingled personal/cultural can be to crack (and my heart went right out to him).
It also warmed my cockles, considering his record in the mere civility dept., to see him relate (graciously) to his half- brother’s wife, this unaffectedly pretty 21- year-old rural Mexican the macho blusterer, a stuntman by trade, had recently acquired, maritally, while on location Down South. Though she knew pun near zero English, my first sight of her she was watching some random English-language crap, while hubby rested for a shoot of the Fall Guy series, on the tiny TV in her fussy suburban kitchen; materially cozy for the first time in her life, she seemed lonely, disoriented, far from home. Silent and solemn, she visibly stiffened — shyly? menially? — at the intrusion of Lester, my girlfriend Irene and me. only to be put at ease by Lester introducing us, without missing a beat, as, well, friends of the family. Like it mattered to him that she feel like family — and thus shared in all aspects of etc. — and for a moment the loneliness left her face; she smiled broadly, shook (or at least took) our hands, went back to her tube.
But what came off as so genuine when he was dealing with his family, his friends, kind of sputtered into the ether when he tried to branch it to the family of Man. Whenever he got to talkin' Hard Humanism, which had all the earmarks of being his preoccupation of (Rock- replacement) record, he’d make these broad, lecture-ish, relatively flavorless statements which often didn't wash.
Never wholly credible 'cause once again he seemed to be performing — without booze/etc. but surely with a script — he’d say thus & such about human courage and folly that not only had an artificial ring, it tended to run in direct opposition to what had clearly been his experience. Even his word choice sounded stilted, alien, not his own; when he spoke of "women" he could easily have been reading straight from a column in Cosmo.
A lot of which suggested a Lester so hellbent on being a good boy once and for all that to merely work overtime cleaning up his own act was scarcely sufficient; he had to render a transpersonal commentary that made his good intentions “universal,” even if the topical universality he’d taken an option on was simply the first he found it comfortable song-&-dancing a provisional connection to. There were moments when his bill of particulars made me uneasy, realizing that to intellectually challenge any of this would be like kicking mud on some kid’s newest/truest pastime, 'specially when it was one so socially redeeming, so non- self-destructive. one which, for all intents and purposes, I basically shared with him anyway. What really counted was the miracle of Rock Tough Guy #1, after 15 years of rocknroll plug-in and little else, during which he'd come to thread that needle upside down (and asleep), to the point (even) of smugness, flipness, pomposity, out on a goddam limb over something else: a neophyte at last! (I could dig it.)
Anyway, finally, on the last night of Lester's stay — which worked out as our last time together, period — we did something we’d previously never found the appropriate nexus for: trading rants (in earnest) with blank tapes a-rolling.
For something like five-six hours we went apeshit re such topics as: the sellouts & prejudices of mutual colleagues; novels and novelists; New York as (quite possibly) the coldest outpost on Emotional Earth; the usual standard rockish garbidge (plus some un- and some non-). We also hit on shrinks-we- have-known, with Lester's rap on this rooty-toot of a subject being the single one, from the four-and-a-half hours I’ve so far transcribed, which most tellingly nutshells the excruciating self- examination he had to've undertaken — and undergone — just to be sitting around discoursing as fluidly as he was, to’ve transcended whatever the fuck en route thereto:
“Like I went to a psychoanalyst, one in New York and one in Detroit, for a total of, I dunno, three-and-a-half years. I finally concluded, I mean yeah I’m insane, I’ve got my problems, my sicknesses are fucking me, yeah, I’m sure they both probably helped me, y’know, I know the last guy in New York, it's like everybody I know was totally appalled by my drinking and drugging, well like you, right, and everybody else had the same reaction, y’know, except my shrink. He’d say, ‘No, that's alright.’ I went out to this, he had a country retreat, a whole bunch of us would go out there on weekends. And the first time I went there like I got drunk on Friday night, and Saturday morning I got up and washed down a bottle of Romilar with a bottle of beer while sitting on a slick rock by the stream. I got this great idea for something I wanted to write, I stood up on the rock in boots like these and whoosh, went like that and smashed, see it, the scar on my nose? That's how I got it, smashed my face open.
