Question of the Week: Lester Bangs; Man, Myth or Mix?


December 2, 2007 by A.C. Rhodes

Music writers, rock mag enthusiasts and musicians alike have revered him, scorned him or thought, “eh.” So, what are your thoughts?

Anyone making jokes about cough syrup mixture will be cyber-spanked, however understandable the temptation.

27 thoughts on “Question of the Week: Lester Bangs; Man, Myth or Mix?

  1. A.C. says:

    I’ll start since, admittedly, he is a writer near & dear to my heart as I know he is to others & I feel somewhat protective of him. I look @ Lester Bangs as the Jack Kerouac of rock writing. Unfortunately (like w/bands R.E.M. & Nirvana), there are subsequent poor imitators.

    That aside, there are so many elements responsible for or @ least explain someone’s essence. Somehow, between his background, (self) education, personality & the generation he was part of, it seems he became someone able to connect with all of the people some of the time.

    When I talk with friends about him, we all come up with different aspects of what we admire, whether it be his interactions with artists, how he presented subjects, or tales of his exploits via other voices.

    Put together, along with a man’s untimely demise, that’s a powerful dynamic – something for everyone, whether seen as the cool writer or cool older brother.

  2. Alex V. Cook says:

    I knew Lester Bangs was the guy for me when his piece on Astral Weeks that opens Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung sent me out running to buy a Van Morrison record, which before then was an unthinkable thing for me to do.

  3. Cory Frye says:

    For good or ill, it’s because of Lester that I own Contact High With the Godz through Godzundheit. Even all these years later, his infectious passion can reach through the pulp and choke you into doing his will.

  4. Bob says:

    While I consistently read about all these Lester wannabes, I have yet to see anyone name names. I assume it’s a blanket statement to include all bad writers who use first person. If so, that’s simply a default position of bad writing and has nothing to do with Lester.

    Boiler-plate prose is far more prevalent. “Don’t know what’s in the water in Detroit these days, but garage-rock bands aplenty…” or “The Black Hives have created easily what must be the best album of 2007.” Or just the really flat stuff you see in monthly mags.

    And then there are the “Bruce Springsteen re-affirmed my belief in life” essays where an aging rock writer takes his son to a Springsteen concert and the poor kid says a few complimentary things since he doesn’t want to disappoint his dad and suddenly life as it should be is upon us.

  5. s woods says:

    Yeah, I’m with Bob–I’ve been noticing for years now (and Richard Riegel once told me he felt the same way) that “critics who ape Lester Bangs” is actually a much bigger cliché than critics who actually ape Lester Bangs, if you know what I mean. There’s a whole “school” of imitators out there who don’t actually exist (though once in a while I suppose you see its head pop around the corner).

  6. A.C. says:

    I only happened upon them while an editor @ the alt newsweekly in town. It was hell telling them that they weren’t exactly Beat level. They didn’t agree & got rather huffy about it.

    Others I heard about from rock mag editors cropped up around the early ’80s & persisted through the decade, though I doubt they saw their names in print. I haven’t heard about this being much of an issue recently.

  7. theresa k. says:

    i think the influence of great and/or writers going all the way back to the very beginning of literacy is so prevalent that those who ape them might not know they’re doing it.what i don’t like is when an ignorant hack starts saying his bad writing is OK because lester bangs or jack kerouac or faulkner (just to name some writers with distinctive anti-rules styles) broke the writing rules.what i always liked about lester bangs is that you always knew it was his opinion and that he was passionately defending his opinion… and of course, any writer who writes: The point is that I have no idea what kind of a writer I am, except that I do know that I’m good and lots of people read whatever it is I do, and I like it that way. shows me that he understands the absurdity of commenting about things so subjective…

  8. s woods says:

    I hear what you guys are saying… didn’t mean to sound so harsh in the previous response, it’s just that the “Lester imitators” chorus is too often employed as a strawman argument against the relevance (or whatever) of rock criticism, and as Bob says, examples of these Lester imitators are never given.

    I agree that there probably was more to this in the ’80s, and also among younger critics whose life was changed by Bangs’s writing. It’s hard not to read Bangs at a young age and not to some degree mimic him. I bet 90% of the critics who grew up reading him at Creem or wherever in the ’70s did exactly that–the better amongst them, of course, developed their own voices over time.

