Does a typewriter qualify as a musical instrument? To Lester Bangs, it did. The brilliant, outrageous rock journalist who died in 1982 at age 33 from a cocktail of Darvon, Valium, and NyQuil, once joined the J. Geils Band on stage and proceeded to write/perform a live concert review on his “miked” Smith Corona typewriter. In his 1975 essay “My Night of Ecstasy With the J. Geils Band,” he said the prank was inspired by the boredom he expressed during a pre-concert interview with the group: “It was so sober it was sombre, it was dreary, it was death.”
At one point in the interview, Lester said, “Hell, the only difference between you musicians and us rock writers is that people can see you doing what you do. I can’t go up in the street and say, ‘Hey, honey, dig my far-out John Lennon review,’ because she can say, ‘Kiss my ass, Jack, how I know you wrote that?'” At this, J. Geils singer Peter Wolf decided to challenge the critic, saying, “All right, then why don’t you come onstage with us tonight and do your thing and let’s see what happens?”
Lester, a frustrated musician, was in heaven. Joining the band onstage for their encore, “Give it To Me,” he produced such memorable riffs as “VDKHEOQSNCHSHNELXIEN(&H-SXN(E@JN?”. At the end of his performance, the perpetually unkempt scribe destroyed the typewriter in a move that would have made Pete Townshend proud. He even took a curtain call! Hey, to paraphrase Chuck Berry, “he could play a Smith Corona just like a’ringin’ a bell.”
Like gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson before him, Lester’s poetic, absurdly-witty rants came gushing from his drug-addled brain in stinging torrents and saturated the page – and it wasn’t always pretty. And, like Thompson, he often became the focal point of his essays. But aside from the shenanigans, he was a gifted writer whose pieces livened up the pages of magazines like Rolling Stone, Creem, New Musical Express, The Village Voice, and Playboy. He never sucked up to the rock stars he interviewed, never gushed (except over Lou Reed), and wasn’t afraid to tear a record to shreds. Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner once fired him for writing a particularly nasty review of a Canned Heat album. But Lester was never deterred. He wrote of his contempt for the music industry – and rock criticism in general – in biting, often hilarious terms. Lester could be rude and confrontational; he often opened his interviews with the most obnoxious question he could think of.
Soulless music was (nearly) as prevalent in Lester’s heyday as it is now, and he ripped plenty of artists a new blow-hole. But I would absolutely love to hear his take on today’s synthetic, auto-tuned music and the artists who get more press for wearing cupcake bras and marrying Kardashians than generating music. Can’t you just imagine him going toe-to-toe (or tongue-to-tongue) with Miley Cyrus in an interview. Opening question: “So, little Hannah Montana, which brand of vibrator do you use while composing your songs?” And, without blinking an eye, she’d tell him. You know she would.
To get a sampling of his brilliance, read “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung,” a collection of his essays. And, for a great bio of Lester, check out “Let it Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs,” by Jim Derogatis.
Here’s a look at the late Leslie Conway Bangs. By the way, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman portrayed him in the film “Almost Famous.” Hoffman died in much the same way as Lester; though his drug of choice was heroin.
© Dana Spiardi, April 30, 2015