“And he thought my druggin' and drinkin' was great, y'know? He said, in fact he kind of told me I'd be not as great of a writer if I gave all this stuff up. And I said, 'Yeah, but look at all these people, they rot away, they end up like self- parodies like Kerouac and Burroughs and all that sort of shit.' And he said. 'No. no, not everybody's like that.' I said, How could I someday be 55 years old and have to take a handful of speed to sit down at the typewriter?' Well he said, 'People do it. heh heh heh!' Well both my shrinks, especially this guy, they had real great humanist compassion and empathy and all that, but I know what both of 'em did, and in the long run in essence they were no good for me, because they were getting off on me being there. It’s like they’re so bored, one housewife alter another, 'I don’t love my husband, I don't know why.’ Then they get someone like you or I that's actually interesting, that has ideas, and so it's fun time for 'em. I mean if I hadda follow this guy’s advice I’d be dead, uh, pretty soon.”
Hmm: one effing eery end-of-quote as, alas, all is now dust — reactively acquired caution or no. Possibly possibly possibly, any tonnage of prudence would inevitably have proven insufficient for the autopilot courses he was still, evidently, all too capable of flying. Or, reversing horses and carts, maybe his tortured shell was already jus’ too beat-to-shit, with even a radical lessening in his scale of abuse being too little — archetypally — too late. And then there’s this pharmacological biz about purified cells succumbing to doses they’d have been more than up for when poison was all they knew. (And can we ignore the Wrath of Influenza?)
Even if, to some bitter-enders, his death remains as shrouded in formal “mystery” as those of Eric Dolphy and Warren G. Harding, all-of-the-above can't help but provide a not-unlikely profile of how Lester came to die. Throw in a few more mainline Causalities (cultural: rock-roll glut, esp. coupled w/ too literal an intoxication with Kerouac, Celine, et al; primalpsychological: a childhood more woeful than most, his Jehovah's Witness mom — pushing 50 when she had him — mind-setting, almost singlehandedly. a chronic “inability to cope"; geographic: the Apple, even when it wasn't absolute Edge Central, affording him. given his makeup, scant opportunity for inner peace) and you'd easily have an explanation that 'd hold up in a court of his cronies/cohorts/camp followers.
But if Lester was the pawn, victim, and (indeed) fellow traveler of such easy- Aristotelian a-implies-b, he was also, in those last fitful months, a scatterer of all such shit to the winds, a man who showed his true destiny muscle by throwing all the elements out of on-the-head mythopoetic sync just when they threatened, conspiratorily, to reduce him to merely another Jim Morrison. Jimi Hendrix. Mr. Kerouac. Screamingly, courageously, he committed himself, as wholly (really) as possible, to a counter-causal gameplan which even if flawed — and accidents, y’know, happen — did actually manage to defuse (at least where I live & breathe) the mythic oompah of any time-delayed rat-trap he may subsequently (or previously) have fallen in. If there's anything almost pleasing about the timing, the anti-drama, of Lester's death, it's the monumental Mythic Disjuncture factors he'd set in motion were thereby — implicitly, explicitly — to forever effect.
LESTER’S (WRITERLY) LEGACY — “One of rock’s most colorful characters, Bangs made his reputation as a pugnacious, participatory journalist who was not above picking fights with rock stars in pursuit of a good interview." So wrote one voice of prevailing wisdom, Patrick Goldstein, in the May 9/82 L.A. Times; nothing — latter part — could be farther from the truth. If Lester (the writer) more than once battled Lou Reed into (and beyond) the wee hours of etc., it was not to get a story, it was to live a story: to encounter all the rock-related being his writerly credentials (as a wedge) were able to afford him (as a person)'. Nor was he in any way enthralled by the sickening spectacle of stars being stars; artists, maybe, but stars, fug 'em. When he as mere citizen found himself face-to-face with the pose, pretense, and professional guardedness of such gaudy, extraneous creatures, Lester could not (for the life of him) deal with such crap but to cut right through and speak, directly, to the mere citizen in them, or (failing that) force the situation into functional self-destruct — before the fact of anything so dispassionate as actually “writing it up."