  9. A.C. says:

    Like I said, the reason the LB imitators aren’t named is because, most likely, they’ve never been published. This didn’t make it any less real, or irritating, when the matter did arise.

    Perhaps it was just a phase for them, or as TK so insightfully observes, can be traced back to how they romanticized writers other than LB & tried to follow.

  10. When I was in college, I went to a friend’s house for the week-end, and discovered stacks of old Creem magazines. Spending hours devouring those Lester Bangs articles and reviews, I was as thrilled as a kid in a liquor store. Though I had already gotten into trouble with a journalism teacher for aping Hunter Thompson’s gonzo style for a term paper, reading Bangs’ work over two days was an eye-opening experience. Kind of weird, considering that same week-end I went to see soul diva Anita Baker, something I’m sure LB would have loathed.

  11. Jim DeRo says:

    I’m glad indeed to see Bob point out (and Scott second) the myth of thousands of Lester Bangs imitators clogging the pipelines of music criticism: Where, exactly, ARE these folks? The best I’ve ever been able to get out of anyone tossing that charge around, esteemed bastions of rock critterdom though they may have been, was, when pressed: “Um, er… Byron Coley!” So one fanzine guy two decades ago sort of wrote like Lester — but rilly mch mr lk Meltzer, right down to those fake contractions and intentional misspellings — and that creates this great pressing problem of untold legions of Lester imitators? Ha!

    Even IF earnest Bangsophiles occasionally DO imitate Lester, generally unsuccessfully, they tend to do it for Webzines (before that it was fanzines), which means they’re sitting in their basement doing it for free for a limited audience, driven primarily by passionate fandom, and with that being the case, I say good for them and they’re free to imitate anyone they want — they’re the equivalent of a garage band covering “Louie, Louie.” Maybe once in a while you’ll see a vaguely Bangsian piece in a college newspaper or a very small alt weekly, but again, if you’re not getting paid, or you’re making $15 for an 850-word record review, and you wanna experiment with being Lester — or Meltzer, or Kerouac, or John freaking Milton — well, go for it! That’s what forums like that are supposed to be for: You work it all out there, develop your own style, and move on (or not)! As another occasionally imitated great, Nick Tosches, has said, if you’re learning to be a writer, you can’t be afraid to make a mess on the page, and you have to have someplace to do it. I also had a j-school professor who advised, If you see something good, steal it — by which he did not mean plagiarize, but READ voraciously; see what tools work for other writers, and try them out yourself. Eventually, you’ll collect a box full of tools of all sorts — and those will be the core of your personal style.

    Finally, relevant to that last idea, for me, Lester’s legacy is not in the prose — as funny, memorable, enduring and inspiring as that is. To reduce him to just the style in which he wrote is to minimize his intellect, heart, and soul and to say that he was a mere entertainer. For me, the reason why he is held up as a paradigm of rock writing — and why he allegedly has so many imitators (even if they ARE invisible) — is because of the strength of his ideas — which were deep and profound, if often delivered in the form of a punchline — and his complete and utter fearlessness in telling the truth as he perceived it, believing that his loyalty was due first and foremost to the reader and telling it like it is, with little concern for making himself look foolish, much less impressing or currying favor with his editors, employers, the artists who were his subjects or the industry that hyped them. That courage often cost him dearly, in terms of work, friendships and personal angst, and one could argue that he wound him thoroughly disillusioned, depressed and maybe even dead because of it. But he never strayed from that ideal, and if anyone wants to imitate THAT, well, good luck to them!

  12. Jim DeRo says:

    P.S. — Here’s a good question for next week: In the interest of naming names, establishing the veracity or or debunking the myth once and determining which is the longer list: Who are the Blatant Xgua Wannabes vs. Who are the Obvious Lester Imitators?

  13. Alfred Soto says:

    Is a “versus” necessary?

    Anyway, I’ve enjoyed Bang’s criticism and prose a great deal without once wanting to imitate him.

  14. Alfred Soto says:

    *Bangs’ criticism and prose.

