Lester Bangs, the greatest music journalist of all time, is my hero. A flawed one and, sadly, one who died during the year that I was born, but my hero nonetheless. I first encountered his work soon after graduating to “proper music” admiration, when given an anthology of writing about The Clash. This book, ‘Passion is a Fashion,’ featured a lengthy article by Bangs about the band, and his writing about The Clash, punk and music in general began an admiration which still hasn’t left me.
Bangs’ work inspired me to become a music journalist myself, which might have happened if my then-boyfriend had actually posted my application for a job at the NME. He claimed he did send it, but I have always harboured suspicions that he pocketed it instead to prevent me from moving to the big smoke and leaving him for a King of Leon. It worked. I became a teacher and married him instead.
I did, however, manage to sneak Bangs into my academic life, if not my working one, by writing my MA dissertation about him in 2005. This 20,000 homage to my hero is still one of my favourite things that I’ve ever produced (beautiful daughter aside, obviously), and I’m reproducing a little chunk of it here for my own nostalgic purposes and to get involved with #NonFictionNovember. I hope I’ll find the time to revisit Bangs’ work soon to consider his legacy in the internet age, when music journalism has become something entirely different, and increasingly marginalised (RIP NME).
WRITING FROM THE CULTURAL GHETTO
Bangs’s greatest obstacle in the battle to be taken seriously as a writer is the genre within which he works; while most critics acknowledge the merits of his writing, music journalism ‘remains in the cultural ghetto.’ DeCurtis attributes the lack of recognition for writing on popular music to the youth of its main audience; consumers of such music are mainly teenagers, who, according to the critic, lack ‘cultural clout,’ and represent the demographic ‘least likely to place its faith in critics.’ Dahlgren and Sparks’s wide-ranging anthology on Journalism and Popular Culture includes chapters on sports journalism and celebrity-gossip tabloids, but makes no mention of music writing. In his biography of Lester Bangs, Jim DeRogatis expresses a belief that music journalism, of which he too is a proponent, is wilfully resistant to academic analysis, commenting ‘we refuse to let theoretical discourse squeeze the life out of our prose,’ but in light of many writers’, most notably Bangs’, oft-expressed yearning for critical recognition, this seems like proud bombast rather than an honest reaction to remaining in the academic wilderness.
In his essay ‘How to be a Rock Critic: A Megatonic Journey with Lester Bangs’, the critic himself turns on his profession, advising prospective music journalists that ‘talent has absolutely nothing to do with it, so don’t worry if you don’t know how to write.’ Bangs is equally scathing in reference to the dearth in originality which he finds in his contemporaries; his recommendation to ‘take one riff and staple it to another; and if you get tired of thinking about how you’re a rock critic, remember William Burroughs and the cut-up method…I do it all the time’ is simultaneously an ironic comment intended to irritate his contemporaries and a brutally honest reflection on how Bangs feels about his work. In his biography of Bangs, DeRogatis relates an anecdote of the writer disposing of all the novels in his collection in an attempt to prevent his unique style being overly influenced, so the need for originality was obviously a concern for Bangs. While Bangs may subject himself and his contemporaries to a fairly virulent critique in this piece and elsewhere, the target of ‘How to be a Rock Critic’ is the editors and publishers who allow substandard ork to reach the readers; Bangs’ difficult relationships with editors has already been alluded to in the discussion of rivalry between high-profile underground music magazines, and here, his sign-off as R.J. Gleason, the co-founder of Rolling Stone, follows in this vein of opposition to authority. The reader is given a definite idea of who Bangs blames for problems in the music press, and his resistance to the hierarchical nature of music criticism is reflected in his unconcerned response to the academic who tells him that ‘magazines were a waste of time if I wanted to be a writer.’ Bangs’ attitude to any representative of ‘the establishment’ implies a lack of interest in being critically recognised for his work, but his tendency to put down his own work, it can be argued, comes from a realisation that such critics will never praise his writing.
Bangs continually attempts to demystify the dual worlds of music writing and music itself, and while ‘How to be a Rock Critic’ is the most indicting example, elsewhere he also demonstrates a disregard for his profession. Although DeRogatis criticises Greil Marcus in his anthologising of Bangs for failing to include ‘memorable essays in which he [Bangs] mocked the music industry and the business of rock criticism,’ traces of Bangs’ faltering belief in the inherent worth of the career to which he has devoted himself appear through the bravado of many of his writings. His obvious unease during the events described in ‘The Great El Cajon Race Riot’ make him uncomfortable with his role as ‘top pop journalist,’ and he is eager for the reader to understand that there is more to him than ‘being a hotshot jivescamming rock magazinero;’ although DeCurtis asserts that ‘writing about rock & roll is no job for the self esteem impaired,’ it may be the case that the overblown hubris of many music writers masks deep-held insecurities about their place in both the rock critics’ hierarchy and the opinions of their readers. While it is not the aim of this argument to psychoanalyse the intentions of music journalists, Lester Bangs and his work serve as an interesting prism through which to view the genre, because of his obvious lack of regard for much of what it entails.