That his eventual write-ups tended to display utter contempt for the entire food chain of music-corporate life, often biting, intentionally, a grimy hand that could not’ve been more willing — his mighty Credentials & all — to feed him, heck, fatten him, was but half the take-no-shit of Lester's essential statement as a writer de rock; forcefeeding the stuff, his stuff, the stuff-as-writ, to the only marginally less corporate (or grimy) running dogs of rockwrite publishing was at least as pugnacious a gesture of this-is-what-I-am/this-is-what-I-do/take-it-or-be-fucked. Since the extent of his success in shoving it down so many otherwise unyielding editorial throats may have had less to do with his willful intent than theirs — camouflage, for inst, for their being life-deep in major-label record company pockets — its significance at this juncture is, at most, merely ironic; the reciprocal influence, in any event, of his ease at getting published upon subsequent moments of raw critical-expressive spew was procedurally nil. In fact, what may most enduringly matter about Lester's approach to his chosen profession, way ahead of dandy journalistic touchstones — "courage," “integrity,” “pride in craft" — that he ate for breakfast like so much broken glass (but which, really, you can still get from Nat Hentoff and Howard Cosell), is the “anti-professional," forcibly non-dehumanized square-one struggle he by design submitted to — and could not. with any kernel of his humanity, avoid - in order to pump out critical prose of any scale of note. (Pugnacity with form; with ritual creative context; even — especially — with roleplaying writerly/critical self.)
That he was ofttimes a great writer/critic, so-called, was but icing on the cake. That scant few others, on the hottest days of their lives, have even approached him — or particularly cared to, considering the requisite gravity and passion of the chore he’d set — probably says as much about their investment in lesser quals of cake as it does about the relative inadequacy of their writerly follow-through. Rockwriting is, and nearly always has been, the trade of simps, wimps, displaced machos, brats and saps; of, in Lester's own words, “ass-kissers of the ruling class”; of fuddy-duddy archivists with cobwebs on their specs; of pathetic idealizers of a lost youth no one has ever (even approximately) experienced or possessed; of sycophantic apologists for chi-chi trends, musical and extramusical alike, without which (so they've always claimed) “rock is dead”; of binary yes/no cheeses with the cognitive wherewithal of vinyl, shrinkwrap, the physical column- inch. Rockwritin' Lester, like anyone else in the trade, was certainly each of these things from time to time, though (probably) none of 'em, singly or in tandem, for longer than the odd off review. Sadly, though his untradelike comportment surely tantalized mere tradefolk while he lived — at least in terms of Style — and even begat a not-half-bad (early-’70s) clone in “Metal Mike" Saunders, his actual abiding sway among such clowns, beyond the occasional liftable riff, was — as it continues to be — infinitesimal.
Finally: the twin silly questions (1) where a still-living Lester might hypothetically've taken it (i.e., beyond the rockwrite fishpond) and (2) what such imaginary newstuff could/would conceivably’ve meant to his basic audience. Second one first. Okay, that Lester's rockstuff generally read so hot as personal testimony is one thing; for it to have been perceived by so many as being eminently, genuinely about something — something rather specific, in fact something "rear’ — is something else. When you get down to it, the gospel of Lester's radical about-ness rested largely on a big hunk of readerly illusion, the illusion of a functional one-on-one between the guy’s fertile imaginings and the psychic infrastructure of rock & roll as dealt; there could be harsh discordance, of course, but as long as a firm relationship could (for whatever readerly vested interest) be consistently inferred between Lester’s mindgames and rock’s g-g-games per se, you at least had the stamp of a viable — if totally simulated — one-on-one. But, really/truly, while Lester’s psychic playground may surely have been one drastically twisted maze, its actual correspondence (sympathetic, hostile, whatever) to rock's own labyrinth, one so airtight and dank as to make his seem like wide open etc., was far too often naught but a matter of readerly convenience. Everyone loves a cipher, a living/ breathing anagram or two. even some — hey — with flaws more rampant than Lester’s, but for the man’s writerly service to’ve been gauged (almost solely) vis-a-vis his reliability as a stand-in cipher-of- x, y’know for readerfolk too lame — or lazy — to suss out x themselves, is the real tragedy of the trip, particularly when the first-&-final glue of most folks’ attachment to his writing was never much more than their own desperate attachment to an x they could, and should, have been accessing more independently (and less desperately) to begin with.
