You know the guy. The guy at the party. See, you’ve spotted a gap at the turntable. Your best girl is watching as you are going to take over the sounds. Maybe spin up Santana Abraxas and goose the volume up to six. Dig me.
And blammo here he comes. From nowhere, greasy hair, ill fitting Deep Purple T-shirt, yelling “Ohhh Good Christ No! No no no! Stop this shit!” He cuts the volume and grabs Santana off the player and slap down the MC5 in a deft move, cranks it to top volume, waits for the first few crunchy chords and turns on you.
“Sorry, man, we can’t have that,” he says almost, almost apologetically. You are backing away but still trying to maintain some personal dignity. You are embarassed, confused, when he plops a paw on your shoulder and starts shouting above the god-awful blare from the stereo, “MC5 man! We have to to listen to this! This shit is important!”
You don’t wanna be uncool, “Yeah well right, you know… nothing wrong with Santana, man.”
He laughs, “Fuck yes there is. That shit sucks. The sooner you realize it the better. Trite, godawful useless bullshit…. You know MC stands for Medicine Chest -- because these guys are so fucked up ALL THE TIME!!” And he spins off to wherever he came from and you’re left shouting at your girl about drunk weirdos who it’s better not to mess with.
It doesn’t take long to realize you should save Santana for when your parents are listening. Naturally you buy the Kick Out The Jams, get into it and start telling your friends. Then you feel like a fool when someone finally takes you aside and says, “Hey man. it’s not Medicine Chest, you idiot. It is Motor City… as in Motor City Five. Get it?” Got it.
And that is the job of the rock critic. To wise up the rubes. Get it right amigo. Let me explain what sucks in no uncertain terms. Lester Bangs did that maybe the best of anyone. And another rock writer does that for Lester himself, Jim DeRogatis, in his book Let it Blurt: The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Rock Critic.
DeRogatis is a top-flight rock writer, with several books out there, whose bona fides including irritating rock stars, being banned from Rolling Stone magazine and being named as a witness in R. Kelly’s child pornography trial. And as an aspiring rock writer, he visited the great man in his lair. The reader is in good hands here.
The opening parable above is quite dated. Bangs dropped dead of a combination of too much of everything in 1982 at age 34 -- even before the CD was the common recorded music format and ten years before most people had even heard of the internet. It was 18 years before he was immortalized on film in “Almost Famous” by Phillip Seymour Hoffman who would then go on himself to die of a drug overdose. (Weird, huh?)
The book is excellent. It is a thorough and interesting biography of a great writer and a detailed portrait of the music era Bangs wallowed in. There are biographical sketches of the bands and musicians he championed. Those of us always searching for juicy bits of rock and roll trivia and gossip are not disappointed.
And DeRogatis does not stint when later, Bangs felt unfairly relegated to the periphery of the various scenes and he turned on those same bands as only he could. DeRogatis makes no apologies for Bangs but also makes it clear the guy was a depressed mess, an alcoholic and drug addict with delusions of grandeur surrounded by enablers who seemed to want to wind him up and watch him go crazy.
But Bangs did have the undefinable, unteachable thing -- he had taste. He knew what was good. And he could write really well. He was also funny as all hell. Sadly when he began to understand the influential power of his writing he started to use it to settle personal scores. The downward spiral is sad and hard to take because DeRogatis’s affection for the guy, which becomes ours, is real and well told.
All the nasty bits are there, the dope and booze, the sad debacles -- but he also celebrates the passions and the art Bangs brought to his work. DeRogatis makes it clear no one before or since turned a phrase like Bangs. When Lester went off on the Yardbirds playing “buzzsaw fiddle an’ catgut snorkhollerers” for “us smokestack whizzbang jive cats” waiting for someone to come along and “kick out the jams” it felt like rock and roll.
You know that Lester always wished he was as cool as Lou Reed.Then again Lou Reed got to fashion a whole second act to his life and career and Lester didn’t. Stay off the Romilar kids. It’s not as cool as you think.