  15. s woods says:

    I wonder if anyone in here (or out there) agrees with me that Christgau and Marcus are both far more widely imitated (both in terms of style and ideas) than Bangs? I could name names here, but I don’t see the point of doing so, particularly as it’d be like hectoring other people for something I admit I’ve been hugely guilty of myself on more than one occasion. Not saying I’ve imitated them well, or that anything good has ever come of such a thing, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I felt their ‘voice’ creeping into my sentences now and again. Oddly, this almost never happens with Bangs, whose writing I was familiar with long before Marcus or Christgau.

  16. s woods says:

    Oops–I didn’t read Jim’s P.S. where he already brought up Christgau.

  17. s woods says:

    Though isn’t that a bit rich, Jim, differentiating between “imitators” for Bangs and “wannabes” for Christgau?

  18. Steven Ward says:

    I agree with both S Woods and Jim DeRo — I never see anybody aping the Bangs style.

    Christgau’s influence is much more prevalent.

    Also — I know this will piss people off — but I’ve never been a real fan of Meltzer. His first book was unreadable to me. I know Frank Kogan loves him but then again I put down Real Punks Don’t Wear Black a bunch of times cuz it was just too much. Kogan, for me, is really good in short review doses.

    ANYWAY, besides Kogan, I’m not sure if I see much of Meltzer’s influence out there either.


  19. Jim DeRo says:

    >> Though isn’t that a bit rich, Jim, differentiating between “imitators” for Bangs and “wannabes” for Christgau?

    I was just trying not to repeat myself. Feel free to make it “Christgau imitators” and “Bangs wannabes” (though why anyone would wannabe dead for what will soon be 26 years, I don’t know).

    The point is, in the mainstream rock-crit publications, I count many who aspire to if not blatantly copy the prose stylings of Professors Bob and Greil, and relatively few who attempt to conjure Bangs, much less Meltzer, and fewest still Tosches. Nor do many attempt ruthlessly honest self-examination a la Lester, absurdist/Dadaist anarchy a la Meltzer, or exhaustive archival research paired with dark world-historical/philosophical ruminations in the manner of Tosches. And I’m not so sure the world wouldn’t be a better place — or at least said mainstream publications more interesting reads — if some people tried!

  20. Jim DeRo says:

    Oh, yeah — and I forgot to mention: In the afterwords of BLURT, as well as in many interviews they’ve given and pieces they’ve written on the subject of Dead Lester, both Greil and Bob try to say that his primary influence was as a prose stylist — this in the same tone that might be used for a “song and dance man” or “a tightrope walker” — while he really didn’t have IDEAS of substance. This has been discussed here and elsewhere before, and Richard Riegel did a fine job trying to shoot this fallacy down by looking at Lester’s ideas, but I just throw this out there: If you’re a wee bit jealous of Lester being perceived as “the world’s greatest/most memorable/most often quoted [choose your superlatives, or substitute your own] rock critic,” possibly at your expense, especially when you’ve been hard at it for four decades while he died after a mere 14 years’ output, well, might you not have a vested interest in denigrating his influence, saying things like “he’s responsible for a horde of imitators” and hinting that that’s been a very bad thing for the field, while somehow missing the fact that YOU are actually imitated much more often (and the merits of that I leave for others to discuss).

  21. A.C. says:

    Again, I’ll reiterate that while I haven’t seen this lately, I did hear about it from former Creem editors. They said they had a heck of a time with first-time writers & unsolicited submitters who tried to ape Lester’s style to the point where it was irritating. Their stories didn’t last to see print & if they are nameless it’s probably because they didn’t pursue the field.

    Furthermore, much like the proliferation of second-rate “jangle-pop,” “Americana” or “grunge” bands, it’s hardly the fault of the ones who championed the genres that these others were spawned. Same would go for Lester (and Hunter S. & Jack K.).

    Thanks for the QOTW suggestion. It’s good to know that if I want further input I can ask.

  22. Bob says:

    Just to be clear: I’m not attacking A.C. or anyone here.