So, anyway, here's the rub. Had Lester lived long enough to both sever his own desperate rock connection — officially, in sheets read by his fuckheaded fans, simply by writing other stuff — and, furthermore, to back it up with an equally official rejection of the Fount of Neurosis from which he'd sung its tune (and they'd listened), it ain't really much of a longshot to imagine him losing a huge percent of the fuckheads — certainly the most gung-ho among 'em — in, well, no time flat. And, c’mon, how much of an immediate, uh, new audience was he likely to yank in writing up (as he insisted he would) such transcendently pivotal mere-humanistic trifles as the dearth of love (as we know it) in scene X or Y . . . how this set of new-age culture jerks uses that set of new-age culture jerks as props in regards to bluh . . . New York editors who pull rank (pshaw!) along collegiate lines [a hard-hitting exposé] . . . or, I dunno, something about shams and follies in clothes and/or grooming?
Plus, well, though, um — (even if) — then again: Aside from loss of ad hominem authority due to the fickle scumbait nature of the pop-world Beast, aside from the fact that many of his generic partisans would prob'ly now be targeted, topically and even personally, in scathing printed-page rants, aside from the limited run such goulash (Sensitive Ties His Laces, w/ Brass Knucks & Footnotes) has ever had — hey — can ever/will ever have . . . aside, aside, aside — the most glaring fact fact is how few times, as of his death, he'd as yet even aspired to the heights (or whats) or non- rock journalism. Four-five-six, some number like that, in the Voice and wherever else, all of ’em still pretty much rockwriterly appendices to the rockwrite “adventure," meaning he had a good ways to go before he'd’ve got the wings/chops/ legs for a total-pulp plunge (or at least a regular shift) at full oldtime capacity (but with newtime thrust and content). Which would’ve been no fall from grace no matter how you scope it — give the boy time (for fuck sake) to stumble and bumble and get it right — but how would any possible Lester have dealt with a (previously amenable) shithook book co. like Delilah telling him not now, sonny when he handed ’em a ream of copy on (let’s imagine) friends who’re fuckups? Personal persona limelight Lester had learned to live without — but writeperson limelight? (It would not’ve been easy.)
Okay, he's dead. All this brand new grief and hardship never befell him; never will. But words on pages remain: What is their lot? Lester's standard fare was so paradigmatically “of the moment" that he was the rockmag shootist. But books of the stuff? Nah; it’s kind of nebulous how even his best mag outings will wear when inevitably (??) anthologized. For someone so public in his orientation, both as input and output, he was — don't laugh or even smirk — one of rock’s more precious and fragile "private moments.” Private moments you can always document — coercively, of course — but try and play ’em back and. well . . . we'll all see, I reckon.
LESTER LEAPS IN — Y’all know all by now how Lester leapt out of New York; lemme just finish with how he leapt in. His first night in town, just a visit, fall "72, he stayed with me and my girlfriend Roni, West Village, 104 Perry St., apt. 4. Arriving semi-direct from JFK, he split pretty quick for the nearest grocer, returning with three six-packs of Colt 45. What he did for the next day and a half — all he did — was wade through 18 big ones, half quarts, as follows: start can, drink fast, get tired; fall out, dropping remainder; awaken following can’s impact with floor; stagger to fridge for fresh one; repeat cycle. What he mumbled or muttered during any of the 18 pre-fallout phases I simply do not recall.
So like hey y’know wo hey hey wo-wo hey, OLD SPORT: love ya, hope I didn’t cramp yer style, g’bye.