    I imagine CREEM editors would deal with plenty of Bangs imitators. I remember there used to be (might still be) anthologies of people’s bad Hemmingway imitations. The point here seems to be agreed on all sides that most of these people never make it to print — or neglible print, and therefore don’t constitute much of a voting bloc and really aren’t “there” in the same sense that we now have so many “content providers.” More mags with 100+ reviews with no space to say anything. (Compression can be a useful tool and Xgau borders on mystical haiku from time to time, but like all things it has its limits –mostly that most shit getting reviewed probably doesn’t need a review just a burial.)

    And I agree that fanzines should allow writers to make their mess. And writers should steal from whomever they can. If Bob Dylan can find an obscure Civil War poet to lead him on and do it better, by all means…

    I was just pointing out an irksome claim that bugs me more because the inference (intentional or not) is that Bangs imitators = bad writing when the real equation is BAD Bangs imitators = bad writing, whereas anyone emulating his honesty and passion and self-analysis and his openness to reverting on his own opinion shouldn’t be seen as an imitator, per se, but someone using him as a template for their own self-discovery. THAT you DON’T see much of. And won’t. Not in physical print newspapers/ magazines. Where would you put it today? It’s a different industry (for better and worse).

  23. Cory Frye says:

    I consult Bangs or Meltzer whenever I run outta juice, when I feel like I can’t listen to yet another plunk, jangle, toot, or scratch without losing my mind. Both make me eager to hit the page again. I have a feeling I’ll be adding a third when that Rick Johnson book arrives in my mailbox. (Thanks, ILXers, for turning me on to this verbal dynamo.)

  24. Richard Riegel says:

    Many thanks for all the suggestions of possible identities of those heretofore anonymous “Bangs imitators.” Respondent Bob and I have discussed this issue a number of times over the past few years. In fact, the question came up for us again most recently right here at, when Douglas Wolk had this to say in your September interview: “Not that I don’t love a lot of [Bangs’s] writing, but I think he’s been a terrible influence on a lot of music critics who’ve tried to be idiosyncratic exactly the way he was, and holding him up as the example of what pop criticism aspires to doesn’t tend to yield very good results.”

    There it was again! Wolk’s a smart guy, a pro, so he was evidently talking about fellow pro critics, but WHO were they?!? Keep in mind that Bob and I didn’t object to the idea of aspiring crits imitating Bangs as such. We just wanted to know (after having to compress too many of our reviews to 100 words to get them into print in recent years), that if there actually WAS some prozine still allowing writers to stretch out like Lester did and paying for it, then by God we wanted to get in on that too! Now we find out that there’s no such nirvana, apparently it’s just guys toiling away for zilch on websites and other such self-published venues.

    It’s probably difficult to say exactly what constitutes “imitation” of another writer’s style anyway. I recall that in the early ’70s, Robot A. Hull and his compatriot Brian Cullman did very direct imitations of Richard Meltzer’s style in their own writings for Creem and other mags, but I can’t think of anyone who ever imitated Bangs that closely. In my own case, Lester inspired me to want to become a rockwriter, but I never really attempted to imitate his style, even early on. The funny thing was that I thought that since I didn’t indulge in alcohol and drugs to the extent that Lester obviously did, there was no chance I could match his particular mindset, so I’d have to develop some other rockwriting approach with referents more personal to myself. Maybe in a similar fashion, Cameron Crowe started out inspired by Lester Bangs’s writing, yet ended up directing a big Hollywood movie celebrating Elton John and other un-Lester (to me) aspects of ’70s pop music. In any case, Lester was the catalyst for both of us (and a cast of uncredited thousands, so it seems.)

  25. Margaret says:

    There was a brief moment in meeting Lester that was a letdown but getting to know him and being on the receiving end of his rants could be thrilling. Somewhere I have a rant about the price of Frank Zappa tickets that he banged out on my manual typewriter before a band rehearsal in my living room. Boy, did I get in trouble for sharing that mugshot with Jim DeRo!

    However much I idolized Bangs, Marcus, Christgau, I was much more influenced by Gloria Stavers of 16 Magazine.

  26. Lester was great, we interacted a number of times, but sadly, he was a homophobe whose attacks on Wayne County and Max’s Kansas City after the “Dick and Jayne” incident at CBGB leave a terrible stain on his legacy…oink oink oink.

  27. robert crisco sucks!!1

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